Like most people I think I live too much in my own brain. Sitting alone is a large, comfortable office, surrounded by all the creature comforts I want, I give all weight to my own perceptions of what life is, how life is lived and how the world feels to me. Like most people I like to be entertained and so I spend too much time passively staring at a computer screen either watching "educational" videos on YouTube about a camera or lens that I have no intention of ever buying or reading an "enlightening" blog post or article created by an equally isolated person who is also stuck in their own feedback loop.
There exists, right now, a demographic that is mostly insulated from the lives of the rest of the people in the world. Not the 1% but the people who are financially secure. This group consists of college educated, professionals who are guarded from discomfort by the reinforcing calm of accrued wealth, long and rewarding participation in a professional workforce and the security of living in an area surrounded by others of the same long lived luck. Most are on the wrong side of 40 and a large number are retired from work. But most are still active and participatory. They're the ones still buying cool cameras and advanced audio entertainment systems.
I know I am supposed to have gratitude. And I understand that there is a complicity among the comfortable people to pay lip service to all manner of good and kindly gestures of charity. But there is a point at which everything becomes theoretical and all our sources of "information" are so secondary. We don't see things with our naked eyes anymore, we only experience them removed several times and at a safe distance. It's hard to have compassion when you are too far removed from a collective experience.
As photographers we buy into the noble idea that we are somehow witnesses and that gives our ability to show up somewhere with a camera some mythic value; some credence. But I find that as I get older and I get more comfortable and secure in life my own understanding of how other people live gets further and further reduced and walled off from reality. And, if I'm honest with myself, this isolation can't be fixed with a single dose of "experience." There has to be at least a consistent immersion even if it is ultimately shallow.
When I've watched too many videos on my computer, and read too much "research" (we all disguise our desire for passive entertainment as 'research in our chosen field...") I feel a need to go out and look at stuff for myself. Without filtration. Without the interpretation of an intermediary, and without an emotional "flak vest."
That's my primary, professed motivation for getting out of the office and walking in our economically diverse downtown areas. But there's a secondary motivation that will sound familiar to a lot of people of my age and circumstances and that's our inability to stay still. Our inability to be in one spot for some length of time without purpose.
If you've driven with people of a particular generation you'll know that they value forward movement more than efficiency. I'm guilty of this when I drive to or from somewhere. If I go on the freeway at rush hour I know I'll sit in a line of cars that goes off into the infinity of the haze and I'll creep forward at a slow pace or (worse) sit at a complete stop until the cars ahead of me start to lurch forward and then I'll get my next chance to go forward for another fifty or so feet before slowing down and coming to a full stop once again.
This lack for forward motion seems almost intolerable. I much prefer finding a series of backroads or workarounds for the traffic which allow me constant and unimpeded forward motion; even if I (inevitably) arrive at the same time, or later, than I would have if I'd taken the straight but slow path. There is something about my psyche, and I'm betting you're in the same boat if you are reading this blog, that values constant forward movement, physical movement, over all other parameters when driving a car with a purpose.
That's a powerful combination. The need to see things with my own eyes and the need for constant forward motion. And that forms the bedrock of my almost daily desire to walk through the urban environment and observe. But the desire just to walk and see seems suspect in our culture. A culture in which we are taught from a young age only to apply ourselves to activities that will profit us. And by "profit" it's assumed that most take the word at its simplest and most direct meaning: To financially improve our situation or to accrue either more power or more privilege. So a walk that's done with the intention of just seeing is immediately suspect.
Incorporating a camera into the walk at least gives a modicum of logic or reason. I might see things which would profit me in some way to record. The inclusion of the camera is also somewhat predicated on the idea that by carrying and occasionally using the camera during a walk that I am "practicing my craft." It's an idea I find a bit dubious as there are many ways I can practice my craft from the comfort of my studio. And, as you can see during the course of the pandemic, I've done a poor job engaging people I see on the street, or in open air shopping areas, because I don't find it interesting to photograph the construct of masking and, since I can't read peoples' expressions as well I am hesitant to approach them to ask for their collaboration in making any sort of photograph. It just feels wrong, in the moment.
But the camera provides a psychological crutch for my need to walk through a space and take some sort of meaningless anthropological survey. A series of mostly meaningless and disconnected data points that my brain will struggle to incorporate in trying to understand where my local culture is heading. At least the local culture outside my comfortable bastion of suburbia. In better times I walked and photographed with a different inclination. When employment was robust and businesses were bursting at the seams with customers everything was new and fresh and well maintained and I could skate through the visual landscape grabbing colorful details and glamorous displays of optimistic excess. Now I don't know, really, what I'm looking for.
