There are many who proclaim that the human body was never meant to receive three square meals a day — that since we evolved as a species of hunters and gatherers, our bodies neither expect nor want to see a daily caloric intake. It sounds like a reasonable theory, which probably explains why I just completed a nice little five week fast. You can hold your admiration — I didn’t actually go five weeks without food. I have an iron will, not a tungsten one. Instead, I went five weeks without something else — photography.
True to my nature, I simply appropriated a procedure from one discipline and applied it to another. Photographically speaking, I’m every bit the hunter and gatherer. I seek images in the wild — too primitive to master the art of farming frames, and too crude to manufacture them. In my book, that puts my photography and my physiology close enough to share methodologies.
This was not my first photo fast. Occasionally, when I feel my motivation decline or I begin to question my methods and the validity of my work, I simply stop taking photos for awhile. But this past fast was my longest yet.
It began before I knew I was even fasting. It usually does. There’s always some period between catalyst and realization — when my subconscious knows something’s afoul before my intellect gets a clue. That first week, as I walked with camera in hand, I felt increasingly less inclined to release the shutter and more inclined to distance myself from the so-called “street photography” genre.
Though I have long suffered an involuntary clenching of the sphincter regarding the term “street photography,” it was no longer just the label that repelled me — it was the actual act. Over the last couple of years, street photography has become hip. And in today’s world, “hip” means “adopting a culture without bothering to understand it.” If something becomes too hip, it will actually cease to be the thing it imitates and transform into the thing it’s become.
It had reached the point where I couldn’t walk down the sidewalk without tripping over another “street” photographer. Sometimes they travel in packs — emboldened by the group to shoot aggressively. Sometimes they lurk alone in shadows — snipers with telephoto lenses. Sometimes they’re simply schools of smartphone-wielding pilot fish — snapping up whatever little shot opportunities the dSLR sharks leave behind.
If these are the hip new breed of street shooters, then what am I? I’m certainly not the shark. And I know I’m not the pilot fish. Why am I even swimming in this ocean?
So with the first week of accidental fasting behind me, I commenced on an additional four weeks of purposeful fasting — trying to figure out what type of photographer I was; what type I should be; and why I do this at all.
Truth be told, I did take a few photos during the fast. If I saw an interesting product in a store, I’d snap it with my iPhone for later research. And with the iPhone in hand, I’d occasionally photograph random objects with various Hipstamatic effects — thus insuring I could still take photos that looked the same as everybody else’s. I also blew through a roll of Tri-X to test a Leica R4, and I did my best Kertész/Smith imitation by shooting a few photos from my apartment window.
But that hunting and gathering style of photography? The old search-and-shoot? I wrapped it all up in a lead-lined duffle bag, and sat it on the shelf for five weeks.
The goals for any dietary fast are to cleanse the body of toxins, reset our biological systems, increase mental alertness, fight off illness and enhance our sense of well being. So what were the tangible benefits of my photographic sobriety?
Zip. Zilch. Zero. Nada. Nothing. In the words of the obnoxious, crudely-animated, pipe-smoking, repugnantly-bigoted xenophobic sailor known as Popeye, “I yam what I yam.”
But upon further contemplation, I realized that “I yam what I yam” is exactly the result one should expect from a successful fast. Fasting doesn’t give you a brand new digestive system; it simply repairs the one you already have. It’s silly that I had to stop taking photos for five weeks in order to figure out what I already knew, but perhaps that’s the whole point of fasting? The term “street photography” always was and always will be a meaningless label. This is precisely why I dislike it. So why should it matter to me if the genre suffers yet another redefinition? Society’s shifting interpretations of street photography don’t change the way I see the world. They don’t change the way I photograph it. And they certainly don’t change my attraction to all things charmingly inane.
Relieved by the realization that I yam what I yam, and even more so by the knowledge that I yam in absolutely no other way similar to Popeye, the fast has ended. I’m back on the streets, indulging once again in the heaping portions of the droll and the ironic that seem to be my oeuvre. Bon appétit, dear readers!
©2013 grEGORy simpson
ABOUT THESE PHOTOS: “The Tog Pack” was shot with a Leica M9 and a somewhat rare 1999 Leica 50mm f/1.4 Summilux screw mount lens. “Stealth” was shot with a Leica M-Monochrom using a lens I forgot to document, but have reason to believe was a Leica 21mm f/2.8 Elmarit-M (pre-ASPH). “Pilot Fish” and “The Moiré the Merrier” were both shot with a Leica IIIf (black dial) and a 50mm f/3.5 Elmar Screw Mount lens on Tri-X, and developed 1:35 in Rodinal. “Diagonals 2” was shot from the warm and cozy confines of my condo using a Pentax K5 with a Pentax-M 120mm f2.8 SMC lens.
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