Nature gives us earth, wind, and fire. The urban outdoors responds with concrete, glass, and steel, its own basic elements of which every city is composed. Yet, when photographing a city we must first make the choice of whether our subject is the people or the architecture.
I am reminded of the time a friend returned from a trip to Paris and arrived back home with boxes of slides under his arm. I realize younger readers may not have ever experienced the mixture of joy and boredom that comes with watching someone else’s vacation pictures projected onto a white sheet in the living room, but this particular experience was especially disappointing at first. I was expecting grand, sweeping images of Parisian landmarks, and upon seeing sleeves marked “Arch de Triomphe” and “Notre Dame” was prepared to be thrilled. Yet, not one such shot existed. No flying buttresses. No stained glass. No arch.
“So, where are the landmarks,” I asked. “I only saw a hint of the Seine and nothing at all of the cathedrals.” I’m sure my disappointment was evident in the tone of my voice.
“I didn’t go to take pictures of tourist attractions,” he responded. “I wanted pictures of Paris, so I took pictures of people who were to be standing around tourist attractions.”
Looking back through the slides, there they were: the painter along the Seine; the street vendor in front of the arch; the woman asking for alms in the shadow of the great cathedral. He had captured the very essence of Paris without a single landscape shot, no hint of Eiffel’s tower, or even the Louvre’s pyramid.
Yet, if one really wants to capture what makes a city tick, one needs to photograph its people, the ones who live and work in and around those gigantic landmarks; the ones who put life and breath into the concrete, glass, and steel. These pictures require getting close, choosing a more intimate perspective, and perhaps exposing the city in a way that isn’t necessarily glamorous, or what might appear on a tourism brochure. Find the people who haven’t given in to the fashion hegemony of the malls and capture them in their natural element.
Each summer I have to stop myself from interfering with tourist trying to fit a large landmark into the same frame as Aunt Sue. Inevitably, one must choose: is it a picture of the architecture, or Aunt Sue’s quirky grin? Neither is wrong, both capture a piece of the city, but they are different pieces. Know which is your focus before you start.