The Something from Nothing Series (an Exercise in Learning to See)

It seems a popular pursuit in landscape photography is to globe trot to exotic locations mining dramatic landscapes in theatrical light. In the past, the hard work in this kind of photography was the research. Getting yourself in the right place at the right time in the right conditions was a bit of a task. Today, with GPS-tagged photos, location apps and eGuides, finding the world’s trophy locations has never been easier. Witness the ever-increasing crowds lining up for sweet light photos of Maroon Bells, Delicate Arch, the Giant’s Cuaseway or the Taj Mahal. Few locations are ‘secret’ any longer so coming up with unique photos based solely on access and good light is getting harder and harder.

Even I can get a good shot here! ©Bill Smith

As impressive as it is to see a portfolio of big dramatic landscape images from around the world, these portfolios resonate with us less and less because they are now so common place. The photographers’ portfolios that really impress us are those photographers who can consistently make the extraordinary from the ordinary. Those photographers who find gems in their living room, in the ditch on the side of the highway or in any location most of us would pass over are, in our eyes, true artists.  There is a plethora of fantastic images all within eye sight of each of us right now, if only we are open to seeing.  Think of Edward Weston’s famous photo Pepper 30. Who would have thought that a common vegetable we get in our grocery bag could be such an evocative subject?

I have occasionally been able to make a memorable (at least to me) photo of mundane subjects that normally I would pass over, but mostly I still rely on the obvious to present itself for me to capture as an image. (Sam, on the other hand, almost always goes for the quiet, personal image of an overlooked subject even when we are in a trophy location with big light.)

©Darwin Wiggett – An ordinary subject in drab light. The image ended up exciting me to the possibilities of the ‘magic of the mundane’.

In an attempt to grow as artists and to learn to see deeper, we have given ourselves an ongoing assignment; to create ‘something from nothing’. We will pick a mundane location or subject and try and make a photo with personal vision. This is probably easier for Samantha. I know I will struggle because I have been trained for over 25 years to go for the big light!

Of course the danger of consciously forcing yourself ‘to see’ is that you may fail simply by being conscious of intention. The idea here is not to purposely create an ‘extraordinary photo of the ordinary’ that we can show off (that is just another form of trophy hunting and bragging). Rather the goal is the process of seeing. The failures (in seeing) are just as important as the successes. We will show both. I rarely show my failures so this is a big step for me ;-)

With that I share with you my first “Something from Nothing” exercise and the thought process behind it. We would love it if some of you tried this exercise along with us. Send us your description and a series of images from your own attempts and if we think the results are instructive we’ll share them here on the oopoomoo blog (info@oopoomoo.com). Happy seeing!

Something from Nothing – The First Attempt

One day while doing the dishes I noticed the vases in the windowsill were reflecting colours on the metal of the sink. I took a half an hour off of house duties, grabbed my camera and snapped a few photos.

©Darwin Wiggett – The overall scene

Like most of us, I found myself immediately attracted to the brightest colour and contrast of the scene. I started with the reflections spilling across the drain. The image below is probably the most obvious and was the ‘gimme’ image that had to be made first!

©Darwin Wiggett

Next, I tried to move beyond the obvious and work pure colour and shape in a more abstract representation. The image below relies on the geometry inherent in the scene (circle, triangles and line) along with the coloured reflection but is a little more subtle. I used a shallow depth of field to focus attention on the foreground metal.

©Darwin Wiggett

I wanted an even more abstract representation of the sink and drain and shot through the reflection on the edge of the sink to show a hint of the subject emerging through the coloured reflection. This is the image I like the best from the series and represents for me a marriage of pure abstraction of colour and shape with an anchor of reality. I also like how the frame is divideded into triangles of reality in monochrome and abstraction in colour.

©Darwin Wiggett

I then tried to work the lines of the facet and taps but didn’t really get anything evocative but rather just predictable and boring. Notice I still couldn’t get away from the draw of colour!

©Darwin Wiggett

In the end, I had one image that I liked. None of the results here are ‘extraordinary’ but the process really helped me tune my eye. Now that I look at the overall image of the kitchen I see things I missed while I was fixated on the coloured reflections. For example, in the upper left of the photo the bottom of a wine glass contrasts strongly with a silver bowl. That might make an interesting photo. Also the soap bubbles on the counter would make an a decent abstract macro image. There are dancing shadows on the tiles above the taps that would be worth a look. Personally, I think I was too fixated on the reflections to see the other visual  gifts that the scene contained. This exercise makes me want to try the kitchen sink again to see if I can see a little deeper next time. I gotta go and get the dishes finished. Who knows what I might find!

 

About the Author

I am a Canadian landscape and outdoor photographer who loves long hikes in the woods, yummy food, hairy dogs, good company and a good guitar jam.

24 Comments

  1. Anna
    September 1, 2012

    Darwin,
    I love this aesthetic ~ both the concept and results! I’m going to enjoy seeing what you, Sam, and others come up with.
    I think that with the grand view, we of course, expect breathtaking amazingness, but when the everyday is presented in a new or extraordinary manner its refreshing surprising impact can be unprecedented and possibly, even more significant.

  2. Stephen Desroches
    September 2, 2012

    I believe someone just volunteered to do dish duty for the next month.

    • Darwin Wiggett
      September 2, 2012

      Outsmarted myself again ;-)

    • Samantha
      September 3, 2012

      We have a rule in our house…you cook, you don’t do dishes. Now I know why Darwin has been letting me do all the cooking!

