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Friday, 16 November 2007


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"I visit these places over and over again. The better I know a place, the more subjects I see."

Others fly to Madagascar (or anywhere exotic they know buggerall about) for a few weeks, take samey photos with overpriced gear and long lenses then quickly put together an exhibition with the possibility of a follow-on book. Exactly what insights can you expect from a flying visit? Or is the world and its inhabitants just fodder for photographic subjects?

Increasingly I ask myself: Why did someone take this photo? What does it say? What does it reveal about the photographer's vision? What makes these images unique? I then turn around and ask the same questions of my own work ... but don't always like the answers. Using your photographic skills to show others YOUR place, culture and/or vision is really all that one can reasonably aspire to ... at least for any sort of photographic imagery that you can expect to transcend the present.

That's beautiful, and contains important lessons for all of us. Many of us dream of exotic, faraway places where colors are saturated and the people and their customs are exotic.
I confess that sometime I do, too, and moreover, I have a job that takes me to those kinds of places.
My best work, however, is done in a handful of neighborhoods in Shanghai that I have visited so many times that I feel like I know every single face, every alley, every courtyard.
These neighborhoods are being destroyed with lightning speed right now, and the sense of loss is profound.
It makes me want, however, to shoot even closer to home, my own immediate neighborhood, which I have avoided photographing, and in a real sense avoided seeing, in the deep sense of the word, even though it is beautiful in its own way.
Strangely, it has also made me embrace shooting my family home in central Virginia, where people are few and the landscape rolling and deceptively simple.
I've spent three summers of intensive work there, and have only begun to feel like I am beginning to really see it.

Thanks for passing this along. I was just absorbing Greg Girard's gloriously dystopic and ultimately human PHANTOM SHANGHAI, and bemoaning my lack of access to similar subject matter. Of course, I do have my own subject matter at hand, and it contains wonders and tragedies all its own, ones I'd recognize better for familiarity. A reminder of that was quite welcome....

I feel a little guilty now. I've been living in the heart of Chicago for about three months now, and I've been feeling really limited by my environment -- everything feels the same, and the only thing I can think of is going somewhere different and seeing if it inspires me.

Although I've been really wanting to go back to my old hometown and photograph things that I thought were boring and not worthy of my film.

I know the areas spoken of, and they are wonderful.
In fairness, the wealth of opportunity provided here, near the seacoast one minute and near lakes and mountains the next does lend itself to this type of work. I live in Maine, just outside of Portland 1000ft from what is reported to be the most photographed lighthouse in the country.

I have made it my amateur endeavor to present it in different views than the typical, but I have many of those as well.
Fortunately for me, It is something I do for the pleasure of it.
A few can be found here. www.flickr.com/photos/heydale
minimal PP and lotsa fun in the neighborhood.


Nice quote... And very true! Seeing the same scene, day after days, in different light conditions, can bring out some details or unexpected situations.

Sometimes, taking pictures of "just what's there" can be useful for the future as urban landscapes (cityscapes) changes quickly. Would that be for our own memories or do we really believe that we'll pass it to others through time ?

Great advice. I have a place just 20 minutes away, where I used to hike and take pictures. I got bored with it after 4 or 5 hikes and went looking for someplace more "exotic", often several hours away. I returned after a year or so, only to see things I had never noticed before. I have found a great little spot where I can watch a deer trail that goes right by a fox den (always lots of activity); another spot where wild boar root around and I can watch them without them even knowing I'm there; a hidden waterfall with a pool where tons of critters come to drink; and at the end of the day, an awesome spot to watch the sun set. The lesson to me: slow down! look! listen! Reeelaax.
I am in southern Switzerland where it is heavily urbanized. Finding a jewel of place like I did has made a huge difference for this Upstate New York farmboy. I am up there every Sunday now, watching the seasons change, seeing a new litter of foxes play around the den, the deer in mating season.
There are other hikers that I see up there, talking, looking at their boots, not taking in what is all around them. I feel sorry for them, because I was once like them. Hurried, trying to find instant entertainment, etc.

Matthew, I understand your guilty feeling. I was feeling limited, too. I thought that the limits were around me, but, they were in me. I was only seeing what I wanted to see, not all that there was to see. I'm not saying this is where your guilt comes from, but where mine did. I found what I was looking for much closer than I expected


I live just south of the Great Essex Marsh John mentions.

And yes most of my personal photography takes place within 15 minutes of my home as well( I love places where the sea, forest and marsh mix).

I travel extensively on business and never seem to be in a state of mind to engage in personaly gratifying photography. I always feel like a voyeur or am too pressed for time or want to return to be with my loving family.

John has very accurately stated a view of photography I agree with as well. Work with what you know and are familiar with, if that is all you have or all you want to do. The journey is inward and always personal...exploring your artistic passion and soul.

The whole experience and interaction is not about equipment or distance traveled or even specific subjects but what you created or discovered and how you share it.

I only wish that I had spent more time photographing my little hometown in Ohio, when I lived there 30 years ago. So many scenes and objects are now gone forever.

