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.