Sunday, November 23, 2008

Grid shooting

The weather has been dry recently giving me some opportunities to go out shooting. I spent one morning last week in Eugene's grid E8, and a few days later I made it to P11 in Portland. I'd never spent much time in either area so both outings were very fun. There is really no feeling in the world like exploring new territory with a camera.

In fact I think a lot of the appeal for me of these grid projects is just that: the opportunity to explore uncharted areas. The photography is a side bonus. Sometimes I'll hit a corner with a lot of photographic possibilities, a lot of text or people or decay or dense visual fabric or whatever. In places like this the thing I should do is just hang out for an hour and look carefully for photographs. But I can never stay anywhere longer than five minutes before I have to see what's around the corner. Although my photography may suffer at the expense of my wanderlust, I think in the end it recoups the cost.

P11 in Portland

The streets of P11 form a pretty thick grid of intersections with no strange diagonals or curvy streets to complicate things. I spent a few hours walking block to block without any direction. At each intersection I'd look down the 3 ways I hadn't explored yet and walk the next block in whichever direction looked most interesting. At the next intersection I'd do the same thing. I did this over and over, photographing things along the way, until I'd traced a 3 hour drunkard's path all over the neighborhood. To not know where you'll be in five minutes is like a rare precious gem in our hyperplanned society.

When exploring the grid I always view myself as an outsider. I try to hit the back streets. There's no reason to be there unless you live close by or you work for a public agency like mail or utility. And here I am a scraggy looking guy pointing my camera at private yards and houses. It's a good way to invite questions. Sometimes I invite myself. As I take photos I wonder in the back of my mind, "What if someone asks me why I'm standing in their driveway photographing their swingset? What do I say?" Sometimes people do ask and I say I just love the way that tree lines up with that soccer ball if you stand right here and I point to where I'm standing and they look at me like What the? and the situation is defused. One time a man chased me down the street in his car demanding my film but I talked him down. The whole situation is beautifully uncertain. If there was no tension it would be less fun. I would ask myself less questions.

E8 in Springfield

The streets of E8 in Eugene do not form a grid and in fact they aren't even in Eugene. E8 is across the river in neighboring Springfield, in and around the core of its downtown. Springfield is a photographer's wonderland. Every time I go there I feel like I'm the only photographer who's ever paid attention to it. It's like the wild west and I'm O'Sullivan or Jackson venturing out to show the rest of the world what's in Springfield. Even the name --Springfield-- is perfect. How homogeneous, how nondescript, how general in its specificity.

In the south part of E8 the roads are a hilly patchwork of dead ends and gravel strips with an old millrace running through. I couldn't do the drunkard's path or I'd wind up deadending and retracing steps. Instead I carefully planned out a route that would let me explore every part of every road in the area. This is another great way to wander, one which leaves you fairly assured you've missed nothing.

P11: SE Clatsop St., Portland

On D St. I found an amazing yard with an old mossy radar dish that must've been 10 ft diameter. Out front was a row of strange cactus that filled the parking strip, and applying something to this cactus was a man wearing a space-age herbicide backpack that looked like it might blast upward at any moment. The scene was perfect! I'm very bad at asking for portraits but I've been trying to consciously change that, and this was one situation I couldn't walk away from without at least asking. I approached the man and tried to strike up a conversation. "Say," I said, "that's more cactus than I've ever seen in one place around here." Which was true. It rains a ton in Western Oregon and cactus aren't common.

The man didn't say anything. He stared at me silently. I know he heard me because his stare wasn't bland. It was menacing. He didn't have to say "What the fuck do you want?" because his stare said it for him. Outsider alert! I thought, Oh shit, now what? "Nice talking to you," I said in a lower voice then kept walking, leaving the photo behind.

