Monday, November 24, 2008

Reflections on Fotoweek DC

At the middle of last week (the 19th) I joined the wonderful documentary photographer Eugene Richards for an evening of shared pictures and comments in conjunction with Fotoweek DC, the first annual (I'm sure this will not be the last) photography festival held in recent years in Washington. The nation's capital is one place which has exhibited serious pent-up demand for such a cultural event: the first weekend alone more than 5000 people passed through the headquarters and (across the street) Contact Press Images / Contacts show, as well as some wonderful archival material from the Black Star files, going back to the 30s. On Wednesday, Gene and I spoke to an overflow crowd of nearly 300 at the Navy Memorial Auditorium on 7th St, downtown. It's heartwarming, in this age of internet/Youtube/Facebook to see that people are still interested in photography, and photojournalism/documentary in particular. Both Gene and I have made our lives all about following and reporting on what's gone on in our world in the last four decades. We had chosen different paths to do it, but essentially, we are looking to tell stories with our pictures. (a picture of us..) Gene's stories tend to be very personal, very much him placing himself in an intimate situation, and coming away with pictures which demand to be looked at. In almost every case, he is the only photographer present, and he relates on a very personal level with his subjects. Much of what I have done is the polar opposite. While I do plenty of individual projects (i.e. me alone with the subject), in large part what I do is cover the big event. The ones with photographers coming out the wazoo. Political campaigns, the Olympics, life in Washington D.C. to name a few.

Those are very different types of work, and require very different approaches. Gene described one situation where he just hung around with a family for three days, never taking his camera out, becoming, in essence, part of the woodwork, before they finally relented and invited him in. Very few photographers have the patience, energy and concentration to understand that presence is perhaps the key element. That you need to become a non-threatening part of the landscape, in order to be able to enter that landscape, and begin observing with your camera. I find Gene's work quite amazing, in that he never flinches from a tough moment, and somehow has a sense of what it will take to bring back a picture which tells the story he sees.

I was quite pleased that there wasn't a single question about technique. Nothing about f-stops or favorite lenses. In our attempt to speak frankly about how we work, I think the audience understood that it is – to paraphrase Lance Armstrong -- not about the bike. Cameras – and technique -- can help you land a picture, but they will never substitute for the raw, elemental eye of a photographer, who sees what must be seen first, and uses that camera to bring the picture back for others to share. One of my favorite expressions was thrown out years ago at some cluster-esque event. Just take a camera, one lens, and be ready, and if need be, “zoom with your feet.” That's why you have two of them. They can be amazingly handy as zooming tools. Forward, backward, left, or right. Go where the camera pulls you. That IS the place to be.

I'm very glad the Fotoweek was such a success, as there are a combination of interest and talent in the DC area which is seldom given a chance to flourish. I hope that next year's event will have an even greater pull, and support from the local folks. This is the kind of Art which can really make a difference. We're just sayin'....David.


Anonymous said...

Is that a water bottle in your lap, or are you just glad to see us. HA!

Beware of point 'n shooters in the audience. They have a particular ability to capture the wrong view without knowing the f/stop or shutter speed!

W from WestminterWeek

Anonymous said...

Enjoyed your talk immensely, David. It was nice to hear that the dread and uncertainty that one feels going into an assignment isn't just limited to us younger photographers.