Posted by: Bill Tracy | February 15, 2016

Camera Clicks — A Celebration of Hope

“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –
-Emily Dickinson

 

“I’m still in love with the sound of the shutter, after all these years.” For pro photographer Joe McNally that’s nearly 40 years he’s been picking up a camera every day and listening for the siren song of that camera shutter. It stopped me cold when I heard him say that. Did I think I was the only one in love with that sound? To a non-photographer, it’s probably hard to understand. It may mean nothing. To most photographers however, the sound of that shutter is everything. Yep, everything!

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Like Father Like Son © W.E Tracy

I believe the sound of a shutter means something a little different to each photographer, but it’s the most significant part of the process to many of us, the penultimate act of creating an image. McNally went on to talk about the shutter sound being a decisive moment for him — not exactly the Cartier-Bresson meaning, but the moment when all the decisions that go into the making of an image are final. He went on to say, “…maybe that’s part of the reason I like the sound of the shutter so much, there’s finality there!”

For me, the sound of that shutter has always meant anticipation, an almost breathless, fully pregnant and unknowing pause as the heart races and life stands still. Even today, I recall as a 12-year-old the excitement of pressing the shutter button, knowing the scene before me was going to be captured exactly as I saw it — and the waiting (days, even weeks or months) for that film to be developed and prints delivered — and devoured by anxious eyes. The pictures were never as good as what I imagined, what I anticipated they would be — so nearly 60 years later I’m still trying to get it right. That anticipation has not diminished, and I never stop hoping that next picture will be the one, the one that gets it all right! I still feel it as deeply as I did almost 60 years ago every time I push the button and hear the sound of the shutter. And I’m not alone. I know I’m not alone because I’ve asked.

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Avocado Joy © W. E. Tracy

I’ve told a lot of photographers what Joe McNally said, and they got it immediately. So I began asking them why. Except for the most mercenary of professional photographers, I think we all have some ideal, artistic or otherwise, we’re trying for when we press the shutter button, so I began looking for answers. Why do you press that shutter button? Why do you need to keep hearing the sound of that shutter? Many of those I asked have been at it most of their lives. Some are professionals, others enthusiasts. Each of them said something revealing about themselves and their connection to this world we all share. And they all had one thing in common.

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Choices We Make © W.E. Tracy

The most succinct answer I got came from a photographer near London. His three words really summed up the whole thing: “I’m eternally optimistic.” That was his whole answer. When I looked at all the other answers I got, optimism is at the core of every one. So optimism is the language we hear when pushing that shutter button every day. Every photographer had his own version of that optimism and hope.

Perhaps the most eloquent, even lush declaration of hope came from Joel Meyerowitz. He’s an art photographer whose practice in the public space goes back to the nineteen-sixties. Now in his seventies, he’s still listening every day for the reassuring sound of that shutter. In a presentation he made several years ago, he gave this account of himself and his optimism:

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Private Moment in a Public House © W.E. Tracy

“After 50 years of work…every day I wake up and go out into a city street or the countryside or a small town, I feel as if a hunger still burns inside of me, something that says, ‘Keep looking. Look at that face, look at the gesture someone makes, look at the way the light rolls across the land.’ It seems that all day long I say, look at this, look at that. The world has a stimulating effect on me, and I think in some small way, I honor that by raising the camera and pressing the button — and taking in yet another thing I see that is moving or rich with mystery or makes me feel love for something. Two hundred fiftieth of a second — and a photograph comes into being. Without a camera, it doesn’t exist.”

