When Everything Is Ugly…

…Shoot the Ugly. This is a bit of trick, a hook to get your attention, because I don’t think there is ever a situation where everything is completely ugly. Still, it’s easy to get into that frame of mind in the dead of winter when the scenery is bleak and gray. It’s easy to get into that frame of mind in a blighted urban landscape where buildings are abandoned and decrepit, and gray concrete stretches as far as the eye can see. As photographers, we’re faced with a crucial choice: to shoot the scene before our eyes, or wait until the season and the scenery is pretty, according to some idealized notion of the way things ought to look.

Honestly, both forks in the road are valid. Some photographers, through the skillful use of models and studios, or by travel to exotic locations, create alternative realities that bear little resemblance to the everyday world most of us inhabit. Others painstakingly document the worlds they experience with all of the accuracy they can bring to bear. Personally, I identify more with the second group, the photojournalists. I do studio work, but I prefer to be out in the world and documenting what is happening. I have those times when things look bleak and uninteresting to me, and I struggle to find subjects to photograph. So, what are some strategies to get over the “everything is ugly” syndrome?

Immersion

Dive into the ugly. Wallow in it. Find the ugliest thing you can and photograph it. Edward Weston made photographs of dead pelicans floating in tidal pools. Most of us would look at the dead bird and say, “Yuck,” but Weston saw the tragic poetry in the composition, and created a strangely compelling photograph from a scene that most of us would call extremely ugly. Scenes such as this often evoke strong feelings and meanings, and while they may not be “pretty” photographs, the can be very powerful and effective.

Recalibrate Your Head

If your idea of a great photo only extends to sun-washed beaches in the Caribbean, but you live in Salinas, Kansas, you have a problem. I’m willing to go on record as saying that there’s a great photo in Salinas, Kansas that is yet to be made, but you won’t see it if you’re looking for the bikini babes on the white sand beach. Instead of searching for something that fits a preconceived idea of a great picture, let the world show you the picture. Look around. What do you find yourself staring at? What scenes evoke feeling and memories in you? These are likely to be the best subjects for your photographs.

Look Again. Look Closer. Then, Step Back.

A point of view is a mission-critical piece of mental equipment. It helps to have one. Zoom in, Zoom out. Walk around. A dud from one POV is a masterpiece from another. Try using a lens with a different focal length from what you usually use. Get high (like altitude) or low and shoot from different angles. Look for subtle colors and interesting textures. Find a different viewpoint from the one you usually shoot. Move your body around across the face of the planet and observe the world as you’re doing it.

Take Your Own Pulse

“Everything is Ugly” is really an attitude rather than an accurate description. I don’t really like winter. I don’t like to be cold. I particularly dislike ice and trying to move around on it. I love green, warmth and the vitality of the growing season – all of those things that disappear in the dim days of winter. So, I tend to cop an attitude about winter, and it’s negative. A negative attitude will color our perceptions strongly, often without us realizing it. The only antidote for a negative attitude is awareness – the proverbial “gut check.” If you’re not seeing pictures, take your emotional “pulse.” Are you carrying a negative attitude about the place, the season, or even yourself as a photographer? Such things can get in the way and prevent us from seeing the pictures that are really there. By bringing these negative attitudes into consciousness, we may not completely get rid of them, but we can make new decisions about them. We can stop them from obscuring our vision.

Vision is so shaped by attitude. We tend to find what we expect to find. If we believe there is nothing out there to photograph, we usually find nothing and confirm that belief. If we take the attitude that there is a photograph out there, but we just haven’t found it yet, we tend to find it. Since I have never found a place where there was absolutely nothing to photograph, I tend to take the attitude of “I just haven’t found it yet,” and most of the time, it pays off.

5 comments

  1. I always have my camera close by and love photography!
    You have some great advice here.
    I like the photos you shared.
    I know you mentioned you don’t like winter but I am quite sure you could capture some great photos of the “white winter wonerland” we are having here in Denver today.
    But, brrrrrrr , it is very cold!!!!!!
    But, all we have to do is wait a day and the weather changes here in Co.
    Tomorrow, the temp is supposed to be almost 60 (hoping) and at the present time our temp is 30 degrees.

    Like

  2. I lived south of Colorado Springs for three years. I’ve lost count of how many towns I’ve lived in, but Colorado is the only place I second guess myself for leaving. I was in your fair city a couple of years ago to catch a Rockies game and do a bit of cannabis tourism. I love Denver.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Gosh, I lived in Colorado Springs for 21 years before moving to Denver in 2012 to take care of my first grandchild after my daughter went back to work. I loved Colorado Springs and it was hard to leave as I had to leave my friends behind. Even though the distance from Denver to Colorado Springs is only 70 miles, it seems longer when you don’t often see those that you knew for so many years. I do go to Colorado Springs as often as I can but the traffic can be a nightmare. I do love Denver but miss Colorado Springs and my friends there!

    Where was it that you lived that was south of Colorado Springs?
    How nice to that you got to Denver a few years ago.

    Like

    • You take the highway south, Pike’s Peak on the right and Ft. Carson to the left, and it was 20-something miles down to the junction with the road that runs between Pueblo and Canon City. It was a little unincorporated community called Penrose.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I agree with you about using what is near you.I got some photos of a bite on my leg which was bleeding then I
    changed the colours with pixlr editor,And when I could not see very well I was surprised how many little things near my own gate I had never noticed before.And trees in my street I’d not seen despite passing them often
    Katherine

    Liked by 1 person

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