When In Rome....

Is everything in your life done on some sort of efficient agenda?  Are all your shoots scheduled?  Are you proud of your time management skills?  Do you see value in walking around with no conscious intention?

There's tremendous creative energy in throwing away "productivity" and replacing it with quiet, active observation.  When I lose the thread of excitement in my art (as opposed to work) I know I can get it back by repudiating the socially engrained work ethic that haunts most of us.  The only way for me to move forward is to not think about "moving forward."

I pick up a camera and a lens and some film or a memory card and I hit the streets and wander aimlessly. Sometimes I just observe stuff.  Sometimes I have a reaction to what I see.  It could be excitement or fear or a cynical sense of boredom; but some sort of reaction.  That's when I photograph.

A number of years ago I finished up some corporate work and I felt burned out.  Used up.  My store of visual energy was used up in the service of injecting passion into temporary, and ultimately unimportant materials.  I told my wife I needed to recharge and I packed a small bag and headed to the airport alone.

I was thinking of going to Mexico City but at the last moment I decided on Rome.  I had no agenda, no itinerary.  I landed at the Leonardo Da Vinci airport, took the train into town and booked a room at my favorite old hotel, the Victoria.

Every morning I got up early and ate quick breakfast in the dining room.  I carried a Mamiya 6 camera with a 75mm lens and stuck a 50mm lens in the pocket of my jacket.  In the opposite pocket I stuffed in ten rolls of 120mm Tri-x or T-max CN.  This gave me 120 potential images per day.  120 chances to find something fun.

But I never went out thinking, "I need to find something to shoot."  Instead I went out thinking, "I want to see what life looks like in Rome."  And if I saw something that caused a reaction then that was a bonus.  I walked and ate and shopped and shot for the better part of eight days.

When I came back home I had images that echoed what I felt during my visit.  During my walks.  I never thought about the images as stock.  I never justified the trip as a tax write off.  I just responded to things that made me think or feel.

Using one simple camera and one or two lenses, along with the formalist discipline of locking into one kind of monochrome film, focused me in a way that digital doesn't.  It limited choice so that my brain could process the emotion instead of running mental sub routines concerning color balance or contrast.  It freed me up to respond in a less encumbered way.

I have a camera I am using right now that I'm trying to sculpt into the shooting cameras of those days.  Black and white.  One aspect ratio (square).  One ISO (160).  One lens (Normal focal length).  If I limit choice I expand reaction.  My brain might work differently from yours.  That's what makes my vision mine and yours yours.

I'm just describing what works for me.

The top image was taken while walking down an alley.  The gentleman was totally aware of my presence.  I smiled and brought the camera up to my eye.  When I clicked the shutter and then let the camera drop down to my waist we both nodded at each other and moved on with our days.

The bottom image was taken during a crowded day at the Vatican.  It's part of a series that I love because it shows how integrated faith is in the daily lives of some Romans, as well as their proximity to the symbols of their faith.

I went to Rome to see things in a fresh way.  Next week maybe I'll go to San Antonio, Texas and walk around downtown.   Readjust my eyes to a new year.


jkt said...

Very nice, i should dust of my FTb more often

Bill M said...

Come walk with me.

Fly into BWI.

- Washington DC: Smithsonian museums, monuments, memorials, etc.
- Baltimore (Fort McHenry, great seafood)
- 2.5 hours to Charlottesville (where Jefferson's home Monticello is)
- 2 hours to Philadelphia
- 45 minutes to Annapolis

Damen said...

GREAT photos Kirk (I especially like the Vatican one) and great article - just in time to inspire me before Christmas ... and start the forlorn search for a store selling Tri-X ... I'm after the 4gb version ;)

Eric Hegwer said...

Nice stuff, Kirk. Let me know if you go to SA :)

nalax said...

The M6 was a splendid tool for immersing oneself in the flow of the street. My uncle led me through the streets of Guangzhou almost 20 years ago, he speaking Cantonese, myself English, and I saw a world that existed that afternoon for my camera. It was a photo workshop in life. Thanks Kirk and Merry Christmas!

