On Being a Photographer - Part Three

Back from a trip to Patagonia, a friend said to me: “When I got home and I looked at the pictures I took, I realized that I had not seen much of the real McCoy.” (He meant Patagonia, of course.)

I looked at him quite flabbergasted at his remark. For a few seconds, I did think he was joking. He was not.

“I was so busy taking pictures that I guess I forgot to look around very much.”

There we go. Not looking around but storing up pictures for long winter evenings.

“Hard for me to understand,” I said. “Because I only take pictures when I am truly looking at things if and when I can relate to them. Whether they are landscapes or people.”

He looked rather taken aback.

“Well, you see, the picture I am about to take is already fully created in my mind when I release the shutter otherwise I would not take it.”

He made clear he was quite concerned. What was I talking about? Don’t I ever click away madly while visiting a new place, so worried to miss a very important piece of the booty, so to say.

“Well, I don’t. Even when I am taking shot after shot of my son’s wakeboarding feats because even then I tend to anticipate his motions.” (Which by the way does not mean that all the pictures are successful but that I have watched all his moves.)

I knew what he was talking about because ever since the advent of digital photography, I have watched tourists and friends and their new way of mass-producing memories.

I remember the very first time I noticed people walking around Paris, barely glancing at the monuments only to click away at them. Some of them kept walking without even stopping one second to make sure the picture wouldn’t be blurry. And I have seen enough fuzzy pictures on Facebook and so many blogs (even travel blogs) to know that actually the world around me is changing drastically.

 Well, actually I don’t care this much whether or not my friend will take time to look around and take the picture that will become his memory to cherish. Maybe it's fun to discover one whole country while sitting in front of one’s computer... after all.

I don’t care about blurry pictures either. As long as people are happy with them. (Which I doubt though but I am bitchy there, I know.)

Now people take loads of pictures which they unload (upload) on their computers through wi-fi or whatever. And obviously there is no need whatsoever to do some sorting out... the main idea being that they have been there and here is the proof including having fun which is just fine of course... But isn’t it possible to have fun and yet take good and enduring pictures? Besides the fact that nowadays with digital cameras, it is so easy to check the results on the spot and to take some more original and innovative pictures... at once.

So I feel a little bit dumbfounded sometimes... not getting suddenly old and lost... but dumbfounded because I still believe there is joy in loving to see something well done... and that abundance won’t necessarily be useful unless it is some vital part of our new leisure and consumer society. Not vital at all for me. Maybe my problem in a very fast ever changing culture which should not shower mediocrity with praise though.  There, I said it.

Last week, I went boating with one of Swee’Pea’s friends who fell in love with photography a few years ago. He’s good at it. He really is. But it is not his bread and butter. He loves to take pictures, that’s all.

I enjoy watching him, which happens a lot. Because when he is around I don’t feel like a brontosaurus anymore. (He is my son’s age.)

He has the same (my) way of looking around, of exploring the moment and opportunities and of taking a picture, slowly, carefully and purposefully. Which does not mean that it will be perfect but that he will be very happy with it. And it also means that if it is not perfect (the way he would have liked it to be -- his idea of perfection), he will learn from his mistake. This can be a lot of fun too, you know.

By the way, I am not the embodiment of perfection. Far from it. But I try to learn from my mistakes. All-the-time! (Only talking about photography!)

But from the day I started to take pictures (quite early in life), I tried to take pictures that would be worth looking at for ages... and this started happening a long time before becoming a professional photographer.

Let me tell you a story to make my point.

There was a time when digital photography did not exist. No kidding. A time when once the film was exposed, you had to get it processed of course which could take a long time sometimes.

A few months after my brother died, I started to consult a shrink. One day he had a brilliant idea to get me out of my house in Brittany where I was quite consumed with grief and rather unable to move forward.

I was to grab a camera and start walking on the beach below my house. I did not have to take pictures which sounded just fine because I was not in the mood to do so. Besides the fact that at the time I was still working as a translator.

And this is how I started to work on a project that still fascinates me: catching fleeting emotions through materiality thus understanding more or less the transient nature of life.

So there I am, in Brittany. Walking on the beach usually with husband, kids and friends around. On the look-out for the “IT” to happen... which after a while did not stop me from taking pictures of kids and friends and boating outings and... and... Quite enjoyable too.

