« Sunday Open Mike: Back in the Saddle | Main | Five Fabulous Folk Songs (OT) »

Monday, 25 April 2016


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

Personally I think there is too much emphasis on photos as visual objects (which they are) but conflated with 2d art such as drawing and painting. I prefer the view (from Ronis) that they are much closer to writing and literature. Think about this for a moment, and compare photos with diaries, essays, poetry etc etc and I think you get the idea. It's also a very broad church, and trying to pin down all of that as "photography" doesn't help

One immediately flies to mind: I was on the street in front of my favorite lunch pub, called The Brass Cat. (Very, very old pub, used to be called The Golden Lion, but the customers always called it The Brass Cat, so they adopted it.)
And two workers were working on something, one on a ladder. And his butt exactly covered the Br, so the sign said "The (ass)ass Cat".

I actually did have a digicam in my bag, but I got it out too late. I really should have asked him to go up again, I wouldn't have had to tell anybody...

What, no analysis of that picture of you and Xander in terms of pixel and image quality, composition and bokeh and whether or not it should of been taken full frame or APS, or micro 4/3rds? Are you saying the emotional legacy of the picture in terms of the human condition of mortality and remembrance is more important?? How can that be?
But seriously, you touch on the value of the image. I have over 18,000 images in my Lightroom catalog, but I have printed less than 20, of which only three hang on the wall. Ironically, those "art" prints will be meaningless when I am gone. But I do have eight large photo albums that document meaningful moments of family and friends that will be much more significant. Yet, sad to say, those pictures, like your example, stop once I started using digital cameras. How many images that have personal significance will never see the light of day and never be passed along in a box to future generations? Once the device is gone, so are the images. In that sense, many of us will say they got away, not because they were taken, but because they were not save as nothing but ephemera.

It was a while ago, but one that got away really does stick in my head. I was photographing the HMS Bounty as it was sailing out of our harbor when I realized that I had no film in my camera. Some time after that I was able to shoot her on another visit, but she was tied up on a north facing wharf and them resulting photo is hardly even a record. Not long after she was caught out in hurricane Sandy and sank.

I have often thought photographers are a lot like fishermen: Both spend a lot of time talking about the ones that got away.

The wolf--possibly coywolf--trotting down the side of the road and me with no film in the camera.

When my grandparents celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary, they gave all their children and grandchildren (at the time) a professionally done portrait of themselves. They weren't young, but still in good health, and the picture shows them much as I've always known them. It may be imagination, but I've often interpreted the knowing smile in my grandfather's eyes as `remember me like this'. My grandfather died shortly after, and while my grandmother yet lives, age and infirmity have made her virtually unrecognizable compared to that, now nearly 25 year old, portrait.

That same portrait was going through my head when I grabbed my camera one afternoon when I headed to my own parents' house a little over five years ago. My mother had been diagnosed with cancer a week before and just returned from the hospital. It was a sunny autumn day, I seated my parents in the garden and shot a few portraits. A few days later, her condition worsened, and while she fought on for another six months, she never looked quite like she did before. The quick portrait I shot of the two of them is on display in all my siblings' houses.

When my other grandfather died two years ago, I went through my negatives, took a nice B&W portrait of him and made a stack of the best darkroom prints I knew how to make, to give to my grandmother, father, my siblings, aunt, niece and nephew.

It is because of those pictures that I actively try to make sure the important ones don't get away from me. (grand)parents(-in-law), siblings, children, etc. Get 'em while they're there.

Am sorting "my" photos of my past. Of the some 35,000 images taken of railways, steamships and structures, these have the most meaning, to me.

My parents have transitioned, my younger redneck Texas brother will not communicate with me (living in a 3rd world socialist country as he calls Canada) and all other relatives shy away from me the aging single unmarried (gay) relative.

So those "found photos" tend to keep me alive.

Yes Mike, I understand; especially when possible future relationships fall by the wayside.

