6.19.2020

Walking with a camera is more a meditation about change than it is about taking the perfect photograph. Seeing the external world change day-by-day is fascinating.

Boston.

When I show friends photographs I make during my walks through various parts of Austin the most common reaction is for them to ask if it would be "okay" to tag along with me on one of my excursions so they can see, firsthand, how I go about taking photographs. It's an interesting question and it calls into clear relief the odd confluence of agendas I have when I head outside with a camera. 

The "photo walks" are a very much different thing than any aspect of "commercial" photography where we are called on to make useful images that conform to certain stylistic conventions and, with even more structure, to take photographs of very specific subjects. A personal walk is a wide open adventure that, in it's purest form, should have no constraints beyond physics and imagination. 

There is a contingent who conjecture that I walk for my health's sake. That's not entirely wrong but I always think these friends mean that I walk for aerobic physical fitness. But that's not the entire reason. I also walk as a mediation practice during which I observe either how life is changing around me or how I am changing in a way that allows me ever differing interpretations/visions of the world external to myself. 

How a hot breeze feels different to me at age 64 than it did when I was 45. How being unhurried changes how long I pause and look at something, or how many things I give only a cursory glance to and then move on. How the humility foisted on us by age changes my assessment of other people's on the street presentation. 

I confess that I love to see the way people walk down the sidewalks in downtown streets. Some people walk with an awareness that others around them are sharing the space. They move to one side, they are aware of a flow to the traffic. They enter in and out of a social contract that is comfortable and socially helpful. Then there are whole groups that seem immune to the idea that there are people around them, beside them or in front of them that need to share a sidewalk or a space. The might walk three across and take up all the space. They turn without looking. They stop in the middle of the shared space and gawk. They are oblivious to flow.

It used to annoy me more but now it's more of a curiosity. A perennial question for me to ask. "Why are some people more fluid and situationally aware while others in the same space seem blind to the proximity of others?" 

Watching groups walk is interesting because you can so often see the hierarchy and pecking order of their social construction. And you usually catch a whiff of the drama-scape in which they spend their lives.

I walk with a camera because the camera, as a prop, supplies for others some sort of short hand message about why this strange man would be out at midday walking aimlessly through the streets. I also walk with a camera because I like to photograph buildings, signs, people, benches and other subjects to see how different the photographic images are from the constructs my mind and memory form. Some of what I shoot is documentation and some is interpretive. But the camera does function as a ticket to the big show...

I can walk miles without pulling a camera off my shoulder to shoot anything. Then, I can see 20 things in one city block that catch my attention. Anything from a shaft of light to an anonymous person's casual gesture. They way they toss a soft drink cup into a trash can. How they light a cigarette. The way they turn their head to speak to a companion.

It's odd for me to actually do one of my walks with another person. I've spent so much of my life walking alone and with no discernible direction that it feels awkward to have a walking partner. There's a social inertia that pushes us to have "a plan," "a route," "a stated purpose," and "a schedule". All of which are not part of my ingrained walking method. The addition of a second person also creates an audience and I think none of us are immune from the desire to better "present" for our audience. To look for ways to make the walk more exciting and compelling. To prove to whomever you are with that what you do have merit of some sort. Almost as though we need some form of their validation for our process. A need to make your photography seem compelling to them.

All of this creates a friction that changes the nature of the walk from a quiet and thoughtful personal experience to a shared, social experience. The sharing comes with a sense that I'm losing whatever anonymity I've created for myself through decades of immersion and the ability to repress certain emotions the expression of which, or the acknowledgment of which, seems to dilute my power to walk up to a stranger and invite a photograph without fear of rejection or having the situation grow beyond what I need in order to get a photograph. 

When I walk alone and my request to take someone's photograph is declined it's easy to accept the rejection and move on. But when I'm with someone else a part of my brain wants to prove my proficiency at handling and succeeding in these encounters and ups the ante in a way that increases friction and, in sum, is probably counter-productive. When I approach someone by myself I'm evincing an equal vulnerability toward my intended subject. It's just me and him/her. There's very little risk; for either of us. I'll be polite and they can say "no". 

But when I add a second person to my walk then the balance of implied power shifts. Now I've got someone, ostensibly, to watch my back. To provide support. To bolster my safety while my intended photo subject has his or her vulnerability increased. Now, for them, there are two strangers to watch out for and deal with.

