Tag Archives: photography

Photos by Strangers

Did you take this picture? If so, thanks!

“Excuse me, would you mind taking a picture of us?”

You have probably been asked that sometime, or have said it yourself to a stranger.  If not, you may be spending too much time in your La-Z-Boy, because that exchange is common at tourist attractions all over the world.  It is followed by brief instructions:  “Just press this button.”  “This one, right?”  “That’s it.”  Then the couple or group strikes a pose in front of the waterfall or museum or whatever.  You snap the shutter, you hand the camera back, and you never see each other again.

It always leaves me wondering how they liked the picture I took of them once they had a chance to study it.  Did they love it so much that it’s now hanging over their mantel?  Or were they disappointed:  “It’s OK of the Grand Canyon, I suppose, but I spent three hundred dollars on these shoes, and that guy didn’t even get them in the picture!?”

I’d like to believe that a photo I once took of a couple in Key West is a keepsake, but who knows?  Maybe she didn’t think her hair looked good that day.  I’d also like to know if the tourists in London who spoke no English ever had second thoughts.  They had insisted on posing near Big Ben — with them facing in the opposite direction!  I could not get them to stand with that famous landmark in their picture.

Sally and I have handed our camera to strangers on quite a few occasions, with mixed results.  In Paris, a gentleman made it look as though we were at the Leaning Tower of Eiffel.  A young woman in San Francisco composed the shot in such a way that our bodies blocked the Golden Gate Bridge, which, I should have explained to her, was the reason for taking the picture.

On our way to a show one night in New York, a uniformed security guard in Times Square stopped us and said, “give me your camera, I’ll take a picture of you two.”  I try not to argue with armed men, so I not only handed over the camera, I didn’t protest when he demanded that I pose with my arms folded across my chest like I was the newly crowned heavyweight champion.  Then he instructed Sally to drape herself over my shoulder and “look hot”.  As you might imagine, the picture turned out… pretty well, actually.

Once in a while, a stranger proves to be so skilled — or so lucky — that you wind up with a wonderful preserved memory (which, when you think about it, is what a snapshot is).  Unfortunately, there’s no way to express your gratitude to the photographer, since you have no idea who they are.

Still, I wish I could say “great job” to the person who took our photo at sunset on the Piazzale Michelangelo in Florence, and to the guy who framed the shot perfectly at Versailles.  Then there was the man who took our picture at a Memorial Day event at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C.  His first attempt had cut off the top of the dome; Sally asked him to take another one, and he graciously did.  The second try was outstanding, so — thank you, whoever you are.  I hope you like the one I took of you.

Sorta Looks Like Art

Green Bike Lock, Amsterdam (photo by Sally Reeder)

Green Bike Lock, Amsterdam (photo by Sally Reeder)

For the past couple of weeks, I served as a volunteer host at a photography exhibit.  My main responsibility was to remind people to behave themselves while they enjoyed themselves, as in, “Excuse me, but would you mind asking your child not to lick the photos?”  We had thousands of visitors, so I heard a lot of comments from the public, ranging from “Aw, look at the doggie,” to “Impressive depth of field — he must have been shooting at something like f8, but with a relatively slow shutter speed.”  In other words, pictures were admired (or loathed) with varying degrees of sophistication, and tended to be based on either subject matter or technical skill.

Once in a while someone wanted to chat with me about a specific photo or about photography in general.  One gentleman asked a question that bears repeating here.  “Can you explain to me,” he asked, “the difference between a picture and a photograph?”  It took me a second, but I figured out what he was getting at:  where’s the line between a snapshot and a work of art?

I should acknowledge that several decades ago there was some debate about whether photography deserved to be considered an art form, but I think that case has been closed.  Some photographs are undoubtedly art, and some — ones taken at a bachelorette party, for example — are not.  So what’s the difference?

To qualify as art, it seems to me that some level of technical proficiency (or incredible luck) is necessary.  Some thought has to have gone into how the picture is composed, how it’s lit, and so on (see my blog post of 7/13/09, “Tips For Better Photographs”). 

Compelling subject matter helps, too, although something as mundane as a pile of firewood can make for a great photograph if shot with imagination and skill.  I’m willing to bet that an artist who uses a camera almost never says, “OK, everybody line up and say ‘cheese’.”  Hypothetically, you or I could stand next to an artist and take a photo of the same sunset, but he or she somehow sees it, and records it, in a way that elevates it above our Generic Sunset Shot.

But here’s the thing about art — any kind of art:  the form it takes, the method of presentation is only half of it; the other half is how it’s received.  That’s because art is a subjective experience.  In the recent exhibition, I saw photographs that were technically perfect — but left me cold.  They didn’t inspire me, they didn’t make me see the subject matter in a way I hadn’t seen it before.  The photographer had, in effect, asked me to look at something without really showing me anything.

There were other photographs, though, that — at least for me — met the standard of art.  They may have been slightly flawed from a technician’s perspective… but they were so achingly beautiful that they made your eyes fill.  Or made you want to lick them.  But please don’t.