Writing a Photography Manifesto

Immigrant Hand Shake at the Mercato di Ballarò, Palermo Italy

The Mercato di Ballarò is a large street market in the Albergheria district of Palermo. The Albergheria is one of the four districts of old-Palermo and dates back to the 8th century Phoenician conquest. The market is loud and busy throughout the day offering every type of produce, fish, meat, cheese, olives, dry-goods, spices, and street-food. The immigrant crisis of the last 10 years has had a particularly large impact on Palermo owing to its liberal immigrant policies led by the current center-left (Democratic) mayor – Leoluca Orlando. Due to urban flight, it is estimated that 29,000 Palermitani (Palermo natives) have left the town over the past 10 years. They have largely been replaced by 30,000 immigrant citizens who have fled poverty-stricken and war-torn parts of Africa and the Middle East. Many have settled into the older low-rent area of the Albergheria. Even with only a faint knowledge of this current sociopolitical situation in Palermo, this scene caught my eye as a symbolic hand-shake between the old Sicilian traditions and the new immigrant culture.

In the Spring of 2017, my thoughts about what and why I photograph haunted me like the looping ding-ding-ding melody of an ice-cream truck melody circling the neighborhood. Flipping through my social-media streams left me feeling frustrated and bored. There were so many images that felt like I had seen them before, providing no new information. I wondered if my photographs were just as banal and flavorless. I wondered if I was adding yet one more soulless voice to the cacophony of technically perfect, but emotionally empty, images around me.

It was a call to action. I needed to take time to reflect on the importance of photography for me. Did I photograph to create visual pleasure or to change the world? Where along this spectrum did my passion lie?

In pursuit of this understanding, I gave myself an assignment to write down my beliefs in photography. I tried to analyze why I photograph and why I look at photographs. I thought about images that make me pause and think, and I thought about scenes that thrill me to observe. I questioned if I was attracted to content presented in an interesting way, or interesting content.

It was a messy process. My beliefs were slow to emerge. At first I wrote whole sentences; too many of them and with overlapping ideas. To pare them down, I took a minimalist approach, evaluating and ranking the value of each idea: “Is it truthful? Is it authentic? Is it essential?” My ideas evolved, advancing one day, regressing the next, but finally settling into a short list of unique concepts which I ordered based on their importance to me.

Tentatively, I put the list to the test. I chose some of my favorite images to see how many of my core concepts were present. I applied the same test to images for which I received some form of external validation. I found both confirming and disconfirming evidence that my newly-expressed principles were truly honest with myself. I discovered that some of my ideals were compatible with what others found interesting and worthy, and others were not. I could not decide if my aspiration was achievable, or if I had set the bar too high. I would need to determine if I could I use this list to guide the creation of new work in addition to the evaluation of existing work. I continued to refine my list and strengthen my affirmations to it.

The next step was to explore how to express these ideas to the world now that I was prepared to profess them as my core defining principles. Could I explain them to others and would they care? I took a two-step process. The first step was to identify a couple of representative examples for each principle. Writing in the first person, I set to describe each image: where I was, why I was there, what I saw, what I tried to capture, what I decided to include or exclude, and generally how the image represented the core principle. The second step was to write a general overview of the principle explaining what it meant, why it was important, and how to determine if it had been achieved. I was able to describe some concepts easily, others came with some difficulties, and still others left me feeling communicatively inept.

The final result was my photography manifesto – my mission statement, proclamation, pronouncement – about how, what, and why I photograph. It was tested and explained in a 98-page book and even included a chapter street photography technique. Even though some of the principles were mature and others embryonic, I was ready to share it with the world. But I still wondered if I was capable to live up to its ideals.

Shortly after I completed my manifesto, I embarked on a two-week journey to Italy, spending time in Palermo and Venice. This was my first full-blown test to determine if I could live up to my own expectations. I walked the streets of Palermo for hours exploring churches, street markets, and historic landmarks. I met locals and talked with other tourists. I experienced surprise, joy, awe, loneliness, and discomfort. In Venice I wandered the twisty alleyways, often times getting lost and never quite finding my desired destination. Tired and disoriented, I rode the vaporetto (waterbus) along the Grand Canal back to my hotel to get my bearings. Through all these mini-adventures, I photographed. Hesitantly at first, asking myself too many times: “Is this image worthy? Does it meet my new standards?” But when I settled down, I found more confidence and conviction than ever. I discovered anew my joy, creativity, and satisfaction in my photography. I returned home with a handsome set of images that I am proudly adding to my portfolio.

A Street Photography Manifesto by Nancy Lehrer

I believe in the use of photography to tell candid stories that document the human condition in order to bring people together with understanding and acceptance.