Then there is again the question of audience. The immediate audience comprised of my companion. If I meet someone on the street when I am walking solo then I am the only audience for my interaction with them. My subjects know, instinctively that they should be interacting with me. I'm pulling them (and they me) into a collaboration. If I bring a second person into the mix then the audience for the subject is doubled. It affects their response just as it adds friction and a presumption of expertise to my response. There is an extra layer of permission required. Now the performance of the photograph is for a wider audience and loses some quantum sum of its intimacy when it becomes a shared experience. It begins to beg the question for the subject: "Where am I supposed to look for approval?"

And, while I hate to be too philosophical, the same dynamic is at work for me when I'm photographing a store front or found object of some sort. I'll have a clear and unencumbered reaction to a scene when I have only to think about whether or not I want to stop and make a photograph, and how to make the photograph, but when I am accompanied by anyone else I feel a need to at least subconsciously justify exactly what it is about the object or scene that I find worthy of even a few seconds of attention. I have to share the experience before I am even able to adequately process how I'm responding to the subject or scene. 

In effect we are, with a second person in tow, morphing the process of the photo walk from a quiet exploration of observing and reacting to things both exciting and mundane and turning it into a bit of interpersonal theater about Photography. Now the practice assumes a different emphasis and a different set of parameters wherein the process of discovery moves from a personal experience to a rehearsed rehash of photography as theater. Or as performance art.  The more informed about photography and the history of photography my companion is the more fraught and involved the theater becomes and the less genuine any process of discovery becomes. We are acculturated to looks for memes at that point. 

When I walk by myself my work, when I look at it later, seems deeper and more personal to me. When I walk with a friend or an acquaintance that I didn't feel comfortable turning down, I often am so disappointed when I look at the images later in the privacy of my office that I feel compelled to pull them all into the trash and excise them permanently. It's very rare that anything comes out as worthwhile for me once the individual nature of the walk has been sacrificed. 

I explained most of this to one friend who then asked if it was different when I walk with a camera and my best friend; my wife. And, sadly, no. Unless my intention is to photograph her then everything I've written above remains just as true. 

I think about my solo walks sometimes through the goggle lens of having been a life long swimmer. And for many of those years a competitive swimmer. Even though you spend an hour or more a day in a pool with twenty, thirty or more people, in a structured workout you are basically swimming alone. It's not like soccer where you are passing balls back and forth, or tennis where you must have an opponent to play. You are alone. Encapsulated by water and working on your stroke, your breathing,  your body position, your mindset, your aqueous meditation. 

When you race in a swim meet it's just you up on the starting block, and during the race all the performance is both your thrill to enjoy and your responsibility alone. The event is, by its very nature, self-contained. Your success depends on your performance as much as your training and your psychology. You do it for yourself. 

But the whole construct changes, at least for me, when you race as part of a relay team. Then you become an integral factor in the success or failure of the group. They either benefit from your success or they have to remediate any losses you accrued on your leg of the race by overperforming on their leg. You share a responsibility for the outcome in a very direct way. It's a tremendous burden.

It's not nearly as much fun as a solo race which, for me, is not nearly as much fun as the routine of a daily solo practice --- even when I'm surrounded by swimmers on all sides. 

And that brings up one last question. Have you ever been in a situation in which there were many photographers photographing at the same cultural event? I'm thinking something like a mass gathering in the park to celebrate the first day of Spring. Something like Eeyore's Birthday Party here in Austin. 
When five or six photographers are self-assigned and all grouped around a very visual event or scene, in close proximity, does your mind flit from making an image that you uniquely see to wondering if someone else's angle is better? Is their point of view better? Is their timing better? Why is the beautiful dancer performing for his camera more than mine? How will our post processing differ? Will mine look inferior? All the way down to the idea that if everyone is clicking away has the scene lost a feeling of exclusivity and personal insight that renders your reaction to the resulting photographs as something far less valuable?

These are selfish thoughts but I'm always uncomfortable when photography becomes a group competition. It seems to rob the pursuit of its passion. 

I'm happiest walking with a camera alone. It lowers the need to come back with anything great, which lowers the stress and friction of working on ideas and grabbing photographs in an immediate, non-rational-thinking way. The photographs become more like observations and less like statements. They become easier and easier to take because there is no emotional cost to trying something just to try it. No need to explain. No need to rationalize. 

