Goals and Humility
“It ain’t the heat; it’s the humility” Yogi Berra, the great American philosopher.
As a musician for almost 40 years of my life there were a few concepts that served me well. Back then, I would have never anticipated that photography could be so similar to music and if you’ve followed this blog for a while you’ll know it’s been written about before (My Two Photo Lessons – 2/3/2017). Back then, I had musical goals of what I wanted to sound like and listened to many great jazz trombonists; Jack Teagarden, J.J. Johnson, Jimmy Cleveland, Frank Rosolino, and my all-time favorite, Carl Fontana. Yes, there are so many others, but these are the ones I still listen to even today. I met Carl Fontana in the early nineties and what struck me about him the most was how humble he was. For a few years afterward I would call him and we’d talk, it was amazing to talk with my musical idol. This was a jazz legend who amazingly always had time to talk on the phone. He would usually tell me about the grand kids, or how he was sitting at his pool in Las Vegas. There was so much more to him than the trombone. He still listened to other trombonists, even those who were maybe not at his level, but he was still learning! I’m sure Mr. Fontana had an ego, we all do, but his was in check, 100% of the time. My goals back then were to master a specialized type of trombone playing called doodle-tonguing and sound like him. However, he had other qualities that became something to emulate; he displayed humility and loved being a grandpa, and that was simply amazing to me. From him I learned that my ego could be a dangerous and detrimental thing, but if he could keep it in check and be humble – maybe I should too.
Fast forward to today, while no longer playing music, I’ve tried to use the lessons learned from music toward to photography. Today, I still look at the work of legends to improve, artists like Trey Ratcliff, Annie Leibovitz, Arthur Fellig (Weegee), Joel Sartore, and the legendary Ansel Adams are a few who inspire me. There are photographers all over Instagram who inspire me daily as well! Looking at photos affects me much like listening to music used to, dissecting a photo beyond a glance is just too cool! It gives me goals, something to strive for when I have a camera in my hands. I’ve had two goals in recent years, the first has been to get better at shooting black and white. Not to just shoot black and white but visualize and capture something I specifically see in my mind as black and white; not simply converting a color photo to B&W. There’s an art to creating with no colors and using only textures, light, darkness, and shadows; this is stuff I’m learning by asking others I admire. The second goal, only in the last year or so, is to really work at street photography. It sounds easy in theory, but in practice not so much. Do you ask for someone’s permission to shoot them? Do you not ask in order to catch them naturally? Do you shoot and ask for permission after? These are things I’ve been confronting, the sometimes candid nature of photography has left me, at times, feeling somewhat like a stalker. Especially here in Japan where the people are incredibly polite. If a group of people catch me in the act of shooting, they sometimes stop because they think they are getting in the way and don’t realize I actually want them in the photo. When I ask for permission to shoot someone, I’ve had mixed reactions, but always polite. So there’s the immediate goals I have. But then…
There’s still that other thing, humility… One thing I learned after 30 years in the Navy, especially when I was a Master Chief, being humble opens more doors than it closes. The same is true with photography, just as it was with music. There are always those who will be better than you and there are others who might not be better than you overall, but have an aspect or specialty where they outperform you. Being humbles allows you to interact with these types of people. Honestly, humility even allows me to get feedback from my kids and wife! My daughters have always helped my photography, they both have an incredible eye but no desire for photography. In fact, the shot of the American flag at the top of this post was my oldest daughter’s idea. It was a brand new flag, still coiled, and I was shooting photos of it when she said, “Dad, you should shoot it from under here.” I’m not too big to listen to a 12 year old with great ideas! Whenever I’m editing a bunch of photos, I always ask my daughters, or my wife, for input and they’ve never let me down. Every time I’ve been out been out shooting with them, I pick up an idea or two. The point is, there are great photographers everywhere, some better than others, but if you look at the work of those REALLY trying, you’ll almost alway gain some nugget of knowledge.
I try to remember that this is photography, full of egos and passionate artsy type people, and just about everyone has something to offer whether shooting with a DSLR or cellphone. Set goals for yourself and be humble! My goals of becoming better at B&W photography as well as street shooting drive me with a purpose. As for practicing some form of photographic humility, that’s probably another goal, one that hopefully never leaves. Every great musician and photographer who has taught me something displayed something beyond their abilities with the instrument, it was humility and being approachable. Just like when I was in the Navy, I still try to continue learning from those around me, and it’s still proving invaluable. Trying to be humble and approachable helps me feel comfortable even when I’m the one getting the criticism and advice. Yogi was right, it’s the humility.