A THOUSAND WORDS - Alex Waterhouse-Hayward's blog on pictures, plants, politics and whatever else is on his mind.


Boot Camp Instincts - Molly Parker & Lynne Stopkewich
Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Every month, sometimes every couple of weeks, I take the best photograph of my life. We photographers share a situation with 19th century American gunslingers. If our shot isn’t good enough we are dead. If we rest in our laurels boot hill awaits.

Every moment, every exposure in photography, precedes intense training. Boot camp teaches soldiers to forget their instinct for self-preservation. When they are ordered to advance into enemy gunfire they do not flinch. Photographic basic training helped me on September 24, 2000. I took a picture I have never topped.

We are born, we grow, mature, age and we die. Life holds us to that inescapable pattern unless we die young. An inescapable pattern haunts photographers, too.

In I962 I was 20 and living in Mexico City. A German friend and I would go on shooting sprees. We loaded our Pentaxes, Pentacons and Edixas with Tri-X or Agfa Isopan Record, a film that could be pushed to 1200. We eschewed filters since we did not believe in modifying what we saw. We were too young and ignorant to know of the blue sensitivity of b+w panchromatic film. We photographed native Mexican women in markets with their piles of exquisitely ordered oranges and Mexicans looking out of windows or standing in doorways. We photographed beggars and dirty children.

We thought all this was avant-garde. The use of flash (which we couldn’t afford) modified existing light and was anathema to our authenticity code. We never shot posed portraits because that was unnatural. Our people shots were exposed on the sly.

Since then I have used slide film, negative film, I have put photographic paper and Cybachrome as film in my cameras. I have used a 4x5 camera, swivel lens panoramic cameras in several formats, pinhole cameras, cheap cameras, and box cameras. I have placed my face on my Epson scanner. I use studio flash as a hard light with a ring flash with optical or Fresnel lens spotlights and as indirect with umbrellas and soft boxes. I have opened Kodak B+W Infrared 35mm film canisters in daylight and suffered the consequences. I have incorrectly loaded film more times than I care to admit into my Pentaxes and Nikons so that it won’t advance. Years ago I cross processed E-4 and used Dektol straight on Tri-X at 4000 ISO. I remember my first nude.

My Mexico City youth came to haunt me. Before Saturday Night died (yet one more time), I battled with young female photo editors who wanted me to shoot ”loose from the hip.” I was to be, “a fly on the wall” and ordered not to light or use a stylist. They wanted the pictures to be “edgy” and high contrast. Had I taken them with my long lost Edixa and Isopan Record, overexposed it (I used to guess my exposures) and printed on Agfa Brovira Number 5, the paper of my youth, I would have made friends and perhaps more money.

I believe that every photographer has to repeat this pattern in some way until technique is no longer a primary concern. It’s there like basic training ready to kick in when needed. I must not criticize sunset photographs or cat photographs because I may have done them in my past. If shooting a nude as a landscape is how we all begin (and as I began), I cannot expect a young photographer to skip that stage. We all have to shoot that pyramid of oranges on the market square.

When film director Lynne Stopkewich and actor Molly Parker walked into my studio on September 24, 2000 I had only one mission and that was to explain with one photograph my suspicion that a special bond existed between them. This bond had allowed them to make Kissed and the then yet-to-be released Suspicious River. Both films conveyed to me an almost alien point of view. I realized that this disturbing yet refreshing feeling was that both films were made with a woman’s point of view. I had been disappointed in the past by the films of American director Katheryn Bigelow as well as those by Nora Ephron. Molly Parker’s performance in Suspicious River is so astounding that I wanted to show in a photograph the invisible bond that must exist between the two women.

I exposed several Polaroids. None worked. During a rest period I watched them and then I saw it. I took a Polaroid. I showed it to them and they nodded. We took a few photographs and quit.

It’s not important what kind of camera, film, or technique I used. What is important is that when I saw my shot, technique was far in the background and I had only to follow my boot camp instincts and press the shutter. Those young Saturday Night photo editors may have been trying to tell me something. Just like soldiers and officers must invariably return to practice their basic training with regularity we photographers must go back to our roots and just shoot, technique be damned.


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