Passion, Feel & Unconscious Competence

December 7, 2015 ·

Grant Leversha

I have never studied photography in a formal sense. Any reference to artists by way of examples in this essay is not an attempt to align myself with greatness, but only to illustrate my point. While there are certain laws and principles in place that govern the art, being self-taught by immersing myself in everything I could get my eyes and hands on, I probably haven’t been constrained by some of the rules. Perhaps this freedom may have contributed to my personal style. Photography, or any art form, is hugely influenced by one’s signature style and more importantly, the ability to create work that can stir the soul. A work that can be ingested over time, revealing subtleties as the viewer savours the piece, is the whole point of the exercise – to arouse one’s emotions.

De Zalze Golf Club: Stellenbosch, South Africa ( Phase One P65+)
De Zalze Golf Club: Stellenbosch, South Africa ( Phase One P65+)

Composing and capturing compelling photographs requires some special ingredients. This is true for all genres of photography, however, my emphasis here is on natural light in landscape photography. Place me in a studio and you will be sorely disappointed with the results. It’s not my area.

This is my personal take on how I approach my craft, and certainly, it may not sit well with everyone. We are all different and what works for me doesn’t necessarily work for others. Describing how I came to capture these images technically and artistically would fill another essay and, in some instances, explanations could escape me as the magical moment of critical light and being positioned correctly, simply happened.

Golf Course Photography

I started photographing international sport in the early nineties and soon progressed to composing images of golf courses at home and abroad. This was also a special time in South Africa as the country had just been freed from the shackles of apartheid and we were now competing on an international stage. A friend of mine captured an iconic image of the Rugby World Cup in 1995 using the Linhof 617 Technorama camera and, after seeing the result, I became an instant convert to the format. I knew, back then, that this was the system with which to showcase golf courses. Most golf course owners and directors had never seen their courses presented in such an impactful way.

The Gary Player Country Club: Sun City, South Africa ( Linhof 6x17– Fuji Velvia 50)
The Gary Player Country Club: Sun City, South Africa ( Linhof 6×17– Fuji Velvia 50)

The 17cm wide Fuji Velvia 50 transparency was something to behold when all the magical ingredients harmonized. When you got it ‘right’ with Velvia on such large trannies it just ‘showed off’. It had a texture and feel that is unique to film and the only way I can best describe the difference between high-end digital and large-format analog is to compare smooth silk fabric to corduroy. When one rubs corduroy fabric between one’s thumb and forefinger, it has substance and the ‘sound’ of Bob Seger’s voice singing Mainstreet. There is something tactile about the larger-format film that even today, I’m not sure high-end digital can emulate.

No question, that larger format digital today, in terms of shadow detail, perceived resolution and the efficiencies of production, is superior to film. I was only convinced of this once the Phase One IQ280 was released. I have been a Phase One disciple since 2007, initially using the P45 and then graduating at each step the way up to the IQ280 and Phase One DF+. Now that the new Phase One modular system has been announced, I will soon need to find their roadmap ‘top-up’ by mortgaging the house – again. It’s a no-brainer though. While my constant unwelcome companion on the digital roadmap has been ‘buyer’s remorse’, the advent of the IQ280 has certainly diminished the visitation rights of this occupational hazard. ‘Never compromise on the equipment that makes you your money’, was good advice given to me at an early age by a mentor of mine.

The Links at Fancourt: George, South AfrIca (Phase One P65+)
The Links at Fancourt: George, South AfrIca (Phase One P65+)

Golf course photography is a type and form of landscape photography. Over the past few years I have also started shooting the landscapes of Africa and in my opinion, I have found that it is turning out to be a lot more challenging than shooting courses. Golf courses present themselves in a confined area. Landscapes don’t. We can argue that the national parks present their hidden gems in a confined geographical area, however, many golf estates and courses can fit into most parks a few thousand times. Obviously, the same principles of light and composition apply. What is important in golf course photography is to arrange the composition considering the aesthetics, design elements and the challenges that face the players. Elevation (not necessarily aerial) can be hugely advantageous, as the various elements of the holes are then further revealed.

Dramatic or ‘special’ light must be a given. Shooting into the light or up to at least 90 degrees also creates dimension. Shooting with the light behind you, contrary to what we were told in our younger days, renders the image flat and lifeless. In addition, an overriding consideration must be the course conditioning. Also, some holes don’t photograph well at certain times of the year, depending on where/how the light falls. A forest of trees to the back of a green may block the late low light in spring, but allow shafts of light to illuminate the target area during summer. Then there is the chocolate box-type image that overrides all of the above, especially so for the course/resort’s marketing department.  An image that just captures the ambience and mood of the whole place is landscape photography’s riposte to the dreamy Mills & Boon cover image.

