Welcome to the Essential Light Photography Blog By Jim Sabiston

Sunday, April 17, 2011


To some degree, we all lead insular lives. We have our daily routine, our family, our circle of friends and, finally, our workmates. A radiating circle with distinct and finite edges that we rarely venture out of. This is generally the norm and makes for a comfortable, secure and relatively predictable life. Most people consider surprises and the unpredictable a bad thing. Yet, what we think of as security is at best pleasant illusion.

This is one of the primary traits where my wife Nancy and I were polar opposites when we first met. She was a planner. Invite her to an event and the day planner came out of her purse to verify availability and to record the commitment. I, on the other hand, knew that if the event was beyond the next 24 hour window, I was likely to be free. When Nancy planned a trip, on Tuesday she would be scheduled for this, on Thursday for that. I introduced her to the pleasures of serendipity and chance when I planned a return trip to the Scottish Highlands for our tenth wedding anniversary and second honeymoon, the first being spent in Edinburgh. My planning consisted entirely of purchasing round trip airfare to and from Glasgow and a rental car to be waiting at the Glasgow airport. In between the flights was a two week window wide open to possibilities. The general idea was simply to drive north and west towards the coast and see what might happen. We didn't even know where we were to stay the first night.

Each day was a surprise. We had no idea where we might be sleeping, where we were going or what we would eat. Nancy still describes that trip as the best two weeks of her life. There is an old truism that in order to truly experience the highs of life, one must also experience the lows. This trip illustrated that concept in a very real way - the most dramatic being near the end of our stay. We were driving south as we started to close the circle on our return from the Isle of Skye, where we had discovered a delightful bed and breakfast overlooking the Portree harbor. One of the surprises was the lack of civilization in the stretch south from the Skye Bridge. We had taken the ferry to Skye from Mallaig and had not been in this particular part of the Highlands previously. The countryside was spectacular in its rugged, Highland beauty, but by the time we arrived back in Fort William late in the day, there were no vacancies to be found. We continued south for hours, finally into the night as we approached Oban. At this point, we had already resolved that we were likely to spend the night sleeping in the car and were looking for a place to have dinner. In Oban, quite by chance, we discovered hidden on an obscure single track a bed and breakfast on a hill overlooking the old city. They had a single vacancy.

It turned out that the proprietor was a retired Queens chef who owned and ran this small but exquisite gem. The room had a window view of the city below and, much to our delight, served dinner as well as breakfast, but only to his guests. Nancy and I then proceeded to enjoy two of the finest meals of our lives.

If we had planned our trip in advance in the normal fashion, we would of had a very different experience. When planning trips, people tend towards the known. There is certainly sound logic to this, of course - surprises are not always good. The price of this security is a certain isolation from the potential of getting a real flavor of the people and places you visit. A Marriot is a Marriot is a Marriot, regardless of the state or country it happens to be in. The very intent of these hotels is to provide a consistent, predictable, known environment for their guests. In the process, they remove all but the most highly distilled local flavor. This is why Nancy and I never stay at a major chain hotel if there are other options. The experiences we want are to be had in the local bed and breakfast, and the small diner or pub where the locals congregate - like that wonderful off-the-track pub near Loch Fyne just north of Argyle Forest that served a wondrous steak pie and local beer. We spent that night in Minard Castle, the only guests in the newly renovated castle that wasn't yet in the tourist listings.

This has not been a one way relationship, however. Nancy's gift to me is her natural gregariousness. She has a way about her that makes her incredibly approachable and outgoing. I can't count the number of times that I've found her somewhere catching up with an old friend only to learn that she had known the person for all of 10 minutes. It amazes me and I can't help but be in awe of it in some ways. The good news is that I have picked up on some of this and am far more open to approaching total strangers than before we met. Obviously, these two traits make for a happy combination when traveling, opening doors to people and experiences that most will miss.

I have found that both can also be applied to photography, specifically photography of strangers in public places. I have great respect for peoples privacy and act accordingly. Unfortunately, this otherwise virtuous trait can be a negative when working on images such as those in my Street Scenes series. Most are candid shots of people and places and these require a strong dose of unobtrusive practices. The idea is to get the image without the subject realizing I am even there in order to capture unaffected human behavior. I want the natural moment to shine through.

(click on image to enlarge)
There is another type of image, however, and these require at least the knowledge on the part of the subject that I am there, if not actual, active participation in the process on their part. An actual interaction must take place between the photographer and the subject. Here is where we depart from the known and comfortable. The photographer must be willing to reach out to a total stranger with an invitation to join in the creative process. This is not the sort of thing that intrudes into the daily routine very often - but serendipity and chance open the door to wonderful creative opportunity if we are willing to step outside of our own shell.

By the very nature of the required interaction, these images tend to be far more intimate, as the relationship between the photographer and the subject is unavoidably more close, both locked in a subtle dance. For the process to even begin, I must speak to my potential subject and broach the topic of my intent. Photography of this nature is still quite new to me, but has so far proven to be a pleasant experience. I find that my subjects tend to be fascinated by the process and are generally perfectly willing, even eager, to participate. the result is what is proving to be the beginning of a series of images with enormous potential. I will provide one example, an interaction which took place quite unexpectedly on the commute home recently.

I had just settled in for the train ride home when this guy sits in the seat facing me. I've never seen him before. Tattooed, a little dusty, definitely rough around the edges. Stocky build, but not real big - but real solid. Not a bit of fancy or soft about him. Big strong, workingman arms. These arms radiated life, emanating strength even in their relaxed repose. These were the arms of a man who relied on strength and muscle to get through his day. I had to take a photograph. I introduced myself and explained my interest. He was a really nice guy. He assumed the relaxed pose that had initially caught my attention and I quickly set up for the shot. He was completely natural - no tenseness in him at all. I exposed three frames - one was a keeper. I gave him a card and invited him to my show opening a couple of days later. Hopefully I will see him again so he can see the result of our meeting.

(click on image to enlarge)
By exercising the willingness to expose myself and an artistic impulse to a stranger, art was created in a space where the otherwise natural social impulse is to maintain the protective shell of personal space. So much is lost in this self imposed closure. I can't help but think that humanity as a whole suffers from this internal and artificial isolation when the chance meeting of strangers is not fully acted upon. The result is that we remain strangers in a crowded room.