JANUARY, 2014 UPDATE
Important as the photo-a-day project was for me in 2012, it was a major discipline that I was delighted to let go of when completed. The plans I had to publish a book and have a show of my work also fell by the wayside: too much time and expense at this point in my life, and a growing disillusion with the gallery scene.
My Lumix DMC-FH20 will probably be replaced by spring. It’s served me well but now that some compact models are appearing on the market with decent zooms, manual controls, and a viewfinder, it’s time for an upgrade. Anything larger or more professional would prevent me from taking it wherever I go.
Over the next few days (and possibly weeks), I’d like to share some photographic observations and experiences that resonated with me throughout the past year.
One thing I learned in 2013 is to ignore the inner voice that says “It’s too much trouble to get the shot, come back later when you have more time — [or] that person will never allow you to take his/her photograph.” Now, when I hear those words I do exactly the opposite, i.e., pull my camera out and go for it. It’s not that I’m a mismatcher; rather I know from experience that the picture won’t be there upon my return. A few weeks ago, at the local laundromat, I forgot this lesson. I was putting umpteen quarters in the machines to start the wash cycle when I saw beautiful afternoon sunlight reflecting off the tops of the washers. “Put the quarters in first,” I told myself, only to find that the light disappeared a minute or two later. I’ve been back three times at roughly the same hour to get the shot I missed, but guess what? It’s nowhere to be seen.
I live in a small town in upstate New York and several times a week, I walk the length of Main Street to get some exercise in and do my shopping. One of Pixetera’s most pleasant surprises is finding a photograph in a spot I’ve passed scores, if not hundreds, of times before without ever noticing. Sometimes, it’s the light that’s different, or maybe the weather, or perhaps my mind was always somewhere else. If the mental chatter prevents me from taking the world in, I might just as well leave my camera at home.
While on these walks, I often see an older man about my age traversing the same route with a high-end Ricoh dangling from his neck. I introduced myself once, inquired about his camera, and gave him my card. We may have talked again but he never recognizes me when we’re in close proximity. He seems unhappy and the pictures he posts on a community website are pretty mediocre in my view — like most of the others that appear there. It’s a strange experience to identify with him on one hand and to feel such a distance on the other — almost like looking into a mirror and not liking the reflection one is seeing.
As a professional photographer I rarely, if ever, used on-camera flash. Too harsh and unflattering — if I needed fill, I preferred reflectors that allowed me to see what was going on and gave more control. So it came as a surprise when I started experimenting with my camera’s tiny, on-board, red-eye producing flash. The results were pretty much unpredictable — and on occasion, even wonderful. With all due respect to Ansel Adams and the technique of pre-visualization, I’ve found that going in the opposite direction, i.e., playing with chance and the unknown, can be equally rewarding. When ego and intentionality take a back seat, space opens up for discovery and wonder — a form of play I’ve been gravitating to in my photography since starting this blog.
Ditto for the lines and geometric shapes I sometimes add to my images. It’s not something I have in mind when taking the photograph but an enhancement (I trust) that occurs only later upon viewing the file on my monitor. Maybe the photo isn’t as strong on its own as I initially thought, so how can I improve it without getting lost in the black hole called Photoshop filters? If it involves too much time, I’m not interested — that would be work after all :)
Two dangers I’ve became aware of during the last 12 months: (1) The tendency to think that just because I took a particular picture on a particular day it must be worth posting. Sometimes it isn’t and I can only hope that not too many of this type find their way past the quality control department; (2) Using photography as a substitute or replacement for direct experience, an affliction that has obviously reached epidemic proportions among the smart phone set. Too often, I’ve found myself snapping a picture without taking time before or afterwards to simply absorb and appreciate my subject. It’s true that I rarely do scenics and that most of my photographs work only when extracted from physical reality and reimagined as a framed composition, but still, I could and should mend my ways: pause for a moment, put down the camera, take a deep breath, and stand in silent communion with that which inspired me. I’m reminded of something Robert Frank once said: “The eye should learn to listen before it looks.”
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Last night, I stayed up late watching a two-hour video of Gregory Heisler, a contemporary photographer I’ve long admired, speaking to students about his magazine portrait work. Even though it’s quite long, I recommend it highly. (You won’t lose anything viewing it in short clips if you can’t see it all at once. PetaPixel, btw — where I first saw the video — is another wonderful photographic site I visit daily.) During my career, I faced many of the same problems Heisler encounters in his assignments — not at the same level of course — and it was both eye opening and inspiring to hear of the planning and testing, creative problem solving, and resources he brings to his work (e.g., taking up to 15 assistants to a rented location so he can shoot seven different set-ups with his subject(s) in the space of an hour.) His can-do outlook, ability to roll with the punches without losing his cool or enthusiasm, and never-ending experimentation are truly impressive. Plus, he seems like a genuinely nice guy.
I don’t know whether it was Heisler’s influence or my own evolution as a photographer but when a downpour began at around 1:30am, I turned the computer off and ventured outside to take pictures, the ones that were posted on January 6. Heavy rain; darkest night; near-freezing temperatures; deserted sidewalks — there was a time when I would have gone right to bed instead of placing myself in such unpleasant circumstances. But over the last two years, I’ve discovered that inclement weather and worse can open up amazing photographic opportunities rivaling anything done in the magic hour. In fact, a bad forecast no longer depresses me for that reason.
