Recently, I was asked to define what I think a good “people picture” is. This is infinitely harder to answer than it first sounds. My mouth opened to answer, but I quickly found myself at a loss to sum up what I thought into words. I had to pause and really think about this. I had to look at photos that I loved and consider what about them draws me to them and holds my attention — even long after I have seen them?
This is what I came up with.
I think a good people picture is emotive. It reaches beyond the boundaries of its frame and captures not only a moment, a person or people — but it exposes something hidden just below the surface — a small truth not always spoken and very subtly seen.
This is my very first people picture. It was taken in 2007 at the beginning of my photographic journey.
I worked in downtown Nashua, NH for a few years and had formed an evening rapport with this gentleman named Arthur. I could never figure out if Arthur was homeless or not — I never asked. By appearances, one would assume he was, but I had heard from locals that he had a subsidized room somewhere near downtown. Regardless of his living situation, I had noticed him for a few weeks when I first started working there and like most people, I would pass without speaking or even making eye contact with him.
One day, I was standing on the corner of the street waiting to cross when I saw him pushing his bicycle down the side walk. Granted, I saw him quite often — but this day I looked at him. I saw his fraying, well worn clothing and the lines etched deep on his face. I noticed the big wire basket on the front of the bike and the almost comical brass horn on the handle bars. I glanced around and noticed most everyone about pretended not to notice him — like he didn’t exist in that space, in that moment. What an awful feeling that must be. Everyone is a person. Everyone exists. Everyone deserves a smile and a hello. And to my shame, I was guilty of doing that exact thing previously. I decided at that moment to rectify it.
As I passed by him, I simply looked at him, said “Hello” and shared a smile.
After that, every evening without fail — rain or shine — Arthur would be sitting on the bench at the corner opposite of my office, waiting to say good evening and comment on the weather or to let me know he was selling Avon should I need any Skin So Soft. He would smile and wave to me from across the street when he saw me exit the building and press the cross walk button.
I remember working late one evening — it was dreary and raining — and I didn’t leave my office until well after 7:30pm. Now normally, I was out of the office and on my way home by 5:00pm, so I naturally assumed Arthur would not be there. But he was. Sitting on that bench, with his umbrella, waiting to say good evening and comment on the particular fat drops of rain around us. Every evening. Without fail. Just for that 2 minute interaction and then we went our separate ways. I admit, it was both flattering and a little frightening.
When I decided to purchase my first digital SLR in 2007 — a Canon Digital Rebel XT — I brought my new toy to the office for “show and tell”. I was so excited about finally splurging on something I had so longed to purchase but had yet to master. I had a very vague, general idea of what I was doing (technically speaking) from a high school photography class years before — things like shutter speed, ISO and aperture. Time has a way of fading knowledge and in all honestly — I probably didn’t have a strong grasp of it then. I never used the automatic “green box”. I shot everything on manual — fumbling as I figured things out.
These two things relate. I promise.
That evening, like every other, Arthur was sitting and waiting for me to say hello. Unlike previous interactions, I deviated from our normal script and showed him my new camera. We talked for a few moments about the camera and the reasons I had gotten it. Then, I asked if I might take his picture. He looked a little surprised but quickly recovered and said “Of course!”.
I stepped back and fumbled with my settings. I was so nervous because I didn’t want to seem intrusive. I quickly set the camera as best I could and shot a couple frames.
It’s slightly blurry. A technical misfire due to my inexperience and nervousness. I look at the EXIF info now and give myself mental palm slap to the head. ISO 400, 1/100 second, 7.2/f. My today (somewhat technical) mind says “Gheesh — you should have increased ISO or shot this at no more than 4.0/f and bumped that shutter up, silly girl”.
My artistic mind says “Well done.” It’s not perfect in a technical sense — I know — but it is a good “people picture” containing the undertones I strive for in every image I create and to this day, it still remains one of my favorite images that I have taken.
I love taking photos of most everything. I have a bend towards abandoned and dilapidated buildings. To me, they have personalities and stories to tell. I often imagine the moment of a building’s completion and that sense of pride someone felt before it’s ultimate neglect and decay.
Thinking about this has re-energized me to continue my photographic journey and to one day create that one photo that someone will see and carry with them. I’m not there yet and wonder if I ever will be. I wonder if any artist ever believes that they have attained their goal. But I believe that this subtle doubt about the ability to attain achievement is what I what pushes me to continue, to grow, to create and to see the world at a slightly askew angle.