On the Art of Practicing

My dog Dektol in the Subaru, October 10, 2014. Photograph by ©Craig Varjabedian
My dog Dektol in the Subaru, October 10, 2014. Photograph by ©Craig Varjabedian

A musician friend of mine and I were having a conversation about the value of practicing  recently. Of course he does it. Pretty much everyday. He told me that if he didn’t practice his piano for a single day he could tell that the music he is making is not his best. He went on to say that if he didn’t practice for two days, his agent could definitely hear it in the sound. And if he didn’t practice for three days, he knew he would disappoint his audience. Practice is very important.

I frequently ask photographers in my workshops how often they go out and make pictures.  Many of the attendees mention that months can go by when they don’t pick up their cameras. I understand. Life sometimes gets in the way. I wear a lot of hats here at my studio. I photograph a lot of course. But between photo adventures when my camera rests in my pack, I am teaching workshops (both public and private ones), printing new images, meeting with clients, preparing prints for delivery to clients, meeting with mentoring students . . . the list goes on and on and on. And sometimes thirty days or more can pass when I am not actively making photographs for some project I am working on.

Bonanza Cottonwood Trees, Autumn, New Mexico 2014. Photograph by ©Craig Varjabedian. Photograph made with an Apple iPhone 6
Bonanza Cottonwood Trees, Autumn, New Mexico 2014. Photograph by ©Craig Varjabedian. Photograph made with an Apple iPhone 6

Now I like to think that I am always photographing, visually organizing the things I see as I go through my life—making retinal images (in a non-medical sense) as a friend of mine likes to call them. The process while useful certainly is not, in my view, intentional enough to be at the same level as actually holding a camera in my hands and staring down the subject, organizing the important elements within the frame, calculating exposure and in the end making a picture.

So as photographers, we need to practice. A lot. I like what dancer and choreographer, the late Martha Graham, had to say about the importance of practicing. She said, “I believe that we learn by practice. Whether it means to learn to dance by practicing dancing or to learn to live by practicing living, the principles are the same. In each, it is the performance of a dedicated precise set of acts, physical or intellectual, from which comes shape of achievement, a sense of one's being, a satisfaction of spirit. One becomes, in some area, an athlete of God. Practice means to perform, over and over again in the face of all obstacles, some act of vision, of faith, of desire. Practice is a means of inviting the perfection desired.”

Portrait of Martha Graham and Bertram Ross, as Clytemenestra and Orestes, 1961 by Carl Van Vechten from the Library of Congress
Portrait of Martha Graham and Bertram Ross, as Clytemenestra and Orestes, 1961 by Carl Van Vechten from the Library of Congress

It deserves to be said again, “Practice is a means of inviting the perfection desired.” As photographers we need to (must!) practice, just like professional musicians and dancers, my pianist friend and even Martha Graham back in the day. We must practice in order to achieve the images we truly desire to make.  I have always contended that I learn something from every photograph I make—good or bad. And every photograph I make leads me to the next one . . . and that one in turn to the next . . . and so forth.

So I decided that I needed to find a way to make sure that I practice—to make a real commitment to exercising my eye, my mind and even my heart by making at least one thoughtful, carefully made image every single day. Some days I will make more than one as the spirit and time allows. I have found after doing this for some time, that when I return to the field, my eye seems to be more playable and in better tune to discover new images and more often than not, my muse seems to appear more readily and frequently.

Apple iPhone 6 with ProCamera app.
Apple iPhone 6 with ProCamera app.

For my daily pictures, I use my ever-present Apple iPhone 6 which has a fantastic camera along with the ProCamera app that gives me full control of the camera’s functions. Sometimes I make a photograph of the dogs. Another, a picture of a beautiful sunset or a particular configuration of clouds. Tomorrow might present some beautiful late afternoon light streaming through the window of my home, or perhaps the beauty of my neighbor Mr. Gurule’s tree as it changes color in the Fall . . . the possibilities are just endless. In the beginning I had to make a concerted effort during my busy day to remember to make that daily photograph. Now after about a month, it is second nature. This process is a part of my practice regimen of always working and always striving to become a better photographer—a commitment to constant improvement if you will. And I am convinced it’s working.

Want to know more about my on-going regular photo practice regimen?  Stay tuned!

P.S. I tip my hat to Deborah Glessner, a recent private workshop student who provided helpful feedback for this blog post.