History Is Right In Front of You: Photographing the Ordinary

When he was young, Frenchman Jacques Henri Lartigue was given a camera as a gift. At the age of eight he began to record the life of his family with his new toy. Lartigue produced approximately 120 photo albums, probably one of the most interesting collections of pictures ever made of a family.

Aspiring photographers always want to go somewhere else to take photographs because they think that the elsewhere is more exotic, exciting and photogenic. I believe the best place to start learning to document is in your own backyard. Think of the visual possibilities of shooting at home. The events we take for granted: weddings, barbecues, parties, daily life and portraits. Not only that, you don’t usually need a model release for pictures of your own family. When I make this suggestion to students at my workshops, the answer I usually get is, “Nothing ever happens in my house.” What they really mean is they are looking but not seeing. They are oblivious to the visual opportunities.

A Photographic Treasure Trove In Your Own Neighborhood

If ever you think that photographing your family is banal, look at the picture of W. Eugene Smith’s featured in the exhibition, Family of Man. The photograph, A Walk to Paradise Garden is a wonderful tender image of his children.

Smith also produced the legendary, The Jazz Loft Project. For this project he sat for hours at his fourth-floor window waiting for the right moment to capture life in the flower district of New York where he lived. He shot in all types of weather, using a number of cameras and lenses, which he kept close by to capture the constant activity outside the window.

You don’t have to go much further than your own neighbourhood to find a treasure trove of photographic opportunities. The American photographer Bill Owens photographed friends, relatives or people he met in the community of Livermore, Ca., for his classic book, Suburbia. The pictures capture wonderfully the daily dramas, big and small, of life in newly suburban California.

Documenting Life in Australia

For greatly loved Australian documentary photographer Rennie Ellis, nothing was too mundane to photograph. Rennie photographed everything around him: family, neighbourhood picnics, parties, cafe society. Thanks to Ellis, we have a great collection of images through the ‘60s, 70s 80s and 90s reflecting life in those fast-changing times.

For 50 years, Mark Strizic wandered the streets of Melbourne trying to capture the familiar. His photographs showed people going about their daily business; the energy and the quietness of the streets. Good documentary photographers need the qualities that enabled Strizic to produce his wonderful body of work: dedication, persistence and patience.

One of my favourite on-going projects about daily life is by Bill Bachman.

Bill regularly pulls out a camera and documents everything he is involved with. The resultant diaries are whimsical, funny, clever and engaging. They show that when a documentary photographer picks up a camera, even at a family event, the picture becomes an unforgettable moment in time.

Documenting a Tragic Personal Journey

My mother has Alzheimer’s and has been that way for several years. When I found out I began to document her disappearance into her own confused world. Not long ago she was a well-known dancer and was still giving performances in her late-70s. Sometimes photographing my own mother is difficult and confronting. But if I’m prepared to photograph other people’s families and lives, then I certainly believe I should document my own. I had been documenting my mother as a dancer for many years and this is just another chapter in her life.

While photographing my mother, I try to be sensitive but truthful. When working with any people in sensitive situations it is worth keeping in the forefront of your mind that they are not merely subjects, they are someone’s parent, child or sibling.

There are many events that happen around you which are not necessarily as poignant but might be just as photogenic. I have documented some of these occasions with my family, friends and neighbours. I photographed the birth of my daughter, the birth of a friend’s daughter, life on the family farm. I have shot portraits of the local butcher, milk bar owner and a number of my interesting neighbours. It’s all about seeing the extraordinary in the ordinary.

The added bonus of photographing the ordinary and the mundane is that documentary is history. Whatever you photograph is a documentation of the now. You may not do it well or with great intent but it is still a recording of an event happening now.

Whenever the thought enters your head that there is nothing around you to photograph, take another look at the work of Lartique, Smith, Owens, Ellis, Bachman and Strizic. Give a thought to capturing the everyday moments of ordinary lives; moments, which unless photographed, will be lost forever.

4 Responses to “History Is Right In Front of You: Photographing the Ordinary”

  1. While I never placed myself with the great you mention I agree that there area images to be made all around one. I've been documenting local farmers markets and my view of suburban life:



  2. Great post, Michael! I was inspired to be an architectural photographer as a child. While walking through the streets of Brooklyn and being enchanted by the buildings I saw every day, I found new ways to look at familiar structures. One day I would look at the carvings on the facade of my school; the next, the brickwork would capture my imagination. In the 1950's there were still numerous buildings with ornamentation which so appealed to me: elaborate iron railings, inlaid wood doorframes, marble figures, brass grates. The familiar gave me the opportunity to closely examine all the wonderful parts of architecture rather than being WOWED by the one time visited marvel. Thanks for sharing your own experiences! Happy 2013!

  3. I LOVE the photo 'A Walk to Paradise Garden'!

    I started taking photos as a young person, when I received the gift of a simple Argus camera from my grandmother. SOme of my favorite photos are those I took just looking out my window, in the backyard, outside looking down at what was at my feet, etc.
    At a local display garden, I was fortunate enough to have caught a photo of two kids, arm in arm, walking together, similar to the iconic photo mentioned above. I LOVE it and everyone else who's seen it love it too.

    Great Advise for anyone.

  4. This is a wonderful article. I tell people I'm a tourist in my own back yard. There is always something to shoot.

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