Of course we are all here because we love cameras. But after over a year and a half of shooting film seriously, I’ve come to the conclusion that the camera doesn’t matter. Ok it does matter a little bit, but any basic SLR or rangefinder and a solid 50mm lens will be enough to get a great shot in 99 percent of situations.
So, I’m instead going to talk about how focusing on developing my technique and style has helped me to take better photos and to get more joy out of photography.
When I first picked up my dad’s old Canon early last year I began shooting without a clear idea of what I wanted to shoot. At the time, I was just a few months away from turning thirty which had provoked a mild existential crisis. I felt I needed to grab hold of time and stop it. My youth was slipping away. I couldn’t stop my head from balding or the cells in my body from slowly deteriorating, but I could at least document the passage of the world before my eyes, and that provided some pacification to the dread of my creeping death. It gave me a sense of control. But what to shoot?
For the first few months, I wandered around lower Manhattan (where I currently live) snapping shots of whatever caught my eye. Occasionally I would capture something decent, but for the most part the photos were boring, and the dread was starting to creep back in. I needed a subject.
So, I started to bring my camera to parties. I slapped a cheap flash on my Canon and suddenly I had a reason to take photos. I could document my friends. This began one half of my current practice as a photographer (I’ll get to the second half in just a bit). This was also the first moment that I sensed a need to acquire new gear.
I found that fiddling with the manual controls of the Canon in varying states of sobriety was getting in the way. I needed something that would require as little thinking on my part as possible. I needed something that I could just point and shoot. So, I shuffled through a few plastic 90s era point and shoots that were either broken or slightly defective until I finally found a nice little Olympus that worked for me. It’ still the main camera I use for parties. And no, it’s not one of the famous ones.
Party photography had whetted my appetite, but it was limiting. Firstly, I wanted to shoot photos more often than I had parties to go to, and secondly the party photography approach was limiting creatively. I needed another subject, but I didn’t have one, so I continued to wander about Manhattan in my spare time shooting photos on the street. Over time, my photos improved but only from a technical perspective. I was nailing exposure and focus, but my photos were still boring. I bought a new camera, a Pentax, hoping that would help. It didn’t. I found the Pentax more comfortable and enjoyable to use, but it didn’t make my photos any better.
When I finally began taking photographs that I was happy with, it came as the result of constraints that were beyond my control. The first constraint was that I had taken on a new job back in February that required me to work regular hours from 10am – 6pm everyday. Previously I had worked as a freelancer with much more flexible hours, so I was often able to wander around and take photos during the day. The second constraint was that the sun during the winter months had already long since set by the time I was done with work. So, I was limited to shooting in the darkness If I wanted to shoot outside on a weeknight.
The constraint of shooting at night with only available light narrowed the potential subject matter enough that I began to produce better images with a more distinct story and point of view. I have always been a fan of film noir both the 1940s Humphrey Bogart variety and the the late 80s cyberpunk variety. Those kinds of films often convey a certain mood of late modern urban isolation and loneliness through the poetics of shadow. A single figure bathed in the light emanating from an all night diner on an otherwise deserted city street. I found that shooting at night gave me an opportunity to try and capture some of these kinds of images.
These images, of course, are cliches, but they have become cliches because they are part of a common visual language that we all share and that resonates with us. When I produce an image that has noir-sh elements, I’m connecting with a rich history that still feels relevant to me in the same way that a simple navy blue blazer never goes out of style. The blazer can be paired with a fat tie, a skinny tie, blue jeans and Air Jordans or dress slacks and Gucci loafers. Even when the context changes the blue blazer anchors the look in something familiar. Manhattan in 2019 is not the same as San Francisco in 1941 yet the noir approach provides a common visual language which helps to express a shared sentiment across disparate contexts.
The majority of what I shoot is still shit, but I now have a specific goal in mind when I’m out shooting and sometimes I’m able to achieve it. Below are the results. Enjoy.
In case you are really curious. Most of these were shot on TMax 400 with a Pentax P30t paired with a SMC-A 50mm f/2 lens.