Think about the most interesting place that you could possibly go to take an incredible photograph. What comes to mind?
Maybe it’s Machu Picchu, New Zealand, Yosemite, a safari in Africa, a city like New York or Paris, or wherever is featured in the latest National Geographic Magazine. These locations are very special occasions for travel and photography.
All images in this article courtesy of my student, Neil Persh. Here is his backyard.
So what if I told you that the most interesting place you could photograph is much easier to get to? It’s in your own neighborhood, and its surrounding locations.
I am told fairly frequently by photographers and students that they cannot, or do not feel like, photographing where they live. “It’s too boring” they say, or “There’s nothing interesting to photograph. I only do my photography when I travel.”
This is great of course, as passion for travel and photography go hand in hand, and it’s often when people do their best work. But, thinking that way can also make you miss the whole point of photography.
Shop Window, Rutgers, New Jersey by Neil Persh.
When students mention this to me, I get them to do a specific exercise, I suggest that you try it as well. Spend a few weeks photographing areas within close proximity to your house. Leave your home and go for a long walk in any random direction. Take it even further by thinking about the most uninteresting area that you can imagine photographing, and go there. Maybe it’s a mall parking lot, an empty street corner, or behind a convenience store. Stay there, and figure out how to take an interesting photograph.
Many people tend to take their own location for granted. Your surroundings may seem routine and banal to you, but they’re not. If you were to take someone from a different part of the world, or from a different time period, and park them right where you are – they would probably find things very weird and fascinating. They would probably photograph so many things that you may currently be overlooking.
Step outside, and try to see these areas in that way. What makes this area interesting? How are these scenes going to look as the world changes? How can you make these everyday things beautiful and interesting? Figure out why you might find an area uninspiring, and then photograph that. That is an fascinating idea in itself.
Road, New Jersey by Neil Persh.
The most experienced photographers have learned how to take unique and interesting photographs anywhere. They usually do not take anything for granted. I think this is a skill that you can practice and learn, and it goes to the heart of what being a good photographer is all about. On a practical note, these areas are right outside your door, so you don’t have to pack up all your equipment and plan a lengthy trip. You can walk outside three times a week for 30 minutes with your camera, altering the times of day and the route. If you are a once or twice a month photographer, this will have you practicing much more often. This alone will make you a much better photographer, over the longterm.
Photography is an exciting past-time. I first got into it for the simple fact that I liked to walk and daydream. As you improve and learn more about photography, as you eye better gear, as you think about creating grander images, and as you look at the work of well-traveled photographers on a daily basis, it can pull you away from this simple idea. One of most powerful aspects of photography is that it is a reason in itself to go and take an enjoyable walk. It is a reason to relax and daydream; it is an excuse to wander. It is also a great ice-breaker for meeting other people.
Subdivision, New Jersey by Neil Persh.
Take a look at the work of William Eggleston, Lee Friedlander, or Alec Soth. Look at some of the areas where they photographed. The places probably did not feel that special, or inspiring, to the photographers on the surface. But these photographers were able to see past it, and show in their images how the areas were unique.
Any time that doubt creeps in, and you think that it is impossible to take a good photograph somewhere, I want you to stop yourself and slowly look around. Figure out how to take the best possible image that you can right there, and then go explore another block. Something new will be around the corner.
New Jersey by Neil Persh.
The work of one of my students, Neil Persh is shown throughout this article. Neil frequently takes day trips into New York City, along with traveling to many interesting places to capture wonderful images. His work in these areas has gotten very good, and he clearly has an enthusiasm and passion for photography that is contagious. However, when he had to go photograph his neighborhood for an assignment, he struggled with the idea for a while. Then, when he finally commit to it, he began to get over his trepidation, and started to photograph his area more frequently. I was blown away by the images. The work shown here was taken over months, not years, and I find them to be much different from what you normally see.
You can do the same. Go for a walk this week!
Ham Radio Operator’s House, New Jersey by Neil Persh.