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Ways of Working #9 (Persist)

I’ve been hesitating to write this up for a few reasons, but most of all because the idea of “Persist” can be summed-up in a sentence. Do what you do, keep at it, and eventually you’ll do it well.

At the risk of sounding like I live in California, I’m going to describe an afternoon a few weekends ago when I was out with my camera. There was a big outdoor event (with war machines) happening in the city. I’d been out for a few hours on my own, wandering around, taking the occasional picture, but the light was really harsh. Everyone was backlit, and I just wasn’t getting any good shots. Or rather, the shots I was getting were too typical for my taste; it was as if I’d shot them all before. I wasn’t getting anything new or extraordinary. I wasn’t stretching myself.

A bit discouraged, I decided to head home. The minute I made this decision, my mood lifted, and as I was heading back to my bike, I stumbled across a scene (for which I had the wrong lens) but it was exactly the kind of thing that interests me visually, so I took a couple photos. And that’s when I started seeing. There were decent shots all around me, in this random place, away from the main crowds.

Then a friend called from across town, and I went to meet-up with him, and we had a great afternoon, hanging-out and watching people, and by then, I was really getting lucky with being in the right place at the right time. When the day was over, I returned home with a couple pictures I was pleased with.

Now here’s the California part; I’m beginning to think that street photography, and one’s ability to take successful street photographs, is dictated by what you bring to it. When I go out and I’m tired or my mind is elsewhere, my shots tend to be scattered and unfocused. When I go out and I’m excited to shoot and be outside for the afternoon, the pictures (at their best) have the chance to reveal that excitement, that energized way of seeing.

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Sure, there are exceptions — when the streets change me and turn me around, in either direction; but generally, the city’s a canvas: it can only show you what you’re willing to see.

Given that, if you persist, something good will happen. Eventually. If you’re out shooting, and you’re only photographing people’s feet, or the backs of their heads (or worse, their butts) tell yourself you’re not going home until you take five pictures of people straight-on, from the front, at close range. (If those are the kinds of photos you like.) Push yourself. Try something that’s uncomfortable, that will stretch you.

When I first decided to start making these portraits of people in their rear-view mirrors (very much in progress), I was on my Vespa, and saw the great light, noted what time it was and the relative angle of the sun, and came back the next day at the same time, on foot. Taking photographs while standing in nervy traffic that’s revving-up for a green light is dangerous. But I keep at it, and have developed a few techniques to increase my safety, eventually getting in synch with the rhythm of the changing lights themselves.

Now I can go out there (or in the Spring, when the light returns) and I’ll know exactly what to expect. The location is mine. I know the size and shape of the canvas and what brushes to use - the rest is up to the subject.

In preparation for the 2001 Tour de France, Lance Armstrong rode 6-8 hours a day. When he played for North Carolina, the amount of time Michael Jordan spent practicing was off-the-charts. Tiger Woods is apparently the most driven on the PGA tour, practicing as soon as the sun’s up, and hitting the putting-green at dusk, after playing 36-holes. When Garry Winogrand died, he left behind thousands of undeveloped rolls of film. If you’re going to do something, and you want to get better, you have to persist. As Americans, we’re surrounded by lots of crap that make our lives comfortable, which makes it really easy to just give up when things are difficult. There’s always the couch, a television to turn on.

If you don’t think you take good pictures, you’re in a good place. That means you’re thinking critically about what you’ve done, and have an idea about what kinds of pictures you’d like to be taking. You’re halfway there. The other half will figure itself out, but it requires drive, consistency, and the willingness to persist, especially when things are gloomy. (Frankly, I don’t know what I’m going to be able to photograph this Winter with all the fog, crappy light, and aggressive schedule at my day job.)

This past weekend a photographer told me not to concern myself with the flavor-of-the-month in the art world. I wasn’t, but it’s good advice, still. Street photography is passe, yo! It’s all been done before. She told me, “they said, Phillip Lorca DiCorcia ‘reinvented’ street photography, but who knew it needed reinventing!” I really like stories about Gary Stochl, or other “outsider” artists who are generally self-taught and spend decades laboring in obscurity because they love the process, regardless of what anyone else thinks.

Disclaimer: I can be a ranter (especially when it comes to sports, art, or ethics) and again, I’m no expert; I’m just learning all of this on my own. So here’s some grains of salt to take this with.

Street photography’s dead. Long live street photography.

1. Get Over It
2. Relax
3. Know Your Gear
4. Repeatability
5. Honesty
6. Masking
7. Study
8. Develop
9. Persist
10. Share

Tag: Ways of Working