Happy Valentine's Day. Go photograph someone beautiful. Now!

Brock's Books in San Antonio.  Long gone.  Some battered, old camera with a 28mm 3.5 lens 
and a roll of ISO 100 color slide film.

Falling in love.  Being in love.  Loving what you do.  Love. I think that's why we really photograph.  Until we get sidetracked by the gear and the process.  I love beautiful faces.  I got into taking photographs because I was dating someone who I thought was so beautiful that her face should be immortalized.  Made into art.  Frozen in time so I could admire it for a lifetime.  My lifetime.  That romance didn't last but new ones came along.  And all along I recorded the things that I thought were most beautiful about my partners with my little camera.  

In the early times I didn't really care about technique or cameras at all.  I just wanted the images to be sharp where I wanted them to be sharp and well exposed in a way that worked for me and matched what I was trying to say.  I learned just enough to make a competent photograph.

"Mastering Technique" is where the downfall begins.  I'm sure it's a satanic plot to undermine the art that makes us happy.  We read a magazine or talk to other photographers and we hear stuff about how our pictures can be even sharper or less grainy or more bokeh-y and we start down a path that leads us away from our objects of beauty and into a nested doll of endless intertwined details.  And we never ask why our art has to conform to someone else's idea of better.

And the more we embrace the mechanical techniques the further we travel away from our original muse. The thing of beauty which we loved and wanted to share.  But we convince ourselves that, in the end, we'll create much "better" work because it will be sharper and less grainy and better exposed.

But in the end it's as though we took our object of inspiration and put it under layer after layer of gauze.  Each layer of technique we apply pushes the object further way from any sort of direct and emotive response on our part until it becomes merely a foil for our new infatuation with the craft.

When the devils succeed in corrupting our inner artist completely we look for subjects not because they strike a chord in our hearts but because our science brain tells us they'll make a good package on which to show off our skills at wrapping.  At covering up the real gift with a new layer.   "I don't care what might be in the box...."  We're saying, "But look at what a good job I did with the gift-wrapping!!!"

And before we know it we're far afield from our original captivation.  We're separated from what we loved by the knowledge that we can do more.  Even if we never needed to do more in the first place. Our original passion is side-tracked by the promise of "just a little more control."

At some point the sheer weight of our tools and the exhausting burden of continuing to learn new ways to show off dulls us to the joy and effervescence of our original undertaking: To celebrate the object of joy we've encountered.  To translate our love of beauty into something we can share.

And that kills photography for all of us.  I am envious of the people I know who resisted learning more about the "how to."  I am envious of the people who've found the one object of beauty in their lives that makes photography such a wonderful art.  I am envious of Harry Callahan's long photographic study of his wife, Eleanor.  I am envious of Henri Cartier Bresson's single minded love of capturing the world around him, unencumbered by "what's new in the bag."  "What's state-of-the-art." and what might make a good foil with which to show off this new technique.  

I am slow and witless and as easily led as the next photographer.  And yet, today, I can look through stacks and stacks of images I've done of buildings and food and executives and models and I don't feel the slightest spark.  But when I crack open a box of old black and white prints and look into the faces of the people whose beauty struck me to the point that I wanted to capture it,  and the faces of the people who I love and cherish I feel flush with excitement.  A thrill resonates through my heart.  And I realize that this is what I should have been doing all along.

Forget stitching shit together in Photoshop.  Forget crunching meaningless frames of shiny colored reflections of puddles into another HDR placemat.  Forget so sharply rendered that it cuts into my iris.
Remember what it was like to love and honor the subject in front of your camera because that's all that really matters.  That's where the real art lives.  It's about discovering the beauty you cherish, not imitating a weak, cultural construction of beauty manufactured from clever tricks.  And it's certainly not about the camera, the lights or the postprocessing.

The image you have in your mind, when you look at what it is you consider most beautiful,  is... everything.  Your longing to photograph was originally an attempt to preserve that precious moment of beauty and insight for yourself.  Or to be able to share it for a lifetime.

Everything that came after that, the camera bags, the lenses, the super straps and the endless stream of lights and cameras, is a wedge that pushes us further away from the original truth.

Go out today and find the thing you love.   The person.  The son or daughter who makes you smile and brings tears of happiness to your eyes.  The wife or husband who brings a feeling of warmth and belonging into your life.   The friend who stood by you when you were in the hospital or deep in debt.  Find your beauty and then share it with yourself.  That's the miracle of photography.

That should be our assignment right now.  That should be our picture of the day.  Everything else is just a job.  

In its purest form our photography is a celebration of love.  And everyone's love is different.

Happy Valentine's Day.

Edit:  Someone requested the "cookie" shot from Valentine's 2010.  Here's the link: