Thursday, June 25, 2009

Close Enough

Robert Capa was a war photographer, although there is some speculation over whether or not he would have liked that title. He covered human conflict from the beginning of the last century until the earliest days of Vietnam (when it was still French Indochina).

One of his most repeated quotes is "If your pictures aren't good enough, you're not close enough."

I wonder whether I will ever be quoted. If so, I accept that at least one of my quotes will be made ironic by circumstances beyond my control. For Capa, this is the one. One morning, in French Indochina, Capa took a shot of soldiers making their way through a rice paddy, switched out his film, and took a few steps forward...

...onto a land mine.

Yeah. Ouch.

Despite that irony, Capa's words are still relevant to practicing photographers of all genres, ages, and levels of experience or fame. Moving up on a subject, using your zoom lens or your legs, simplifies the shot and ensures that the viewer can see what you are shooting at and, more importantly, very little else. The further you are from your subject, the more chance that something distracting can creep into the frame.

It's a simple premise, to take this from the physical to the emotional. There are two different meanings for the word "close", after all. There is the physical closeness that Capa spoke of, and the emotional proximity that a photographer should also have. If you are not passionate about what you photograph, your viewer never can be.

And that passion is neuter. It doesn't have to be the rainbows and hugs search for Beauty. Some of the best Pulitzer prize-winning shots or collections have been of subjects the photographer, and most right-thinking individuals, passionately hated or disapproved of. That's fine. It doesn't matter what flavor of passion you practice, only that you practice it. Take shots of anything that makes you think, and there will be viewers out there who will think when they look at your results.

There is no evidence that Capa ever considered this other meaning of closeness. But he probably thought about it, if only after he had seen his words in print the first time. And his example gives us the barometer we need to be certain we are doing it right.

Physically, the frame is a fixed space. It is relatively easy to tell when you are too far out or too close to the subject of your shot. Just look around the edges and keep moving until what you want to say is all you see. That's what Capa was talking about.

Here is what Capa means, on the emotional level. How can you tell when you are "close enough" to your subject matter, emotionally, to do the subject real justice? Look through your viewfinder. Concentrate. You may be close enough, physically, to reach out and touch your subject, but are you close enough, emotionally, for your subject to look back at you?

Put in terms of Capa's death, can you take another step forward, figuratively or literally, knowing that you might hear that click that isn't your shutter button? Or do you feel safe?

If you feel safe, you're not close enough.

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