NOTE: The following quote, about the late photographer Robert Frank’s experience of looking in America is taken from, The Art of Looking Sideways, written by the renown graphic designer Alan Fletcher. Those of you with much experience photographing in public will likely have had similar experiences. I know I have. Moreover, in recent years it seems to have gotten worse.
Robert Frank spent 1955 criss-crossing the United States, photographing cafeterias, flophouses, shoe shiners, public lavatories, the abraded faces of retirees, assembly lines in Detroit. In the south a sheriff asked him what his business was. ‘I’m looking,’ he replied. He was given an hour to get out of town and in Arkansas spent three days in gaol for the same offense—observation. ‘To look’ was un-American.
Alan Fletcher The Art of Looking Sideways, page 187
We often see people walking, riding, even driving, with their earbuds in and their heads down, staring into the glowing screen embedded in their palm while relying upon their peripheral vision to avoid the obstacles in their path. We see them thumb-tapping messages, checking and sending emails, setting appointments, swiping for dates, and ordering products as they go. But seldom do we see them look to the sky. If they did they might notice the intestines of our electronic age criss crossing and entangled above their heads and perhaps that might give them pause to think about the overhead costs. They might ask themselves why we humans so readily waste and scar the environment and accept the ugly in exchange for comfort, entertainment and convenience; why with all of our technological advances do we still rely upon poles and strung wires as we did in the earliest days of the telegraph? They might wonder, do I spend so much of my life engaged with glowing screens because it is too depressing to look at the reality that surrounds me?
It’s the one that got away; the one that didn’t seem worthwhile at the time; the one you didn’t think of taking then but years later you wish you had. Every photographer knows this regret.
I was raised by my great-grandmother—just the two of us living in the back apartment of a dilapidated late nineteenth century, two story house, that was said to have once been a commercial laundry. We lived frugally. We had too. Nothing went to waste.
But there was one luxury we indulged. Coffee. Grandma had to have her morning cup and so did I. I don’t remember when I had my first, but I’m certain I was still in the first or second grade. I loved the sound of percolating coffee and how it smelled as it was poured hot into my mug. It was at its most potent just before I diluted it with half and half and sweetened it with two teaspoons of sugar. Still it retained enough caffeine to jangle my nerves for the rest of the day.
Our morning coffee was taken at a white enameled steel table in our kitchen. We had no chairs for that table. Instead we sat on metal Farmer Peets 50 lb lard barrels. How grandma came to have them I don’t know. But they served a dual purpose—storage and seating. Each was filled with sundry items and the lid of her’s was covered with a thin pillow and mine was topped with two stacked Sears and Roebuck catalogs.
Neither of us was ever photographed enjoying our morning coffee. Grandma didn’t own a camera, and I didn’t get one until I was maybe twelve or thirteen years old. But even if we’d had a camera at the ready it would not have occurred to either of us to take such a picture. We’d have thought, no one wants a photo of an old lady or a young boy perched on a lard barrel drinking coffee at the kitchen table. And we’d have been wrong. How I wish I had that picture.
So my advice to every photographer is don’t be quick to dismiss the simple, humble, mundane, discarded, broken, and common. You may miss the picture and regret it.
The day was an LL Bean version of autumn—blue sky, the maple leaves turning yellow orange and crimson, the air crisp with a hint of the arctic temperatures on the way.
I love October. It is a time of gathering in, assessment, and readying. Each passing day offers less daylight and the chill makes you bundle up. It is the time for fires in the fireplace. A time for summing up.
I’d come to Mason this Sunday morning to get away from my familiar routine and enjoy the genuine character and simplicity of this small town. My plan was to walk about, take photos and then retreat to Bestsellers, the independent book store and coffee shop, that sits across from the Ingham county courthouse. There I’d think, write, eat pastry and drink coffee. I’d be alone but with other people. Bestsellers, is fit into a late 19th century storefront with angled free parking at the curb. It is a relaxed, cozy and welcoming place. The selection of books is an eclectic mix with a little something for everyone.
I support independent booksellers, so I’d given myself permission to buy a book. As I browsed I came across a slim volume by Joan Didion, titled South and West, From a Notebook. I sampled a couple of pages and was interested, but there were more books to consider so I set it back on the shelf and moved on. After looking at some other titles I went back to the Didion book for a second look. I still found it interesting, but did I really want to spend the money? Again I placed it back on the shelf. It was time to get something to eat.
I ordered a regular size pour-over coffee and a triple fudge muffin and then found my way to a table in a quiet corner. From here I overheard the after church conversations of a family seated nearby. I gazed out the windows and saw dads and moms walking toddlers and two boys tossing a football on the the square. Except for the two young women at a front table who were working on laptop computers, it could have been 1919 instead of 2019.
I took my writing notebook, pen and camera from my Manhattan bag, and began reviewing the photos I’d taken on my walk. After that I began writing some thoughts and plans. But I kept thinking about Didion’s book. I felt I needed it as much as I wanted it. I felt that I was receiving a message, perhaps from a divine source or from my subconscious. I knew that this would be a book of inspiration and a model; a teacher. There was no time to waste. I got up, leaving my camera, notebook, pen, jacket and hat, walked into the books area, retrieved South and West. I took it to the counter, and paid the clerk. It was the right decision.