Gumpy Old Men

Gumpy Old Men

f/1.6, 1/1000 sec, at 85mm, 100 ISO, on a Canon EOS 5D Mark II

I have been stewing on this for over a week and I just don’t get why this bothers me. Rick Sammon said in a recent Kelby training video that one of his favorite photography tips is, “The camera looks both ways. So if the photographer projects a positive image or feeling to the subject he will be happier with the image he gets.” For some reason this hits me the wrong way. Odd, because, I think he is right and maybe that is the issue. As much as we want to be a proverbial “fly on the wall” and just hover about, it isn’t going to happen. Have you looked at your self in the mirror after you are suited up and ready to shoot? I know, I look more like a commando than a photographer. There is no way I go unnoticed anywhere.

Yet, I think the thing that bugged me is that when I read the tip my first response was, “Why would I want to take a picture of someone smiling at me?” The truth is, I do this very thing with children all the time. But, with adults I try, not always successfully, to keep it low key. I often want to shoot them without engaging then, at least at first. After I photograph them I almost always interact with them on some level. Either by showing them the images in the view screen on the back of the camera or by printing them a copy of the image on my Zink Pogo. Often when I approach a subject, I really hope I can go unnoticed. I have even tried the Jedi Mind Trick, “Ignore the camera you will!” Never works. The best you can hope for is that they think you are an idiot and just blow you off and go back to their chess game or sewing or what every they are doing. But I gotta tell you that is rare for me. 99% of the time they stop, look up at me and freeze, like “a deer in the head lights.” I still think I would rather have that, than a huge posed grin or worse yet, the awful “peace sign” the obligatory Asian wave. Gosh I hate that thing. I have more pictures with some kid or adult sticking their fingers between my camera and their face.

"V" for take my picture!

With all this said, why would I want to “project a positive image or feeling” if my subject is sad or in a lousy mood? I think that was what I wanted to take a photograph of in the first place. Somehow old grumpy above would not look the same with a big grin on his face. Maybe I am wrong, nit picking or just in a lousy mood myself.

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  1. Patrick Cavan Brown

    so true, the dreaded victory sign… no matter where you go it exists.

    My teacher and mentor, Paul Liebhardt, loves nothing more than to mock the “Commando Photographer”… decked out in a dreaded safari vest with a tripod, camera belt, pouches, bags, backpack, light meter, strobes, sweat band, combat boots, pants that unzip into shorts, and the list goes on…. sure, they are tools that can be used, but how much do they actually just get in the way? And what do you really need?

    Paul is absolutely the master of traveling light… and the master of interaction… the only photographer I know who doesn’t get rocks thrown at him in Peru. 2-3 bodies, 2-3 lenses (primes), and a pocket-full of kodachrome (that’s film, for those of you unfamiliar). A light meter? Nope… learn the science and learn to use your eyes. And yes, make friends with your subjects… they are much more likely to let you hang around for a while (days), and eventually they will just forget that you have a camera pressed to your face.

    Good stuff, Matt. Cheer up!

  2. Mitchell Kanashkevich

    Rick Sammon…seems like a really energetic, charismatic fellow, but his images have about as much depth as…well there is no depth to his images.
    I’ve seen some of his Youtube videos and I just don’t get his photography. Doesn’t seem like he’s discovering the world through his human subjects, that’s for sure. To him they are just show pieces, mannequins – move left move right, ok, I’ll make her laugh, great, that’s cute, tick, let’s move on.
    His thing would work well for a product shoot with a model, but out in the “real” world…are you kidding me?
    I feel kinda bad to say that his people images suck, because he does seem like such a nice, positive guy.
    Your best stuff, especially the Kashmir stuff is on an entirely different, higher level. So I wouldn’t be bothered by anything if I were you Matt:). Personally I think the commando outfit is funny, but if it works for you, if you feel comfortable and you produce the goods; who cares?
    Don’t even get me started about the smiles:). What is the obsession with getting people to smile? When you look at the work of great, respected photographers do you see people smiling in every image?

  3. Ian

    If you want to talk grumpy … i’m your man. I’m team Captain of the GB Olympic Grumpiness Team for the 2012 olympics. On a good day I can be miserable, on a bad one I can induce people to spontaneously combust at 20 paces. I don’t think being grumpy means you have to take a miserable photo though. On the contrary, in many ways it can mean the opposite. A healthy dose of cynicism and the casting off of trivial happiness (See Erich Fromm – Having & Being) can allow you to get right to the heart of what truly moves the soul. I don’t know anyone that doesn’t try to project some kind of image. When you can see past that and break down the barriers we all project, then grumpy or not, you’re doing good work.

