Category Archives: Street Photography Workshops

PRACTICE

Practice

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For millions of years ever since our species first emerged from the darkness of the undeveloped brain and slowly began to think and to imagine and to wonder what was and is, and also what could be, we have been a species of innovation and invention, learning to change things as they are to what they can become to enhance or ease our life of toil and existence.

 

The first ring of stones assembled around the fire, for containment and safety, was seen and valued and copied by others. The first crude scratching of an image in the mud with a pointed stick and there was art for all to marvel at and then employ for the good of the mind, to learn and to discover the great tool of the imagination, which enables us to value and to share and to lend our discoveries and talents to others, and even to pitch in to help our neighbor construct a circle of stones around his campfire.

 

In my time I have been helped by others to learn things that I held important to me. I learned in the fifties from Andy Stoyak how to shrink the stretch out of the twisted metal of a car body with torch, hammer, dolly and a wet rag. In the early seventies I saw the paint jobs of Junior Conway, and from seeing his great skill with sanding block and spray gun I learned what was expected of me as body man and car painter. In my search for photographic meaning and craft I discovered the photographs and words of Henri Cartier-Bresson and knew better what was expected of me and how high the craft of photography could rise.

 

I learned because I was hungry for insight into the things that were important to me. I have advanced slowly up the tall ladder of skill in craft and enlightenment by looking at things and comparing them with mind and wonderment. I enjoy sharing some of what I have learned with others like myself who search for meaning and insight into the creative processes that we use to enrich our lives and the lives of others.

 

I have included here two photographs as examples of my process, or technique, of photographic expression. One photograph shows my friend Richard Thompson practicing. It was made in New Orleans in 1996. I had woken up early and was headed out of the hotel to prowl the streets of the French Quarter with my camera and imagination and when I passed the open door of Richard’s room I came upon this sight of him playing his guitar practicing for a gig that coming evening. Somehow I knew the importance of the scene and quickly made a photograph, which was used later as the cover art for his album called “Small Town Romance.” Just a quick look with my photographic imagination and a snap at 500th of a second and a vision was secured which will last forever, for me and for you and hopefully for all of us to know the importance of practice.

 

The snap I made of one of the finest musicians I have ever heard was done quickly, but with a practiced thought process that I had developed over the years. This process has enabled me to only include the needed elements, factors and details, which were arranged effectively to give the viewer enough visual and aesthetic information to understand the meaning of the scene, my intent in making it and the visual elements I chose to include in the frame of my camera at that instant in time and place.

 

Practice is an important part of my process for making an image which has the power to speak to the viewer and to provide a better and more complete understanding of my intent when making it.

I practice by walking with my camera and with my imagination in full operational mode. It is an intense process that removes me from conscious thought and takes me to a magic place of discovery in my own world of what there is around me and what I can make of it with my camera. My goal is to share my feelings about what I encounter visually by compressing what I see into the narrow confines of the small frame of my camera’s viewfinder. I take all that I visualize and sense and then include what is important for the viewer to see, and what I need to exclude from the frame, that might be a distraction from the other elements in the scene that best describe my feeling and my intention for the image.

 

I learned a long ago that for me there is no “composition” in my photographic process, only facts. Visible facts that when combined effectively in the frame produce a composition automatically. The word composition is a confusing one for me, but visual facts that make up the subject tell me much more about the finished structure of my intended image and the word facts, and the collecting of facts in the viewfinder, help to guide me in the making of an effective composition.

 

I use a Nikon F-3 because the frame in my viewfinder shows me 100% of what I will see in the resulting negative. Nothing more, nothing less. No surprises by something omitted or included that I did not plan on. Very few cameras will show 100% in the viewfinder and that is why I use the F-3 which accurately shows me the subject. I do not crop my photos and that is the reason I need 100% viewfinder coverage. The black lines that surround my photographs are made by enlarging the negative carrier frame in my enlarger to show the clear edge of the negative, which prints black in my resulting photograph. The black lines are always in my mind’s eye when I am framing my photographs.

