Wall to Wall People – Working with Complexity

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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.

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An open Thank You to Sam Abell

Take 1

Take 2

It’s been a couple of weeks now since my class Sam Abell at the Pacific Northwest Art School and I’ve yet to thank him fully. It was quite a class, quite a week, quite a challenge.

First I need to get one thing out of the way. Do not expect to produce your best, most exceptional, work during a week-long intensive with a master photographer. A great image is the result of the alignment of many things including – clarity of vision, mastery of technique, acute awareness of composition, and opportunity. Master classes, on the other hand, push you beyond your current notion of vision, challenge your technical abilities, increase your awareness of your compositional sloppiness, and enforce mandatory daily picture taking.

The routine for this class was quite similar to the workshop I took with Jay Maisel – and I suspect a common formula (now that I have two under my belt). The first day was spent with an introduction by Sam’s to his approach to photography and his personal message to us to become 24-hour photographers. Take pictures of everything. “If you want to make fine photographs, make fine snapshots”. He urged us to keep a diary camera and to practice photography by journaling our daily lives and taking images of everything around us. I am trying to take that to heart and will have more on this approach in the future.

Regarding what I learned at the workshop. The core of Sam’s photography is his process and approach to composition. The phrase “compose and wait” is a central notion but only scratches the surface of the full concept. The goal of his process is to create rich layered images with a place for everything and everything in its place. In a previous blog post, A Lesson with Sam Abell – Micro-Composition, I wrote about a session I had with Sam at Santa Monica Beach where he gave me a first-hand illustration of the technique. In this workshop I was able to take these concepts further. On the first day he relayed story to us of a conversation he had with one of his colleagues. After some discussion, his colleague pronounced that Sams photography wasn’t about micro composition, it was about nano-composition. Macro, micro, or nano composition, Sam’s process for layering an image and putting things in their places is one that not only serves him well, but one that has taken my photography to a new level. He talked about his process as one that can take you past “reductive” photography – the technique of reducing and simplifying to create order and focus – to the creation of richer more complex images that have the same sense of ease to the viewer. He confessed that for years he pursued the reductive notion but ultimately realized that complex photographs are richer, but so much harder.

Through daily discussion and critique, he shared with us several combination genres which he pursues to create these richer photographs:

  • Still life with a life – start with a still life, but find some life to moving through it.
  • Still life attached to a landscape – a still life in a landscape setting
  • Portrait attached to a landscape – a portrait in a landscape setting
  • Whole world photography – capturing a big full scene, but with each element in its place

When Sam talks about elements and line in a photograph, he refers to them as poetic, as in “look at the poetry of the profile of these buildings on the horizon” or “the poetic line formed by the reflection of a sailboat mast”.

The most amazing part of the workshop was during the critique sessions where I observed Sam’s ability observe and evaluate an image with the speed and accuracy of a bullet. Without missing a single detail, he sees everything in it within seconds. I asked him about his process. His answer was revealing. “I just look at it as if it was in my view finder.” How simple, yet how elusive to most of us.

I spent much of the week searching for opportunity, not quite knowing what to say with my camera, what poem to write. Whidbey Island is a quiet town. Quiet towns make quiet pictures and it took much of the week for me to reconcile this and to look for the quiet moments. I present here a couple of quiet moments on the ferry between Whidbey Island and Port Townsend. This couple, with their careful dress and demeanor, represents the presence and intentionality that Sam teaches us to bring to our photography.

Thank you Sam for your open and thoughtful week. Thank you for sharing your knowledge. Thank you for your insight and wisdom. And thank you for pushing me beyond.

Havana First Impressions – Paseo del Prado

Playing on the Prado

I thought it would be easy to sit down and write a post about my first impressions of Cuba and Havana, but I was wrong. There is too much to say and I know too little.

Man in Thought

After a morning of travel and lunch stop at a government restaurant, we finally settled into the Hotel Parque Central around 4pm. By 5pm I was taking my first, tentative, walk in Havana, down the Paseo del Prado.

After Work

The Prado is a large pedestrian walkway that leads from Havana Central to the harbor and the Malecón, the sea wall. Immediately I felt the presence of the people, birds, and traffic which roared down the busy Paseo de Marti on either side.

Family Afternoon on the Prado

The Prado is a gathering place for friends, family, children playing, street vendors, and just a place to sit and rest at the end of the day. Every few feet is an alcove with stone benches built into the wall separating the Prado from the busy 2-lane street on either side of the walkway. Immediately I was attracted to the small groups that would gather in each of the alcoves. Kids playing, people resting, families, and friends engaged in conversation. I could have spent the week just walking up and down the Prado capturing its little scenes.

Mercado La Primera De Prado

Some kids follow you along, asking “monea, monea?”. Unfortunately this is too common with young children and old women. But mostly people sit and talk and go about their business and are open to the American, Canadian, and European tourists snapping their pictures.

An Open Trunk

The ubiquitous 50’s American car, in all states of repair and disrepair. A car by the side of the road with either the hood or trunk open is a common site.

Red car in motion

Street Scene

After a short walk, I reached the Malecón. Like most landmarks, there are lots of great travel images of the Malecón taken at the right time of day, in the right weather, with just the light, the right car coming down the road, and the appropriate amount of waves splashing over the wall or children playing. But my first impressions are on a mostly cloudless day as the sun sets. Men and boys playing with their dogs as a couple of young photographers look on.

The Malecón

Capturing the feel – Guadalajara

Guadalajara

With my In the Rain eye-candy out of the way, here is a different view of Guadalajara.

Although I spent a fair amount of time walking around the El Centro region of the city, what I saw from the highway is what I’ll remember. Imagine stands where you can buy fruit and roasted chicken at the edge of the main highway into town. This image says it all for me with a family resting under a shed at the edge of the highway as a semi-drives by.

Upstairs, Downstairs

Upstairs, Downstairs
Upstairs, Downstairs by I Nancy, on Flickr

When I saw this situation, I was reminded of one Alfred Steiglitz’s famous photograph The Steerage. Steiglitz, in his photograph,  perfectly juxtaposes Jewish men in full morning prayer on the lower, steerage, deck of a ship against the more casual crowds in bowlers and straw hats above.

In this scene, I was able to use the lights and hand railings in the bottom part of the image to draw the viewer all the way through and into the scene. With the woman rushing up the ramp set back as well. The upstairs scene needed to take care of itself, as I was concentrated on the woman below and her positioning against to get her lit within the tunnel. I like the man on the left, his face full visible between the bars, and I think he brings a sense of order and meaning to the top image.

The image is divided by  the dramatically stylized art-deco STATION sign that is so characteristic of Los Angeles Union Station. Travelers familiar with Union Station will recognize this sign immediately.