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 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 those rules and hadn’t ever worked at a photography job. My eye was trained by classes in theatre design for costumes and scenery. Fifteen years later, I started to teach myself how to see the way a camera sees on my morning and afternoon walks to and from my office job. Parking a mile and a quarter away to save money, 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.
Never have I found the limits of the photographic potential. Every horizon, upon being reached, reveals another beckoning in the distance. Always, I am on the threshold.
— EUGENE SMITH, photographer
What kind of photographer am I? I knew early on that I didn’t have the temperament for commercial photography and I wasn’t into typical art photography subjects – still life, nude studies, sunsets, big empty landscapes – even if I experimented with all of those. Although I love working with people, I only worked a dozen weddings as a freelancer before realizing that wasn’t my path either.
With my interest and training in theatre, perhaps it was inevitable that I’d be drawn to performing artists. Right away, I preferred live-action shooting rather than static set-ups, and that lent a reportage approach to my work. I see this in my series with musicians, dancers, opera singers and even in the on-site interview portraits I’ve been making for The Tenor Book.
If I’m not this or that, what kind of photographer am I? Trying to assign labels can be a useful exercise if you’re looking for at-the-moment guideposts. But it’s too easy to get caught up in semantics and labels can confine as well as define. 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 – and should – be a revealing exploration of both subject and self. It’s constantly evolving, endlessly fascinating and, like music or writing, makes a simple demand of me: eye/hand coordination and a lifetime’s engagement.
Simple. Not easy. But I couldn’t dream up a better way to explore my life.