 

People see me walking and constantly bringing my camera up to my eye and maybe thinking I use a lot of film, but I am only practicing most of the time and not making photographs. Practicing framing and knowing exactly  I hope what the frame sees, as opposed to my eyes. I use very little film, but am always practicing with the framing and focus. Practicing for me is essential. Basketball, Springboard diving, playing music and making photographs means practicing in order to produce a finished product to my best expectations. The image before me is too important to rely on chance to capture with mind and camera. A slow mind and a slow hand mean disaster for me.

 

The second image of the two boys, the dog and the departing figure was made in 1983 in Pasadena California. I use it to demonstrate the accurate framing, focusing and timing that constant practice has allowed me to develop. I have included in the frame what I determined was important for the viewer to see and feel. The figure leaving the frame on the right was an important element for me to include. It gives a mysterious quality to the photograph and is an example of the inclusion of the elements, factors and details that I try to make sure are in all of my photographs because I have always remembered what Henri Cartier-Bresson wrote, “it’s all in the details.”

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PHOTOGRAPHER AS MACHINE

race carIn 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.

Also posted in Social Documentary/Street Photography, Street Photography Tips, The Human Condition Tagged , , , , , |

MAGIC NIKON

NIKONS

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.

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Also posted in Nikon, Social Documentary/Street Photography, Street Photography Tips, The Human Condition Tagged , , , , , , , , |

BUILDING SUBJECT USING THE CHALLENGE OF THREE

Building Subject Using the Challenge of Three: Examples from Barcelona and Lisbon

I made these photographs during my recent three-day workshops in Barcelona and Lisbon. I would not have made (or printed) some of them if I had been working on my own, but I was playing my game, the Challenge of Three  with my students as a way to warm up for a day of street photography.

I developed the game to help my students find subject and then photograph the subject in the most effective manner very quickly, because time waits for no one. Sometimes a potential subject comes our way and we miss the shot because we are not ready and the visual masterpiece is lost forever.

We must be ready to push the button exactly when the mind makes the command after considering all of the elements that make an effective photograph. Time is the big barrier that we documentary and street photographers are forced to deal with. Situations are always moving, so we need to develop methods for photographing very quickly.

The game, Challenge of Three, is based on my 5F’s system for finding and figuring out subjects and then photographing the subject with carefully considered framing, focusing and only then firing off the shot. It is a simple Guide to help photographers build their own effective working technique. (More on my 5F’s system is described in previous posts).

The game can be played alone or in a small group. I have always said that keeping things light relieves the tension of trying to find subject and helps photographers relax and have fun. The main thing to remember is this pastime is supposed to be fun. The rules are simple:  nothing posed or fabricated and every photo needs to have at least three connected considerations or relationships between people or objects.

Little pieces or parts of subject are lying around everywhere to catch the attentive eye. When my eye is caught by the smallest insignificant detail. (“finding”) the game begins by evaluating the detail and deciding (“figuring”) how to make it part of a worthy subject. I call this building subject.

We need to find at least three things in the subject area that we can control only by moving the position of the camera relative to the subject in such a way as to bring the important elements, details and factors together to give the viewer an accurate rendering of what the subject is all about. We need to find three elements about the relationships between values in the subject area. It could be the background and how it relates to the center of interest, or the foreground and how it relates to the center of interest and to the background. It also could be how much of the background or foreground is going to be included in the frame and for what reason. There are many, many questions to consider.

Too much of any one detail might detract from the center of interest. Too few of the important details and the viewer will not have enough information to understand the photograph and your intent.

In street and documentary photography we need to get in close and photograph situations in a smooth and quiet way so as not to disturb the subject or the surroundings with our presence. In my experience, to accomplish this we need to not make quick movements and always be polite and smiling. The object is to get in close. Henri Cartier-Bresson said that one must be a part of what one photographs, therefore, getting in close is very important.

