photographs not taken

I’m not a quick photographer. I can’t mentally compose a picture and hit the shutter in a matter of a few seconds. I’m more deliberate. My eye is trained on the viewfinder for longer than a mere second. I shift my weight and my feet, and slowly twirl the lens in and out before I finally depress the shutter. And even then, sometimes I rinse and repeat, taking another very similar picture (or two) especially if I’m using a digital camera. I have a penchant for street photography and it’s almost a wonder I’m able to get some of the shots that I do.

I really should train myself to be quicker. Don’t think, just shoot, as the Lomography motto goes. Sometimes, I’d come across a photo-worthy scene, pause to truly consider if it’s a photo-op, and think about whether I’d want to dig out my camera (in the event it’s not slung across my body). Or I’d think that I wouldn’t be quick enough to snap a picture without the scene changing. Often, in the case of such deliberation, I decide that I wouldn’t be quick enough or that hauling out the camera requires too much effort, and I simply keep walking, playing out the image in my head over and over until it fades.

Sometimes, the mental image of the photograph not taken remains. And I kick myself for having not taken it. Today was one of those days. Leaving campus for home, we walked down Sterling, where the unseasonably warm morning had drawn out students lounging on their lawns. Approaching the house on the corner of Cline and Sterling, I looked up to see two pairs of bare legs, almost a blinding white in the glaring sunlight, sprawled lazily upon the roof. I smiled at the scene, but didn’t think to photograph it until we’d rounded the corner. To go back to photograph it would be awkward if the girls saw me. Not to mention, the moment had passed. I don’t think that photographing it later would necessarily feel the same as if I’d done so more spontaneously earlier. I think if I’d chosen to go back to take the picture, I might’ve obsessed over getting it to look “perfect”, taking much longer than ever needed to simply press the shutter. The previous moment would’ve been shattered and there’d be no way I could replicate what was already gone. Such is the temporality of photography.

Another photograph not taken that I quite distinctly remember happened in Toronto in the spring a few years ago — either 2005 or 2006. Clare and I were heading to Union Station after a long day in Toronto (possibly for CONTACT, but I can’t be certain). Because we couldn’t get to the GO bus at street level, we walked downstairs instead, exposing ourselves to the flow of commuters, hot dog vendors and smokers. At one point, we looked up and saw a group of Sikh taxi drivers just hanging out by the stone wall up on street level. I thought about whipping out my camera. Clare even asked if I’d like to stop after I pointed it out to her. But I declined, and we kept on walking to make our bus. Of course, I was kicking myself after the fact, as I always do.

Years later, and I’ve still not learned. The funny thing is that I don’t just hesitate and over-deliberate and then walk away when it comes to taking photographs. I do this with things to be purchased too. Not mere everyday items like groceries, but with consumer items that count as a “want” and not a “need.” Oh, there have been so many. The lesson with that should either be that I should stop window-shopping, so as to avoid temptation and forego this whole process altogether. Or that I should just go for it. Okay, perhaps I shouldn’t be so impulsive when money is involved, but at the very least, I should when it comes to photography. There’d be less I’d regret, I’d have a more varied repertoire and I’ll likely cultivate a better, quicker eye. Don’t think, just shoot. A lesson for here on out.

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5 responses

  1. i still remember a picture i didn’t take, years ago. i was on campus, and the snow was stuck to the roof of Eckart Hall, it looked really beautiful, gothic architecture with a snow-capped roof. But i didn’t stop and take a picture, i don’t remember why not, but i figured there’d be plenty of other opportunities, it snows often enough. Thing is, that was wrong. Echart has a very steep roof, the snow and the weather have to be just right for the snow to stick, a few inches worth, and not melt or slide off. It hasn’t happened again since.

    Not impulse-buying is a good thing though, i think. However much one part of me might think that having something makes me happy, the fact is, it doesn’t. Amazon’s wishlist is great: i fill it up with things i want, which gives me the security of being able to have them at will without the need to actually purchase the right at that moment. i do still buy things of course, but it’s a much more considered decision.

    April 28, 2009 at 4:12 am

  2. this happens to me every single day, all day long! seriously. sometimes it’s more pronounced than others, and in the right mood, i would be able to recall instances before yesterday, especially in the realm of my babysitting job – so many amazing photos untaken there – but i think the photo untaken is the curse of the photographer! and might be why photographers really should be writers too, like you, so that they can successfully capture those images in hindsight.

    April 28, 2009 at 11:54 am

  3. I do that exact same thing too — think that there’ll be plenty of chances to take a picture, because I pass a certain spot often enough, and I’ll check the time to make sure I go back at the same time to get the right sun. Unfortunately, it doesn’t always work out that way.

    Oh, I’m definitely a fan of NOT impulse-buying. I usually deliberate a purchase quite a bit if it’s not returnable. But like you said, material items may only make a person temporarily happy. A simple life often breeds happiness.

    April 30, 2009 at 4:02 am

  4. Really?! I’m surprised! I suppose that in seeing the pictures you post, I assume you’re almost always prepared with your camera. But I guess that’s a little ridiculous to assume. Circumstances and moods aren’t always conducive to photography. I sometimes wonder how differently I’d feel if I had taken whatever picture it is, or would I simply regard it as just another picture.

    Have you been to this site?
    http://www.thephotographsnottaken.com/

    April 30, 2009 at 4:08 am

  5. Yeah, most of the photos that I get upset about missing are portraits. Like yesterday I was riding my bike past a guy who was dressed in a really neat way with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth sitting on a curb fixing his bike with a screwdriver. That was nice and if I had been walking or had been invisible, really, then I would’ve gotten the perfect photo of him, maybe. The day before that, I took a photo of a Husky dog looking out a first floor window, but as I stood across the street waiting for Greg to get there on the train, I saw a whole group of women and children walk by the Husky dog, and they were all staring at it in the same way as the dog stared back. I didn’t get that either. Things like that really get me.

    I had not seen that site! The contributors look really amazing — but where are the essays? I can’t find them? I would love to read them!!

    April 30, 2009 at 1:06 pm

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