Photographers and artists often search for a “Personal Style”. This can be a source of angst and confusion as we attempt to create good work. We are naturally interested in our particular art form and have likely studied the great masters’ works. Most of us recognize a painting by Monet or van Gogh. As students of photography we can likely identify works by Ansel Adams, Andy Warhol, Henri Cartier-Bresson or Ernst Haas. Whether we admit it or not, we want to create great photography too. We naturally feel we must establish some common theme or characteristic in our images which will make each one recognizable, ie: they will show our personal style.
Although there is disagreement in the art and photography world, I fall on the side of those who say you should not try to create photographs or art in any particular style. If you do that, it will likely short circuit your deepest source of inspiration. That source is your heart, your instinct, your gut. In other words, it is that which is deepest in you. Whether that emotion is light, dark or totally screwed up, make no mistake: if you want to tap into inspiration, listen to it.
How many times have you looked at an image and said, “Wow”, to yourself? You simply can’t take your eyes off it. You know you are reacting by “instinct”, or unconsciously. It makes you “feel” a certain way. The photographer has tapped into something deep within herself that your subconscious identifies with.
Take a look at your work. See if there are common themes. Do you shoot sunsets, people, or are you a generalist, like me? Which ones do you particularly like? If you look carefully and listen quietly, you will likely learn something profound about yourself. Your photography is speaking to you. There’s a fair chance you will see a common theme or aspect to your work. I didn’t see it in my pictures. A friend pointed it out. She said my photographs had a sense of peace or quiet to them.
As a practicing lawyer, my life can often be chaotic. My day is probably like yours. We manage interruptions, fight for time to think. We crave peace and quiet. We want out of the storm. That feeling, that instinct, has surfaced in my pictures in many ways. Not only do I shoot peaceful scenes, I love repeating lines and balanced geometry.
In the simplest terms, my mind is choosing images which make it feel better, which calm my internal storm.
It would be tempting to try to associate this theme into one subject, one type of photographs, such as black and white, or color, etc. etc.. Yet I see it surface, regardless of the format.
I have a print of this photograph hanging in my office. The print itself is 24 inches by 36 inches. I shot this one foggy morning at the large park area near the New Orleans Municipal Yacht Harbor. As dark as it is, it is very peaceful to me. Just looking at it brings me to a quiet place.
What brings you there? What do your photographs tell you about yourself, about what you need? If whatever that is appears magically in your work, rejoice. You tapped into that genius that is you, and only you.
On December 31, 1986 David Spielman and I sat drinking champagne in my son’s hospital room. Jeremy was not doing well. David, who was married, knew this and decided to spend that evening with me. At that time we had been friends for about 10 years, although the exact start date of our friendship escapes me. You see, he is a professional photographer.
We met at Alfredo’s Cameras, a very fine shop on Gravier Street in New Orleans. It specialized in Leica cameras. If you are David’s friend, the word, “Leica”, is always part of the conversation. The quintessential Leica is a rangefinder, built like a tank and generally costs one and a half times what a top-of-the-line Nikon or Canon does. It’s made in Germany and, technology wise, is in the dark ages compared to modern digital cameras. Taking pictures with it is like hunting bear with a bow and arrow. You have to be hard headed, a good “shooter” and somewhat masochistic just to use one effectively. In David’s hands, a Leica sings like a canary.
Our friendship grew as we spent Saturday mornings in the French Quarter, taking pictures. We would start with a cup of coffee and beignets at Cafe Du Monde. Not a lot of folks there at dawn. And then we would start out, stalking the streets, looking for that special shot. David usually found it. I suspect a fair number of those pictures now hang in his gallery, across the street from Commander’s Palace Restaurant.
If you happen to go to the Spielman Gallery, you will find him there, 365 days a year. (He actually does work seven days a week.) He’s dressed in starched khaki’s, a starched denim shirt, shoes which often look like they came from a different era, and with a Cartier or Rolex watch on his arm. He shoots all of his personal work in black and white, the photographic medium which essentially focuses the viewer on the content of the image. David is quirky, like the Leica, an anachronism in the modern age, but focused, no pun intended, on the substance of life. Stated differently, he takes beautiful pictures of New Orleans.