Joe McNally, in the video presentation I watched, has a self-deprecating, aw shucks speaking style mixed with humor, true tales of assignment photography work and the glowing embers of a lifelong passion for creating images that truly command (See his work for National Geographic, Sports Illustrated, etc.). He’s a volcano of optimism. “I love the fact that we make decisions as photographers,” he says. “Win, lose or draw, right or wrong, the decision belongs to you. I got my name on the door and my eye on the lens and that moment of decision is mine. When I click that shutter, and that’s maybe part of the reason I like the sound of the shutter so much, there’s finality there! If I’m one second late or five seconds early, that’s on me. And I live with that, and this is a beautiful, wonderful thing because there’s not a lot of clarity in this world. There’s a lot of smoke and mirrors out there, but the thing is, photographers, part of our mission is to cut through all that stuff and be incisive, decisive. At a certain point in time, you take a slice of that time continuum, and you make it permanent. When you go out in the morning, and you have cameras in your hand, there is nothing there — everything’s in anticipation,” he said. “But by the end of the day, after you’ve made some pictures, you’ve actually created something. How many people can say that at the end of a workday?”

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Distant Shore Distant Vision © W.E. Tracy

Adam Marelli is an artist trained in both sculpture and photography. His response is cryptically profound yet no less optimistic. “I photograph things I don’t understand,” he said. “That’s been my interest since I picked up a camera.” He is sure the camera will provide some answer to the mysteries of our world. At more length, he said, “Considering that I probably understand less now than I did when I picked up a camera, I see no end in sight. I understand why you could be a photographer for your entire life if the reason for picking it up is to come to some better understanding of the world around you. It is endlessly fascinating as an interaction with the world, it’s sort of like another sense, like five senses, six, I don’t know it would be a seventh or something because it’s not exactly a truth, it’s not an absolute, it’s just another feeler that goes out in the world. For me, I tend to be most captivated by things that I don’t really get, and they catch my attention for a number of different reasons, but if I don’t understand it, and I’d like to understand it better, there’s usually a camera close by. It also tends to define when I stop with projects because I’ve come to a full enough understanding or maybe just a full enough understanding in terms of what the medium offers me.”

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Life & Death in Camden © W.E. Tracy

Henri Cartier-Bresson was also an artist, perhaps the founding father of the modern public photography movement. He was all about capturing what he called a “decisive moment,” that split second that defines something in a scene. It could be the instant a person moved into a perfect place in the frame to define pure visual composition. It could be the fleeting expression on a face that tells a story complete. An image one second before or one second after doesn’t capture it. He movingly said, “Life is once…forever.” To press the shutter, he says is to “concretize a situation.” The old cliche about “capturing a moment in time” rang so very true for him, and he used optimism to slay the cliche.

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First Light © W.E. Tracy

Garry Winogrand was a contemporary of Joel Meyerowitz, although I don’t think he had quite the same artistic bent. He famously quipped that he took pictures “…to see what the world looks like in photographs.” He was obsessive about the sound of the shutter; when he died in 1984 he left 2500 rolls of film undeveloped. He seemed optimistically obsessed with pushing that shutter button to freeze the world around him so he could study it in detail at a later time. Sadly, he died in his prime, age 56, and never got to spend much time with the scenes of this world he had so diligently recorded.

Ibarionex Perello hosts The Candid Frame project (Web sites, podcast, books, etc.). He is one of the more thoughtful photographers I know working in the public sphere, what is commonly known as “street photography.” His explanation probably captures his realm more concretely than anything I’ve ever seen, and it brims over with an optimistic determination.

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New Father (In a world where politicians poison children without being held accountable, an image reminds how precious life is.) © W.E. Tracy

“Within the context of the frame, the world makes sense to me. When I am photographing I can take disparate elements that normally have no connection, no relationship and reveal in 1/250 second how they actually are connected. Such moments are very elusive, held together by a thread, but the joy for me comes when I am able to anticipate such juxtapositions and act quickly and deftly enough to capture them in a frame. That’s what keeps me going out there and why I likely will never be satisfied with the image I’ve made before. There will always be another one out there, possibly better, waiting for me. The question is whether I’ll be up for it. That’s where the challenge is. That’s where the joy is.”

To me, he’s not only saying what most of us say when we make a picture, “Hey, look what I saw.” He’s also saying, “Hey, here’s what I saw — and you can see what this actually means in the world. Look at how these pieces fit.” Perello has been doing such photography for a long time, and he’s obviously been thinking about why every waking moment.

