Confessions of an Accidental Photographer
by Lorette C. Luzajic
My photography is full of mistakes. And I use the most basic, generic of cameras. I don’t know how to use Photoshop. I do use some touchup and cropping tools in iPhoto. I’m not philosophically opposed to alteration or technology as part of art. I’m all for it. But my enhancements are minimal regardless, because my technical skills are rudimentary.
Becoming a photographer was, itself, an accident. I’d only meant to pick up a cheap digi cam in order to give my editors helpful snapshots with my writing assignments. Then I thought about collecting “found images” for my collage image bank. These found images would be ones that had not been frozen into ink and paper yet, images I might see on the streetcar or in a meadow but not be able to tear out of a newspaper or scan. With this tool, I’d be able to nab even more options to use in my collage work.
A collagist is always looking, always deconstructing and reconstructing. From dentist waiting room magazines to church hymnals to Renaissance religious masterpieces at the museum to nightclub flyers, my mind is constantly snipping, juxtaposing, gluing over, scraping back layers, recontextualizing.
A digital camera meant that the image bank I could work with would be limitless. Curiously, it never occurred to me that photography would appeal to me in its own right. Like all of the best and most traumatic love affairs, it blindsided me and changed my direction and added dimensions to my life that I could never have imagined.
What attracted me most at first was the digital camera’s ability to satisfy my manic desire for mass production, for “lots.” Being able to whir through countless pieces meant instant gratification. I’m an impatient artist with a constant flow of new ideas. I get bored working on one subject or project and crave variety. My creativity is torrential, my thoughts are fast, and the best way to relieve the pressure from within is to let the floodgates open. The greatest strength of my collage work is how crowded and busy and full it is. This is also its greatest weakness.
There is truth to the adage about “quality over quantity.” There’s something studious and essential about the subtle, careful, finely tuned attention to a masterpiece. But it ain’t me, babe. Nor do I concede that the quality over quantity mantra is more important than it’s less quoted inverse. One can come up with valid arguments about the experiential aspects of quantity, about that manic process of absolute creative upheaval. No matter that some output from those tortured, ecstatic experiences should be crumpled and tossed. All of life will be crumpled and tossed, in time.
And so, I was trigger happy from the outset, elated at the sheer volume of imagery I could produce with this thrilling little machine. The first rush came to me as I realized that a memory card could hold some 700 photographs or more- for the low grade one! Had I even taken 700 photos in my whole life? Here, I could load results to my screen and assess and weed out and choose little gems; instantaneously directing traffic through hundreds of rivals, ruthlessly deleting, thrilling at the swift transfer of colour and texture and portrait from my visual findings into trimly polished, vibrant pieces.
The Boot 2011
I reveled in the vast quantities, in the instantaneity, in the immediacy. It was a different kind of mania from the maddening, exhilarating mess of tempura paints and Chinese ink and piles of paper and clippings and glue. And before I ever got to the scissors and paste, I saw I wanted to leave many of the pieces in tact, not to add to them or take anything away.
The next aspect of the appeal in this medium was the opposite of the first. For all its quantity, there was something pared back in this version of my visual expression. I had never done anything pared back. The utter simplicity of finding an image and leaving it untouched by scraps and layers was new to me. These were singular images of experiences, a kind of “one at a time” record of what I saw. All of my art and writing has been about seeing, but now I was actually looking at- dissecting- the way I saw. Resisting the urge to add and subtract and cut and paste, I found this streamlined expression deeply satisfying. A good photograph takes only a second to make. Yet each photograph actually took one’s whole life to get to it.
It took a bit of courage to start identifying with photography as a main medium like writing and collage. As I often joke, I don’t even know how to use a camera! More and more often, colleagues and clients have started to identify me with three media of expression. It’s true that David LaChapelle had no qualms about convention. “I didn’t have enough credits to graduate,” he said, “so I just went to New York and started calling myself a photographer.” I do not have David’s outrageous spirit or greatness in me, but still I took inspiration from this. Who says? is something I’ve always said. My “self-taught” studies have always been far more intensive than my official scholastic ones, and so I began them.
First I looked at photography magazines and got lost and a little angry because every photo was clinically broken down into technical jargon about camera type, number, setting, etc. It was way beyond me, and it depressed me since my personal point and click seemed so insignificant. I desperately wanted a DSLR, or at least something with more buttons and thingamajigs. But for now, such a step was out of reach. I knew I could best learn by getting out there and just taking thousands of pictures, discovering what worked and what didn’t. “The greatest education in the world is watching the masters at work,” Michael Jackson said. And so I also began studying the photography of said masters and learning about their lives.
