Friday, January 06, 2006

Photography and Journaling

This topic was inspired by Jana, who posted the following comment in response to my pic of the decaying apple:

So, I have a question. Do you always have your camera with you? Cuz I'm always seeing stuff that I think, "that would be such a cool picture" but I never have my camera with me. When I do have my camera with me I'm in my car driving down the four lane and can't stop to take the picture. Sometimes the sky on the way home is just breathtaking and I wish I could capture it on film but I just never seem to be in the right time or place. *sigh* You're just blessed like that, right?


There are two items I’ve gotten into the habit of carrying with me almost constantly: a journal or small notebook, and a camera. Each can compliment the other, and both serve a similar purpose, I think: that of recording our lives and the world around us. American landscape photographer Ansel Adams once replied, when asked why there were never any people in his pictures, “There are always two people in every picture: the photographer and the viewer.”

Think about it.

What the photographer sees isn’t necessarily what the viewer perceives. We all bring our own feelings and experiences to everything we view, same as we do everything we read and write. Our point of reference, our beliefs and experiences, are different depending upon which end of the camera – or pen – one is on. The picture I take of a small pond at a local botanic garden may remind me of a waterfall visited years ago in Upper Michigan, whereas it may remind you of the tropical atrium at a hotel resort.

Two people in every picture and, similarly, two people in everything we write.

You don't take a photograph, you make it.
Ansel Adams

I used to always have my camera at the big get-togethers with friends and family – birthdays, camping trips, barbeques, graduations, and people have become fairly used to my whipping out the camera. Sometimes they are even grateful that someone in the group remembered to bring one.

It wasn’t always so.

There are many great “Kodak moments” missed because I didn’t have my camera with me. For instance, the one and only time my niece Elizabeth went ice skating, way back when she was two years old…and just two months prior to that when we took her to Pumpkin Paradise Farm to pick out her own pumpkins and pet the animals. Both aunts realized they had forgotten a camera when they were 15 miles from home, and neither of us thought to stop at a gas station or somewhere to buy one of the throw-aways. Live and learn, as they say.

Because of that oversight, I do not have a picture of younger sister nearly being French kissed by a cow. Imagine a six-inch tongue coming at her, the look on her face as she leans back, trying to avoid the affectionate bovine. Of course, I was laughing so hard there’s no telling if I would have even caught the image on film – but because I forgot the camera, we’ll never know. It’s still one of my favorite mental images, but sadly it cannot be shared with the world.

So, packing the camera has become as second nature as packing a journal. I rarely leave home without it, and not just when going on vacation, or to little get-togethers. I have a carrying case that can be slung over the shoulder or worn around the waist when going somewhere I might not want to carry a purse – hiking, crowded community events, that sort of thing. It’s just large enough for a camera, extra film, a small notebook and pen, a change purse just large enough to hold ID and some cash, and lip balm. There is also a side pocket on my backpack the perfect size for the camera and several canisters of film. Either way, I almost never leave the house these days without my camera. I would rather have it with me and not want it than leave it behind and wish I had it.

A camera can especially come in handy as writer traveling abroad. You know you won’t remember the details of place, and may not be able to return later. Through pictures you can return to a place again and again. You might pick up on little details you missed during your visit, such as an image in a carving or molding you admired. You might forget what color something was (and if you say the federal building was gray when it’s really bright blue, your readers from that locale will pick up on and pan you for it), or what building was next to it, or which direction the road ran. These are little things you might forget to jot down that can be picked up in your photographs.

My problem is that I tend to pass up some potentially great shots because I am too timid or self-conscious to take pictures when there are a lot of people or traffic around. Of course, one can’t help remember the number of photographers arrested in the wake of 9/11 for taking pictures outside of or near government buildings and recruitment centers. Sad that our government has intimidated us in this matter, isn’t it? Though we want to thumb our nose at those who would censor what we do, who would restrict our freedoms, it does make you think twice before photographing the new courthouse or other architecturally interesting building.

Still, I realize the need to move past my reticence, to not worry what someone else might think and take more pictures. To really look at the world around me, look for more interesting shots and play with angles and light. Forget what someone else might think, and just concentrate on capturing the moment, for myself, and for posterity.

Adams also said: “Notebook. No photographer should be without one!”

Which brings me to the topic of journaling.

Like many young girls I had one of those tiny diaries in middle school with the miniscule key that was difficult to work. There wasn’t much room for daily entries, but I did make a few – before my younger sisters found it, that is. I threw it in the trash and gave up any notion of privacy for several years.

My junior year of high school, we were given the assignment to keep a journal, making 3-4 entries a week. Sometimes we were given a topic to write on, but it was largely up to us. We could write about the books assigned to read, school, friends – whatever – and if there was a page we didn’t want read we could fold it in half and staple it closed. I only did that once, as I recall, and it’s sort of interesting how much more secretive I became of my journaling after that. I didn’t mind the teacher reading what I wrote then. I even shared a few entries with friends. No big deal. It wasn’t long after that, though, that I did start to mind. Maybe because I started being more honest about how I felt about certain things or people. There are times I’ve found venting my frustrations or anger at somebody in my journal to be most beneficial – and it has certainly saved many friendships. I nearly stopped journaling altogether in college, when it became apparent that my roommate and/or her boyfriend were snooping. Things I had written about but not discussed were suddenly known. I hid the book and didn’t write in it for weeks.