At times I'm depressed by the thought that all that's left for us photographers is the desire to see how a new lens or new camera renders the same old scenes in a different way. And what I generally find is that the camera is immaterial to the intention or the aim of me, the photographer. But the newest device always serves as a pricy impetus to at least rouse me from a soporific paralysis and get me out the door and moving. And looking.
The weirdest days are the ones on which I start with a pleasant walk through the suburban neighborhood nearby, with my spouse, and walk by house after house, each one sitting on half an acre or so. Each with five or six thousand square feet of space. Each surrounded with groves of tall trees. Sure, there are still a smattering of older homes with much smaller footprints but they are being bought up and scrapped off their lots by legions of new, monied arrivals who can't wait to see their new mini-mansion rise up over the St. Augustine grass. Most of the yards are pristinely landscaped by crews of workers who arrive around 8 in the morning to clip back the lantana, clear dead branches from the live oak trees, and blow the fallen leaves into submission then encourage them into leaf bags which are put on trailers dragged behind pick-up trucks. The leaf bags and mowers and tree saws are stacked up on the trailers which then move off to some yard waste disposal location that hasn't registered yet on the minds of the homeowners.
The neighbors are Google execs or Apple or Dell execs who can work from home, or business owners who don't have schedules. Most days there are couples out walking mid-morning, accompanied by all kinds of dogs. A squad of corgis. A platoon of golden retrievers. A pack of French bulldogs. And the feel is convivial.
Cars roll by on their way to deliver the children who live here to their various schools. As the big, black Suburbans, Range Rovers and Audis roll by we wave to the drivers and they wave back. It's all so new money Texana. And after a morning in proximity to privilege and an early afternoon of checking on the latest news, and being mildly annoyed at the lack of brand new programming on YouTube, I'm feeling the cloying isolation like a weight on my head and shoulders and I want to escape and see a different reality. A more pervasive reality. So I grab a camera.
In the years before the pandemic my clients provided the motivation to get out and get moving. They provided a loose but nevertheless structured framework to most days. I'd work with them to figure out our plan for the day. I'd arrive and start the process. I'd feel useful and needed as I dragged heavy cases from my car and ran power cords down long hallways. I'd cajole executives into giving up kind and welcoming looks for the camera. I'd have them repeat gestures that just felt right, for the camera. I'd leave at the end of the day feeling as though I'd served a purpose and had moved forward throughout the day. Like a car on the empty side streets moving around the traffic and nailing a prompt arrival at the destination.
Now, I grab a camera and go for a walk. Then there is at the question of "which camera?" and "which lens?" Yesterday I wanted to walk in the downtown area in the middle afternoon and I thought I should take the new zoom lens so I could shoot some "test" photographs and then write about the experience. But it seemed like so much drudgery in exchange for so little purpose. I could write the review already, having photographed with any number of standard zooms. "It's better than all the zooms from ten years ago. For most people it will do a great job and no one will notice its shortcomings, etc. etc." Instead I decided to pare down the gear and just walk to do the walk. I grabbed an older, smaller, lighter 50mm lens for my camera and drove down to the city center.
I walked along a route that I've walked too many times. The camera swung by the shoulder strap against my left side. I walked quickly and with a sense of purpose but it wasn't anything noble. I was only hungry and decided to have beef fajita tacos at Torchy's on 2nd St. After I ordered I sat outside and put my camera on the table next to my paper lined, plastic basket full of overloaded tacos. I saw a beautiful woman at the table across from me. In the past I might have pulled up the camera to my eye and photographed her but in the moment I was questioning why I would knowingly cause her the social discomfort of the intrusion by a stranger and I left the camera alone.
It feels so shallow to say that I love the feel of the old SL camera because the feel of the camera is largely irrelevant to actually taking good photographs. I've given up thinking that any camera is precious or irreplaceable and now I guess I've also given up the idea that any camera will be much of a game-changer when it comes to getting good photographs. A much bigger assist would be to figure out why I'm now becoming paralyzed by my empathy for the kinds of people I used to photograph without a second thought....
There is a pleasure that comes from getting familiar with the menus and buttons and dials of a camera. We'd like to think the mastery is something special but any elementary age child could manage the same mastery and probably do it a heck of a lot quicker than an older adult. Still, it's comforting to know how to find a needed menu item quickly, or to hit the button and get the feature you hoped would be triggered by that button. On a first try.
