Yesterday it finally sunk in that summer was upon us. A day at the beach can do that.
Today I went shooting on Hollywood Boulevard. As I rode home I was not at all sure that I had written anything worthwhile to my memory card. I doubted. Perhaps I’m not a cut out to be a street photographer. Perhaps I should stick to genres more easily controlled.
After I got home, ate, and showered, and started working through the day’s shots I was able to get a little perspective on what transpired.
My problems stemmed not from technique or composition (though, certainly not all perfect), but rather I had problems seeing and isolating. But by the end of the day, I had decided to concentrate on people in cars and to my surprise, I found many more interesting images after this decision. But Jay (Maisel) whisper’s in my ear “Be Open”. How do I reconcile the words of the master against the difficultly of finding the needle in a haystack of “openness”?
For the last hour or so, I was less open. I was specifically concentrating on people in cars. I had constrained my world but the constraint felt good. The constraint gave me some boundaries within which to explore.With the boundaries in place, I began to relax and and find comfort and find a creativity within the boundaries and starting seeing more and more interesting opportunities.
Being open creates a big world in which to wander and it was too big of a world for me this afternoon.
Pigeons on 12th and Maple by I Nancy, on Flickr
Last weekend I took a workshop from Sam Abell. It was entitled “Sharpening your Photographic Vision”, or something like that, but it was really all about composition. This man is a master of composition. He talks of macro composition and micro composition. Background and layers. He also talks about approaches to get these kinds of images to happen.
Here we had just arrived on our morning location at 12th and Maple in downtown LA. Of course we all saw the 200 or so pigeons on the wires above us. Sam’s words – compose and wait – find the background and then wait for the subject to come to you, miracles happen.
From time-to-time, the pigeons were coming into the street, so I found the orange background got down and waited for the birds to do something interesting. The street merchant threw rice in the gutter, the pigeons came down to eat, the van entered the intersection, the pigeons exploded, and a man rode through dressed in black wearing a hat.
In this image I achieved a deeply layered composition. We have the pigeons in front with all of their movement and flurry. A background of orange with the street patterns adding more visual interest. A “V” in the front of the image and the diagonals complete the macro-composition. In the micro-composition is the 12th St street sign – free from obstruction, its blue color standing out against the rest of the background, the van which looks like it is bursting through the intersection, and the man riding through.
Looking for Customers by I Nancy, on Flickr
“I don’t have a philosophy. I have a camera. I look into the camera and take pictures. My photographs are the tiniest part of what I see that could be photographed. They are fragments of endless possibilities.” Saul Leiter in an 2009 interview with Dean Brierly
In general, I find editing my own work, choosing the good from the mediocre, terribly difficult. With my street photography I find it even more difficult because I don’t have the simplest lesson of beauty to apply. Insted, I have been experimenting with a method of evaluation that I recently developed while studying the works of various street photographers and after a very useful portfolio review with Ibarionex Perello. Ibarionex hosts a podcast, The Candid Frame, where he interviews photographers on being photographers. His interviews are not about gear or situation, but about process and approach. His method for about talking about photography, not photographic technique, was reflected in my portfolio review. Ibarionex and I talked a lot about commanding the frame, intimacy, finding the story, and capturing the right moment. We discussed my strongest images and also my near misses. In the near misses, the photographic technique and framing were fine, but some strong essence was missing. Coming away from the review, my task is to determine how to better recognize the strong work from the near misses and I decided that I would look at some of my favorite street photography and try to determine what made them strong for me.
My initial study was the photographer Saul Leiter. Saul Leiter, primarily a fashion photographer working from the late 1950’s through the 1980’s, also embarked on a personal endeavor in street photography. I am familiar with his work through a small, and inexpensive, volume simply entitled Saul Leiter (Photofile). Using my gut instinct, I chose a small collection images from this volume which were the most memorable and powerful for me. As I studied them, I recognized three elements exhibited in each of these photos: story, visual interest, and strong compositional force or gesture.
Concerning story, in each Leiter image an underlying story is brewing, The story is shown ambiguously and in such a manner that the viewer is only able to experience its beginning or ending. In one image we see the feet of a man on a ladder leaning against a storefront. We wonder what he is doing, how long he has been there, and a dozen other questions?
The second element of my theory is the display of visual interest. This involves visual stimulus in the form of fine details, colored textures, or repetitive patterns, any one of which might be real or reflected. In most of his images there is this captivating backdrop that is full of texture or light or color which in no way distract but instead provide a deep experience within the frame.
And finally, in these images there is always one dominant compositional force or gesture such as a strong diagonal, an overarching shape, a heavy framing, or a contrasting splash of light or color. I can’t find a really good definition of gesture to capture my meaning. I am meaning more than just a human facial expression or body pose. Examples in Leiter’s images include the large shape of figure in shadow, a strong diagonal formed by a ladder, the heavy framing of a window or door, deep negative space of an awning, a splash of light and color on a patterned dress, a red umbrella, repetitive panels of alternating color or texture, and the human gesture of walking or doing.
My working theory of how this photographic trinity works is as follows: the story pulls you in, the visual interest keeps you busy, and the strong compositional force binds it all together.I’ve started to apply this evaluation to not only my own images, but to others as well. It is a theory that goes beyond tips and techniques invaluable during image making such as “get closer”, “look for good light”, “follow good compositional rules”. Instead it is a theory that allows me to understand the whole after it has been put together to try to get a handle on what makes it work, or not, after all your best image making skills have been applied.
Here I present Waiting for Customers taken at the Ventura County Fair, one of my favorite venues for photography because you can do both night photography and street photography all in the same setting. The story here is contained in the anticipatory look of the carnival game operator leaning slightly outward with the ball in hand and raised eye brows, working on enticing customers to play his game. The visual interest is provided by the brightly light game stand which also provides a nice rim light onto the subject. The game prizes also provide a solid framing to provide focus onto the subject while also providing interesting context. And, finally, the gesture is the operators stance and lean and the strong leading line of the game railing.
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.
Lunch Rush by I Nancy, on Flickr
Philippe’s is a Los Angeles institution nestled at the cross section of LA’s Union Station, Olvera Street, and China Town. The specialty at Philippe’s is their pork, beef, ham, lamb or turkey french dipped sandwiches and homemade pies and deserts. Thursday, Jerry, Chick and I headed downtown to do a bit of street wandering and shooting. Whenever Chick is along (a non-photographer), we need to bribe him with a first stop of food to keep him patient as we start and stop clicking away to get our next award winning shot. For this trip Philippe’s was the bribe.
I’ve, impatiently, attempted many shots at Philippe’s. It is so colorful, both literally and figuratively. This trip I slowed down, thought about what I wanted to express and did my best to work the situation. I really wanted to get something that showed the energy at Philippe’s. I started out with wide angle shots looking down on the dining room. I believe these shots were successful to a point, but not poignant enough to stand on their own. My next set of shots were isolating people and their interactions with the servers behind the counters or with their food. I was looking for light, color, and gesture. A couple of nice images resulted.
Lastly, I worked on some mid-range ideas, capturing the layers of people waiting, servers, and signs. I knew I had to include the hallmark sandwich sign and the array of neon beer signs are a plus. The way this one worked out I have several layers alternating history like an archeological dig. At the bottom is the layer of 21st century America waiting in line to be served. Next is the layer of the servers – doing something interesting, but not awkward with an added plus of the one server heading back into the kitchen. Third are the signs, which must be replicas of the originals. And finally the row of neon beer signs supplying both light and color.