A boy gazes confidently into the lush springtime hills of Central California — to me, this photo is pure optimism, a celebration of life on an abundant planet. Last week, I brought my son, Holden, up to this hillside to play and try for some photos. I didn’t have a specific photo idea in mind, but I was pretty sure that the heavenly background combined with a playful toddler would yield a something nice. For a half-hour, Holden and I loaded his toy dump truck with stones and listened to the birds. Suddenly, a helicopter appeared from behind the ridge. Holden stopped playing and looked to the sky. I had my shot. Now, how would you categorize this photo? Is it a landscape, scenic, portrait, snapshot, or something else?
Sometimes, when we’re trying to organize our thoughts concerning a broad subject like photography, we reach for categories. We try to sort a photographer’s work into tidy bins. One bin is labeled Street Photography, another is Landscape, and there’s Journalism, Documentary, Stock, Fine Art, Fashion, Snapshot, etc… These categories give us a shorthand when we discus photography, but our habit of categorizing everything can also create problems. First of all, no one agrees on the exact parameters of each category and many photos wouldn’t fit into even the most loosely defined categories anyways. The majority of the world’s photography would need to be placed in the bin marked “other”. On the surface, this doesn’t look like a big deal. Who cares how I categorize my photography anyhow? Nobody. But that’s not the problem. The deeper problem lies beneath the surface. What if our personal notions of these categories create invisible walls that box in our creativity?
You can thank, or possibly blame, Aristotle for creating categorical reasoning and starting mankind’s project of categorizing all things in the universe. Categories are useful. They help us organize our thoughts and facilitate clear, efficient communication. It’s easier to say, “The bird pooped on my car,” than it is to say, “The feathered animal who is known to rear its young from eggs pooped on my four-wheeled, engine driven, mode of conveyance.” Categorical logic is built into our language, laws, and thought patterns. Don’t believe me? Next time you’re stuck watching a PowerPoint presentation, pay attention to how much time is spent defining categories. Or, leaf through your company’s procedural manual — I bet it’s at least twenty percent defining categories. Now days, we’re so submersed in categorical reasoning that we categorize reflexively, without noticing, and sometimes just for the sport of it. That’s where we run into problems . We often make up haphazard categories with sloppy definitions. These faulty categories are dangerous because they fit the pattern of our thoughts so well that they can be incorporated into the machinery of our consciousness without us even noticing.
I took this photo in downtown Dallas on a very chilly evening. How would you categorize this photo? Architectural seems the most obvious choice, but it doesn’t exactly fit. To me, this photo is about a quiet winter evening in a city that grew up all-too-quickly out in the middle of the prairie. The flock birds could make it a nature photo, and the puddle adds an element of landscape photography. But who knows?
I’ve spent the better part of my adult life flying commercial airplanes, living with the razor-sharp logic of aerospace engineering and bounded on all sides by standard operating procedure. Before falling deep into photography, my habitual mode of thinking followed the logical patterns that piloting demands. When all those years ago I was first swept into photography, I had no reason to examine the pattern of my thinking. I blissfully lacked deep self-awareness. My original photographic passion was landscape and nature photography, and when I started off, I attacked nature photography the same way I would learn a new airliner. I studied the technology: camera and software. And, I taught myself the standard operating procedures advocated by the pros. This approach quickly lead to some pleasing pictures, but after a time, I knew something was wrong. My nature photography felt about as creative as operating a punch press. I had fallen into a category trap and I didn’t even realize it. Even after I grew somewhat bored of the subject matter, I couldn’t imagine myself taking a picture of anything besides waterfalls, mountains, deserts, forests, and wildlife. The category “nature photographer” had trapped me. I busied myself making poor copies of Ansel Adams or Art Wolfe. It was terrible. I always carried a tripod.
Luckily, two unlikely forces came along and rescued me from the category trap: stock photography and Led Zeppelin. In early 2006, I found myself with a hard-drive full of semi-pleasing nature images and I was growing bored with the then popular photo sharing outlets. There had to be a profitable use for my photos. Coincidentally, this was also the golden age of the the micro-stock photography agencies. On a lark I signed up with iStockphoto and within a few weeks I was racking up sales. Making money from photography was the biggest kick yet, and when I discovered that cityscapes sold a lot faster than nature photography, I immediately and obsessively starting photographing downtown Charlotte where I was living at the time. This was liberating and fun. My photography took on new dimensions. But stock photography had its limitations too: no logos, no faces without a model release, no artifacts, and no imperfections. After a couple of years of shooting strictly stock, I felt hemmed in once again. This is where Led Zeppelin lent a helping hand. I was driving along listing to the Led Zeppelin song “Black Country Woman”. The track was recorded outdoors. At the beginning of the song, where the tape starts rolling, you can hear the producer say, “Don’t want to get this airplane on” and you can hear an airplane in the background. Then, one of the band members says, “Nah, leave it, yeah.” The band starts playing and the light-bulb flips on. Perfection is in the flaws. Black Country Woman’s glorious lazy summer afternoon vibe crystallizes during that throw off comment at the beginning of the song. Sometimes, the heart of an experience shows through via the imperfections. This thought didn’t jive with any of my ideas of photographic categories and suddenly the entire edifice crumbled. I was finally free.
I took this photo a few weeks ago while flying the red-eye flight from Los Angeles to New York. It was 2:30 AM and we were cruising in smooth air above a cluster thunderstorms in western Missouri. Over the years, my most popular photos come from a category I’d like to believe that I have created: life through the eyes of an airline pilot. This photo pops, and making it required just about every trick in my book, but notice that it also contains the ghostly imperfection created by my first officer’s movement. This is my photography, my category.
I’ve come to study the canon of history’s great fine art photographers kind of late in the game. It’s my observation, as a person who has struggled with the medium for quite some time, that many of the most respected or famous photographers of history are those that defined or created a new category of their own. Cartier-Bresson still owns street photography. Less famous in the art world, but loved by a trove of hobbyists, O. Winston Link holds the steam train night photography crown. There’s that guy who photographs his weimaraners wearing human clothes. Danny Lyon is the biker gang guy, and Andreas Gursky prints everything huge. Categories are great when it’s the artist who defines them. Any photographer who has put together a portfolio knows it’s all about defining a category. Categories give you firm ground and a direction, an empty box to be filled. Just be sure that the categories are your own.
For me, airline pilot photographer is the category that I’m most known for. That’s fine. I think I was one of the first and certainly I have been doing it for a long time. In my head, flying pictures get dropped into one box, but there’s also a line up of other boxes waiting to be filled. There’s one category I’d call “amazing, abundant world” and another that documents my somewhat bleak subdivision. I also have a really small box called “tripod street photography”. I’m not sure if that one is worthy of much attention yet. Now that I am aware of categories in my photography, I can control them and use them as a tool for inspiration.
*David is a California Photographer
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