When I started photography back in the early 1970s, I was very much attracted to the “Life” magazine style of photography. The trouble was that I was only about 14 when I started, and I didn’t really understand what I wanted to say photographically. I favoured using my 135 mm lens, because I was so target fixated upon the subject. I used to like the way how the short telephoto lens isolated the subject from the background because of its lack of depth of field. I just loved the way how there was a sharp face against a non-distracting blurred background.
I was once asked by an 18-year-old fellow student, when I was in design school in my 40s, if it was true that one became smarter as they got older. I replied that I didn’t think we got smarter, rather that we had more experience that helps us understand what we were experiencing a little more clearly. I suspect that we’re a somewhat like computers, in that we have the raw processing power of the main chip (our brains), but we need to have something (life experience) in our hard drives to work with.
I have a bit of a theory about how our understanding of the world changes as we get older. To try and simplify what I’m trying to express I will use the cube as a metaphor. I suspect that when we are young and we see something like my metaphorical cube; our lack of experience in the world leads us to perceive it almost 2-dimensionaly as a mere square.
As we get little bit older, we start to realise that the square has in fact, another dimension, and we start perceiving it as a three-dimensional object. Then, further along in our lives we start to see the texture of the cube’s surfaces and where that cube sits in the world.
Now, as I get older, I have noticed that I am more interested in photographing people within a context and I am no longer as satisfied with portraits taken with telephoto lenses that decontextualize the subject.
On Sunday, when I went to the sculpture by the sea exhibition I found myself looking at the people on the beach as much as I was looking at the artworks.
After all, some people are artworks in their own right.
When I saw the fellow in the photograph above, I knew I had to take his photograph, so asked if I could take a shot of him. Years ago, I would have been more interested in emulating Cartier Bresson by standing back and trying to take a picture surreptitiously with a telephoto lens, without asking so I could capture a “pure”, unstaged moment.
When I asked permission to take the photograph, my subject asked me what I was going to do with the image. I told him that it was for my own use, and that I felt a certain responsibility to record the age in which I live. I also explained to him that I was using a very wide-angle lens (10mm) and I was going to get quite close to him (I didn’t want him freaking out or anything). He then asked me why I was using such a wide-angle lens (he had a video camera with him so he understood such things). I explained that I wanted to put him within a context. I wanted, not only a shot of him as the subject, but also the environment in which I encountered him.
I found the whole experience of explaining what I was doing, to my subject, quite pleasing and I know the fellow that I took the photograph of was glad to know what my intent actually was. As you can see from the image above, he graciously gave his consent and co-operation.
Another outcome of asking for permission to take photographs of people is that one gets photographs of them looking at the camera. I’m always very interested in the expressions on people’s faces as they look into the camera, because it’s all about how they the deal with engaging with strangers.