Wall to Wall People – Working with Complexity

SM_20150705_00228-Edit

When it comes to my street photography, I am heavily influenced by the work of Alex Webb and David Alan Harvey. Both of these photographers are known for their highly layered complex images with compositions that play with the juxtapositions of near and far subjects. Though these compositions are quite complex, each image is collection of clearly identifiable scenes and interactions, each playing out in their own space within the image.

Here is a set of images from Santa Monica Beach taken during the busy July 4th weekend. The bright sun and harsh light adds to this colorful and active scene. Images were taken with the Olympus OM-D EM-1 and 17mm lens (35mm effect focal) prime lens. Although you may think that with these more complicated the scenes, a zoom lens would help manage what is in the frame, however, I find it easiest when I stick to a fixed focal length and move my feet to find the right location then wait for the moment.

SM_20150705_00409-Edit

SM_20150705_00413-Edit

SM_20150705_00155-Edit

SM_20150705_00122-Edit

SM_20150705_00279-Edit

SM_20150705_00110-Edit

The forest, a cape, and a dog – How I got this shot in Ireland

Click image to appreciate large.
Click image to appreciate large.

I want to talk about this image –  what makes the image stand out for me and why I put it in black and white (something I rarely do), I want to illustrate how I got the shot and what I was thinking. It is a process I use often and sets me up for being able to capturing these poignant fractions of time.

Choosing the frame

I took 36 images to get this shot. This image is frame number 10.

I chose this particular frame from the sequence because it shows clearly a figure and a dog miniaturized by the breadth and majesty of the forest. There is not a lot of detail in either the future or the dog and this helps the viewer appreciate the size and magnificence of the forest around them. They are clearly recognizable, however, and in each occupy own separate space in the image. The figure, all in silhouette, looks mysterious with her jacket forming the shape of a cape. The silhouette is also fully surrounded by lighter areas making the shape standout without ambiguity. In art they call this using “figure and ground” to make the shapes stand out. The dog, is also in a figure-ground relationship with the background, only in this case a white dog against the shadow of the path floor. The fast that the figure is black on white and the dog is white on black increases the visual enjoyment of the image. Finally there is the forest and the diffuse light hitting all the bright green spring leaves in such a way as to highlight every little layer and texture.

I rarely turn my digital images to black and white, not because I have anything against black and white, but because I usually use the color in my images as an additional form of contrast, focus, and emotion. For this image, however, it is too green – all green. The beauty of this image are the layers of texture and light patterns in the leaves and the use of figure ground and I think black and white will show this best.

Getting the shot

If this were a roll of 36 exposure film, this is what you would see.

Click to view large in another window.
Click to view large in another window.

Novice photographers often try to capture these types of images with a chase the image sort of process: “see image, hope your camera is set ok, pray you focus well, try to grab the shot”. Rarely am I successful in taking “grab” shots using this method, instead I have developed a discipline of looking for situations that could present opportunities in the near future and following my instinct and waiting for the image to materialize, as was the case for this image.

I was standing on the steps of Moore Hall and had just finished taking this shot of the graffiti I found inside. I turned around and saw the forest and the path and liked this higher vantage point.

Moore Hall
Moore Hall

Graffiti Ghosts
Graffiti Ghosts

I was lagging my friends because I was taking many pictures in the forest on our way to Moore Hall. They had already moved off the scene and where off to the right. As I turned around I noticed the figure coming up the path. My first thought was to wonder if something unusual would happen to make this more than just a “person on a path” image. I framed up the shot, checked my camera settings and dug into my position.

Frame 2
Frame 2
(Frame 2) As the figure moved closer I noticed that her jacket looked like a cape
– that would create a nice extra piece of the story. I started shooting, not really confident that my tiny photographer brain would know, in the moment, exactly what combination of person, path, and forest would have impact.

Frame 6
Frame 6
(Frame 6) A little closer and I noticed the dogs. “Dogs!”, my tiny photographer brain in my tiny photographer voice exclaimed, “A cape and dogs!”. “Oh no, two dogs! Why two dogs? I need just one dog.” My tiny photographer voice continued jabber on. I continued to shoot.

Frame 7
Frame 7
(Frame 7) One dog lags behind and I evaluate the scene: a figure in a cape, with a dog, on a path in the forest. I figure is nice with the cape-like silhouette, the dog still just a speck. I keep following the scene as it unfolds, carefully holding my composition as best I can.