A still life challenge is a great way to slow down in order to learn how to photograph at the speed of life. A still life can offer us a unique opportunity to take as much time as is needed to make the photograph. This gives us practice in the 5F’s and the importance of including at least three elements in a photograph. The subject is still, not moving, and will not change in the next few minutes so we have tmie to slow down and consider the subject at length in order to better determine how to use the various parts in the subject area to effectively build an interesting photograph out of what’s just lying around. The framing of the desired image may take a few minutes, with constant checking of the framing and focus placement, then re-checking each corner of the frame and how a slight movement of the camera, or the placement of focus, can have a large affect on the intended photograph.

A close-up photo of an ordinary item changes that item into something else, perhaps something beautiful in its coincidence of line, texture and light.

During the workshops we all laughed at the absurdity of what we were doing, watching each other get into strange awkward positions to make sense of the framing of an image. This was a good way to keep warmed up. To be very quick in the actions, and doing if for hours at a time, prepares us for that shining moment when we notice  a very powerful subject situation and we are warmed up in body and mind and ready to quickly make the photograph with our practiced skill in figuring, framing, focusing and firing. The photographers who play this game are more apt to be ready when a great opportunity comes their way.

We spend the days photographing simple subjects and events, subjects that would not pass our strict criteria that we normally hold for our subjects. However, these simple subjects allowed us to be constantly considering subject material and gave us practice in framing and focusing , which kept us fluid and precise in our movements so that we were ready when the real and powerful potential subject came our way.

My subjects ranged from a man digging a hole, with an ironic twist involved, an abstract photo of discarded construction material, an action photo of a boy caught in mid air, a drunken street person pretending to attack a photographer and a boy having his photo taken with the approving look of a woman in the background. I included three things in each photograph that were tied together with effective framing and a good sense of trying to create photographs that stand on their own without the need for a caption.


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I photographed a group of young boys huddled by an immense and ancient wall, with three things being evident in the image, the huddled boys kneeling down, the wall and the boys’ relationship to the tall and aged wall and their relationship to each other. Not all of the three things need to be visible, but at least three things must be considered and must be evident in the photo.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The street fighter image includes information that is needed if the photo is to be understood by the average viewer. What is needed? The street fighter in a threatening pose, the photographer in the act of photographing and little else so as not to distract fro the important center of interest (the fighter and the photographer). The second image of the street fighter includes a person holding a cell phone nearby, who seems unaware of the fight situation, adding a whole new element to the photograph.

 

 

 

 

 

 

This abstract photo of some old boards and other pieces of wood shows how I considered each piece and its placement and relationship with the other objects. Another decision I had to make was where the focus should be placed, and, if there is little light, and therefore little depth of focus.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In this photo of a group of boys trying to get water out of a fountain, I included the boy standing and holding the top of the fountain, the relationships are there to see, and all the information was considered very quickly before the event disappeared forever, to be lost to us all.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What did I consider in the photo of the boat in a lake in a park? First, the setting, which means to me to include the foliage in the foreground which acts as a frame. Since the boat was the center of interest, I needed to focus on the boat and place it in the water within the frame of bushes, and then to include what was happening in the boat, that is, the young boy being taught how to row. The composition makes itself when all of these logical considerations have been made concerning a subject.

 

 

 

Someone once said that there is no composition, only facts. I enjoy this perception of a good photo. The inclusion of the important facts in the frame of the viewfinder will make the composition automatically. I made a photo of a small girl in front of an immense machine, which might be called an example of contrast and irony.

 

 

 

 

Another example is a group of men drinking. What is needed to make the photo effective? The men with smiles, the drinks on the table and little else which might distract from the men and their good time together.

 

 

 

 

The most ironic and magic photo that I made, was the first image I made on the first day of the Barcelona workshop. We met in the middle of a famous square, and then after a brief talk explaining the game we were to play, we started our day looking for subject. Unfortunately, the square was almost empty so I suggested that we look in the refuse containers, which I have found to be an excellent way to find abstract images.

