Location, location, location. We have all heard this a million times with regards to retail businesses, but over the years I have become convinced that the same mantra applies to photography. The concept of location is really absurdly simple, as if you cannot take a photo if you are not there. But the simplicity of this notion hides a lot more under its skin, so to speak. That is because location is also inspiration. It brings out the desire to create, to compose, and to see with new eyes all things around us. That first time we set eyes on the Eiffel Tower from the courtyard in Palais de Chaillot in Trocadéro, or the morning when with the first light of the day we emerge from the Via del Corso onto Piazza del Popolo in Rome, are the stuff that feed our creative souls like nothing else can. It is as if such places pull some dormant creative energy from inside of us that for some reason or another, never managed to come out during our more routine lives. Call it creative adrenaline or whatever, but it is real, and some places just reach into us and pull it out. Which places? Well, that’s really a personal thing, and no one but ourselves can tell us where that is. But you’ll know it when you get there because you will feel that uncontrollable creative pull suddenly overwhelming you. And that, my friend, is why our feet take us where they take us.
Photographers are never a happy lot. If you are like most photographers, you tend to spend too much time reading photography sites and worrying about the gear you don’t have, or the photos you are not taking. Seldom will you check out a photo’s EXIF data and find yourself rejoicing. No, on the contrary. What’s more likely to happen is that all that technical data contained in those accompanying files will leave you with a sense of quiet desperation. One side of you will see that the great photo you’re looking at was taken with a more expensive camera/lens combination than what sits in your camera bag. Another side of you, and perhaps more painful to ego and wellbeing, will discover that the photograph was taken with a much cheaper camera/lens combination than what you dished-out for your precious. Whatever the case, your mind will immediately begin questioning your choices, and a raging war of words from pundits living in your subconscious will not waste a single second in turning your brain into a virtual battle zone. You need more, you need less, you need different, more time, more knowledge, more, more, less, less. It’s enough to get you committed to an institution. In the end, all you really need is the desire to take photos, and the ability to do so. Time and disposition are the key, and just like wine, whatever you think is good, is good enough. So best to purge those voices in your head and just go out and make photographs with whatever gear you’ve got. Believe me, I’ve been plenty envious of what some people are recording with their iPhones. But maybe it was because I didn’t have the right lens. Oh no, there again are those voices in my head.
Going over my photographs from recent trips to Europe, I came to the realization that I had spent a lot of pixels photographing bicycles. In fact, it became clear that I was working the scenes with the meticulous care of a photojournalist photographing a major sports event. But why? Why bicycles of all things? Maybe it has something to do with nostalgia, or memories of growing up, or perhaps a simple fascination with the fact that an old technology remains alive and well to this day. Not sure what the case is, but the seeming compulsion to photograph these two-wheeled marvels is alive and well in my photographic psychic, and judging from what I see in places like Flickr, I don’t seem to be alone. Perhaps it has to do with the setting, as the older character of some European cities make for the perfect travel photography backdrop. All I know is that if I were a novelist, there is no doubt that one of these photos of lonely bikes on desolate cobblestone streets would be the subject of the opening scene in one of my novels. How’s that for imagination?
Ah, nostalgic pedicabs (i.e., rickshaws) gracing the city streets while helping to clean the environment. Pedal power, no CO2, humans helping other humans. Hmmm. This is generally the picture that emerges when we think of the great import that are pedicabs. Reality, though, could be a bit more earthy, shall we say. In many city downtowns with fast-moving vehicular traffic, rickshaws are more-often-than-not forced into sharing the same busy streets where a non-choreographed dance of polluting city buses, taxis, and POV’s are constantly trying to outdo each other to the next light. Needless to say, there’s a lot of weaving, sharp turns, and sudden stops involved in this urban kabuki dance. Strangely enough, I had problems finding collision statistics for the DC area (or for any other city for that matter). Who knows, maybe these pedicabs are safer than we think. Just in case, though, I think that I’m going to stick to walking for now. After all, I do need the exercise.