I am willing to walk with other photographers but always while knowing that nothing photographic will come out of it for me. 

I wonder if this is exclusive to the way I think about things or whether other photographers have similar thoughts and patterns. 

My idea of a great walk? Interesting weather, lots of people out and around, nothing on my schedule, one camera and one lens, a couple of dollars in my pocket for coffee, and an uninterrupted sidewalk in front of me. 

My idea of a walk from Hell? A group "Photo Walk" done anywhere. Want to take it down a few circles into an even less appealing Hellscape? Then add a "Photo Influencer" as a walk leader. Especially one who loves to talk about his or her idea of what constitutes "actual street photography." 

Just thought I'd share....that I don't like sharing. 






If Heisenberg is right and observation changes a phenomenon then more people observing must change it even more...

21 comments:

JC said...

Exceptionally interesting post. Do you think it would be possible to walk aimlessly, in your solo meditative state, but with a program? When I was a newspaper columnist in St. Paul, I'd be up at the state historical society a couple of times a year looking stuff up. One very useful source was photography of ordinary things in St. Paul fifty or a hundred years earlier. (It's a state capital, like Austin, so there was always stuff going on.) For example, Austin in the time of Covid will be of interest a hundred years from now. Or, just Austin at the turn of the millennium. You take terrific photographs of the city, but if you had a program to walk in different areas at different times, you could make a great document that might carry Tuck work on for several hundred years...and I'm not joking here. Make an archive for the state historical society (or the Texas equivalent) and donate to them. They'd take it. You might even arrange it in advance.

Or would that disturb your wa?

Tom Devlin said...

That is the truth.

James Weekes said...

I agree 100%. The wordS that stuck out to me we’re ‘in tow’. If I walk with someone else, every time I stop I feel their impatience to continue or their curiosity, as in “Why’d you take that?” Both just kill the reason for the walk. The piece you wrote years ago about hunting alone has always resonated with me.

Anonymous said...

If I'm not at an event, when I work alone, 10-15% of what I shoot ends up being interesting -- maybe 5% of it is any good. (The 5% ratio has been remarkably consistent over a 40+ year career.)

If I am with someone else, 5% might be interesting; 1% might be any good.... but more often than not, few frames end up having any real value. I don't know why this happens, but it's been that way as long as I can remember.

Anonymous said...

Schrodinger's photo walk.

Mark

MikeR said...

I might conjecture that the person walking with awareness of those around them are walking alone, while those who seem to be in their own universe, (because they are), likely are in a group of three or more.

Matt Kallio said...

What a fine meditation on walking around with a camera.
Regarding the different ways people walk down sidewalks:
I do a lot of walking in the city, and I've noticed that there are times when I just seem to be in people's way, or they are in mine (the same thing), and other times when we negotiate our paths just fine. I've attributed this to something in me, a jangled connection with my society that surfaces occasionally. Or maybe I'm just flattering myself.

Rube39 said...

You people are all better at analyzing things than I am, more sensitive too. i bring one camera and one lens everywhere I go, and I also go on 'photo strolls' each and everyday. But it makes almost no difference to me whether I am alone or with someone. At least I do not feel or notice the difference. I do take a lot more shots when out of alone of course.

Nigel Hodges said...

An absolutely fascinating insight Kirk, thoroughly enjoyed the post.
There are walks that I primarily do for my health, both on my own and with my partner- but they are different, in the former I let my mind roam to wherever it takes me but the latter is really important for the conversation.
Walks with a camera are so different! I do some on my own and these are probably the least structured in that I head somewhere and then explore its photographic potential by simply wandering around....for as long as I want. Other photo excursions are with different friends or with a group. Although the types of places we visit are different, the photo trips with friends allow me ample time to see, think and take the shots I like. Group trips are a way of seeing and photographing places that require permission for access for example seeing the steam worked machinery inside sugar mills on Java. I only go on small group trips these days and almost feel a need to run away if I find myself standing in line with several other photographers. I also have an aversion to being told "this is the shot to go for."
You are right, our photography is a personal journey and for me, I guess I want to carry on refining what I do (as an amateur) till I stop taking photos but without feeling I need to rush on or be inhibited.

pixtorial said...

Wow, the Heisenberg statement at the end... didn't see that coming.