As I walk down the sidewalks of Second St., Congress Ave., Sixth St. and San Jacinto I'm constantly looking for interesting material. That makes me sound like a stand-up comedian looking for new material, doesn't it? Yesterday I thought for a while about photographing really fat people on electric scooters because I was in such a "target rich environment" but that just seemed mean-spirited.
Up ahead I saw the tents surrounding the City Council building thought I'd take a few photographs. I liked the view through the 50mm lens. It wasn't exaggerated or compressed. It seemed to reflect the reality of the situation. I know I'm supposed to have trepidation about mixing in and among homeless people who might be irrational or violent but I rarely worry about my safety in situations like this. I have an optimistic prejudice that if I proceed without a fixed agenda, and with honest intentions, I'll be fine. And, of course, I was.
I met a few people, including a younger homeless man who wanted to know if my camera was mirrorless or a DSLR and which kind of camera ought he buy to become a film-maker whose intention is to make videos about 'sexual power'. I wasn't really sure what to tell him other than that, according to the current web content creators I thought he'd have more luck conveying the whole sexual power thing via a mirrorless camera. But I let him know that was just conjecture. He seemed satisfied with my answer and went off to deliver some bottled water to one of the tents.
I thought I might photograph the young man but there was nothing about the image or the person that visually interested me. I let the camera hang down at my side.
A few blocks later I walked by the W Hotel and noticed that there was a film crew on the outdoor patio and signs scattered around that let people know that being on the set meant they were giving permission to be filmed. I asked a bored crew member who was sitting on an apple box, checking his phone, what was being filmed. Apparently, at least as I understand it, one of the major TV show producers is making a dating show about drag queens and romance, and there was a dance routine being filmed in and among the Mother's Day dining crowd, featuring a huge drag queen in an exotic costume, but also equipped with a medical, plastic face shield. Another nod to the pandemic. And, in the end, less interesting than the beautiful profile of the young woman standing next to me, also trying to figure out what the heck the show might ultimately be about.
I was amused for a few moments and then I walked around the corner to get a latté and sit out in front of a coffee shop for a few minutes to quaff and reflect. Up and down the street were cyclists and scooter jockeys and all manner of pedestrians. But nothing seemed particularly photographic. Visual. Etc.
I notice that when I walk with a heavier camera and a normal lens I tend to cup the grip in my right hand with my palm facing upward. I'm carrying the weight of the assemblage with my wrist and my biceps. If I see an image I want to take it's a simple matter of turning the camera 90 degrees counterclockwise and bringing it up to my eye. It's a different way of holding a camera. With something like the Fuji X100 I keep my hold on the camera the same as it would be when holding it up to my eye but let it dangle at the end of my arm with my right hand extending straight down. No "under" support for the camera, just a grip on the grip.
It's funny but it different. And with the heavier camera I am holding it more frontally which makes it more obvious. But I gave up a while ago worrying about how discreet the camera might or might not look. In fact, I'd rather not sneak shots if I can help it. I want people to know what I'm doing so there are no misunderstandings. The more furtive the photographer the more I think they attract...attention and friction from the their intended subjects.
Lately, when I walk somewhere, I'm vacillating between wanting to shoot in black and white but then wanting to shoot in color instead. I started out convinced that yesterday would be a "color day" but the first thing I saw to photograph was mostly about color and so I switched plans. I also find that there are certain things that I like to shoot whenever I re-encounter them; like the mannequin at the corner of 2nd St. and Colorado. I guess I'm trying to explore how to create different looks but what I think I'm really trying to do while photographing is to understand why I am so attracted to the scene or the subject. And I still don't really know. I do know now that I am attracted to the gesture of the mannequin's forward arm, the tilt of her head and the small, pursed lips. Perhaps I'm just logging data points for future, more controlled sessions when I can replace a plastic simulacrum with a live human...
This will no doubt sound strange but when I am out walking with a camera I think a lot about my trouser pockets and am more keenly aware of the feel of the objects I've stuffed into them. There's always the extra battery in a small, plastic bag. It feels heavy and lumpy but I'm always glad it's there, just in case. On most days I leave my phone in the car because it's heavy and ungainly. If I don't wear a belt I feel the weight of the phone in a back pocket pulling the waistband down and down. I'm constantly hiking up my trousers. I only bring it along if I know I'll want to stop and get coffee at a Starbucks because it's so easy to pay there with the phone. Then there's the face mask and also an extra. I don't carry any cash and probably haven't paid with cash anywhere in six or seven months. After a long walk the pocket contents seem burdensome. When I get back home I pull everything out and leave it all on my desk.
