My Best Shot 2011 ~ Popcorn Mike
Image by Viewminder
I get all nostalgic at the end of a year.
Looking forward to the new year is like holding a brand new journal in your hands…
a blank book.
You wonder about the thoughts and the words that will come to fill the pages.
It’s an exhilerating feeling.
Looking back on the year past I try to gain some perspective on what it all meant.
Where did it go right?
Where did it go wrong?
What could I have done better?
What did I do that was so right?
I think we all do that.
For a couple of weeks I’ve been looking back at the photographs that I’ve taken in 2011.
I wanted to pick out the one that I thought was my best work.
The one that was photographically the ‘decisive moment’ for me in the last year.
This is that picture.
It’s difficult to seperate yourself from the emotion of a photograph when you’re the photographer.
I’ve captured images that have taken my breath away for a hundred reasons…
broken my heart…
made me laugh…
inspired me to look closer…
or filled me with love…
but this photograph…
it’s the one that I kept coming back to when I searched the archives for my best work of the last year.
What surprised me was that I had a difficult time explaining to myself exactly why I felt that way about this image.
‘What is it about this one’ I asked myself over and over.
For one who smiths words and paragraphs with ease it was a real challenge to look into myself and convey to you in words why I felt that this photograph, of all the ones I’ve taken in 2011 was the apex of my shuttering on the streets of Chicago.
You’re looking at a man I call ‘Popcorn Mike.’
The only thing I know about him is his name.
Because I asked him as I was showing him the images that I’d captured of him on the back of my Nikon after I shot him on the street.
I really didn’t notice Popcorn Mike as I walked down the street.
Walking with a group of about fifteen photographers on a photowalk I was talking street photography to one of them as we walked down the sidewalk together.
Another photographer who was familiar with my style pointed Mike out after he’d passed him there.
He knew the scene was callin’ for the ‘Viewminder Treatment.’
Within a couple of seconds I was on him…
right where I’ve found the ‘sweetspot’ to be…
lookin’ for that focus point through the viewfinder as I got closer and closer.
Mike was pretty cool about it.
Not only did he have some strange guy firin’ off shots about ten inches from his face…
he had an audience as the other photographers stopped to see it all go down…
some of them shooting the scene themselves as I did.
It was like a spontaneous attack of the paparazzi and Mike took it all in stride.
He never stopped eating his popcorn…
like this kinda thing happened to him every day.
That was a beautiful thing.
Beautiful because Mike in those moments just kept being Mike.
The guy just wanted to knock back a bag of cheese popcorn and all of the sudden half a dozen lenses were documenting his little munch session.
He never flinched or reacted physically to the whole thing.
He was all wrapped up in cool.
I don’t remember what I said to Mike…
because I usually make some small talk when I’m shootin’ someone like that.
Mike just let me in there for a few seconds to do what I do and that was that.
It was all over in less than a minute.
Dude kept munchin’ on the kernals even as I showed him the shots.
He just kinda smiled and nodded his approval…
somehow conveying that he dug the pictures but I don’t even remember him saying that.
It was really a ‘hit and run’ shot.
What is it that I love about this photograph?
A couple of things.
First and foremost it really captures everything that I saw in Mike in those few seconds.
That doesn’t happen a lot.
It frustrates me to no end when I look at pictures… as good as they might be technically and visually and I realize that although they’re satisfactory images…
they just failed to capture what I saw in the moment with my own eyes.
I constantly struggle with that.
When you look at this picture you’re not only seeing exactly what I was seeing when I shot Mike…
I’ve got a feeling that you’re ‘feeling’ what I felt.
I dig when that happens.
It’s like frickin’ magic.
I’m too close for you to see Mike’s body…
but he never tensed up.
You can see that in his shoulders and in his face.
The dude was as chill as chill gets.
Just like he’d have been if you walked up to him and asked him for directions or something.
I like that there’s the beginning of a reaction…
that ‘crack’ of smile that suggests the next moments were pleasant and not a big deal to Mike…
he didn’t consider my presence in his personal space too intrusive.
I actually felt welcome.
That’s always nice.
I shoot with a wide open aperature even in great light.
And there was some great light when I took this shot.
A wonderful overcast…
‘God’s softbox’ I call it.
I remember the other photographers not diggin’ the light that day.
And all I was thinkin’ was ‘this is the shit’…
it’s perfect light.
But you rarely see the sky in my shots.
A lot of them were after architecture shots and stuff like that.
They wanted crisp blue skies.
Those ruin my closeups with their harsh shadows and too much contrast.
