On My Photography

If I had to give myself a label, I would call myself a “street photographer,” since that’s the term for guys who take candid shots of people in public places.

The honorable citizens (and not-yet-citizens) of my oceanside city seem to assume that a person with a big camera and a lens with a hood is some kind of professional. Luckily for me, that usually grants me acceptance of my photographic voyeurism. It’s clear that not everybody likes to have their picture taken, some for very good reasons in the age of Trump. Sometimes (also with good reason) people look askance at this old hippie-looking guy pointing a camera at them. Might he not be a pervert? Why is he taking pictures of children? Teenaged girls? What does he do with them?

I’ll tell you what I do with them.

I bring these people home. They live on my computer now. Of course, only tiny fragments of their lives are there, but that’s enough for my pleasure, interest, and observations — looking at them as a writer or sociologist, and as an always-learning photographer with an eye on the history as well as the present of the craft. Once I capture these exposures, what can I do with them in this digital age? Process them in color? Black and white? Cropped or in context? Sharp? Fuzzy? Grainy? Smooth? With the look of a certain film stock (faithfully recreated thanks to software geniuses blessed by the photography gods)? How do I get the tones and colors to express what I think the picture says? There’s no end to the technical and aesthetic possibilities.

I will unabashedly state that I put myself in a tradition that usually falls in the “art” category by people who care about such things. I don’t saunter into the world of my photos with notions of Edward Hopper or Cartier-Bresson, but my work is more than a hobby, more than voyeurism, more than the activity of a writer manqué who finds the quicker gratification of photography more appealing to his lazy nature. My photos are narratives of the life of my city in the early 21st century as much as they are attempts to be artful. Take them both ways. I am far from the first to observe that people read their own meanings into photographs, and anyone can zoom far enough out of a scene to view it as a sociological document. Both the personal and the cultural are important to me.

The other night I succumbed to my obsession and went out to see what I could shoot in low light. I was rewarded: A wedding party was posing on Red Rock. Before that, I was trying to shoot some guys playing soccer. I wanted to frame them in the notch of a tree but couldn’t get the shot. When I gave up, I noticed one of the players running toward me excitedly. I thought: Oh, shit, here it comes. Before he could say anything, I blurted: “Look, this is my hobby. The pictures go to my computer —” The young fellow gave me a worried look. “No, no, no! I saw you trying to frame the shot. I’m from Iraq. I went to the School of Fine Arts. You’re a photographer.”

I gratefully accept his affirmation and ignore the dirty looks I get from other people (the best I can). Yes, I am invading their privacy. But, insofar as they embody a time and a place and universal qualities as well, I want their pictures to record it.

Now let’s descend from lofty realms.