I have always considered myself to be a documentary photographer but I never really thought of myself as a journalist. The reason is that I probably would not have been very successful at it because I have frequently experienced looking for one story and ending up with another. In journalism, I think that is considered failure however having never studyed it, I really do not know. But it is safe to say that failures of this sort notwithstanding, what I do end up with is sometimes more interesting than what I was looking for. (I suppose that would make me an artist.) For instance, last week I went to New Orleans because I had an urge to photograph Mardis Gras. I wanted to show the color and spectacle of this annual event but alas I got sidetracked. What I found instead of color and spectacle were a bunch of drunks shouting at women on balconies to show them their tits. One can only go so far with this shit so, I moved on and started going to some of the parades. That was also pretty boring because all it was were these floats going by, and the crowds were intense to say the least. Then I noticed that the parades ended close to my hotel and that the floats were siphoned off in one direction and the marchers and bands directed in another direction to await the buses to take them home. That is where I planted myself and as the bands finished their 3-hour marches, they rested, joked around, and fooled around with their instruments. They were a nice crown of kids from high schools in Alabama, Mississippi and Norther Louisiana. Well-behaved, polite and always happy to talk, kid around and pose for photographs. I had a ball. I could not stay away and thats what I did for the next few days—sat myself at the end of the line and photographed the bands as they winded up their parade. As I said, the original story faded quickly but another one replaced it. pays to keep your options open.
Every now and then, I Google myself to see what comes up. There are always surprises. A few days ago, I stumbled on a site that referenced an article I had written years ago regarding the difference between photographs that are taken, and those that are made. What I had said was there is a distinct difference between the two, but whoever had written this blog misinterpreted what I had really meant. In short, what I was discussing was that some photographers simply take a picture and print it as is, without any manipulation whatsoever. I thought that photographs in this category were dull and really did not have anything to say except this is what I saw”. I mentioned that I preferred photographs that are made—meaning that in order to be interesting, the photographer (or printer) should enhance these images to illustrate what the photographer really felt when he/she took the picture. The writer was under the impression that what I was saying was that photographs that are “made” were heavily manipulated via Photoshop to show something that had not really existed. What I had really meant was that being an old photographer who had learned my skills in the darkroom for 40 years, the acts of dodging and burning in were well-stuck in my genes and therefore part of my images. Most young photographers today simply do not understand this. In my photographs, I dodge, burn-in and adjust the color the same way photographers have always printed or shown their work. I don’t put things in that were not originally there, I hate HDR, and I never re-arange backgrounds to create a flakes image. I only wish to show what I feel when i see these things. In my opinion, what I see is of little interest to anybody. Its just not my style—except for the image above. Every now and then…
The original RAW file is actually quite dull and lifeless. It was taken from a French chateau one year while I was on holiday, and it never struck me as interesting. So one day—one rainy day when I had little to do but putz around on my computer, I tried enhancing it. I do not even remember what I did to make it this way but I liked it. Given the fact that it is heavily manipulated, I would never really show it alongside my regular work but somewhere in my hard drive, there is a collection of these images—mostly landscapes. All I really did do was fool around with the color a bit, not a real travesty, and add some fog. It really a false image as a photograph but I like it just the same.
A few years ago I wandered into this bar in Beatty Nevada one sunny morning and ordered a beer. The lady at the bar served me and then mentioned that they were in the middle of a “ladies group” meeting, but I was welcome to hang around. I did, and asked if they would mind if I took pictures while I had my beer. They all said go ahead, and so for the next hour, I drank my beer, took pictures of the bar and the woman having their meeting. The photograph above is from this series and at first glance, it appears that the woman was not aware of her being photographed but this is not true. The simple fact is that she was completely aware of what I was doing and did not really care.
From time to time I read articles, or get emails mentioning that the photography of people without their permission is rude, sneaky, and dishonest however I must strongly disagree. In a lot of cases (such as the one above) the person is actually aware, but it is not apparent. When the subject is unaware, this practice is harmless and doesn’t hurt anyone, and makes for an interesting photograph. A few years ago, I wrote an article in BlackStar Rising on this subject titles A World Without Photographs. I have updated it and posted it below.
Over the past few years I have read articles, or had people mention to me that photographing strangers without their permission is rude and constitutes an invasion of their privacy. I got the impression these people thought photographers were a crass lot, incapable for any feelings toward their subjects. I even got the distinct impression that they would like laws passed to enforce this notion. What kind of world would we have if there were actually laws that prevented people from photographing strangers without their permission? First of all, we would never had the pleasure of enjoying the magnificent work of Henri Cartier Bresson, Robert Doisneau, Robert Frank, and countless others. Their work would have been considered illegal.
