People of the World

It’s taken me a bit to put together this entry. I guess the inspiration started from a friend asking me to send him some photos of our times together. I guess when I started looking around for these, I realized how many pictures I had to taken of just random people hanging around places, just doing their own things, going about their lives not bothering anyone in particular. I wondered if I could string all of these pictures into some kind of a narrative. I’ll try my best to do that here.

In 1996, I took the only photography class I have ever taken in my life. I’ve been a photographer for over 25 years but I’ve never actually taken a single photography class. I was a journalist for seven years and never studied journalism, save for a 20 minute dressing down from a rather unpleasant character who was part of a post college journalism program I went to. In September of this year, it will have been 14 years in the classroom, teaching and I have taken maybe one class in education. So this is a well established pattern for me, I guess.

So history of photography. The class was taught by a nice looking photography teacher with quite a nice head of hair. Maybe that’s why the class was memorable. No but in all seriousness, Bill Jaeger, the guy teaching the class, would go through all of these historical photos and tell us about them. We started with Nicéphore Niépce, the first person who actually captured an image on some kind of semi permanent medium. The idea of a “camera” had existed since man discovered that light could pass through a small hole and projected onto a wall or ultimately a canvas. Many of the very detailed pictures made during the Renaissance were done in such a way. Human beings had long sought a way to register these images onto a permanent medium, experimenting with different chemicals to make that image permanent.

The class was amazing as we passed from photography as innovation to photography as documentation to photography as art. We explored a lot of ideas in the class, in a way sort of forming our aesthetic, which in a way developed then. I like spare, minimalist things. Recently a dear friend came to stay with me and she left this very elaborate looking bottle of face wash. I realized how it clashed with everything in my bathroom. I have a black bar of soap in a soap dish that looks like a claw footed tub. It’s a tribute to my former residence, Chez Kelton, with the claw footed tub. It is still really spare and minimalist. Even the beauty products I use correspond to my own aesthetic. I’m embarrassed to admit this but I like to buy minimalist beauty products for the packaging. My face wash is from a company called Glossier, whose products I really like, mostly because of the packaging. This even trickles down into my style of dress. My current favorite piece of clothing is a navy blue pullover from Lacoste I got at a thrift store in my neighborhood. It’s a simple piece of clothing but I am currently in love with it. It has a great design and is status without being openly status. Uh, we went off on a tangent. Back to the photography talk.

As we went through the different photos by the different photographers, I got to see what aesthetic appealed to me. Some aesthetics, I really didn’t like but some others I really liked. One whose aesthetic I really liked was August Sander. Sander’s mission was to photograph the people of 1920s and 1930s Germany, looking specifically at how people of different professions carried themselves. The photos have this very sparse, spare look to them, very straightforward and dare I say it, German look about them. The whole thing utterly fascinated me, him having access to these people and photographing them in these beautiful ways. I became intrigued by this whole notion, a gathering of all of these people, all those little stories.

At the time as well, the university library had a section in it with all of these photography books. They had an excellent collection of books. Usually I’d be in the library trying to write some kind of a political science essay and deep into the photography books. You see anyone who wants to pursue art as a career is told that you will starve, never make it, never make money, so I never considered photography as a career for one second. You get a degree in art history, get ready to flip burgers for a living. There was a joke around that time — what do art history majors say after college??? You want fries with that? So I chose political science, which I figured was sorta sensible, but I spent a lot of time in that photography section, looking at the books. Maybe a welcome break from the essays about campaign finance reform.

In that section, I discovered a book called “All The Right People,” by a photographer named Barbara Norfleet. Its a really obscure book and it had a bigger impact on me than any other photography book. Odd considering the availability of all of the greatest photography books ever created. Helmut Newton, Avedon, Peter Lindberg and I like this little obscure book. The book is about the American upper class. We’re not talking Bill Gates money. We’re talking whaling and rum money, people who use summer as a verb and say “grandfather” without the article in front of it. Over time I’ve realized living in Boston, I have been to a lot of the places that are chronicled in the book, but it’s not that that appealed to me about the book. It was the access the photographer had to this utterly closed world. That’s what really intrigued me, that you have access to places you would never get to go if you didn’t have a camera in your hand. I’ve lived this many times as a photographer, from my days of reporting on Capitol Hill to photographing parties at Harvard.

Another idea also rattles around in my head. I am absolutely not a part of any groups. I’m Polish, born in Łódź, a town I feel a slight affinity towards, as it is where I was actually born but I don’t know the place very well. We didn’t stay in Łódź for long and I mainly grew up in New York City in the 1980s, a place I feel a huge affinity for, a time I feel a huge affinity for. I lived in so many places before settling in Boston and those have had a huge impact on me, but I am not one of any of those places. Most people look around and see people who are exactly like them, socially, culturally, ethnically. But that was never true for me. Socially, culturally, ethnically I was never a part of anything. I was never around people who were actually similar to me ethnically or culturally. I was the perpetual outsider, looking in. I think that transformed me into a keen watcher of people. I’m not of anywhere so I can be a watcher, an observer and it is a role I have always enjoyed. I think my perpetual role as an outsider suited me perfectly. When we are of a place, we don’t see it’s myriad of quirks and differences. Since I am of no place, the observer position is a natural for me. Of late though, I have become of a place and I have found a group of people who I am actually a part of.

I guess over my years of taking pictures, I became an August Sander or Barbara Norfleet of my own, but maybe in a much more candid way. My goal as a photographer was always to take candid photos of people doing what they are doing. I really hate posed photos. Capture people as they are naturally, not posing. Posed is boring. I had a coworker who was a photographer and he told me once that I was a more photojournalistic type of person while he is more of a studio guy. I took it as he preferred more posed pictures, which you know ok fine for you. Anyway, my recent stroll through my old photos made me realize I had created my own chronicle of candids, photos of the world, people going about their daily business with me there snapping away. So enjoy what I call “The World” through my observational eye:

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