Friday, July 15, 2005

Stop Being a Spectator ...

...and become a Photographer

I was thinking about the shooting process the other day. I had my camera in hand, and found myself suddenly becoming a spectator to an event. I realized what had happened after the event had transpired. The event was a very brief, but I felt I should have been shooting it, rather than watching it. Afterwards, I began to think about the thin line between being a photographer and a spectator, and imagined that we (hobbyist/photographers) probably all suffer the same affliction from time-to-time: becoming a spectator when we should be photographers.

Here is what might be our typical scenario: we head out of our abode with camera in hand intent on being a photographer, for whatever predetermined length of time. We're on our way; we’re going to go capture some great images. We’re looking and looking, and we shoot what we think might be a great image. Often, we will have composed that image with some determination, intent on imposing some meaning, or sentiment on the shot.We may or may not be successful (we won’t know till later), but we’re feeling pretty good about it. So we walk away from the experience content, maybe looking for a place to eat.

Unknowingly, we’ve slipped out of “photographer mode." Then something on the street happens that attracts our attention. We’ll watch it the way we might watch the participants of a fender-bender accident, casually, noting what they’re doing, checking out the type of people they are, etc. This incident could be anything. It could be something that piques our individual interest, or grabs our attention for reasons entirely unique to us as individuals. We watch the event transpire, without ever thinking to pull the camera up and shoot; in truth, it seemes to me that these are exactly the times that we need to be shooting, to make the images that are unique to us as photographers.

We all have memories of events transpiring in front of us, before we have had the time to shake out of spectator mode and get into photographer mode. The reason for that is we let the spectator mode overtake us. It's very easy to do, because it's just us being us, slipping back into daily life. So, How do we become aware of those incidents? How do we anticipate their occurrence? I don't know, other than shoot a lot of pictures, always have a camera in your hands, relaxing, and always be a photographer.

I’ve read interviews with noted street photographers who, when asked about how or why a particular image was made, responded that the reason they chose to photograph a scene came down to their eye being caught by something mundane, like an article of clothing, a shadow, etc. Rather than being a spectator they were a photographer and did what photographers do: they pressed the shutter.

I imagine the secret is to tune yourself to strattle the spectator/photographer line, and key into those spectator instincts, allow yourself to casually be apart of everything and pick up on the things that interest you and then when triggered going immediately for the camera.

It seems like an incredibly fine line, and working around it seems to be more a required technique for street photographers. Many wonderful photographs have been made while giving precious little thought to keying into instincts (see landscape and still photography). A lot of us are content with reserving some time for photography and going out and shooting what we want, when we want, and how we want. I've been looking at the work of some really great photographers lately, and I've been wondering how these photographers can continually, consistently come up with such great images. All of their images are so original, unique, spontaneous and fresh, despite being decades old. I imagined that they had to have to been "on" all the time, and so in tune to their surroundings, instinctual. They must be (or must have been) able to key into those unique things that caught their eye. They must have been able to straddle the line between spectator and photographer.

I’m reminded of the film, Pecker. About three-quarters of the way through the film, Pecker is in the gay bar where his sister works. He witnesses her get sacked, because of events stemming from Pecker’s new found fame. His sister is in tears sobbing and yelling behind the bar about being fired, while all the patrons look on (spectators). In the silence of her soliloquy, the flash from a picture taken by Pecker suddenly hits her. We cut to Pecker with a sheepishly apologetic face. Way to go Pecker!

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

I’ve found the Anti-Ansel Adams

I received the Lee Friedlander monograph of the NY MOMA show today. I got it from Photo-Eye ( It was expensive, but after a quick perusal squeezed between the hand-off from the UPS guy, and bolting out the door for an evening meeting, I can say it was worth the price.

Hardcover, large, heavy, and packed full of both text and full-page plates, Lee Friedlander (as it is called) is a retrospective of an artist that I was fairly unfamiliar with. I certainly knew of him, could place him in his time (still going), seen some of his most popular street images, heard about his Stems project, jazz portraits, and self-portraits, but had actually seen very little of his work. I can say that no more.

I highly recommend the book, to both Friedlander fans and the uninitiated. Friedlander’s vision is unique and identifiable, and I wish I had become familiar with him earlier. In my early photography days (late 70’s), Weston and Ansel Adams, in particular, were (and probably still are) considered the gods of photography. I was very much into Diane Arbus, and I tended toward a different aesthetic. While my fellow photo students were trying to copy Ansel Adams using their 35mm SLR’s, I was shooting with a TLR trying to do what was probably better done with a SLR.

