If You Wanna Take a Picture, You Need to Talk to Tito, 2003
I’m hoping to participate in a photography workshop this summer taught by a famous photographer. Before you can enroll, though, you have to submit a portfolio. I suppose this allows the school to make sure I wouldn’t be wasting the famous photographer’s time. (They say it’s to merely demonstrate that I “know my way around a camera.”)
From time to time I’ve put together collections of my photography. But they’ve almost always been done with specific interests or themes in mind. This time they’re asking simply for samples of my “best work.”
I understand the instruction. But I’m honestly stumped as to what to show them. It’s funny how critical you become of your own work when you know it’s going to be judged by people whose taste you don’t know much about, but who you know are used to seeing really good work every day. All of a sudden, nothing looks very good.
My first thought was to put together a selection of photographs of people. But that’s the very kind of work I’m trying to improve in this workshop. Besides, the review committee’s advisor representative recommended that I not do that. So instead I’ve come up with a formula I hope will work: 1/3 “sense of place” photos, 1/3 people photos and 1/3 concept photos, with a healthy mix of color and b&w in each group.
Try culling years of photographs down to your best fifteen. It’s much harder than it sounds. But I’m doing it because I have to, even if it means tossing out lots of photographs that I thought were especially smart and engaging in their original series context, but that don’t stand up on their own when taken out of context.
Balancing some of the pain of this process has been the joy of going back through my photographs. It’s like revisiting old friends, and because photographs are rarely just about the visual record of the moment to me, revisiting them recalls all the other sensory memories, as well.
Like this photo, above. My wife and daughter and I had just stepped out of a New York theater matinee and were immediately engulfed by a crowd of Puerto Rico Day celebrants. It was a hot and humid summer afternoon that smelled of a mixture of overcooked street food and the ozone from an approaching thunderstorm. There was wonderful music everywhere. I’d have normally stayed on the sidelines and photographed from afar. But instead I stepped out into the street and mingled with members of the parade. I wasn’t exactly dancing with them. But I was ducking and weaving, trying to get close and bring some of their rhythm into my photographs.
You wouldn’t know that from this photograph. At the time, it represented something of an advance in my photography of people. Looking back now, though, I realize just how static it looks. The parade had briefly come to a halt. The big guy’s dour gaze was telling me I should get the f--- out of the way. But instead I stepped up closer and captured the moment rather than hesitating. In the end, his frown is a great contrast to the guys standing behind him. They want to play. But he’s all about standing his ground.