In an earlier post, I suggested that good photographic technique and creativity were only part of what makes a good photo. Another key ingredient is access to interesting subject matter.
This can mean flying off to a distant corner of the globe to visit a remote Asian monastery. Or, often, it can be a subject much closer to home that the photographer has unique access to because of his or her job, family, or friendships. When you think about it, most people have access to something in their lives that other people don’t see, and this can make a good photographic subject. It can be something as seemingly mundane as an inside view of a factory or a farm or other place of work. Provided you’re allowed to take photos, it may be a chance to take something that most people don’t see, allowing you to present some unique images.
Many thousands of visitors to Ottawa visit Canada’s beautiful Parliament buildings every year, and many of them take pictures of the Centre Block and Peace Tower. It’s a beautiful view, and as long as their photographic technique is good, the picture will look good. Only a much smaller number will come away with unique-looking pictures as the result of creatively using a different point of view or technique to create an unusual photo. Very few, however, have access to much more at Parliament than the main public areas.
In my day-to-day work, I often see behind the scenes in Canada’s political process, and occasionally I’m allowed to take pictures.
I admire the photography of Ottawa photographer Jean-Marc Carisse, who I’ve met on several occasions. Carisse was photographer to such Canadian Prime Ministers as Pierre Trudeau and Jean Chrétien and he’s often photographed international leaders when they visited Ottawa or when Canadian leaders travelled. One of my favourite Carisse photos shows Chrétien and Bill Clinton playfully climbing a garden railing to give the media the slip. I know some of the regular news photographers were envious of Carisse’s access, which enabled him to get pictures that were not accessible to the media. Indeed, the title of Carisse’s coffee table book is Privileged Access with Trudeau, Turner and Chrétien. Carisse is a talented photographer, but his work owes much to that privileged access.
While I don’t have Carisse’s skills or the privileged access he once had, I’m occasionally called upon to take pictures of Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff at various events. Often these are public events where he’s delivering a speech at a poorly lit podium — hardly the kind of scene that lends itself to a Carisse-style photo.
Recently, on May 12, Mr. Ignatieff’s birthday, his wife and his staff organized a surprise birthday party for him at Stornoway, the official residence of the Leader of the Opposition. I was pleased to be asked to take photos at the party, and I had a lot of fun taking candid pictures of his staff socializing. When people are having fun, they are often more willing to be photographed, as long as they trust that you won’t embarrass them by using less-than-flattering pictures.
When the Leader arrived home with his wife, he was caught by surprise for the second year in a row. He was good natured about it, and spent a while socializing with staff and blowing out his birthday candles. But, this happened to be the night of the seventh and deciding hockey playoff game between the Montreal Canadiens and the Pittsburgh Penguins. And many of the guests were already watching the game on TV.
Mr. Ignatieff is well known as an intellectual, but it’s less known that he’s a rabid sports fan. Still wearing his suit, like his guests, he and his wife Zsuzsanna sat in front of the TV to cheer the Canadiens to their 5-2 victory. Bouncing my flash from the ceiling of the little room at the historic Stornoway house, I shot a few pictures of them engaged in the game. It was a chance to see a side of Mr. Ignatieff that the public doesn’t see.
One of those shots was used by Globe and Mail columnist Jane Taber in her blog. I have a long way to go before my photos can match those of someone like Carisse, but the experience was a lesson in the value of using uncommon access to get photos from an unusual point of view.
Every year at tulip time, I try to get out and photograph the tulips. In Ottawa, the two nicest seasons, spring and autumn, are also the shortest. The fall colours last a few weeks, but the spring tulips last mere days.
One view I especially like is looking across the Ottawa River towards the Parliament Buildings from a tulip bed just below the Museum of Civilization on the Gatineau (Hull), Quebec side of the river. There’s a plaque there honouring Malak Karsh, the late photographer who produced spectacular colour images of Ottawa.
One evening after work I headed down there, impressed by the changing light as storm clouds moved in, but sun and blue sky kept emerging from behind them. I set up my tripod and tried a number of shots, often using a neutral density graduated filter, which darkens the exposure of the sky at the top to balance the light better with the ground below. This is especially useful when, as that evening, the tulips in the foreground were in shade, but Parliament Hill is in sun. I also have a few coloured graduated filters, and I sometimes use a mauve one to give a slight fantasy look to the sky.
I took a few multiple exposures for HDR (high dynamic range), another technique used to overcome a wide range between light and dark in a scene. You take multiple identical shots at different exposures — typically I do five ranging from much too dark to much too light. These are then combined on a computer to create a scene where there are no dark silhouettes or white areas of blown-out light. I got a few images I liked.
I also got a number of shots that were more ho-hum. One of these I had taken at five different exposures with the intention of doing an HDR. Suddenly, looking at one of the exposures, I got an idea. What if I showed the Parliament Buildings darker, as a silhouette, but lightened the rest of the scene just a little bit? It was one of the shots with the mauve graduated filter, so the sky had just a little bit of a dreamy mauve cast. I decided to play with a single image rather than do an HDR. I made only small tweaks — no fancy processing — and then I layered on the Parliament buildings from one of the darker exposures so they appeared as a silhouette. This was the result.
