I want to share you with excitement a new idea that I got, from William Eggleston. The concept is quite simple (and I know I have shared this with you in the past) but it is this: Street photography is all about capturing beauty in the mundane.
Almost a year ago, I ordered “From Black and White to Color” from Eggleston, a lovely photobook that is yellow on the outside, and fits nicely on the hand. It is a lot easier to hold and look at than Eggleston’s unweildy “Chromes” (and much cheaper), and also has a great selection of images.
The funny story is that I just got back here to Berkeley, and was cleaning up my apartment. I’m choosing a lot of “normal” books to donate to the Salvation Army, and am starting to figure out what kind of photobooks I want to give away to friends or those who might appreciate them.
Anyways, the funny thing is that I ordered this book: “From Black and White to Color” ages ago, but never opened it. So when I saw it on my shelf, I took off the plastic cling-wrap, sat down on my kitchen table, drank another espresso, and started to look at the images.
What I realized was this: his photos are of nothing– of boring life in Memphis. In the past when I first saw his images, I didn’t “get” them. All of his photos looked like bad snapshots of boring shit. Why was he so famous, well-regarded, and seen as a God of color photography?
I started to realize that his genius and contribution to the photographic world was this: he lived almost his entire life in his boring town of Memphis, and tried his best to make interesting photos of the boring material he was presented with. Although he was rich, he didn’t spend his time in foreign travels, going to Paris or all these other exotic places in the world to make interesting photos. He realized that his own backyard was ample enough, and spent his entire life (quite diligently) to make beautiful images from the banal, boring, mundane, and ordinary.
I complain a lot about the city I live in (Berkeley). I get the “grass is greener on the other side” syndrome in which I am jaded with my current surroundings. I wish I was in San Francisco, Paris, Tokyo, New York, or another exotic location– to make interesting photos.
But what Eggleston has taught me is that the entire world exists in your own backyard; and what matters in photography is how you can make something boring look interesting, rather than trying to capture something interesting in a boring way.
I watched a documentary on Eggleston, and one of his friends (a famous photographer, forget his name) was quite excited to visit Eggleston in Memphis. But once he arrived there, he was massively disappointed. Memphis was boring as shit. Yet, how did Eggleston manage to make interesting photos of where he lived?
Reading a little upon the history of Eggleston, I learned some interesting things.
First of all, he started (like many of us) inspired by the work of Henri Cartier-Bresson. When Eggleston was studying at the University of Mississippi in Oxford, he developed a passionate interest in photography:
“A photographer friend of mine…bought a book of MAgnum work with some Cartier-Bresson pictures that were real fucking art, period.”
Eggleston idolized Cartier-Bresson, and said:
“I couldn’t imagine doing anything more than making a perfect fake Cartier-Bresson.”
The funny thing is that Eggleston (like myself) went to Paris to try to imitate Cartier-Bresson, but once he was there, he realized that all the subject-material was already exhausted, and it was pointless for him to “reinvent the wheel.” Apparently the entire visit Eggleston was in Paris, he didn’t even take a single shot.
After Eggleston finished his studies (he didn’t get a degree), he moved to Memphis and made black and white prints in his own darkroom. When he returned to Memphis from his Paris trip, he complained to his friend and mentor Tom Young:
“I don’t particularly like what’s around me.”
However Young gave him some really great words of wisdom, by replying that this might be a reason to take pictures. Eggleston realized the genius in this idea and said: “You know, that’s not a bad idea.”
So basically Eggleston had the realization that he needed to confront his immediate surroundings and use them as a source of inspiration for his subjects and images:
“I had to face the fact that what I had to do was go out in foreign landscapes. What was new back then was shopping centers, and I took pictures of them.”
This is the challenge that I face: I hate looking at my own surroundings, as I think everything as boring, cliche, and uninteresting.
But I need to start asking myself: What is interesting or new or changing in Berkeley? Currently, there is a lot of gentrification happening in the neighborhood. A Whole Foods just entered the neighborhood (ironically next to a Dollar Tree store), hipster coffee shops galore, and that is causing rents to skyrocket. Berkeley was expensive enough, but North Berkeley/Albany (the neighborhood where I live, near the “Gilman District”) is starting to push out poorer people who can no longer afford rents.
I went to Whole Food’s the other day, and was chilling outside in front of the cafe, enjoying the nice sun and a book (reading philosophy by Epicurus) and overheard a conversation between a man and a woman. The man was sitting in a V8 Mercedes-Benz (turbo-charged), and the woman was commenting on how she loved the sound of the engine, and how she owned a similar model, but without the big engine. The guy started to grin, rev his engine, and was totally showing off his cock. The whole conversation was quite repulsive to me, and really showed the absurdity of the wealth in the area. I then also took a look at the parking lot of Whole Foods; all I saw were BMW’s, Prius’s, Mercedes-Benz’s, Maseratis (a few), and Nissan Leaf’s. Eco-chic, rich, Berkeley folks.
So perhaps I should even do a photography project on the Whole Foods here, and photograph the people in the parking lot, inside the store, and inside the cafe (they even have their own private “Allegro” high-end cafe inside, with $3.00 espressos, which actually don’t taste all that great).
But to get back to the point, I know that you might also be jaded by where you live. You might live in a suburb, you might commute stuck in traffic, you might work in an office cubicle in the middle of nowhere– perhaps some industrial park.
But what do you find interesting in your immediate surroundings? Perhaps you are surrounded by neighbors who all they do is try to “keep up with the Joneses” by buying bigger cars, bigger homes, and showing off wealth. Perhaps you can document that. Perhaps you can do a photo-series on office life (I recommend checking “Office” by Lars Tunbjork). Perhaps you can do a “personal documentary” series of your own life (photograph your family, friends, and loved ones seriously like art). I am actually doing a photo series on my life with Cindy called the “Cindy Project.” As I’m typing these words on my iPad, Cindy is eating an enchilada for lunch, checking emails on her laptop, and I have my Leica next to me– and I just snapped 3 snapshots of her.
