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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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Posted in Nikon, Social Documentary/Street Photography, Street Photography Tips, Street Photography Workshops, The Human Condition Also 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.

Posted in Social Documentary/Street Photography, Street Photography Tips, Street Photography Workshops, The Human Condition Also tagged , , , , |

MY “FIVE Fs SYSTEM”: NUMBER ONE – FINDING

street photography tips, cartier-bresson, photography workshopsMy “5 Fs” (finding, figuring, framing, focusing and firing) system 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 first “F” is FINDING.

Finding a subject can be a frustrating process for many photographers. Subjects are everywhere. The eyes are not too important when searching for subject. The eyes are just part of the tools we work with. It is the vivid imagination that finds subject by noticing and evaluating various details that are part of the subject area, the photographer frames these various forms to make an effective photograph.

The subject itself is not the most important thing. What the photographer does with the subject is the supreme test.

A walk to the store will never be the same for the sensitive photographer, the mud puddle at the corner will provide a myriad of visual possibilities that can keep a photographer busy for hours. The reflections in the puddle, the passing wheels of cars, the feet walking by, the cop directing traffic all these and much more will facilitate the imagination to construct stimulating photographs.

Combining the smallest insignificant detail with other insignificant details can result in a significant photograph. These details, elements and factors are lying around everywhere for the attentive photographer to collect into an image that has the power to create an emotionally moving photograph. Henri Cartier-Bresson said, when asked how to do it, “It’s all in the details.”

Studying the photographs of Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Frank and Gene Smith will demonstrate that their photographs always had at least three things, or factors, that they considered and then combined to make a wonderful photograph.

For example, in the photograph above the first thing I noticed was the tender scene of the father bringing the bicycle along as the children ran ahead. They ran ahead into their lives and dad was there to give support and guidance. The light and atmosphere at the day’s end was combined with the details that were needed to complete the visual story.  The focus was placed on the bicycle, which to me, was an important aspect of the image. The slanting light was emphasized to show that the day was ending and the people were headed home.

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