For whatever reason, I am happy to pull out my phone or camera or even the awkward iPad and take photos wherever I find myself. The exception to that is portraiture – bad enough when I know the subject, beyond daunting when I don’t. That’s why, when you look through my billions of images, you’ll rarely see one that includes a recognizable person. It’s a shame, really, because people are endlessly fascinating and certainly worthy of being photographed. But there’s something about invading people’s privacy and stealing their souls that makes me anxious. So, I generally wait until passers-by get out of the way before snapping the photo.
Maybe that’s why I enjoy Humans of New York so much. Brandon Stanton’s work taking photos of people in New York is both disarming and captivating. The combination of deceptively straightforward images and the stories of the people he photographs is endlessly entertaining. Not in a funny way (though, sometimes the anecdotes are pretty amusing) but also often in deeply touching ways. More than once since I became a HONY groupie (groupy?) years ago I have been moved to tears after seeing an image and reading the accompanying text.
Not that this is a post about street photography or candid portraits. Over the past couple of weeks as I’ve been trying to draw something every day, there have often been times where the available time to do a sketch was in public somewhere… in a waiting room, at a ferry dock, on a plane or at a coffee shop.
I have forced myself to surreptitiously pull out my notebook and draw something, but oh my, it’s excruciating. First, it’s physically challenging to contort myself so I hide as much of what I’m doing as I can from curious eyes. I cross my legs to make a sort of angled platform for the notebook and then ‘rest’ my right arm over the page while leaving just enough of the drawing peeking out that I can sort of see what I’m doing. People are curious, of course. I would certainly wander over to peek at someone’s work if they were sitting out in public somewhere, drawing. So why the shyness? I’m keenly aware that I’m not very good – and, that this does not matter. But who likes to think that the response from an onlooker will be ‘dear God, why is that woman wasting her time? What is that she’s trying to draw?’
At the hospital the other day, I was waiting with Dad in a small room off to the side of the main emergency room waiting area when the lab tech came in to take a blood sample. I was sketching something from a photo I had taken over the weekend (oh, how much do I love having so many photos at my fingertips on my cell phone???) and the lab tech stopped and asked, “Are you sketching?” I nodded and blushed but before I could say anything else she started going on about how in all the years she had been working at the hospital she had never seen anyone drawing while waiting. “People are always on their phones! Their heads are down. They aren’t paying attention to anyone else. This is so cool!”
She didn’t actually come over to see what I was working on, but the whole time she was busy with Dad she kept talking. “We all used to draw, didn’t we? And color? They say it’s very therapeutic – relaxing. Why did we ever stop? Why did we ever stop playing? Why do they take the swings out of the middle school playgrounds?”
What excellent questions! What the heck happens to us when we grow up and get all serious and think that everything we do either needs to have a dollar sign attached to it or has to meet someone else’s standards of good enough? She wasn’t the only one to note the strange shift that happens at some point in our childhoods when we stop experimenting and trying stuff. Dani also made a comment when she was looking over my shoulder at a truly awful rendition of a lily I was struggling with and observed, “We all stop drawing as eight-year-olds. That’s why our drawings all look like they were done by eight-year-olds.”
It’s true. My lily was crude, but not in a good, sophisticated Picasso-esque kind of way. It was just badly drawn and the colour was wrong and there was something terribly skewed about the perspective. Kind of like what I might have come up with when I was about eight. For so many years I have kept that eight-year-old kid artist wannabe locked up, banished to a darkened room without access to coloured pencils. Now, suddenly, she has burst out of her room and gone mad!
What is interesting about my recent efforts is that for some odd reason I seem to have reconnected with my eight-year-old self and am treating her much more kindly. I am so enjoying exploring different materials, techniques, subjects, approaches as I blunder my way from page to page in my notebooks. It’s fun to be messy, to be wrong, to make mistakes. There is nowhere to go from here but up! To facilitate this progress (because I have to believe that if I keep going, there will be progress), I am determined to get as comfortable whipping out a sketchbook when I see something interesting as I am pulling out my camera or sitting down to write in my journal (or, as I am doing right now, typing on my iPad). I used to be a bit embarrassed about that, too, but in terms of writing in public, I have done it so often I don’t even think twice about settling in wherever I find myself.
I’m writing this while on a plane heading from the coast to Calgary. I’m inches away from my seat-mate, who is watching something on her iPhone. Outside the window, we are descending into fields of crazy big puffy white clouds… I stop my writing, flip the iPad over and aim it out the window and snap a few reference shots. I’ll sketch those clouds a bit later. Maybe even in the airport, at a coffee shop, while I’m waiting for my shuttle to take me back to the mountains.