Mr. Bean Versus Mr. Cooper

Interesting light can cover a multitude of sins - from a distance, no one notices that the bird is out of focus. Still, until you get all the details right, it's not a compelling photograph.

I’m really looking forward to the April meeting of the Ojai Photography Club, because our guest judge is Greg Cooper, an instructor at Brooks Institute. Mr. Cooper was the guest judge when I first visited the club a couple of years ago, and his presentation significantly changed my thinking about photography.

Photography is about light. The word itself means, “light drawing.” But for a long time, I did not understand what photography was about. I thought that photos were about the subject.

In my beginners’ lighting seminars, I explain the two philosophies by quoting two great thinkers on the subject: Mr. Bean, from the movie Bean, and Greg Cooper.

In the movie, bumbler Mr. Bean is mistaken for a famous art historian and must give a speech about the painting known as Whistler’s Mother.  At the lectern, Bean experiences an epiphany, concluding that the painting is great because it is a picture of the artist’s mother, and, “Even though Mr. Whistler was obviously aware that his mother was a hideous old bat who looked like she’d had a cactus lodged up her backside, he stuck with her, and even took the time to paint this amazing picture of her. And that’s marvelous. It’s not just a painting. It’s a picture of a mad old cow who he thought the world of.”

So to Mr. Bean, the subject is what makes a picture great. To a point, that’s true for our snapshots, because as I’ve mentioned before, any picture of my parents is precious to me, regardless of its artistic merit. But for people who lack any connection to the subject of the image, the appeal must lie elsewhere.

I have to admit, the characters in this photo might be interesting without the dramatic lighting, but why take the chance?

When Greg Cooper addressed the Ojai Photography Club in 2008, he explained that his modus operandi consists of looking for interesting light, finding a position that creates an interesting composition, and then waiting for a subject to enter the light. Sure enough, we oohed and aahed as he showed his images, even though we had no personal connection to the people in them. The light and composition created drama and interest.

Increasingly, I see the light first and the subject second.

My primary photographic philosophy states that, “If you like it, it’s good. If you want other people to like it, study composition, light, color, and art history, but don’t get your hopes up.” Interestingly, since Mr. Cooper got me to seek the light, I’ve been producing photos more interesting to myself, and that’s a great start.  Mr. Bean is funnier, though.

Greg Cooper explained that he likes to go to The Getty museum, find interesting light, and then wait for something to happen. I tried it, and sure enough, as soon as I was set up, some people walked into the scene and I had a picture.

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