I believe that when Robert Capa said “if your photographs aren’t good enough, you aren’t close enough,” part of what he implied was more than just physical proximity, but a more intimate knowledge of the subject. They’re connected of course, and if there’s one thing that I love hearing from others about my work, it’s the word “intimacy.” I want people to experience what I experience and I tend to seek more intimate experiences, whether that’s with a person, a landscape, or a bear. In fact some of this is in my brain right now because of my experience with grizzly bears earlier this year, when my guide, Tom Ellison, asked me if it’s possible to translate the intimate encounter we were having with the bears, into photographs, and if so, how come so few people do so. I think it is possible, to some degree, but I think it’s not often done because we chase wildlife with the longest lenses, from the furthest distances, and those lenses don’t often create a very intimate aesthetic.
I think all this is why I love my wider lenses. Sure, a 50-55mm lens more closely resembles how humans see, at least in terms of magnification, but those same lenses don’t remotely touch the way we perceive the world peripherally. We see much wider and I think a wide angle lens pushed in close can give us a greater feeling or intimacy than a longer lens often can, even when it’s just 50mm. There’s no rules here, and I do believe it’s possible to create an intimate photograph with longer lenses, because there is more to intimacy than just how close we are, but for me the wider lenses do something special. Perhaps it’s just forcing me closer. I love the way these lenses subtly (and sometimes not so subtly) enlarge the foreground, allow me to place lines where they have more energy and potential to become compositional elements. They’re harder to work with, for sure, but if I could only use one lens, it’d be wide. On my Nikons I’d go with my 16-35mm zoom, on my Fuji I’d happily live with my 14mm.
Whatever lens you use, the secret to intimacy is love. You have to love your subject, respect it, spend time. Allow yourself to wonder. Let your fascination move you. Someone once said, might have been Ansel Adams, that it was less important to merely take photographs, but to be truly taken by your photographs. I believe photographs are made, not taken, and I think the distinction matters, but I’m willing to overlook it for the sentiment in the quote. The world has so, so many photographs. The signal to noise ratio is at an all-time low. We don’t need bigger photographs, or sharper ones. We need photographs that move us – that’s when they become more that just the results of our fascination with these little black boxes and become art. That’s when we can say, with the surprise that usually comes with such joy, “I made this!” Until then it’s just something the camera captured, nothing more than waves and particles of light on the film or sensor.
Issue Four of PHOTOGRAPH gets released this week. It’s an excellent issue, and I hope you agree with me that they just keep getting better and better. Thanks for being along for the ride – we’re already working on the next year’s issues and have some great stuff in store. Look for the release of the next issue in the coming days. I’ll be home from Bali on the 9th, so you’ll hear more from me then.