In my 46 years as a social documentary/street photographer I have noticed firsthand the big difference between these two types of photography. Yes, they are both quite similar in that there is no posing or anything artificially contrived or set up. They are both involved with making meaningful photographs taken from real life situations the photographer encounters. The big difference that I have found between the two is pressure. Working on documentary projects with the intention of telling a true story as the photographer believes it to be, subjects the determined photographer to pressure. The more important the subject, the more intense the pressure, shaking, sweating pressure which might affect the photographer’s ability to work effectively.
On April 30th 1945, the great photographer Lee Miller entered the liberated German concentration camp at Dachau to make photographs. The terrible sight of the horrible conditions caused her to transform herself into a machine like mode of concentration to effectively photograph the conditions there without succumbing to emotional devastation which might affect her ability to photograph.
The photographer’s brain, heart, hands and eyes in coordination with each other, enable the photographer to reach his or her most effective area of performance.
When the pressure is on, and the photographer’s brain starts to forget some of the purpose and technique required for an effective operation of thought and control, I find that transforming myself into a photo machine can prove more effective in remembering important considerations regarding the task at hand.
My brain must be told what is expected of it as it pertains to my photographic efforts and it must be clear in knowing what I intend to do with my eyes, heart and hands, for the purpose of reacting to a subject in order to make a meaningful photograph, which might affect the viewer of it in an emotional manner.
Comparing photography with other endeavors that I have experienced in my life has proved to be a valuable way for me to prepare my brain for this challenge. In this case I would like to compare my involvement with machines, which have played a large part in my life. Besides being a photographer, I am also an automobile restoration specialist, repairing the damaged bodies of classic automobiles and rebuilding their engines. Many of the cars I worked on were very valuable and a mistake on my part could result in serious damage to the car and would be a costly loss. To approach the intended repairs, I would assume the character of a machine, assessing the damage in a logical manner and proceeding with the repairs very carefully. The machine has no emotional attachments and only works in a rational manner. I would carefully estimate the damage and how it was caused and then how to repair the damage. There was no emotion on my part, only hard cold logic as it applied to the damage, which could, for example be the reshaping of the steel parts of the car’s body.
I like to pretend my brain is a machine which is made of several parts or areas of importance in the making of an image. I must determine how to connect these areas together to work in coordination with each other. The body is also a machine of muscles and limbs, which must be trained to work in a coordinated manner to complete the task the brain has decided on. The signal from my brain to the various muscles to operate the camera, which is also a machine, is based on my intent for the photograph. The signal and the mechanical functions of my body must be inspected carefully in order to reduce wasted movements, which could get in the way of effective operation of the camera. No wasted time or movement to hamper my intent in making an image of a complicated subject, which I reduce to the main parts of interest to me and then how to present it to the viewer in and effective manner.
A machine is designed to complete a task. Like the machine, the photographer’s brain and physical body are connected together with various parts that will work together in a balanced and coordinated manner to achieve a certain task, which in this case, is to complete the operation of making a meaningful photograph which expresses the full nature of the subject. The brain in this endeavor is composed of several areas that with a coordinated function, work together in unison to perform the task.
Each of the areas or parts of the brain are taken apart and inspected for weak areas and then modified for the job they will be called upon to with, in coordination with the other parts, such as the eyes, hands, heart and soul. Some of these parts must be changed over or modified to suit the task. The average human brain has a few weak areas, which are caused by all we have been trained to think about our actions as they pertain to polite society. Being trained from birth to not stare or intrude into the subject, are beliefs that might have an adverse effect on the total operation of the machine. These beliefs must be taken apart and inspected carefully, to modify them for the job, which in this case is to move in close to the subject without being hampered by illogical beliefs concerning polite interaction with other humans. The parts are then adjusted, to work in a balanced and coordinated manner with each other,
Another example is the racing car which is very much like the educated and well adjusted photographer. The car is intended to complete a task, which in this case, is to compete with other similar cars to win a race. Like the photographer, the car is composed of many parts that must work together in a balanced and coordinated manner. The car is completely disassembled so that each part can be inspected for areas of weakness that might compromise the performance of the assembled car. Some of the parts must be modified to suit the conditions under which it will be operated. The whole idea is to increase the performance of the car, so that it will be competitive with the other cars. The car and its modifications and adjustments, are performed by humans.
Similarly, the adjustments to the brain, eyes, soul, heart and hands are adjusted by the photographer to act together effectively to complete the task.
The race car and the photographer are constantly improved upon and adjusted to suit their purpose. The machine is not encumbered by emotion. The photographer being human is constantly moved by emotional reactions and affected heavily by the negative subconscious brain. With training and adjustment, the photographer’s brain can become an effective tool in the making of superior photographs, which reveal the subject in a clear and simple to understand manner. The race car’s engine, suspension and steering together with the skill of the driver enable the car to reach its most effective operation.
The training and practice enable the photographer to photograph effectively without being constrained by emotional responses that hinder the photographer’s purpose. However, the good emotional responses still remain for the photographer to use to advantage. Like the race car, adjustment and constant practice enable optimum performance.
In this photograph, two men are preparing their sprint car for competition at Ascot Park in Gardena California in the early eighties. To be competitive, the car needed to be adjusted to the conditions of its service on a constantly changing dirt track and also for the length of the race.