Posted on May 1, 2020
You cannot teach it. You can teach the technical stuff– aperture and f-stops, shutter speeds and frames-per-second, but you cannot teach “the eye.”
Some photographers simply see things instinctively in a way that puts all the points of focus, the colors and shades, the action, angles and the expressions all together in one quickly composed click that is measured often in the hundredths of a second…
…by a moment that comes together and reverberates emotionally like the way a musical chord is composed of simultaneous harmonious notes. And as every chord can carry a different mood in every different key, each image resonates with its own feelings and emotions and meaning… if it is a good one.
You can talk composition and you can lecture about exposure and the rule of thirds and the zone system and argue Cannon versus Nikon and you can even say it, “Nee-Kohn” as if you are so into it all that you are turning Japanese, but there is at least one simple way to say if it is a good picture:
It is a good picture if it makes you go, “Wow!”
Or if it makes you go, “Oh, no!”
Or, “Yuck!” or “Ha, Ha, Ha” or “boo, hoo, hoo.”
If it makes you feel something, it works. How strongly you feel it is how well it works. It is especially good if it makes you feel something about another person.
Video is the same but continues by rolling a string of those moments enlivened by the natural sound. It is the same, just chronological and energized and flashing around 30 frames per second. “Photography,” means, “to write with light.” We are all storytellers.
You can’t teach “the eye.” A photographer either has it, or they don’t. That is not to say that many a photog hasn’t had happy and productive careers making the grade bringing back technically proficient images or acceptable video that fills the void or covers the VO (voice-over). But it can do more. There are those among us who see things through their lens that make the world a much prettier place than your average point-and-shooter, or a more meaningful or pertinent place, because they let you see it that way. There are those that feel their work. Some instinctively know how to tell those stories without words, and they lay it out within the frame as art. And among those who know, it is said that those photographers have “the eye.”
That principle was explained to me on my first day of my first job as a news photographer. It was explained to me by JD Kirkpatrick. JD definitely had “the eye.”
It was my first day and I wasn’t a very good journalist. I should have taken notes. I should have written down the things JD said to me that day. I should have rolled tape on it.
“It’s the greatest job in the world.”
That I can put quotation marks around. In my memory, it was pretty much the first thing that he said to me as we left the station on my first day working at Channel 6. It was my first day working in any way in news, and to tell the truth, in the beginning, I did not particularly want to be doing it. But JD talked me into it.
Lanny, the chief photog, had spent the morning with me and another new guy, going over the gear and the cars and he gave us a quick but succinct rundown that ended up being the extent of all the formal instruction I ever got as a news shooter, then he sent me out with JD for a ride-along to see how it was done.
I was young and still had that confidence that now seems more like a low level of inexperienced arrogance and was probably convinced that I had a much better handle on practically everything than I actually did. I had been studying photography in an effort to make some money doing weddings, and didn’t want to respond to a help-wanted ad for videographers at WJAC, because up until then I was one of those guys who was inclined to make fun of local news.
But my wife at the time had easy access to my resume’ and applied for me and I didn’t know that until I heard a message on our answering machine inviting me for an interview.
So, my plan was to do it until I found something better, but JD took off talking about it as if we were already half way through the conversation and words will fail if I try to explain how, but by the end of that shift I had in my head an inspirational new perspective that news is about what is real and somehow that made it art and that made it fun and that changed my mind and I was off on a new career.
What he was talking about was things like the legitimacy of when you catch something in its natural state in the actual moment, or how it not only documents, but when you see it well lit, cleverly composed and colorfully delivered like a poem, it can almost be a spiritual thing. I don’t think that he used those words, but even today when I am watching CBS Sunday Morning and I see a sweetly shot package about someone or something and I suddenly get charmed or mesmerized or tantalized into caring about it, those pieces inspire in me a soulful feeling that moves me deep like a hymn. And if not quite a religious experience, I can at least try to explain it by saying that I caught the photojournalism bug off JD that day. The news bug bit and gave me a big, swelling itch to do something important with it.
And that was my training. Me tagging along while he shot some b-roll and we checked out something that they heard on the scanner at the station that turned out to be nothing, and JD telling me how it was done the whole time offering suggestions, instructions and conversational opinions like:
“Don’t let them call you a ‘cameraman.’ Never put the camera before the man.”
And he good-naturedly lectured not to let the reporters introduce you as “My photographer.” Meaning that we are a team and that we work with a reporter, not for them.
And he talked a lot, because JD was like that. And I am glad, because he and I continued to talk about photography for many years afterwards. One of the best ways to learn is to study your heroes. I learned photography by searching flea markets and antique shops for old Life Magazines and by watching shooters like JD.
One of the best quotes by one of the great Life photographers is a famous one by Alfred Eisenstaedt.
“It is more important to click with people, than to click the shutter.”
People liked JD as much as they liked his work. Colorful, creative, cleverly off center sometimes, and always lit with a little something unique.
“Did you hear about JD?”
Ron Ream said that. I had just hopped up on a hay wagon that they were hauling a bunch of us on to go and meet and greet and take pictures of Jackson and the other elephants at the Pittsburgh Zoo’s ICC. It was reporters, a couple video shooters, the PR person from the zoo and me.
“Oh, shit…” I thought, “They got his plants.”
I honestly don’t think JD would mind me talking about that. It was a big part of his personality. He practically introduced himself like that.
“Hi, I’m J.D. and I like to smoke pot.”
He didn’t hide it. I’ve seen him joke about it in a room full of State Troopers and seen them laugh along. They all knew him. He was just being JD.
But that wasn’t the news that Ron was delivering that day. He went on to tell me that JD had died.
He’d gone to bed the night before, not feeling well, and did not wake the next morning to go fishing.
He is hard to characterize. Maybe at first you try to see him as an old hippie, but that’s not quite it. He’s a U.S. Army veteran and he served in Vietnam, but I never heard him talk about that and I can’t say that I ever felt the warrior in his personality, if there was one. At times he would wear a kind of long military-green field coat with patches and insignias that I assume represented his actual service, but to me it was just a cool coat and not like a uniform. Other than a talent for tightly rolling up mic chords, I can’t think of much of anything regimented about his personality, or remember him to be either the sort of person to give or to take orders.
I watched a few Steeler games at his house, and I remember that he was sweet and gentle with his dog. He was generous and helpful by nature, and sometimes he had a slightly raunchy sense of humor. He was fun loving and more than occasionally obnoxious when not kept occupied– and certain targets had to be wary of surprise attacks from the rear with his wet finger suddenly wiggling into your ear. But he also had a timely habit of sticking his head into an editing bay and telling me something that I needed to hear, just about when I needed to hear it. He was great with kids. He loved to fish.
What JD was, was a friend. Not just in news photography, which he truly introduced me to, but in life. When I was downsized the last time and lost my license to travel about taking pics, it was JD who I wished I could have called to lament that loss. I hope that many people will be glad to see these old images of JD at work. But I find it sad that he won’t.
I don’t know if the business is anything like it was when I shot these pictures. That camera was shooting that big, old SuperVHS tape. And those editing bays are now no more than nostalgia, I am sure.
But, occasionally I still get the chance to shoot some high school sports and I see some of those young shooters on the sidelines and I think that it is a shame that they won’t ever get to work with JD. I wouldn’t be able to explain that to them and I doubt that they are looking for much “old school” advice. But I wish that sometime someone would ask me. I think that it would be fun to tell them,
“It’s the greatest job in the world.”