Soon I started getting a question from time to time. It offended me at first. “What kind of camera do you use?” people asked. I would cough and mumble, “just a little point and click.”
Not long after, I had a revelation. It’s not the camera.
It’s not the camera. I am the camera. The eye is the camera. That’s all the camera is, an eye with a recording device. It’s not the camera. It’s me. The camera is incidental.
Now I have second thoughts about upgrading to a good camera. What if my lifetime oeuvre of photography is an exploration of what I can achieve entirely with the most basic of tools? While I desperately want to experiment with exposure time and wide angle lenses and super zooms and so on, the idea of a limitation or handicap to spur creativity is fascinating. I became a collage artist because I could not draw, and have made a thousand pieces that I would never have made or thought to make if I didn’t have that particular impotence. I might have a whole lot of bowls of apples or landscapes. Instead, I forged through a serious impediment to find unexpected expressions. The “who says, just do it” ideology has been ultimately liberating for me, now in photography so far as well as in my other forms of art. I have never felt the need to wait for a better camera before starting to take pictures. Indeed, taking pictures, and looking at pictures, is more elemental, more fundamental in importance, to all the other aspects of the art.
At a Groupon workshop, the instructor explained to a roomful of amateur photographers his ideas about all cameras being the same. He said that from the first daguerreotype equipment to the most sophisticated modern technology, a camera is a camera is a camera. He asked everyone to introduce themselves and talk about their pieces. I was embarrassed to be the only attendee with a point and click. When asked why I chose this model, I looked down and replied that it was “under fifty bucks” and it was the “pink one.”
After everyone had had a chance to brag about their cameras, the question changed. “How many of you took your camera to work today, and out to walk the dog last night?”
Well, that was a given. I held my hand up high. Then I hastily took it down, since no one else had theirs up.
Then the instructor began to glow with a holy light. And he said, “The best camera is the one you have with you.”
You plan to have a camera with you if you’re hunting for photos or staging a shoot. But many of the best pictures are accidents. They are the things you see when you aren’t looking for anything in particular. The truth is, beauty and curiousity often come about when you least expect it.
One day I was returning with milk and apples from the grocery by my house and went to press the crosswalk button.
And perched there, also poised to press the button, was a monarch butterfly. The sun was bright, the button and butterfly were both orange, the light was perfect. For a sinking second I realized I hadn’t brought my purse for the five-minute excursion to the store. But the fear was short-lived- my camera was in my coat pocket.
Snap, snap, snap. Got him.
As my image collection grows, I get the question more and more often. “What kind of camera do you use?”
I recognize it as a compliment. “It’s not the camera,” I say now “Thank you.”
And the camera’s great, but so many times, it’s just because I saw something interesting and I wanted to save it, by any means necessary. Sometimes the things I saw, I saw by mistake. The camera is there to record it, that is all.
One Easter morning, my very beautiful, precocious niece came into the kitchen in her little-girl finery. The bizarre light through the waffle door haloed around her. She was holding her six-toed kitten. The light was all off but I knew taking her outside would mean we’d lose the kitten. The picture came out technically awful- yet it’s one of the favourite photos I’ve taken. My niece looks like a poster for a creepy horror film, The Orphan or The Innocence or something of this ilk.
Girl with Cat 2011
On another occasion, I got off the streetcar at the wrong stop. There was an ugly magenta building with peeling paint- another “found composition.”
Then, strolling through the same cemetery I visit regularly for walks, I saw something I’d never noticed before- a grave called “Cheer.”
One day I was hurrying along to an appointment and thank my lucky stars I took one side street and not another. There was a construction site and a truck. The truck said, “Mammoth Erection.”
Mammoth Erection 2012
This is how we learn to take great pictures- you’ve got to live with your eyes open. Colours and textures are everywhere. There are uncanny juxtapositions, funny or surreal tableaus, stunning pockets of beauty, everywhere you go.
One of my favourite photographers is Walker Evans. I was writing about him when I came across a reflection by Walker’s colleague, photographer Bruce Jackson. “People keep asking me what kind of camera I use,” Bruce reports his friend saying back in 1974. “I tell them it’s not the camera. It’s this.” Walker pointed to his eye.
Well, that was validating. One of the greatest photographers of all time had espouses my exact philosophy long before I’d heard of him.
There’s a similar story about Walker that has become legendary, recounted slightly differently by a number of sources. Once upon a time, Walker was asked what kind of camera he had used for a particular shot.
His disgruntled response was something along the lines of, “that’s like asking a writer what kind of typewriter he used to create his stories.”
The Image Fountain