Photography thru the Cynefin Lens

this is one of my more personal pieces, I am actually a little nervous about pressing publish… oh well what’s the worst that can happen… enjoy

Jabe 8X10 Albany NY 1996

That is me sitting next to the 2nd largest camera I own. The really big one is a 11×14 Deardorf, it takes two people just to move that one. The camera in the picture is an 8×10 Deardorf, it makes negatives the size of a 8×10 inch sheet of paper. Shooting images with a camera this large (and heavy) takes a unique way of seeing, requiring you to flip the image upside down in your mind, as there is no prism to correct the orientation for you. And yes… you have to get under a black sheet (a focusing cloth), just like the pictures of the old fashioned photographers with gun powder flashes. 

Digital cameras are changing the experience of photography radically, eliminating the phases of film development and print making, there by radically reducing the cycle time between capturing the image and evaluating it. Before digital cameras completely erase the cultural memory of the traditional photograph process I thought it would interesting to write down some thoughts on about it.

Often the Cynefin Framework is illustrated by listing different processes or forms of a single concept.  I’d like to present a view of the Cynefin framework through a single process or experience, photography, where different stages lead us through the framework.

A Mechanical Art Form

I discovered that this camera was the technical means in photography of communicating what the world looks like in a state of heightened awareness. And it’s that awareness of really looking at the everyday world with clear and focused attention that I’m interested in. 

-Stephen Shore
At Bard College, where I studied photography, I engaged in a passionate argument with a well known painter. She claimed painter sees while doing, the photographer only sees later. Painter’s brush is directly under control of her eye. Photography was a lesser art form.

The camera for me is filled with paradoxes, immediate gratification combines with delayed gratification, a machine that makes art, the mechanistic capturing the visceral. The interplay between the mechanical and the creative…

Anyway… making photograph is a multistep process, engaging individuals or groups of individuals in each stage. I’d like to present an argument that different stages of the creation of a photograph fall with in different domains of the Cynefin Framework (for an experienced photographer).

Dancing With a Camera

“the decisive moment, it is the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event as well as the precise organization of forms which gives that event its proper expression.”

-Henri Cartier-Bresson

Larry Fink: Birthday Party, NYC, 3/2007

Larry Fink (my mentor and teacher) can capture music in still images like no one else, this image throbs with the rhythm of the music like an O. Winston Link train chugging thru the night. To make an image like this I suggest the following:

  • Listen to Jazz Music for 5 years 
  • Listen to Live Jazz Music for 10 years…
  • Photograph the jazz musicians 
  • Play Jazz Music for 5 years 
  • Make photos the entire time 

Now you have entrained your mind to be extremely sensitized by visual patterns and musical rhythms, this is important, because the image captured here only happens very very rarely, as the music, your relationship to the room and the people all coalesce… you almost need to have a moment of synesthesias, right before this moment the camera will rise to your eye and just then, perfectly, without thought, your fingers will make the image effortlessly. You will make many many images, probing with your strobe in the dark chaos, only later will you see which have worked.

In my work, which tends towards portraiture and landscapes, I feel a “hitch” in reality when I “see” an image. For me this is experienced as a skip in time, where everything slows down a bit and I feel my self momentarily ‘stuck’ in a view point that “should be” an image. If I have a camera with me I can usually find the image again. With the Large format this part of making the image is slow and methodical, but the image has already been found.

Emergent Connections 

Lee Friedlander: House, Trailer, Sign and Cloud – Knoxville, Tennessee, 1971.

In bring order to [a] situation, a photographer solves a picture more than composes ones

-Steven Shore – The Nature of Photographs


Did you notice the Ice Cream cone in the Frienlander image? 

Steven Shore (another mentor and professor) uses this image to explain the way that photographers compose images. 

A naive approach to composition proposes a formula, the Golden Ratio, or the rule of thirds is very common. However the image here is not composed by formula, it is created by managing the emergent connections and visual relationships in the image. The cloud and the yield sign combine to bring new meaning to the image, and in this way the photographer has composed the image by selecting his vantage point.

This is not a composition that could be created without exploring the environment. 

Developing Negatives

The development of negatives is based strictly on forumlas. So much so that the entire process can be automated. Most black and white development is done by hand, however color negative is almost always done by machine. With black and white film some previous experience can be useful for fine tuning the selection of process, but most of the time, anyone with access to the formulas, equipement and time can develop film. The key is rigorous adhesion to the defined process. The negatives can only be inspected after completion of the process, there is no option for iteration. If you screw up the steps, you’ve blown your roll (or rolls) of film.

Making Prints

There is something magic about watching an image float onto the paper in the darkroom. Making fine art prints is a highly iterative activity. The photographer prints, then observes the print under lighting matching that that the print will be displayed under. Carefully comparing multiple prints. There are many things to consider, contrast (is there enough light in the shadows), blacks (is there a TRUE black), and dodging (does the balance of the light in the image work?). Once the “formula” for exposing, dodging and developing has been found, it is possible to replicate the image within reason, but there will always be some subtle differences. Print making is the realm of experts, there are many methods and possible processes. Making a edition is extremely difficult. Many professional photographers hire individuals who specialize in simply producing the “best” possible image from their negatives repeatedly. These printers are highly trained to help the photographer FIND THEIR best possible print from the nearly infinite possibilities.

The Photograph

With the print in hand, the photograph is made. Now it is in its’ most tenuous state. On the physical level the photograph is incredibly simple, fully realized and stable. On the social level it is a completely different experience. Photographs are stimuli for various stories, alone without support they can be assigned novel narratives from different viewers. In this way, for the Photographer, the image floats between his intend meaning and the audiences potential meaning. Drifting between Simple and Chaotic. Most photographers turn towards a portfolio, a series of images, to stabilize their intended meaning. 

The Americans

Robert Frank ‘The Americans‘ Exhibit Credit:takkejong

In 1955 Robert Frank shot some 28,000 images, on a series of cross country trips in the United States. Eventually he selected only 83 for his book ‘The Americans.’ 

Photographs of Frank’s editing process reveal him thumb tacking images, overlapping down the walls. One imagines him hunting for connections, conjuring forth a narrative, the story of the Americans, from a dizzying array of images. This isn’t the work of a man who “saw” the book and went out to find the images to fill the preconceptions. It is, as most great work, emergent from the visceral experience of life itself, immediately captured, lovingly processed, printed with expertise and structured/codified/re-enforced to sustain the photographers message. Simply amazing… 


Of course I have simplified the entire process of taking a photograph to tell a story here, but I hope that you can see, the process of making photographs is multi-layer and the photograph, its creation and its meaning evolve over time. As the photograph passes through time on a journey to its place, it and the photographer move through various parts of the Cynefin Framework, from Order to Un-Order the chaotic to the simple. 

It is my belief that most creative processes, either individual or social, also fluidly flow through the various Cynefin regions. Rarely will an entire project be in a single domain at once, often the multiple layers of understanding required for a project, will find themselves in dispirit regions. The trick is using the right techniques at the right time, for the right regions.

There are no recipes for seeing good photographs, there are some good compositional hints I can give however… There is also no checklist that will get you a work of art like ‘The Americans’, you have to go out and find not only those images, you have to find the connections between them by experiencing them visually, together, until they balance.