Naturally, I would get into “discussions” with my friends and fellow students concerning aesthetics, wherein the images I liked were denigrated as glorified snapshots, and the images they liked I, in turn, denigrated as boring, uninteresting and detached. I remember proclaiming pompously to friend that I would love to see Adams point his camera away from the heavens and heavenly settings and photograph something like a weed growing out of a crack in the sidewalk. I guess, looking back now, I saw Adams as a modern day Icarus, with his head in the clouds, ignoring reality. I absolutely hated this idea of photographers like Adams and Weston, tucked away like hermits in their compounds shooting pictures of peppers and their naked girlfriends in the sand.

My sentiment at the time was that somebody needed to turn the table on these guys. Somebody needed to march up to Yosemite and shoot the anti-Adams version of the park, or not shoot yet another calla lily in full bloom, but its cut, submerged stem, immersed in a glass vase full of water. Where was the anti-Adams, the evil Weston? Well, he was quietly, yet prolifically, out working away shooting on the streets, on projects in the workplace, city centers, and parks all around the country. He pointed the camera at himself a lot, but unpretentiously and ungloriously. Yes he shot portraits and nude pictures of his wife, but they owed more to Arbus and Walker, than they did to Weston. He shot the occasional blooming flower, but he shot more, a whole series, a book, on their stems. And his occasional Adams-like scenic is far and away overwhelmed by the sheer volume of his wonderful scenics, where the “view” is blocked by the wild natural overgrowth of the un-pruned lesser flora, and a his "poorly chosen" positioning; but, more importantly, he shot Yosemite and other breath-takingly heavenly locations in the exact same fashion, frustratingly blocking the view that the average Adams-devotees, would trek the world on their hard-earned two-week vacation to capture.

Friedlander has become a new favorite on mine, based on the fact that he is the anti-Adams, the evil Weston. He is a wonderful mix of modern photography, all those photographers we have come to enjoy and admire, Walker, Arbus, Winogrand, and yes, even Adams and Walker.

Saturday, July 09, 2005

The Found Image

—click on the image to see it larger—

To crop or not to crop, is that really the question? I'm not sure where or when the inclination or the "rule" to always print full frame came from. Back when I was getting a degree in Photography (late 70's) it was chic to file out your negative carriers to enable you to print the black edges around the image (the frame). It was cool, and more importantly it showed that you didn't crop your image, which showed your vision and that you were a good photographer. I always found it a litte pretentious.

I was shooting with a TLR back then, so I didn't care. I had to deal the dreaded square format, for crying out loud. That said, I supposed I am predisposed not to crop when possible, or at the very least to maintain the aspect ratio of the format. I shoot 35mm now, and it is important for me to maintain that ratio, I like it and find it dynamic. But I'll crop an image and have no problem doing so, so long as the ratio is maintained. I've even cheated on that too, but rarely.

Often a good image is just an adjustment away, and shooting on the street with 35mm and 28mm lenses you're bound to get more than you intended. Those are tough angles to shoot with. You have to be right up in someone's face to really "include" them in the frame. Shooting quickly your inclination is to get the shot, first and foremost. BTW, one of the greatest things about shooting with a 28mm lens is being able to look like you're not including someone in your field of vision, when in fact you are. Once in the 40 or 50mm range and above, for get about it. You point your camera to include someone in your picture, they're gonna know it.

Serendipity, synchronicity, and signs, I've never put much weight in them until I began photographing again. Things happen to us everyday. Signs and patterns repeat all around us and with a camera you can catch them and they can speak to you, tell you things, show you things, reveal themselves. It is uncanny how an image can create itself.

The image I've included today (see above) was buried in a frame. I shot this with a cranky little Olympus XA. I parked myself in front of this mural for several weeks straight. I don't know why. I'd take my lunch at this spot just to sit in front of this mural and click pictures of people passing in front of it. I was trying for something similar to an earlier image I had made, wherein a woman passed in front of the mural, and I made the exposure. In the final result, because of the slow shutter speed, she seemed to flow into and out of the mural (courtesy of the shutter speed blur). I thought it was cool (see below).

On my last shoot of the mural, I could feel myself losing interest. I had been shooting at it; I was randomly clicking away between bites of broccoli beef and chow mein. I remember there was this guy sitting in front and off to the right side that must have seen me clicking away, because he got pissed-off and stood up and grumpily changed seats to one behind me. I thought it was a little funny. He had a mouth full of food and acted like he was just trying to eat, perform this basic necessity, and had to put up with me. I didn't care. I clicked the final shots and left. I didn't shoot anymore. I had lost interest. I processed the film later that week. It was TriX and I used D76. I was disappointed with the general compositions that resulted, until I started cropping and saw the image above. I just loved it. It was pure serendipity and a beautiful arrangement. The image is a major crop, full of the subsequent resulting grain, but so cool in how it came out. I've since called it "Conversation Muse."

I didn't make this image. It made itself. I just pressed the shutter, and found the message, the sign. I'm not unfamiliar with this process of being a facilitator, or an enabler of an image or creation.

