Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Clarity of Vision

I was reading an article today about the latest in-demand fashion shooter and, in it, they talk about his exceptional "clarity of vision." That got me to thinking and asking myself, "Do I have clarity of vision?"

I've been a photographer, on and off, either as someone taking his first steps, a hobbyist, a part time pro to a full time working shooter, for the better part of half a century. (Beginning when I was 12 or 13.) After all these years and so many, many photos snapped, I'm not sure if I have any sort of personal vision which I believe has clarity.

So what is clarity of vision? I did some quick Googling to see what the consensus might be and it seems "clarity of vision" refers to a person's ability to communicate his or her vision. Okay. I can do that. Leastwise, I can photographically communicate someone's vision, usually my clients' visions of what my work should communicate. But is it *my* vision and do I even have one?

To be honest, I don't think so. Usually, someone else expresses to me what the vision is, what it includes, what it should say and, in many ways, how it should say it. By the way, I do know I have clarity of purpose: to continue earning a living via photography.

"Vision" is a word that is bandied about amongst photographers regularly. It's one of those buzz words that somehow refers to a photographer's work, albeit in somewhat vague and ethereal ways. It alludes to some creative and imaginative process that is unique to an individual photographer. I suppose "personal style" is also a phrase that has something to do with "vision," although it seems to refer to the way in which a photographer realizes his or her visions.

When it's said that certain photographers have "clarity of vision," does it mean they simply know how to take the image from inside their heads and translate it to a photograph? I suppose so. I'm happy to report to myself that I think I can do that well enough. But does it also mean I'm free to pursue whatever visions pop into my head? And with even more freedom to execute them, photographically, in any way I want? Obviously, the answers to those questions are no and no.

Personally, I don't think too many pro photographers get to pursue visions of their choice except when it's personal work. Hobbyists, of course, are free to pursue personal visions to their heart's content. With working photographers, a huge part of the "vision" most often belongs to someone else, either an individual or a group of individuals. Think clients. The working photographer's job is to take those peoples' visions and, with as much clarity and skill as possible, and adding their own personal styles, embellish them in crafty ways thereby turning the visions of others into great photographs for their use or enjoyment.

Let's say I'm a fashion shooter. Do my visions include a beautiful woman? Often, they probably will. Do my visions include a beautiful woman holding a Gucci purse? Probably not. But the visions of my client, in this case Gucci, certainly will.

I have no clue where I'm going with all this other than to say I think we, as photographers, often take part in a giant circle jerk. We take (or are given) full credit for things like "vision" when, in fact, that vision usually isn't 100% our own. In fact, that percentage is often significantly less than 100%. I don't know about any of you who also do this photography thing for pay but I've found I don't often get to pursue visions of my choice, that is, I don't get paid to shoot whatever I want to shoot however I want to shoot it. In other words, I don't get to simply pursue my own visions, whatever they might be.

I apologize for my cynicism to you true visionaries out there.

Before shooting the photo at the top which, I should note, is an example of personal work, I had a monochrome vision of a sexy, freckle-faced girl holding a cigarette with a bunch of back-lit smoke next to her.


Joe Moffett said...

Hi Jimmy,

Been a long time reader, but not often jumping to add something to what you say.

You post on clarity of Vision got me thinking about it too (again, I might add - I've written a bit about it in the past while I was trying to figure out what makes a master).

I personally am going to disagree with the concensus that clarity of vision is the ability to clearly communicate your vision with the viewer. That - to my mind - is clarity of communication.

Clarity of vision on the other hand comes before the viewer takes part in the creation of the final image (the interpretation). This is the "lonely high mountain" on which the photographic guru is freezing his nadgers off seeing the ultimate in the image he is setting out to make.

In other words, it is the ability to cut out the bullshit and leave the gold. No more, no less. Clarity of vision means Occam's razor in a visual sense. It is vain to do with more what can be done with less - not to mention distracting, and detrimental to the final image.

With clarity of vision, you allow only that to be left within the image that adds to the image, all else is gone.

Of course, this greatly aids subsequent clarity of communication - the only ambiguity left within the clearly viewed image is that which the clearly viewing photographer chose to leave there as part of the dialogue.

And the reason this is so bloody important, is that clarity of vision does not automatically equate to simplicity. Think of that photo of Cartier Bresson with the guy walking through the crowd of kids playing or his Gare St Lazare, or even the portrait of Dali with the cats and the water flying around (the photog's name escapes me right now). Nothing simple there. But nothing extraneous and unnecessary either.

Cheers, and keep up the blog. Your blog, David Hobby's and Joe McNally's are the three blogs that I simply cannot give up on, while many others have come and gone (including your own rather more sedate one ;)) from my reading list.


jimmyd said...

Hey Joe!

Thanks for the kind words, for supporting the blog, and for your keen insight.

Richard Avedon, speaking to portrait photography, once said something that speaks to some of what you wrote:

"I've worked out of a series of no's. No to exquisite light, no to apparent compositions, no to the seduction of poses or narrative. And all these no's force me to the "yes." I have a white background. I have the person I'm interested in and the thing that happens between us."

His words sound an awful lot like he's speaking to his clarity of vision.

Ed said...

I don't feel that a definition of "clarity of vision" has to include the ability to execute, or to communicate.

But what is it really? I think it exists, at times, for some. But I also think it's a pretentious claim for someone to make, to say they posses it. I'm sure it works really well when you're trying to land a gig with ad agencies and other clients, though. They need their creatives to at least pretend they have the solution already worked out in the minds.

Me? I'm glad that I have the human condition to draw my inspiration from, and that condition is the very thing that limits my ability to have supernatural "clarity." I can focus like anybody's business, but I'm not a prisoner of anyone's vision, even my own.

I have ideas, feelings, emotions, and I make pictures. Some of them suck, and some I'm really very happy with. I'm sure even the Masters would admit to the same thing.

jimmyd said...


I'm with you, Ed. Saying a photographer has "clarity of vision" is often more hype than anything else. It's PR and marketing and more than a bit ostentatious.

Sure, there are times we experience "clarity of vision." But I think it tends to be elusive and fleeting. We might strive to experience it as often as we can but it just doesn't work that way. It's like having an epiphany or a sudden flash of insight or those "ah hah!" moments. They happen, but they don't happen as often as we might like and they're definitely not a permanent condition. Neither is clarity of vision. I guess that's why I made the comment about many photographers taking part in big circle jerks.

EleganceAndChaos said...

Speaking of vision, there is a 5 part series on Helmut Newton shot by his wife. It is interesting to see his vision and the way he works behind the scenes.

I think Helmut is admired by most pretty girl shooters as one the photographers at the top of his game towards the end of his career. Amazing to see him work at age 74.

jimmyd said...

@EleganceAndChaos: Cool! Thanks! I'll definitely be checking those out!