If you read a lot of the popular photography literature out there, you would think that when it came to focal lengths, not much has changed for lenses over the past 100 years or so. To this day, lots of print is devoted to Robert Capa’s dictum that, “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you are not close enough.” Now, I’m not sure whether Mr. Capa was referring to optical or physical distance, but my guess is that he was perhaps referring to the proportion of the subject in the photograph to the overall frame of the photo. I can only surmise this because Mr. Capa was more interesting on the drama of a photograph than where the photographer happened to have his or her feet planted. A great image, after all, is never hostage to a particular focal length.
But something has changed a bit since Mr. Capa’s days. Call it the loss of innocence, societal mistrust, or whatever, but people are no longer as relaxed when having their picture taken by a stranger as they used to be. Governments have also jumped into the focal length controversy by creating all sorts of conditions under which a photographer can be labeled an intruder of some sort. Under modern privacy rights considerations, that invisible privacy zone around people has become a virtual minefield for photographers. Enter at your own peril, and successful navigation through it will require a great deal of luck, not to mention personal charm. This zone, which used to be easily traversed with a 50mm focal length, has become a lot harder to deal with. Awareness, perception, and distrust have to a large extent forced the average photographer on the street to move back a bit. Photographers may perceive themselves as creatives capturing a moment in history, but their subjects are growingly seeing them as trespassers, perverts, and untrustworthy social media trolls. But that is precisely where a 75mm or 85mm lens comes into play. These lenses allow you to move back a bit, be less conspicuous, less intrusive, and more discreet. Not that you always want to be that detached from the people you are photographing, but if you don’t have the time to invest in building those relationships (like a photographer in the middle of a festival, procession, or market), then distance could easily prove to be your best friend, and a mid-sized telephoto lens will easily subtract the added distance from your subject. That is why these days, my trusted Leica 75mm f/2 Summicron-M, as well as my Nikon 85mm f/1.4G workhorse, are getting a lot more saddle time on my camera. Ah, and then there’s that glorious bokeh, but that is a subject for another day.
I have to admit that just about every time I go out with my cameras in any city, it is people scenes that I am after. I think this is probably true of just about every street photographer out there, and even when I do not consider myself a street photographer in the strictest sense of the term, I can totally sympathize with the impact (or sense of wonderment) that people bring to a photograph. What can I say? It’s all pretty much a matter of personal preference, and personal means that everyone will have a slightly different opinion about this.
Having said that, I do think that people add an additional dimension to our interpretation of a photograph. If anything, they make these photographs a bit less flat, less three-dimensional in our heads. Human nature also makes us identify with people in photographs. If they are looking in a particular direction, so do we. We feel the weight of anything they carry, the sadness in their expressions, and the love in their eyes. Their emotions, real or imagined, become our emotions. We try to see through their eyes, to relive the scene as we imagine they lived it when the photograph was taken. It becomes personal in a way that an empty scene will have a hard time emulating. It is the magic of the still photograph and the reason why so many of us love this art form.
This photograph pretty much speaks for itself, but it really makes you think of those years-gone-by when friends would actually talk when sitting at an outdoor cafe. How times change. Not that texting is not a form of conversation, but rather that the “here and now” has kind of given way to the “now, but over there.” While I walked around the area taking photographs, these ladies never raised their heads to talk to each other. I guess being there was enough, but that is precisely why I love photography so much: you never take your attention away from what’s around you. In a sense, everything talks to you in some way, and you never stop paying attention to it. You see, you listen, and you constantly feel. It is a visual conversation without distractions. At least that’s something that the Internet won’t be able to change any time soon.
Are we having fun? Don’t blame you if you feel a little down after hearing what the IRS has been up to lately, but this is a question that we ought to be asking ourselves on a much more regular basis. Walking down the Wales Alley in Old Town Alexandria yesterday with my camera, I was asking myself that very question when I came face-to-face with this bicycle just outside the old Bike and Roll shop. Not that taking pictures on a beautiful sunny day is not fun, but rather that seeing this old, so-called Penny-farthing bike made me think of the innocent fun we used to have when we were young. Fear of a broken arm? Nope. Knee scratches? Survived plenty of those. Helmet? You’ve got to be kidding. Did we survive our dangerous youth? Yeap. Carefree days zooming down the neighborhood streets on a wobbly bike, and with lots of dreams in our heads. It is refreshing to remember who I was before I became who I am now. And the more I think about it, the more I’m convincing myself that I just may have to give this Penny-farthing bike a try after all. Wish me luck.