See, Not Look

“Everything has beauty, but not everyone sees it.” The Chinese philosopher Confucius was reported to have said. A lot people tell me that they can’t take pictures in their local environment. Why?I ask.

The reply I usually get is something about the lack of visually interesting things happening around them. The same person goes on to tell me that when they go overseas there is always plenty to look at and photograph. I’m not just talking about Australians with this mindset. I hear it from all sorts of nationalities, Swedes, Americans, New Zealanders and the British.

My suggestion is to take your camera out on the streets and not just look but see what is happening around you. Open your eyes to the visual smorgasbord that surrounds us.

Henri Cartier Bresson constantly carried his camera while at home in France and produced many classic images within close proximity of his abode.

‘An Art of Observation’

Elliott Erwitt said, “To me, photography is an art of observation. It’s about finding something interesting in an ordinary place … I’ve found it has little to do with the things you see and everything to do with the way you see them.”

Erwitt has produced over 20 books highlighting his wry visual observations about life around him. Quite a few of these images were taken within walking distance of where he lives.

In the early 20th century Josef Sudek dragged his 30 x 40 cm camera around the streets of Prague documenting the beauty of the city. Sudek lost an arm in the war after gangrene set in from a wound but it didn’t stop him taking photographs. He would occasionally use his teeth as a substitute for the missing arm to help change the settings on his camera.

Sudek didn’t even leave his studio to produce two of his most famous collections. The series, From the Window of My Atelier, is a beautiful set of images taken through the window of his studio looking onto his garden. Labyrinths is a collection of photographs that document the interior of his studio. The poet Jaroslav Seifert described these images as surreal and subtle.

After a lifetime of pounding the streets shooting reflections, frames and shadows of himself, Lee Friedlander was forced for a time to give up his street photography because of arthritis. While housebound because of a hip replacement, he started photographing stems of flowers, which eventually became a lushly produced book. Like Josef Sudek, Friedlander could see images even when confining himself to shooting only in his home.

As you can see from these photographers their locations didn’t confine them. In fact they chose to look, see and photograph what was happening in their own environment.

Camera at the Ready, Always

Drinking coffee or imbibing in wine with documentary photographer Roger Garwood is quite an experience. He always has a camera with him and can suddenly step away from the conversation to shoot a picture of something that to is seemingly mundane. Frequently Roger manages to turn a situation into a decisive moment. For decades Garwood, who is a legend in Fremantle, walks the streets documenting the life and energy of his local environment. Relaxing or working, Garwood always has his eye on what is going on around him. He said, “Keep your eye on the ordinary everyday events, even if it does mean the rear end of a barmaid.” And “Some of the worlds best pictures are taken on peoples’ doorsteps with a simple 35mm camera.” Roger said the greatest advice he ever received from the legendary London picture agent Tom Blau was, “Your best picture is only a 3 penny (5 cents) bus ride away.”

A photojournalist who has done a lot of his best work in and around his neighbourhood is Andrew Chapman. His topics and assignments have kept him close to home for most of his career. Andrew is a compassionate and passionate photographer of Australian daily life. He is a great example of a photographer who always carries his camera and can see an image in most situations. Chapman said, “Never stop looking, engage in life and photographs will happen. When a photographer engages in their immediate surroundings photos will come to them. I am constantly reacting to visual signage, and light.”

I also like to wander around the area where I live and shoot photographs. In fact, some of my best-selling stock pictures have resulted from photo jaunts across my suburb. The advantage in working this way is that if the light is not right I can back later in the day or even the following day, it’s just a few steps outside my door.

If you can’t find images in your own environment it’s time to slow down, start looking around and begin to see the extraordinary in the ordinary.

“It is not what you look at, but what you see,” says Henry Thoreau, American author and poet.