One needs only spend a few minutes perusing the photos of Josef Koudelka to find 100 reasons why I’m no Josef Koudelka — none of which weigh in my favour. His panoramic work inspired my own forays into the format, while simultaneously leaving me rather dispirited by the wideframe oeuvre I’ve produced. Two of his standard format books — “Gypsies” and “Exiles” — both contain more perfect photos than I could create in a dozen lifetimes.
As apparent as these 100 differences are to the naked eye, there’s a 101st that isn’t as overtly obvious — philosophy. Koudelka once said, “I never stay in one country more than three months. Why? Because I was interested in seeing, and if I stay longer I become blind.” I’ll admit to having always envied his nomadic lifestyle, but it was never going to mesh with the drudgery of my day job. And since there were 100 readily apparent reasons why I’m no Josef Koudelka, there were also 100 reasons why my photography earnings would never supplant that day job. But here’s the thing: Being forced to photograph the same environment — day after day, month after month, year after year, decade after decade — is exactly what taught me TO see.
I walk over 1000 miles/year taking photographs — the vast majority of which are snapped within a 4 mile radius of my condo. I have photographed every inch of that radius hundreds, if not thousands, of times. And yet each photograph is different than the ones that came before it. A change in my mood; a change in the light; a change in season; a change in context; a change in camera, lens, or film; a change in the subject itself. Each results in an entirely different photograph — none of which could ever be the “definitive” photograph of the subject, because no such thing can possibly exist.
Being confined to a single environment forces you to see past a subject’s surface and deep into its entanglement with the universe. Photography may indeed be easier when everything in front of your camera is new — but it’s more spiritually rewarding when you’re forced to face the familiar, and work to see it in a different light.
That’s not to say I wouldn’t love the opportunity to travel to new places and photograph new things. I absolutely would. It’s exhilarating when you can stand in one spot and a hundred photographic possibilities flood your eye. When you photograph a single environment for decades, that flood turns to drought. 99% of everything I pass triggers the same thought — “I’ve already taken that photo.” But that 1% — where something reveals itself in such a way that it never revealed itself before — that’s the ultimate reward.
So I must humbly disagree with Koudelka. Being in one place for too long doesn’t make you go blind. Rather — it simply unlocks a different way of seeing. So, even though there are still 100 reasons why I wish I could take photos like Koudelka, there’s one that makes me very glad to be me.
© 2023 grEGORy simpson
ABOUT THE PHOTOS: All these photos were shot in spots I’ve traversed nearly as frequently as the hallway in my condo, yet each reveals something not seen in all the previous shots taken in exactly these same locations.
‘Meta‘ was shot with a Konica Hexar AF on Fomapan 100, and developed in Rodinal 1:50. ‘Over the Under Overpass‘ was photographed with a Widelux F7 on Rollei RPX100, and developed in Rodinal 1:50. ‘Fetch‘ was snapped with a Nikon 28Ti on Ilford Ortho Plus 80, and developed in HC-110 Dilution H. ‘Andy‘ was shot with a Leica IIIc and a 35mm f/3.5 Elmar LTM lens, on Tri-X, and developed in HC-110 Dilution E. ‘Redundant 1‘ was photographed with a Konica Hexar AF on Rollei RPX100, and developed in Rodinal 1:50. ‘Redundant 2‘ was shot with a Contax G1, fronted with a Contax 45mm f/2 Planar lens, using Delta 3200, which was developed in Rodinal 1:25.
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