Free Rein Photography

Man hole cover, Auckland NZ ©2010 Michael Maurer Smith

Kate and I were on our way to to dinner at Cin Cin on Quay in Auckland when we stepped into the crossing at the end of Queen street and I seized the moment to photograph the man hole cover in our path.

Nine years later that photo still proffers aesthetic satisfaction and vivid memories of that time and place: what it felt like underfoot, the odor of the sea mixed with cooking smells from nearby restaurants, the beeps and rumbles of traffic, the squawking of the gulls, the waning gold light of the sun about to set and the slight chill of the evening breeze. 

London Transport, Auckland NZ © 2010 Michael Maurer Smith

My senses were heightened then, as is always so when one is thousands of miles from home and in an unfamiliar place. Everything was interesting: the tallest, oldest, grandest and most humble buildings; the street people; the monuments; the Emirates yacht tied up in Viaduct harbor; the London Transport emblem on the aged, red, double decker English bus parked alongside the curb. Everywhere there were photographs to be made, if I were open to them. Here the gut, heart and eye had to be given free-rein, and I had to know my camera so well that it was an extension of my thought. I was in the flow, photographing what compelled me and showed some essence of the place; photographing details which experience has taught me often result in more personal, revealing and meaningful pictures. This is when I most enjoy photographing and why I do it.

© 2019 Michael Maurer Smith  

A Bestsellers Day

Bestseller Books, Mason, Michigan

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.

© 2019 Michael Maurer Smith

The Enlightened Window

A little after 2:00 p.m., on 15 December 2005, in Santa Fe, New Mexico, I photographed the front window of Evangelo’s Cocktail Bar. It displayed a melange of images taped and painted on the pane, including: a partial events calendar, a cash only sign, an ice blue and yellow hand-painted welcome star or flower, a spindly yellow painting that appeared to be a Christmas decoration, and two Xeroxed copies of photographs originally taken by the renown photographer W. Eugene Smith, during the Second World War, of Angelo Klonis, the founder of the bar. Behind all this a table, or some other piece of furniture, leaned against the glass.

Evangelo’s Window, Santa Fe, NM

This was not a window dressed by a professional. It was not conventionally beautiful, pretty or appropriate to the season. But it was an intriguing assemblage that called out to be photographed. And for me it was a pleasing find—a Christmas gift.

I find windows fascinating aesthetically and for what they reveal about the people who made them and those who live and work behind them. Windows are historical, cultural, social, political and artistic statements both in their form and by whatever appears on and behind the glass.

City Lights Bookstore window, San Francisco, CA
“Storrer’s” (vacant storefront window), Owosso, MI
1947 Dodge Pickup, Davison, MI

The fundamental purpose of the window is to allow light in but some emit enlightenment. They are portals for vision and imagination. They can be promises, gifts or disappointments. They demarcate the here from there, the then from now. They show, tell and inspire.

© 2018 Michael Maurer Smith


Beyond the Image

Sentinel Building, San Francisco, CA © 2014 Michael Maurer Smith

It was a quintessential San Francisco morning, moist and grey. The perfect light in which to photograph the Sentinel Building, also known as the Columbus Tower.

I sought a vantage point and soon discovered a position on Kearny Street from where I could align in the viewfinder part of the Transamerica Pyramid, which until 2017 had been the tallest skyscraper in San Francisco, with the Sentinel.

The result was a composition bringing the new and old together. And there was a bonus—a chunk of yellow in the lower left— the top of a billboard, with the only words visible reading, “parking sucks.”

All this made for a satisfying picture, but it told little of the Sentinel Building’s story. A photograph can arrest our attention and assert beauty. It can hint and arouse our curiosity. It can encourage us to get, as the broadcaster Paul Harvey used to say, “…the rest of the story.” But the photograph alone cannot tell us why it was made or what was happening outside the frame when the shutter was released. It cannot tell the inner thoughts and feelings of the people pictured or those of the photographer. The photograph can only show what was before the lens.

But this very limitation makes photographs and photography valuable and fascinating. They capture moments that bridge time and serve as evidence and aids to memory.
Looking at photographs I have made, weeks, months or years before compels me to see them in a new context and in light of newly acquired knowledge and information. Looking at them anew I may recognize and question, biases, beliefs and values I once held—aesthetic, social, political and personal.

So, in brief, here is some of what my photograph of the Sentinel Building does not tell.

The construction of the building began in 1906, just before the great San Francisco earthquake and fire. Only its steel frame survived the flames. But, in 1907 construction was resumed, the building was completed and the notorious Abe Ruef—political boss, lawyer and crook—saw his dream realized. In subsequent years the building was owned by the Kingston Trio and it was also the original location of the fabled “Hungry i,” nightclub. Today it is owned by Francis Ford Coppola and houses his Zoetrope Studios Headquarters and the Zoetrope Cafe.