One late cloudy afternoon, kids and husband wanted to go take a walk among boats moored on the beach. The sea was ebbing. There was enough water left for moorings and hulls to be mirrored on the golden sands. The reflections were quite weak though because of the clouds.

Because I was always waiting for those fleeting miracles, I was ready. My eye was my camera and my camera was my eye. I was totally ready. All set. (At the time I was working with a completely manual camera.)

I am “looking” at some mooring, its chain and its shadow. And the miracle happens. A ray of sunlight cuts straight through the clouds. My “eye” is all set and my fingertip presses on the shutter release. In a split second. And the sunbeam vanishes. One picture and only one.

Those were times when I sometimes had to wait for several weeks before getting my films developed. I remember how hard it was at the time, waiting without knowing for sure whether my fingertip had been quick and steady enough to capture this transient instant in the right framing.

It was a once-in-a-lifetime chance. Pure happiness. Definitely.

And I keep on walking with wide open eyes. Looking at life attentively.

*Good Night, and Good Luck*


On Being a Photographer - Part Two

Writing is a very cathartic activity for me except that when life gets so hard that I no longer feel like I am really alive but more or less bent on surviving, then I quit writing at least not for an audience, not for you, my dear readers.

I keep on taking pictures though... almost everyday. This is so vital to me that most times, I feel like I am truly breathing in and out three, ten, twenty times better whenever my eyes notice something worth catching and even better something worth keeping.

Not that my treasure is really growing nowadays.

I have been thinking a lot about this. My best pictures “ever” are quite behind me. And not at all because of my quite defective vision. And not because I am getting older and backward-looking either.

Now don’t take me wrong. I still take good pictures, some of them being nonetheless very good. Thank you. But maybe my passion is getting dampened, a little bit like when a couple gets older. Man and woman still in love but in a more sedate way. Still good but not as inspiring as before nor as breathtaking as during the first years. And yet with a lot of happiness and a sense of fulfillment after all.

There were times though when my mind was truly overflowing with thousands of ideas and my eye behind the camera would do the trick. Ideas metamorphosing into challenging pictures.

Now I keep on taking “pretty” pictures while working on a few projects without caring very much whether my pictures will end up in an exhibit or not. There were times when I had to put on an exhibition every few months or I’d feel like a failure. I was putting a lot of effort into sharing my work. Now this is more like: whatever happens...

Is this wisdom? Have I learnt to be patient at last? One thing I know for sure is that I am not talking about renunciation but something more like serenity after all.

So there I am, still taking pictures.

I use all sorts of cameras. Small ones, easy to carry around. Professional ones. Impressive lenses too. So impressive that when I am walking around with my very technical-looking Nikon round my neck, people stop me and start asking me questions about taking pictures. Well not really about taking pictures but more about me being a photographer. And actually not really people as in men and women but men only.

Men do that all the time. They can’t refrain from doing it. I call this the phallic complex.

(So far I still have to meet the girl who would be so interested by some large and heavy camera and lenses that she’d walk up to me and start asking rather stupid questions. Girls talk a lot about cameras when they want to buy one though. Sharing information can be quite enjoyable then.) 

Two weeks ago, I was walking through a very charming medieval village in Brittany. Looking around. Taking a few pictures of course. I walked by a couple of men sitting at the terrace of a very small café. Actually I would not have noticed them. But then I heard...

“Using such a camera pays off, doesn’t it? I am sure that all your pictures are excellent.”

Usually I don’t answer this kind of comment. But his remark really got on my nerves. I stopped, took a good look at the man. He was nice actually. My age. Phallic complex again, I know.

“Well actually I am the one who takes excellent pictures. Because my eye is right behind the viewfinder and my finger on the shutter release. I am the photographer after all.”

I turned towards Popeye who was right behind me. He was sporting a very nice camera too. But he is a man, right?

We had a good chuckle over it once we were driving away. But honestly I hate this kind of remark.

Were I rich enough to buy a Stradivarius, would this incredible violin transform me into an excellent concert violinist because it would start playing on its own?

Come on!

I know that this can become a serious problem for many would-be photographers. (I am not being derogatory there.)