John Geesink's photos are beautiful. Thanks for posting the link, Mike. I know what John means about photographing close to home. I often notice a detail in familiar objects or places that I had never really seen before (sometimes, in a city, this can be an entire building, or in the desert, an entire mountain). But I think we can train ourselves to look more deeply, even on the first visit. It's not quite the same as really living somewhere, but I think (or perhaps hope) that the ability to really *look* can be learned.

I agree -- I take 99% of my photographs within a 30-minute subway ride from my apartment. I believe that the more I understand and know a place, the better my photos of that place. I become more aware of nuances, differences, and patterns.

I have also found, e.g., that when I travel to a particular place, it takes a few days of looking at the place (which for me always means walking around the place) before I can get even a single "good" (interesting, to me) picture. This may just be me, though -- maybe it takes me longer to become "visually acclimated" to a new location.

@ Matthew: Chicago is one of the most fertile locations for a variety of photographic projects in the U.S. I don't know where in the city you live but for the small cost of a CTA card you can visit completely new worlds every day of the week, in relative safety. I've lived here most of my half-century (+) life and, rather like John's quote, most of my photographic projects are conducted within walking distance of my home. Right now, for example, I'm in the midst of two book projects (both scheduled for publication next spring) whose subjects are both a stroll from my door.

Yes, many people crave exotic locations and cultures to feed their lenses. (And yes, Stephen, I know exactly who you reference in your note. ;-} ) More power to 'em. But while blow-through tourist photography can be exhilarating and sometimes educational for viewers it's not everyone's brand of photography. I, too, believe that only frequent and prolonged visitation of a place can really lead to images that reveal its true nature. This is true of natural settings and cityscapes where light falls differently every day of the year. But it's particularly true of urban settings where truly revealing the patterns of daily life require a studied eye.

Photography, to me, starts in the mind's eye. And that's exactly where most of the most celebrated photography has been taken. Does it really matter, for example, where Harry Callahan made most of his photographs? (Most were quite close to his homes at the time.) Where did Avedon photograph Audrey Hepburn, Janis Joplin or Rose Kennedy? Bruce Davidson travelled thousands of miles, and endured assaults and robberies, to capture his "Subway" work. But all of those miles were logged in his home town of New York. Ditto his equally captivating "Central Park" and "East 100th Street" work. Where did Richard Kevlar shoot the images for his current "Earthlings" feature on the Magnum In Motion site? (http://inmotion.magnumphotos.com/essays/earthlings.aspx)

I really could drone on (boorishly) for many pages with such citations. But I think you get my point. The hardest thing for most of us to see is that which right in front of our noses.

Two years ago, during the fall, I drove up to Arcadia NP (Maine). The colors were nice and a blanket of fog rolled in over the landscape.

I biked along the carriage trails with my equipment. I stopped frequently to shoot. Everything was so picturesque and lighting conditions so easy that everything was turning out "great".

That lasted about 2 hours before I realized that I really wasn't enjoying it. This was not my home. This was not my world. All of these pictures, while quite nice, held no emotional value to me. The next morning I drove home and vowed to only photograph within 50 miles of home.

... and I photograph exclusively in my studio. I know it intimately - cool in summer, cold in winter until I put the heat on. Different people drift in and out to be photographed. I arrange my lights in different configurations - sometimes one, sometimes two, sometimes three. I make side-trips upstairs to talk to my wife, make tea, look for a prop in the garden. I had wonderful backlight today. I never know what I am doing in someone else's studio, and only feel I do my best work, SEE better, in that familiar black-walled 8x5-metre space I call my own.

Most of my photographs are of my cats, and they're usually either in the house, or in the back garden... Does that trump a 20-minute drive radius? :-)

Nice quote, cogent and resonates with most photographers I would suspect. But why do so many seem to feel a requirement to bash Michael Reichmann, simply because he has the means and interest to photograph where and how he wishes to? I've never even met the man, but I sure have learned a lot from his site, and his reviews, and I enjoy his pictures of the lakes of Canada as much as Bangladesh or Madagascar, or Antarctica. That very obvious reference above seems simply unnecessary and small--

"Does that trump a 20-minute drive radius?"

Plus ten points for the short radius, but minus ten points for taking pictures of cats....

Mike J.

(P.S. Just kidding.)

There is a good lesson here from John's quote, often while cruising the web and viewing various photographer's work from other parts of the world, it may seem like what's out one's back door is not very interesting compared to the exotic places some photographers have photographed, but in reality there is a whole lot to discover, if one takes the time to look and explore, as I have often found from my own personal experience.

Whoops, I missed the reference to "Madagascar." I didn't know that meant MR. Sorry.

For the record, though, nobody has to worry about MR. I don't know him well, but I've known him for a bunch of years now and I don't think he's the least bit insecure about how he chooses to pursue his involvement in photography. He knows what he's doing and he's happy doing it. We should all take a page from that book--whatever the details are.

Mike J.

P.S. A number of other people have weighed in with comments regarding Michael, pro and con. Please permit me to refrain from posting those. I think I'd rather not let this turn into a referendum on Michael, his site, his style, his friends, and his work. My fault for letting it get started, but I think I'd rather let it drop if that's okay. Again, sorry, my bad!

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