Today’s column is all about a single photograph that I shot a few months ago. It is crazy to think that a single photograph could have so much of a story to tell and that is one thing about the still image that will never go away. No matter how technically advanced we get as a society, even if they try to pull stills from Red Camera video and use them as “photographs” that’s fine. I’m good as long as no one ever tries to call a video still a photo because it’s not. Shooting with film has an entirely feel to it compared to digital. Although as a photographer I think in detail about every shot that I take whether it’s film or digital, I still seem to spend a little bit of extra time to compose and dial in my photo when I’m shooting film. Not only that but film just has an entirely different look to it and that is part of the reason why I love it so much. You can’t re-create the look of film with a digital camera; it’s just not the same. Sure, they have apps, and plug-ins and preset filters that try to mimic certain styles of film but at the end of the day, it’s just not the same. There is also an old legend that photographing people on film steals a piece of their soul and a little part of me, as weird as it may seem, believes that. That brings me to the story behind this photo. If you want to find out what’s going on here, keep reading.
The photo was shot a few months ago in the middle of nowhere Pennsylvania on a side road, off the beaten path. I was out cruising around in Amish country just exploring and shooting photos. I was on a 1950’s “Rollfast” bicycle which I found all beat up, rusted out with flat tires, out front of a store in town and ended up buying it off the owner. I fixed it up and spent a lot of time cruising around the quiet streets with nothing more than my camera and the desire for adventure. For anyone that follows this column you would know that I spent three months living in the middle of nowhere Pennsylvania this summer working at Woodward. It’s in the heart of Amish country and although I lived in close proximity to them, I never really spoke with any of them. But, on this particular day it had been months since I had first arrived to stay in Amish land and every time I went to photograph them, I got a really weird vibe. I could tell that they didn’t want their photo taken.
When I rolled up, like literally rolled up on my Amish bicycle, onto this scene I noticed this guy working on his farm and it almost stopped me dead in my tracks. The time of the day was perfect, the lighting was just starting to get good and everything was in place for me to photograph my first Amish person in their raw environment. This guy wasn’t out front of the grocery store, he wasn’t at the local hardware store, he was in his own yard, working on his own farm, in his own space. I knew that once I had stopped I had to get a photo of him. This was my chance, and I wasn’t going to let it pass me by. I had missed too many other opportunities earlier in the summer and I was over it. I still had the respect to ask him if I could photograph him. I had my camera in plain sight around my shoulder while I proposed the idea. He simply said “no, no that’s ok.” And assumed that would be it. Well, like I said, I was sick of not taking the chance for a unique photo when it presents itself so I asked him again, politely of course, and the answer remained a solid no.
At this point, I explained to him that I’m a photographer, and I just want to capture this scene. I told him the lighting was beautiful and it would be an amazing image to take back home with me to California. He still denied me so I did what any self-respecting photographer would do and I told him, in a very calm way, that I would rather have his permission but either way I’m going to photograph him. I think at first he was a little confused that I would actually say that to him and as I reached for my camera to bring it up to my eye and look through the viewfinder I noticed him turning away from me and at the same time walking towards me. As soon as I pressed the shutter and heard the film advance to the next frame he covered his face fully with both arms and started coming after me in an aggressive way. As I pedaled off as fast as I could on my single speed, 63 year old bicycle, I said to him “sorry, but I had to.” He yelled at me “you bugger!” and mumbled under his breath. The most interesting part of all of this was just watching how frustrated he became due to me taking a photograph of him. It was exceptionally weird to me, especially as someone who shoots photographs for a living to see his stress level rise as quickly as it did simply from taking a photo. This brings me to the point of the entire story, which is the fact that I truly felt like I stole a piece of this guy’s soul and captured it on film.
The truth is; the reason he was so pissed still remains a mystery to me. It was so surreal watching him get as angry as he did after I took his photo clearly against his will. I love the fact that his face is turned away; it’s right before the moment he changed, and right before he lost his shit. This is one of those stories that I can tell a million times but still never really do it proper justice. I ended up telling the story time and time again before heading back to California to develop the film and see if the image I had been basing this entire story around actually came out and as you can see, it did. This may seem crazy to some of you but this is one of my favorite images of the entire year so far. I’ve had the cover of Soul, photos in The Albion, Ride and all over the place online and yet a single 35mm frame of film stands out as one of the most memorable; all because of the story behind it. Now to me, that is what photography is all about. It’s not about how technically perfect it is, it’s not about how expensive the camera it was shot on is, it’s not about how it’s on the cover of a magazine, it’s simply because of the experience of shooting it. I will always look back on this image and be thrown into the middle of Amish country, and remember the feeling of pedaling that damn bike as fast as it would go as I kept looking back over my shoulder in fear that he would be chasing me down in order to make sure the image was not going to be seen.
Technical info: Leica Minilux 35mm loaded with Fujifilm Superia 400 scanned with an Epson 4490, and cleaned up in Photoshop 5.5 on a Macbook pro. The photograph of the bicycle was shot with a Polaroid 103 Land Camera with Fujifilm FP-100C film.
Hopefully you guys enjoyed this one. I have been waiting months to share this photo and this ended up being the perfect platform to do just that. Thanks again for keeping up with the TTL series. Be sure to check back next Wednesday for the eighty seventh edition of Through the Lens and as always feel free to leave any questions in the comments section or email me at [email protected] and I will hit you back as soon as I can. Feel free to follow me on Twitter and Instagram @jeremypavia.