Daily Practice is a good thing for swimming, playing the piano and making art with a camera. Familiarity engenders comfortable knowledge.

Post Swim Self-Portrait.

When I look around at the contemporary landscape I am often surprised that no one carries their camera with them anymore, unless they are on some sort of photographic mission. I guess the rationalization is that everyone is carrying their phone and so are equipped for those times when an image presents itself. Then, of course, if the image doesn't turn out well they have a built-in excuse to trot out --- "it was just shot with my phone." 

When I was a student at UT Austin I was fortunate to make the acquaintance of a photographer named, Garry Winogrand. He was a visiting lecturer in the College of Fine Arts, and also a regular habitué of the hi-fi shop where I worked part time. One semester I took his class. It was a revelation to me; that photography could be nearly totally immersive.

It was back in the 1970s and everyone was into photography around campus. Olympus, Nikon and Leica cameras dangled casually over shoulders, and over the corners of chairs at coffee shops and bars. It was common practice to people watch on the patio at Les Amis Cafe with one's camera on the table; exposure set, ready to capture some wry and interesting moment that might unfold in front of us.

We wore our cameras to class and we took them along with us everywhere but into the pool. 

Garry Winogrand was a role model for some of us. He didn't take his camera with him most places. He took one or two or three Leica M cameras with him everywhere and he shot all the time. He could load those cameras and set exposure and focus without ever having to look at the camera. As he walked down the main drag across from campus he was continually adjusting focus and exposure, and constantly shooting whatever caught his eyes.

Garry made a lot of images but he never had to make the excuse that this picture or that picture turned out poorly because it was taken with his phone. 

Thinking about this now I believe that Garry carried his camera at the ready in order to train his mind to be always ready. To train his mind not to be self-conscious about the idea of, or the act of, taking photographs of strangers in the street, or strangers in the hallways. 

As photographers we seem to have become sensitized to society's anxiety about the use of images. We fear that our behavior will be interpreted as intrusive and sinister, or that it may cause discomfort to the people we observe and photograph. We self-restrict because we are part of our culture and feel the unspoken, but quite real, constraints and pressures that events of the last two decades have cumulatively hobbled us with.

And, like most habits, the surrender to the pressure of the group is ever self-reinforcing. The less we carry our cameras around the more uncomfortable we come to feel when we do carry them around. Some of us become more furtive in our efforts and some quit the field altogether to become "landscape" photographers. Only shooting images without people in them in order to remove one more source of friction from the process of making photographs as personal art. (Even though some artists would say that all good creativity involves some amount of friction in order to be manifested into existence...).

In essence this surrender seems to signal that we have become cognizant that we are doing something almost tabu. Something almost perilously outside the mainstream. But in reality our acquiescence to perceived social norms may be, at least partially, our response to merely the general disappearance of cameras in our everyday lives. We don't see as many cameras. We feel segmented from the group by nature of our extra "plumage." The camera over the shoulder comes to signify our implied differentiation from our social groups. We become outsiders. And the cycle of reinforced behavior continues, and continues to constrict. 

The level of highest comfort will be achieved when we achieve homogenous parity. But.... If we fancy ourselves to be artists then the discomfort of exclusion is part and parcel of the artist's experience. We need to be a bit outside to see past the objective self-image of the group in order to make subjective images as commentary on culture. Just as Robert Frank (a Swiss citizen) was able to step outside the collective emotional reticence of 1950's U.S. culture to shoot "forbidden" images of our tender psycho-social underbelly we, as artists, also need to stand outside the group's self-censorship if we are to express our real and authentic voice. Otherwise the cameras exist just as toys for tactile enjoyment. 

What photographers like Garry Winogrand showed me was that we don't wear our cameras through our daily lives to make a fashion statement or to show off our buying prowess but to become personally comfortable with the "idea" of being able to respond to visual and social stimuli wherever and whenever our muses favor us. By keeping the camera close by we are making clear (to ourselves and the public body) our intentions to photograph. And we do so by, if necessary, walking against the current of our contemporary culture instead of being swept downstream by our own emotional trepidation of seeming to exist on the periphery of "the group." We trade a certain amount of social safety net for a larger amount of autonomous thought and action. 

But the constant carrying and use of our cameras isn't really about thumbing our noses at cultural convention, it's about building a fluidity of both practice (eye, hand, brain and subconscious coordination) as well as re-building our own understanding that one of the rights and privileges of living in a free society includes both our free expression, and the covenant to protect our individual rights as a group. 

I carry a camera with me everywhere and, like the "worry beads" of my Turkish friends, I have the camera in my hands when I am in between meetings, on buses, in waiting rooms. My fingers come to know where the controls of the camera are and how to hold the camera to reduce its movement. The familiarity takes hesitation out of practice.