The photographic record/history of the 20th century would have been very different. It would have consisted of pictures of empty streets, devoid of people. The only pictures of people from that last 110 years would have been of people, standing still, posing for a camera. Photography would have been forbidden at sporting events, wars, public places, store openings, movie premiers, crime scenes, travelogues, dog shows, etc—anywhere where crowds were present. It would have been a history totally absent of people. Snapshots would be entirely different. You would have to take special care when taking snapshots of family friends and children to make sure no strangers were present in the background. The same would be true when taking pictures at your kid’s birthday party. You would probably need a signed release from the parents authorizing you to take pictures of all children present. Weddings would be different of course because some guests would not want to be photographed. Of course they could also sign releases.
Of course news reporting would be entirely different. There wouldn’t be any. Newspapers always contain photographs of people in the news, the spectators, the crowd and passers-by-— that would all stop.. All they could include in the way of photographs would be formal portraits (most likely of politicians) of those in the news. The same would be for TV news—there would not be any news because most stories are about and include people. All that would remain is a world consisting of formal portraits, of people stiffly posing in front of cameras posing. To liven things up they could jump in the air when the shutter is snapped. Its so exciting!
Of course that is only the beginning—why stop with people. It would not be long before those who wish to protect their “privacy” would attempt to pass laws protecting photography of homes, offices, monuments and such. This is actually happening. Have you ever watched reality TV shows lately? Thanks probably to lawyers, logos on baseball caps and T-shirts, signs on buildings, brand names of any kind are all crudely blurred out.
Although this scenario may seem a bit extreme, that is the type of society that can evolve when allow ourselves to by driven by fear, political correctness, stupidity and ignorance. Photographs harm absolutely no one. We all have the right to refuse to have our pictures taken —all we have to do is politely say no. But to presume we are protecting the general public by restricting these activities in others is fundamentally wrong. I consider myself a sensitive person. Sometimes, I ask permission to take someones picture if my intent is that obvious. On other occasions, I like to be “invisible” and if someone happens to notice me, I walk away. I try to stay out of the way and if someone objects when my camera is pointed at them I respect their wishes.
There are two ways to go through life. One way is to be timid, constantly worry about offending others, never take chances, and always side with the majority. People like this seldom are very creative. The other way is to be out there, hunger for discovery, be curious and follow your own path. This is the road I choose to take and if people think it is offensive, its just too bad!
I haven’t been to busy lately. For the past 3 months I have been sort of inactive as a photographer. I wouldn’t go so far as to call it “creative block” because I don’t really believe in it. It’s just that I am busy with other things (moving in to a new house) and thought I needed a break. This is not the first time this has happened to me. 5 or 6 years ago the same thing happened and it was at the same time of year. I just sort of stopped for a few month but when it was over—it was really over and I probably did some of my best work. It goes like this.
There comes a time when I feel I have to shoot just because I have to, not because I want to. So, I grab my camera and hit the streets with no particular ideas in mind. I might grab and interesting shot or two nothing really gels. I get no feeling of excitement or creativity when I am out there. You might say that whatever passion I may feel as a photographer has dried up. I suppose the good thing about self-assigning is that there is no pressure to produce, I can simply step back and wait until the energy is back—and it always returns. As I mentioned, I do not really believe in “creative block” and if it exists, it’s not a negative thing—its exactly the opposite. I come back stronger. So, every 5 or 6 years I go through this 3 month hiatus and concentrate on other pursuits without the guilt associated with not taking any pictures.
This time, it is almost over for me now. We had purchased a new home and it was being renovated for the past three months. At my age and given my temperament, having to deal with that and shooting in the street would have been a bit stressful so I laid back. Next week it will be over, we will have moved in and I can have my life back. In a few weeks it will be as it always was and this period will be over.
There was a time in my life when I did not take a picture for 7 years. That happened after a divorce and subsequent meeting of my second wife and the passion of taking pictures was absent. Then, one day, I woke up and decided to begin again. That was in 1996 and my photographs, in my opinion, became better—much better. In fact there are only 1 or 2 pictures from before this period that I consider any good at all. That’s how it goes. What I am saying is that taking a break is not a bad thing because you always come back—come back stronger.