This short Vimeo link best illustrates the tome I have recently published on golf courses in South Africa, entitled, Within an African Eden

 

The colour green, being most dominant in golf course photography, has presented me with the biggest headaches. Faithful reproduction of this colour when converting to cmyk tiffs results in the saturation being drained like the complexion on a convicted felon’s face when being read his sentence. Lithographic printers have their own colour profiles and each one presents its own challenges. I spent seven months, to the point of exhaustion, looking into a 24-inch Quato monitor preparing the images for my book. I was driven into the deeper recesses of insanity, given that I was a little insane to start with, even to the point of downloading the entire soundtrack of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Jack Nitzsche and playing it over and over. Curiously, I still listen to this today during my long drives in search of landscapes to photograph. If you give it a chance, it’s a seriously magnificent piece of music.

Leopard Creek Golf Club: Mpumalanga, South Africa (Phase One P65+)
Leopard Creek Golf Club: Mpumalanga, South Africa (Phase One P65+)

Passion

To live and breathe photography is in itself very nourishing for the soul and my passion and commitment to the art is simply a natural by-product of my love for it.

If I may quote from Joe Cornish’s book, First Light, there are three elements that make up a compelling image – Timing, Light and Composition. When these three harmonize, the image graduates to one that can be savoured. I agree. However, I would like to add passion to this list. If we were to look at any success story, be it a sports star, artist or entrepreneur, their common key ingredient would be passion. Subsets of other qualities that fall under passion are self-discipline, commitment, focus and determination. Talent is an intangible that, if built upon, will separate you from the rest, provided your passion is running at maximum revs. Talent can be overrated and oftentimes lulls the recipient of this gift into mediocrity.

The Swartberg Pass: Great Karoo, South Africa (Phase One DF+, IQ280)
The Swartberg Pass: Great Karoo, South Africa (Phase One DF+, IQ280)

When the final image is presented, the emotions that are stirred are what I would refer to as being the ‘whole that is greater than the sum of its parts’ – this is the enrichment one feels in one’s soul when savouring the piece. It’s all the essential ingredients infused into one complete whole. But, of all the ingredients that go into the making of this photographic ‘cake’, passion is the one key ingredient that will make it rise.

Unconscious Competence

If we take the guitar playing geniuses such as Stevie Ray Vaughan and Jeff Healey – did they continually look at their guitar strings while playing? These are two examples of passion that I feel really demonstrate ‘living’ and ‘feeling’ one’s craft – SRV shredding to Leave my Little Girl Alone, and the gifted, blind Jeff Healey playing While My Guitar Gently Weeps.

 

Do we see an NBA basketball player bouncing the ball and looking at it? Or, do Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo continually look at the ball when dribbling or running with it at their feet? The answer to these questions is a resounding ‘no’. In fact, an interesting exercise would be to freeze–frame these football greats when they strike for goal. You will notice that they mostly do not even look at the target. Their peripheral vision allows the ball to become an extension of themselves. The guitar becomes an extension of SRV and Jeff Healey. This is what separates the exceptional from the average.

We need to achieve a level of unconscious competence!

With photography, the camera must also become an extension of the photographer. The technical or principle laws that govern photography, in most cases, must be a ‘given’ at a subconscious level. It is unwise to be found pondering over exposure and focal lengths when one is composing in fleeting light. (I am making the assumption that we only shoot manually). D.O.F., ISO, shutter speed and aperture require instant, intuitive analysis. The feel of the image, accounting for light, arrangement and composition will, over time, become commensurate with one’s personal style  and become less of a thief of time as one gains experience. An infusion of all of these characteristics will contribute to the final work. We need to achieve a level of unconscious competence.

“Thinking should be done before and after, not during photographing.”- Henri Cartier-Bresson

Zero Tolerance

Starting with capturing the image, if you feel it can be improved upon, don’t settle. Obviously, with event photography, one can’t recreate scenarios that existed only for a moment in time and once the opportunity has gone, cannot be revisited. With landscapes and studio shoots, one can revisit. One may get lucky and crack it first time (and believe me, luck or divine providence can play a huge role in producing something exceptional), but if it means coming back to the same spot a few days in a row to perfect an image, then so be it. If there is a hint of compromise don’t expect your art to be impacting and compelling. And, even if everyone who has seen your work is bowled over by it, if you know you could have done better you will forever have that irritating niggle when you look at the piece.

Molenaars River, DuToitskloof Pass: Western Cape, South Africa ( Phase DF+, IQ280)
Molenaars River, DuToitskloof Pass: Western Cape, South Africa ( Phase DF+, IQ280)

On the far side of 50 years of age and having being involved in the craft for some twenty-four years, I can honestly say I am convinced that only a handful of my images are compelling. Sure, I have captured many memorable moments and above-average images according to my colleagues. However, if I am honest with myself, only five stand out – and, only in my opinion. The famous reportage photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson once said, “If you have taken ten outstanding images in a lifetime, you have done well.”