Hi Mike,
I have two memorable examples of shots the 'got away'. The first was in about 1982. My wife and I were on a short, early morning flight from Victoria British Columbia to Vancouver - a 20-minute hop at best. We witnessed the most gorgeous sunrise either of us has ever seen. One could not ask for better: sun, clouds, mountains, the Strait of Juan de Fuca in the medium ground, the Gulf Islands in the foreground and the State of Washington in the background. The aircraft was a Vickers Viscount; it had big beautiful windows: maybe the best of any commercial airliner. It wasn't until we were on the ground that we realized neither of us had even thought to take a picture! A Leica M4P and several lenses had been at my feet and an Olympus Pen-F in her purse. Both were loaded with Kodachrome. Total failure of the "photography" area of my brain.
About a year later I was actively photographing a Cormorant swimming in the lake behind our house. He was obviously fishing. I knew it was a long shot, but I thought I would try to get a shot of him emerging from under the water as he surfaced after a dive. The camera was a Canon F-1 with 300/4 lens, mounted on a tripod. I tried best as I could to follow his underwater path via bubbles and ripples on the surface. I tried hard to be prefocused, and prepared. My setup was just about perfect. Right in the centre of my frame, emerged a large fish - closely followed by the Cormorant! I never pushed the button! It wasn't the picture I had planned! It was better! Photographer's brain fails again!

Frankly Mike, so many photos get away from me even when I supposedly had everything I need (camera, card, film, lens, etc.) that I see no value in feeling regret over situations where I was totally unprepared. Besides, I've had enough good fortune over the years that I'd rather be thankful for what I've got.

One, above the many others:

It was about ten years ago and I was staying at a small family place about four miles north of Ludington, about half way up the eastern side of Lake Michigan. A heavy, heavy storm had just begun to clear and I was walking along the shore. I'd left my Epson RD1 at the cottage about a mile back because I didn't want it to get wet if it rained again.

As I came to the mouth of a small river that had been blocked up, shore to shore, by sand during the storm, a half dozen little meandering rivulets were just beginning to make their way through the wet, dark, utterly smooth sand. There was enough sunshine by now that the waves on my left were easily visible, with the water a good blue and the waves just a little choppy. Those fascinating rivulets in the foreground were clear and well defined. Across the channel, however, looking north along the beach, a soft, moist, ambient light faded gently into the miles with a most beautiful, atmospheric subtlety….

The whole scene was exquisite, evocative ~ lovely almost beyond belief ~

and it remains so;

in my mind....

Two misses come to mind immediately that both brought their own important lessons. There's a third that's nagging at me, but (thankfully?) I can't conjure it specifically at the moment.

Miss # 1 - In my very earliest stages of photographing with purpose I headed out on a snowy/slushy Sunday morning in Manhattan. I was newly enthralled with black and white film ("Everything just looks so much cooler!") and thought Central Park under a blanket of snow and very few footprints would make for an excellent subject (which, of course, it does). I was headed north on one of the avenues approaching the park with the wind at my back. As I neared a corner, three people came out from around it and turned south. Now facing the northbound wind and walking three abreast, they each lowered their umbrellas in front as protection against the wind and sleet. Below them, a glossy wet Manhattan sidewalk, and above, essentially full width across my non-existent frame was a length of classic NYC deli / retail neon - burned in my brain. I saw it all come together and can still see it now, but, at the critical moment, my small Pentax point and shoot was still firmly zipped in my jacket pocket as I was still enroute to my chosen subject, having already written off the intervening blocks of slush and concrete to all possibility of inspiration. The motto for Miss #1: Listen to the Boy Scouts - always be prepared!

Miss #2 - A few years later, I was again out and about in Manhattan, but this time further south near the South Street Seaport. I came across a fierce looking older Asian lady outside for a smoke. She was dressed in severe black and white - mostly black, with a white collar, black beret, and large black sunglasses. She was seated up against a translucent pink circle of material (which are still there ~10 years later!) and looking occasionally up and down the street. I saw the scene, knew the photo I had to take, but could not do it. I could not muster the courage to enter what was so clearly her domain and intrude with my oafish camera and *clonk* take my selfish frame of her moment. I hesitated, walked up and down a short section of the block a couple times, but couldn't pull the trigger. Again, it is burned in my brain forever. More than likely simply because of how acutely I knew what I wanted, but couldn't get out of my own way. I had not yet become comfortable photographing strangers on the street (which is still a struggle). And the lesson learned here was clearly: take the shot! Be the best combination of quick, unintrusive, friendly, open, and/or stealthy that the situation dictates and make that shot. As the Great One famously said (though in a different, but still relevant, context): "You miss 100% of the shots you don't take."

Do I remember any that got away?

Oddly no. My memory is such that I can only remember the ones that didn't, and only because I can look at them.

I was returning to Chicago after a vacation in Door County (the Cape Cod of the Midwest) with my wife and two-year-old son in 1983. We drove past the car and train ferry dock in Kewanee and I saw the City of Midland in dock, so I pulled over and took what rail fans call a "roster shot" with my point-and-shoot. A few miles south of town, the road rose up a bluff and we found a picnic ground with breathtaking views of Lake Michigan. We pulled over and got out our lunch fixings, and toward the end of our lunch, I spotted the City of Midland steaming out of port with its trail of coal smoke rising gracefully into the clear blue sky. But I resisted grabbing my point-and-shoot - it would have spoiled the idyllic mood of the moment. We sat transfixed as a family, watching the boat head toward the horizon. A picture would not have done the scene justice. But the scene and my sense of wonder are etched in my mind.

The ones that get away can involve more than just missing the timing or opportunity for a photo. One of the constant enquiries I receive is along the lines of, "How come when I photograph something interesting, it just looks Meh!?"
A long discussion usually follows that questions what they are doing – or not doing – as a photographer.
Merely pointing a camera at an interesting thing is not a way of getting an interesting photo. That's a snapshot which retains interest for the participants.
Photographers are the ones who can photograph the commonplace and make it interesting – especially to others.
A great photographer can reach into the torrent of life rushing us by, clutch a revealing moment and hold it aloft for us all to see.
Moments that, otherwise would have been, the ones that got away.

I took my mother and mother-in-law to a Tom Jones concert many years ago at a smaller concert hall here in Texas. There was a no photo rule and when I took a picture of the two of them, before the concert, my camera was confiscated! Then later, after one of Jones's songs my mother went up to the edge of the stage and threw him a pair of bright red very skimpy panties! Lots of other women were doing the same thing but he picked her's up and made a big show of wiping his face, then putting them away in a pocket of his jacket, and blowing my mother a kiss! Now my mother was probably in her mid-seventies at the time so it brought the house down! And me with no camera! But you know other than being able to pass an image on to others I will never forget those moments, or the look on Mothers face as she walked back to her seat to thunderous applause!

Camera Lucida, by Roland Barthes is a long essay/short book on how we view pictures: Photos that are not interesting, photos that hold our attention for certain reasons (studium), and photos that pierce our hearts and minds (punctum).

Part 1 of the book is incomprehensible. Part 2 is readable and worth the effort.

I think the photo of Xander and you walking along the shore of Lake Michigan is (for you) packed with "punctum." It steals your heart.

I grew up the son of a professional photographer with a darkroom in my house since I was a kid. My father never really pushed photography on me - to him it was a service business, not an art.

I spent my junior year of college in Cork, Ireland. It was a magnificent year and I have wonderful memories of it and 300 pages of mostly illegible (and unshareable!) journal entries. It also included a great Interrail adventure of 40 days around Europe. In all, an 11 month trip you could never really do again as an adult.

I had a point and shoot fuji camera and no knowledge of photography. For the entire year, I have about three rolls of crap images. Some valuable memory pictures, but not nearly enough. That would be my biggest photographic regret.

First I love the picture - with you with a camera around your neck
so wouldn't experience the "one that got away". The history picture
is less likely to be missed initially these days where
everyone has a phone camera with them. The problem then comes later:
Ones that get away because they can't be found or were accidentally

I've been steadily working the other end of the problem - trying to
get my gear down in size that I'll always have something better than
my iphone for the shots that are more than "just recording history"
(and those too of course). The beauty of the mirrorless movement is
this is getting easier. Bottom line is I have fewer shots that get
away than in the past and I post for my family the history shots on
a regular basis, and work on the others as time permits.

As far as history goes my shots that got away occurred when I shot
my sister's wedding. I submitted half the film to the lab and the
lab ruined 1/2 the film. Couldn't happen twice... submitted the
second half of the wedding and they ruined half of that also!

In 1979 I read up on the upcoming solar eclipse. Having read many warnings on not zooming too close and missing the great corona, I took a lot of shots at 50mm. The images at 200mm were decent though pretty small - but the tiny hole in the sky with its equally-tiny coronal ring showed me that I'd overthought the concept by going with the 50mm. I'm planning to do a bit better next year!

That's a lovely snap of you and Zander on the beach. Yes, I too find that personal snaps -- "Kodak Memories" -- mean more to me than creative work these days. Interestingly I remember wondering as a youngster why old people took pictures. Today as I approach the other side of the mirror I still wonder. But today looking at the snap-saturated world that young people seem so immersed in I wonder how they will ever be able to see these mementos when they're old, with so few ever becoming materialized.

It's a personal coincidence that you raise the subject of pictures missed. Last week as I returned home from a long afternoon shooting at a particular location (with several fish that got away) I began musing about this subject and considered asking you to start a conversation about it. But then I realized it might be pretty boring, filled with fish stories and nothing to show.

A more rewarding, and more tangible topic would be unplanned bonuses you've discovered in images long after an image was made. I have at least as many of those happy surprises as disappointments ... Or at least I can (mercifully) remember and show more of them!

The one time I did not have a camera with me while driving somewhere the past 20 years. Roadside billboard with Rush Limbaugh photo on it. Big and brightly lit at night. Drove by it right after a wet spring snowstorm and the wind driven snow had packed and stuck on the hair of Limbaugh on the billboard. Nowhere else, just the hair. From the top to the side of his head.
And I did not have the camera with me. Very unusual not to have it with me and a mistake I seldom make. Freelance/independent photographer without a camera is not a good thing.

Right now I've got 2 small kids and a full time job, so almost all of my energy for photography goes into those personal memory shots. And I'm glad for it -- so much of what I remember of the kids' early days I am only able to recall because of the photos. I was so tired then that without something to prod my brain it's all just evaporated.

I have one example of photos that I am happy to have let get away. I stayed with my mother, father, sister and infant niece during the last month of my mother's fight with cancer. We cared for her at home. During that time I took lots of photos -- but mostly "art" shots of the flowers that people sent to us and cute baby pics of my niece. I've got a few pictures of her with my niece from that time, and one of my mom and dad on the couch waiting to be posed for one of our last family portraits that really catches the mood of that month. For the most part, though, the rest of that time went undocumented, and I am happy to let it evaporate away.

I had a similar revelation a couple of months ago. Much of my time is spent admiring landscapes and and struggling with the usual angst of `art vs documentary'.

But that all kinda pales into insignificance when it's your photo on the front of the funeral service order and the back cover comes from the big black album book dated around 1960 - days of folding MF gear and 6x9 roll-film shenanigins.

Or the photo ignored: back in 1992 a good friend married a Thai woman in Bangkok and invited me to the wedding. Of course, since he travelled from Europe to be in my wedding I had to go to his.

My wife was concerned about the cost of the trip so I decided, in an effort to offset some of the costs, to make commercially "saleable" photographs rather than shooting the obscure bits of life I normally shoot. I took rolls of chrome film and shot markets and vendors and all sorts of things I thought would be candidates for commercial use. But the things I really recall vividly: the interior of the ferry the Oriental Hotel used to transport guests to its island outpost in the Chao Prao river, or the lobby of our hotel decked out in Thai Christmas ornament, I ignored. I never did sell a photo from that trip and I don't have a visual record of that ferry.

I have a "one that got away" story when I had the right camera in hand.

I was at the Franklin Park Zoo in Boston, in the gorilla exhibit, standing in a view-corridor made of impact-resistant 'glass'. I had my trusty Nikon D50 in hand, and fiddling with my controls to take a shot of the male gorillas about 30 yards distant.

I looked up, and saw a young gorilla running full speed at me. He was probably 10 feet away. I had a 50mm AF lens and my finger on the shutter. If I has just moved that finger one inch, I would have got the photo of my life. But I'm a mammal -- I was frozen in place and watched in amazement as he hit the glass with a tremendous crash, bounced off, and his warning delivered, wandered back to his mates.

I think my story, like many others posted here, shows that even (especially?) when you miss the amazing shot, you still end up with an amazing memory.

When looking at old photos of our kids, I'm moved by my non-photographer wife's iPhone photos. However, when I look at the photos that I've taken of our kids with my expensive gear, all I can see is how bad of a photographer I used to be.

Back in the seventies there was this guy trying to get into an overcrowded subway car with this Ginormous glass jug. He just managed to squeeze in- only because the giant jug was now held aloft outside the two closed doors with his two bare hands sticking out. I just stood there kinda dumbfounded marveling at how he didn't drop it when the doors closed on his hands.

The camera never left my shoulder- only remembered it was there when they reopened the doors...

I remember a couple of shots that 'got away'. But if i had never taken up photography as a hobby, I'm sure I would never have even seen them in the first place.

I knew that missed photo op early on. When I was in my last year of high school in a fine art program we took a trip to Chicago. At the zoo I saw an unreal image that would have made the API easily if I had gotten focus right. It was of two cages with a man in one, painting the wall on his knees in a corner, it the cage next to him was a chimp in the exact same position even down to the arm. It was dark, had a Nikon FM shooting Trix, focused as best I could, took a shot and it was the last one one the role. By the time I could reload it was over. My photo teacher tried to sharpen it given the best darkroom techniques of the day, but it was simply too off. Had that photo worked, it probably would have changed my life as I would have most likely pursued a photo career early instead of spending 20+ years in the computer industry before coming back to commercial photography. Life happens.

"You didn't get it but you saw it."

Recently I witnessed a meteor fireball in broad daylight. It was amazing. Lasted a few seconds so there was NEVER a chance of getting the camera out. I did photograph the smoke trail it left behind but that's like photographing the Yeti footprints instead of the Yeti.

I live outside DC, inside the beltway. Walking my two dogs, I often see amazing light reflected on the dogs, as well as the occasional fox, raccoon, owl or other birds of prey. The wildlife sightings are usually when it is dark outside and the dogs scare them away, but most of the time I simply don't have room to carry a camera anyways (having a leash in each hand). So I just enjoy the scene.

But one particular memory sticks out: photographing a gathering of bald eagles with my dad (in BC, Canada) a few years ago, two eagles fighting (?) flew a few feet over my head with their wings furiously beating and their claws clashing (for lack of a better term). I had a Nikon DX sensor camera in hand with a 300 mm lens mounted, when only a wide angle would have worked - assuming I could even react - and it all happened so fast that I could only watch in amazement.

There were many other missed "shots" over the years, but those make me appreciate all the more the ones I do (occasionally) manage to get. Plus, I'll second commenter David, above: "if i had never taken up photography as a hobby, I'm sure I would never have even seen them in the first place." In the case of the tangled up eagles, I probably would not even have been there.

RE Willy Ronis

I confess that this is one of these attributions that I have always held in my memory, but when I try and track it down - I fail. I'm sure I first came across it in an article in the LRB by the late Peter Campbell, but searching their archives, and elsewhere I can turn up nothing.

Maybe I got the origin wrong, although it sounds Ronis-esque. Maybe I invented it myself!

Whatever, it's a concept that I find endlessly useful when trying to figure out where photography fits in with my own approach

@Robert Fogt:

Thanks for sharing, that's really wonderful. And thanks for featuring it, Mike.

Only a couple of weeks ago I was sitting in a bus waiting for it to set off when I noticed a family a few seats in front of me that made me want to reach for the camera in my pocket. Two of them were occupying seats that faced the middle of the bus; the father was standing in the aisle and the mother (I'm assuming these were the parents) was gazing up to him with a loving expression and her hands clasped in front of her, for all the world like the virgin Mary gazing heavenwards in rapt adoration. Meanwhile, the daughter, 8 or 9 years old, was amusing herself by pressing her nose to the steamed-up window and watching the dribs of water run downwards. It was a priceless combination of the sublime and the banal but somehow I couldn't bring myself to get my camera out.

That is a lovely picture of you with your son, Mike, he is so little and vulnerable and you are so protective of him. I like it a lot.

I think it was Paul Theroux in one of his early travel books who talked about "the cerebral snapshot". It is a philosophy I have carried with me ever since reading it back in the '80s.

I recall it every time I see throngs of people looking through their iPhones at an exuisite scene or performance, instead of just letting the light into their mind.

England, Iron Bridge, 1984. Pub filled with smoke, dog belonging to the locals resting against the leg of its owner... old men,
probably WWII vets, playing dominos in the corner. It is so clear in my mind...even down to the arthritic fingers of one old gent in the
tweed coat and cap. My M4 was also resting, but in the car blocks away. That mental image is probably superior to anything I could have put on film more than 30 years ago.

So fixated upon stock photography and it's edicts from the late 70's to nearly the turn of the millennium that my cameras were nearly always loaded with transparency film, and for a goodly part of that time it was Kodachrome 64--only. The ones that got away did so we're mostly due to one of two thing: either the subject brightness ratio of a scene exceeding 6 stops, or motion blur when it didn't. Color negative films solved the former, and DSLR sensors with penalty-free ISO 400 the latter.

The comments to this entry are closed.



Blog powered by Typepad
Member since 06/2007