It’s dawn and we’re heading north. To the east, a pink orange light is just peeking over the mountains. To the west, the fat full moon still hangs low in the sky. The slough is covered with a low mist that hangs at what appears to be, as we fly by on the freeway, about waist height. The air is completely clear, the details are sharp, and the entire landscape looks like a Japanese painting in soft greens and yellows and dark, dark gray. We both lean slightly east and pine for the landscape, but it’s not to be—we have a destination in mind and we cannot stop. There is no time.
We are off to the Vancouver for the day, to shoot the last of the photos for the project I’ve been working on. My companion is my pal K, himself a fine photographer. He’s consented to handle the navigation, to donate the use of his fine eye, and to help maintain the momentum. K. reads to me from the instructions I have—don’t overdo the cafe scenes, don’t show people eating, avoid photographing food unless you’re really good at it, and a bunch of other rules that make us feel like the task at hand is almost impossible. The pictures should not be touristy or prosaic; they should not be cliché. They can have people in them, but not too many people, and they should be local people. They should not be posed. The rules go on and on. The goal is, I conclude, to capture the sense of place while it dances without knowing you are looking at it. That’s all.
“Boring,” K says repeatedly as we wander around the specific sites I’ve targeted for photos. We’re walking through busy shopping areas, through restaurant districts, through yet another scenic harbor that could be anywhere. We are frustrated by the inanity of what we look at and, surprisingly, by globalization. What indicator of place is another Gap, another Payless Shoe Source, another Jamba Juice bar, another Starbucks? The only way we know we’re not back home is prevalence of aggressively hip Japanese kids.
He’s right. It’s boring. It’s not the sights that are boring; it’s the photos. We both favor the macro, K in the extreme, me in an attention to details way, and we both favor the modern, a sense of contrived composition—forgive our artistic tendencies. But that’s not what we’re after. We’re after the broad non-specifics, the zeitgeist, the thing I like to think I know how to capture in words, but am failing to do in pictures. We are surprisingly crabby about this supposedly glam assignment; we are not enjoying it. Wait, strike that—we are enjoying ourselves tremendously. What we are not enjoying is the photography.
We talk a lot about how hard this is to accomplish. We look through viewfinders at too many parked cars, or at badly lit interior spaces, or we just can’t seem to figure out how to capture what’s happening. Example: We are standing in front of the museum. To one side, a pretty girl in a gypsy skirt sets up her sound kit and tunes her guitar. Further up the sidewalk, dreadlocked street kids glare at us, surely thinking “fucking tourists” as we point our cameras their way.
But we’re not interested in them. We are both struck still by the girl walking by. She is dressed in a short, white frouncy skirt, black thigh high lace topped stockings, a white blouse, and shiny red, high-heeled shoes. She is striding past with great purpose underneath her ruffled parasol. My photos show a white blur, a sneering street kid, the right shoulder of a man in a suit, some blurry cars. They are useless.
Over lunch in a friendly Turkish cafe on Denman, we flip through old issues of Travel and Leisure. We point out the photos. “See, I can do this,” I say, pointing to a brightly colored fish shack, tightly cropped, “but there’s no way I know how to do this,” pointing to an interior shot in a lively bar. “I just don’t get how this happens!” We are having quite the educational experience.
There are a few things I’ve learned which may be obvious to you more experienced types, but were not to me until I was on the ground.
- Market districts are lovely in the morning, but they roll up the sidewalks early.
- Parks and playgrounds are afternoon destinations.
- If you are a woman shooting pictures on the beach, you are a little less likely to be mistaken for some kind of pervert, but your male sidekick may get the stink eye more than once.
- The midday sun is too high and the light too extreme; you will lose details in the shadows.
- That all purpose lens you went with for the day? You will find the one purpose that it does not serve.
- Also, you will need a lot of coffee.
I think often of how glam it would be to write and photograph travel full time. I know the facts about writing—I know the pay is low and the work is sometimes dreadfully tedious. For every perfect comped adventure I’ve had (and there are not many), I’ve made twenty-five phone calls to confirm the opening hours for a restaurant, museum, or souvenir shop. More sobering is the fact that for every dollar I’ve made, I’ve shelled out more than I want to count in uncovered expenses. I cannot help myself; I love to write about travel and hope to continue to do so, even if it’s at a loss. But until yesterday, I had no sense that the world of travel photography could be the same way.