I took the perfect picture but there was no film in the camera
by Mr. Sheehy
I want to take perfect pictures, and when I use the old(er) Cannon Rebel film camera that my mom loaned me, I take amazing ones. I mean absolutely amazing – every shot I take looks fantastic. The problem is, that’s just in the viewfinder. Eventually I have to get the photos back from the developer, and that’s when I discover the disaster – shots are too far away, color blanched, and objects moved to the wrong places. Maybe I get one good photo out of a roll.
In a sense, I find my ineptitude odd. Since I love looking at great photographs, I figure I’d pick up a thing or two about framing and light along the way. But then I have to pay attention and be patient, and those are spots where I may go wrong. Paul Horsted, a speaker at the TIE conference last week and author of The Black Hills Yesterday and Today, mentioned that he can take 1-3 hours framing up a shot to match the original historic photo he’s reproducing. Three hours! I could sit here at this computer for three hours writing a paper or article, but I wouldn’t even know what else to look for after 10 minutes with a camera.
So maybe it’s not my lack of patience so much as my lack of expertise. With writing, I can hash over freshness of phrase, organization of thought, and poetic form until my good night’s sleep erodes to a five-hour nap, whereas Ellen, at 2 years old, writes a circle, colors it in halfway, and then asks me to finish it off. She doesn’t have the expertise yet to pick away at the minutiae of writing. And with photos, I follow my children around and zoom in close, clicking about 60 pictures a minute until I capture an expression I like, but it takes that much trial and error to reproduce something close to the artistic framing I innately enjoy when the experts do it.
Ultimately, I can recognize the good stuff, but I can’t explain it. I see photoblogs and am drawn emotionally to particular pictures – something fresh, perhaps something whimsical, or something moving. If I like it, I examine it longer and sometimes try to justify my enjoyment with explanation, but I’m mostly trying to justify the emotional reaction. I do not pretend to know much about what is going on with these photographs.
Fittingly paired with this inability to explain great photographs, I cannot reproduce them. If I am to reproduce these photos, I am going to have to learn more about lighting, lines, camera operation, and strategy. I am not a “natural” – one of those individuals who has a creative and unique eye and needs to learn more simply to refine her craft. I am a fan, just like the guy who brings his baseball glove to the stadium to watch a game and jumps at a chance to play catch in the backyard. But I keep playing catch, and through years of playing catch, I have improved.
And I feel like my students are like me in this. They recognize a few things about different disciplines, but they still do not possess expertise, which notices patterns not recognized by novices and retrieves information with little effort (Bransford 1999). Since I’m teaching high school, I suppose in many ways my job is not to turn them into experts. I can’t – it takes years to become an expert on literature, and if it could be done in four years or less, why would anyone get doctorates in it? Instead, I’ll focus on helping them recognize a few good things, so they can produce moderately better things than they do now. Like with me and my photographs, it’s a start. I’ll just hope they improve faster than me in the areas they choose.
By the way, I didn’t take any of the photos included here. My wife took them all, showing that there’s no need for us all to be experts when we’ve got each other.