Sometimes I will find my own last name in the trash. The first container I looked into had a homemade sign in English that read “freedom.” What was the chance of finding something like this in the first container? In all the trash containers in Barcelona, or even all of Spain, what are the chances? This, for me, is the magic of photography.

In the whole six hours of working at the game, I used only a roll and a half, which for me is about 50 images. Even though we were in effect practicing, I was able to make several photos that I like. The first photo of the first day of the workshop and it was made of the contents of a trash container and had the greatest word that people all over the world cherish, lying cast-off as worthless. Even more ironic for me, is that it was written in English. A trash container in Spain with the word “freedom” written in English.

 

Near the end of the day in Lisbon, after we had been working at our game, we came upon a ceremony in a little square. People were there with the police putting a wreath on a monument and since we were all warmed up and practiced, we were ready to finish the day with some close-up photos of the serious subject. We photographed respectfully and quietly and I produced these photos of the event.

The Challenge of Three game is fun to play while practicing the 5F’s, and is an excellent way to always be ready and it will improve our ability to make photographs at the speed of life!

 

 

 

 

 

Also posted in Social Documentary/Street Photography, Street Photography Tips, Workshops Tagged , , |

20 MINUTES, 14 IMAGES

The subject was the Havana harbor early in the morning, with the sun shining through the dark clouds of a passing rain squall. The figures in the foreground were constantly moving which provided me with many opportunities to make photographs that I thought would best describe the situation of the Cubans and their environment, and the frailty of man, or the strength of man in relation to the drama of his existence.

 

I don’t make many exposures with the hope of getting one acceptable image. Each of
the fourteen exposures of the subject area was done with careful thought about
the many variables that made up the subject and how all these factors
influenced the center of interest. The constantly changing scene, offered me
many chances to make different images of the same subject area as it changed in
the brief time that I was there. The rapid fire technique of some photographers
makes me wonder how many of those quickly made exposures were guesses instead
of well thought out attemps to create a relationship between the various
details that are present in the subject area. Guessing scares me, knowing that
I might miss the best instant because I was too busy clicking away without
thinking enough. In forty five years of doing this kind of work, I have learned
how transitory a subject can be and also how important time is and how crucial
it is for me to catch the significance of a situation in one image.
The subject area changed constantly, giving me new opportunities to make images that would show various aspects of the situation. The available lighting was difficult to work with, as it was very early, with the sun shining toward my lens. The dramatic qualities of the sky encouraged me to keep working the subject as it changed over the twenty minutes that I was there.
I chose the vertical format to include what I thought were the important details in the situation before me. The details are very important, in order to give the viewer of my photograph enough information to perceive the subject as I did. (I did, however, make one horizontal image so I could include all of subjects, the motorcycle, the boy, the man with the hat). I had a wide sweeping view of the area in which the main subject, the figures in the water, were located, so I framed the photographs so that unnecessary details were eliminated.

 

 My intent was to show the contrast between man and his environment, which in this case was the water, clouds, ship and the frailty of man and his relationship to his surroundings. Too much of any detail would have diminished the center of interest, which in this case, is the man or men. The focus was placed on the figures in the water. The sky was an important factor, because of its dramatic qualities and the dark and violent nature of the clouds.
Over the course of the twenty minutes, the human drama continued to play out before me and since my presence did not affect the subject, I continued to photograph, leaving my mind open to the possibilities that might present themselves to me. The tension is always there in a situation such as this. Constantly evaluating what is before my lens and trying to imagine what my best vantage point and intent is as it relates to the subject. I managed to stay with the subject for twenty minutes, but the situation did not last, as the sky became less dramatic and the figures became less noticeable as more people moved into the subject area.

 

 

 

 

(I did choose the horizontal format in one image to show the change in the scene and the relationship of the machines – the motorcycle, the boy, the man with the hat and  the ship.)

