You spend too much time with your nose pressed up against a camera, your eye squinting through a viewfinder, watching life pass you by. You’re an observer, an escapist, not a participant. You miss so much. As a photographer, while you are arresting movement and reducing what’s happening from three dimensions into two you’re just seeing or experiencing a shortcut, an abridged version, the Cliff Notes of life.
I’ve heard it all. How can I explain? I feel incomplete without a camera, an emperor with no clothes. I can still see images in my mind’s eye that demanded to be photographed and weren’t, images on a crashed hard drive that weren’t backed up that now exist only in my mind or some netherworld perhaps where missing photos await a resurrection. It would be harder for me to figure out how not to take a photograph than to consider the merits of whether it should be taken at all. How do I decide what I need to record? I don’t. Things demand to be photographed. It’s a subpoena, and I am required to respond. I’m not choosing to do any of this. I have to do it because, well, because I have to.
The Photographer as Thief
My father, an Episcopal minister, was quick to look at technology and reject it if it “didn’t bring people together.” The camera, then, is the tool that separates the shooter from the shootee. It doesn’t bring the two together at all. It creates a distinction, a difference. Indians have believed that the camera takes away your soul. Moroccans do, too. They’re quick to turn their heads when a camera is pointed in their direction. Taking someone’s photograph is an invasion of space, an aggressive gesture, one that provides the shooter with something taken illicitly, and whether it’s a soul or spirit or in plain terms just an image, he often takes it surreptitiously and sometimes with an ulterior unspoken motive. And even when permission is granted, the reward exists primarily for the photographer. The shootee gives something (himself) to the shooter. The shooter is part thief.
But there are exceptions to the exchange. In smiling, in asking for permission to photograph someone, a connection is being made, an exchange that otherwise wouldn’t have taken place now does. I asked two women in a restaurant in NYC who had unique hairstyles if I could take their photograph because, as I said, “You two have the most fabulous hair.” So yes, I “stole” the photo, but I couldn’t have done it without their kind and generous cooperation. And there wouldn’t have been a connection at all if I hadn’t asked.
Here’s why I do what I do. The reasons are countless, but the first one that comes to mind is just to tell the truth, to show something about the subject that only a photograph can reveal.
The little girl below is curious about what the boy is doing.She doesn’t know him. She’s never seen him before. The unwritten rules of “personal space” don’t appear in her playbook. The fear of rejection, the reluctance to invade his space, neither of these is something she understands. It’s a delightful innocence and naivete that is part of early childhood that is being revealed here. So telling and revealing truths are part of the same equation.
And next is a double revelation.
Love and Death
Countless images show the love between couples. This lady (and her six month old daughter) are watching her husband play rugby. What we’re willing to do to show our love for someone can be revealed in new and different ways, and sitting on a plastic tarp under a pounding rain just to watch someone you care about play rugby is one such thing, more revealing and truthful than a box of chocolates or a dozen roses.
I love to take photographs that reflect the gamut of human experience, but until Patrick O’Day was killed in the Gulf War I had never pointed my camera at a person who has just lost someone, or whose sense of grief is so intense. It’s times like that that I put the camera down and change hats, except this one occasion, when Patrick O’ Day was honored and his widow presented with his flag. And the family hired me to record the event.
The other side of that coin. Jennifer and Andrew knew that giving birth in Nepal was an unnecessary risk, so Jennifer flew back to California while Andrew, sitting on a sofa in Kathmandu, watched it all on Skype. Weeks later he was able to fly to SF and meet his son for the first time. Jennifer is handing Andrew his first born child while Jadyne is totally caught up in the moment.
Since everything in the world has been photographed innumerable times by skilled and competent artists why bother? To make a photograph the artist/ photographer needs to see and record everyday things in ways that aren’t everyday, that shed a new truth, a new light when the viewer sees it. And maybe finds a way to do it that has never been done before. We’ve all seen dogwood trees. But lying on the ground beneath the tree and photographing a part of the tree under a foggy sky possibly reveals something new about dogwood.
Seeing as Art
Sometimes conditions give photographers opportunities to see in ways that are closed off to others. Riding in the bow of a tugboat and shooting with a fisheye lens allowed me to see and photograph a container ship my own way.
So far it’s truth, revelation, fresh or new interpretation, and I’m now adding preservation. Photographers take thousands of images of their wives, husbands, parents, and children. And embedded in those photographs are truths of who these people were at one specific time, where they lived, experiences they’ve shared.
Recording for Posterity
The Natural World and Photography.
Some psychologists believe that people bring plants and animals inside their homes to reconnect with the world they (their ancestors) once lived in. Perhaps that explains the fascination photographers have with nature, with landscapes, flowers, sunrises and sunsets. We’re all going home. But once again we have to make our image unique, better or different from the many that have preceded it and the many that will follow. But how do we do that? For Ansel Adams the clarity of his 8 x 10 view camera, his patience, his understanding of all the processes that make up film photography, his understanding and search for perfect light, made him one of the best landscape photographers.
It’s not my strength. I have favorites, but they pale. I walked to the beach as Hurricane Iwa came ashore in Oahu in 1982.
At the end of Part I. Why do I take photos? I look for the truth in all things and I enjoy watching life revealing itself through images. I’m a collector of photos. In preserving the images that make up my collection I am preserving not only what I’m photographing but also pieces of myself. And last, I am grateful for the incredible beauty of nature as it’s revealed to me in shapes, colors, and life, and I photograph such things to make them a part of my collection and to be a part of theirs. That’s not exactly right. I photograph them because they demand to be photographed. I have no choice.
The Trailer for Part II. Sometimes the photographer uses what he photographs to create something altogether different. Softness and blur are in my toolkit. There are infinite possibilities, only a few of which have I explored.