To many foreign viewers of my photos, our Parliament buildings often suggests a castle, with their neo-gothic architecture. I imagined a sinister castle, perched on a hill, the home of frustrating bureaucrats. It reminded me of Franz Kafka’s novel The Castle, which I read many years ago. Its about a surveyor who is never able to get satisfactory answers from the bureaucrats in the castle, who bungle his case and cover up their mistakes. Sometimes the workings of our government seem very Kafkaesque.
In one of the Flickr photo groups, Critique 2, I suggested the Kafkaesque nature of the picture. One of the group members, a fan of Kafka, agreed as far as the castle went, though thought the garishly colourful tulips were out of place for Kafka.
“Maybe Kafka goes to Disneyland,” he suggested.
Despite some people finding it much too garish and suggesting I should desaturate the tulips to make them less colourful, the photo had a lot of positive reaction on Flickr in comments, and people selecting it as a favourite. It even made it onto Explore, Flickr’s showcase for the pictures it considers (according to a secret formula) to be the most interesting.
And yet, it’s one of the simpler shots. And despite the layering of the silhouette, it’s also one of the least processed of that day’s selections from the shoot. It’s hard to account for what people will like, but a simple image with interesting colours that evokes fantasy seems to be popular.
On the surface, there’s nothing very funny about roadkill. The fact that millions of animals die on North American highways every year is a sad testimony to how our automobile addiction has harmed nature.
According to studies, an estimated 41 million squirrels die every year on U.S. roads alone. I’m told that as a kid I once came home from school sobbing because I’d seen a squirrel run over. None of us have enough tears in our bodies for the 26 million cats and 15 million raccoons that die every year on American roads.
And yet roadkill has become part of our pop culture. Google “roadkill” and you’ll get more than 1.5 million hits. There are entire websites devoted to roadkill cuisine, supposedly a hillbilly delicacy.
A 1990 Canadian movie called Roadkill (about a band on the road in northern Ontario) is something of a cult classic. The term “roadkill on the information superhighway” has been used in numerous books, articles and websites to describe those left behind by rapidly changing computer technology.
Even my late mother, who was a very creative person, used to gather bits of fur, feathers, porcupine quills or skulls from roadkill to incorporate into masks and other artistic creations.
So what does all this have to do with photography? Evidently a lot. A search on the photography website Flickr for groups about roadkill comes up with 163 hits. Granted some of those come up because their descriptions explicitly say that they are for animal pictures excluding roadkill, but apparently there are lots of people out there who enjoy shooting dead animals (with a camera, not a gun) and calling it art. My favourite group title is Cute Girls and Roadkill, even though its 23 members don’t seem to have been too active lately. I am not making this up. If I posted a picture of a woman to this group, she might rightly wonder if I saw her as a cute girl or as roadkill.
All this is leadup to a crazy photo idea I had last fall for a shot titled Photographer Roadkill. The idea was inspired when I looked at the photos of one of my Flickr contacts, PMck / Perry, an Ottawa-area photographer whose work I have watched blossom over the past year. Perry has an obsession with a particular bridge west of Ottawa that he refers to as “that bridge.” It’s the bridge on the old Highway 17 across the Mississippi River (not to be mistaken for its U.S. namesake). Perry filled his photostream with dozens of shots of this bridge from all angles and all times of night and day.
I began to worry about Perry. Quite aside from the fact that it’s not normal to be obsessed with a bridge, I worried that he might get so absorbed in photographing the bridge that he might not notice an oncoming car, and might end up as — roadkill. And what if other photographers shared Perry’s obsession and they also ended up as roadkill on THAT bridge? And then what if some of those photographers who shoot for Flickr groups about roadkill came by and saw Perry and the other photographers strewn across the highway and decided to take some shots? You can see where this is going.
At the same time, I’d been looking at the photos of another Flickr contact from Pittsburgh, Dave DiCello, who had been doing some interesting stuff compositing multiple shots of himself into a single photo. I particularly liked one of five versions of himself sitting around playing cards and drinking beer. So I got the idea of trying the same technique with multiple shots of myself as a photographer roadkill on that bridge. I would send it to Perry as a warning of what can happen if you’re not careful taking pictures on highways with fast-moving vehicles. I was even going to use a stuffed dog to represent Perry’s adorable standard poodle Cooper, who accompanies him on shoots.
I set up my tripod on THAT bridge, used the timer, and grabbed a couple shots of myself lying on the road. Trouble is, every time I got into position, I would hear a distant car approaching on the highway. I worried that I might end up as real photographer roadkill. Besides, the lighting was very harsh. So I abandoned the project after a few shots, and this is the best I got.
I thought of going back in better light and taking a friend to spot for cars, but then I thought better of the whole idea. It was all very, very sick, and I was sure that if I sent it to Perry he would be horribly offended. Especially placing a stuffed poodle on the road could have caused him to be extremely upset. Not everyone shares my sick sense of humour.
So, I forgot about the idea over the winter, and life carried on.
And then, about a week ago, I was looking at Perry’s photostream on Flickr, and was astonished to see he’d done a photo of his dog Cooper lying on the centre of the same road by the same bridge. And he’d titled it — you guessed it — “Road Kill.”
It turns out then, that I’m not the only one with a wacky, sick sense of humour. And Perry, who I’ve never met, except on the internet, shares some of my wackiness.
And roadkill can be funny, and can have a lot to do with photographers.