Happy New Year for me marks 45 years and my love affair with photography. I celebrate by toasting photography itself, knowing that it has steered my life to many special places in my heart that I was unaware even existed. Great moments of exhilaration and euphoria. The camera has given me this license to go seek out rare but significant events, subjects or things that should be seen by all, in order to know us all a little better.
The thrill comes, when I am witnessing greatness before me. Greatness in whatever I can find in a subject, with the idea of showing it to you and all. My photographs must make this communication or they are failures. Much of the excitement within me while photographing comes from knowing that my effort to record these events is a noble effort from me to mankind, and knowing that makes me feel better about myself.
I wish to start the New Year with some FREE advice, learned over the past 45 years.This tip, is for all photographers, but especially the younger photographers or those just starting out and also for street photographers who are frustrated at the tedium and loneliness of a solitary search for something you cannot predict, or even know what the subject will be, and then very little time when the subject presents itself. A brief second or two and it’s all over. Either its gone forever or caught in the confines of a camera frame just as the subject sparkles in its intensity. Win or lose. Mostly lose. Even with this frustration I keep doing it, because I consider street photography to be at the very top of the pyramid of skill and visual sophistication and value. The king. The very most difficult thing I have ever done. One image to tell some great story.
For the frustrated and confused street photographer, I will offer this heartfelt advice. Make a photo essay. The photo essay is a series of several photographs and sequence with the idea of revealing the heart of a subject. The essay allows the photographer more time with the subject. Time is something the street photographer does not have. This extra time is what makes all the difference, but doesn’t make it easier. The extra time allows the photographer to get closer and closer to the subject, both physically and mentally. Over time, the subject will become more used to the photographer’s presence and the subject will relax and become natural and not afraid of the camera.
The photographer who makes several exposures over a period of time is all warmed up and ready to react when the great image presents itself. Click, but wait, there is more. The essay within an essay. You work away at this thing and something happens that you could not have planned by yourself, but came out of the blue to you like some magic genie.
One such thing happened to me and it turned out to be one of the most wonderful experiences of my life, so moving and magical as it was. (Some of the photos I made that day are at the end of this blog).
This happened 40 years ago, while I was photographing on assignment the American long haul truck driver. I was headed home to the L.A. area after having been on the road for a week, covering the western states and had one more stop to make, Ontario, California, the largest truck stop of them all. If you can make the westward pull over the desert, you might be able to make Ontario for rest and repair. Chugging over the interstate, hauling my ass to the golden state.
Acres of asphalt and a hundred trucks in long rows, lined up like a land rush, or the knights at Agincourt. Big trucks from all over come to roost and let go for awhile.
The drivers in boots and large belts stood around in small groups laughing and impressing their friends by picking on me because I stood out like a sore thumb, with my three cameras swinging around and what the hell are you taking pictures of and you better not take any pictures of me or I….but no problem, they are just guys like me and I have learned from the street to be prepared for this kind of thing and I am able to turn it all around to my advantage without any one getting hurt. Go right up to the guy and in front of his friends ask him if he could do that again because we are looking for people to be in a film and we pay big money…etc. Turn the whole thing around having fun and getting close because the guy had to act cool with me in front of his friends, or they would think him uncool.
I was walking around but really working with mind and eye to find subject. Before I even lift the camera to my eye there has to be at least three things that in some way relate; three relationships that will help my essay on the true center of a trucker and his world, truck and road and alone with self.
Looking down the neat rows of tractors, one stood out like me. The truck was an old Peterbilt cab over and it looked out of place with its cab tilted forward which allowed access to the motor and which usually meant trouble. Breakdown. Getting closer I saw her walk around the front of the cab. Beautiful hair, big hoop earrings and perfume mixed with diesel, she was a female trucker when back in ‘75 there were very few female truckers. This was a man’s world and a man’s job. Hell, it takes a man to hold down one of these mothers. She was broke down stranded and had little hope of getting her load to where it was supposed to go. The tow in had cost her all she had. No money for a mechanic that wants cash and no one to turn to.
The men were confused and stayed away. I saw her greatness, when I saw her hands and how she had raised up the cab and started to look around at what might be the problem with her truck, livelihood and home. A real woman. She rose up against adversity with a smile and those hoop earrings, which never seemed to get in the way and which might have kept the men wondering about her. Was she a truckstop hooker, or was that her rig?
Then magic happened. Several men started walking towards us and the truck. One of the men told me later that they had been curious about what I was photographing and that made them come closer. The camera made them come. The magic Nikon brought them in to where they belonged to help this wonderful woman, their sister. The camera and the act of me photographing her implied some kind of importance and the men sensed it.
I told her story to them and each one left to get tools to help. I watched with tears and I managed to make 22 photographs over the three hours of this magnificent event sent from above for me to watch and be a part of the spectacular celebration of stranger coming with strangers to help strangers with their lives which so helps us all and I was there to record the instants that emotionally moved me the most. I made these photos for mankind to share in love and understanding, with the hope that everyone could have a camera and the desire to photograph his neighbor back and forth together with a rhythm of love and a harmony of vision.
There is my story of the magic Nikon and what happened in ’75 when I found an essay within an essay and I was able to be a small part of greatness in mankind.
I never learned her name, but they fixed her up and got her back on the road and everyone went their separate ways, feeling a little better about themselves for what they had done. Maybe her name was Dorothea.
I use the name in dedication to another wonderful woman who is always with me in spirit. Her name is Dorothea Lange and she was a big, big deal in documentary photography. She also photographed the strength and greatness of mankind, those who were broken down by the side of the road, but who were made more human by her photographs.