Get Closer

The celebrated war photographer Robert Capa once famously quipped, "if your pictures aren't good enough, you aren't close enough." It's an interesting and provocative thought, especially coming from a war photographer, for whom getting closer means getting closer to getting killed.

But Capa was right, of course. Many pictures would be improved by having a closer, larger subject or simply being cropped. This is because, like all art, photography usually benefits from simplification, from that clarity of communication that can only come when extraneous elements are excluded from the piece, and idea you are signifying with the picture is not subsumed in a flurry of unrelated shapes and colors, leaving the purpose of the communication fuzzy, its impact needlessly anemic.

So I try to leave out anything that isn't helping move us forward. This applied when I was writing poetry, where I laboriously pored over every single syllable, deciding if it was pulling its weight of if it had to go. And it's true of photography, but with photography, this simplification is difficult in a different way. Rather than making something from scratch, we're interpreting and communicating something that already exists. The tools for interpreting a scene photographically are pretty simple: we have focal point, framing, light and shadow, shutter speed effects, depth of field, focal length/angle of view, and distance. But putting those together into a provocative bit of information can be very tricky, and truly eliminating extraneous elements is sometimes impossible. When mindful of simplicity, framing and distance are the most powerful tools--the ones we usually turn to first.

As I approached the cluttered field of the air museum at March Air Force base this morning and saw how haphazard and scattered everything looked, with no clean backgrounds and no way to take a powerful photo of an entire plane, I remembered what Robert Capa said. Get closer.