Four years ago I drove from Florida to Philadelphia for a photography workshop. It’s rare that in a room of other people that I am the leader, but in this room, I was “the guy who had come the farthest.” I can’t recall the title of the workshop, but it was with the photographer Greg Miller, and the topic of the workshop was approaching strangers.
You’re probably wondering why I would drive so far for a seemingly simple workshop. The answer is in short that I am exceptionally shy. Talking to strangers is like kryptonite to me, which is really difficult because I love people. I love the stories they tell, the humanity we all share, etc. . . But, meeting people has always been difficult for me.
This workshop was, to me, the silver bullet to my problems. It was the anecdote to a problem that has haunted me for a lot of my life. Shyness seems a little like that at times; like this insurmountable hurdle.
During the course of the workshop Greg made a lot of really great points about technique and what it takes to approach a subject. There were a lot of things that I would take away from that weekend, but the biggest lesson of all would be one I’d learn years later on the island of Japan.
Before I continue I think you should know that I’ve gone back and forth on large format more times than I’d like to count. I owned a Toyo-View camera in college when I was going through my Ansel Adams phase. I owned a Burke and James 8x10” camera when I was going through my Alec Soth/Greg Miller phase. And most recently I owned a Rittreckview when I was going through my “I shouldn’t have sold all my large format gear” phase.
For a long time early resided in the idea that gear was the most important thing to approaching people. To this day I have a hard time accepting that I don’t need anything new to aid me in my pursuits, so I say this to you not as someone who is above this notion, but as someone who is knee deep in it. There's a lot of comfort to be gained in the idea that you can buy something to make something better. It's the pill for everything theory, and I want to think that buying a new camera or having the right “thing” will allow me to photograph people more easily.
I’m cutting to the chase here and I’ll quote Greg loosely to provide you with the biggest takeaway from the workshop. He said, “no one is keeping you from making the photos you want to make but yourself.” That’s right, I drove all that way, from Florida to Philly, and that is what I remember.
It's not the camera. It's not the film. It’s you. Today especially I think that's a really hard thing to come to grips with — I don't want to realize that it's me —I want there to be something I can buy, a class I can take, someone I can emulate. There is in fact not a pill for everything.
For years since this class I’ve carried one of Greg’s business cards with me in my camera bag as a reminder of the lesson I learned. This lesson came full circle and struck me rather abruptly the other day as I was looking through my photos.
In my archives I have these two photos. Each of the photos were taken with completely different cameras. One a 4 x 5" field camera and the other a rather simple but seemingly large point-and-shoot.
The two photos differ in method but are in fact the same. They both feature couples posing along the boardwalk in Yokohama Japan. Both of the men are the bad boy type, albeit at different ends of the spectrum, and both of the women have this sort of innocence about them.
Seeing these photos side by side is a reminder that it is in fact not the camera, but me who is keeping myself from the photos I want to make and I hate that a little. For a long time I’ve had a lot of gear in my life that I though was a necessity, but it turns out that it’s not. The truth is that if someone is going to let you take their picture the camera is probably not of concern. “Oh you’re shooting with a Nikon, absolutely, take my picture,” said no one ever. If they know it’s film they also know they’re not going to see it, so for that reason alone I think it’s safe to say that the tools don’t matter.
In defense of the war on formats being waged in my head I think it’s fair to say the following: taking someones photograph is a little like falling in love. There’s this connection with a person, they see you and you see them, and you ask, and there’s this adrenalin. Maybe I am crazy, whatever, but that’s kind of how I feel when I photograph strangers. I think “oh hey you’re awesome or you’re doing this thing, or whatever, and I want to be a part of it.” I’m rambling, but my point is that using large format allows you to suspend the moment, but it doesn’t create it. I think for a lot of people the ability to suspend the moment is essential to the experience of photography.
It took four years of carrying someone else’s business card in my bag, and two photos of my own to realize that it’s not the camera, it’s me. I am the one keeping myself from making the photos I want to make. It’s a hard realization to make, but I hope that it’s one that I grow the most from.