THE BEGINNING of a new year -- never mind the dawning of a new millennium -- always lends itself to resolutions, and who is to say that photographers are any different from regular folks?
As a rule, I'd guess that photographers, like everyone else, ate too much over the holidays and are eager to shed the extra pounds. And I'm sure we all want next year to be better than the last -- for ourselves, for our kids, etc.
And who among us who loves taking pictures would not want to be a better photographer 12 months from now than we are today?
Two ways to improve one's photography may at first seem contradictory, but in fact they are complementary. First suggestion: Try new things, the more the better. Second suggestion: Stick to what you do best and become the best at it that you can be.
There's nothing like a little bit of creative contradiction to improve your shooting.
The first course is not all that new. A clothing magazine once decided to hire news photographers to do fashion layouts, just to see what the news shooters came up with. For the most part, the results were quirky, different -- and exciting. Doing new things photographically can encompass all kinds of things: from trying out a new film to taking a trip to an exotic place you've never seen to making pictures you've never attempted.
I'm not going to suggest that the "try something new" course will inevitably result in great images. In fact, it just as easily could result in a cavalcade of really bad shots. But in the course of doing something as a photographer that you never have done before I guarantee you will learn something about yourself and about your photography. I remember years ago taking classes in studio and tabletop photography. I learned a lot about using softboxes and arranging elements of a still life. I learned about lighting. But I also learned that product photography bored me to tears and that this was not the way I wanted to spend my career as a photographer. Fine.
But I was able to incorporate what I had learned about lighting products into my first attempts at lighting human beings in their surroundings -- environmental portraiture. There's no way I could have achieved what I have as a location shooter had I not taken those first classes, in which my universe was limited to the world on the tabletop. And my choosing a different path says nothing about the quality of my teachers, only about my preferences.
Trying new films is another way to extend your "palette" as a photographer -- even if you work predominantly in black-and-white. It is remarkable how different films "see" different things, or the same things differently. A perfect example: Compare the same subjects shot with Fujichrome Velvia and Kodachrome 64. The results will be striking for their contrasts.
But trying only what's new and different can be limiting if one does not learn -- and remember -- what's best for oneself and continue do it. For me, the Holy Grail of photography is a beautifully composed, beautifully lit -- and beautifully printed -- black-and-white environmental portrait. That certainly is what I try to achieve in my personal work and in my books. I'm always trying to improve my lighting and printing, whether by reprinting images or studying the work of master photographers.
A few years ago it was enlightening, and in a way comforting, to see a marvelous exhibition of classic Ansel Adams images at the National Museum of American Art. Only these images were prints Adams had made late in his life, to reflect his own changing aesthetic vision and experience. These "new" prints were instructive because here was Ansel Adams, arguably one of the greatest photographers of his time, continuing to refine his work.
The experience affirmed my own excitement about, and approach to, photography: to study the work from the past to create something new, and to keep going back to one's best efforts, trying always to improve them. Not so contradictory after all, is it?