Kurt Shoens said...

I'm a big believer that constraints help the creative process. (There's more famous sonnets than free verse.) You traded the constraints of the commercial job (choice of equipment, but you shoot to the client's specs) for the opposite constraints of your trip to Rome (shoot whatever you want, but with specific equipment).

Digital's strength is flexibility. I can venture out with a DSLR and two zoom lenses and for every shot I get: color and/or black&white, choice of ISO, focal length choices, enough pixels to crop to any aspect ratio, and a practically unlimited number of pictures. Neato, but ...

Digital's strength is also a weakness. Where are the constraints? I think photographers miss those constraints with digital. Thus the attraction of deliberately flawed cameras like Holgas.

When using B&W film, I see B&W picture possibilities out and about. If I have digital, well I guess I see color slide possibilities, since that's my closest reference. I have to put the other digital possibilities out of mind to avoid paralysis.

Best to you and your family for the holidays!

Rob Young said...

Excellent post as usual Kirk. I did a similar thing in venice earlier this year. I was fortunate enough to be able to spend 14 days there. After getting the tourist stuff out of my system, I just wandered out into the city and tried to get some idea of what life was like in such an unusual setting.

Watching and photographing workers and delivery people going about their business in boats and with hand carts was fascinating.

Vinicius Valle said...


I have been following your blog since you begin talking about going back to film. By that time I was feeling the same thing and find out that I wasn't alone.

Now with this one I see myself again. Sometime ago I was question myself about what I have been doing. I have been shooting digital mostly for stock, but frankly I wasn't happy with my results. Seems like I had lose the creativity.

So sometime ago I bought a rangefinder with a 40mm lens(a Voightlander, could not afford a Leica...rsrs) and a used Mamiya 645 with a normal and a short tele (I like to shoot tight), plus a bunch of Tri-X and went doing exactly the same thing, walking on the streets without any photographic objective. And bingo, magic happens! Creativity is back.

It is very good to find out that you are not the only crazy one (when I talk that I miss film and I did a come back for it people look at me as a lunatic!).

Thank you for your posts.

steveburns said...

The heart of your piece is what many of us may have done at one time or another. It may be something that we all need to do more often. I know I should.

A wonderful read!

The best for you and yours this holiday season. Steve

Nicolas said...

'If I limit choice I expand reaction. My brain might work differently from yours. That's what makes my vision mine and yours yours.'

Once again you're right. These last days I'm not shooting but collecting new gear. I wish I could do a good square portrait soon.

Poaga said...

Vinicus Valle: It's odd that you should mention that people stare when you mention film; I've had the opposite experience...everyone I hear is talking nostalgically about "back in the day" when they were the only "real photographers" using film and how now photography's been "spoiled" by the unwashed digital masses.

Anonymous said...

Great post Kirk.

Been doing just that for the latter half of the year and it makes you think more as a photographer that's for sure and you learn more. Just one prime lens on a camera, pocket full of Neopan and go out for a darn good walk with no fixed expectations whatsoever other than enjoying yourself and seeing, observing, enjoying.

Can this be done with digital too? I'm still trying but I don't get the same relaxed feeling myself no matter what the camera used is. The other good thing about film is not being instantly able to see your results. Good thing? Sure, take some bad shots and you won't beat yourself up over it and ruin the rest of your day and it won't taint the rest of your shoot either.

For me as I look to 2010 - Slower *really is* better! :)

kirk tuck said...

Just in case you're drawing a blank about what to get yourself for the holidays........





Anonymous said...

Interesting topic old friend. After a career in outdoor photography (from endangered birds to Costeau, from Big Bend to the Big Thicket) where I had every lens from a 14mm to a 600, I recently sold all my stuff and went back to Leica, three lenses. What an eye opener. Does anyone still ask you "what are you going to do when you grow up?"

O.C. Garza
UT Photojournalism Class of 1976
Victoria, Texas

We need to have lunch together next time I get to Austin.

kirk tuck said...

O.C. I'd love to have lunch and catch up. Still shooting anything under water? Come to Austin soon.