Photography

Learning documentary photography from Berenice Abbott

I have made thousands of photographs of the places I’ve visited, especially along the old roads. Does that make me a documentary photographer? Probably.

I’m not sure I care much about being labeled. But as I’ve shifted this blog’s focus to photography, I still want to write about the old roads and the places on them. For those posts to appeal to you photographers in the audience, I want to step up the quality of my documentary work.

Additionally, I recognize that in so many of my photos from the road, I’ve focused either very narrowly, such as on a building or a bridge or their details, or very broadly on sweeping landscapes. Very little about my work would help you feel like you know something about the place or would recognize the place as you approached it. And that feels like a miss to me.

That’s where the label becomes useful: some accomplished photographers shot documentary work, and I can learn from them. About the time I realized that, I came upon this 1938 photo of New York City by Berenice Abbott. It wowed me. Just look at all the great detail she captured there, in such an interesting way! It allows for detailed study of this place. Even though half of the street scene is visible only through the foreground sign, enough of it is visible that the photograph gives a sense of this place. If I could be transported to 1938 and dropped on the ground here, I would recognize it because I had seen this photograph.

Columbus Circle, Manhattan, 1938

Columbus Circle, Manhattan, 1938

I have been to this place. It’s Columbus Circle, at 59th St. and Central Park West. Except for the statue in the center, it looks nothing like this today. But the statue and the shapes of the streets gives enough context for me to guess, probably correctly, that the street on the left is Broadway and the street on the right, visible through the foreground sign, is Central Park West.

It certainly helps that Abbott got access to the right rooftop to make this composition. When I’m on the road I lack the connections that grant access to interesting vantage points — I’m relegated to the ground. But that doesn’t mean I can’t learn a few things from Abbott’s work that I can try in my own work.

It turns out that during much of the Great Depression, the Works Progress Administration hired Abbott to document NYC. So I bought a book of Abbott’s photographs from that project, New York In The Thirties, and studied her work. (You can, too, without buying the book. Many of her New York photographs are cataloged this site at the New York Public Library.)

Here are some things I noticed.

Back up and get in some context, especially if that context is interesting. So much of my work fills the frame with the subject. It’s a fundamental principle of photography. But does it always serve documentary photography well? Abbott’s work suggests that it does not. Just look at how seeing this building with the skyscrapers behind it communicates so much about the environment in which this building stood.

Vista from West Street, 115-119 West Street, Manhattan, 1938

Vista from West Street, 115-119 West Street, Manhattan, 1938

Look for contrasting elements to make a compound subject. The low building is clearly from a different era than the warehouse building behind it. This composition gives a sense of 1930s NYC that filling the frame with the low building would not.

Broome Street no. 512-514, Manhattan, 1935

Broome Street no. 512-514, Manhattan, 1935

Intersecting planes create interest. Three planes is a good start, but here Abbott managed to frame at least five: the building at right, the Brooklyn Bridge’s deck, the tiny bit of the bridge’s pier peeking out above the building, the building under construction, and the New York skyline in the distance.

Brooklyn Bridge, Water and Dock Streets, looking southwest, Brooklyn, 1936

Brooklyn Bridge, Water and Dock Streets, looking southwest, Brooklyn, 1936

Photograph buildings at an angle to get a little life into the frame. When I photograph buildings, I tend to shoot them straight on and fill the frame with them. But over and over again Abbott approached buildings at an angle and showed some of what was going on in the spaces before them. This also gave her photographs depth. It helped considerably that Abbott shot a large-format view camera, giving her great control over depth of field and helping her heighten the sense of depth in her work. But I can adapt these ideas to my smaller 35mm and medium-format frames.

West Street Row, I. 178-183 West Street, Manhattan, 1936

West Street Row, I. 178-183 West Street, Manhattan, 1936

Even when photographing detail, it can help the image to grab some context. The ornate building at right is Alwyn Court, which I also have photographed (see it here). But I tended to focus on its details, and even when I photographed large portions of it I ignored the building’s surroundings. The buildings at left in this image heighten the viewer’s understanding of just how interesting and unusual Alwyn Court is.

Facade Alwyn Court, 174-182 West 58th Street and 911-917 Seventh Avenue, Manhattan, 1938

Facade Alwyn Court, 174-182 West 58th Street and 911-917 Seventh Avenue, Manhattan, 1938

Seeing through is wicked cool. I saved this one for last because it is so interesting, but also because I have no idea how I might use it in my own work (yet). But seeing the New York City skyline through the masts and rigging of this ship gives a sense of really being there.

Theoline, Pier 11 or 12, East River, Manhattan, 1936

Theoline, Pier 11 or 12, East River, Manhattan, 1936

Goodness, if I can help you feel like you’ve been there when you look at the photos I take of the places I go, I’ll have really accomplished something!

