And Now, This (II)
When a photographer went to Saul Leiter’s apartment in the East Village on assignment, Leiter yelled “You gotta shoot through it,” as the photographer began to reposition objects hoping bring some order Leiter’s notoriously cluttered surroundings. Back in the Fifties, Leiter was one of the first photographers to use color film as part of his practice, preferring to use expired film because of the resulting color shifts. He is best-known for shooting through foggy store windows and sheets of sleet and snow.
Many of the images in this series reflect Leiter’s “shoot-through-it” ethos. I am shooting through train windows, with dirt, condensation, glare, and the reflections of interior neon lighting. I’ve also taken a page out of legendary Japanese photographer Daidō Moriyama’s book: He likes clicking the shutter while seated in trains and cars with his lens pointed at the passing scenery.
As I have read in Moriyama’s new book, How I Make Photographs, his process is essentially a random one. If I press the shutter button 400 times during a 20-minute journey, 395 of the images are garbage. Yet, there are those one, two, or sometimes even seven that make the effort worthwhile. For the most part, the notable results are random occurrences over which I have little control or say, except in making a curatorial decision. Sometimes it is the juxtaposition of the bodies. Other times it is how signage comments on the people depicted in the image. On occasion, when the train stops for a track signal, I regain momentary control, but not much because I don’t know when the train will start moving again.
I also have little control over the camera’s many features that I am supposed to use in capturing the “perfect” image—sharp focus, rich shadows, no blown highlights, and richly saturated colors. Auto focus is out of the question—the train is moving too fast to position the focus patch, so focusing based on a preset distance is necessary. If I want the far platform, I set focus at 13 to 14 meters. If I want the near one, I set it to two meters.
In my regular practice, I set exposure for each image manually. On the train, I use shutter priority, with shutter speed generally set to 1/1000 of a second (unless I want to experiment with motion blur). I set ISO on auto, with a range of 100 to 6,400 or even 10,000. I have no control over aperture. All of this is necessary, because the train winds its way through dark patches created by tall buildings, tree cover, and station roofs, only to emerge in areas completely exposed to bright sunlight, and then to quickly return to darkness. There simply is not enough time to set the perfect exposure when the train is traveling 30 miles per hour.
Many who have viewed these images leap to an obvious conclusion given the number of people depicted viewing personal screens: This is a series about the alienation that our devices create. One colleague sent me an e-mail noting how the images capture “the way other lives appear to us as they briefly cross our paths in the course of a day.” She doesn’t conclude that those glued to their screens are alienated. Instead, she recognizes that we can’t draw any conclusions because the encounter is momentary and anonymous.
In other words, what you see in these images reveals more about you than it does about the people depicted. In fact, no image is an objective portrayal of reality. Many of us feel trapped by our devices, so we attribute our own sense of alienation to others, but we don’t know whether the individuals depicted in the images are lonely, depressed, or longing for human contact. That person looking closely at their cellphone may be reading a text message from the babysitter about their children. After a long day at work, this parent may be looking forward to recharging their batteries by having dinner with or reading to their kids. As an engaged parent or spouse, the subject is anything but alienated from humanity. We can conjecture, but we don’t know who is the next Bernie Madoff, Mother Theresa, Ted Bundy, or parent of the year. Any value judgments are an exercise in autobiography.
Photographer’s Note: Each of these images were made with the Sony RX 100 VII, which is a point and shoot camera with a footprint smaller than the standard iPhone. It is my first point and shoot camera.
Reading the many photography review and news sites, I often see people begin articles and comments to articles with the old adage, “A good photographer can make a great image with any camera. Photography is not about the equipment.” For the most part, I agree, but after using the RX 100, I must note an exception to the rule, at least in my case. I found this small digital wonder to be very liberating. With my expensive, feature-laden cameras, I adhere to the rules that the voice in my head imposes on me: Level horizons, minimal convergence, no cars, and no overlapping people, etc. With the RX 100, all those demons vanish. And if I want to push the sliders to the extremes when processing the images in the Lightroom or Photoshop, well that’s fine, too. Well all of that is not completely true. Grain, blur, crushed shadows, and overly saturated colors are fine, but I still apply perspective corrections, which is actually a good thing: I am not just copying the masters. I am inspired by them, but I bring my own baggage to the party.