Regardless of your external circumstances, there are always opportunities to make images. And the more boring the place you live, the better. Why? The more boring the place you live, the harder you need to work to make interesting images. And the more boring the place you live, the less likely that there are famous bodies of work done there.
I actually feel the worst for street photographers in NYC– so much great work has been done there already. They must feel a lot of pressure trying to supersede what’s been done before them.
So what kind of “foreign landscapes” can you photograph in your own city? If you were an outsider, visiting your own city like a tourist, what would you find interesting?
You never know what something looks like, unless you take a photograph
Remember friend, photography is all about risk-taking. When you click the shutter, who knows if it will end up being an interesting or boring photograph?
I think the fun and excitement of photography is that you never 100% know what the photograph is going to look like when you click the shutter. After all, the camera renders our three-dimensional reality into a two-dimensional plane.
So for example, when I take a photograph in black and white film (Tri-X pushed to 1600 with a yellow filter), I have no fucking clue what the resulting photograph is going to look like. That is the fun and excitement. This is a bit why I dislike shooting digital; you have too much control over what the final image will look like (you can always play with the RAW files).
But regardless if you shoot film or digital, the ultimate result of what the photo looks like is out of your control. Sometimes you don’t notice all the details in a photograph, like the expression of someone’s face, or if something randomly pops in the background.
I think we need to glue this saying by Garry Winogrand to the back of our cameras:
“I don’t have anything to say. I photograph to find out what something will look like when photographed.” – Garry Winogrand
Another thing I found interesting about Eggleston’s way of working is that he always tried to shoot from a different angle, a different perspective– which was out-of-the-ordinary:
“I think I had often wondered what other things see– if they saw like we see. And I’ve tried to make a lot of different photographs as if a human did not take them. Not that a machine took them, but that maybe something took them that was not merely confined to walking on the earth. And I can’t fly, but I can make experiments.”
So if a chair could take photographs, what would the perspective of the chair be? Or if an ant could take a photograph, what would the world look like from the ant’s perspective (one of my favorite Eggleston photos is of a tricycle, shot from a super-low angle, which literally does look like an ant shot it, which makes the tricycle look larger-than-life).
Don’t just shoot human beings
Friend, another lesson I learned is that in photography (don’t worry about the definition of “street photography”) you don’t always need to photograph human beings. Sometimes by photographing objects, you get a sense of human-feeling.
For example, one person once commented to William Eggleston that his photos didn’t have enough people in them. Eggleston responded by saying: “Objects in photos are naturally full of human presence.” Some of Eggleston’s most memorable photos are of boring, everyday, mundane things like home appliances, sinks, ovens, freezers, and even food– subjects that many photographers of his time totally overlooked.
So once again, I think the secret of making great photography is to truly find the beauty in the mundane– of capturing interesting photos of boring things and places.
The “democratic camera”
Another concept I learned from Eggleston was the concept of the “democratic camera”– that he wouldn’t judge things, people, or places as “good” or “bad”– but would see them on equal footing.
He didn’t discriminate scenes or subject-matter. To him, all things could be made interesting. By embracing a “democratic camera” – you aren’t being prejudiced to “boring” scenes.
The difficulty with shooting with a “democratic camera” is that you are constantly at “war with the obvious” (another term coined by Eggleston). Because how can you make what is obvious and boring look interesting?
Eggleston retorts by saying: “I’ve never felt the need to enhance the world in my pictures.”
The funny thing is that it is a quite Taoist belief; that the world is perfect just the way it is, and no need to make it look “more interesting.” BBTW, here is a fun related article you can read: “Lessons Taoism Has Taught Me About Street Photography.”
Follow the light
Ultimately the thing I love most about Eggleston’s work is the beautiful colors and light in his work. If you look at his beautiful color slide film photos, you can see that his most successful shots were at sunset; when the colors started to scream with brightness and intensity.
At the end of the day, light is what photography is all about. I have often found that boring scenes can be rendered into beautiful scenes, just by capturing them in good light.
So friend, I recommend you to pick up a copy of “From Black and White to Color” by William Eggleston, which is a relatively affordable introduction to his work. I prefer it over his other book: “William Eggleston’s Guide”, as the book I recommended you has a combination of both his color and black and white work. Eggleston is famous for his color work, but it is absolutely fascinating to look into his black and white work, and see how inspired and influenced he was by Cartier-Bresson.
Also make sure to read the article: “10 Lessons William Eggleston Has Taught Me About Street Photography“.
Another good takeaway point: Every “master” has started off by copying another “master.” So don’t feel bad, guilty, dirty, or whatever by imitating the work of another great photographer. We all need to start somewhere.
Lastly, embrace the beauty in where you live. I know it is hard my friend, but try to make beautiful photos of boring, banal, and ordinary things.
Seek the beauty in the mundane, and you will be truly set free in your photography.
Farewell, and Godspeed!
Love, hope, and encouragement from your friend,
Written from 7:30am–8:45am, at my home in Berkeley, 9/2/2015 after about 4 espressos (give me a break, I’ve been up since 3:30am, still jetlagged from Stockholm). But it is going to be a beautiful day. I have the entire day ahead of me, planning on meeting my mom and my sister hopefully for dinner, and have some plans on shooting more black and white film, and perhaps even printing them in the darkroom. Started off the day reading “Tao Te Ching” and feeling super zenned out. Life is good :)
- You can also read this as a Google Doc.
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