The Life of a Photograph





I’m taking a few days off work and instead of my usual eat-breakfast-at-work-while-processing-email routine, I sat down for my mid-summer breakfast of peaches and yogurt with a recently purchased copy of the book: Fred Herzog: Photographs.

Fred Herzog worked professionally as a medical photographer but his personal work concentrated on capturing the street life of Vancouver. While reading the introductory material my mind began to wander. Fred Herzog had taken over 100,000 images of Vancouver over the course of time since 1953. I was wondering how Herzog determined what to include in this collection.

This thought was triggered by a couple of my nagging to-do items: developing a presentation of my work for the Ojai Photo Club and constructing a portfolio for review by David DuChemin for a visit in October.

I tend to make my images in short bursts of activity. The results are often a collection of short series of works, bound together by place or time. Often there are two or more images which are equally strong, showing single subject from different perspectives. However, there are not enough images, created over a long enough period of time, to create a real collection and I have a difficultly choosing exactly which image to show. I believe that the strength of story spans across images and not any single image.

It was while working out these ideas that I experienced a break-through moment for thinking about how to present my work.

About a year ago, I was introduced to the photography of Sam Abell, a veteran National Geographic Photographer. In Sam Abell’s book, The Life of a Photograph, he annotates the images with short notes discussing his photographic thinking. In many instances he presents two or more images side-by-side to show different visual approaches to the scene. In the book’s introduction he writes:

“Life rarely presents fully finished photographs. An image evolves, often from a single strand of visual interest” and he goes on to say, “Sometimes there is more than one finished photograph.”

This is his notion of the life of a photograph. The process of starting with “a single strand of visual interest” and developing that into one or more finished photographs.

It was this concept that I finally understood and say distinctly in my work. Through a seemingly random chain-reaction of thoughts, over peaches and yogurt, I was able to shed-light on my proclivity for creating small series of images and my weakness in editing down to the one single standout.

In the Rain – A color journey through the streets of Guadalajara

In the Rain

In the Rain – see the whole set

I just came back from a few days in Guadalajara visiting family. While this wasn’t a photography trip, per se, I did spend time each day walking around the El Centro area doing street photography.

I used the 24-70mm exclusively in an effort to wean myself into seeing in wider angles with deeper depth of field. Often at 70mm, but as the days went on, was working more wider angles.

In the Rain

If I were counting the number of “keeper” photographs, I would surely be discouraged. However, I am instead focused on what I learn each time I go out and trying hone in what I want to say and do. After taking workshops with both Sam Abell and Jay Maisel over the past year, I have plenty of lessons to still to master. The information and ideas that these masters so share are not things that are learned quickly and require a fair amount of concentration. They are not recipes for good images but rather methodologies that help with the process of creating a good image. For Sam Abell – set the stage and wait for the action. For Jay Maisel – look for the extraordinary, the “rip in the fabric”, think about light, color, and gesture, wait for the trigger.

In the Rain

Both masters talk extensively about controlling the frame, which is still probably my biggest weakness. Sam Abell controls the frame ahead of time by find the stage (the macro-composition) and waiting for the action and the backstory to come together (the micro-composition). Jay Maisel often finds the subject first and often uses long focal lengths (100-300mm) to frame in tight. Both men have years of experience and practice to which I will never catch up.

In the Rain

Through my experiences I am honing into one thing that I came back to over and over again – the idea of creating a series. These are not typically projects that come about over a long period of time, these are more like the panels of a storyboard taken in short bursts. Three mini-series emerged on this trip to Guadalajara: Through the Cab Window and In the Rain. There are, of course, other random other stand-alone images.

In the Rain

The imagery here in In the Rain was taken exclusively on a 45 minute cab ride from the center of town (El Centro) to our hotel. It is the rainy season in Guadalajara with storms most nights. The rain on the window combined with the brightly colored architecture of Guadalajara and its narrow streets provided this opportunity.  Although I know a series like this could be achieved in many places, this opportunity would rarely occur in Los Angeles where I live. The rain is scarce, buildings are (mostly) bland, and the streets are wide.

In the Rain

Street Shooting – When things go right

When things go right, I can usually trace it back to one of two working styles after seeing the opportunity

  1. The image is instantaneously purposeful, per-envisioned, and backed up by sound technique. I take only a few shots and walk away knowing I have something to remember. Somehow I work through a million combinations in the short amount of time it takes the opportunity to appear and then disappear just as rapidly.
  2. The situation persists for some period of time and I see the potential, but I can’t quite get a handle on where to take it. I work many angles and perspectives. Only after many shots am I able to hone in on the essence and sometimes I don’t even know that I’ve gotten something worth keeping until I review my images at home. I’ll often spend 10-15 minutes shooting the same area or the same person.

