Shaking off the dust….

One of the things I’ve noticed with modern photography is our expectation of being really good really fast. It’s so EASY to make pictures, so if we can make them so effortlessly then why shouldn’t we be able to make great work right away? Outside of the lucky situation, photography typically doesn’t work that way.
I know for me it takes a lot of time, energy, practice and rhythm. Yes, rhythm. When I don’t shoot for a long period of time I actually have to get out in the field and shake the mental and physical dust off BEFORE I’m able to really work at a level that I’m satisfied with.

So a few short weeks ago I taught a workshop in Victoria BC, hosted by Luz Gallery and all their fine folks. We had a class of ten rabid students all waiting to make a few “documentary portraits.” I arrived in Victoria a day early and the weather was absolutely perfect. Standing in the hotel room, running my hands over my equipment-something we all do admit it-I realized it felt a bit foreign. My gear felt like a family member I’d known my entire life, but someone I hadn’t seen in years.

So I grabbed the Leica and the Fuji GF 670 folding camera and went out to shake off the dust. I left the hotel, walked straight to the harbor and immediately began asking strangers if I could “make their portrait.” All I was doing was trying to get my head back in the game of being a photographer. Like many of you, my head is polluted with far too many things, so many that I can’t possibly concentrate on what I need to unless I quiet all the work, family and business voices floating around in my melon.
So I headed out and just began to shoot anyone, anywhere in any way. The first image was the young girl in the “Canada” shirt, who I intentionally shot in extreme backlit conditions. I wanted to FEEL the light through the viewfinder as it pierced my eye. I wanted to see how my hands fit on the camera, where my “default” finger position was. And, I wanted to talk to people I didn’t know. I wanted to see what I could get away with if you will.

Walking up to strangers, asking them to make a portrait, is something that freaks a lot of people out, but as a photographer you just have to be able to do it, so like finding my rhythm with my gear I’m also looking for a similar connection with the people I’m photographing. I see them approaching and I try and determine what my odds are. Sometimes I go after the most difficult looking person, NOT because I’m looking for a great image, I’m simply forcing myself into the world I need to be in to be able to eventually get the images I want.

Again, when I walked around Victoria I was not looking for great images. I know that might sound odd but I wasn’t. It’s not that I’m ignoring that opportunity, but I’m mostly getting into the right mindset. I’m looking for people, faces, interaction, conversation, light and to get my timing back online. For the first day I normally SEE images instead of MAKE images. And if this doesn’t happen to you, keep it to yourself! I don’t want to know I’m the only person this happens to?

I typically set a goal for myself, say a single roll of 220 Portra, and then I make myself go use it. Anyone who comes near me, “Hey, can I make your portrait?” These images, or portraits, are made in 15-seconds or less. “Thank you,” and I’m gone. I see a patch of good light, I shoot it. Just to remind myself of the primary ingredients. A bird takes flight. I shoot it. Get my timing going. And I’m also waiting for that first, “No thank you,” that comes when you ask and get shot down. For me, it always feels horrible, but I know it’s coming. I need to feel it to feel alive in some strange way. It reminds me this isn’t easy, we only think it is.

26 Responses to “Shaking off the dust….”

  1. Paul R says:

    Great post! I don’t make portraits, but go through the same process of finding my eye and rhythm when I get out into the landscape after an absence.

    I’m happy the ducks agreed to having their portrait made!

  2. AKFOTO says:

    That’s right making pictures not taking pictures. There is a big, BIG difference.

  3. David Burke says:

    I just experienced this same thing while being out of town for the Holiday. Well said. Good to know I am not alone!

  4. Don Denton says:

    The cigar smoking girl is great! Thanks again for the Victoria workshop. It was an excellent 2.5 days.

    • Smogranch says:

      Don,

      That is my favorite too, but they were all good in getting to talk with those folks, make super-fast portraits and try to get my head back in the game. That is a serious cigar.

  5. Charlene says:

    I experience this sort of thing if I haven’t shot a certain type of job, or subject for a while. Plenty of warming up and dust shaking off required. That portrait of the girl with the cigar is great! Unlikely pairing of subject and object.

  6. Thank you for sharing your mental preperation for photographing. Always fascinating and inspirational when you share your experiences.

  7. Ditto here, I am also presently shaking off the dust hammering away the rust and just shooting every day.

    Cigar Smoking Girl (relation to Cigarette Smoking Man from X-Files?) is damn cool.

  8. Tom says:

    Nice post. I’m always surprised at how many people don’t like to have their picture taken because they don’t feel that they ‘look good enough’. It’s like glamor magazines have created this myth that if you don’t look like a fashion model you’re ugly. Of course the best portraits are of the people who have been forged by time and the pressures of life. I just started trying to shoot stuff like this and it’s a challenge to make it happen in a few seconds.

    • Smogranch says:

      Well, seeing as my wife reads those mags, I think you are on to something here. I keep telling her, “Those things are doing a number on your head.”

  9. I’m just so blinded by the color that I don’t know what to say… :-) Great stuff, as always! I’ll call soon so we can catch up some more. It was great to see you in NYC!

  10. I love your posts, some seem to be talking directly to me. Now I have the luxury as you said of photographing everyday, but when I don’t I get rusty for a while. Great portraits. I have been thinking on getting a medium format camera, how happy are you with the Fuji GF 670?

    • Smogranch says:

      Maria,

      Yes, it is a very good camera. Sharp lens, small and VERY quiet. A bit on the delicate side, but if you are easy on your gear…should be great.

  11. Jeff R says:

    My wife and I really enjoyed the talk on Friday afternoon at Luz.
    Thank you.

    I know those two ducks and the are pricey…

  12. Great post, and some beautiful shots. The backlit shots, the girl and the people-less landscape shot are my favorites….and next time you see that guy with the skirt on, make him an offer on my behalf for that jacket! I want one…..price no object.

  13. Daniel, I’m a frequent reader on your bloggity blog here and am a huge fan of your work. I appreciate your transparency and your willingness to let us know you are still figuring yourself out… you’re just further up the food chain, doing so. :)
    This past summer was my first foray into medium format film shooting and I went with the RZ67. I’d never gone around and asked strangers for the opportunity to shoot their portraits before I had the RZ but lugging around something that big breaks the ice a bit, just like your GF670 I’m sure. Anyway, thanks for this post… I’ve gotten lazy about getting out and beating the pavement with a roll of film. I’ll go start shaking the dust off tomorrow morning. Thanks again for all your inspirational words and photographs.

    • Smogranch says:

      Hey Matthew,

      Thanks for saying that. Glad you find something useful here. It’s odd, you would think a large camera like the RZ would be MORE difficult to use, but I think you are right about breaking the ice. It’s like watching someone set up an 8×10. People are intrigued and want to be a part of that.

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