It’s been a quite few months since I’ve written anything here, because work has been hectic. Despite having left my Leica M2 in the car this whole time, I have barely shot a single roll in 6 months. Today, I reached a bit of a breaking point in terms of stress. It’s nothing major, but I realized that I have been living without any access to good ol’ fashioned aesthetics for the past couple of years, and it’s taking its toll on my psyche. I decided to do something about it, and broke out some photography books (notably, Life of a Photograph by Sam Abell), and just let the beauty of the photographs wash over me. And it was also at this time that I took a look at the types of photography books I own. Recently, Mike Johnston at The Online Photographer discussed in an excellent post (“Mini-collections can be a clue”) about our photographic passions, and how the books in our libraries tell us what our true passions and inclinations are.
Now, for me, I decided a long time ago to avoid taking photographs that didn’t contain people, because I had seen landscape and cityscapes and thought that they were pretty sterile and meaningless. No doubt this was also partly the result of my decision, upon graduation from middle school, to take a whole roll of photos of the school premises without a single picture of my school mates, to my lasting regret. This desire to image subjects in their normal setting led me to assume that I was interested in Street Photography (I am), and nothing else. But looking at my photo books collection, it dawned on me that what really drew me to taking street or documentary photos were the human stories, some of which I told myself in my head. And furthermore, the photos that I love the most may even qualify as (environmental) portraiture.
Take the famous image by Nick Brandt of the elephant, shown above. Obviously, there isn’t a human being in it, and yet one cannot deny that the elephant seems oddly… human. In other words, this was a portrait of the elephant (and not in the loose way the term “portrait” is used, but rather a proper portrayal of some essence, for lack of better word, of the subject). And sometimes, the image is a mirror that is held up, so that a portrait of the photographer is created (and I must emphasize here that few photographs ever attain this level of introspection). One of which is a W. Eugene Smith image below:
I have always dreamed of taking great portraits, and have even, on a few occasions, attempted the feat. However, I find that my personality is not well-suited to this genre, so perhaps I will continue to be a spectator. And thankfully, we live in what some have called the Golden Age of Photobooks, and the access to great portraits, despite my own ineptitude in the genre, will continue to be available. And yes, it did relieve much of the stress that I was experiencing.