The Power Of Shadow


I often see tourists on 4th avenue, a quirky stretch maintaining a tenuous foothold in the 60’s, 70’s, and maybe 80’s. They walk around with cameras around their necks or cell phones extended, making memories of things I have lived with since 1983. Cell phones didn’t exist back then, and I don’t think I ever really photographed the city.  In 2001, when I moved back here from my ten year stint in Hell, otherwise known as Phoenix, I purged, throwing away boxes and boxes of photos, mostly of the desert. I kept the ones with people in them and sent them to my sister for safekeeping.

My external hard drives overflow with more than 100,000 memories of places I have visited, and still more of the desert and mountains around Arizona. Not so many of Tucson, its buildings, or people other than friends.

During the four or five years I freelanced for McGraw-Hill Education, I traveled to a dozen countries, and took a lot of pictures of buildings, people, and nature.  My choice of subject was somewhat guided by what I thought MH would license, but mostly I just photographed what caught my eye.

When you venture out into a new place, with a different culture, a different history, different shadows from the ones cast by your past, everything is exotic, the smells, the shapes of faces, the colors and designs of everything human-made, even the landscape.

The more time you spend in a place, the more familiarity casts its own shadow over the illusion of uniqueness.  Your eyes no longer fix on the same highlights, excitement drains from the mere act of exploration. Mundanity overwhelms your environment. This is not to say that you no longer see beauty, strangeness, or shadows, just that they are cast upon a familiar canvas, thus taking on a familiarity of their own.

As a photographer, I find that when I initially visit a place, I spend a lot of shutter clicks recording the new and exotic.  Once I have been there longer, or spent multiple visits there, my photography becomes less documentary and more artistic. I find myself taking photos like the one above, from my last days in Oaxaca, just because it made a good image, not because it was cool and new.

The shadow of the bars and vines lends a distorted perspective to the commonplace window, rendering it more beautiful than it might have been in daylight. So too the shadows of our pasts combine with the shadows cast by what we do not know about a new place bring exoticism and beauty to what is ordinary to those who live there.

9 thoughts on “The Power Of Shadow

  1. I was always envious of the trips you took when working for MHE even though i had a hand in getting you there! I know what you mean about getting used to a place. I’m now forcing myself to go to parts of Dubuque I’ve not visited in the 10 years I’ve been here and trying to see it new again.

  2. I love this. Yep, I totally totally feel ya on this all of it, it reminds me though also how sometimes just getting to another part of town will inspire me again. But unfortunately it hasn’t happened in awhile that I’m somewhere new or new to me, with my camera. But I’m headn to Indy at the end of the month. So that’s another thing when you’ve been away from a place long enough, it becomes like new again. Anyway thanks for the foo for thot, and I love the photo, someday i’ll have a phone that can take such a photo.

  3. Yes, new places encourage photographing and we are quickly caught up by the new and exotic. But I find that the more we get to know a place often the photos become more interesting. It happens when we are able to get underneath or behind the pure exotic. Your photograph here is a good example. It’s a beautiful photo.

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