Vision. An Attempt to Clarify.

In Pep Talks, Rants and Sermons, Vision Is Better by David36 Comments


I’ve been lurking around the bloggy parts of the internet, listening in on conversations to which I am uninvited but in which my name gets mentioned often alongside the word “vision.” I hear lots of people inspired to chase their vision and express it more clearly. I also hear that some folks are just plain frustrated. Frustrated by all this talk of vision. Frustrated by trying to find their vision. Frustrated by trying to express it once they’ve “found it”.

Me too.

I sometimes talk of vision as though this stuff is the easiest thing in the world. Vision-Driven this and Vision-Driven that. I get the feeling that some folks feel left out – or worse, chastised – because they haven’t found their vision. I’m hoping the beginning parts of Within The Frame explore all this stuff with a little more clarity. Maybe not. So let me say a couple things here.

No one I know discovers their vision once and for all hiding under the cushions of the couch. It is a moving target, ephemeral, and the moment you see it in your peripheral vision there it is! Until you turn to look at it head-on, and it vanishes. It’s not easy. You’d be forgiven for cussing once in a while. Nothing wrong with being passionate about it.

I took a course in Rabbinic Thought in college. It taught me that the questions are often more important – usually more important – than the replies. That the root of the word “question” itself is the word quest. I think it’s so with vision – that the questions all this stuff raises do not get in the path of you finding your vision, they are the path. It is our photographs that are the attempt to respond to those questions. Of course we find it hard to put our vision into words, if we could do it so easily we’d have all picked up pens, not cameras.

I might have used this analogy before, but it bears repeating. Writers do not sit down, lasso a thought and then write it down. Another thought, another page. Some do. Most don’t. Most writers I know, the ones I’ve read, and I myself, sit down often – usually, even – with no clue what to say, nor how. We don’t think so we can write. We write so we can think. The writing is not something we do to merely record our creative thinking process. It is the process. I often sit down with no clue what the next words I will write are. The writing pulls them from me. It’s the same with photography. Or it is for me. The viewfinder is part of our process of thinking. The frame is our silent partner in finding and expressing our vision. That’s why it often takes several frames to get it right, why a shoot often undergoes an evolution until the elements fall into place. Sure, some of us visualize it all ahead of time, but the rest of us – the mortals – we usually wrestle our vision to the ground. And we don’t always win.

Look, if this was easy to put your finger on, to define it, how worthwhile would it be? We’re hundreds of thousands of people with hundreds of thousands of little black cameras all looking at this world through hundreds of thousands of eyes.

Different vision.
Different passion.
Different things to say.
Different reasons for saying so.
Different obstacles to overcome in the saying.

So to the frustrated, let me just say this. Me too. This vision stuff is a pain in the ass. But ask any poet, novelist, songwriter, painter, if their vision comes to them in frequent epiphanies or through the hard labour of struggling. My money’s on the struggle. That’s why some of them go insane. Or turn to heroine. What is important is not that you have a handle on your specific vision of your specific subject, but that you’re asking the questions, engaging in the process. What do I think about this? What do I feel about it? How can I capture that in this tiny frame and these two dimensions?

It’s not math. It’s closer, I hope, to poetry. Your photographs won’t be better for figuring this stuff out; they’ll be better for wrestling with it. So knowing that, take a breath. Slow down. Don’t get bent out of shape. We aren’t curing cancer here. We’re writing visual poems. Ease up on yourself. Bitter, insane photographers make bitter, insane, visual poems. Remember those wierd Magic Eye posters from the early 90s? You look too hard and you never see the image emerge from the noise. Looking is not the same as seeing and sometimes you see better if you don’t try so hard.


  1. David, this might be the sort of encouragement we need, even though armed with useful advice we often get from helpful people like you.

    I used to be so idealistic that I think I’m fine sticking to a film SLR, that it would improve my visualizing process. It was good exercise, but once past the initial stage, it can become a barrier. If you stop yourself to think whether something will make the ideal shot, you lose the shot.

    Magic Eye, now that’s a blast from the past! I still have a few booklets. I love the ones that have actual pictures in them!

  2. Amazing that you can write a piece to people in general, yet it can seem personal and written directly to me. Thanks.

  3. Perhaps we should think of our cameras more as vision partners than solely as tools. They are integral to the process.

  4. David, you compared photography to writing and I wholeheartedly agree! I read Stephen King’s non-fiction book, On Writing. There are so many memorable things in it, but one of them you touched on. He says that he has no idea where he is headed when he is writing. He has to let go. Let the story unfold on its own. He talked of writing his novella, The Gunslinger and why it took him 20+ years to complete. He said that the story just wouldn’t end. The characters had more to say. Further, he said that he doesn’t write the stories, he is just receptive to them. Now that is letting go!