 

I photographed this subject, both as a photographer and a teacher. I wanted to show how staying in the same place after the first exposure can result in many valuable images. Why stop photographing after the first image has been made?

 

 

 

 

 

Also posted in Social Documentary/Street Photography, Street Photography Tips, The Human Condition, Uncategorized, Workshops Tagged , , , , |

Los Angeles 2001

A man’s fingers hold a photograph that I made and gave to him in 1974 and he has carried it with him for 27 years on his meandering across the country, riding freight trains and living by his wits with just the clothes on his back and my photograph.

What is the value of a photograph to a man who seemingly has nothing?

My documentary project in the Los Angeles freight yards, photographing tramps and runaways, ended after ten years in 1983, but in 2001 I returned to the yards just for old times’ sake. As I walked alongside the mainline tracks into L.A. a voice called out. “Hey Mr. Picture man where you headed?” I remembered the unchanged voice instantly and turned to see my old friend smiling at me. He hugged me hard with one arm and with the other, drew his prized possession from his pocket and held it up for me to see, a horribly mutilated, tattered beat up piece of paper. A photograph I had made and given to him in 1974.

We were two old guys hugging by the tracks, each with tears in his eyes as we looked at the tattered photograph that meant so much to both of us. I thought, how could this be? First of all, how could that little photograph have lasted this long carried in the pocket of a wandering man, a rough and tumble man of the road, super tramp among men. He did what most men cannot do. He could be anywhere with nothing and survive and be happy doing it. For 27 years he had been doing that with my photo there in his pocket, ready to be brought out to make him smile. He had tough times, but my photo brought a smile and some comfort to a poor, huddled and cold man who lived this very dangerous lifestyle and would take it out in good times to show off.

“The road is going to get you” the older men will tell you. The freight train is an iron beast that will beat a man to death in a few hundred miles. A boxcar door can slam shut on your dangled legs when the brakes go on and those big steel wheels take your legs away, leaving you to bleed out by the right-of-way. There is no right of way for the tramp, only for the railroad and “if the railroad don’t get you, a predator tramp will wait and hit you upside the head and you dead.” The road gets most men in five years at the most.

He survived, because he was not an alcoholic and he knew in his mind that he was doing something that most men and women could not do. “Put me down anywhere and I will find scrap metal and copper wire and I will be sitting pretty.” He lives his way along the railroad “right of way” and is at peace with himself.

The greatest and most emotionally moving shock that I ever got was when he pulled out my photograph from his dusty pocket. How could this be? What is the worth of a crumpled photograph of a group of bums sitting around together in a trash filled field hard by the main line tracks? They sat at the end of the line and I took a picture and then gave a print to my friend. He is not even in the picture that he loves so much. No one can ever take this experience away from me, or him, and that makes me cry.

My photographic journey has lead me on a search for truthful photographs that might speak to men of other men and each man to himself, and to make photos that could lead to a better understanding and love for others. Oh yes, the camera and my heart have led me to places where maybe some understanding is needed. The camera records the emotion and personal reactions of us as we make photos with the hope that something of value will result from this collaboration of heart mind and soul. This is my love story of my searching journey of love and understanding through photography, and with it reach out with visual poems that might have the power to sooth and make a smile.

During my ten years in the yards, I made photographs of men and women who I would meet again and again over the years as they passed through on the way to nowhere. Many became friends and I always tried to give them photographs, because I saw them swell with smiles and thanks as they held my photos. No one had ever given them a photo of themselves. They called me the “Picture Man” and I love them so. The photographs that I do on assignment are paid for and then go away, the photographs that are purchased by collectors give me money and pleasure, but the pictures I give away, are mine forever.

My photograph had come back to me and I wanted to make a photograph that would somehow preserve the feeling of that special meeting there by the tracks. . The question for me when making a photograph is always what to include in the frame and why? How much information do I need to show in order for the viewer to understand the situation in the photograph? What is the center of interest and what details should I include that might give more strength and meaning to the center of interest and result in a meaningful photograph. What do I need in the image to tell the story?