These are the principles that guide my photography:

  • Create compelling stories: Say something, ask questions.
  • Life happens in COLOR: Color carries emotional content.
  • Create visual poems: Composition matters.
  • Composition is additive: Use a lot of adjectives.
  • Connect the dots: Capture the scene as the subject.
  • Create short stories: Tell a story through time.
  • Travel: Spread a worldview of understanding and acceptance.
  • Take chances: An image is more than the sum of its pixels.
  • Follow the National Press Photographer Association’s Code of Ethics.

Life Happens in COLOR –
A Street Photography Manifesto is available from my Blurb bookstore.

In this book I explain my manifesto, provide examples, and include a chapter on street photography technique.

Gondola Repair, Venice Italy

It was my last day in Venice, a beautiful sunny Friday. The day’s agenda was to make one final exploratory excursion to four of Venice’s six districts visiting one cicchetti bar every two hours between noon and dinner. (Cicchetti are small plates of food severed at bars often consisting of tasty pates, fish, or cured meats and garnish on a small slice of bread.) Even though gondola travel seems to be exclusively for tourists, it is obviously an important part of the Venetian tradition. I had yet to take a meaningful image. I had passed this gondola repair facility twice already during my week visit, but in neither case was I able to find my image. After finishing my cicchetti about a block away, I decided to go back for one more try. I returned to find this scene – a picture within a picture.

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Venice Noir

inancyimages.com

View the whole series

I’ve been very excited to complete the edit of two specific series of images from Venice and Palermo. One is about the tourists, and although I’ve not quite settled on a name, it is definitely about the tourists. In fact, I have images from Japan and Los Angeles that will also fit in the series, so I think this will be a longer project. I’ll be revealing that series in a few weeks.

The other is a series of images of Venice after dark, or Venice Noir. The first few images started as a lark. Amusing myself while walking home from a cultural-appropriate late dinner, I was feeling lighthearted and frisky from the good food, good company, and ample drink. During the week, the weather was mostly overcast with episodes of rain. Nothing dramatic, but certainly enough to bring out the umbrellas and turn the cobble-stone streets into shinny surfaces of light and color.

The patchy light and dark scenes made perfect photographic backdrops. Perfect, that is, if you are not bothered by extreme contrast, slow shutter speeds, and high-ISOs. Is it the fool-photographer who tries to make these images handheld? My shutter speeds hovered around 1/15th of a second and I often underexposed the image in order avoid loosing all detail in the highlights. With a fixed 35mm lens the walls tilted in and out, and the horizon was not always level. But I was not so concerned about perfect images, I was willing to accept all kinds of aberrations in order to capture the mysterious mood of these night-time Venice streets and canals that was in such stark contrast to the hustle-bustle commercial day-time vibe.

There is no “secret” to how I took these images with such low light and high dynamic range. I just went out and made the images. I looked for light and color and waited for some unsuspecting human presence to add some spice.  In post processing I applied, what is for me, a liberal amount of noise reduction and my standard sharpening.

The series is currently featured on my website at inancyimages.com. I’ll be posting and explaining more of this series on this blog and on my instagram (nancy_lehrer) and facebook (Nancy Lehrer) streams. This, I think, is how Venice should be experienced.

A Street Photography Manifesto Cover JPGLearn more about making compelling street photographs in my book Life Happens in Color – A Street Photography Manifesto, or you can hear me talk about my photographic process in a couple of recent interviews – one on Martin Bailey’s podcast number 616, and the other with Ibarionex Perello on The Candid Frame.

Footnote about Lightroom and graphics acceleration: For a while now (a long while now – perhaps over a year) I have been struggling with my images in Lightroom not looking like the images after being exported from Lightroom. If the images looked right in Lightroom, the exported image had with too much contrast. Before you get on your “calibrated monitor” soap-box – yes, my monitor is calibrated and I assure you the problem is related to something else, as I was finally able to fix it. I had resigned myself to recalibrate my eyes and to make the images look a little washed out in Lightroom in order to print and export correctly. Needless to say, this was never really a satisfactory solution as it was sort of a crap-shoot to determine if I had gotten the adjustment just right. Last week, however, feed up, I took one more dive into a Google search and the Adobe support pages and finally found the answer. The problem was being caused by having graphics acceleration turned ON. Go figure? I turned it off and I am a happy, happy camper. It is in the Preferences menu in Lightroom. If this is happening to you, go take a check. You might want to also check your preferences in Photoshop.

Little Man

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When my husband and I just want to get out of the house on a hot summer day we will often head to one of the small Malibu beaches. We take the windy 30 minute drive through the Santa Monica mountains, find an open parking spot on the Pacific Coast Highway (PCH), and step out to a refreshing ocean breeze and air temperatures at least 10-degrees cooler.