David has travelled the world taking pictures. Egypt, Ireland, England, France, etc, etc.. He’s taken pictures of the Pope and of Martin McGinnis and Gerry Adams of the Irish Republican Army. He’s photographed the old men and their toddler granddaughters feeding pigeons in Paris. He stayed in New Orleans during Katrina and shot boats strewn about the municipal yacht harbor like fish after a toxic algae bloom, the picture appropriately named, “Fish Kill”.
I recently reviewed his “Artist Statement”. It describes the man well, but doesn’t do justice to his photography. (He’ll want to kill me for this.) It doesn’t really convey how he has made a living as a professional photographer in New Orleans for almost half a century, no easy feat. Yes, it describes the quirks, the drive, the sense of humor and general perspective on life. But it is his work that tells the story, or almost all of it.
David was one of two major platelet donors for Jeremy. He and George Hebbler sat through many hours while their healthy runner platelets were harvested for Jeremy. When a man does that for your kid, you remember it. Every day.
I like movies and often quote memorable lines from the best ones. In the movie, Tombstone, Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday help tame a bunch of outlaws. Val Kilmer plays Holliday, a gambler, gun fighter and hard drinker who came west to deal with tuberculosis. After a particularly bad gunfight with the “Cowboys”, one of Earp’s posse addresses Holliday, who is obviously very sick, yet there fighting with them, side by side. “Doc, why are you here? Why aren’t you home in bed?” Holliday responds, “Wyatt Earp is my friend”. The man responds, “Hell, Doc, I have lots of friends.” The camera zooms in on Holliday’s face, as he stares into the distance, and says, “I don’t”.
Most amateur photographers want to be great street shooters, at least at some time in their careers. We hanker after Leica cameras and the images of Henri Cartier Bresson, the acknowledged greatest photographer of the streets and the decisive moment. We look for the perfect gesture that moves the picture from the mundane to interesting, to record that person’s movement, expression, or something that will ring true to the viewer, pull her in, make her want to look. It’s that gesture that brings the viewer to recognize the innate humanity in the image, which they know as the truth, the “real meaning”.
It is that “real meaning” in the streets that will reach up and bite you in the derriere if you aren’t careful. As photographers we go there since these people are vulnerable, potentially stressed as “street people”, the homeless. They live in the open, a much different life from those of us who spend lots of time tapping computer keyboards. They are usually broke, often sick, using drugs or just don’t have the wherewithal to get out of the trap.
So we go there and the pickins are good for an aspiring street shooter. An then it happens. We look over at the perfect image, shoot it and can’t stop thinking about the person in our picture. I title the image below, “Heartbreaking”. This man has a bracelet given to him at the hospital which says “Fall Risk”. He is leaning on his walker and clearly in despair. I took the picture and kept walking.
And now, he walks with me since I see him in virtually every homeless person I see now, including the ubiquitous panhandlers at corners all over the New Orleans area.
The featured image on this blog post is of a beautiful young woman who was sitting with her dog, “Tula”. Tula needed flea treatment but was otherwise a well cared for animal. Many street people have dogs. I gave her twenty bucks to help with that. She very sweetly said I could take her picture. (Before I offered the money).
I have always assumed the dogs were to ward off the cops who don’t want to deal with animal control as well as a person they may need to arrest. Frankly, I believe that must be true, but it is only part of the story. The animals are companions for lonely people.
And I am the kind of person who would, at first glance, look down on someone who tattooed her face like this young lady has done. But the sweetness in her face and voice are with me now and I think of her when I go to the quarter to shoot. I hope to see her and Tula again.
These images can move us. But the power is in us. It is our ability to see these people as valuable persons, who need help. If the camera can bring our humanity out, out from behind the keyboards, into the streets, to see them, to understand them better, then the camera has done its job. After all, what good is a camera, without people.