Creative: Albania Project, Part Two

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Okay, so we’ve covered my basic photography philosophy with this project; double exposures. However, there are two other components to the story. The static, stand-alone, straight images and the copy.

Due to the extreme heat, the parks in Tirana begin to fill in the late afternoon as locals try to stay outside as long as possible. This picture works because the man in the middle is turning his head to the right, offering a side-lit profile.

Straight images are where the rubber meets the road, so to speak. For anyone who has dedicated their life to photography stand-alone, singles are the true test of your ability, your focus, and your luck. You need things beyond your control, and you need to be refined in those areas that you can control like timing and composition.

I can’t teach you timing or composition. These are things that come from practice and things that come from your DNA, not mine. I can teach you about light, but finding what light makes your images your images is also in your hands. I was with someone on this trip who prefers to shoot in the midday sun. The brighter and harsher the better. Like Alex Webb, someone I always look to when it comes to making successful images in sub-optimal lighting. His book “Hot Light Half-Made Worlds,” is a classic.

A wedding stage being dismantled at a castle overlooking Shkodra.

Static, stand-alone images tend to take a lot of time to compile. Now, there are exceptions, and you can get lucky, but if you just reduce their probability to light you are looking at two very short windows each day. Early morning and late afternoon. Now, things like clouds, storms, weather, etc, can greatly increase your chances, as can events of some sort. Is there news happening? For example, during our time in Albania, there were elections. Rumors were flying about election violence, polling station attacks, etc. Nothing happened. As one election monitor put it “The media made it seem like civil war but we saw no violence.” Now, the fact there were limited options when it came to the vote is another story but you get my point. Had there been action during this time it would have made for some pictures, guaranteed.

When traveling on a trip like this, to acquire stand-alone images, you need to be ready at all times because the window for success is narrow. In many cases, you are looking for grab-shots. Brief, split-second moments that you have to be ready to pounce on. The delay on the XT2 starting up is enough to blow the moment. I keep my finger bouncing on the shutter release to keep it primed.

The other scenario is when you land in a place where the right ingredients are present and you have time to work. These are the best, most fun moments. Now, to realize you are in a position like this you need to be practiced enough to KNOW you are in the right place. I’ve said this many times before, you often FEEL an image before you see it. Like an earthquake for those of you lucky enough to experience a seismic shift in the Earth. You feel it in your stomach before you feel the shock. It’s ominous.

Near Valbona in the Albania Alps.

After you realize you are in a target-rich environment, you are then ready to express your timing and composition. For me, Lake Shkodra was one such place. I was able to visit the lakeshore twice, both in times of great light. I also went swimming in the lake during these times. I made one other stop at the lake during harsh midday sun but didn’t make images.

Key point. The key to stand-alone images, at least for me, is spacing. What do you mean spacing Dan? I mean the distance between elements in your images. Urban, tight streets, not my preferred spacing. The fringe of urban, the suburbs, the countryside, my preferred spacing. At one point on the trip, we were in Kosovo and when I got out of the car I knew I wasn’t going to be making many pictures. Why? Tight, urban, harsh light. For other people, this would have been their perfect scenario.

Now, the great photographer adapts and makes images in all these places and spaces. But I never said I was a great photographer. I’m a greedy, selfish photographer who likes his comfort zone. As I walked the main street I was able to look out in both directions and noticed that a half-mile away the ingredients were there for my style of image. The light was pretty darn bad so I didn’t venture out instead choosing to write and observe. I made use of the time just not with my camera.

Sunset near Durres, the “Miami Beach” of Albania.

The idea behind these static images was to utilize them as breaks in the printed story. Every eight or ten pages I will use one static image to mix up, or slow, the narrative, so the reader has a chance to breathe and the reader, has a chance to appreciate the image. (If they are good enough.)

Static images are pure photography. You simply can’t be thinking about anything else. The human chessboard in front of you is in perpetual motion and your job is to dissect with precision. This is the high-art of documentary photography.

Now, there is never any point in not being truthful in regard to the results. I did not make a single picture on this trip that will break into my top-twenty lifetime images. So, if I’m doing a review of my career, Albania might not make the cut. This has nothing to do with the trip, the cost of the trip, the time committed to the project, Albania itself or with what I experienced. This has everything to do with my talent, or more importantly, my lack of talent. And no, I’m not being self-deprecating. I’m being HONEST.

Are there images here I like? Yes. Do they work as I originally intended? Yes. Do I have a solid project from this trip? Yes, for sure. Did I make life or career-changing images? No, but that is entirely on me. How often do I make pictures these days? Once every six months or so? That simply isn’t good enough to be good.

The three amigos on the street in Shkodra. Yes, they were just loose and wandering around as pals. Saw the same group several times over multiple days.

But let me recap this post with another point that trumps all other points. The key to this entire project is that I decided to go and I went. There are always reasons not to go, and there are always a hundred things that distract from the basic idea of telling a story. All the nonsense that fuels the entire online photography community. (Not the real photo-community however.) What gear do I have? Does my strap match my soft release? What software am I using? Do I have wifi to share every moment of every day?

None of this stuff matters. None of it. I shouldn’t have to say it but I am, again. Just go, and just make. Whatever it is you do, to the best of your ability and things will work out. You might not always win but you can’t win if you don’t enter the game.

And lastly, whatever you are doing, put it in print. Keeping your photographs is the digital space is just lame. Offense intended.

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