For quite a long time I was pretty happy with cameras of average quality, mainly because I could not afford those quite expensive cameras professional photographers have to use. And I learnt to master photographic techniques with those quite “humble” cameras.

Why do professional photographers need those impressive cameras? Mainly because they are asked to provide high-quality pictures. Getting high-quality pictures calls for high-quality equipment. (Especially since most professional exhibits require rather large format prints.)

But on the other hand, high-quality equipment does not necessarily ensure excellent pictures unless you are good at taking them.

Nothing could be simpler actually!

And this is the reason why most of the time I am buying my top-of-the-range cameras and lenses secondhand and yet brand-new. (Would-be photographers [and I am uncomplimentary there!] buy them only to become disheartened very quickly when they don’t get those wonderful pictures they have been told they’d take so easily. And they end up selling them a few weeks later... So sad.)

I usually buy my cameras and my lenses from some stranger who was led to believe that owning a Stradivarius would turn him into Yehudi Menuhin.

Do not worry though... I do not believe that I am the next Henri Cartier-Bresson, Dorothea Lange or Robert Adams or...

Sometimes I wish I were. I am not. 

But I sure know how to play my Stradivarius-Nikon-whatever... 

*Good Night, and Good Luck*


Once Upon a Time -- One Bogged Down Life

For quite a few years, you had been taking long walks on sandy and boundless beaches. Vast expanses of smooth sand deserts at low tide. Nothing to block out your steps. You could walk straight on. Every step was broadening your horizon. No need to look down.

There were difficult days sometimes. Cold and windy and rainy days mainly. But even the densest fog never slowed you down. You kept on walking.

Then one day, you decided that enough was enough. Life was getting far too simple and easy. Nothing much to gain anymore in trekking on those sands that had become so familiar. You could still make progress and reach your goal with your eyes closed so to speak.

You became restless. You had to find new places to roam around. You were done with easiness, flat and serene spaces.

Search you did. And then it happened. A place like this. The place. Your place from then on.

It really had to become your place. From the top of the cliff, it looked so beautiful and strange. This truly was the bottom of the sea only brought to light for a few hours every day. Periods that you had to anticipate and make the most of.

So many things to discover in such a short time. 

Dunes to follow and rocks to go over. Coves to explore.

Briny streams to cross. 

An ever-changing wild setting. Such an untamed and somewhat virgin territory.

From time to time walking was exhausting. On its way in and out the sea kneaded the sand so much that it became very soft and supple. From time to time, you ended up sinking up to your ankles. So much like trudging through the snow... And you loved that.


Then there were storms. So violent and so beautiful that you even forgot some basic safety rules. You kept walking beneath downpours because there was no shelter there. You simply had to keep walking.

And then one day, it happened. Your first encounter with sludge. The receding sea was disclosing the true nature of the place. A secret so well kept underneath those large bewitching stretches of sand.

Easy to avoid though.

But from then onward you became more cautious. This enchanting scenery could be concealing traps.

Most walks were great. You now knew how to avoid those miry areas. Until that day. The day when you were peacefully and felicitously on your way to your favorite place.

The tide was receding and there still was water on the sand. Not much but enough to hide this greyish smudge. Almost invisible to your eye.

You took one step and you started to slip. You had such a hard time keeping your balance. The sand still looked a lot like sand but sludge was already showing on its surface... very delicately at first but it became more and more apparent as soon as you realized the danger you were facing. 

Sludge was everywhere and so perfectly hidden below a very thin layer of sand. You were trapped. You had to carry on walking though on such an uncertain ground. You had to keep walking not knowing when or where you’d be able to come out of this quagmire.

Your troubles were far from being over. From time to time, the sludge would metamorphose into some sort of quicksand where you’d get bogged down.

Quagmire and quicksands.

That was going too far. There actually was a moment’s panic. But you needed to keep a cool head. No easy way out of course but you always were bright and astute.

And then you saw the bird. So elegant and yet apparently trapped in the same slough...

 The bird was not ensnared after all because right in front of your eyes, it flew away to safety.

And you made a decision in no time at all. You knew now how to escape thus reaching safety.

All you needed to do was to fly away too. Did you?

*Good Night, and Good Luck*