The highly influential documentary photographer Diane Arbus once said something to this effect: ”The more personal you make it, the more universal it becomes.” Personally, I have always been less interested in celebrity and more drawn to capturing the human condition, real people living real lives—the heart of documentary photography. Like music, photography is a universal language we can all understand.
There’s a long history in photography of photographers getting personal by documenting their own family, using their talents to create a family album they share with the world. Iconic family photographs like Eugene Smith’s “A Walk to Paradise Garden,” which was the final piece in Edward Steichen’s famous Family of Man exhibit, was an image of his own children. Of course love, passion, and talent can shine through when capturing your own life and family.
Making a statement with his beautiful personal album project, The World from My Front Porch, the poetic and passionate Larry Towel combines his photography with poetry and prose, artifacts found, archive images and prints from his own family album made over 20 years. He goes on to include tear-sheets and reportage of the dispossessed, people he has photographed far from his front porch but who are close to his heart.
Much of Sally Mann’s work focuses on her home environment and her children growing up. Back in 1992, the Houk Friedman Gallery in New York took orders for more than 300 prints, well over a half million dollars generated by the haunting and evocative images of her own children and home environment.
The mantra “photograph what you know” is illustrated in Bill Owens examination of Suburbia, the title of his project documenting both his and a wave of Americans’ migration away from the city that began in earnest in the sixties. When choosing a story or theme, it helps to have a solid point of view and that the subject matter has visual potential. Some stories don’t seem visual on the surface, but once inside, great pictures can be made.
Owens aimed his medium format camera and Tri-X 220 film at friends and neighbors in the community where he lived and worked as a news photographer, Livermore, California. What resulted is a seminal work where individual images tied together and created a snapshot of life in the new suburban North America.
Owens’ project was a very deliberate one. He would shoot for it every Saturday for a year, creating shot lists and scripts for events and holidays he wanted to include like Christmas, Thanksgiving, Tupperware parties, and birthdays, using his many community contacts made from his news photographer job. He would also advertise to find willing and relevant subjects through classified ads, an idea updated by many photographers who use free online ad services like Craigslist to do the same.
Bill Owens met the challenge of finding the extraordinary in the ordinary. It’s all in your perspective. It’s tough to come up with creative, evocative, interesting images from subject matter that isn’t exciting but if you can meet this challenge, then when you get inherently strong content, you’ll do even better work.
In determining what or who to photograph, I’m constantly looking for good visuals as well as subjects who are more outgoing; expressive people often make better subjects than those who keep it all inside. More to come…