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Waiting for the bus in Harlem

Waiting for the bus in Harlem
Apple iPhone 6s
2016

This photo is blotchy. That’s what happens when you zoom with an iPhone. But I’m happy to have it at all. My good cameras were packed, as we had ridden the subway up to Harlem and were waiting on a bus that would take us to LaGuardia. We were headed home after our trip to New York last spring. When I saw we were a block from the famed Apollo Theater, I just had to have a snap, even though that box truck blocked the view.

Photography

Photo: Waiting for the bus in Harlem.

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I made a few thousand photographs in 2016. These ten satisfy me the most.

Dublin at golden hour

Dublin at dusk. Canon PowerShot S95.

The Pyramids

The Pyramids, a landmark in northwest Indianapolis. Konica Auto S2, Kodak Gold 200.

Leaves on the iron bench *EXPLORED*

Leaves on the iron bench. Canon A2e, 50mm f/1.8 Canon EF, Fujicolor 200.

Guinness

St. James Gate, Dublin. Nikon N2000, 35mm f/2.8 AI Nikkor, Kodak T-Max 400.

Ballinrobe, Ireland

Red door in Ballinrobe, Ireland. Canon PowerShot S95.

Garfield Park

The conservatory at Garfield Park, Indianapolis. Olympus Stylus, Fujifilm Superia X-tra 400 (expired).

Golden fence

Golden fence at Saddlebrook Golf Course, Indianapolis. Minolta AF-Sv, Fujicolor 200.

Mass Ave and a light leak

Massachussetts Avenue, Indianpolis. Kodak Six-20 Brownie, Kodak Verichrome Pan (expired 9/1982).

Brooklyn Bridge

Crossing the Brooklyn Bridge. Canon PowerShot S95.

In motion

Packard hood ornament. Pentax ME, 50mm f/1.4 SMC Pentax-M, Kodak Tri-X.

Photography

Ten favorite photos of 2016

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Across the Hudson River

Across the Hudson River
Canon PowerShot S95
2016

Photography
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Photography, Preservation

You can experience life more deeply through the lens of a camera

So we went to see the Brooklyn Bridge. As a giant bridgefan, what I have to say first is squeeeeeeeeee!!

Brooklyn Bridge

I took a ton of photographs, and I got some good ones. I’ll share my favorite with you on Wednesday in a post all its own.

Brooklyn Bridge

We walked halfway to Brooklyn on the bridge before turning back. The pedestrian deck was packed and slow-moving, giving us plenty of time to take in the gorgeous bridge and the stunning views.

Brooklyn Bridge

I came away from our visit feeling like I’d spent quality time getting to know the Brooklyn Bridge — and my camera was a key part of that. I don’t completely get the people who say that we should leave our cameras at home, that photography robs us of experiences. I think I see better, enjoy the experience more, when I use my camera. And you can, too.

Brooklyn Bridge

Photographer Dorothea Lange said, “A camera is a tool for learning to see without a camera.” Framing a pleasing shot helps us look at things in ways we might not have otherwise. And the more we do that, the more we naturally see those things. I know my years of photographing things has taught me to notice details I otherwise would have missed. Like this lamp. I know I would have never noticed it before.

Brooklyn Bridge

Don’t just glue a camera to your face and snap away at whatever. Don’t be so focused on photography that you fail to enjoy your people and the event. But do take a photo when it clarifies what you’re seeing.  In this way, using your camera can enhance your experience.

Start by being there, as fully present as you can manage. We walked across smelling the air, taking in the view and the bridge itself, and dodging the others crossing. We talked to each other about the experience and what we were seeing. All of these things kept us in the present moment.

Brooklyn Bridge

Take a camera that feels natural to you. I love my Canon PowerShot S95 so much. It fits into my jeans pocket, it’s got a fast and capable lens, it handles easily, and I’ve shot it for years and know it well. I also love my 35mm SLRs and all the wonderful lenses that go with them — but they are heavy and challenging to carry. And futzing with settings and lenses would have taken my time and attention away from the experience. But maybe an SLR works for you.

Brooklyn Bridge

Shoot thoughtfully. This is really the crux of it all. I love Ken Rockwell’s surprising mnemonic that helps you create stronger photographs: FART. Go read his article about it to learn what the letters mean. But basically, when you get the feeling to shoot something, first ask yourself what about the subject makes you want to photograph it. “It’s never about the obvious subject,” Rockwell says. “It’s always something more basic and subconscious that draws us to want to make a picture of something.” When you know what that is, you can compose your shots to bring that out. And then you truly see it.