As a swimmer I know all too well that a week out of the pool means I am "out of practice" and "out of shape." In photography the "out of practice" translates to a weakening of intention to be photographically present now. "Out of shape" translates as a loss of muscle memory and habit. 

Like all rights, the more we ignore our privileges, and underestimate their importance and relevance, the quicker they go away. Our hoped for immersion into our art and our craft suffers when we allow the momentum of popular opinion to sway us into abandoning our public pursuit of our arts. 

But we need to make sure we aren't (in)actively complicit. Making good images in public has always been hard but people have always succeeded in making valuable artifacts of their cultures anyway. The first step is to make sure that our intention to create follows through to bolster our courage to publicly embrace the process. To make other people comfortable with the idea of people carrying their cameras we must first make ourselves comfortable with that idea. 

First step? Well, it's lunch time here and Belinda and I are heading out to our favorite burger joint for a couple of burgers and a shared bag of fries. You can count on me having a camera over my shoulder. Who knows what art may transpire if someone drops the ketchup in a particularly interesting way....


Patrick Dodds said...

Looking ruggedly handsome there Kirk. :)

Anonymous said...

Showing your defiance by flaunting your camera, may be less productive than the purposeful use of guerrilla photography.

Back in the days of film, a pro acquaintance and several amateurs, were somewhere they should not have been. When the police arrived, the amateurs with their showy pro-bodies and zooms were ticketed. The pro, using an inconspicuous rangefinder, was just told to leave. Fast forward to today — the amateurs would have been hassled and the discreet pro would not have been noticed.

Kirk, Photographer/Writer said...

It seems to me that you have missed the central theme of the post and might want to read it again and again. It's not about being defiant, nor is it about flaunting a camera. It's about having the intention and the right to be photographing. If your friends were in abeyence of the law they deserved to be ticketed and that had nothing to do with the practice of photography. The camera doesn't matter, only the idea that you have an intention to purposefully do the art you want to do and do it.. The size or conspicuousness of the gear isn't mentioned. The whole point, which you have ignored, is that in a society that allows photography you don't NEED to be sneaky and overly discreet. Please read it again. Slowly.

Use guerrilla photography in dictatorships. Don't be afraid to practice your craft in free countries.

Kirk, Photographer/Writer said...

Patrick, Thanks. It's all in the filters.

Del Bomberger said...

Thank you for this. It brings back the great memories I have of that same time period. I was at a huge street fair last weekend and noticed that anyone with a DSLR really stuck out, and that other than those few, I didn't see many cameras (not counting phones).

People occasionally comment that they never used to see me without a camera-I'm glad to be remembered that way.

Take care.


Anonymous said...

I should probably re-read before stating this, but I think I agree with everything you wrote. Yet throughout I couldn't help but presume that you have overlooked the significant role of the identity of the person carrying the camera or, putting it another way, you have presumed that the photographer will not be perceived as a threat or that he or she will be perceived and accepted by those around as having benign intentions. Although the reality is that perhaps little has changed since the heydays of Frank and Winogrand, many of us act and think like much has changed such that the act of carrying and using anything other than a phone carries with it the potential of being misperceived as threatening or unduly intrusive. Think "pervert", "terrorist" or the fear that the image of you spilling the ketchup is about to go viral. To be clear, I do agree with the principal you are encouraging and try to practice it (albeit not constantly). But it does take a certain, well, courage, confidence and/or indifference.

typingtalker said...

Was there a second camera or more than one mirror involved in making the self portrait? Or perhaps a second photographer working under your direction.

Kirk, Photographer/Writer said...

Seven mirrors and two 8K video cameras. Plus a flux capacitor linked with a temporal shifter. :-)

Naw, just an a6000 on a nice tripod.

Unknown said...

You are not a photographer if you don't carry a camera. Period

Henry Richardson said...

Actually, I carry a camera around with me all the time and have for years. Currently it is an Olympus E-M10II. Sometimes I have the pancake Panasonic 20mm f1.7 on it or Olympus 25mm f1.8 or pancake Olympus 14-42mm f3.5-5.6 EZ or pancake Panasonic 14mm f2.5. I take the extra ECG-3 grip off in these cases to keep the camera as small/light as possible. Before this camera I used other cameras, but always have one with me.

Henry Richardson said...

"Like all rights, the more we ignore our privileges, and underestimate their importance and relevance, the quicker they go away."

I have an old buddy who would certainly agree with you. He feels the same about his gun rights. He is glad that he can open carry now, just as you and I open carry our cameras. I don't have a gun, but I respect his thoughts on the matter and, I surmise, you would too.

tnargs said...

I know my rights and I feel entitled to take street photos of people, but my shyness about seeing scowls or head-shakes or muttered words really gets in the way, to the point of missing 80% of what I would have liked to capture. I think Mike Johnston feels like me: IIRC he once blogged as much.