In this image the center of interest are his hands and the tattered and torn photograph that he held and that was so dear to him and to me. No face. Including the face would distract from the photograph and the face is not important to the story. There are no names when one is on the road.
The most important requirement for the social documentary photographer is to get in close to the subject. Close in with the camera and close in with understanding and compassion for the subject. Getting in close is always difficult in sensitive situations and the method I used to get close to the tramps is for another blog post.

My workshops are designed to show photographers my technique for getting in close, without disturbing the subject and without getting into trouble. I have worked the streets of the world and have developed methods for avoiding any trouble and also methods for getting out of any trouble. The street can be a dangerous place for the unwary or unprepared photographer. I enjoy sharing my technique and philosophy about this wonderful medium.

Also posted in Social Documentary/Street Photography, Street Photography Tips, The Human Condition Tagged , , , , , |

ELEMENTS, FACTORS AND DETAILS

dorothea lange, social documentary photography, human condition, framingElements, factors and details.

He has been kicked off his land where he has lived for many years, a sad time for him.

I wanted to make a photograph to display the sadness and despondency of the moment. The level that is leaning against the wall, by the door, is not level. The scale that is visible in the lower area is broken as is the record that can just be seen at the very bottom of the photograph. It was a sad coincidence that these items where in the area of my potential photograph. I was lucky that these elements were there.

To make the best use of these items, that add so much to the situation, I decided to use a vertical format which would allow me to include all of these elements, factors and details. That the man is holding some American flags adds to his effectiveness and the irony of the photograph.

Elements, factors and details that can be found in any potential photographic situation must be noticed and included in the frame without distracting from the center of interest. Anyone can do this, but it takes constant practice. The name of the game is the relationships that can be established in the photo because the photographer was aware of the situation and was able to notice and include these important elements which add meaning to the finished photograph.

For this photograph, I used a Nikon F-3 film camera with a 50mm f-2 lens. The F-3, with its 100% viewfinder coverage, allowed me to frame the photograph to include those important elements, facts and details that provide so much more strength to the center of interest.

The excitement and the heartfelt exhilaration that I felt at the time of making this photograph cannot be described in words. The true and valuable purpose of social documentary photography is to show man to man and each man to himself.

Also posted in Social Documentary/Street Photography, Street Photography Tips, The Human Condition Tagged , , , |

JOHN FREE STREET PHOTOGRAPHY WORKSHOP: PARIS September 7 – 9, 2013

“I took the Paris workshop with John last April because I wanted to push myself to a new level that I couldn’t have reached on my own. I was blown away by John’s knowledge and enthusiasm about photography and the simple, philosophical way he got his message across. I knew I would gain something from the course but I never expected to learn as much as I did and be given so much. His skills are amazing and he shows you how to do it…..how to get real close without disturbing the subject, how to frame, what to include and what to leave out.

I took my best pictures in Paris and I will be doing another course with John as soon as I can because I know he will take me up another level.” David B., London

The Paris workshop is designed to allow participating photographers to spend as much time as possible with me photographing at various locations in the city, with opportunities to learn by watching me work. We will work in the neighborhoods in Paris where street photography had its beginning and was made famous by photographers such as Andre Kertesz, Willie Ronis, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Frank, Brassai and many others. We will also study the techniques that made these photographers some of the best known street photographers.

John Free Street Photography Workshop: PARIS September 7 – 9, 2013

The Paris workshop will help you improve your ability to photograph people at close range without discomfort about invading the subject’s privacy. You will learn to recognize potential photographic situations and quickly analyze the elements and factors that give the subject meaning. You will learn to frame and photograph the subject at the precise instant that all elements are arranged and coordinated with proper timing. By being able to work quickly and quietly, you will be able to photograph the event at the correct moment when all elements and factors have converged to a peak of visual intensity.

