I admire humorists, good ones. Some get belly laughs by picking on some people, they may be fun to watch but not much inspiration for photographers. You may be thinking “what on earth does photography have anything in common with humor.” Let me tell you why I think there is a lot in common and we may, as photographers, learn a few things from good stand-up comedians or humorists. I am not even talking about humor in photography, that’s a separate issue altogether.
In one of his shows, George Carlin said: “it’s my job to think of this goofy shit so I can present it to you.” He was talking about how he observes the world and sees what others do not see. That reminded me of Minor White, one of the legendary photographers, the founder, and editor of Aperture used to say when instructing photography students. He used to tell them to look at their subject, understand what it is, then ask “what else it is and photograph that.” Now, the skill described by a humorist and a photographer seems identical to me: Look, see, and see beyond the object. That’s what got me thinking. Look at the works of any photographer that you like, you will likely see very familiar subjects, from the landscapes of Adams to the ordinary objects of Sudek. It is not that they show us something we cannot see ourselves, but they do so in a way that transcends the object. That’s where their genius is. I am almost sure, if I found the holes of Adams’ tripod, set mine in the same place, use the same camera that he used, I will not get the same photograph.
A good friend and a very good photographer, Mike told me a very similar story. He admired Adams’ and his work and when his travels brought him close to one of Adams’ subjects, Canyon de Chelly, he could not resist the temptation to visit the place and take the picture himself. Mike said he could visualize the photograph in his mind so vividly to superimpose it mentally on the scene that lay before him. He was ecstatic, he wanted to make sure to get at least one good exposure, so he bracketed aggressively and tried slightly lower and higher angles and shot at least one roll, perhaps even more of film. Upon seeing his photographs next to that of Adams’ he was shocked to find his photographs, although properly exposed with a nice range of bracketed ones, had nothing to do with the real thing. The difference was that Mike shot what he saw at Canyon de Chelly, but Adams shot what else Canyon de Chelly was.
There are other similarities in the observation of the world by the photographers and the humorists and their manifestations. They both tell a good story, their work has a punch line, they use contrast, irony, the human condition, joy, the current events, the good, the bad, and the ugly.
So, next time you hear a good joke, think about what else it sees in the world and try to imitate the thought process. And of course, you heard the one about the man who enters a crowded bar with a camera dangling from his neck …