Brooklyn Bridge

Most of my Brooklyn Bridge shots focused on geometric shapes — the famous gothic arches in its two towers, the rectangles and triangles created by the steel girders of its vehicle deck, and the many shapes created by the thick wires that hold the deck up. And through exploring those shapes, I easily came upon all the symmetry inherent in the bridge. The OCD part of me just loves symmetry!

Through that deliberate focus, I saw these shapes and that symmetry more clearly, more deeply, than I would have if I had walked the bridge without my camera. For me now, the bridge is about geometric shapes and symmetry.

And as I keep practicing my photography, one day I hope to fulfill Dorothea Lange’s quote: I won’t need my camera to see things that well.

Canon PowerShot S95, shot raw, processed in Photoshop.

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Photography

How to deal with difficult feelings about a photographic subject

I suppose every American has some baggage around 9/11, even those of us hundreds or thousands of miles away.

While we were in New York I couldn’t figure out how I felt about visiting the new World Trade Center and the neighboring memorial. Ambivalence gave way to curiosity, which yielded to revulsion. Then ambivalence returned and stayed. But visiting the site was on the must-do list for Margaret’s teenagers, who accompanied us. So off we went.

World Trade Center

I took just a few photos, and only these two are worth a darn. Above is the new World Trade Center, and below is the waterfall in the north pool of the memorial site directly to the south.

9/11 memorial

These photos offer no connection to the place. This could be any tall building; this could be any man-made waterfall. I think it’s because I didn’t want to be connected to this place. And the memorial felt sterile to me.

We walked from there a couple blocks to St. Paul’s Chapel. Margaret knew only that it was a 1766 church among the lower Manhattan skyscrapers, and that therefore she wanted to see it. We didn’t know its special, critical connection to the aftermath of 9/11.

St. Paul's Chapel

We learned that for eight months St. Paul’s Chapel was an aid and comfort station for everyone working the recovery. The building was open around the clock; volunteers fed and prayed with the workers and various doctors came to tend to their medical needs. Musicians even came to play for everyone.

Despite being so close to the collapsed towers, St. Paul’s survived without even a broken window.

St. Paul's Chapel

Even though this is still a functioning church with services every Sunday, memorial panels full of photographs line the north wall inside. I wasn’t prepared for that. I had hoped to get away from my feelings about 9/11 by just enjoying and photographing the architecture here. The only photos I took of the memorials are two photos of patches from police and fire forces around the world. They were sent here in a show of solidarity and mourning for their injured and dead comrades.

St. Paul's Chapel

The rest of my photographs were typical-of-me architecture shots, trying to record a solid sense of this building. Back in Indiana there are no buildings from 1766. It was a great joy to experience this one.

St. Paul's Chapel

It is a lovely church, perfectly maintained in every detail.

St. Paul's Chapel

We stepped out back and found a graveyard. In New York as in Indiana, churches used to bury their dead out back. It was surreal to see these very old gravestones amid the towering buildings all around. It was even more surreal to learn that in 1766, St. Paul’s Chapel was the tallest building in the city. I loved imagining a time when that would have been true. Apparently, the church was surrounded by orchards!

St. Paul's Chapel

St. Paul’s Chapel is a stunning building. But I recognized that because I couldn’t escape 9/11 here, I wasn’t connecting to it in the ways I normally would. And then I came upon the bell.

St. Paul's Chapel

It was a gift from the city of London to the city of New York after the attack, a symbol of friendship and solidarity across the oceans. This is where it all connected for me: this tragedy had worldwide reach, and it affected everyone who heard of it. There’s no shame that my feelings about 9/11 remain unsettled, uncertain. I cried here for a minute, quietly.

I shot my Canon S95 raw, which meant a lot of post-processing in Photoshop when I got home. It takes a little time to tweak each photograph for its best look. It gave me time to process not only my feelings about our visit to these sites but also more of my feelings about 9/11 itself. While processing photos, I slowly reviewed the day and thought about each scene, including those I didn’t photograph. That time and space to think, alone in my quiet home office, let me find a little more peace.

One photograph I didn’t take was of one of the pews. A few years ago St. Paul’s removed most of its pews, replacing them with individual chairs arranged in a U. But a couple pews remained in the back. In this church so perfectly maintained, the pews were gashed and gouged and chewed up — by the heavy shoes and gear of the recovery workers who rested on them. These pews remain as a memorial.

It was emotionally difficult to follow the news stories of the recovery work in the months following the attack. I dealt with it by dissociating from it. But seeing those gouged pews made those people and their experiences real. And so I don’t need a photograph of those pews; I’ll never forget them.

Canon PowerShot S95, shot raw, processed in Photoshop.

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