Picking the right shoes for just walking is easy. The Keens I have are just right. But if I'm walking with more of an intention to photograph and less of an intention to just plough through some distance I take a more considered approach to shoes. If I'm wearing short pants the choice is easy enough. If it's not the Keens it's some other sport shoe. But if I'm wearing long pants and a collared shirt I'm much more apt to duck into a nice hotel for a restroom break, a coffee or, in the depths of winter, a glass of red wine. In those instances I'm most inclined to wear a collared, button down shirt and nicer shoes. A pair of decent, and recently polished, Oxfords, with a thick sole. A nice compromise between universally presentable and practical. It's a silly point but the walk and the photography don't exist in a vacuum. They are part of a complete process.
When I'm walking with a manual focusing lens I tend to keep refocusing the lens as I travel, depending on what I'm seeing in front of the camera as a potential subject. If I can get "in the ballpark" with a refocusing action before bringing the camera to eye level it's quicker and easier for me to quickly get all the way to perfect focus and then shoot. The same goes for exposure. If the lighting outside is uniform I find manual exposure is preferable and I set it once and leave it there unless conditions change. Some days I get lazy, put everything on program and just thrash around. Happily, those days are few and far between.
No matter how far I walk or how many photos I take there's always a point at which I get both tired and bored almost simultaneously. I look around and everything I take in seems bland and repetitive. That's when I switch the camera's power switch to "off", put the camera over one shoulder and start angling off to get back to my car. I don't stop looking but I don't look harder either.
A successful walk has a number of features. If you put your glasses in your pocket and get your camera's diopter zeroed in then the walk allows you to spend a lot of time looking off into the distance. It's an important exercise in this era when most of our time is spent both indoors and also focusing on things that are way too close. On a good walk you'll keep moving for a long period of time and you'll get life-prolonging exercise. You'll see things you rarely do if you live mostly cloistered in suburbia. I took an old friend on a walk a few weeks ago and though she's lived in Austin most of her life nearly half the buildings in downtown were new to her. She rarely goes downtown. Her understanding of the city's evolution changed profoundly.
A successful walk will teach an observant professional photographer how real people look and act when they are doing real, unposed stuff. Drinking coffee, talking to people, how they walk in groups, etc. It's valuable to see real people doing real stuff so that when a job comes along where you are asked to manufacture reality you can do it with the authenticity required to really sell the concept.
You'll see people who are living very different lives than the one you've invented for yourself. You may develop more empathy. You may question your society. You might push for some change. You might have more gratitude for just how lucky you find yourself.
On a lighter note you may find new and very good restaurants and food trailers long before your friends, and the hordes of adventurous diners, who are sure to crowd in after you've written about the "incredible gorditas" on your blog. You might discover new hotels and new murals. All of which broaden your own existence.
Over the course of time and repetition you'll come to know other regulars in the area. There are a few guys who routinely photograph in the same areas I do and we check in with each other from time to time. We alert each other about new "finds" and visual opportunities. You make acquaintances with baristas, cooks, waiters, door men and others who will greet you and become a welcome part of your existence. Maybe collaborators on future projects.
You'll have your hands on the controls of your cameras for hours at a time. You'll learn not to burden yourself with too much photographic luggage, or too many toys. You'll be able to operate your gear without hesitation and that's nice when you can also transfer those abilities back to your working life.
You'll learn where to avoid if you don't want to get threatened, yelled at or aggressively pan-handled. And you'll learn where to go when you just want to sip coffee from that paper to-go cup and watch the clouds go by overhead without interruption or hassle.
I think I work best at refining my skill by constantly looking at stuff without a camera at my eye and then adding the camera and trying to figure out how to put the right frame around the scene that attracted me in order to distill it to its essence and capture the full three dimension feeling of a place or thing within the boundaries of a two dimensional image. That's something that all of us can work on day in and day out until the day the camera drops from our hands and the lights go out.
But none of this happens from that ergonomic office chair, anchored front and center at the glowing screens of our computers. And it would be sad to die there instead.
Just a few thoughts about walking with a camera. I guess the went a bit long. Ah well. It could have been longer....
Right camera. Right path. Right thoughts. Right actions. Or, just be "in the moment" and walk with the intention of really seeing what's all around. And how you fit in.