Notes from The Road: Italy
In my late 20s, I was on the train to Nowhere – always boarding yet never arriving. My life too closely resembled Henry Chinaski, the protagonist of Bukowski’s Factotum … except I was no serious barfly, despite Irish heritage.
Once during this period, I lived in a noisy Chicano trailer park in Silver City, New
Mexico. My walls were decorated with National Geographic maps because that’s all I could afford.
Yet this allowed me to circle noteworthy cities, legendary cities, exotic cities and daydream endlessly of how I would be the next hot shit street photographer and move through streets teeming with people – documenting this amazing spectacle of humanity like the next William Klein or Robert Frank.
If the essence of the American Dream is upward social mobility accompanied by a modicum of comfortable prosperity, it finally occurred to me by age 50 that I would have to leave the United States to achieve the American Dream. How do you define irony?
Earlier I followed Horace Greely’s clichéd advice of “Go West, young man,” and gradually went beyond the Mississippi River, beyond the Rocky Mountains, beyond the great cities of the American West Coast and eventually landed in the Orient.
And now I have stopped walking the wheel and live a life of retirement in Seoul. I’m in this location for reasons that have something to do with love.
Recently, I returned from nine days in Italy with a Korean tour group. It’s a long way to Tipperary, but an even longer way to the Chicano trailer park in New Mexico.
For this trip, I packed light on camera equipment. I could say that:
A) I’ve embraced the Zen Buddhist proverb of “less is more,”
B) I’m lazy,
C) I’m weary of using three trays to go through airport security because of what I frequently take on these trips (two DSLR cameras, a laptop, an iPad and external hard drive),
D) all of the above.
The correct answer is obviously “D.” Any other choice is a matter of: “See me after school for detention.”
I’ve been to Italy several times in recent years, and I don’t speak Korean – except for basic salutations, food items on a menu, and a few basic obscenities – which are always the easiest words to learn in any foreign language.
My relationship to the Korean language is the same as any foreign language – I am lazy, and English is nearly a universal language. And if all else fails to find a new girlfriend who speaks the local language.
For me, this recent trip was an excuse to score points with a special person and to hit the streets of Rome, Florence, Venice and … and almost Milan, while being accompanied by the spirit of both William Klein (now 89) and Robert Frank (now 93).
In the past six months, I have fallen in love with the Ricoh GR II – and have not felt so enchanted by an experience since my first serious girlfriend in high school. Yet one cannot mention the Ricoh GR II without acknowledging Daido Moriyama (now 79), the Godfather of Japanese street photography.
Allegedly, Ricoh (now owned by Pentax) designed the GR model to Daido's specifications. He wanted a light, stripped down compact camera that allowed him to move both quickly and quietly through the streets of Tokyo.
Many of the younger generation of Japanese street photographers like Hiroyuki Nakada, and Tatsuo Suzuki have not bothered with a 35mm DSLR for several years, and certainly avoid telephoto lenses because of the weight and the conspicuous attention.
The same is true of contemporaries like Naoki Iwao, Atsuya Harukawa Kenichi
Chiyonobu and Ash Shinya Kawaoto – superb artists all mentioned by Gerri McLaughlin in his excellent Progress-Street feature, “Tokyo Story.”
Many of these photographers use the Fuji X100T, or a slight variation, yet there is a straight line to Daido Moriyama and his huge influence on street photography starting in the early 1960s.
I’m in his debt, as much as anyone else, for taking the work of William Klein and Robert Frank, and other worthy predecessors to show us a new vision and inspire us to shake off complacency and how to be bold and daring - yet respectful.
A specific choice of camera may help execute the vision, but it can never be a substitute for the concept. Would Dostoevsky have achieved a more superior version of “Crime and Punishment,” had he used a MacBook Pro instead of a hand-written manuscript?
Street photography always invites the question of how to appropriately approach subjects in public. One photographer, in particular, makes a very lucrative living offering
workshops around the world on how to “overcome your fears” as a street photographer.
None of his photography impresses me, so his advice falls on my deaf ears.
If one has fears, try riding a 2,000-pound bull enraged by having his genitals roughed up by a cattle prod while trapped in a narrow chute at a Montana rodeo. That’s some tangible fear – and only appeals to hard-core adrenaline junkies. Street photography ain’t nothing.
Rightly, or wrongly, Italy has a solid reputation for petty thievery on the street. Being among a Korean tour group was interesting because everyone – except me, was equipped with a very small transistor and equally small headphone for the guide to babble on about this-and-that historical background. It also allowed the guide to inform everyone – except me, that the young fellow at the back of the tram was a street thief and to be careful of him. Yet we encountered no problems. A benefit of the “package tour” approach is safety in numbers. It’s difficult for the lone jackal to pick off a single prey when surrounded by the pack.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to use a camera to depict genuine human experience.
I’m very impressed with the advertising work of Irving Penn and Richard Avedon, and Guy Bourdin and Herb Ritts – but it’s artificial and not for me.
I want to document people in their natural milieu – without pretence and no confrontation. I despise the tactics of the paparazzi – named, incidentally for the news photographer Paparazzo in the 1960 film “La Dolce Vita” by the great Italian film director, Federico Fellini.
Whether on the streets of Seoul, or Rome, or New York City – I usually stand in one place with my camera quite visible and make myself obvious. I have no conversation with anyone. Like marriage, I don’t ask for permission – but I am prepared to ask for forgiveness. In 40-years of street photography, I’ve never had any serious problems with subjects.
Six months ago while in Jaipur, India – I used my compact camera to photograph a common couple in their late 20s on a very public bench in a very public area of a popular tourist site. Other people were sitting on the bench, as well.
In retrospect, the frozen moment was not worth the time. Yet the young man of the couple sprang up to confront me. He spoke English with a decidedly Russian accent and it was obvious that he expected me to conform to his agenda, and delete the photo. I don’t roll that way.
As I listened to him, I quietly secured the camera in my pants … below waist level. I really wasn’t interested in a Harry Callahan moment – but, really, how would Clint Eastwood’s character respond?
“Go ahead, punk. Delete the photo, and make my day.”
The young man could see what I had done with the small camera – an impossibility with
a Nikon D5300. The fellow had a quick change of mind and instead insulted me in Russian. I do love 19th-century Russian literature but that’s as much affection as I have for that culture.
The camera was fine, because I practice clean living.
Street photography is a matter of common sense – which I try to use whenever available.
I’m not a drive-by shooter – chiefly because it’s not part of my character, yet also because I’m well past my 20s and can no longer move like a butterfly and sting like a bee.
But I’m still on the streets with a camera because I hear the sirens calling me like brave Ulysses, and I cannot resist.
Italy was a great experience, and I will return again. Perhaps to Milan next time. I really must learn Korean … some day soon.