Joe Ellenbogen was, in my opinion, the ultimate photographer. He shot photos for thirty or forty years — beautiful ones like this here. Over the course of his life, he amassed thousands of images, each one a testament to his passion for traveling and family. I look at his photos often; they help me understand the world better and also him, as a person — his life, his loves.
Never heard of Joe? That’s no surprise, he was not a professional photographer. Famous only in a very small circle. Joe grew up dirt poor in Los Angeles, went to school in the mornings and worked all afternoon and evening. Eventually, he went to Berkeley, took over his father’s clothing business and grew it into a successful endeavor for himself and his family. He retired and then spent the second half of his life traveling with his wife and visiting with his family. He probably circled the globe 15 times. This is what he loved. And he always had a camera with him. You haven’t heard of him because he’s my grandfather and he never sought out fame or accolades for photography. Never earned a dime from it. It was simply there to document and make real the things he most appreciated.
The vast majority of photographers are just like Joe.
Most people I know who get a good camera and nice lens don’t do it to get paid, they do it to get better images of the things they love: their family, their trips/vacations and perhaps a creative exploration of everyday life. There’s a lot to learn from this particular kind of dedication to photography that is not driven by money or fame.
Allow me to pass along to you the techniques that Joe used. The techniques he passed along to me. The ones that seem to always get the oohs and ahhs, but more importantly, become great expressions of what we love about life.
Find the Highest Point
As a child, I was fortunate enough to go on a number of adventures with my grandfather. He was always up early, dressed nicely — often in all yellow — reading the paper, with his camera on the table, when the rest of us would saunter down from our hotel rooms, sleepily. He’d have the day all planned out in terms of where we would be going. But when we got there, he’d usually leave us to our explorations and then head off in search of the highest vantage point to get a photograph.
When traveling or just walking about with my camera, this is always my first thing to look for — somewhere high up to view from.
Here’s a recent photo of my own in Malibu, using Joe’s favorite technique. I’m high up on a cliff here, using a very long lens. Much is made of 35mm lenses as the “everything lens,” but a longer lens will compress your scene and bring more into it, especially if you are up high and angling down. For one trip, try bringing a 105mm, get up on some nice precipices and see how it changes your imagery.
But even if you can’t find a high cliff to shoot from, you can always do as Joe did and just hold the camera up above everyone and shoot down. Joe was well over 6 feet tall, but with his arm outstretched above him, he was often shooting from 7 or 8 feet up, even on those rare occasions when he was on the same ground as us.
Use Foreground Elements
Damn is that a nice frame. Impeccable. I could draw it all out for you, with the sight lines and compositional elements that are all working here, but you get it. It’s perfect. All of Joe’s shots have this element to them — it’s everyday, but it’s just so well-taken.
This was taken before my day, but I saw him take photos like this all the time. He’d take his tall and lanky self and sneak up next to someone, like this woman in the foreground on the lower right, who may be my grandmother — and he’d quickly look through the viewfinder, focus and snap it. One shot, done. He instinctively understood the value of a good foreground element, perhaps from watching movies — or maybe someone taught it to him. But this is a definitive storytelling technique, often called “over the shoulder.”
It’s a such a great technique to employ when you have people present because you immediately add a narrative to the image that is not simply “here I am, standing here taking a photo.” With someone in the foreground, the audience loses the idea that there’s a photographer here and feels in the scene. We feel the proximity, perhaps even jumping into the person’s shoes right next to us.
Try getting closer to people and using them as objects in your frame. Aside from the story aspects of it, it also adds compositional purpose to the image itself, giving a cinematic feel to everyday scenes.
No people around? No problem. Just do as Joe did and find a tree.
Location Is Everything
I mean, in the end, Joe knew many years ago what all contemporary Instagrammers know today — it’s all about location.
Spectacular locations bring with them their own stories and emotions. You use the equity that they have already established by being present and giving them a role in your image.
As an avid traveller, Joe was doing the hardest part of photography simply by getting there. The canon of his work is remarkable because it goes from London to Germany to Brazil to Israel and on and on. He never could have gotten these shots, walking around Leisure Village in Camarillo, CA, where he lived. His home was really just a resting spot to get film developed, play slide shows on a projector to the family and start planning the next trip
The greatest thing you can do for your imagery is be someplace interesting. It seems simple, but in fact it’s a great lesson for photographers. Even in our daily routine, in whatever city we’re in, being a bit of a location scout and deciding to take ourselves someplace special for our photographs is a smart move we often get lazy on. Instead, we’ll often throw our background out of focus, shoot “light/shadow techniques” or do heavy post-processing in order to make up for not having had a great location to begin with.
A great photo album, at the end of the day, is a journal of your life. There are few things greater for your photo album than going to interesting places. What Joe’s photos show us is that he, first and foremost, made the effort to go somewhere. And secondarily, that when he got to there, he had a few great techniques to make sure that his imagery captured what he most loved about being there — a sense of being both above it, admiring it, as well is very close and intimate with it. And, if you think about it, that’s every great story ever told.