There is no right way to take the wrong photograph

I recently read a quote by german sociologist Theodor Adorno that said “Wrong life cannot be lived rightly”.  Adorno is regarded as one of the foremost thinkers on aesthetics and philosophy and his work is mostly about critical theory of modern society. Essentially though, someone could be very good at doing something that is wrong, it happens all the time. But the point is that if we are doing something that is wrong, there is no honest way that we can justify it; no matter how hard we try. If it’s wrong it’s wrong. This is difficult to do because it basically involves taking responsibility for what we do and most importantly involves accepting that it is wrong instead of rationalize why it could be good. I  am applying this concept to my life but could this also be applied to my photography?

It is hard for me to accept sometimes that the photograph is just not that good so I find myself trying to “make it” good by rationalizing why it could be good.  Some examples are: “ if the person was looking the other way then it would be really funny” “if she was two feet to the left then it would balance the frame better” “ if she had a hat then she would look just like the girl in the billboard” etc. etc. But the “if/then” formula doesn’t apply well after we press the shutter. In fact the if/then approach doesn’t work very well for a lot of things because it conditions what we have right now on something that may not happen at all and if it does happen it is not guaranteed that the result will be the expected one.

“…the art is in selecting what is worthwhile to take the trouble about…” -Berenice Abbott

When I take a picture is because I see something that attracts my eye (it really attracts my subconscious more specifically) and I have to react quickly.  Reacting quickly is the nature  (and the fun) of street photography. And when I have to react quickly then a lot of things are not going to be under my control.  This involves accepting the image that I was able to make exactly with the circumstances and elements that were available at the time, nothing more and nothing less.

There are two important decisions I have to make in my photography: the first one is when to press the shutter and the second one is which images I select as the “good ones” in my editing process. The second decision is much, much harder.  Most of the time when editing time comes around, and I take a look at what I thought was a great photograph I realize that it wasn’t that great.  And that’s when the justification process starts including several if/then situations as described above. This is when Adornos’s quote becomes really helpful because no amount of justification (or even worse digital manipulation) will make a mediocre image a good one. None. It is what it is.

“Photography seems perfected to serve the desire humans have for a moment — this very moment — to stay.”Sam Abell

This is a hard process because it is hard to let go of an image by not selecting it. And is also hard because if I’m too critical then I probably wouldn’t have any images to post on this blog! But it’s a learning process. Learning about myself and what I really want to have in my images. Learning what feels strong to me and what moves me. Learning to accept failure and let go. Learning to keep going and to try again. There is no way ( or need) to rush this process, I just have to go through it.

Something that really helps me in the editing process is to wait a while before looking at the pictures. I try to wait at least one week before downloading the images from the card and recently it has been even longer. This way the image doesn’t contain all the emotions that I associated with it while capturing it. Or at least they are somewhat faded. Although I have to admit that occasionally  I still rush to look at that “keeper” as soon as I get home.

“The decisive moment? That’s when Cartier-Bresson pointed to a frame on his contact sheet and said, ‘Print that one.” –                       Alan Zenreich

It’s a learning process. It simply means I have to go out for a walk and try again.


I welcome your comments and feedback

All images on this post are (C) Juan Jose Reyes. They were taken on the streets of  South Beach , Miami and New Orleans.


5 thoughts on “There is no right way to take the wrong photograph

  1. I like this set very much. You got a good sense for right timing. There is always a connection between people you let walk in and their environment. I also like how you treat the colors. Only # 5 doesn’t work for me. It’s somehow not in the rhythm of the others.

  2. Great article, I am interested in your thoughts in how you have rated the pictures shown. There is no statement as to say they work for you or they don’t. Would love to know, how you define each one, and if they work for you or not. I thought looking at the set that they where perhaps not quite as good as you hoped. Not sure if this is the case. But, 1# and 7# work for me, not sure why they would ever be questioned. The rest are all good pictures but there might be a few ifs in there. 4# Is perhaps not as good as 1# and 7# but I like it also.

    • All of the above pictures work for me ( some more than others) and I see your point on how the message may not be clear. I would mention in the caption if I thought it was a picture that didn’t work for me. The whole process is very subjective anyway and your subconscious will assign a different meaning/emotion/reaction to an image. That’s what makes the process interesting and frustrating at the same time.

  3. Typo in my last post.
    “I thought looking at the set that they where perhaps not quite as good as you hoped.”
    Should be:
    “I thought looking at the article that they where perhaps not quite as good as you hoped. “

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