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Rock & Roll Dreams © W.E. Tracy

Tim Grey is one of the better photography educators around these days. More than anyone I know he understands how computer programs mesh with digital art. Given his technical orientation, his response to the question was more emotional than I had expected, yet characteristically optimistic:

“I push the shutter button because something has resonated with me and I want to preserve the feeling that was stirred up in me. There are perhaps countless different motivations. Sometimes I photograph someone who I cherish in my life because I love the feeling of cherishing that person. Sometimes the play of light and shadow in a scene creates a childlike wonder inside of me, and I get so excited about the experience of witnessing the scene before me that I desperately want to try to preserve that experience forever. Sometimes something just looks cool and I find myself documenting that “something” in a photograph without really even thinking about it. For me photography is a way of preserving memories. Those memories take many forms and I have many different motivations for wanting to preserve them. But whenever I push the shutter button I am attempting to essentially freeze time, and to ensure that I can in some way re-live the experience by reviewing my photos later.”

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Nature Recycles © W.E. Tracy

Among enthusiasts who responded to the question, optimism is at the bottom line. One talked about it being a powerful support through a very difficult time:

“A few years back I ended up homeless and sleeping on my mother’s floor. I don’t care to go into details, it’s something that has happened to quite a few people in recent years. I was fortunate to have somewhere to go. I was stuck in a strange town with only the occasional bus ride down to see my partner and friends and things that were familiar. I turned to walking everywhere with my first digital camera, a Samsung S630 I had received a few years earlier. It became my sanity saver. A reason to enjoy the endless walking everywhere to get basic necessities instead of hating it. Things are a lot better now. My partner and I are back in our own home, but life is still a struggle. I press the shutter to capture a moment of beauty or joy and sometimes of pain to remind myself why I keep going.”

One enthusiast said, “Because it’s not polite to stare.” Many of us have a strong desire to really look at other people, yet our socialization prevents that. He also had a few other nuggets:

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Crazy Chester (Without an image, he would be a forgotten encounter in a train station.) © W.E. Tracy

“Because it helps me remember to notice things. And it helps me store the whole of a visual experience for a later time, when, at the time of shooting, my awareness is intrinsically contracted, senses overloaded.

“Because I would like to share and pass something of my experience along to others, now and later. And I would like to save an approximation of experiences I’ve had *with* others…. with them in particular. So we can see ourselves.”

One person took the question literally, the visceral shutter! The quote, “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar” is usually attributed to Sigmund Freud. For this photographer the shutter really is the sound of the shutter. “Because I like the sound it makes,” he said. “Sometimes I sit at my desk and just shoot photos of my lamp, only to immediately delete them.” I guess I can relate to that. I know there are cameras that have a shutter sound that in itself seduces me. The Canon EOS-1V HS was like that.

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Different Dreams © W.E. Tracy

Mental health is a recurring theme, invoking optimism to keep trouble at bay. One photographer said: “For sanity. Walking the streets and taking photographs is a kind of meditation for me. The pictures I take tell just as much about me as they tell about what was around me at the time of the photograph. I’ve known times of personal hardship when I had to concentrate so much on my personal life that I found it difficult to extend my view to the things around me. But then, as I managed to pick up my camera again and walk the streets of my home city with photography in mind, I could rediscover the serene state of ‘being out there’ that lets me ingest the things that happen around me while there is silence inside my mind. These moments are precious, and they offer as much introspection to me and they give me the opportunity to show others the things that I see.”

From another: “It gets me out, active, exploring and experiencing things that I wouldn’t normally see without the effort. It focuses my mind, and the chaos that’s there drops away and settles down. It all seems miraculous even after all these years of photographing that I can capture time by pressing the button.”

“When I’m out walking around Brooklyn (or anywhere else) with my camera, I lose track of time, ignore the nasty parts of the city, and focus on finding the beauty — which is sometimes hidden in the nastyness! It’s very ‘cleansing.’”

