I’ve spent a lot of time recently thinking about what the great photographer Elliott Erwitt once said – “To me, photography is an art of observation. It’s about finding something interesting in an ordinary place . . . I’ve found it has little to do with the things you see and everything to do with the way you see them.” My personal journey in photography is teaching me the truth of his words not only when I pick up my camera, but more importantly as I live my life.
As with so many famous quotations, it’s easy for us to read Erwitt’s words and see their value. But it’s the actual ability to see the ordinary in a special way that can challenge us for a lifetime. Even when we see it once or in a particular place, we may completely miss it the next time. I’ve learned through my own photographic experiences that my best pictures come to me in those instances when I’ve opened my eyes to see something special in what others have ignored as ordinary.
When I examine the “great” photographs that make an undeniable and often unavoidable impression on me, I find they share a common trait. They connect me to an emotion or emotions I’ve experienced in my own life. The subjects of those photographs are often “ordinary” things, but take me back to places I’ve been or make me dream of places I hope to one day visit. Many of these amazing photographs are of ordinary people who simply had the courage to share their emotions, whatever they were, with the photographer.
Thousands of tourists walk past hundreds of cafes each day in Prague, and few ever bother to notice. But the “right” photograph of a “simple” café can ignite my taste buds, allowing me to taste a hot croissant I ate decades ago. A picture of a tram on rainy day might allow me to once again enjoy that wonderful and unique smell of ancient cobblestones when they’re wet. Great photographs accomplish these amazing, nostalgic feats in ways words cannot.
If my observations are correct, my desire to capture these moments on film requires of me something greater than any technical competency I could ever achieve with a camera. I must live. How can I seek and take that photograph of a café if I have never sat for a moment and feasted on a hot croissant, fresh from the oven? If I rush to and from work each day, will I ever notice the smell of rain on old cobblestones? How can I ever photograph the majesty and grandeur of the Prague Castle in a way that will impact others if I have not stood in awe at sunset and simply watched as the sky fades and the lights illuminate her? How will I ever take a great portrait of another human if I don’t stop, talk to them, and dare to share my emotions? I think Erwitt was right – it has little to do with what I see, but how I see it.