Interpretation and Thought

I was disassembling my Christmas decorations the other day when I saw a photograph in my mind's eye. I liked the rounded shape of the bulbs and the soft lighting. Quickly grabbing my camera and a wide-angle lens, I took a series of photographs. What emerged is my interpretation of the last of the holiday. 

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Interpretation is what gives each photographer his or her own style. It is the individual vision of a scene or event and it comes in many varieties. For instance, take the iconic Ansel Adams image of the Snake River. Many people have stood in that same location and copied his photograph. Many others have stood there and instead looked outside the box and done something far different. Though Ansel Adams may have inspired them to be there, they didn't try to duplicate his work but used their own creative idea. They saw that scene differently than he did.

We see other examples of interpretation in photo contests. Here, a theme is given, the best interpretation of that theme winning the contest. What made the winner, well, win? Why was his interpretation the best? I believe a lot of this answer comes through two factors - observation and decision-making.

Observation

The most important feature of interpretation comes in the observation of the scene. I have learned a lot about this from watching the videos of large format landscape photographer, Ben Horne. In the age of the digital camera revolution where photographers can take multiple shots deleting and retaking at will, he instead totes an 8x10 folding view film camera into the canyons and forests of the Northwest.

It is his pre-planning that most fascinates me. In the days before he takes the shot, he hikes to a location, observing the available lighting and the effect of the weather on the environment. He then chooses his film, camera, and lens to make the shot he has pictured in his mind. He does all of this without his camera. He then has to hike back to take the photograph.

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Inundated, copyright Ben Horne

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Genesis, copyright Ben Horne

Frankly, in light of his efforts, I feel a bit lazy. Most of my shots come from right outside my front door in my flower garden. I see an insect or creature, take a photograph, and in a matter of ten minutes, I have the photo uploaded, edited, and online. I didn't have to plan any trips or check any weather reports. Yet though our methods are different, I recently realized that our mind processes are similar.

Decisions

My husband and I regularly visit a local flower garden. Because we have been there many times before, I can decide before I leave home exactly what I want to photograph on that trip. Sometimes it's the architecture. Other times it is the season for a particular flower. This past Christmas, I wanted to see the poinsettia display. Knowing this in advance, helps me choose my lens and what other equipment to bring.

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Ben Horne states this same idea. Often, he says he must try again for a specific shot at a particular location. For whatever reason, it didn't work out just as he wanted. At other times, he doesn't want to duplicate a photograph because he has already accomplished what he set out to do. In both his case and in mine, we made educated decisions contributing to our desired results.

Now, life will surprise you sometimes. I have taken unplanned shots that turned out well. However, even then, that photograph was the result of my decisions. If I carry my 55-300mm lens, I know I cannot take wide-angle shots. If I carry my wide angle, then I will have to leave the bird shot for another time. It is a limitation, but it is also a challenge. Knowing what I cannot capture causes me to ask myself what I can do.

Individual Interpretation

Ben Horne has an amusing time-lapse video of a crowd of photographers on a well-known bridge all fighting each other for space to photograph the same view. I'm with him in the need to avoid such locations. I like photographing alone - just me, my camera, and the creature in front of me.  Yet watching that video proves my point. What does the twentieth photographer in that crowd plan to do to interpret that scene differently from the fellow to his left or right? What sets his or her work apart?

I think the answer to this question comes with experience. If you were to hand me Ben Horne's camera and set me loose with it, I'd be completely lost (and a trifle afraid). Conversely, give a person a DSLR and suddenly they seem to know everything. I see this mentality all the time. Yet the equipment you use only contributes to your interpretation; it does not CREATE it. Instead, true interpretation comes as I take what did or didn't work for me and turn it into something better, something unique.

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We are each of us individuals. I am not likely to walk the Narrows like Ben Horne. He perhaps isn't going to chase butterflies in my garden. Nevertheless, knowing we make similar choices gives me pause for thought. Our results are different, our thought processes aren't. 

Ansel Adams once said, "There is nothing worse than a sharp image of a fuzzy concept." I like that and I think it sums up interpretation pretty well. True interpretation is the ability to take a definite concept and with wisdom and knowledge create exactly what you wanted. It takes photography beyond making snapshots and turns it into something unequaled, incomparable, and truly beautiful.

I would like to thank Ben Horne for allowing me to showcase his work in this article. His images above were taken with an Ebony RW810 camera and a Nikkor 150mm SW lens. To see more of his photographs visit, check out www.benhorne.com, Ben's blog, or Ben's YouTube channel.