In my world, there are two kinds of photographers. The first is the deliberate one, the guy who checks every setting twice, focusses very carefully, checks exposure again, and then spends the next two or three minutes framing their shot. One can take a lot of photographs in two minutes. A lot of times, I have come across these types of photographers, and not wanting to ruin their photograph, I patiently wait for them to finish, before walking through. On many occasions, I run out of patience, and after waiting for a minute or two, I say “fuck it” and walk through their pictures. They never notice me. The second type of photographer is the slob—that’s me. For the most part on a sunny day I set my ISO at 400, camera at F8 and out the door I go. I see something that interests me, I raise my camera and shoot. Its all over very quickly. It may take me a half second to raise the camera and frame my shot and 1/125 of a second to snap the shutter and its all over. The photography above is a perfect example. I was walking through the Piazza di Popolo in Rome, and noticed this couple kissing. I was about 20 feet away and decided to get closer. As I approached, I pre-focussed for about 10 feet walked up, raised the camera and shot. They never noticed me so I continued to adjust my framing, and waited for a split second or two for the right moment and shot three more frames. This one is from the last three frames. It was all over in about three or four seconds and I was gone.
This was a different situation completely and is about as anal as I get as a photographer. My wife and I were in Montreal and went for a late lunch at Chez Leveque—one of our favorite haunts when we visit there. We like to sit side by side, and the waiter begrudgingly obliged. Across from me was this woman, finishing off her lonely lunch with a glass of wine. I saw the shot but did not want to attract her attention so I refrained. I was very itchy to do something but experience had taught me that this was one of those situations that required some patience. In a few moments, a small child who was bored sitting with his parents got up and started to run around the place. When he ran in front of the woman, I raised my camera and pretended to shoot him, but was actually focussing on the woman at the table. The woman smiled at me as I pretended to shoot the obnoxious little brat and the ice was broken. She did not pay any more attention to me. The kid left, she took a sip of her wine and looked out the window. I slowly raised my camera which was already focussed and took two shots and it was all over.
In both situations, I spotted what I wanted to shoot, and acted spontaneously and quickly when I saw the moment. If I was like the other type of photographer, I would have come up empty—the moment passing before me as I got myself ready. I am sure there are times when it pays to take one’s time making a shot, and I am sure I am guilty of that from time to time. However those occasions usually do not have people in the frame. Then I have all the time in the world.
A few years ago we were vacationing in Sicily and returned home by way of Paris. We had a three day layover and I was of course looking forward to it. Unfortunately, I had picked up some bug in Sicily and was not at my best. I remembered something my doctor had told me years ago about stomach bugs. He had told me to starve them and try not eating for 24 hours. This was hard to do in Paris—almost impossible but I did it. The next day I actually started feeling a bit better and could actually go out walk around and feel a bit more comfortable—albeit quite hungry.
We walked along the Sienne and I spotted this couple kissing on the other side. Fortunately, I had only a zoom lens and it came in handy for this shot across the river. Although I have always felt that I needed one of these gizmos (zoom lens), the truth is that I hardly use them at full zoom. When I check my shots in Lightroom, it can tell me what focal length was used for the shot and I have noticed that not matter how strong my zoom, the vast majority of the shots was shot at focal lengths between 28mm and 100mm. These days I hardly bother with them and just walk around using one camera and a single 35mm lens. I have a feeling that I am taking better pictures this way—at least for the present.
Who knows why some people like certain photographs? If anyone has an answer, I would like to hear it. One of the things that I love about photography is that it is very personal. Some people love certain images and others will hate the same ones. It really does not matter who the photographer is—famous or not—each image finds its own audience. To prove this point, all you have to do is look at competition winners and runners-up. Although I may agree with the judges on occasion, more often than not, I think some of the honorable mentions were the better photographs. It is not a cut and dry case. With the internet, there is plenty of photography to see but it is not all that good, at least in my opinion. But I am only one person and others may see my tastes in photo quality as mediocre. I suppose that is the beauty of it. As I said, it is a very personal thing.
For instance, I do not like posed situations. Those photographs where the photographer places his subjects in a sort of tableau and shoots the picture are for the most part uninteresting to me. However every now and then some of the images strike me in a positive way, and I do not know why, but they do. I am not a big fan of landscapes—especially when the photographer is trying to show the beauty of a scene. However, every now and then I see landscape that strike me as brilliant because the photographer has gone beyond the prettiness of the image and added something extra—something special. What it comes down to is that it is not only personal, there are no rules. You either like a picture or you do not.
I like this photograph a lot and I am not sure why. It was 5 years ago, almost to the day that I visited Fort Pierce Florida and stumbled on a Christmas pageant taking place here. I wandered around, took a few shots and then this lady asked me what I was doing. I said I was a photographer visiting from West Palm Beach and came across this event and did she mind. On the contrary, she told me she was a riding instructor, and walked me around pointing our some of her students and asking them to pose for me. Posing is not one of my things but I know there are moments in between a pose where an interesting moment may lie. I shot this one just as she was turning to face me. Why do I like it? Who knows? Is it the angle, the ominous sky, the white dress? Or is it simply that it was a wonderful day and I had a wonderful experience shooting that day. Or is it all of it?