    I think that this is the ultimate in letting go and realizing that we are not the creators, but are being used to create. At least that is the way that I think about it. Sometimes, we can catch a glimpse of our vision using our questions, other times, we are just confused. 🙂

    In truth, we could go on and on and on about what vision is and never get any closer. Only when we get started do we actually catch that peripheral glance. But, we have to get started. To close with a favorite quote from the book:

    When asked what scares him most about writing, SK said: “The scariest moment is always just before you start.”

    I highly recommend this book for any artist, regardless of craft. There are great nuggets of wisdom in it.

  5. Author

    Great recommendation, Paul.

    Here’s a couple more:

    Bird By Bird, Anne Lamott
    The Writing Life, Annie Dillard

    Both of these are about the writing process but so much more than that. Love them.

    Add to that The War of Art, Steven Pressfield, which is for all artists and a must-read.

  6. Paul, that book IS a good read. And yes, I agree to your recommendation too. The process if ‘making’ art is simply beyond grasp for me.

    Have you also read William Zinsser’s On Writing too? A bit heavier but good stuff to think about as a writer.

  7. Author

    Joseph, funny you should say that the process of making art is simply beyond your grasp – was just reading someting in the War of Art that basically said this: it is our task to engage in the work, the craft, whether it becomes “art” is not ours to be concerned about. We have, in a classical sense, a right to the labour, not the fruit of it, nor the glory. Those things might come but they aren’t our concern. Our task is simply to engage in the work. I like that alot, makes it easier.

  8. Good follow up post David. As with many things in life, it is the journey not the destination which is important.

    I think too many people today want to be instantly good and instantly done with things – either consciously or subconsciously. We as a society have taken on so many things and have so many opportunities that it is often necessary to become a jack-of-all-trades; A mentality that manifests itself even when it is not the best course of action. We see so many others being praised for their photography or painting or what-ever-art and want that now, without the whole paying-dues thing. That is a pain in the butt.

    It is part of the reason why I think your “creation story” was so important to finally make public. We see yourself or Gavin or Matt at an advanced stage but never see the grind and the castoffs that took you to that level.

    Perhaps it would be horrible marketing but I’ve always wanted to see all the shots you guys ditch before you wind up with the ones that make the cut. I want to know that you guys take pictures of the floor and of your thumb on occasion as well. (But oh, gosh, what if you just don’t, what an ego crusher that could be).

    Oh, and which heroine are you speaking of – I prefer Wonder Woman (Golden Lariat of Truth – woo-hoo).

  9. Author

    Alex – My castoffs aren’t worth looking at anymore than yours, I can assure you. We toyed with putting a spread of my crap into the book, just for this very reason but in the end I couldn’t do it – it was just too discouraging for me. So know that it still takes lots of crap for me to get to the good stuff. In fact as I grow as a photographer, it’s more crap to get to less good stuff. My ratio is getting more imbalanced, not less! Sigh.

  10. Whoops, actually I was thinking to say that it is beyond me to put in words how the process of making art works. But hmmm, right to labour but not the glory, need to think about that.

    Maybe that helps us shoot more confidently. Just remembered reading from a blog about how a photographer sees his daughter taking photos one day, and realizes their difference in mentality while approaching the world around them. Maybe sometimes we do fret too much about the outcome that it overwhelms our attention.

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  12. David,

    I think that perhaps that TED talk that Elizabeth Gilbert gave is well connected to this latest vision post:

    I love the part about grabbing by the tail. (Thanks for sending it as I’m still thinking about it a week later.)

  13. I was thinking more and more about why I want to see the off casts from professional shooters. (I’m not pressuring you – I’ve thought about this for a while).

    I think it isn’t actually to see the “mistakes” – we’re all human and all make them. Instead it might be an interesting look at how people approach a subject. It is often very hard to describe a thought process that has become second nature in many professionals. This might be more easily demonstrated in a series of images instead.

    For myself, since I’ve been doing the live music thing lately, I start wide and move in on individual performers. It takes a while to get the timing down on some songs and then sync that up with the changing lights to finally get good light and stopped motion.

    I only semi-conscious of settings, concentrating more on framing and timing (I need to balance this a tad more). What the musicians want varies from band to band but I’m learning what type of image I enjoy after the fact. It is interesting to see in my own work which in a series tends to be a keeper versus the almost and not-even-close images. But the series certainly shows accurately what I’m thinking before I get to the image I wanted from the beginning.

    Does that make sense?