I actually get very annoyed with myself.

Anthony Bridges said...

I carry a camera with me almost all the time. It is usually the Fuji X100s which is small, quiet and discreet - most times. Within the last month I've had several young adults comment about it when I'm out and about. It looks like an old school rangefinder and they wonder what it is. Sometimes fun conversations about photography arise from these exchanges.

lucepen said...

Very thoughtful good post, thanks.

TMJ said...

I notice you have your left eye closed, is that just for the self-portrait? I only ask, because when I shoot with a Leica rangefinder, I keep my left eye open (my right is looking through the viewfinder) so that I can anticipate what or whom I want to enter the shot.

Mark W. said...

Thanks for the encouragement. I'm in the "out of shape" and "out of practice" state right now. I enjoy photography, have wonderful "stuff" to work with, but have taken a bit too long of a break.
Last week I did some volunteer picture taking for my homeowners association and the rustyness really showed.
Thanks for sharing lessons learned from your mentor.
This post, and your 3000th, and all the ones before it, keep the link to your blog at the top of my favorites list.

TiMcG said...

Gary Winograd, holy smokes, how fortunate to have rubbed shoulders with him ! There is some film of him on You Tube shooting on the street, worth a look. one thing I remember is cabinet drawers full of bags of undeveloped film. Prolific Shooter does not begin to describe his style.Another deceased photographer that wore his Leica like clothing was David Vestal. Mr. Vestal published some of the Best commentary on photographing I have ever read.Thanks for sharing Kirk.

seany said...

Interesting article Kirk as usual and I'm sure it is correct on many aspects,however I think Gary Winograd's eccentric behavior is hardly something to be copied or admired,also if everyone was carrying their cameras all the time as you say then it was hardly going against the norm.
When I was much younger the world was a very different place and some of the freedoms we had would now be not acceptable,such as smoking in bars,cinemas,restaurants,etc.Drink driving was also an accepted behavior as was corporal punishment in schools.

We tend to be much more aware of our personal freedoms nowadays and having every tom dick and harry poking a camera in our faces and publishing the results however embarrassing they might be on social media does not go down well with lots of people.

Kirk, Photographer/Writer said...

Michael, we'll just have to disagree. I value eccentricity over compliance. We tend to be far less aware of our freedoms these day, not more. And our culture is becoming more repressive because we don't push back. It is acceptable to carry and use your camera in public and some of the people who might be embarrassed by their public actions might be the very people who need the correction of exposure.

Exercise the right or lose it. Make art or sit on your hands and fret. For me, easy choices.

Omer said...

A great post, Kirk.

@Michael: Drinking while driving, cigarette smoking, and corporal punishment are NOT forms of speech or expression. But photography is definitely a form of expression and speech.

In my own experience I have summoned police to intervene on an occasion when a coach told me not to take photographs at a public park where juvenile football was being practiced. My conversation with the police lasted less than a minute when they adamantly supported my right to take pictures. Their conversation with the coach and support staff however lasted much longer. The odd thing is, considering how ubiquitous the smartphone camera has become, is how photography seems to be increasingly marginalized. The only explanation I can think of is the lack of easily available publications that showcase serious photography. Or perhaps the ease with which anyone can now take a picture has somehow convinced many people that perhaps serious photography is unnecessary. Remember Marissa Mayer's silly declaration of the unnecessary need for professional photographers.

Kirk, Photographer/Writer said...

TMJ, I rarely leave an eye open when shooting, especially in areas of construction or other physical danger. I just can't concentrate well on two things at once.

Anonymous said...

Today I needed to come to my office to catch up on some work and a large solar array over a public parking lot caught my eye. I parked my car and walked into the lot to make some photographs with my Sony alpha that I take everywhere. A police car pulled up after several minutes and I was questioned. I introduced myself and the conversation led to drones - the officer had just bought himself one. I had a similar experience photographing cargo ships at the Port of Long Beach last year. I have gotten used to being questioned by police, security, etc. in our paranoid society. I refuse to let it deter my photography.

Milo said...

Think since cell phone and camera are one in the same for most we do always have a camera with us...

tnargs said...

An interesting news item turned up today about what makes people 'creepy'.


Take a look at the last personality trait listed, and the last hobby listed.

I don't know why people are so negative about taking photos. (or why wanting to take a picture is linked with sexual interest....!)

Anonymous said...

The difference between now and the seventies is that a photograph taken at an inopportune moment wasn't going to posted on a forum where millions of often rude and ignorant people could poke fun at it.
Look how 'social media' has destroyed some people's lives because they said or did something stupid and there's not a person amongst us who doesn't do that occasionally.
It's ironic really as far more people have a camera and carry it all the time and mainly use them to document the banal yet people's tolerance of the the flaws and acceptance of the differences that make us what we are has diminished.