The free beaches in LA are a great social equalizer open to all walks of life and economic classes. There is always a story and I always bring a camera. Although the direct lighting is often a struggle, reflecting harshly on the great Pacific Ocean, the payoff are the people, timeless setting, and the stories to be found.

This image, like many street images, was a gift with all the elements aligning just right. I am on wooden staircase leading down from PCH. To get to the beach, you must first cross this strip of asphalt. It was likely once a piece of PCH itself  but is now closed providing pedestrian access to the coast.

This littleman surfer was walking up the road. I am attracted to by color and gesture – orange and blue complementary colors, the turquoise of his boogie board tying in with the ocean scene. He glances up at me, but keeps walking. He is trailed by a sandy-white dog dragging his leash, I do not know if they belong to each other. The dog’s color is in harmony with the road slowly returning to its natural unpaved state. These two subjects are tied together by the nostalgic lifeguard stand in the mid ground, adorned by a single seagull perched in profile on the roof. There are many other small details adding to the story: the single communication line leading into the lifeguard station and the silhouette of the tiny people in the surf. The one tiny person standing with arms slightly raised and feet spread provides a special visual gift by showing this fully detailed outline. Even the scraggy row of cactus at the bottom of the image provides locational cues and a compositional base to this southern California scene.

It is a bright sunny day. Before getting out of the car, I mount a fixed 50mm equivalent lens and set the camera to f/11, ISO 400, with the center focus point turned on. Images will appear and disappear quickly. There will be no time to frame with a zoom or fuss with focus or other settings. Little Man gave me this gift within 5-minutes of our arrival.

Hey, I’m the Featured Member for August 2015 – Los Angeles Center of Photography

Santa Monica, California

This month I am the featured member in the Member Gallery at the Los Angeles Center of Photography website. My gallery displays a 20-image portfolio of my street work from the past three years. As I choose this set of images, I was looking for those of which I was most proud of with a consistent feel. I was not looking for images from a single place or time, so it is all the more interesting to examine some of the characteristics of this set.

Of the 20 images, 10 are from Los Angeles taken on various trips to Downtown, Santa Monica, and Beverly Hills. 5 of these are from a 3-day stretch of intensive shooting downtown that I did earlier this year for a book project with John Free.

Flowers and DogDowntown LA with John Free

2 images are from workshop intensives, with Jay Maisel and Sam Abell. During these workshops, you are challenged each day you to make 5 images for the next day’s workshop critique. These two images mark, for me, a breakthrough in thinking.

New York, NYNew York City with Jay Maisel

Whidbey Island, WAWhidbey Island with Sam Abell

The remaining 8 images are from the various travel trips I have started to do in the last few years. The images are from Havana Cuba, Oaxaca Mexico, Lisbon Portugal, and Dublin Ireland, but none of are particularly “travel” images.

Of the 20 images, all but 1, was taken with a micro-four-thirds mirror less camera as I ditched my dSLR sometime in late 2012.

One of the earliest images in the collection, from 2012, was taken in Beverly Hills. I was out for a couple hour photo walk with a good friend and my husband. It was a nothing special day with a nothing special agenda, but my mind had been freshly implanted with the teachings and matras from Jay Maisel’s: “you are responsible for every millimeter of the frame”, “show me the rip in the fabric”, “light-color-gesture”. This image was my only keeper of the day, but what a keeper it was. It will be a permanent member of my top 20 street photographs.

Beverly Hills, CABeverly Hills with Jerry Weber

The most recent images, one is featured at the top of this page, are from Santa Monica Beach and represents all that I am working to achieve now in my photography: walking into the scene to create deeply layered images capturing the full figure and the context behind while carefully managing the juxtapositions between the image elements.

Enjoy my portfolio gallery at the Los Angeles Center of Photography website. And I can’t help but plug and upcoming guest lecture workshop “Sharpening your Photographic Vision” with Sam Abell. The lecture is Dec 3, 2015with the workshop Dec 4–6, 2015.

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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The Forty Foot – in Honor Bloom’s Day (a little late)

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Ulysses, by James Joyce, chronicles the peripatetic appointments and encounters of Leopold Bloom in Dublin in the course of an ordinary day, 16 June 1904. It opens with a scene overlooking the Forty Foot, a local and historic swimming cove outside Dublin in Dun Laoghaire.

Chris and Ian, members of the Dublin Camera Club, brought us here during our stay in Dublin, but we would have no idea that we would be treated to a show of youthful diving. The air temperature was about 55-degrees F and who knows how cold the water was. But to these Dublin youth, it was a warm and sunny evening.