On Learning without Knowing & the Meaning of Hay

There’s a lot to learn when you start taking photography. My professor insisted we start with film, preference on an SLR. This meant we were in control of the f-stop, shutter speed, and had to have a working knowledge of ISO. There was no immediate review button to see if we’d gotten something right, so we had to learn how to work our settings and focus fast, and then hope we nailed it. We shot on slide film, and we’d load our best shots into the wheel at the beginning of class, and Billera would flip through them, critiquing them out loud for everyone. Was our shutter speed too slow, so our images were blurred? Was the foreground out of focus? And if, by some miracle, we’d nailed everything technically, he’d talk about our artistry. How was our composition and our understanding of light? Would the picture have been better if we’d shifted the camera two inches to the right? Or shot from a different angle? Or set our f-stop lower and our shutter speed higher?

When photographing, there’s rarely more than five seconds when the image is available for you to take. So the trick is to learn to recognize that which is noteworthy, compose the image, set the f-stop and shutter speed, and click. That’s it. Done. The moment’s passed, either the girl you’re photographing has moved on, the light has shifted behind the cloud, or the beat of the sidewalk has swept you away. You’ve either got it, or you haven’t.

We spent hours and hours in the classroom learning theory, pouring over photography books, and critiquing our own composition and others in the hope that when we went out into the real world, this knowledge was so internalized, we no longer had to think about it. Billera told us to leave everything we learned in the classroom at home and go out and photograph with the soul. Don’t think, he said, just click. If you’ve done your job in the classroom, you’ll do your job out there.

And it started to work. First I had to learn the technicalities of the camera. I started to guess f-stops and film speeds wherever I was for whatever lighting conditions there were. This took weeks of nearly constantly thought, but I started to get the hang of it, and I got fast at it. Then I had to learn about composition (the oft talked about “photographer’s eye”), and then I had to learn to trust myself. Trusting myself was probably the hardest part because there isn’t always an easily understood why in art.

I was walking through a barn one day, and there was a patch of sunlight on a mound of hay. I thought, “Wow, photograph that.” I carried my camera everywhere then, so I had it. I raised it to my eye, but then paused. It was just hay, after all. The only thing I liked was the light, why take a picture of it? I did anyway because I was there, but I knew my hand wasn’t quite steady enough to hold the camera still at the shutter speed I needed, and I didn’t retake the picture with a tripod or a box to stabilize myself because it was “just a picture of hay.” In class, Billera tore me a new one. He told me I couldn’t walk around throwing away pictures like that because I didn’t feel like using a tripod. I still remember the look on his face, like I’d dropped a gold coin because I didn’t feel like wiping off the mud.

So I stopped second guessing myself, though I still screwed pictures up, and I started taking them whenever I saw them. I never quite understood what was attractive to me, but I had a friend once tell me that looking at them made her feel like she could see the world through my eyes. There was something there that she responded to, even if it was so deep in me, I couldn’t understand it myself.

Writing is the same way. You’ve got to learn everything you can about the craft and the technicalities, the way it works and how it works best, and why it fails when it fails. You’ve go to do your best to master the artistry of it. And then, you’ve got to let it all go. When you sit down to write, you must come blank, knowing nothing, and trust that that knowledge is there for you. You can’t self-edit while you goes because then you’ll never take risks. If you’ve worked hard enough, when you come back around to revise and edit, there will be something beautiful there for you to tease out. Something unique and surprising and worthwhile, a statement about afternoon light and the sheen of hay in the middle of a dusty barn, maybe, something that you didn’t even fully understand the day you sat down to write it.


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