March 15, 2012

on cameras and nervousness

I've been having a difficult time figuring out how to start this post. I'll begin with a little story from this afternoon. Today I was taking a roll of film with the last light of the day. The "rule" for this particular roll was that I could only take pictures of reflective surfaces -- windows mostly. Downtown Knoxville has some great buildings that are all plexiglass and mirrored windows. They also happen to be banks. It was well after 6, the light was good, everyone had gone home for the day, and the building was closed. After three or four shots, a large man in a suit walked across the bank plaza and over to me. Turns out, he was a security guard. He wanted to know what I was doing, why I was taking pictures of the bank, and definitely wanted to make sure I wasn't aiming my lens into the bank windows. Admittedly I had -- there was a neat looking palm plant behind one of them. So I told him I was doing an assignment for art class instead. If I had been painting the bank, I wouldn't have been questioned. If I had been sitting at one of the picnic tables on the plaza, he wouldn't have thought twice about my presence. My camera triggered something on his security guard checklist. I had a old, noisy Konica and cuffed jeans. I was dangerous? People with cameras make other people nervous.

I had been thinking on and off about cameras and nervousness since I read the New York Times article about Cindy Sherman's retrospective in February. Not only about my relationship with my camera, but also the way I behave whenever someone near whips one out.

 In a piece Sherman wrote for the March issue of the Wall Street Journal Magazine, she said, "I usually don't let others take my portrait. It means giving up control. It's terrifying."  From the article in the Sunday New York Times a few weeks earlier, Sherman recounted a college photography assignment designed to force students to address something that made them feel uncomfortable. Sherman noted this assignment as what prompted her to turn herself into her art. "I took a series myself naked in front of the camera. I did a couple of these series and that was when I started using myself, but at the same time, not as an art practice, just for therapy or something. I would transform my face with makeup into various characters just to pass the time."

While I have not gone to the great lengths Sherman did to begin to confront her issues with being photographed, I have mastered a relatively decent fake smile. However, I have only made a small dent in the gobs of pictures of me rolling my eyes, slouching, making weird faces, and blocking the lens with my hands. People also get uneasy about someone photographing their houses, their cars, their children, and any number of other things. There is even a device that can be screwed into the end of a camera lens that is a periscope for cameras. With a friend as decoy-subject, the general public and large security guards everywhere can be at ease while you get whatever shot you want. This seems like a great camera gizmo, but normally, I don't photograph on foot.

I take most of my pictures from the refuge of my car. I drive and snap at the same time -- sneaking more precise shots at red lights and on empty roads. My mom hates that I do it, but I'm careful, and will always wrangle someone to drive me if I think I can't get the shot I want in a way that is safe for me and other drivers.  I work with the landscape, and the car is quick. It allows me to cover much more ground than if I always parked and walked around each location. The car adds an additional element of chance to my already random double exposures. Sometimes I am simply aiming the camera out the window or balancing it on top of my steering wheel, trusting that the image is in focus, that the light levels are good, and that I'm not actually photographing half of my dashboard too. Shooting from my car has an added bonus -- people don't ask me what I'm doing, I am raising no suspicions, and I don't have to worry about whether or not I am making people uncomfortable. I don't like to draw attention to myself, and taking pictures in public is one of the quickest ways to do so. People paying attention to me makes me fairly nervous, because, even though I've grown out of most of it, I am still a shy person.

My dad is also a shy person. The kind of shy person who endorses Powdermilk Biscuits on Garrison Keillor's Prairie Home Companion. He takes a lot of pictures too. I picked up the whole taking-pictures-out-of-the-car-window bit from him. (Most of his car shots are for this current project...) But that hasn't always been the case. When I was younger, my dad had a camera in tow for most events -- family holidays, basketball games, first days of school, and track meets. While I have some great (and some unfortunate) pictures from my growing up days, I later realized that my dad's camera was like an invisibility cloak and a safety blanket. It was a way of interacting without really interacting. Taking pictures excused him from jumping into conversation all the track mommies. I have yet to master the art of hiding in plain sight with my camera, but I don't want to hide behind it either.

One more story and then I'll quit.

I ride the bus to work. A couple of weeks ago, one of the art students from UT was at the station and asked if he could take my picture. He had a twin lens reflex and a quiet voice. I agreed, because I had a hunch of what the picture was for, and immediately got back to my book because I wanted to pretend the camera wasn't pointed at me. Later, I asked  UT's photography professor about the student and assignment. He explained that the project was designed to challenge the class' comfort level with photography. For each image, the student had to ask permission to take the picture. Apparently this particular student was fairly shy, and approaching me was a big deal. Being photographed was big for me too. Most other times, I would have said no.

With all of this said, this is something I think about quite a bit now (clearly). I may never enjoy being photographed, but eventually I would like to stop feeling like I have to be so sly about my photography.

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