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Why I Don’t Photograph People

New River Gorge - copyright 2011 Andy Richards

Last week, I posted an image on a critique thread on the Scenes of Vermont Photography Forum, and my good friend and talented photographer, Carol Smith, commented that it was not my “usual” style of photograph. What made it unique for me was that it had a person in the image. It made me think. She is correct, of course. I don’t include “people” and don’t often include them in my images. Indeed, I mostly go out of my way to excludepeople from my images. There are many reasons why. Part of it is my “vision” of natural images. I most often visualize a scene as “pristine,” the way you might come upon it for the first time. It also may be partly a function of the way I approach my work. I tend to be deliberative. You do not see many images here or on my website that are candid or involve action.

Sometimes, I become so absorbed in my “process” that I miss the real photo opportunity. I like the comfort zone of my tripod and immovable objects. Carol saw and shot the Vermont image after leading a group of us to this wonderful scene in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom, of me and our mutual friend, Al Utzig. I was so deeply into the beauty of this morning and the “possibilities” of this scene, that I would never have seen this image! But it has human interest and probably more “stock” utility than the plain post-card scenic that I generated that morning.

Barton, Vermont - copyright 2011 Carol Smith

Another reason—which I don’t like to admit to myself—is that I am not very good at “people.” That stems from a combination of factors. One is that I am very hesitant to “invade” others’ “personal space.” Talented pro photographer, Ray Laskowitz, a friend, and mentor, once suggested to me that the key to photographing people is how the photographer approaches people. A perusal of his website and stock images illustrate that he does it very well indeed. Like any discipline, shooting people takes practice, and takes me out of that comfort zone. But there is little doubt that photographs including people can transform a “ho-hum,” postcard scene to a compelling image, sometimes with a “story.” Photographer, teacher and author, and a great inspiration to me, Bryan Peterson, refers in several of his books to “story telling” images. The image of my friend, Rich, shooting Hunter Brook in Acadia National Parkcertainly has a “story telling” element to it.

Photography in Acadia NP - copyright 2009 Andy Richards

If the person is identifiable, the photographer must obtain a release if they intend to ever use or publish the photograph. And, in many cases, the person may also have privacy rights that must be taken into consideration. Again, I have a tendency to use those things as detriments to my own personal motivation to include people in my images. But of course, there are equally as many situations where these are just “excuses.” I have thought back about how often there have been people in the area who were unidentifiable that could have been included in the image. I am also often with others when I photograph, and they could certainly become willing elements of the image. The People in the cable car image certainly make it more interesting to the viewer, giving scale, and “story.” After all, cable cars are about moving people.

San Francisco Cable Car - copyright 2011 Andy Richards

It is often noted that placing a familiar thing in an image gives the viewer a sense of scale, people are certainly able to provide that scale. I made this image of my sister and her Chocolate Lab, Ella, a few years ago after a rather strenuous hike back into this waterfall near Munising, in Michigan’s U.P.

Memorial Falls, Munising, MI - copyright 2008 Andy Richards

So, I clearly need to spend more time and effort outside my comfort zone and find ways to include people in my images.

Thanks for reading . . . . . .

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3 Responses

  1. Andy, thanks for the kind words. You have to remember that I began my professional shooting career working at newspapers. Most newspaper photography is about people and you have no choice. Either you photograph people or you leave the business. From there, I got easier and easier with practice and age. But, please don’t think that it’s always easy. I’m working with a client now, who despite her kindness and sweetness scares me to death. Oh well.

    Ray

  2. Hi Andy,
    I’m glad you like the image of you and Al taken on Burton Hill Road. I really like that image too…..so much in fact that I submitted it in a monthly camera club competition last year. The judge on the other hand felt the image would be stronger without the two people in it. Go figure! 🙂 I NEVER take offense to a judges comment, as they are subjective by the way. Another judge may have loved it as is.
    The image of your sister and Ella in the falls is fantastic. Their presence makes this image so much better for me than if it were just the falls alone. Excellent job!!
    Carol

    • Thanks Carol. I am sure the reason the Judge thought it was a stronger image without the shooters is too much contrast (beautiful scene, a couple of scruffy, ugly old men LOL).

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