By: Dennis Viera
I’ve always loved the work of Richard Avedon, and his In the American West project provided great inspiration for a project I’ve wanted to do for a while.
My normal approach to portraits is to be more environmental and intimate. Most of the time I’m trying to coach something deeper out of people. But this time, I wanted to focus directly on the subject and see what came of it. One thing that really stuck with me was reading something Avedon was quoted saying about photography really being about what is right there in front of you, because that’s what you have to work with.
I wanted to highlight the everyday people we share our neighborhood with; We grabbed whomever was willing to be part of our project. I resisted the urge to pick cool backgrounds for my subjects and shot them on the sidewalk, on a white backdrop. It’s not easy for the subject nor the photographer when it’s just you and them without any props for comfort, but it provides a context for a specific type of photograph. It allowed the people and their faces tell their own stories.
I wanted for a few minutes, to make these strangers feel like they’re the most important figures in the world. I requested that they be themselves – honest and without pretense. I told them this was not a snap shot – that this was a serious photo, and I told them not to smile. It was amazing the different reactions I got. Some people immediately got serious, some didn’t know how to act with out smiling and got nervous, and some just plain couldn’t help themselves and smiled anyway. We gave ourselves a few hours to shoot, we didn’t take too long with each subject and limited it to 4 frames of film per subject. We ended up photographing 18 people.
To get the tones I wanted, I photographed everyone using my Pentax 6×7 with a super-fine-grain black and white film. I didn’t have the exact lens I needed but Richard from my lab, North Coast Photographic Services loaned his 150mm.
I guess I knew this before I started, but the project did not finish that day. And looking back on the photographs, I decided not to include all 18 people in what will be the final compilation of images.
I am realizing more and more that not only are there so many things I want to photograph, but there are so many ways I want to photograph everything. My mind is full of photographs, ideas, projects. I am so full of inspiration that I can’t just do one thing at a time. The aim of the project changed so many times before, during and after the shoot. And looking back at rolls of film from 18 people, to me, the photos seem unfocused and unfinished.
And I will be honest, this is no different than the way I do any type of photography, wedding portraits or commercial work. I never know what I am going to do before I do it, I have an idea in my head, and it changes 10 times and ends up something totally different than it started. And in the end, I never feel done. This is me, this is how I am. People tell me I am a good photographer, I do like my photographs, but I always think I can do better. I think if anything, this unfinished photo project has made me realize that this is who I am and… I just want to take pictures and shouldn’t think too much about it.
I’m still not sure what I’m trying to say, but as this project continues, I’m hopeful a pattern will emerge. What I do know is that people have always been so fascinating to me, I’m excited to see what more I can learn from them, and excited to just keep taking photos and eventually… finishing my people in your neighborhood project.