Ruth Bernhard was a photographer who lived from 1905 to 2006, and over the course of her photographic career, she made a name for herself by photographing simple things in extraordinary ways. There is a quote from her that comes to mind: “I look at ordinary objects, and I see things that other people don’t see. That’s why I’m a photographer.”
That really sums it up, doesn’t it? I’ve talked before about trophy photographs—these images that we take not only to highlight the subjects but also to show off and share unusual opportunities that we’ve been afforded. To my mind, these photographs are not the important ones in our portfolios. Sure, we may be proud of them, and I won’t deny that they hold beauty and meaning in their own right.
But I think that the true test of skill is to be immersed in mundane surroundings, and to still be able to create photographs that are unique. In order to do this? It’s exactly like Ruth once said. You must see things that others don’t see. You have to work hard to make it special.
There are two reasons why this is so important. First and most obvious is that for most of us, these rare opportunities to photograph the unusual just don’t come along all that often. We can’t all be National Geographic photographers traveling the world to exotic places so that we can see things few other people have ever gotten the chance to see, even in photographs. For most of us, our sphere within the day to day world is relatively small, consisting of our homes, our neighborhoods and our workplaces. The chances to go on vacation and find unusual things may only come once per year, if even that often.
Can we wait for these once every so often vacations to photograph the unusual? No, we can’t. That would mean photography is only reserved for rare and special occasions—but we need to keep photographing all the time in order to stay practiced. So that means we have to take what is immediately around us and we have to make it special.
And the other reason why it is so important to create extraordinary photographs from ordinary subjects? Because that is what makes us creative. That is the thing that hones our thought processes so that we are better able to notice unusual aspects of the ordinary things around us. It’s exactly as Ruth said. We must see what others don’t see, and that is what makes us photographers. What better way to sharpen this skill than to do it by observing our own backyards in ways that others may never have thought to look?
Most of the time, we just won’t have anything special or unique to photograph. And that’s a good thing, I think. If we want to keep creating anyway, then we have to make the extra effort to make it special.