I have long loved to wander about cities that I visit. No agenda, no destination. It is almost mandatory for your first few trips to Manhattan, for example. I rarely have had a camera with me, but the experience of seeing the world around me, that observational meditation, is very much part of it. You do a great job of creating artifacts from that, and I like how you frame the role of the camera as your "ticket" to observe.

johncecilian said...

I read your blog every day and thoroughly enjoy it. I note on your photo walks around Austin, you do something which really bugs me...seriously it does. You are excellent at portraits and stuff, extremely proficient at your lighting skills. but when you walk around it seems that all of your photos are taken at eye level. Why dont you try a different angle if you want to show us Austin? Something super low, get the view from the bug's perspective which I have never seen you do....or maybe I am mistaken. Just saying...

karmagroovy said...

Yeah, that Heisenberg statement is actually making my brain hurt... thanks for that! ;-)

I've been on many group photowalks over the years and lately I've found myself participating mainly for the beer and conversation at a bar after the shoot rather than the shoot itself.

Kristian Wannebo said...

Kirk,
So very true!
That meditation or flow part is, I think, what makes the photos that remain afterwords.

When I was in my teens and.we went for a family walk, if both my father and I took our cameras my mother said she'd rather stay home - she didn't want to wait for us ever so often. (We usually became absorbed in what we wanted to photograph.)
So we left our cameras at home that day...

MikeR said...

You put a lot into this post ... I needed to read it again, but more slowly.

Shakespeare said that all the world's a stage. We perform our parts for the audience we think we have. I think that tendency is well illustrated in Grease, where Danny is one person for Sandy, but when he realizes his guys are watching, he performs radically differently.

Dance like there's nobody watching!

granitix said...

A buddy of mine hiked the John Muir trail three or four times. For most it's a bucket-list sort of thing, do it once and find another target. He felt like you: each time is a different mix of factors external (snowpack, weather, chance encounters) and internal. The movie Groundhog Day shows that no two identical days are identical, unless you force them do be so.

Michael Ferron said...

Ya it's one thing to bump into a fellow photographer on the street and say hi. It would be creepy to go on a street session with someone else.

My wife and I work in the same building. A very attractive young co-worker with a new camera thought it would be a good idea to tag along with me on an excursion downtown. I told my wife this young woman's intentions. Her reply was a pleasant "you do and I'll kill you" (not to be taken literally). End of story.

mikepeters said...

I photograph at events when there are other photographers all the time. Frankly, I never give a thought to what they're shooting, and I really don't care what they do. I see what I see, and I shoot what I like, the way I like. And generally if everyone is shooting something over there, well, I'm usually somewhere else.

I just do my thing and honestly, I'm so in the zone I hardly have a thought at all. And to me, that's what meditation feels like. There is no past or future, only the long unending now in which to immerse myself.

As far as group walks, I'd never ever want to be in the pack, but I do very much like leading them. I'm the same way on motorcycle rides, I'm way more comfortable leading and setting the pace than following someone else.

We're all different.

Doug said...

Great post. So much of this rings true for me. My wife used to always walk with me and point at things I should shoot. About 10 years ago, I bought her a camera so she could take her own shots of the things that interest her. Now I have to share my lenses, but that's another story.

In the past few years, she has developed her own interest in photography. We spend lots of time together, driving to small towns or in the countryside, looking for things to photograph. It's great quality time together, but everything you wrote applies to those walks. I feel almost hampered at times as she stops to take 6 different angles of something I have zero interest in, and I'm sure the same is true for her. Let's just say I accomplish far less photography than when I'm alone, but I'm not complaining. She's been my best friend for 35 years.

On the plus side, she hates waking up early and sends me on at least one solo photo trip per year where I'm out before sunrise, and after sunset, enjoying what nature has to offer. Meditation at its best.

MikeR said...

Third time back. The "Boston" photo has acquired a different title in my mind: "Bernie Sanders having lunch with George H. W. Bush"

Anonymous said...

I'm not certain that was Heisenberg ;-)

Mark the tog said...

I will not take photos at an "event" where everyone is angling for a shot. There are no good photos there IMO. Just snaps of stuff that no one will respond to later.
I do like to walk by myself. On occasion I can take good photos with a friend but in no way is a group conducive to this sort of thing.
I have hosted seminars and attended them. When demonstrating a type of photo, I am immediately followed by a line of photographers taking the same shot.
Kind of like buying fish from the lucky guy at the lake rather than trying to catch your own.