  4. wilsonian

    One thing I’ve noticed with the Swazi kids I visit, is that no one has taught them to smile for a camera yet. I love that. I’ll take a few shots of them in a completely natural pose… then a few more after they’ve seen their faces on the back of the camera. Genuine smiles every time! I know it’s just a matter of time till I show up with a camera and am greeted with a cheesy grin. Sigh.

  5. kate

    I haven’t read the original piece you quoted from, but I read the quote a bit differently. I didn’t read it as instruction to smile at your subject, so much as to respect them. I definitely think you get better pictures if your subject knows you respect them and think well of them? That said, I also really like the tension that can happen between the subject and the photographer, like a staring contest or something.

  6. David duChemin

    I’m going to fearfully step into the fray here and echo Mitchell’s comments about depth. Not everyone wants to shoot with depth, and I suppose that’s fine. But I’d equate that depth with a level of excellence I don’t see in the work of some best-selling author/photographers. Absolutely nothing to do with how wonderful the person might be, if their work fails to connect on a deeper level then a spade’s a spade. Ya know what I’m sayin’.

    I really resonate with smiles and laughter and I like to see that in my subjects if that’s what they reveal to me, but it’s no more natural than a dead-pan stare, and often less honest. We in the west are addicted to the sacharine and the shallow.

    Now go have a pipe and dram of whiskey and start daydreaming about Ladakh. 🙂

  7. Matt Brandon

    Kate – I don’t read it with his word say “respect”, that just might be my issue. In fact I think that if you were to edit it to say, “The camera looks both ways. So if the photographer projects a positive image respectful attitude or feeling to the subject he will be happier with the image he gets.” I would love it. But that is not what I get from this quote. Let me state here, Rick Sammon’s has like a gazillion books and videos and clearly knows how to market himself. I would sign up for a class by him on marketing in a heart beat. Not that I would use everything he would teach, but he is obviously doing something right.

    Mitchell and Patrick – Actually the whole commando thing does bothered me. It is just that the belt and harness system really works for my back. I have three slipped disks and as you know travel can be tough on anyone. So the harness really helps. But the last few times I have shot I have gone a lot lighter with the TT Change Up and one strap cross-ways. It is a lot less intimidating and looks a lot less military. Patrick, how is shooting 3 bodies shooting light? 😉 My normal kit I take out in a day is 1 body, and 3 lenses ; 85 1.5, 24-70 2.8, and my 17-40 4 and sometimes I’ll drag out the canon the 70-200 2.8. Once I bring out the 200 I consider myself no longer going light. But even with out the 200 things are pretty darn heavy!

    Ian – You, grumpy?

    Willsonian – Give those kids time. They’ll have those victory signs up there in no time!

  8. Matt Brandon

    David – You posted while I was writing my post. Just writing to say, your pipe is in the mail…really.

  9. David duChemin

    Next stop – corduroy jacket, suede elbow patches, and lots and lots of prentious big words.

  10. fiddlergene

    My object is not so much to project a ‘happy’ karma to get the subject to respond back in kind to me, but more to project a ‘trust me with whatever your feeling’ karma so I dan get the mood of the whole thing that attracted me in the first place.

  11. Jeffrey Chapman

    Yeah, I’ve got a vast collection of victory-sign photos. They’re impossible to avoid in most of Asia.

    Matt, I like your rewritten version of the quote much better. It’s not about being positive. It’s about being respectful. Hell, I don’t always have positive in me. If it’s cold and rainy and I’m positive, then somebody spiked my tea with something illicit. Even when I can’t be positive I’m still going to be respectful.

  12. Dana~from chaos to Grace

    As one still new to photography, I can honestly say, my preferences runs to the REAL life. Not the made up smiles or the perfect hair and skin. I’ve never shot anywhere else but here, but get my FIRST chance in Mexico in July and am so excited.

    I like your photos for what other people have said: their depth. Whether they are smiling or not, you can read their expression on their faces, and that’s real life.

    I don’t want MY attitude, positive or not, to be transferred to them. I want THEIR attitude, character, feelings, etc. Otherwise, I’d take a picture of myself, and what’s the fun in that?

    I love your work. Totally in love with your photos. Cheesy motivational quotes or not.

  13. Andy Wilson

    Hi Matt,

    Been lurking for a long long time but I’ve just got to come in and say I’m with you all the way on this peace sign thing. Something has just got to be done to stop the rot. It’s some kind of plot, I tell ya. Here in Taiwan even the wildlife is in on it:

    Maybe David can write a sequel on how to avoid it

  14. Matt

    Oh my gosh, Andy that is priceless! Well done. I just about fell out of my chair! Welcome to The Digital Trekker. I hope you come back and do more than lurk.


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