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Emotion and Photography

How can a photograph embody emotion? How can a photo capture your feelings? My answer is that it’s a matter of opening your eyes to what is around you. I was visiting an old friend of mine who was dying in hospital. I spent a couple of days beside his bed, and the time was filled with laughter and tears. My friend Ralph is a musician and songwriter, and I’ve known him for three decades. Eventually I needed to say goodbye, and face a long walk back to the motel I was staying in, before catching a flight back home. Ralph was born and raised in Taranaki, noted for the big mountain, Mt. Taranaki, that looks down on the entire province. I remember when he and I left the province in ’79 or ’80 Ralph wrote a song about the mountain, using it as a metaphor for his feelings about the province…

I looked over my shoulder,
and saw the cause of my misery.
It’s a big white mountain
Pretty as it can be
But its ice cold breath, boys,
Be the death of me.

Walking down the road from the hospice I looked over my shoulder, and there was the mountain, looking down on me. Some days the mountain is hidden by cloud, but on a clear day it seems to be visible from almost everywhere. The mountain seemed to embody the complex feelings I had, having just said my last goodbyes to Ralph. I tried taking a photo of it with my phone, but the moderately wide lens made it look further away, and the suburban houses in the foreground seemed to be sending the wrong messages. The mountain was just too small in the image, and you didn’t really see the point of the photo. But when I got to the top of a hill near the motel I saw the mountain between a nest of signs, including one sign pointing towards a cemetery, a give way sign, and a man walking image. It was as if this is what I was put here to photograph. The place was asking me to photograph it. The best photos are not taken, but allowed to be taken. Knowing that the phone camera would not cut it, I unpacked my bag on the roadside – the 6D was at the bottom. I tried a couple of shots but I knew I needed something more. I re-assembled the tripod that I had packed away for travel, and found the ideal spot for the camera (on the road, pretty much in the path of passing cars) with the longest lens I had with me (70mm). I knew a longer lens was what I’d need to make the mountain large in the image relative to the foreground. I took a series of photos with long exposures looking for cars moving, and avoiding getting run over. I figured that a ghostly blurred shot of a car passing would complete the photo, and I think the result works really well. Mountain-8270

In post I’ve adjusted contrast and increased the saturation. I’ve applied a mask to the sky and lowered the colour temperature to get the Japanese-y woodblock like colour in the sky (actually that was what the sky looked like, but it bleached out in the photo). I’ve also applied a mask to the signs and brightened them a little to make them more visible. Back at the motel I slept badly, and dreamed about Ralph. I was already wide awake when the alarm sounded at 5:00 am to get me ready for the shuttle to the airport, so I was outside, waiting for the shuttle in the predawn darkness well before the shuttle arrived. Lights over deserted roads and pedestrian crossings on still nights have always fascinated me, although given my state of mind they seemed like crossings over the river Styx. Since I had time to kill I ‘worked the scene’ with my phone. The first image was taken with the Hueless app that is a great little app for black and white photos, and seemed fitting for a fairly noir image. Mountain-3094

Then I tried my favourite app – Hipstamatic – and took a bunch of shots with the randomise setting on. I really like the joy of finding a gem in the random combination of “lenses” and “films” you can get with this app. It reminds me of the joys of using a lo-fi film camera where you never really know what you are going to get. Mountain-3103

The last shots of this trip are a little more optimistic, but nonetheless are dominated by that mountain, and I still have the words of Ralph’s song ringing in my ears. From my seat on the plane there was a wonderful view of the mountain (that damn mountain) and again I used Hipstamatic to take some shots. These work best in terms of composition – the mountain juxtaposed against the plane’s engine. With the random settings I’ve ended up with two very different treatments – choose the more colourful one for a more optimistic ending, or the muted one for something sadder. Mountain-3125 Mountain-3124

Let’s return to the question I posed at the start. How can a photo embody emotion? Well, the images above certainly resonate to me with some very complex emotions connected with my friend’s passing, and when I look at the shots of the mountain I can’t help but hear the words of his song. They are certainly emotionally charged to me, and I guess you’ll pick up some of that charge from the images now that you’ve read the story behind them. But if you are just looking at the images? Probably the phone images won’t count for a great deal. The last two images are nice shots, but I doubt if they will convey the feelings I had without hearing the story (even though they work well as images). The two street shots are a little obvious. The one that I like though is the one at the top of the page, the shot where the universe asked me to take the photo. At first glance it’s a pretty shot of the mountain with the interesting lines made by the power poles, but the text in the image (on the signs) and the implied movement to and from the cemetery – the main walking towards his grave and the car recoiling from it – give the image more substance.

