Saturday, June 2, 2012

London Calling… Intn'l Photo Fest

A teeter totter finds its balancing point, a ripple on the water smoothes to a calm surface, and a photographer discovers his or her eye. "Don't worry about what to photograph – go on – start taking photos," said our instructor Barbra Riley.

“Easier said than done,” I thought, looking at the others who already had camera-holding experience under their belts.

On day one, I didn't know the band of 20 by name, but we would spend Five Weeks in Florence taking a photography class at the Santa Reparata International School of Art. By day 35, I knew their intimate passions through their choice of photographic subject matter, food selections and the depth of their desire to experience Italy.
To say I was nervous on our first photo trek through Florence is an understatement. Our group was comprised of an art history instructor, her daughter, the  photography instructor aka my graduate school cohort, 12 art students from a Texas university, a couple of poli-sci majors, Jennifer’s husband Joe/Jose (who I affectionately came to call by both names), and me. I was the oddity, outranking most of the students in age by many years and coming from California. I had always wanted to "live" in Europe, had just purchased a digital camera, and was ready for an adventure.

In the same way I choose a steering wheel cover, wine glasses, chef knives and paint brushes, after selecting the brand, I make the buying decision by how the item feels in my hand. OK, I admit it – much of my life is orchestrated around the "touch" sensation or how I "feel" about something. Case-in-point, I don't like the feeling/touch of suede, but I did like the imprinted thumb rest on the body of the Cannon SX30IS. That particular camera was not too big, not too small and fit my hands perfectly.

It was midmorning on a Tuesday and the city wore haze of what "felt" like floating molecules of translucent parchment. The photography students were prompt on this first day of shooting and stood huddled on steps of the Baptistery, all wearing fresh clothing imbedded with unusual creases from being packed tightly in their suitcases for the cross-Atlantic flight.

Our inaugural itinerary covered only four square blocks, so if there was a day to get blisters or forget your bottle of water, sunscreen or hat, this was the day.

Some students already knew each other and the rest learned at least one new name or formed a quick opinion about another student that inevitably would change in the coming weeks. I studied their faces, wondering who would become my confidant, my exploration partner. I noted their different styles of clothing, and their hair, and the personality-reflecting accessories they wore. Those clad in bold colors gravitated to the right side of the steps while the earth tones assembled at the left. Tempted by the surroundings, the experienced travelers wandered with abandon off the steps. 

"Our” group was a mix of teens, seniors, male, female, tall, short, large and petite. In common, they all had an official looking camera either in hand or lassoed around their neck. Jennifer, the tiniest of the bunch, had the largest camera with the longest zoom lens. If her body was segmented, I would guess that her equipment was equal in weight to her two arms (hands attached) and one shoeless foot.

The light and air on that particular morning had buoyancy you could almost float on. Anxious to capture my first sight of a man sweeping a restaurant doorway, I held the viewfinder of my new camera to my eye and in doing so, was self-conscious about not using the display screen. Much to my surprise, on this, my first real day of photographing, I saw only black. I had slipped the camera instructions into my carry-on bag to read on the plane, but got sidetracked watching art movies and foreign films. Now I was stuck. This was not like a computer keyboard where I could keep banging on the keys until something happened. "Battery," I thought. Yes, I had charged the battery, but maybe I put it in wrong.

I remembered seeing real photographers blow on camera parts, so I slid open the battery cover, popped the battery out, wiped it with the clean 100% cotton white cowboy bandana tied to my camera strap, blew on it and reinserted it. With confidence, I made the same wiping-blowing motions with the memory card.

In our clump of jet-lagged travelers, I assumed everyone was as self-absorbed as I. Again I lifted my perfectly-hand-fitting Canon to my eye, but hesitated to take it down as I criticized myself for not testing the camera in the U.S., then I remembered bringing a pocket sized Canon that used AA batteries so I rationalized I would not spend the entire trip without a functioning camera. The overall shameful "feeling" of getting caught as an imposter photography student generated the same anguish as being caught faking my ability to read hieroglyphics as  my eyes moved from left to right or bragging of my cooking skills then being nervous about not changing the direction I stirred while cooking the tiramisu custard on the stove.

The second vision of blackness through the viewfinder found me doubly embarrassed and frozen in time. I could neither think nor move when an external chill slid over my body as a shadow grew on my shoulder. “What now,” I thought. I was already anxious at starting off my journey as the underdog. The expanding shadow was caused by a tall camera-savvy girl with dark hair that almost reached her waist.

Without passing judgment and speaking in a normal tone, Kristin said matter-of-factly, "Your lens cap is on."

After that I was no longer the underdog, but the welcome recipient of tips and tricks from the other students.

In the end, we would all be courted by our personal fascinations. My natural calling was recording the overlooked or unexpected moments of everyday life and I learned that this focus actually has a name – Street Photography. As defined by the London Festival of Photography organization it is “candid photography which captures, explores or questions contemporary society and the relationships between individuals and their surroundings."
If you'll be in London during the month of June and you like photography - you're in for a treat as the works of more than 2,400 international photographers are on display in the city-wide London Festival of Photography. The 2012 theme is Inside Out: Reflections on the Public and the Private. The festival features street, documentary and conceptual photography in 18 exhibitions and 30 satellite events as well as workshops, talks and screenings. There are digital shows and print shows throughout the city including exhibits in the Museum of London, British Library, British Museum, and Tate Modern. All of the photographers will have a photo projected in rotation on a big screen so if you happen to be in the right place at the right time, you might see one of my photos. For more information, visit the London Festival of Photography website 

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