Yesterday, I decided to have a little fun with my Leica. After all, with the cold, flu-inducing weather refusing to leave us alone for the season, it occurred to me that what I needed was a little lighthearted photo day. My goal: to do a little tribute to the famous Leica photographer Ralph Gibson. This name may not mean much to those who are not Leica fanatics photographers, but to those who are, Mr. Gibson is somewhat of a Dalai Lama figure in the Leica community. When he talks, people listen. And his talking is mostly done through the lens of a Leica camera.
But why Ralph Gibson? The answer is that contrary to just about everyone I have come in contact with in the photographic community, Mr. Gibson is known (among many other things) for mastering the “vertical” photographic style. The world may be busy taking photos with a horizontal orientation (which admittedly allows for lots of forgiving cropping), but Mr. Gibson is a master of the vertical world, and has been for as long, long time. Easy? Not really. After a day of shooting only vertically to see what this would feel like, all I can say is that not only is this approach ergonomically hard, but it is also compositionally challenging. At the end of the day I felt I had gone through an entire paradigm change in my approach to photography. My photographic world had stopped revolving around avoiding people from walking into my scene and was now obsessed with a somewhat unfamilial vertical line along a much narrower visual alley.
The funny thing is that this approach to photography is also kind of liberating. Verticality, I realized, tends to exclude the superfluous, or at least most of it. It also reduces dramatically those distracting elements that force photographers to use the cropping tool to the point of overheating. But mastering this vertical approach to composition is definitely hard work. Shooting with a Leica rangefinder while trying to keep both eyes open as you manually focus is a challenge in and of itself, not to mention that your eyes tend to see a lot more horizontally than vertically when on a natural state (blame it on the eyebrows or something). That Mr. Gibson’s trained photographic eyes appear to live easily on that up-and-down, rangefinder plane is nothing short of remarkeable. That this verticality takes place up close in shapes and figures that most people don’t even notice, is even more astounding. After a day of attempting to grasp this whole vertical approach to composition by shooting exclusively “that way,” I certainly had a taste of the challenges and rewards associated with this visual approach. Hooked? Not sure, but I surely intend to tilt my camera from its traditional comfort zone a lot more in the future.
To be perfectly candid, I never go out with the intention of photographing chairs, or any other type of furniture for that matter. In fact, when I recently encountered this scene, I had already snapped hundreds of photos of people and architectural landmarks. What’s more, I have walked down this little, hidden street on too many occasions to count, and never had I seen this small table with a red chair before. What made it more interesting was that it was never my intention to photograph the young lady in the photo. In fact, when I started kneeling down to compose the photo, this person was not even in the frame. I never saw her, but suddenly she went past me from behind and there she was in my camera frame like an apparition. You know that feeling when someone you never saw suddenly appears from behind you? Well, that was my immediate feeling when I saw the lady. And the red shoes? Call that a photographic bonus, because I’m not sure this scene would have worked as well without those shoes, so I’ll take luck any day.
We have to sometimes wonder whether it is best to be noticed when we are out and about, or whether it is better if no one ever pays us any attention. After all, some of us do spend a little bit of time color coordinating, placing the hair just so, and making sure that there is not much out of place before we venture into the open world where self-anointed fashion critics lurk around coffee shops and sidewalk restaurants to mercilessly critique our threads and the way we wear them. OK, I’ll admit that this is a bit overstated, but hey, that’s the way it feels sometimes. Of course, I must admit that I’m using “yours truly” as a point of reference, which is all I’m an authority at, and that most of you out there are quite the head-turners (in a good way, that is). But be that as it may, the point is that while some people do deck-up so that at least someone notices them, other folks couldn’t care less about the unwanted attention. That’s a pity, because being noticed reminds us that we are alive and that we are part of the great human story of our times. So go out, strut your stuff, notice and be noticed. Take it all in, because these will be the memories of your life.
I have started working out. Well, not working out as an olympic hopeful would work out, but rather something more like going for a walk with the intent of detecting any degree of perspiration. I even get to look the part, with my Pearl Izumi jacket, my New Balance walking shoes, my long-distance runner’s cap, and a great Timex triathlon sports watch. I’m definitely all decked-out, if you know what I mean. But while all of this is fine, what really makes my workouts so valuable is that I get to carry a camera with me to capture the unexpected photo. Of course, stoping to photograph every interesting scene I come up to does break my exercise rhythm (what rhythm?), but it is crucial that I try to avoid the post-exercise depression that could ensue if I miss the infamous photo every photographer misses when they don’t have a camera with them. My choice of camera for these cardio outings: the legendary Ricoh GR (read about this little wonder here). The problem is that even after a couple of times out on my way to becoming a mean, lean, fighting machine, I have kind of forgotten about the exercise part. Photography is just that enticing for me. Light, bracketing, composition, and all things photographic seem to conspire against muscle tone development. Definitely a tough going, but I guess no one ever said that this exercise thing would be easy.
One of the things I like about photography is the ability to capture rare moments and freeze them for eternity. After all, everything that happens around us takes place in video mode and nothing stays the same for more than a few seconds at a time. But to freeze time in order to be able to ponder on that split second for as long as we want, well, that is real magic as far as I’m concerned. That is why every time I look at this photograph I will think of the meaning of friendship and the importance of spending time together with all the people who matter to us. This visual introspection is only possible because the scene never moved from that second; it was not cluttered by other scenes vying for our attention. Such is the magic of photography.