Paul Graham’s ‘mistake’

The course material discusses Paul Graham’s over-exposure mistake that triggered his concept for his work American Night. Graham describes the work as a way of representing America’s fractured society. It occurs to me now with current events, that the overexposure can be read as whiting out and blindness through white privilege.

© Paul Graham, source:

I am asked whether I’ve ever made a mistake that I didn’t know how to recover and then, what would I do to turn it into something useful.

I’ve made mistakes in life and allow myself to make mistakes as part of learning. However, I find it difficult to recall many photographic mistakes. I think this is because shooting with a modern mirrorless camera it is difficult for a mistake to get to the point beyond redemption , unless one is not paying attention. Even if something is poorly framed, there can be a change for a second bite of the cherry. There are many in camera aids, such as accurate spot-metering that it is difficult to make catastrophic photos, even if it is easy to making uninspiring ones! I have on more than one occasion dashed out with a camera only to find that it was missing a battery – but there is simply no photography then.

The course material goes onto to discuss another mistake involving light sensitive photographic paper. These kind of mistakes just can’t happen with inkjet paper.

Perhaps my mistake is over-control. If I improvise on the guitar a mistake is spontaneous and out in the world; I play through it or play on it to make something fresh. I’m not sure that this situation can be replicated on a digital camera, unless shooting blind. For street photography in the past, I’ve set the camera on manual exposure and focus and rolled with it, just stopping every now and then to check settings, which gave some interesting exposures. But I’m not sure that level of inconsistency would be welcome for work during this course. Of course, Paul Graham made a mistake and then applied it consistently to a whole series of images, so it was no longer a mistake.

When I do make mistakes, I try to use them to explore ways that may not have previously occurred to me. That I rarely make mistakes with a digital camera could mean that I’m treading too carefully with it.