Wednesday, June 12, 2013

A Reason to Photograph Things

I’ve just become energized. Energized to be a better photographer. I just met a friend of mine in the supermarket who showed me the iPhone images he made on a recent trip to Guatemala. Basically, they were black and white photos of people during a religious parade (kind of like the Catholic parade of saints held in many Italian-American parishes). Holy shit, I have not seen photographs that riveting in years.

Since I do not have any of my friend's images to use for illustrative purposes, I am sprinkling my own images here from the 2009 Catholic community street Procession of Saints in Philadelphia's Italian Market. The procession is a springtime fundraiser, patterned after the Italian May Day events. People carry or wheel platforms bearing statues of saints through the streets, while onlookers stick dollar bills to the statues' clothing or ribbons. (Also, this gives me a reason to publish these images!)

So back to my friend Eric Mencher’s photography. When he showed me examples on his iPhone, I could not help but compare them to photographs I saw in a “fine art photography” (whatever that means) gallery in New Jersey earlier that same day. There were maybe one or two images in the gallery show that were interesting, but compared to Eric's, they were nothing. (For the record, they were black and white staged and still life photographs, rather than candid street photography like Eric's.)

Just a spring clean for the May Queen
Eric is a veteran newspaper photographer and has worked with all kinds of expensive gear throughout the years, both film and digital. He says he loves the iPhone as a camera because he can shoot spur of the moment, just like when he started out years ago with a Leica rangefinder around his neck. He doesn’t need super high resolution and he likes the lo-fi look that cell phone cameras produce.

Which is not to say that cell phone cameras automatically produce art. Eric is an artist with a unique vision which the iPhone allows him to realize. I may go purchase an iPhone just because of his energizing, emphatic description of this tool that allows him to be so creative. However, I’m sure that I’ll never be able to make such photographs. I could buy an iPhone and visit Guatemala, but still never create images as good as his.

I did invite him to lecture to the Photographic Society of Philadelphia, because I think all photographers become energized when they hear other photographers discuss their creative endeavors. It makes no sense, of course, to run out and try to duplicate someone’s work, but seeing what other creative people can do may energize you in your own work.

If you're a photographer, it helps to have friends who are photographically inclined, supportive, and encouraging. I appreciated Eric's comment as we parted that he has a great deal of respect for photographers who tackle long-term projects such I have with cemetery photography. But then I began to think about it - is my cemetery subject matter just a “project?” Should I be looking to end it and find some other subject matter?

If you have some reason for doing something  that’s very strong and you start working at it, you must look around every once in a while and find out if the original motives are still right.” At least that’s how scientist Richard Feynman felt about continuing his work in nuclear physics, work that in 1945 helped produce the atomic bomb (ref). Such self-examination as he describes is more easily said than done. I still don't quite understand my draw to cemetery photography, even after doing it for fifteen years. Maybe its just a draw to cemeteries in general, or simply death itself. I don't understand the reason yet, so I guess I'll keep the project going at least until I do. After that, I can re-examine my motives. In the meantime, I’ll just get that iPhone and see what happens ….

Further exploration:
Eric Mencher's website with some examples of his fine photography
The Pleasure of Finding Things Out, by Richard  P. Feynman (
Italian May Day events