I’ll take overcast any day.
That light, Mike’s mojo and my wide open aperature conspired to produce a depth of field effect that makes you feel like you’re right there…
an effect that cannot be obtained using a long lens and cropping a shot to make it look like you were close when you took it.
That makes you ‘feel’ intimate with Mike when you’re looking at his photograph.
Mike’s demeanor makes you feel ok with it too.
You don’t feel guilty for being there.
I’ve learned that the best shots make you ‘feel’ something…
something that doesn’t express itself to you in words in your inner dialogue…
but a feeling that makes you struggle as much as I to place words on those emotions.
I discovered that right after I started doing street closeups.
All of the sudden people were sending me messages…
they were concerned about what I was doing…
that I was gonna get my ass kicked because I was getting too close.
I didn’t understand it at first.
Why didn’t that happen when I cropped shots or used a longer lens?
I don’t have the answer for that but I know that the style I’ve evolved into is powerful at getting the viewer involved emotionally with the subject…
sometimes photographers take it to a deeper level when they look at shots like this and they put themselves in my shoes and relate to the shot that way.
It’s cool stuff.
I knew I was on to something and I’m going to keep working to create shots that elicit the emotional response before the intellectual response like that.
I think the shot is dramatic in that it makes you want to know more about Mike.
It does that to me and I was there.
I looked at it later that day and it pulled me in.
Who was Mike?
What’s his story?
I may never know.
The viewer knows they’ll probably never know.
But the photograph inspires those questions before reason sets in and the viewer accepts that reality.
The photograph moves one to ‘fill in the blanks.’
At that point it’s no longer a photograph of Popcorn Mike but a ‘Rorschach inkblot’ test like the good doctor who doesn’t judge you gives you when your spouse makes you see him.
Mike becomes whatever your feelings are about strangers… personal space… people on the street… society.
In that way each of us is sure to look at this photograph differently.
I wanna give Mike a hug.
Some people might want to get out the pepper spray.
We’re each on our own with that.
I feel like I succeeded in wrapping Mike in that shallow depth of field perfectly in this shot.
I’m constantly looking for that when I’m shooting someone up close.
I’ll hold my finger on the preview button and make the aperature open up so I can see the effect through the viewfinder…
I’ll adjust the angles to try and get it right on perfectly.
I’m happy with the way I got Mike in there.
His nose is ‘soft’ and so are his ears.
And there’s that lovely bokeh by-product behind him for it.
Someone once called it ‘the kiss of Viewminder’ in a comment under one of my shots and I’m driven to perfect it.
The style wasn’t intentional…
it came about by necessity as I shot people on dark streets without flash at night.
I wanted to capture them as I saw them without modifying the light with flash.
Big aperature captured all the light that I could get and put it right on my sensor where I needed ot to be.
I fell in love with the results and even in the day I shoot the same way.
I like the wrinkles forming on Mike’s forehead.
They’re thoughtful and they invoke a certain sense of movement.
It’s a still shot but there’s motion in it.
If you blew up the shot enough you’d see two perfect reflections of me in Mike’s eyes.
That always strikes me.
It’s kind of personal.
Everything lined up just right to capture all of that in a way that made me happy with the image.
But there was something more pulling me towards this image.
It really conveys Mike’s humanity.
At least to me.
Mike’s a human being.
The details in the photograph… the pores and the wrinkles… the tiny hairs all prove it.
The evidence of time and toil are apparent.
Popcorn Mike’s been on a long journey.
There’s one thing that really hits me when I look at the shot.
It makes Mike glow.
I mean he really glows in this shot.
It’s warm and vibrant…
the colors and the tones are rich…
more so than I saw with my own eyes in the movement of the moment.
I bumped up the saturation to ‘plus two’ and pushed the contrast up four… but that’s it for post processing.
That and the square crop that’s the full width of the original frame.
I like that part of it a lot.
It makes Mike look beautiful to me.
The warmth comes through my screen.
He just looks so alive in this shot.
It’d be great if there was some wonderful story behind this shot that added some interest…
but there’s not.
And that’s cool.
It’s just a spontaneous photograph of a regular guy standing on the street eating popcorn.
Our paths crossed for a minute or two on this crazy journey called life and this photograph is all that remains of that interaction.
It’s the one photograph that stands out to me more than all of the others.
It’s my best shot.
I really appreciate being able to share it with you.
Have a wonderful and warm new year.
I hope all of your dreams and wishes move towards fruition in 2012.
Be good to each other.
Love and light.