  3. Ed Knepley
    September 2, 2012

    Since the kitchen sink attraction for you was the “refracted” ;-) light through the bottles, I wonder if a circular polarizer would have made the colors pop more. Just curious and am guessing no since it’s a metal sink, but thought I’d ask for the next time you try.

    I skimmed your post (just looked at the images) before going back and reading the first part. It was only then that I knew it was the colors that attracted you to the sink. I totally missed them on my first pass just looking at the images – this viewer wasn’t drawn by the colors until you pointed it out to me (but I did notice the big mist shrouded mountain).

    I totally agree about something from nothing being good eye training.

    Best regards.

  4. Ed Knepley
    September 2, 2012

    PS – I just re-read the post on my large color calibrated monitor. Now I see ;-)

    I guess that’s an illustration of the problem with images on the internet. You never know how the viewer’s equipment might render your carefully adjusted colors.

  5. Don
    September 2, 2012

    Darwin,you need your kitchen redone.

    • Darwin Wiggett
      September 2, 2012

      Hi Don, yes we definitely do not have a trophy kitchen ;-)

  6. Wilfried
    September 2, 2012

    Darwin,

    nothing new under the sun. Freeman Patterson told us the same story decades ago.

    Regards

    • Darwin Wiggett
      September 2, 2012

      Wilfried,

      Good lessons are worth restating and re-practicing over and over. I still have not perfected Freeman’s teaching and keep trying ;-)

  7. Charlie
    September 2, 2012

    There are so many good landscape photos out there that are good and look the same. There are so many good pictures (and okay ones) from Elk Island National Part. Its a great place close to home. But it has that feel of being done. I guess your right, that must happen everywhere now. I have seen some great photos of everyday stuff… just don’t know if I am that creative.

    • Samantha
      September 3, 2012

      Hi Charlie,

      If a place feels like it has ‘been done’, I would suggest that you aren’t ‘seeing’ for yourself. Great art can always be created. I don’t think Darwin was saying all the obvious, beautiful places have been photographed but that shooters over-rely on access and location rather than their own skill and creativity.

  8. Ian McGillvrey
    September 2, 2012

    Darwin,

    “Those photographers who find gems in their living room, in the ditch on the side of the highway or in any location most of us would pass over are, in our eyes, true artists”

    I couldn’t agree more with this.

    As you said, it’s getting easier and easier for people to put themselves (or be put there by someone else) in the right place and right time to capture the big light trophy scenes which require little or no creativity, originality, or unique vision to capture. I find myself less and less impressed with those type of images and photographers who’s portfolio’s contain nothing but trophy images of popular locations.

    As much as I love seeing a grand scene in front of me and capturing big light when I get the chance, I find myself more satisfied and my images more meaningful when I move beyond the grand scene and look past the obvious. I’m realizing that this ability to see is such a part of what really what defines a great photographer and something that I’m strongly challenging myself to work on.

    I’m looking forward to seeing what you and Sam come up with in this challenge, and I’m excited to participate as well!

    Ian

    • Darwin Wiggett
      September 4, 2012

      And We think you are quickly becoming a master of seeing the unseen – watch out Eliot Porter!

  9. John Arnold
    September 2, 2012

    Darwin,

    Great idea! It reminds me of the old “Daily Snap” days because to me that exercise was all about creating a discipline that pushed you to open your eyes to the world around you. Frankly, I think you found “big light” in your kitchen sink!

    After reading your post, I immediately headed to my sink (minus the colored vases). The best I could do was frame my sink spout against an out of focus green bottle of dishsoap. But it got me taking pictures and that ultimately lead to making some abstract multiple exposure shots of a vase of cut flowers on the kitchen counter. Thanks for the inspiration.

    • Darwin Wiggett
      September 4, 2012

      John, you are right I got sucked into the big light in the kitchen. Gotta try harder next time ;-)

  10. Kim
    September 2, 2012

    I just finished taking a picture a day for 365 days for the sole purpose of learning how to use my camera, a Canon Rebel. I am just learning. I restricted myself to using my yard, my house, my neighbourhood, and my town. The only out of town pics I took was in Louisville, KY. One of the things that has drawn me to photography is that they are “moments.” I am a history major, and I particularly liked photographing cemeteries. I think your comments about the exercise being in the seeing is the best way for me to learn to take good pictures.

  11. Nina
    September 2, 2012

    Thanks for sharing your ‘something from nothing’ exercise. I enjoyed it very much!

  12. Jeff Cruz
    September 4, 2012

    Great post as usual! As I continue to read your blog I get quite the inspiration to try out new things and to revisit things that I have been doing for awhile.

    When I first started photography Flickr was the first thing I used to show my work and it allowed me to learn a lot from people’s comments. Today, I use Flickr as a filing cabinet for my iPhone and mobile app edits.

    I find it the best way to automatically share my vision on everyday scenes to the world.

    Here are some if you’d like to check it out:

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/jeffcruz/7854823458/
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/jeffcruz/6981860574/

    And some I showed at Exposure earlier this year:

    http://jcruzfoto.com/2012/instant-art-exhibit-exposure-photography-festival

    I’d love to see everyone else’s images!

  13. Velu
    September 5, 2012

    Out of all your amazing views, this one is the only one I can reproduce over here …

    I always like to think that there are more important (creative) things in life then doing the dishes … unless I run out of plates, hah !

    I’m glad that you confirmed this !

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