Lectures and discussions occur as we work together and at meal breaks. There is also ample time for reviewing your photographs and having one-on-one discussions with me. You will be able to observe me finding and evaluating subjects and how I am able to get in close, without disturbing the subject, or even being noticed.

The workshop is limited to ten photographers and is open to all, regardless of their skill level. Beginning photographers will not “get in the way” or “inhibit” more advanced photographers with their presence. All photographers regardless of their skill must constantly study the same things in order to improve their images. We are always students when it comes to our photography.

GOALS/OUTCOMES:
You will learn to:
1. Recognize and comprehend situations in daily life that, when
photographed, effectively produce pictures rich in their ability to communicate to the viewer what the photographer intended;
2. Work quickly and quietly without having to think about or look at the
camera;
3. Gain an enhanced awareness of how to frame in a viewfinder various details, elements and factors that make up the subject and how important proper timing is in capturing the moment;
4. Produce photographs that entertain, educate or in some way, emotionally affect the viewer for having seen them;
5. Photograph in sensitive situations.

SCHEDULE
The daily locations are subject to change based upon events or photographic opportunities. Each morning we will meet at 9:00 a.m. at one of the many parks to review each photographer’s work from the previous day. Students should be prepared for extensive walking and occasional Metro rides to various locations. I try to choose the areas of the city where I have had the best luck in finding suitable subject material.

MATERIALS: A camera with manual settings is suggested. Digital photographs will be reviewed each day. If using a film camera you can send me scans of your photos after the workshop. Critiques are optional and are offered free of charge for one year after the workshop.

REGISTRATION INFORMATION
The cost of the workshop is $1,200 ($900 for previous students). Students will provide their own transportation, lodging and meals, as well as print processing (if using film). The workshop includes an introductory lecture and the opportunity to work one-on-one with me to develop an individual working technique tailored to fit each photographer’s unique personal vision.

A 50% deposit is required to reserve a space, the balance to be paid by August 16. Payment may be made by personal check or through PayPal. Cancellations must be made no later than two weeks in advance for a refund minus at 10% cancellation fee. In the event that the workshop is cancelled for any reason, participants will receive a full refund.


Payment Options



Checks should be sent to: John Free
PO Box 697
Tujunga, CA 91043

FINDING SUBJECT: THE CHALLENGE OF THREE

Subject is everything. Without subject, there can be no photography.

Finding subject can be frustrating. The serious student of street photography knows that subject is everywhere. Subject is lying around outside and it is also inside the photographer’s mind. Everything we have witnessed in life or have learned is tucked away in our subconscious. We use all this accumulated information and emotion, combined with the situation, to build subject from these bits and pieces of life that make up our daily world.

Instead of walking around looking for subject, why not try to build subject from all the various elements, factors and details that are found anywhere? The brain and imagination must be trained and conditioned to notice these elements and details and how to put them together in some logical manner so that the viewer of the photograph is emotionally affected or moved by the image.

In my workshops, we play a Challenge of Three that I designed for photographers to keep in shape. In this challenge, photographers exercise their ability to use my Five F’s System (finding, figuring, framing, focusing and firing) to find and photograph a subject very quickly and quietly. The photographer must include at least three things when building subject. These three things must be either visible in the photograph or must be something that the photographer was thinking when the photo was made. The back ground, the foreground and their relation to the center of interest, must be established visually.

Instead of looking for a whole subject, the photographer can now look for bits and pieces of a subject. A small detail can lead to a powerful photograph when it is combined in the frame with other relevant details and factors. The challenge is to find simple subjects quickly, quietly and effectively, using only the details in the subject area and the photographer’s vivid imagination to arrive at simplicity of expression.

I made these photographs during my recent New York and Chicago workshops that were held in April and May to demonstrate to the students how to build subject and then how I can get in close to photograph the subject without disturbing it with my presence. These photos demonstrate how I used Challenge of Three during the workshops. The Challenge keeps us warmed up, conditioned and sharp, so that when the big event or moment comes along, the photographer will be ready to react instantaneously to the opportunity.