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  15. Not trying to sound cliche’ here but, I never really reply to blog posts. But I have two words for this one:

    ‘Thank You’


  16. I find the vision thing very elusive. Rather go for the heroine, Something you can feel.

  17. Aleksei, Seeing the cast offs is illuminating. Jay Maisel, in his workshops, is very generous with showing his junk. Also, Sam Abell, in his book, The Life of a Photograph, is an important way to see his process. Its all work, as David is so frequently reminding us. Thanks, David.

  18. David, thanks, once again, for a thoughtful and provocative piece. If the journey (to be ever better) should end, what would we discover? And where would that leave us? And assuming that the journey itself is the purpose, then that leaves us ever in the place of wondering whether what we have to ‘say’ today is worthwhile because it is not what it will be tomorrow when we are farther along. But what we have to say today IS important. And it IS worth saying 🙂 Thank you for sharing yours today and I look forward to tomorrow as well. Blessings!

  19. All that being said, then, I can assume that my vision was stronger back in high school when, apparently, my writing was too.

    Makes me think about the phrase “Chasing the Dragon” – to what end? The addictive qualities of Vision and what you go through to get the intangible to exist. Will I travel? Will I ruin or build relationships? Finances? Will I see the “shot” then miss it? Or will I get it once only to look for it again and again.

    I’m hoping for the later.

  20. Author

    @JVL – Not sure what you’re getting at here. Why was your vision stronger back in highschool?

  21. Maybe it’s because I’m a new photographer, but right now, my vision comes from seeing things in a new way. Looking closely at them, from different angles, different light, and seeing art in common everyday experiences.

    I’m not at the point where I can create photos like the one featured above, but I see it, and I have total confidence that with the right practice and know how, I’ll be able to do it, too.

    It’s all a matter of seeing your vision in the mind’s eye.

  22. @David re-reading that maybe the high-school thing wasn’t particularly relevant (just personally funny) – more in-line with practice. I had to, and did, write and read more in high school -thus my writing cohesively took form and often came close to my “vision” of what I wanted.

    To line up the photography with that wouldn’t make sense – I wasn’t interested in taking photos then – not in the same capacity I am now – I was interested in solving complex math equations, writing personal tomes, and kissing girls.

    Since I took up photography, slightly beyond sticking my camera in people’s faces (yet still not avoiding this habit), my vision is certainly starting to take shape: I like shooting people (please, nobody quote that out of context), I love setting up a shot, though don’t always quite know HOW to do it, I love TRYING to take more abstract photos – and I even enjoy how I fall on my ass every time I try.

  23. @Aleksei and David, I can’t remember who said this, but it goes something like this: the difference between a professional and an amateur photographer is that pros have larger trashcans.
    That said, “cast-offs” can be used as great teaching tools. I attended an Art Wolfe workshop last year, where he showed us a series of shots he took before settling on the “winner”. I can honestly said that was one of the most profound messages in his entire workshop…vision doesn’t just dawn on you, you work at it.

  24. This really isn’t “an attempt to clarify”. It’s a smashing, like-no-other-article-I-have-read job of clarification. There are only about a dozen priceless nuggets in these few paragraphs. Wow. Thanks.

  25. Author

    @ Younes – This is a great way to look at it – I’ll consider something along these lines and see what I come up with.

    @ Anita. *Blush* Thanks. So that’s a good thing, right? 🙂

  26. Author

    @ Lisa – I’m with you on that. I’d love to see more women represented – not just here on my blog but in professional photography in general. Perhaps it’s that the men do all the talking while the women are actually out there making photographs? 🙂

  27. Haha I like that last one David!! I’m usually around Lisa, ive just been slow to catch up on all the reading after being away for a bit.

    @Aleksei – Chase Jarvis has a video on his blog somewhere doing exactly that, he shows ever shot he took during a whole shoot, its pretty cool.. makes u realise that 1keeper in 100 is not too bad!

    Great post again david, coming up on my end of the year portfolio and struggling between following my vision, or taking a sharp right off ramp based on some advice ive been given… thinking ill be staying the course… tuff but worth it im thinking.

  28. No. A great thing. I’m one of those who struggle mightily and most days I’m certain that I not only don’t know what my vision is, but I never will have vision, and don’t even know what the heck vision means, anyway. This post has helped me remember that I have to keep shooting (I haven’t been at this very long) and keep asking questions. Of course, continuing to read your blog will help, as well.

  29. everytime i come back there is a touché moment or a fireprod poke to get my ass out that door again and keep going. honesty, challenge, dialouge and debate….thanks for always keeping it real my friend! timely words for me.

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