"You Can Take My Photo!"

by Strangely Indifferent


When I flip through my old photo albums or, more recently, my digital catalogs, the images that speak to me are those of people doing ordinary things that tell their story.

I have had the privilege of extensive, worldwide travel, and have lugged some form of camera with me through every country and continent. Throughout these journeys I have strived to return with photos of memorable people versus images that may as well have been purchased from a postcard stand or a souvenir shop. In almost every destination (West Africa being a notable exception), a quick conversation or some form of friendly interaction was all that was required to get my intended subject(s) to give me the nod for a quick photo.

For the past two and a half years my family and I have had the honor of living, working, and studying in Northern England. We will return to the U.S. this July with many fond memories of and gratitude for our UK experiences.

And then, there are the head-scratchers.

For the uninitiated, most street corners and alleyways of most UK cities & towns feature closed circuit or "CCTV" cameras staring, unapologetically, at you. Some of these cameras produce real-time video monitored (presumably) by law enforcement personnel, and others are private setups that record digitally or to tape, in a continuous loop. Being proud members of the nothing-to-hide club, my family and I, when we arrived, positively accepted this surveillance as a welcome deterrent to crime, and a feature of an idiosyncratic UK culture.

As such, I looked forward to continuing my people-focused street photography in this uniquely camera-accustomed society. As I took the first of my weekend walks through the town, camera in hand, I was quickly disabused of the notion that camera-accustomed also meant camera-friendly.

After my first few photo walks I could have easily assembled a substantial gallery of images that would be best titled, "Annoyed Subjects of Street Photography". Even when a person was incidentally captured as part of a larger street photograph, the scowls and distrusting, sideways glances stole the show from the architecture.

When I photographed my own sons in the schoolyard on their first days of (British) school (no other children in the frame) I was asked to stop by the Headmaster himself. It must be said that the he delivered the stop request almost apologetically, with great tact, a smile, and an explanation, but my forehead must have been ever so slightly wrinkled.

As regards making people/street photographs, I decided that I would be more successful employing my familiar method of chatting up, speaking with, and asking permission of, potential subjects. No dice. Not even my usually disarming, "I'm trying to learn how to use this thing!" (pointing at camera) worked; the noes just kept on coming.

On one walk during this voyage of discovery, I happened upon a small group of transit workers, apparently taking a tea break. When I asked if I, a hapless tourist, could take a photo of them, I received the predicted reply. Just then, I heard, "You can take MY photo!". I swung around and came face-to-face with a smiling woman who had apparently witnessed the exchange. She was bemused.

I told her that she must not be from around these parts (she wasn't, but she was English). She explained that her husband had just left her unexpectedly, so now she was going to see the world and just enjoy herself and, to that end, was about to catch a train to nowhere.

I think I told her to try not to smile, and then quickly composed & snapped the photo, below.

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"Please Dance With My Wife"

by Strangely Indifferent


I got a little thrill the first time I held an image in my hand that I had created. It was a color print of my next door neighbor and best friend at the time, crouching inside a boar trap we stumbled upon in a nearby Hawaiian foothill.

I was eight years old at the time and kept a proud, tight hold on my Kodak Instamatic 110 camera when walking along those cliffs. It produced negatives smaller than a postage stamp and commensurately grainy prints with poor resolution and desaturated, watercolor tones, but I treated those pictures as if they were sheets of gold leaf, arranging each one on the sticky pages of an album whose cover featured a day-glow, colored outline map of Oahu.

In my junior year of high school I signed up for an elective course in journalism, which required that we produce something worth printing in our school-produced and printed newspaper. I knew writing required more work than making photographs, so I purchased a Yashica Electro 35 and learned about exposure, depth of field, and how to bulk-load film canisters.

Photographic thrill number two was watching my first 8 x 10, black and white print draw itself in a pan of developer in my high school darkroom.

After about two years of occasional flashes of mediocrity in the darkroom, I put the camera down again to focus on trying to get a college degree while spending most of my time riding bicycles, repairing bicycles, selling bicycles, and racing bicycles.  My grade point average proved the folly of that experiment, and I served out my academic suspension managing a Fotomat kiosk in the parking lot of a Virginia strip mall.

In that capacity I had ample time to "quality-check" customers' images, (the cash register contained a frequently updated 3 x 5 index card with the names of patrons who produced Particularly Perusable Prints), but insufficient funds to spend on my own developing and printing, hefty employee discount notwithstanding.

A few years after finally receiving my degree, I became aware of a moonlighting opportunity in downtown Washington, DC that involved photographing rich partygoers while helping oneself to unlimited buffet items and refreshments from the open bar. I talked to the owner of the company that seemed to own this market space, proved I could operate a camera, purchased the required tuxedo and trimmings, and I was in.

Though I was lower than the kitchen help, rubbing elbows with senators and other Beautiful People of the Highest Order was heady stuff. These were the political galas that were essentially gifts to the wealthiest and most generous donors. Venues included the entire Corcoran Museum of Art and the National Building Museum. The POTUS himself would sometimes make a showing--those nights were a combination of excitement and tedium, as the Secret Service has a way of putting a damper on any party.

A distinguished-looking, almost elderly gentleman once asked me to dance with his wife while he took a breather--my assistant later told me the man was George Schultz, but I will never know for sure (and there was that open bar).

One weekend afternoon I spent photographing Dan and Marilyn Quayle, them posing with donor after donor in the living room of their Naval Observatory mansion. There was a massive party tent in the distance on the lawn and a line of people snaked from that tent to the front door, waiting their turn. I recall that Marilyn had a perpetual "Do you smell something?" look on her face, and seemed unkind to her helpers.