The camera is an instrument that allows people to see without a camera.
It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see.”
Henry David Thoreau
I like to think of the camera that way, too — as a tool, an extension of my eye. It used to be that I’d haul around my camera case with extra lenses and filters, but only when I had a particular destination in mind for photographing. And, of course, my SLR camera used film, so I had to have a place to get it developed and printed. This all seems so painfully antiquated today with digital cameras having taken over.
Things are so different now. I use my regular camera less and less because I can’t take it everywhere with me. But I have my iPhone with me at all times so I can take pictures wherever I am and whenever I see a subject or composition in my mind’s eye.
Having a camera with me all the time practically requires that I look more closely at the external world, whether in my garden or in the city park 5 minutes away. I’ve been taking pictures all my life, so this is an outgrowth of something I’ve done to a lesser extent than now, for as long as I can remember.
On days with clouds in the sky I’m constantly looking up. Conversely, I spend a lot of time on my walks looking down, searching for patterns in leaves and grass. I photograph my shadow. I look for unusual objects and strange man-made alterations in Nature. And, I observe every aspect of Nature closely, particularly if I’m out walking long distances in one of our large local Nature preserves, county or state parks.
Almost all of my photography is done very late in the afternoon, right up until dusk, and I’m always on the alert for sunsets, since I have front row viewing for them at three locations near my house. Other subjects for my camera are reflections; late afternoon sunlight illuminating trees; trees themselves at every season of the year; and old houses, porches, flowers, gardens, sailboats in our harbor, flower boxes, abandoned houses and buildings, small towns, cats, and on and on. There is no limit. Almost everything can be the subject of a photo in the right light or in a context which lends mystery or perhaps a glimpse into the unknown.
Quickly spotting a picture and immediately afterward sensing that it is going to be the one special photo for that day, is immensely gratifying. It’s when I feel most like an artist — when I’ve intuitively and quickly composed a picture of some object, place or phenomenon that is completely new and unique to my eye, as if no one had ever seen such a thing until I photographed it.
I almost never do “people pictures,” portraits, or snapshots of others, unless they happen to be family members, who are generally reluctant to have their picture taken, but indulge me because I’m so good natured about it. It’s infinitely easier to take a photo of my brother’s cat then a picture of him.
I have done my share of “people pictures” during the years I worked as a reporter or editor at various weekly newspapers. Those were “bread and butter” photos that sold extra papers when parents or relatives bought copies with pictures of their kid getting a trophy or award at school. I never did any sports photography, leaving that to others on the staff or in the community.
Far and away the most common photo assignment for me was what is referred to in the business as a “grip and grin.” This involved having one or more individuals face the camera, holding a plaque they or their organization has been presented for good community deeds. This did not lend itself to a lot of creativity or effort as long as they smiled decently, and they ALWAYS had to smile. Couldn’t have any stoical or sour-looking faces in the paper. This also was our “bread and butter.” “Grip and grins” sold extra copies of the paper. I suppose when there are no printed newspapers anymore and everything’s online, people will still be printing photos of their kids getting awards on their home printers.
Another kind of photography I never got much into, but which I greatly admire, is referred to as “street photography.” Many notable photographers excelled in kind of documentary photography exclusively. Gary Winogrand comes to mind first, although there were, and are, many others. Street photography is simply taking pictures while in public spaces, usually busy streets or at community events where there are large numbers of people, such as parades, county fairs, and sporting events. But in its fine arts sense, it is taking photos of people, usually with some kind of telephoto lens, and using these photos of anonymous people in photo documentaries for publication or exhibit, or simply for personal, unpublished projects..
Street photography is usually raw, unposed, realistic and spontaneous. That’s because the subjects are mostly unaware. My largest street photography project was in 1979 when I made and printed a lot of black and white photos of people in Jackson Square and surroundings in the French Quarter of New Orleans. The Quarter is probably one of the best places anywhere in the country to do street photography.
I also loved taking pictures at state and county fairs, capturing the excitement and delight on people’s faces as they got off scary rides or just enjoyed all the sights and sounds of the fair. I often felt a twinge of guilt, however, because people were being photographed unaware. But there is really no other way to achieve the total realism and faithfulness to life in those settings. The exceptions are when photographers ask for permission to photograph people as part of assignments or long term projects, usually for news organizations or magazines.
Some of the best photography out there for decades has been in the photojournalism and documentary genres, both of which I have always been keenly interested in. Since I am not a working photographer, I am much too shy and reticent to approach people to be in my pictures, even if was for a personal project that hardly anyone else would see. I’ve missed out on a lot of good pictures because of this, but there are multiple good photographers out there doing this work of street photography, documentary photography and photojournalism. As a kid, I was always fascinated by the excellent photography in “Life” magazine. When I was in college I first came across the great documentary photographer, Walker Evans, have have been inspired by and in awe of his photographs ever since. My library contains multiple titles of his
We’re missing a lot since the demise of “Life,” produced for decades, and which had a circulation in the millions. The advantage today with digital photography and online venues, blogs and social media is that anyone can photograph and post their photos online with the very real potential of a vast audience for their work.
In between and after my journalism days, I devoted myself almost exclusively to Nature and travel photography, and my numerous cross country trips in the 1980s gave me abundant inspiration and subjects. But it was all on film in those days, whereas now, even with the travel limitations of the pandemic, I never tire of finding subjects to photograph right here where I live, or branching out to favorite photography locations in a three-county area.
I’m content to photograph everyday in my little geographic world, my mini-universe. I always seem to find much to surprise, delight and amaze me, even if it’s just on my front porch.
The camera as instrument
Last updated February 21, 2021