By MICHAEL PERKINS
IT GOES BY MANY NAMES: THE MONEY SHOT, THE GOLDEN ANGLE, THE POSTCARD VIEW. Travel enough and you will snap one. The all-roads-lead-to-this-picture, must-shoot frame that defines a town or city. Rattle off the names from Eiffel to Empire State. Drawn like moths to flame, we make the same treks that millions before us have made to capture the classic destination, the local Mecca. Do we truly believe that we, the 400,000,000th visitor to the special site, will capture something that someone else missed? Well, yes, we do. For all the other tourists, it’s just a Kodak moment, but once we focus our lens, boy, it’ll be a moment for the ages. Or not.
But I also believe in the value of the dead opposite of the obvious shot, the image taken 180 degrees away from the holy object we all think we must shoot. The hiding-over-my-shoulder treasure that no one came to take, but which might just qualify as a treasure hidden in plain sight. What’s across the alley from the Alamo? What’s a half a block to the left of Notre Dame? Or, in the case of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, what happens when you deliberately turn away from the most desired view in the city?
The iconic downward vista of the Steel City, at precisely the point where the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers blend at the town’s terminus to form the Ohio, is chiefly shot from atop Mount Washington, a district reached via the romantic, cable-driven incline service that has trucked commuters up the Mount and down for over a century. Add the souvie shop and the walk-out view platforms at the top, and it’s one of the most obvious cases of here, take this picture in all of American tourism.
But the Mount, an old urban neighborhood unto itself, is like a flatland city dropped on top of a lumpy cliff, its streets rising and falling like a stone roller coaster. The sheer suddenness of its drop-offs and the skyward pitches of its roofs lends a zany angularity, its tiered vistas contrasted by the glass and steel of contemporary Pittsburgh just below. Think Rio with Czechs and Germans.
There’s something of a religious pilgrimage quality to taking your shot at a popular attraction, but it takes mere minutes to scout around beyond the crowds to what lies immediately beyond. The opposite of obvious is often a synonym for discovery.
SOMETIMES YOU CAN BECOME SO FIXATED on the shot you think you want that the shot you could have can’t squeeze through the mental haze. You might even regard an element that has the potential to actually save your image as an annoyance, as if it’s blocking the view of your sacred “plan”. The alternate idea buzzes around your skull like some stubborn house fly, and you’re eager to bat it away and get back to your grand vision.
A while back, such an element was fighting to get my attention. It was the very thing my picture needed…and the very last thing I wanted. I wish I could say I came to my senses, but it was actually only after I viewed a burst of shots, after the fact, that I fully realized I had been given a gift.
The above scene, a small rustic graveyard, can be found in a mountainous village near the greater Santa Fe area in New Mexico. The location pulled me off the road with its breathtaking setting, as well as the many hand-crafted monuments scattered among the more traditional headstones. I was thinking: nice, self-contained scenic shot, lots of local flavor, warmer-than-normal desert light, just point and click, right? Simple.
Simple, that is, until our friend here showed up. Immediately I regarded him as noise, as an interruption of my “ideal” shot. Never mind the folly of thinking that there is only one way to approach a subject: I was muttering a few silent oaths even as I continued to click and track him as he crossed the graveyard. When was he going to get out of the way, so I could back to my master plan?
I kept everything I shot, figuring that I might have accidentally gotten my wonderful empty scenic before my visitor came along. Instead, at full-size review later, I came back again and again to look at him. His slim solitary form, his simple dress, his two plain flowers, and his downcast gaze all lent a story to what had been a simple, if nice, still life. In giving that sad little field some badly needed human context, his presence proved that it was he who belonged there. If there was an intruder in this drama, it was me. I was just there to take pictures of his life.
He was busy living it.
I frequently find that if I just turn my mind off and stop obsessing about my “vision”, many settings yield something stronger and more elequent than my original design. Think of it as being a sketch artist who keeps his options open by laying in as many pencil lines as you can before inking the final choice. Most importantly, you must trust and be thankful for the occasional gift.