Beginning with the finished product

I recently came across this quote by the legendary photography pioneer Edward Steichen: “Every other artist begins with a blank canvas, a piece of paper…the photographer begins with the finished product.” I don’t believe that Steichen was criticizing or downplaying photography’s artistic role compared to the other arts. I see it as a statement on its creative process.

(0/2/04) Stockton artist Claire Oak works on a watercolor painting whiled teaching a painting class at Louis Park in Stockton. [CLIFFORD OTO/THE STOCKTON RECORD]

Like he said, a painter builds upon a blank canvas or sculptor begins with amorphous piece of stone or clay. From those they craft their work.
The closest thing to that are still life and portrait photographers.

(11/21/08) Three-year-old Garbiel Valeros, wearing an angel costume, has his portrait taken by photographer Cameo Rose of the Stockton-based Fritz Chin Photography at American Legion Park in Stockton. [CLIFFORD OTO/THE STOCKTON RECORD]

While still life photos can be found situations, they are mostly “built” or “staged” by the photographer. They can carefully place the subject items wherever they want to in the frame. They can add or eliminate something in the background and they can light the scene in a creative manner. Similarly, portrait photographers have a lot of control of their photos. They can pick where they take their photos, whether in a studio or on location. And, like the still life, they can manipulate the lighting however they want or need to. Still, the scene is mostly complete before the shutter button is pressed.

(4/19/13) People on their way to work walk through the financial district of Manhattan, New York City. [CLIFFORD OTO/THE STOCKTON RECORD]

In most other types of photography the process is a little different. Often in street photography, wedding photography and photojournalism one must “shoot from the hip.” While some planning ahead can be done events may happen so quickly and unexpectedly that a photographer has to be constantly vigil and be able to shoot at a moment’s notice. However, there are times, even in these genres, that one can plan ahead.

(3/24/20) A cyclist rides around Lodi Lake as storm clouds roll in over Lodi. [CLIFFORD OTO/THE STOCKTON RECORD]

Many times I’ve come across situations or scenes where something more is needed to complete the picture. It could be a person walking against a field of clouds or a bird sitting on a branch. Whatever it is, I’ll see a picturesque sight but recognize that something is missing. Much like someone fishing, what I’ll do is sit and wait until that certain something comes by. More often than not it does, but sometimes, like real fishing, I’ll come up empty. That’s when I’ll file it away in my mind and try again another time. This technique works for almost any kind of photography. Landscape photographers have to wait for just the right lighting and weather conditions to get their photos. Often, all the elements don’t coalesce into what they want so they go back time and time again until it does.

(3/5/08) Grower Michael Fondse checks out blossom in an almond orchard on Carrolton Road in Ripon. [CLIFFORD OTO/THE STOCKTON RECORD]

I don’t think photography is any less creative than the other visual arts but the process is done in reverse. In the other arts the artist tries to make a depiction of what’s in front of them or create something from memory or even from whole cloth. In photography One has to see the esthetic potential of a scene and use their skills and talent to flesh out its essential qualities to make a creative photograph.

(2/20/11) A dew drop hangs on a grape vine in a foggy vineyard along Peltier Road and Rond Road in Thornton. [CLIFFORD OTO/THE STOCKTON RECORD]


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