There are some images that make an impression as soon as you hit the shutter, others you may not even remember.
Some images you know the moment you hit the shutter…
After three days in Chefchauen, the beautiful blue city of Morocco, our next destination Fes, we stopped at the green city of Moulay Idriss Zerhoun for lunch an a cultural tour. Moulay Idriss, like Chefcauen and Fes, has an old medina, of winding passages built on a hill. One the road leading to the medina is here where supplies are brought into town and the market stalls and tea stands are setup. As we were walking to our van, a little short on time, I saw this scene and I think I turned to someone and said – “I need to get this scene”. The color, geometry, and story all spoke to me instantly. Sporting a 50mm lens, I quickly checked some settings, veered left toward the group of men, lifted my camera to my eye and took two quick shots while still in stride, and went back to the group.
Some images, you don’t even remember taking…
On our last afternoon in Chefchauen, a group of us walked through the medina looking for light. On one of the main passages through the medina, this potential scene presented itself. After just a few minutes of shooting, I realized that, even though we had this great streak of light on the wall, very little of the light was falling where people were actually walking. But I was game to watch and wait. I took several shots, trying for the right moment, the right light, but ultimately walked away thinking that nothing special was captured. It happens that way with street photography. But, to my surprise, a few weeks later, upon detailed edit, looking through every image, I found this frame showing a universal story of father and daughter; a perfect moment set against the backdrop of the blue city, berber designs, and dramatic light.
On the fourth day (Thursday) of my workshop with Jay Maisel in 2012, after a morning spent the morning catching up on image critiques, we were taken for lunch to little whole in the wall place that served only two kinds of Chinese dim-sum – sesame bread pork sandwiches and something else. As usual, Jay told us what was best (his favorite) and gave us that look that said: “Hey, I just told you what was the best thing here, but you can make up your own mind.” After lunch we had maybe one-and-a-half hours before we were due back at “The Bank” (Jay’s home, and where we met for the workshop). Jay gave us this advice: “You are going to use this time to prove to yourself that you don’t need a lot of time to make meaningful images.”
Beginning last summer, I have made it a point to take short walks on at the near-by beaches (about 30 minutes away) to spend time with my husband and to see what kind of “meaningful images” I could make in that short time. Last weekend I came upon this scene showing the beach life reflected in the front glass of the new lifeguard stations at Leo Carrillo State Beach. The beach infrastructure was severely impacted by by the Woolsey Fire last summer and all of the historic wooden lifeguard stations have been replaced by these fiberglass pod-like structures. A couple of my all-time favorite images will never be able to be reproduced due to these changes. Another thing Jay taught us at the workshop: “Never assume you can go back.”
More about Jay and the Jay Myself movie
Jay Maisel is one of America’s master photographers and I was lucky enough to take a workshop with him at his infamous “Bank Building” in the Bowery NYC in May 2012. Jay is amazing: his photographic achievements, his approach to life, his creativity, his authenticity. In 2015, Jay sold the bank building and as he moved out, Stephen Wilkes made a documentary film, called Jay Myself, about Jay, his building, and the moving process . You can find some background and the bank building here, and more information about the movie Jay Myself show times at the Laemmle theatre page. Jay Myself will be showing at Laemmle Royal in Santa Monica CA form August 16 – 22nd
One of the iconic locations in Fez is the Chouara Tannery located in the media or Fes al Bali. Anyone who visits Fez, who walks anywhere near the tannery, whether lost in the medina or specifically heading in that direction, will get many invitations to “come see my families leather store” or “let me take you to see the tannery”, of course with the expectation of a small fee in return.
I can’t imagine what it is like to be a tannery worker – kneading the leather in vats of alkali pigeon poop and then dying them in adjacent vats. It looked like back-breaking toxic work.
I was also lucky enough to see the leather auction, which occurs once or twice a week. The auction was vibrant and chaotic, and as I roamed through the men selling their leather, I just tried to stay in the middle of things. There were images everywhere, but I especially want to capture the leather dust in the air created by each seller opening and closing their tanned hides, so that the buyers could see every side.