As I practice, I strive to increase the amount of time I am successful using the first case – see, think, shoot. But learning to work a scene is also important and I’ll often wind up with something completely new.

In this instance I had one last morning in New York and I had forgotten to take a picture of the front of Jay Maisel’s building. So I returned to the scene of the crime and saw this woman in purple, leaning on a yellow cab, with blue reflected light. I took a first shot and realized I had far too much in the frame. So I move in a couple of steps to get this framing.

Study of a Trumpeter

Study of a Trumpeter

Last night a group from the Ventura County Camera Club took an excursion into Los Angeles first to visit the Annenberg Space for Photography and then to hit Hollywood Blvd after dark.

When I go out on the street, I never know what I’ll get. I am still very much in training and continually thinking about what is interesting and what is important. As well designed as they are, I don’t much like taking images of things that are standing still such window displays. I consider these “other people’s art” or OPA. I don’t much like taking pictures of the homeless or people sleeping. This is too depressing. I do like taking images of people doing things in a way to expresses their personalities.

About halfway through our walk along Hollywood Blvd, I spotted (well heard) this trumpeter (well flugelhorn player) from across the street. Look at that, he was sitting in front of a brightly colored window proudly displaying in red and green “TATTOO”

Study of a Trumpeter

I took out the bazooka (70-200) and worked this angle and waiting for the moments in between the cars and the spectators. The man noticed me and my bright white horn (why Canon, oh why make them white!) and stopped playing and started fiddling with his valves. Darn! Had I missed the opportunity?

My husband said, “he’ll be there when we come back the other way”. Knowing how many times I’ve seen situations vanish I said “No, one thing I’ve learned is that you never assume you can come back for a photograph”. So we stared across the street.

Once across the street, the man was still fiddling, but as my friend and I each added a few dollars into his hat, he started to sing and then to play again.

Study of a Trumpeter

A friend walked by, a conversation ensued, laughs and smiles were shared.

Study of a Trumpeter

One image could not do him justice. Look at how dapper he was dressed. His mouth indicates years of playing. And he had set himself up for the night on a brightly colored stage. Yes, a study was needed.

Creekside Morning – Horizontal and Vertical

Morning at the Creek
Morning at the Creek by I Nancy, on Flickr

I’ve often heard the advice that for every vertical composition, you should also take a horizontal one. The idea is that you never know what you will need in the future as well as providing an automatic way to ensure that you continue to work through and think through the scene.

At this scene I love the feeling of the wide shot below with its tunnel of trees and forced perspective. I do wish, however, that I brought the chain saw to deal with the dead branches on the right. On the other hand, the vertical shot brings its own power as a more intimate view into the creek.

Creekside by I Nancy, on Flickr

Maintenance – and a VC Fair Report

Maintenance by I Nancy, on Flickr

I love creating at a carnival or fair, especially as the sun goes down and the lights go on. The local Ventura County Fair opened last Wednesday and, as is now usual custom, a bunch of us from the local camera club headed down to visit the photography exhibit and do several hours of night photography.

First, I must express my delight in bringing home three 1st-place ribbons and one 3rd. I will get to posting and talking about those images in the near future. I entered eight images and it was interesting that the images that received less recognition were all quite abstract, but these four really hit the mark. With the exception of my beautifully shallow depth of field Cherry Blossom Sundae (1st Flowers Color), each of my winners were what I’ll call soft street which made me all the happier: Phone Home (1st Photo Journalism Color), Ready to Roll (1st Transportation Color), and Late Night Pickup (3rd Transportation B&W). It was also great to see many, many, many of my friends win ribbons of many colors.

But this night at the fair wasn’t about sitting on my laurels and basking in my blue ribbons, it was about pushing forward and building on my study and successes in street photography. It was a difficult night. There are things going on in my life right now that are requiring a huge amount of emotional energy to change. I had a great burst of energy during a week off in July where I photographed, wrote, and studied, but for the last few weeks, I’ve not done much creation. I was not only emotionally stressed, but also a bit rusty – and the light sucked with a typical marine-layer-gray day in Ventura. I walked and wandered taking in the sights and sounds and looking at the washed out colors. I knew I just had to start shooting and, in a way, warming up my senses and reflexes.

Finally, the sun began to set, the lights began to glow, and the colors started to come alive. This image, taken at 6:02 still a good hour before sunset, was the first keeper of the night. It has everything I’m looking for in my street work – story, visual interest, and strong gesture. I was desperately working on taking images of the children on the carousel and it just wasn’t working. My reflexes were too slow, my AF not tracking, flat light, too many distractions. After the carousel stopped I noticed this scene and was able to frame it up and capture a few in sequence.