Frame 8
Frame 8
(Frame 8) Good, the dog is now in profile. It is recognizable as a dog, even at this small size. What will it do next. I just follow the dog. Taking my pictures to capture the dog gestures and relationship with the unidentified “caped” master. This is perhaps the most important moment of getting the shot.

Frame 10
Frame 10
(Frame 10) The dog stretches. I hardly notice that this will be the keeper, I’m simply keyed into taking a shot at each different gesture of the dog.

Frame 15
Frame 15
(Frame 15) The dog starts to run ahead. Just as with Frame 8, this is another important moment to notice as it constitutes a pivotal point in time for the next potential perfect alignment of juxtaposition and gesture. Another shot might still be in the future. Will the dog turn and do something interesting a little closer? As it happens, it doesn’t materialize.

Frame 20
Frame 20
(Frame 20) Sniffing the ground, the two dogs are separated, this is promising, my tiny photographer brain thinks.

Frame 28
Frame 28
(Frame 28) One dog is now out of the picture and never really made an interesting gesture. The figure is not in the light with fully recognizable features, and the small dog by her side. I keep shooting, but notice that when the dogs run, my shutter is really to slow and the mystery is gone as soon as all the figures are in the light.

The scene is over. Did I get one? I remember the steps and the concentration, I’m pretty sure I held my composition throughout the sequence. Did I get a moment, a gesture, and a play of light all to coincide? I would only be able to evaluate my success by looking at the whole sequence after the emotion had passed.

Curbside Truck Repair

Downtown LA

The thing about downtown LA is the diversity of old and new, opulent and poor. I ran into this guy fixing a new, to him, 1967 Dodge truck parked at the curb on 5th street near Los Angeles street. I was just walking along and I heard loud banging noises which were the result of him working on fixing the door so that it would open all the way. He was so proud of his new truck. I wonder where he will park it.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Ralph and The Hotel Baltimore

Downtown LA

As part of the Downtown LA book project, John and Scott Free assigned each of us an isolation challenge. We were given a specific location (address or street corner) and challenged to spend an entire hour photographing just from that location. This challenge forced us to slow down and to wait for the stories to come to us.

I was assigned “501 S. Los Angeles Street”, just two blocks north of skid row at the corner of 5th Street and Los Angeles. When I arrived I found the Hotel Baltimore.

postcard1917-better

There is not much history for the Hotel Baltimore on the internet, but I did find out that this is the “new” Hotel Baltimore built in 1910 by Thomas Ashton Fry and designed by architect Arthur Rolland Kelly. Across 5th Street is the King Edward Hotel which is apparently famous for the King Eddy Saloon. There is a brief history on their website which reads:

Not many people remember a time before the King.
We’ve been open since 1933 and we were around before that too. Bootlegging empires were born below this place.
Today we keep it upstairs, “where nobody gives a shit about your name.” Cheap drinks, some food, and a dart room.

In the early 1900’s, 5th Street was lined with hotels leading from the Southern Pacific Railroad Central Station at 5th and Central to the downtown core of Main, Spring, Broadway, and Hill Streets. Even though Central Station was demolished in 1956, many of the 5th Street hotels still stand.

Now the Hotel Baltimore is but a shell of its former glory. No longer a hotel for traveling business men, it serves as low-rent apartments. The security guard indicated that there are two kinds of people at the Baltimore, the old timers and the new folks who rarely stay past their 6 month lease.

The Baltimore presents itself visually as a large open, and empty, foyer with nondescript windows and a couple of doors with signs reading “Do Not Knock”. At first I watched for people to come and go and looked for opportunities as people walked the street. Some ignored me others thought they were having a little fun.

DTLAFree_20150206_00065

DTLAFree_20150206_00123

A woman came down to mop the floor. She waived but then went about her business.

DTLAFree_20150206_00106

As I started to think about finding layers, I worked on shooting through two sides of the windows, to appear as if I was shooting from the inside out.

Downtown LA

I looked for reflections to create depth and interest, to overlay the stories inside with the environment outside.

DTLAFree_20150206_00113

On Sunday afternoon, the door with the label “Do Not Knock”, was propped open with a tall and friendly security guard. We chatted some.

DTLAFree_20150208_01271

DTLAFree_20150208_01272

DTLAFree_20150208_01251

Residents started to come and go.
Downtown LA

Then Ralph came out for a smoke. He had recently fallen on bad times and was “back at the Baltimore”.

DTLAFree_20150208_01282

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

He wondered if I would take a picture of him that he could send to his sister. I hope his sister likes it.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA