a journal of observations, obsessions and inspirations

Photography – Through the lens

camera iris as if taking a look through the lens

The lens? an eye with a viewpoint. The camera? an extension of my hand. The resulting photograph is all the more effective if it breaks through the lens, chipping away at our barriers, inviting us to see beyond our perceptions to another place or time. Or self.

My first camera was a Brownie, long gone now. But when I was eight? nine? I obeyed the diagram in the instruction booklet, positioning my camera between sun and subject. The result in my grandmother’s garden showed my parents gamely cooperating, my brother grimacing, and all three squinting so hard in the bright Florida glare that their eyes disappeared into distorted faces — faces lit with frightening by-the-book accuracy. I would have to learn how to throw away the rule book.

I didn’t go to photo school to learn the rules and hadn’t ever worked in a photography job. My eye was trained in theatre design for costumes and scenery. Fifteen years later, I started to teach myself how to see the way a cameras does on my twice-a-day walk to and from a part-time office job. I parked a mile and a quarter away to save money, and I framed what I saw during that walk time with an imaginary viewfinder: street signs and twisted sycamore branches and lopsided sidewalks.

Busy practicing seeing, not watching where I was going, I tripped over a lot of curbs. On weekends, I’d retrace my steps and expose a couple rolls of film. Look, shoot, analyze. Is that what I saw? Do I like what I’m saying? Does it show what I feel or merely record what’s there? Yes, no, adjust, do it again.

I knew early on that I didn’t have the temperament for commercial photography and I only worked a dozen weddings as a freelancer before realizing, that although I love working with people, that wasn’t my path. And I wasn’t into typical art photography subjects: still life, sunsets, big empty landscapes.

With my interest and training in theatre, perhaps it was inevitable that I’d be drawn to performing artists. I prefer live-action shooting rather than static set-ups, and that lends a reportage approach to my work. I see this in my series with musicians, dancers, opera singers and even in the interview portraits I’ve been making for The Tenor Book.

What kind of photographer am I? Trying to assign labels can be a useful exercise if you’re looking for in-the-moment guideposts. But it’s easy to get caught up in the semantics, and labels can confine. So if I were to call my style of photography something, then the words I’d choose would certainly include ‘journalism‘ or ‘documentary.’

The photographic process can be a revealing exploration of both subject and self. It’s endlessly fascinating and, like music or writing, makes a simple demand of me – eye/hand coordination and a lifetime’s engagement. I couldn’t dream up a better way to explore.