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Aramoana – “What sort of photos do you take?”

It was a family day trip to Aramoana. I’d left the rest of the family playing on the beach while I took off and stalked around the spit in search of images. Of course I’ve done this walk plenty of times before, but the weather was good, with a clear winter’s sun, and I’m an advocate of visiting and revisiting an area.

Walking along the dirt road to the pilot houses I looked up and saw this image.

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A little further along, as I passed the Pilot houses, I heard a shout from one of them. Joseph, who lives in one of them, was giving me a pleasant hello. Seeing the camera he asked “What sort of photos do you take?” and that stumped me. What sort of photos do I take. What sort of photo was the shot above? Should I say “I take photos of random bits of industrial stuff against blue skies”?

I told him I took photos of whatever was there, and walked on not really satisfied with my own answer.

A little further around I came across one of the resident sea-lions, and also caught a glimpse of a gigantic leopard seal, but neither of these were happy to model for me. However at the old wharf the sun was striking the aged timbers at a good angle so I caught this shot.

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It’s a little too Adams/Weston to count as one of my better images – those guys have already been there and caught this sort images before me, but it is pleasant nonetheless.

At the tip of the spit the view out to the opposite headland was working well. As is often the case, the good shot was one where the camera was low, and the rocks and waves lead your eye towards the distant headland.

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This is working better. I like the quality of the light on the distant grassy hills.

Then walking back along the beach I found a rock pool, which made a great foreground object to set against the distant headland.

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The close up rocks sort of echo the shape of the distant headland, and the transparent water adds interest to the foreground. The beach at Aramoana Spit is an enchanting place, but often resistant to being photographed. The place is wonderful, and you have this great sense of the ocean framed by the mole on the left and Taeri Heads on the right. but usually the experience of being there disappears when you raise the camera to your eye. This shot is probably the closest I’ve got to it.

So how can I answer Joseph’s question now? What sort of photographs have I taken? “A mix of landscapes and found objects” doesn’t seem to be the right answer. I certainly did not set out to take photos of landscapes and found objects, even though that is what I came home with. I don’t think Joseph was intending to engage me in a philosophical discussion when he asked his question, but nonetheless, that’s what has happened.

I think the answer is that I photograph as an aid to seeing.

I could take a pleasant walk around the spit, and it would be a good experience. But when I take the camera my eyes are more open. I’m more engaged in what is there. Would I have noticed the light falling on the timbers of the wharf if I did not have the camera? What about looking up to see the power transformer or noticing the leading lines and rocks-as-a-foreground elements to the landscape shots? Perhaps I might have, but I don’t think they would have registered with me the same way.

So I think this was really about process. The important question is not “What sort of photos do you take?” but rather “Why are you taking photos?”

And the answer is: to help me be present in the world better.

Photography: Getting to the heart of creativity

Every now and then I get an email from a student saying “I went out and looked everywhere, but I could not find anything to photograph!”

I know the feeling well – there just doesn’t seem to be anything in your part the world that’s worthy of being photographed. You look in photography books and see that all those famous photographers seemed to have wonderful locations – exotic, photogenic places that look so cool. But everything around you is just so mundane. Believe me – I’ve been there.

But surely the exotic locations that those famous guys had were actually mundane and boring to the people who lived there? Sometimes, like Robert Frank in America or Marti Friedman in New Zealand it helps to be an immigrant to see a location with fresh eyes. But if that was the only way to take photos we’d only be able to take photos when traveling. Surely the point about photography is that we need to be able to open our eyes to our surroundings to find interesting subjects. If we can open our eyes the world can sometimes transform in a magical way. It’s not ‘out there’ that has changed, it’s the way we see it that can transform our reality.

To illustrate this I’ll tell you about the last photos I took in the ’12 days of Christmas’ photography challenge that we ran on Facebook – take a photo a day for 12 days (https://www.facebook.com/OnlinePhotoInstitute).

