Thursday, October 16, 2008

Why I Shoot

Ramones, CBGB's 1977 (c) Robert Barry Francos
(click on photo for a larger image)

I have always taken pictures. As with most, it started with family photos, usually when we went somewhere special like the World's Fair (my first camera memories in 1964, when I was 9), family vacations (Washington DC in 1965 was the first family venture), or a major event (bar mitzvahs, weddings, graduations).

For me, it was an Instamatic 126mm camera, where the film has to be loaded from a roll on a spindle, and needed to be done in a relatively dark place (mostly in shadows, rather than complete darkness). I still remember struggling with this near the doorway of the Smithsonian.

When I started my fanzine, FFanzeen, in 1977, I knew I needed a real camera. I was relying on others, and I needed one of my own. Also, I was seeing so many bands that I was losing track of who I was seeing, and wanted one to take pictures to help remember. On my birthday, in May of 1977, my dad gave me a 35mm Mamiya/Sekor camera. Didn't have a light meter, the flash pod broke off very shortly, and certainly was all manual focus. The first show I took was the Ramones, at CBGB's (see contact sheet above).

Over the years, the camera became my friend, and was joined by two others, a Pentax and a Minolta, both of which I bought used for $100 each (at different times). And I broke down and bought a flash in the 1980s, about 10 years after I got the first camera.

One day, at a friend's birthday party at Lucky Chen's in the mid-1990s, I ran into Mariah Aguire (RIP). For those unfamiliar, she became kind of infamous for having her tiger-print clothes ripped off by Dave Vanian on stage during a the Damned/Dead Boys show at CB's. She was also taking pictures along the same timeline as me, and she told me that one day she realized that she not only had the photographs, but in actuality had a body of work. A flash went off in my brain as I had the epiphany that it was true for myself, as well.

More of my photos from this period can be found here:

All this was leading up to my finding the book Shutterbabe: Adventures in Love and War, by Deborah Copaken Kogan (Random House, NY: 2002 ed) at the Strand one day in 2003. Among the great, fun, and terrifying stories of her work as an international photojournalist, she also made some philosophical points about photography that expressed how I felt about the process.

She touched on the sheer physicality of photography, something I'd not read anywhere before. People have written about photography in the "after," such as "What an amazing photograph," but I had not had anyone breathe life into the actual touchstone of taking the photograph (other than "squeeze the shutter, don't just click it"). Kogan states, "I loved to go out and shoot in strange places...I loved the heft of the black metal in my hands, the way it felt like a weapon. I loved to press the shutter, to freeze time, to turn little slices of life into rectangles rife with metaphor. I loved to collect the rectangles, like so many souvenir trinkets, to gaze at them, study them, find the one that best summarized a particular lived moment..." (p 11).

Another case is her positing on the difference between reporting and reportage, or as she explains it, what "the French called photo montee, a phrase derived from the verb monter, which has about twenty-three various definitions, ranging from 'to mount' to 'to edit,' but which in this formulation means 'to stage'...I thought photo montee was bullshit. It was advertising, not photojournalism, and it rankled my purist sensibilities" (p. 108).

Likewise, I prefer the moment, a split second. I like the transitory, which is why I enjoy photographing bands performing so much. Even taking their gear out of its containers, there is something human in the moment. Posed shots tend to be uninteresting to me. If one were to look through my collection of photographs, one would be hard pressed (though they are there occasionally when asked by the subjects to take the picture) to find shots of people looking directly at my camera and smiling. Can anything be more staged, more phony, or boring? That is reportage, not reporting. It is photo montee. Cheesy smiles are not real life, which is what I aim to capture.

I worked with someone who stopped talking to me at one point, and I was disturbed at what I had done to offend her. At some point, I managed to find out: seems she thought my taking candid (people talking, grabbing food, etc.) photos at company functions was "creepy." The photos we took were put up on the company intranet, and I saw that nearly all the ones she had personally taken were of people standing still with big toothy grins across their faces. To me, my photos felt like they had more life and were natural. When I found out the reason for the silent treatment, I felt better, because it wasn't something I had actually done to her, but rather her interpretation of my actions.

Kogan puts my feelings quite accurately: "I've realized I don't love doing portraiture. I can't be Annie Leibovitz, with her truck full of lighting equipment and industrial fans, her stylists, hair and makeup people all fluttering about her, fulfilling her festooned visions of famous faces. I can't be Richard Avedon, with his stark white backgrounds and his large-format eight-by-ten Deardorff camera, collecting human torsos in a vacuum. I appreciate their work, but I'm starting to understand that what I love most about photography are the contextual accidents, the 'decisive moments,' as Cartier-Bresson called them - images with irony, with narrative juxtaposition, with stories to tell." (p 230)

To sum it up, I am more interested in breathing life into a photograph, than capturing still life.

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