Citizen of the Month

the writing and photography of Neil Kramer

Kate’s Shed Photography Workshop

I’m sitting in McDonald’s with my free morning coffee (some promotion for the last two weeks of September). Across from me is a sixty year old woman wearing a fall jacket. She has red hair that is too bright, and full lips. She is an attractive woman. Years ago, back in high school,  she was probably the girl everyone wanted to ask to the prom. She leans against the window and the morning sun is shining in, coloring the left side of her face with golden light. It’s a scene out of Renoir, if Renoir lived in Queens rather than the French Riviera.

I have an urge to take a photo of this woman, to capture the moment, but she seems alone in her thoughts, and my instinct tells me that it is inappropriate to take out my iPhone. I cannot explain to you why one moment feels right to take a photo and the other an invasion of privacy. I just feel it.

There is a slippery slope of morality in taking photos of strangers. I can give you arguments rationalizing the importance of street photography — historical record, artistic license, celebration of the city — but I don’t like to bullshit you.  For me, there is an element of escape to street photography, an unburdening of loneliness. Taking a photo makes me feel as if I am part of something bigger, a city in motion.

But the truth is I envy your photography online, especially that which is connected to your domestic life.   I wish I could have your wonderful subjects — such beautiful children, spouses, dogs, and houses.  I can think of nothing more thrilling than taking photos of my kids at a birthday party or my wife posing naked for me.   Street photography is impersonal and lacking in heart.

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My week in Nova Scotia was a magical one — the scenery, the music, the people, old friends and new, and even the cookies that Kate’s mom baked for the occasion. You can read about it on Kate’s own blog. Kate’s Shed brought me back to the first time I actually met Kate — back at our first BlogHer conference, before she had published her first book. It was a time when blogging conferences had intimacy to them, something now lost.

I have a hard time coming up with a narrative thread for an experience that contains so many threads — friendship, tourism, and learning, so I’ve decided to just pick the one moment that had the most impact on me, the experience that I still think about today.

It was my short time taking photos of C.

C was a participant at Kate’s Shed photography workshop, and I didn’t talk with her much.  Yet, one of the assignments on Saturday was to split into pairs and take portraits of each other. I was paired with C. I was insecure, as if I was going to be unmasked as a fraud.  Kate lent me her Canon DSLR, and I hated leaving the comfort zone of auto and the ease of a zoom lens.  I didn’t know whether to tell her that I had never used a DSLR until that day.   Even worse, the only way to make her comfortable enough and trust me to take her portrait was to, uh, TALK to her.

It’s difficult to judge the results, but I was happy with them.  I believe I “captured” something about the spirit in her heart, even if I can’t put my finger on what it is.   It didn’t happen immediately, but I didn’t rush it.   I took my time.   I moved her to a new location.   I coaxed her out of her discomfort.   I waited for the light to hit her.   I didn’t think of myself as an external camera, but as two people doing some sort of visual dance, and for a brief moment, this woman was the most beautiful and interesting women in the world to me, and I felt it.

It was an experience both professional and intimate. Street photography is hiding in the bushes. Portrait photography is engagement. And the result is a moment captured.

I doubt I will ever see C again. After the shoot, we didn’t bond in any special way.   Our special moment disappeared the minute the camera was off.   We continued on with the workshop as two relative strangers.  But there was something about that moment that changed my view of photography. And it had nothing to do with using the DSLR instead of a smartphone. It had to do with connecting with your camera, and with another person.  I had experienced something about photography that I had never felt before.   And I suppose that was the point of the workshop.

15 Comments

  1. I have a hard time photographing people. It requires vulnerability and intimacy on both sides of the camera. I rarely feel comfortable doing it. My son and my daughter are my two favorite human subjects, even now when they’re young adults, not kids anymore.

  2. and that last capture…that last capture confirms what you felt while taking the photo. i can relate to this post in so many ways. glad you got personal with portrait photography;), it will only add another element to your already insightful street images.

  3. I know exactly what you mean… Scary, fun, beautiful, exciting and you get to keep something.

  4. I love moments like that. Connection. I’ve had them with strangers, and I still remember them decades later. This is a story, Neil.

  5. Aw! I’m jealous and inspired.

  6. This is so great. Intimate. Telling. Perfect.

  7. Well, Neil, you found the words. The third photo is so perfect. I’d be so happy to have a photo of myself like that one. I hope C has stumbled upon it.

  8. I also love that last picture of C, Neil. It’s unposed and very natural. I don’t take pictures of people well–I barely take good pictures at all given that I too don’t really know how to use a DSLR. Your street photography is quite beautiful. I’ve been reading you for some years now and never knew you as a photographer. As I said earlier, I’m so glad you picked up your camera–you’ve got quite a gift, Neil!

  9. While you may claim street photography is impersonal, the way you do it gives intense heart and brings the subjects to such life.

  10. Wonderfully told. Mr. Kramer. Personally, I like to take MANY shots in a portrait session, interacting with my subject, looking for the moment that the “mask” falls away and the “real” person shines through. When it happens, that shot is almost always the one that family members will say, “This is SO you.”

  11. Listen, I’m not prone to crying at the drop of a hat, but this made me cry.

    I’m so glad you are a writer and a studier of people.

  12. That last photo is so incredibly beautiful.

  13. Love this. All of it. Wish I had your eye for… everything.

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