Though it started out as a class assignment, keeping a journal was a practice I got into and from then on always had a notebook or hardbound journal with me. When I went to Norway for three months as an exchange student I took two blank books with me – and ended up buying two notebooks (all I could find in my tiny village!) before my stay was over. When friends and I went to Paris during spring break senior year in HS, I found having a journal convenient for recording all that we did and saw. Entries didn’t have to be descriptive – it was a huge help just to list our schedule. Since we were on the go from 7 am until late at night, with rarely any down time, keeping lists until there was time to go back and expand upon something helped immensely. Without the journal, I would have forgotten half of what we did, or where some pictures were taken.

I admit that I’m not as good about writing in my journal as I used to be. Whereas it was once a daily activity, now I seem lucky to write in it once a week. Sometimes I am better at it than others. I used to angst over it, but no more. When I really need to get something out, it’s there. If I’m waiting for the bus, or sitting in a waiting room somewhere, it’s there. If I want to sketch an idea for an article or brainstorm away from the computer, it’s there. Some entries may be only a sentence or two, whereas others might go on for pages (I think I wrote twenty in one sitting once!), it really doesn’t matter.

There are many uses for a journal, and no concrete method of keeping one. It’s your book – your thoughts, your words, whatever you want to make of it. Some are sticklers about only using it for work-related projects. Others record daily happenings, in their own lives and the world around them. Some prefer blank pages for sketching as well as writing. There are a multitude of uses. I have no restrictions on how I use my journal. Sometimes I feel a need to just write what’s been going on in life, or the world around us. Sometimes I’ll go off on some subject or other from the news that gets my ire. Sometimes I make lists. Things I want to do, places I’ve been or want to go, books to look for, to read, that I have read. Projects to complete, or that are in progress.

For example, I do a lot of crafts. Which means I buy a lot of kits, books, or magazines for projects I might do “some day.” The problem with that is that I live in an apartment with limited space and things have a way of piling up. As I was doing some cleaning and organizing at the end of 2004, I realized I had some kits that were started and never finished, as well as others I’d meant to do as presents for friends. The first thing I did in 2005 was first amass them all in one box, then go through and list everything I had to finish and what I intended to do with it. The Bethlehem ornaments started 12 years ago…those would be great for Cindy. The mini Victorian ornaments…I had completed only one of fifty. The Scandinavian ornaments seen in a magazine a few years back…I had the mag folded open to that page, but had yet to get around to them. Presents I wanted to do for Christmas or birthdays were also added to the list. I ended up with more than twenty items on the list and managed to cross off half of them during the year.

I have already listed out all the cross-stitch projects to work on for 2006. As happened the previous year, others may be added during the coming months, but there’s such a feeling of accomplishment crossing something off, even if the list does lengthen. This year I also added other things I want -- need -- to work on as well: writing projects to finish, books to read, scrapbooks to catch up on. If I only make it through half of them I will be satisfied.

I also try to keep my journal or writing paper near the bed so I can record some of my more vivid dreams – of which I have way too many. Sometimes something out of a dream will spark an idea for a short story or poem. Others give me chills. Those are the ones that seem to have Cyn screaming, “You need to use this for a book!” And maybe I just need to watch fewer episodes of “Law & Order” and similar shows. Sometimes I will copy letters to friends and paste them into my journal rather than risk writer’s cramp. I can always expend on a topic mentioned in the letter on the pages after.

And sometimes I add pictures I’ve taken to my journals, as a visual reminder of an event.

These two worlds converge on another plain, as well – that of doing scrapbooks. As someone who likes to both write and take pictures, I think I have a bit of an advantage over the average cropper. Where many don’t know quite what to say about their pictures, I have no trouble writing about an event or special memory, while still remembering to note the who, what, where, when, why and how of any occasion. You don’t have to have a lot of detail. One thing we learn as writers and photographers is that “less is more.”

This is true in both writing and photography. Too much clutter detracts from the story. We must learn to crop out distracting background and learn how to focus on and position our subjects. Though it is essential in both writing and taking pictures, it is perhaps easier to grasp from behind the lens. So next time you head out the door, take the camera with you. When you see something you’d like to capture, focus on the subject, and visualize the descriptive words in your head as you click the picture. Learn to look at the world around you as though viewing it through the lens of a camera and see how much more you notice. You’ll be glad you did!

1 comment:

Jana said...

What the photographer sees isn’t necessarily what the viewer perceives.

Ain't that the truth. I took a picture of a rabbit in my front yard here while back and all anyone saw was the bumper of my car that ended up on the edge of the picture. They were all like, "Why'd you take a picture of your bumper?" Doh!

...people have become fairly used to my whipping out the camera.

In my family, too, but they tend to try and dodge it or get mad when I take their picture. Bunch of spoilsports!

My problem is that I tend to pass up some potentially great shots because I am too timid or self-conscious to take pictures when there are a lot of people or traffic around.

Took the words right outta my mouth! I've always wanted to just roam up and down the downtown area and take pictures of all the interesting buildings and stuff but haven't found the courage to do so cuz I'm afraid of what folks might think.

keeping a journal was a practice I got into and from then on always had a notebook or hardbound journal with me.

Oh yes...I did this all through college. Right along with textbooks and notes was my journal. I'd write in it in between classes or after work when I was waiting to go home. I have a well documented account of my college years. lol Since then it's become rather sporadic but like you said it's there if I need it.

Learn to look at the world around you as though viewing it through the lens of a camera and see how much more you notice. You’ll be glad you did!

I'm always doing that! lol Every scene I take in I'm thinking about how it would look as a photograph preserved on paper.

Thanks for the article, Heather. You've definitely got me convinced that A.) I need to invest in a really good camera and b.) I need to carry it with me always. *vbg*