1. The three things in this photograph that I wished to combine are the portrait on the wall, the man and his glasses. The glasses are relevant because it shows that he took them off in order to better see the portrait. All three things go together to create this subject. One of the important parts of this photograph is not visible, the fact that the man has removed his glasses for a better look. All of the factors in a good photograph do not have to be visible in the image

 

 

 

 

 

 

2. The comical nature of the man’s white feet combined with the child walking through the water in the background are included to create an entertaining photograph. I placed the focus on the center of interest, the legs and feet. I included the child in the background  but kept it out of focus so our eye would go to the man’s legs first.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

3. I had noticed the boy doing handstands and waited for this instant, when the boy’s spread legs framed the girl in the background. The timing and framing of this shot were important, as was the placement of the focus on the boy’s legs. I wanted the viewer to see the boy doing a handstand first, then his sister in the background. When photographing strangers at close range, it is important to be careful about not disturbing the subject. A big smile on the photographer’s face always helps smooth the waters of life.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

4. Two frames are visible in this photo. The window on the right has a man looking forward into life or backwards at life, while the child jumps through another door, or frame, without caring about the past or the future. The third element does not have to be visible; in this case it is the relationship between the child and the man. Darkness, light, black and white and square or rectangular frames were combined to form a visual mood.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

5. The back of a junkman’s truck can be a special place to build subject from the junk. Diagonal lines, forms balance and light and placing the camera in the most effective spot, turn junk into abstract images that captivate the viewer’s imagination. This is a subject that requires a vivid imagination and a skill in quickly perceiving the details and forms that give the photograph meaning. We can find beauty anywhere, even in the back of a junkman’s truck.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

6. The mother and child, the boats and the arm gesture of the mother, all add up to a special moment caught by the brain and camera to evoke a warm feeling. I moved in closer to eliminate some distracting elements (other people) in the foreground. Using a vertical formal also eliminated distracting elements. The question is always, what are we selling? What do we need in the frame to sell it and what must we eliminate from the frame that which is distracting to the image.

 

 

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MY FIVE Fs SYSTEM: NUMBER FIVE, FIRING

My “5 Fs” (finding, figuring, framing, focusing and firing) was conceived to help photographers remember the things to consider when photographing a subject in real life situations. If you practice this system it will become your working technique as a street photographer.

The fifth and final F is FIRING.

Everybody wants to hear the click.

That expensive and precise sounding click. The sad part is that most of the time the camera is not ready to make the photograph when the mind commands it to. The photographer is still thinking or adjusting the camera and misses the shot. The hands cannot keep up with the brain. Is this a case of fumbling and bungling?

Be hard on yourself, if you are being self-taught. You should know that even being late for ½ second and the shot is lost. The photo might come out okay, but it is not the shot your brain decided on and you missed because of slowness on your part. Slow aesthetically and slow mechanically. Sad but true as I have seen it over the years in many photographers including myself. When the brain is working well and fast and the hands can keep up, that is when the effective photographs emerge from inside the photographer. When everything is thought about and adjusted, the camera seems to go off by itself.

Taking many shots to get one good one can be very dangerous. Many photographers shoot, shoot, instead of concentrating on the subject with all its variables and being ready to coincide with the most effective instant when it all makes sense to the attentive and dedicated photographer. The digital camera allows the photographer to make hundreds of shots without having to buy expensive film. This is one reason that I advise photographers to go back to film. Thirty six shots of expensive film might make the photographer think more and shoot less.

O.K. now you can push the button.

I am using this photograph as an example of the figuring, framing and focusing that I thought were effectively adjusted so that I was ready to take the shot at the moment when the two people in the background were starting to shake hands, which I felt was a symbolic gesture.

 

Also posted in Street Photography Tips