the photoshooter's journey from taking to making



ONE SURE THING ABOUT TAKING IN “THE SIGHTS” AT THE AVERAGE TOURIST ATTRACTION. You will be channeled, herded, if you will, toward exactly what the proprietors want you to see. This insures most people their coveted “Kodak Moment”, with Mom and the kids standing at the precisely picturesque sweet spot at the cathedral, the ruins, the monument, the mountain, etc. In fact, Kodak worked with parks for years to actually post signs near such perfect vistas, a polite way of yelling OVER HERE, STUPID at passersby. Thanks for the flash cards, guys.

Obviously this attempt to guide visitors to the “good stuff” can result in the occasional great image. But you and I know that, for the most part, it amounts to the completion of a homework assignment.  You know, like the opposite of fun, spontaneity, um, photography.

Tomorrow, class, bring a picture of yourself standing in front of a famous landmark. And remember to smile. 

So go ahead and shoot the obvious thing. Just try to find another way to see it.

So go ahead and shoot the obvious thing. Just try to find another way to see it.

I’m a big one for wandering away from the tour group….not so far as to wander aimlessly into a scary forest full of monsters, just far enough to take in the entire area while the guide drones on.

I’m not so much interested in what’s available to photograph as I am in what else is available to photograph.

Sometimes, of course, you are better off just taking your approved thirty seconds in front of the waterfall and moving on. Other times you hit something, sometimes by just looking thirty feet further.

Do I have an example? Thought you’d never ask…

There is an over-hyped old house-turned-souvie shop in La Jolla, California (one of the most gorgeous coastal towns in the west) that sits atop a subterranean cave which looks out onto the ocean. Once inside the shop, the able-boded (and those who do not suffer claustrophobia) pay to enter an extremely dark, steep, damp and cramped staircase that takes them down below the house to the cave.

Now, for a guy with a camera constantly hanging from his neck, taking anything like a usable shot in this crimped cavern is largely a crap shoot, since light is, let us say, at a premium. So the “officially” cool thing, was, for me, frustrating to say the least, and I trudged up The Staircase From Hell (my knees aren’t what they used to be) to re-enter the shop at the earth’s surface. So far, so pointless.

Pictures are where you find them, often tucked away behind so-called "attractions".

Pictures are where you find them, often tucked away behind so-called “attractions”. 1/100 sec., f/6.3, ISO 100, 18mm.

While my wife performed her mandatory inspection of the store’s copious supply of trinkets, I walked outside, then, instead of going back to the street, wandered around to the back of the building. Lucky choice. Suddenly I was in someone’s backyard, a hilly, curvy, strange little lot that could prove to be a nightmare for whatever neighborhood kid was doomed to cut the owner’s grass. It was  only a matter of being curious enough to go about thirty feet off the official path….and yet here was the relief I wanted from chronic tour disease. An actual human habitation, complete with Hobbit-like stone landscaping and an extremely cool red scooter to counter-balance the rain-rich greens. Here was a picture I wanted. The “famous” view had shown me nothing. The “unimportant” view had given me everything.

Hey, I regularly get lost anyway. Why not have some fun doing it?

Now, where did my mommy go?

2 responses

  1. Enjoyed this piece immensely, for in my eyes, this makes you what I call a “fringe” photographer. Yes, I can get that “Kodak Moment Here” shot, just like everybody else, but I don’t WANT the shot that everyone else has! What is most interesting, to me, is what is happening on the “fringe”, the edge, the border. Just like that scene in “The Wizard of OZ”, where he shouts upon his discovery “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!!”, it is behind that very curtain where all the magic is occurring, THAT is where the real story is! I have always enjoyed shooting backstage, and seeing the show, before the show, stepping off the beaten path to capture the overgrowth just beyond, and yes, looking beyond that thirty feet, to see what is to most, unseen. Thanks for this piece, could not agree with you more!

    March 7, 2013 at 9:23 AM

  2. The great thing about digital is its twin powers to (a) shoot a lot and (b) check your work immediately. It’s amazing how freeing this has been, since we no longer have to mentally “budget” shots, lest we go over 36 exposures and use up our film before we make all the stops on whatever “tour” we’re on. I like being able to have lots of choices from which to make later decisions. Suddenly the average Joe/Josephine has the same editorial latitude that used to be the sole province of the pros. I doubt that many of us in the film era were burning through 12 rolls of Kodachrome just to get 3 keepers of a given subject. Now, as one Nikon instructor pointed out to me years ago, “you’re shooting for free.” Amen.

    March 7, 2013 at 10:07 AM

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