It’s July and once again I am speaking at the Thousand Oaks Photo Group monthly meeting. Over the past several years, I have been engaged with the club, providing brief tutorials on using different compositional techniques to improve their photography. Tonight’s talk is on using Point of View. Let me start with a definition:
Point of View (noun-phrase)
a particular attitude or way of considering a matter
(in fictional writing) the narrator’s position in relation to a story being told
the position from which something or someone is observed
Synonyms: opinion, view, belief, attitude, feeling, sentiment, way of thinking, way of looking at it, thoughts, ideas
The Literal Interpretation
A photographer can approach this compositional technique literally or conceptually. The third definition, the position from which something or someone is observed,is a literal interpretation. In photography, this can be summarized as “eye-level is boring”. Our job as a photographer is to seek out positions from which to observer something (or someone) that is not ordinary, to show something that most people will never see as they just walk about in the world.
Going low and looking up allows the photographer separate the subject from the scene by simplifying the background and heightening the impact of the subject.
Other perspectives include a high vantage point,
and looking through.
Looking beyond the literal, a photographer can begin to explore unique perspectives to familiar objects or scenes. Providing a conceptual point of view is a critical to engaging story telling.
As an example, here are three, what I will call, documentary views of gardeners in a famous garden in Kanazawa Japan, preparing the garden to protect the trees limbs from breaking under the weight of the heavy snowfall seen in this region. These images tell the documentary story of the workers and the approach. They are a factual narrative.
This image, however, presents a unique point of view, focusing on the geometric positioning, color and texture in the scene. It is not the frame that the causal observer would stop at to look and enjoy.
Whether you are making images of flowers, a daily hike, a local parade, or a family portrait, you owe it to your viewers to provide them with a unique perspective and to show them something in a way that they would not, by themselves, see.
My approach to photography is to capture not just what I see, but I feel. This is a scene from the little city of Chefchaouen in northwest Morocco. I had been “in country” for a couple of days, and Chefchaouen is small enough that the twisting maze of medina streets (the walled part of the city, with narrow alley-like streets allowing no cars) was not too intimidating and so I felt fairly uninhibited wandering.
The medina itself has many charms, but on Monday’s, just outside the media gates, there is a very vibrant market. These complicated street scenes, is just how it felt that morning. Simplicity would have missed the point.
Many of my upcoming images from Morocco will be filled with energy and action. The Morocco I visited was vibrant indeed.
It has been a while since I have connected with my photography community. I am disenchanted with the business model of social-media, which is now mostly a monopoly, and like the taming of the neutron, is a double edged sword. So instead, I must double-down on my commitment to my newsletters and blog posts.
Today, I have some announcements (ok, promotions) to tell you about.
I will be speaking at the LACP on Wednesday February 6th at 7pm, as part of STREET WEEK, joining the two other speakers that evening Ibarionex Perello (host of The Candid Frame) and Thomas Michael Alleman. I thrilled to be a part of STREET WEEK at the Los Angeles Center of Photography (LACP). The week is jam packed with opportunities to learn about street photography including 1/2-day workshops, nightly lectures, the LACP Street Shooting Around the World opening reception, and a guest lecture and workshop by Nick Turpin. I also plan to attend Friday Feb 8 @ 7pm: Street Shooting Around the World – Opening Reception and Saturday Feb 9 @ 7pm: Guest lecture by Nick Turpin.
I also want to mention a new interview with Bob Peterson for the December edition of Street Photography Magazine. He was really too kind in his introduction. “Interview with Nancy Lehrer – Nancy Lehrer is an exceptional photographer and teacher. Get ready to learn some tips that will change the way you shoot the street.”
I’m traveling to Morocco later in February, stopping for a day in Paris and another in Barcelona. I’ll again be traveling with Within The Frame Adventures lead by Jeffrey Chapman and Winslow Lockhart. I will be soaking up the culture and looking for story.
My Dad’s Advice about Photography
Finally, like my Dad always told me: “Take pictures with people in them”.
There is almost no image in my portfolio that doesn’t use layering and a careful consideration of the relationships between image elements in order to tell a deeper story. I’ve written about this approach in my book Life Happens in Color: A Street Photography Manifesto, and recently I wrote a blog post which describes the Compose and Wait method I use to achieve these results. The challenge in making complex layered images, is ensuring that all the pieces of information are working together, organizing the chaos of elements vying for the viewers attention.
