Every year I’ve watched the month of April pass, marveling at the beautiful colors of our flowering trees, vibrant yellow/green forsythia and the many lovely varieties of fresh spring green new growth.
Each year April would rapidly pass me by, while I spent weekdays tied up at work and watched all-to-brief weekends disappear in a whirlwind of Saturday errands and rainy Sundays or unexpected social responsibilities. My secret longing was to wake every day in April, go out and photograph.
And so it was that this year I set this as a personal photographic project and April 1st the journey began. The whole point of a project is to expand oneself by way of revelations that come from the experience and there were many revelations to be had before this one was over. Here are just a few.
The first realization was that I indeed did have several hidden rules that I neglected to reveal to myself. One always should be mindful of ones own hidden agendas. Anyone could grab a camera 30 days in a row and randomly click a shutter. I quickly discovered that I wanted more than that. I wanted one image per day that I was happy with.
While nature photographers will exclaim, and honestly so, that their primary joy in practicing their craft is the very act of communing with nature, there is an addictive high to returning from a day in the field having nabbed a killer shot too. What’s more, it is the photographer’s credo. “Bring back THE shot.” Not “A shot”, “THE shot”. Anything less is unacceptable.
Now the real trouble begins when you have to define something as squishy as “The shot” rigorously enough to maintain a personal standard of excellence while satisfying the goal of 30 days of success. Over any given time period, all odds favor at least the occasional “dud” (low personal performance) day and that assumes all other variables remain equal. As days progressed, I did indeed have lesser performing days and as the infamous “Murphy” built a career out of axiomizing, the variables never stay put. I have not finished editing down to my “THE shot” for each day and so the jury is still out on how much bending and flexing I will apply to the final definition of daily excellence. I guarantee however that you and I will both find some selections more “Wow” than others and then begins the game of semantics and rationalizations as to why there is a qualitative parallelism between selection 3 and 18, 22 and 23, etc. After all, when faced with such a dilemma, that’s what humans do, artists especially.
I watched a friend go through a devilish assignment years ago. She was an art student and at the beginning of her term an instructor told the class that each person was to buy a particular size and type of drawing book. Each would then select one of the following; an artichoke, a cabbage or an onion. Whatever they selected, they would be stuck with for the entire semester. They were then to fill that 250 page book with images based on the selected vegetable. What happens next for the given student is that the first third or so of the renderings flow from one’s own set of personal clichés. The second third come a little harder, probably drawing upon other clichés or techniques that the student has seen or heard of. And then the real work begins. The last fifty pages or so being true grinding discovery and breakthroughs. (I don’t believe many students actually make it to 250 images.)
For me, there was primarily one change of technique that mattered. Fifty two percent of the time I set aside my zoom lenses and worked with three fixed focal length fast lenses. A 50mm f1.2, 180mm f3.5 macro and 500mm f4.5. (It wasn’t until April 12th that I touched a zoom at all.) While the focal length and max aperture of these three varies greatly, they all have two things in common, a wide aperture for their effective focal length and the ability to select an almost razor thin area of sharp focus while allowing all else to soften into the background. Fixed lenses also require a new level of discipline wherein you must physically move nearer or farther from your subject to accomplish composition and you must decide when occasionally a satisfactory framing isn’t possible because of physical constraints. Another eleven percent of the time I worked with what I lovingly refer to as my “toy” camera, a Canon G9. While it has limitations as a high end point-and-shoot (slow response time, need to use low ISO’s or deal with high noise, mid level zoom range, etc.) it also allowed for shooting on days and at times where nothing else would have been possible.
Still, I think I did not “play” enough. I didn’t go WAY outside of my comfort zone. My last 25 pages were blank. I will need to work on this.
Some of this project became about revising my vision of April in Boston. The first few days were all joy of the undertaking at last. Buds, sprouts, Boston Commons, a particularly compliant and photogenic squirrel. On day four, with a gallery opening event to shoot and preparations earlier in the day, I rushed out to a nearby community victory garden where City Year teens were helping the gardeners clean up and revitalize the lot for the new spring. A shift in focus to the human endeavors spring prompts and a nice change. April 5th saw a trip to Salisbury Beach where instead of finding the snowy owl that I heard was there, I ended up shooting several horse riders riding the beach which they are only allowed to do between Labor Day and Memorial Day. Rainy days were harder and some time constraints necessitated hurried jaunts to Newbury Street or the Fenway to tease out a subject and some time. And yet folks with umbrellas walking in an April shower certainly tell the story of April in Boston too.
As the month progressed, my interpretation of April in Boston grew to include Copper clad steps in my neighborhood, a window sill with fifteen old sneakers as planters, wonderfully scrolled windows near Kenmore square, the corner at Charles Street South where the L.J. Peretti tobacconists shop is located, a red door in Natick and so on. Quoting Linda Ellerbee, “And so it goes!”
Somehow I always remembered the first of April as a time of high blossoming activity and everything as gone over to spring green by the first of may. This year, the first few weeks of April seemed a little slow to me but perhaps that is just faulty or overly romantic memory at work. Unless this year was unusually slow in blossoming, April really gets popping about week three and even today there are still freshly budding trees flowers and bushes. There are certainly several more weeks of high blossom activity and I for one am glad of that. Meanwhile, I’ll need to keep better notes of the spring activity from here forward. After all, good imaging is always helped by a fuller knowledge of your subject and here, spring was my subject.
This project would have certainly turned out differently if it weren’t for the absolute perfect science of Murphy’s law and all it’s corrolaries. More than 75% of the days unexpected and pressing matters required that I spend most of the morning and chunks of some afternoons in a perfect storm of paperwork, meetings and other tasks totally unrelated to art except for their relevance to the survival of the artist, me. My dream vision of the project was that many of the days I would head out before sunrise to hit some location in time for the glorious light of the break of day. I also wanted to visit some new locations more distant from the center of our metropolis. It was not to be that way though. Several days it was as late as 5pm before I could shake loose and get started. Given that fact I turned on many days to local landscapes and local streets, panning for photo gold. In that regard, I learned a valuable lesson too. I did not give up. I did not waste time in despair. I went out and did the work using whatever was available and on some of the least promising days I know I did bring back THE shot. Feels darn good too.
The morning of May 1st held a mixture of subtle emotions. I was glad I’d completed my project especially without missing a single day although one day does require a slightly clever interpretation of the rules. On the other hand, I felt as though I could have done it better, pushed more, put more restrictive boundaries around it and of course brought back better shots. But this is the way a project is supposed to leave you. I will do another project soon. I am eager to learn.