E8: 2nd and Mill, Springfield
Shot before I put away the Mamiya for good

For about the next twenty minutes I couldn't take any photos. I kept imagining people in the houses watching me, friends of his. He'd called them and warned them about the weird guy walking with a camera. Paranoid I know, but mood is everything. If I'm in the right mood I can go up to anyone and take their photo without saying a thing. But after an incident like that I was in the flat out wrong mood to make any photographs for a little while. The funny thing is I think the photos I didn't take that morning made a perfect portrait of Springfield. In some parts of the wild west you're liable to have your camera shot out from under you. Those parts don't get photographed, which is exactly how they look or don't look.

I've been bringing 3 cameras along with me lately, a Mamiya 7II with color film, a Leica M6 with b/w, and a Diana with b/w. On sunny days I put away the Mamiya and shoot just b/w. I like colors in damp overcast light but sun seems to wash them out. This was the case on my trip to E8. I kept the Mamiya in the pack and shot mostly Leica. The thing about my Leica is the rangefinder is out of adjustment and the meter is broken, so I zone focus and guess at the light. I can usually get the exposure within one stop. And most of the stuff I photograph is within hyperfocal so the rangefinder isn't an issue. In the end I wind up treating my Leica almost like a Diana.

When the meter broke my first thought was to fix it. Now I'm not so sure I want to. What winds up happening now is that I shoot the light I see. If a scene looks bright I might overexpose unconsciously because, well, that's how it looks. The process of making the picture becomes more interactive and interpretive, and this shows up on the finished roll. Instead of 36 frames of 18% gray, a roll of unmetered frames looks more like a checkerboard of light and dark, which is perhaps more like the real world, or at least more like my reaction to it.

P11: SE 82nd and Flavel, Portland

On very bright days I shoot the Diana. It seems to respond best to high contrast situations. (Now that I think about it that's probably a good reason to do the exact opposite thing and shoot it on dim days). Since it's been nice lately I've been burning film through it. I have to hold myself back not to shoot more than a roll a day. For such a simple device, the camera continues to confound me. I can't even guess what any image on the roll might look like, and the only way to find out seems to be to shoot more. I shot a few rolls in both E8 and P11. I have no idea how they'll turn out and that's ok. Maybe the images will take a right turn or maybe it will be a left.

Shoot more. For most things photographic that is the way forward. All of this submitting work here and there and commenting on this and that and thinking about photo history or fawning over photo books and Blogging is all secondary. The central act for any photographer is to go out and shoot photos. Shoot first, ask questions later...


Mezz Davies said...

Excellent post. Cheers for the reminder.

Anonymous said...

The same happened to my M6 meter after close sea water encounter... Initially I wanted to fix it asap but realised that actually no meter is the way of samurai, as manual focus and film is... However no ragefinder is a no-no... yet... ;-)

Anonymous said...

Blake you said you like the tension of street photography, but then you explained how tension lost you a great shot (or maybe asking lost it for you...) and that same tension made you paranoid and miss a bunch of other shots, and how those shots might have been the best portrait of springfield...

I vote for photography to understood and accepted by the mainstream, so the tension will be gone! It kills me, even if sometimes it adds adrenaline and spookiness. Do you think Obama can get rid of the general public misunderstanding of photography? Let's add that to his list of impossible things to fix!

Blake Andrews said...

The thing I miss most about the rangefinder isn't the ability to focus. I can do that ok using distance markings and hyperfocal. But I do miss that feeling of watching the images converge in the viewfinder. It is really satisfying, especially combined the thin clunk of the shutter. It feels like something has happened.

Bryan, I don't really follow you. Are you saying the tension created by Obama's inability to fulfill all of his expectations will create a better dynamic for street photographers who don't ask permission first, or is the lack of tension a good thing in the end because the public wouldn't understand it anyway so why not relax? Is that what you're saying?

Anonymous said...

No, I'm not saying that at all...

I was questioning your conflicting comments--your general comment that you like the tension of street photography, and then your specific example of how tension caused you to miss not only one photo, but a series of possibly great photos.

the obama comment was a joke (he's expected to fix everything in our country now, so why shouldn't he also fix the problems facing street photographers so it'll be easier for us?)