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Down to the Sea © W.E. Tracy

One photographer optimistically believes his images will provide a sort of immortality: “To leave a visual history for my boys of the life that I have, so that one day they might look through all the photos and see what I have seen and done and places I have been.” Maybe this is why when people are fleeing a burning home they are usually carrying photographs rather than jewelry or other material “valuables.” The images we create often have more spiritual meaning than we credit them for.

A lifetime of optimism is related by one photographer who describes it all as “fantastic.” He said: “From an early age when I got my first camera it is because I wanted to capture the moment, my feelings and those of the people around me in that moment, to document the beauty of life and the world. Especially now when I set myself projects it is also to capture the moment of when I get the image that I have planned or envisioned. This may represent many days or weeks of planning so the instant is fantastic.”

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Daddy Arrested (Children watch their father viciously arrested by police at a peace demonstration.) © W.E. Tracy

Lastly, Ted Vieira is a pro photographer in Las Vegas. He is also a professional jazz musician, so he has an entertainment orientation, and he says a creative drive keeps him pressing that shutter button. “Some of the photography that really first made an impression on me and made me want to be a photographer was the black and white, high contrast photography and iconic shots of jazz artists back in the 1930s, ’40s and ‘50s – Bird, Dizzy, Ellington, Miles, Ella, Joe Pass, Dexter Gordon, Billie Holiday. Photos that captured emotion, story and passion would really draw me in. I like images that capture a feel. To me, feeling and emotional content will always trump any technical aspect of an image.

“I’m a creator,” Vieira says. “I’m compelled to create, and I want to always be creating images that do capture that feel in some way. When I do, it’s one of the most rewarding experiences for me. That’s what drives me to continue. I see no reason to ever stop trying to create those images.”

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There But for the Grace… © W.E.Tracy

Every single photographer I talked with understood exactly why Joe NcNally still loves the sound of that shutter. They know it means something hopeful, something “eternally optimistic.” One button pusher is optimistic because he believes in the decisions he made when he pressed the shutter. Optimism for some others is in celebrating the emotion of uplift — crashing waves, a beloved child, a colorful balloon suspended above the earth on nothing more than air at a different temperature. Some, like me, love stopping the relentless onrush of time, even if only for that split second — and smiling at our achievement, even savoring it. And for others, it’s a path to regain sanity, even an equilibrium in life. For all of us, it’s a way to affirm life and the worth of our experiences, to tell that amazing story of humanity. Collectively, we’re creating around two billion pictures each day now (uploaded to the Internet) so it looks like the language of hope is speaking out loud and clear in this world. A lot of us clearly are “eternally optimistic.” I think that’s a good thing, a hopeful thing. Let’s keep at  it. I know I’ll keep listening for the sound of that shutter.

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One of the first pictures I ever took. My total photographic schooling was, “Keep the sun behind you.” I stopped listening to most advice after this! © W.E. Tracy

 

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Responses

  1. Another great read punctuated with wonderful photography. This article really made me stop and think about why I am so obsessed with that click. I have been for years. And it comes down to my love affair with life and all it has to offer. The beautiful, the good,the bad, and as they say, the ugly all intrigue me. As I once read, by a favorite priest author, “Everything Belongs”. Thanks for all you do to keep the world thinking.

  2. These photographs are brilliant, Bill. Thank you for sharing them.

  3. Great stuff and as always a great read. You are blessed to get the excitement and joy that you do out of that click. Hard for most to understand no matter how well you explain it. For me it’s the sound and sight of a majestic golf shot. I’ll be single for the first time in my adult life this summer. The cares, toils and tribulations of that life behind me. But I live now for that first 70 degree when the world stops, I get off, and take a swing on the first tee. For 4.5 hours the world doesn’t exist. Just the joy of smacking around little white balls. Good or bad doesn’t matter it’s being out in nature without a care in the world except where that little ball goes. It’s nice to have a joy in life like that regardless of what it is for each individual. I hope everyone finds their space wherever or whatever it is for you.
    Bob Tracy

  4. Wow, Bob, what a lovely piece of writing. And as much as I don’t like golf, that’s a great sentiment — reminds me of the wonderful 1976 book, “Sports in America” by James Michener.


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