A candid focus outside the city, by Didi S. Gilson
Q: Which of your photographs is your favorite?
A: The one I’m going to take tomorrow. — Imogen Cunningham
In Australia, the CBD (short for Central Business District) has the same recognizable, albeit sun-drenched appearance as many of the world’s cities do. There are shops and restaurants at street level, housed inside towering buildings. Bars and pubs, cinemas, theaters and all sorts of activity hubs like hairdressers and fast food eateries, pastry shops and ice cream parlors, with pedestrians walking to or from work, and their lunchtime breaks.
These sights are augmented by an orchestral cacophony: screeching tire stops and the go-go-GO of vehicular traffic. Add in all of those types of scenes where the everyday cast of usual and unusual characters that we’re accustomed to seeing (acting out their lives) when we think of classic street photography.
However, in the CBD of a less populated rural town or small coastal village (like the one where I’ve lived for the past fifteen years), you’ll find a more ‘down to earth’ locale. You’d easily discern a visual difference between the dailiness here, and that in those photos we would know immediately had occurred within the hustle of a bustling metropolis.
Of course, things happen on the outskirts, in suburban and country regions, similar instantaneous glances and actions. But the distinctive photographic potential can vary widely from those of city-dwellings, mostly due to the setting. Here’s a more relaxed attitude, also an absence of sizable buildings. On quieter streets, along with much less noise, there’s less car traffic, fewer pedestrians so less foot traffic…
That’s not to say that there’s less to see or to photograph. Still, it’s necessary to have an alternative mindset, another kind of keen eye than what many of us would be used to using.
The stores, houses and other roofs are lower to the ground — offering vast swathes of sky, gloriously accompanied by shifting clouds and the ray-gun sun. Instead of block columns of skyscrapers, we glimpse garages, sheds and boats, heaps of signs, utility lines, and when we’re lucky, kids riding bikes, skateboards or scooters, people walking their dogs, or putting out the weekly trash, then checking their front yard mailbox.
Sometimes when I leave the house, I have specific plans or errands to run. Often enough, I just meander, and I chuckle whenever I recall the typo: “wondering around” when the person really means: wandering. I apply that mix-up combo to reality though, as I do both wander and wonder around.
Although when there’s no one else out and about, and as a photographer who is used to observing people everywhere, it can seem eerily deserted, and so much harder to make worthwhile photographs. It helps if you’re determined to unlock the site to uncover disparate evidence left behind — hints that there are intriguing incidents, humans and assorted mysterious animals… lives being lived everywhere.
This is slooooooww-shooting, as the photographer feels more like a clue-seeking sleuth, or quite nearly working on an archaeological dig. I’m a total tree-nut, so whenever there’s intriguing foliage, I pause to contemplate.
When I go on walkabout in the Aussie neighborhoods, I’m noticing photogenic objects, geographic arrangements and a locus of points that simply catch my eye, usually before a person would even enter my peripheral vision. You have to know who you are, and what you like. Whether you prefer vistas or do you crave only closer details? Don’t be complacent, but focus, play and discover.
Outside of cities, as anywhere, it’s important to pay attention to light and shadow — both are obviously effected by times of day as well as by seasonal changes. Note how such atmospheric, weather-dominant naturalism ingrains photos with a dissimilar ‘air’ rarely found in the cement and steel canyons of city environs, except possibly in parks. It’s best to embrace this inherent attribute for the photos.
When I first moved here, I took this challenge as a personal dare — how to continue finding the means and methods of being true to my way of making clear-eyed photos, no matter where I am.
An ex-New Yorker, I don’t drive a car, so my Oz journey began in earnest by walking as I’ve always done, and occasionally by taking buses or rides with my new Aussie family and friends. Framing my experience via windows and the people and places both inside and outside from this vantage view meant I was always ready with a camera, and present in the unfolding moment. Watching, anticipating and learning about this Down Under world simultaneously. It’s the only kind of drive-by shooting I’d ever recommend.
Camera toting, I traveled to the local grocery stores and also shopping malls in neighboring towns. Sometimes to make a quick purchase or three, but other times ‘just because…’
I’m not a street photography purist. For me, what’s important are the resulting images, not any label or niche — whether my own or those of others. I don’t want to be repeating the same circumstantial pictures over and over, or have a ‘schtick’ that I heavily rely on.
I’ve never shied away from making a street portrait if I felt an impromptu grab-shot might not do justice to an individual, pair or group of strangers, within their surroundings. I rarely hide what I’m doing; so since it’s not sly, I’m willing to take a permission granted opportunity, for an engaging image.
Then, frequently I’ll wait, itchy finger on the shutter release — but patiently I inhale and stop myself right on the brink… I’m never sure exactly what I’m pausing for — whether it’s some gestural nuance, or Barthes’ lucid punctum — but I’ll know the split-second when I see it in the viewfinder.
At the top of this piece, I’d quoted Imogen Cunningham, because of the astute optimism of her statement. Forward-looking, open to the entire realm of possibilities one might encounter. I like to go out the door with that intuitive adventure in mind.
Guest author: Didi S. Gilson
Raised in New York City, and given her first camera at the age of eight, Didi has photographed throughout her life. Since relocating to New South Wales, Australia in March of 2001, she has been based from a small, coastal town.
In Oz, they call a lifestyle switch, moving from the city, a Sea Change or more recently a Tree Change — happily, Didi is now enjoying the best of those worlds (not to mention the flocks of wild birds).