In 2019, I recorded 200 shoots, exactly. Technically, that’s 200 imports — not all of them are professional shoots, but they are most certainly shoots, to me. As I’ve written about before, whenever I leave the house with my camera, mentally I consider myself on assignment. Even if I’m just shooting a kid’s birthday party. I just never know where I’m going to find inspiration. Many of my more well-known images have been shot in shoots that didn’t emanate from a call from a client. A production company recently reached out to license an image I did of a woman on a swing while just walking around at the beach. This is not an uncommon occurrence, so I take even my non-serious shooting pretty seriously. It’s a mindset, and I’m a big believer that your mindset is your greatest asset as a photographer.
Also, non-specific shooting (or life photography, as I like to think of it) for me is like an ongoing sketchbook. Artists stop in places of interest to sketch out scenes all the time. Shooting out in the world as I experience is my sketchbook.
Such was the setting as I walked around with family at Griffith Park Observatory, high on the Santa Monica mountains, overlooking Los Angeles — a place that draws one and a half million visitors every year and is the most popular public observatory in the world. Wandering around it is both impressive and a little anxiety-inducing. The amount of people can be overwhelming and the interior exhibits can feel quite the opposite of the expansive heavens the facility celebrates. Here, people-watching is not just part of the fun, it’s impossible to avoid.
I chose this image to feature for a few reasons — as far as scenes go, it’s a bit unique as it crams a lot of interaction into a minimal percentage of the frame while still keeping quite a bit of negative space. I find myself drawn to other images of this style, especially from the photographers I studied early on, like Diane Arbus, who could deftly offer both simplicity and depth to an image with her intuitive and honed framing of a scene.
It’s a kind of privilege, I find, to discover characters so well-defined that one’s job as a photographer is simply to find and create a space to enjoy them in. And while there’s a trend in photography to move closer and fill up the entire frame, I enjoy the careful and considered distance and more purposeful crop lines quite a bit more. The up-close and invasive step in is certainly a spectacle, and I get the attraction, but a few paces back, with more to take in… there’s a quiet, observatory tone in that space that appeals to me.
And speaking of “observatory,” being at Griffith Park felt to me like one giant homage to distanced observation. People observing people, people observing the city, people observing the stars and all of it observing back. As I contemplated this and watched as everyone attempted to stand against the edges and capture the views, I took a few paces back to observe them. Observing the observers, at the observatory.
I like to use a wide angle for this kind of shooting — 21mm. And in this case, it’s the 21mm Leica Super-Elmar, the lens most often on my rangefinder. When the scene unfolded, we’d just emerged from inside where I’d taken some photos at 1600 ISO and I’d forgotten to put it back down to a reasonable outdoors setting. Not to worry, most wildlife photographers keep their cameras on ISO settings far higher for more flexibility with shutter speed. I’m at f/4.8 and 1/180th of a second here.
What drew me to the area was one of my favorite views of the city, with the observatory off to the left and downtown’s skyline forward in the distance like a far off oasis. It’s a classic Los Angeles location and the backdrop for many a photo and movie scene. I saw the fellow in the hat (which was a red number and it matched his jacket). He’d obviously planned to be photographed by his friends here and enjoyed playing the fashion card in this classic location. But it was really the hat that made my heart race. I’m a long-time fan of the work of the late Rodney Smith (and I often use his work as a reference for post-processing), and his work seemed to more-often-than-not feature dapper men of seemingly any era, nearly always quaffed with a fine hat. I immediately recognized something of this ilk unfolding.
The crowd parted for the impromptu photo shoot, which was a bit of fortune, and I set the camera up to capture it from where I stood, a few feet back. The few creative decisions to make were how much of him to put above the horizon, which necessitated lowering the camera a bit and angling up, but I like to shoot down into a viewfinder anyway, so this is a fairly common position for me. And the other thing to figure out was the how and where to include the surrounding people. Just a little bob and weave to force the pieces into the corners to create some balance, and then the shutter release.
What I like is the multiple sight lines and not just from people — the phone and the building are observers in this scene, too. Our own eyes dart around to see what they all see and the more we look at what they are looking at, the more we see. And that, for me, is a successful image.
And then there is the sub-context of this being at the observatory; a place where we gaze up at the heavens and they gaze down on us. For me, this adds another dimension and makes it perhaps worthy of another look.
You can’t always plan for that kind of dynamic, but you can learn to feel when it’s happening. I didn’t start by thinking, this would be a great photograph, but by being drawn in to an interaction happening, having a bit of a mental reference library for imagistic iconography and being available to the moment.
The heart of the image is a lone man standing before a city — in fact, that’s what is being captured on the phone. The good fortune to have the people pull away from him a bit for the shot helped add another layer on top of that otherwise fairly pristine and easy image. And, for me at least, adds narrative to bring a little more to it.
Thank you for reading. More of my imagery and writing can be found here.
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