Homeless Xhosa Man, Great Karoo: Northern Cape, South Africa (Canon 5D3)
Homeless Xhosa Man, Great Karoo: Northern Cape, South Africa (Canon 5D3)

The Exceptional

I have been an assiduous reader on all things photographic for some 20 years, studying the old master painters, the pioneering photographers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries and those that are renowned today in their respective aspects of the art.

If we look such masters as Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Van Gogh, Rembrandt, Vermeer, Monet, JMW Turner and Frederic Church, they are all famously known for a little more than a handful of their works. While they were prolific painters and produced substantial volumes of work (Van Gogh created some 900 works), they were mostly only renowned for a handful.

Likewise, with some of the great composers, musicians and movie directors, we will notice a similar trend. While Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin, two of the great British rock bands of the 60’s and 70’s created many albums, only a few of these were considered definitive or masterpieces. Miloš Forman directed many motion pictures, however, I would venture to say that Amadeus and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest were masterful. It is clear that no matter how large the body of work one may produce, the exceptional is rare.

Feel 

I’m not sure if this ‘feel’ can be taught. I have often deliberated on whether to follow the course of many other photographers, by hosting workshops and getaways. I wish I could, but in truth, one would get far superior instruction on the laws and principles of photography from my more learned and tech savvy colleagues out there. I think if I did attempt such workshops we would all just end up listening to a bit of Little Feat and Alison Krauss, drinking red wine and smoking Cuban cigars.

Feeling and becoming one with your instrument is something one can only develop over time. Good judgment comes from experience, but experience comes from bad judgment. A regarded legal mind once said to me that only after 20 years of practice did he learn how to think with penetrating discernment.

Paul Gauguin – “I shut my eyes in order to see”
Paul Gauguin – “I shut my eyes in order to see”

Conclusion

Perhaps at the various workshops and getaways, we should further encourage time set aside for developing minds to explore and think deeper, to ignite passion that fuels creativity. I understand many of the workshops and getaways do include guest speakers and ideas are exchanged while viewing the work from the day’s shooting. However, much of what is learned is to a large extent is technical, and about the process of understanding software and techniques. I think we need to stimulate lateral thinking outside the realm of the technical. The Parisian art-scene in the early 20th century is an example of where people with similar passions were drawn to each other. Great minds don’t think alike – new movements are born and the courage to experiment and make mistakes fosters change.

The saying ‘there are many practitioners, but few masters’ certainly rings true. I suppose that is the way it’s meant to be, otherwise nothing would ever stand out. What also rings true is that in my particular world of photography, I have some way to go to achieving master status.


Grant Leversha
December 2015

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Grant Leversha

Grant Leversha started his career in sports photography. In 1992, he followed the Springbok Rugby Team when South Africa emerged from sporting isolation and covered every Bok game in South Africa and abroad from 1993 to 1997. He was chosen by the RWC ‘95 Champions, South Africa, to be the official photographer to the team at RWC '95 and served as official SARFU photographer until 2002. While Grant continued to shoot sports, he found his passion in golf course photography in the mid-nineties and established himself as the country's most esteemed artist with a string of awards for his work in almost every golfing corner of the country. Grant Leversha uses his intricate understanding of natural light to bring his signature style to golf course and landscape photography. Most, if not South Africa's entire body of highest-ranked golf courses, use his material in promoting their resorts and establishments. Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus and Ernie Els use his work in their respective design businesses. Thailand Tourism have also commissioned him to promote their golf destinations. In 2013, his self-published tome on golf courses in South Africa, entitled Within an African Eden, scooped most of the major international art-book publishing awards hosted in the USA, an unprecedented achievement for a work on golf. In the face of stiff competition from thousands of excellent entries submitted by publishers, printers, museums and university presses from around the world (including New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and The Getty Museum, Los Angeles), Grant’s self-published tome walked away with these top honours (gold and platinum being outright winners in their categories). At Creativity International the opus won against over 5000 submissions from 34 countries. • Gold Winner: Outstanding Book of the Year – Art & Craftsmanship. IPPY, 2013 (New York) • Gold Winner: Coffee Table Books. Benjamin Franklin Awards, 2013 (New York) • Gold Winner: Fine Editions. Gold Ink Awards, 2013 (Chicago) • Gold Winner: Book Design. Creativity International Awards, 2013 (Louisville) • Gold Winner: Best Book. Canadian Print Awards, 2013 (Toronto) • Platinum Winner: Illustration, Photography & Typography. Creativity International Awards, 2013 (Louisville) • Award of Recognition: Print Excellence. Print Industries of America, 2013 (Chicago) • Honourable Mention: (IPA) International Photography Awards, 2013 (Los Angeles)  His landscape photographic art, using the larger format camera systems, has seen his work displayed in an ever-increasing number of select galleries. His works are displayed in many collectors’ homes around the world. Grant lives in Umhlanga Rocks, a short drive north of Durban on the east coast of KwaZulu Natal, South Africa.

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