I majored in film, and one of my most amazing experiences is being the "creator," or "director" of a film. You plan it, write it, storyboard it, and in the end, you have no control over it at all. Something happens to it. It becomes its own being, and you are just along for the ride, enabling it. In the end it's your film, but not your film. It's beautiful. That was when I realized that it wasn't the end result, but the process of creation that is important, rewarding, and fulfilling. I wish I had had the money, and the wherewithal back then to make more films, but life got in the way. That's cool too, though.

Friday, July 08, 2005

This Image

—Click on this image to see it larger—

This image comes from what was probably one of my most enjoyable shooting sessions. From this single one hour period I obtained several favorites, images I'm proud of having produced. I enjoy street photography a lot, the rhythm, the flow, the adreneline rush that happens when you're feeling good and grabbing shots.

I had a similar experience in Disneyland, of all places. I went down there with the family and got a chance to cut loose a little, as much as I could while walking around the "happiest place on earth" with five kids and a grumpy wife. And then again, I had a similar experience at the Warped Tour show. I took my daughter to that one as part of an agreement between her mother and I. She was only able to go if an adult went along. I was alone and bored stiff most of the time, but once the sun started to drop and the shadows got long I really started having some fun shooting.

I'm noticing that I have better shoots later in the day. I normally, out of necessity, shoot in full sun, midday, the worst possible time, but the only time that I'm able to get out and shoot alone. I like the long deep shadows and the low light that happens later in the day. It seems to inspire me.


This image works for me, despite that it was unintentionally underexposed by about 1.5 stops (maybe 2). It encompasses some things that I like, a centrally located subject, frame division, partially obscured subject matter, and a strange quality. I'm not sure why these things appeal to me, but they do. They show up in my recent efforts, and I find myself liking the images that have these aspects.

Thursday, July 07, 2005

Our Pictures Online

Apparently, the world wants pretty. She wants calendar art. A perusal of any online gallery will show that she has no shortage of image generators willing to feed her insatiable desire, and no shortage of viewers to gush and offer hyperbole and praise. Some of the images are gorgeous, but I can't recall a single one. Yet, I can remember the first time (well over 25 years ago) I saw a Diane Arbus image, and the exact Winogrand image that made my jaw hit the floor. I can recall images of lesser known photographers, whose names I can't remember and whose images I've never seen again. These images and many others had something and they changed the world for me. They aren't pretty images, but they are beautiful. Their beauty lies not in their compositional perfection, but in the power of the reality they exhibit. Their beauty is undeniable and unforgettable.

What I Learned on a Fourth Grade Field Trip that Somehow Applies Here
I attended my daughter's field trip to the state capital earlier this year. Our docent droned on and on as she led the class around the state capital. She showed us through the corridors of power, pointing out little mysteries and unique little OBTW's.

At the end of tour, as we stood in the rotunda, this cavernous space beneath the dome, she directed our attention to the patterned inlaid stone (marble?) floor and stated that the floor was laid in place many years ago by local indians. She challenged the kids and chaperones to find the "mistake" on the floor.

One parent found it and after the crowd of kids had taken their photos, grown bored, and wandered off, I inched up and looked down to see one incorrectly laid triangular piece of black tile going against the grain of this great expansive pattern—breaking the pattern, if you will.

Our docent confessed that it wasn't really a mistake at all, but an intentional flaw set in place by the indians, because they believed that man was not capable of perfection, and that only God was capable of perfection. It was the most beautiful and impressive thing I saw that day, and it was a flaw.

What I Learned From Eric Rohmer That May Apply Here
Eric Rohmer is a film director known for his "moral tale" films. (You'll have to see them to understand.) One film, Pauline Sur la Plage (Pauline at the Beach), explores relationships, as do most Rohmer films. One of the leads in the film, a man, is being pursued by two women simultaneously, a beautiful blonde and another young lady. In the end, he ends up with the latter. Pauline, the young lead in the film, who is a close friend of the gorgeous blonde, and had been following the action throughout the film, is heartbroken to see her friend jilted and depressed over not being the chosen "one." Pauline confronts the man demanding to know why he chose the lesser woman (she was much less attractive, and much less refined). Pauline is flabbergasted that her friend, who was so beautiful and perfect, could have not been the one this man would have picked. The man's reply was that Pauline's friend is too perfect, without fault, and the other woman is flawed and that her flaws are what make her beautiful and much more attractive to him.

I saw that film once, when it came out, in 1983, and that's what I remember most about it. I guess I'm predisposed toward a different kind of beauty. I'm not special, gifted, or insightful. I just prefer this different viewpoint.

I can see the beauty in the calendar art photos that get posted at online galleries. It moves me for a little while—for about as long as I'm looking at it, and then it's gone and forgotten. If you like and prefer those types of images, then you probably won't like my images very much.

This is my first entry. I'll post my pictures and record some thoughts here.