On day 11 my family and I were traveling  (so according to the ‘exotic location’  theory things should have been easier, but as you will see they were not). Since I was basically on a family trip and using the ’12 days’ challenge as an excuse to get some photography in, I needed to piggy-back my photography onto family trips. Scheduled for this day was a family trip to Auckland Zoo, and eventually we’d end up back at the hotel which was near the airport. We needed to return the rental car before 5 pm, and as we were flying home early the next morning it didn’t really matter that we’d be stuck at the airport for the evening. My idea was that I’d take the advantage of being at the zoo to do some Garry Winogrand style street photography. I’ve always loved Winogrand’s work, and a zoo is a great place for that style, and we don’t have a zoo in Dunedin.

But things didn’t go as planned.

My first photo was of an obese family eating ice creams next to the elephant enclosure. Ironic; cutting; humorous.

But not long after I ended up having a brief conversation with them. They seemed like nice people. Then, as we walked around the zoo, this family was often looking at the same animals we were. I noticed how the parents interacted with their kids. They didn’t just seem nice – they seemed good. And I’d feel really mean if I put the image I had of them on Facebook – it would be cruel to make fun of them in a public forum. They didn’t deserve that.

So I trashed my Winogrand idea. One of my daughters was recovering from scarlet fever, and her energy levels were low, so we ended up back at the hotel before schedule, without me having got my photo for the challenge.

Now, the hotel we were staying at was especially bland, and, because we had booked the cheapest room that could fit us all, the place was crammed with baggage, clothes and grumpy kids. Not much scope for a photo there. And the area around Auckland Airport is pretty much antiseptic and un-photogenic. To cap things off, the weather was bland with a featureless sky, on the edge of rain, but without any definition in the clouds.  The most boring possible light. I thought that maybe I could get some photos in the terminal, and at the worst I could hang around after dark and get some long exposures of car headlights or something to satisfy my obligations to the ’12 days’.

I went out with the camera to take the rental car back, hoping I’d find something to photograph on the walk back. I really didn’t want to send in low quality work for the ’12 days’ challenge – there were too many people who I liked, including present and former students, following the challenge. To post a lousy photo would be embarrassing.

I dropped the rental car off, thinking that really I wanted an abandoned building or a field of rusty cars – that’s the sort of location I’ve done some of my best work in. Sharee McBeth had shared a link to photos of exotic abandoned locations and that was in my head. The airport surroundings were just too neat and tidy.

Then I walked out of the rental yard and looked around, and there, across the road, on the other side of a paddock, was an abandoned building. I couldn’t resist it – I had to check it out. As I got closer I realised it wasn’t just one building – it was a field of abandoned buildings and rusty old cars.

I climbed over the barbed wire fence and into the field. There wan’t anyone around, and it looked as if no one had been there for years. It looked like a yard that had once been operated as a wrecker’s yard, for both buildings and cars, but a wreckers yard that no one had tended for decades. I recognised a mark I Jag and and Austin J Type – both vehicles had been discontinued around 1960, so I’m guessing that this yard had not been active since around 1970. (below the J Type and Mark I wrecks)

(Double click to see the images larger)

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I love the red colour on the dash of this one…

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Saddest was this dead kitten, which almost looked as if it had been posed.

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What I like best about old cars is how anthropomorphic they can be. I like the twisted grin on the one below…

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This is the view from beside one of the houses looking back to the car rental yard.

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Some of the houses reminded me of pictures taken after natural disasters. Here’s a pair of shots of the same building that show the importance of framing with a foreground object. the first one is a document, the second is a photograph…

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This is probably my favourite shot from the place – here the house becomes anthropomorphic – us humans are hardwired to see faces.

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But my creative streak didn’t end there. By the time I got back to the hotel the view from the window was starting to look good, in a ‘New Topography’ kind of way… (http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2010/feb/08/new-topographics-photographs-american-landscapes)

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We walked over to the International terminal to find some dinner, and I explored with the camera. The observation deck…

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The shot above is an OK shot, but I like the one below more since it has a sense of narrative (who is she seeing off?). The central composition seems to make her look more lonely.

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Even the corridor to the viewing platform seemed interesting

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The shot below is probably the most interesting one form the terminal. Of course it’s a photo of a photo, but if Richard Prince can get away with that (http://www.richardprince.com) then so can I. What makes it work is the rubbish bin.

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And on the way home from dinner the early evening sun was shining on a parking space…

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Now, the point of all this is that there were plenty of images just waiting to be taken, but only when my eyes were open.

Good photos are not out there.

They are in your eyes.