surfing the nautilus

In Film, Inspiration, Uncategorized
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or why I’ve ditched the learning curve.

There are a few weeks every spring when Washington DC, decked out in all of her ephemeral pastel glory, is the most beautiful city in United States. Everything pink, everything cherry blossomed, and everyone friendly and heady with delight in our temporarily candy-coated city. This year cherry blossom season aligned with a serious bout of fresh inspiration for me. I was full up with new ideas of techniques, eager eyes and so much enthusiasm to sling a camera around my neck and go see what there was to see.

My usual  street technique works like an invisibility cloak. I find a spot devoid of thermal cameras and wait and wait,  standing still in eternal patience. Assuming this stance long enough, I can make of myself a fixed obstacle in the urban landscape –  like a trash can, or magazine box – something to be maneuvered around, noticed and ignored. This spring it was different. I think I was different. I didn’t want to sit and wait for magic to unfold before me, I wanted to actively pursue it. And I wanted a new perspective – inside the crowd rather than aside and apart from it. I let myself get caught up in the heady ambrosia of the blossoms and the decorations as those all around me were. This meant I couldn’t make my photos under the security of my usual cloak of stealth.

It also meant taking new risks. There was the risk associated with being obvious in my street photography – of being noticed and currying the disfavor of others on the street. There were also risks in making the photographs because I was practically shooting on the move, manual focus, chasing a subject down and that’s a far sight different than standing in place, camera settings locked, waiting for  the moment your subject  arrives in frame.  Shooting this way felt almost as alien to me as street shooting did years ago when I first started. So many things I’d long mastered seemed brand new to me all over again. I jumped the gun as I rushed to shoot too soon, or I held  off a fraction of a second too long and missed my moment. In the heat of the moment I forgot to check my settings or managed to blow the focus. Doh! This is sort of stuff has long become second nature to me, and it was humbling to see how many skills I had had down pat that I felt I had to learn all over again. But this is how it is when we push ourselves to deeper learning. And of the photos that did hit, many of them would have been outside the realm of possibility for me using my traditional methods. I held ground in the middle of a walkway instead of on the sidelines, and  I tracked and followed people I wanted to shoot.

If we wish to learn and grow we must begin again. And again. And again.

It’s so easy to get comfortable when you start producing a solid 14 – 15 good frames out of 16. I know I am capable of getting those yields, but I only  if I don’t push myself to learn or try something new. Over time stasis gets boring, and f I want to make exciting  images, I have to be excited while making them.

So, back to my opening metaphors. I’m abandoning the learning curve because I’ve decided it sets up the wrong internal expectations. It implies a beginning, an ascent, a pinnacle and tapering off of growth as mastery is achieved. If that’s what photography represented to me, I don’t think it would have the hold on me that it does. Whenever I’m feeling stale I can always find a new tool, technique, or method that feels like it puts me back to square one all over again, at least temporarily. It’s humbling and grounding, but because I carry all of my past learning with me as I circle round a new ring in the spiral, I can eventually recalibrate my old skills to whatever new thing I’m undertaking. I may round the circuits  a little faster as I travel deeper into the nautilus, but there is always a new depth to plumb and so always a new way to access that magical beginner’s enthusiasm as I round a spiral to begin again. What about you? What do you want to try next?

Keep your eyes wide open,



  1. “If we wish to learn and grow we must begin again. And again. And again.” So good!

    I want to try portraiture next. I’m scared though, so this post is very timely for me. Thanks for inspiration, Deb!

    • Scared is good! It’s the sign of a real stretch. I can’t wait to see what happens when you start making them!

  2. Such a fabulous read! It’s so hard to photograph in a crowd with manual focus and the overwhelming noise in your head. I generally make myself invisible and wait patiently. I’ll move out of my comfort zone next time and switch it up. The reflections and the color in the images are gorgeous! I can feel the joy you felt while shooting.

    • It is so overwhelming and I definitely threw as many shots as I made, but that noise in your head . . . we both know the only way to quiet it is through practice.

  3. So glad to see you’ve been hit with inspiration, Debby! I can see it clearly in your photos. These are wonderful — some of my favorites of yours.

    I’m not sure what’s next, but I just spent some time going back to basics. I took an online class about the camera I have already owned for several years. There were a few things about focusing with this camera that I wanted to understand better, and I thought I’d just watch those parts, but I ended up watching the whole thing, learning some new things, reminding myself of some things I’d forgotten, and mostly just strengthening my foundation. I got a lot out of it that I didn’t expect.

    • Thank you for saying, Deirdre. I feel like they have a bit of my energy in the making of them, but it’s impossible to know how that comes across.

      As for the circling back — I find that it’s hugely beneficial. When you are learning something the first time you can really only take in so much information. After you know more, there’s so much more to you can learn.

  4. I want to learn to do double exposures well, but it is so hard to have to return to basics and start all over…
    LOVE your last image. So much.

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