Late last year, I discovered the photography of Saul Leiter, a New York-based commercial and art photographer, who died in November at the age of 90. I have to confess I had no idea who he was until I came across his obituary. Of all the photographers I’m now familiar with, Leiter’s feet are probably the ones I’d worship at — or the boots that may have carried him through snow and sleet to frame a lyric moment with his eye. In addition to his exceptional body of work, here are two quotes and an anecdote that are dear to my heart:
“I must admit that I am not a member of the ugly school. I have a great regard for certain notions of beauty even though to some it is an old fashioned idea. Some photographers think that by taking pictures of human misery, they are addressing a serious problem. I do not think that misery is more profound than happiness.”
“In order to build a career and to be successful, one has to be determined. One has to be ambitious. I much prefer to drink coffee, listen to music and to paint when I feel like it.”
“Leiter confided that he often purchased inexpensive color film that was past its expiration date: he loved to be surprised by the odd shifts in color that would result.”
Speaking of quotations from a legendary photographer, I came across this one from Henri Cartier-Bresson not long ago: “Your first 10,000 photographs are your worst.” I have tremendous respect for Cartier-Bresson but he and I part company here. I still keep images in my portfolio that were taken at the start of my career when I wasn’t half as knowledgeable about photography as I am now. But I was young and fresh and open and enthusiastic and that took me quite a distance. I consider those photographs as good as any that I’ve taken in the 40-50 years since.
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I’m the kind of person who stops to move dead animal carcasses off the road so they don’t get mangled any further, help a turtle or woolly bear caterpillar get to the other side before it’s crushed by a car, pick up a piece of litter and deposit it where it belongs, or return a shopping cart to the store entrance if it’s blocking a parking space. Whenever I do things like this, I can’t help feeling a little embarrassed, weird, or guilty because this isn’t the norm. I wish I felt otherwise but that’s just who I am and the kind of society we unfortunately live in. (See http://emmakisiel.com/project/at-rest for a photographer whose work with roadkill has been a profound inspiration.)
Aside from the above link, what does all this have to do with Pixetera? I noticed in 2013 that photography is one area I feel zero shame about: I could be photographing something that looks totally ridiculous to an observer without feeling the slightest need to explain myself, apologize, or make excuses. Almost nothing else I do is accompanied by the complete self-assurance and conviction I have taking pictures. Sometimes this has gotten me into trouble with cops when they ask what I’m doing. “WTF does it look like I’m doing, officer?”
When I think about photography as a form of play, I keep coming back to its central aspect: finding visual interest in mundane subjects one would ordinarily never point a camera at, e.g., dirty dishes in the sink, crumbs on a plate, lines in a parking lot. That, and titles which play on words. or draw connections between wildly different subjects, is where much of the amusement lies for me. I hope it gives others a chuckle as well.
I’d like to end with something I’ve said before which bears repeating: thanks to every one of you, not only for your interest and support, but also for the images you make and share. I am blown away by the quality and quantity of imagery that amateurs as well as professionals are producing throughout the world — every hour of every day. (And I’m not even privy to the world of Instagram.) It’s a shame there aren’t more museums to exhibit all this work but at least we can be thankful for the web.
Enough talking though for one year. Only images for the next 12 months :)
Pt. 2, last paragraph, a cautionary tale. I say that to myself, too. First paragraph, playing with chance, ditto. Pt. 1, 1st paragraph – put the quarters in first – so true! Over and over that happens. The light moves quickly. As time. More later! Thank you for this – I read it hungrily.
Glad you liked and were fed by it. Thank you for all your kind comments.
Really good piece — one which I’ve read several times over the months. Your admiration for Frank, Bresson and especially Leiter is apparent in many of your images, but at other times, your curiosity about post processing and/or your projects and presentation very much separates you from those guys. (I really liked those washrags!)
Plus, it sounds like you don’t live in an urban area.
It’s probably me, but I’m a bit confused about Part 2, last paragraph. You say:
“It’s true that I rarely do scenics and that most of my photographs work only when extracted from physical reality and reimagined as a framed composition, but still, I could and should mend my ways: pause for a moment, put down the camera, take a deep breath, and stand in silent communion with that which inspired me”
When you wrote this, did you mean that you’d like to find ways to do more scenics? I find this paragraph especially interesting, although I have to be honest: I’m not entirely sure what you mean by “scenics”.
I really appreciate the thoughtfulness behind your comments, John, and apologize for taking so long to respond.
By scenics, I mean the beauty of the natural world, particularly landscapes — a subject that I’m happy to leave to other photographers, you included, whose craft and vision are never-ending gifts.
The fact is that I don’t get out in those settings all that often, and when I do, photography is usually the last thing on my mind. I also find that scenes of uncommon beauty don’t always make for good images, and that my consumer-level digital camera, as capable as it is, can’t always do justice to them.
In the end, I’m more attracted to the unseen beauty in everyday objects and familiar places, and quirky evidence of human activity. If I can add a bit of mystery to the photograph, so much the better.
I hope this helps to answer your questions.