At the October 1st meeting of the Thousand Oaks Photo Group, I will be speaking on Using Layers to Organize Chaos as an introduction to their November Digital Composition Challenge. If you want to explore this topic in landscape photography, I urge you to study the images of Clyde Butcher, who has used his large-format B&W photography to bring awareness to the restoration and preservation needs of the Florida Everglades.
This recognition, in real life, of a rhythm of surfaces, lines, and values is for me the essence of photography; composition should be a constant of preoccupation, being a simultaneous coalition – an organic coordination of visual elements.
– Henri Cartier-Bresson
This quote and image by Henri Cartier-Bresson illustrates the importance of looking at the relationships of lines and servers in our photographic pursuit.
When thinking about telling deeper stories, I begin by examining how stories are told in literature. Writers use their words to build layers of description and expression for their readers. Some writers can compose single sentences that describe detailed scenes and complex activities.
He went from house to house dragging two metal ingots and everybody was amazed to see pots, pans, tongs, and braziers tumble down from their places and beams creak from the desperation of nails and screws trying to emerge, and even objects that had been lost for a long time appeared from where they had been searched for most and went dragging along in turbulent confusion behind Melquíades’ magical irons.
– from One Hundred Years of Solitude, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
The beauty of this sentence from the novel One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, is how its describes far more than a simple static scene. Not only does it details an action taking place over time, but also reaches into the past when it suggests that “even objects that had been lost for a long time” were attracted to these “magical irons”.
I have pushed myself to take images that are as elegant and descriptive as this type of writing seeking to build images that refer to actions, describe the present, refer to the past, and lure the viewer to thinking about the future. In order to do this, images need detail, and the detail needs to be organized.
I opened this post with a image taken at the Quattro Canti in Palermo. This corner is of an architectural importance, on the corner of each of the 4 districts of historic Palermo stands a nearly identical building but with each representing a different king, patron and season. Acting like a sundial, the face of each building is lit at different times of day. In this image, I use a fairly long lens (90mm effective focal length) to flatten the layers of people passing nearby in shadow against the grand face of the sun-lit building diagonally across the intersection from where I am positioned. Although the perspective has been flattened by the long-lens,the layers are provided by the scale difference between the silhouette of the bike-rider and the two men sitting below the statue. I probably took over one hundred images at this corner while waiting to get just the the right light, the right scene to play out in the distance, and the right passerby and timing.
Comparing Compositional Approaches – The Story of Manouchehr, now called “Mike”
Fairfax Avenue was a thriving Jewish neighborhood of Eastern Europeans and Persians when Manouchehr Monsef purchased Sydney Shoes some 40 years ago. He now spends most days alone surrounded only by his fading shoe boxes with no customer in sight. When I walked into his store, Manouchehr was more than happy to tell me his stories about the neighborhood, and about his sons and grand-daughters. He also told me that he has many names – Manouchehr his Persian name; Moe, the name he used the first time he came to America; but now on his business card he is simply Mike. But the name he treasures the most is “Baba-boo”, his grand- daughter’s pronunciation of “baba bozorg”, the Farsi endearment for Grandfather.
The images I took of Manouchehr, “Mike”, represent a variety of compositional approaches – a establishing shot, a portrait, some details, the story of his grand-daughter, and some layered shots. The image above is the most layered and taken from a unique perspective that provides not only the needed details about the person and the scene, but also an off-balance perspective that is consistent with the story.
The establishing shot is a straight-forward composition that ensures that all the elements are cleanly delineated and carefully included within the frame – the shoes, Manouchehr with his zig-zag posture, and the shelves filled with faded shoe boxes. The portrait gives us a sample of his personality, describing how things have changed. The environmental portrait puts Manouchehr in his environment with the cluttered desk. They story he shared with me culminated in talking about his pride of raising his family and now 2nd-generation American granddaughter. The first whole scene image is an attempt to tell the story in one image, but second uses a unique perspective and layers to recreate the almost surreal atmosphere of this little shop caught in time.
Finally, I leave you with several examples of the use of layers to tell a deeper story with clear order and composition. Note in each of these images the clear delineation and relationships between elements and how the background elements provide additional context and story.