Photograph Ordinary Things


Don't Overlook Ordinary Things

AJs Fine Foods
Candy jars
clam dinner
Hotel room
Macaroni Grill
Ontario, California, La Quinta Inn
Reuben's Mexican
Suppose you discover that a distant relative was an avid photographer back in the 1920's and that you have inherited a recently discovered box of her old photos. What would hope to find among those photos?  Would you hope for photos of:
  1. Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon
  2. Beautiful sunsets
  3. Her family and children
  4. The houses and stores in the town where she lived
  5. Her kitchen and the food prepared for supper
I would be least interested in (1) and (2) and most interested in (4) and (5). The family photos would be of some interest just to see how people dressed in that place and time. There are old photos of men climbing a mountain dressed in coat and tie. Photos of the Grand Canyon and of sunsets would not be hoped for because there are so many of them, including ones taken by master photographers under the best conditions of lighting and weather. Modern photos will be sharp and in color, which counts for grand scenics. There are pictures of houses and stores from bygone eras, but it would be interesting to see the area were the old lady lived. If there were a lot of photographs, perhaps it would show how people made a living and got around, perhaps by boat or train. But, I argue, the most mundane pictures, the kitchen and supper, might well be the most interesting. They would show what it was really like to live in that place at that time. Maybe there would be a hand pump at the sink and a real ice box with blocks of ice ...

The passage of time relative to things that change makes the mundane exciting.  The Grand Canyon loses, in some sense, because it does not change. This strikes in several ways. For one thing, you get older. If you haven't reached that point yet, someday you be recalling things that happened fifty years ago and wishing you had pictures to go with the memories.  Less obvious, ordinary things complete the picture of what a place was like, including places visited relatively recently. Thus if you visit a tropical paradise, surely capture the sunset -- but also the shops, the food, and some of the details of the place.

Here are some ordinary things
  • Plates of food [Notice how food keeps cropping up in my discussions?]
  • Store window displays
  • Goods stacked up for sale
  • Shops side-by-side on a street
  • Hotel and restaurant interiors
  • Local people and tourists showing how they dress
  • Closeups of individual plants, flowers, and fruits
  • Children playing
  • Local people playing sports or picnicking
  • Busy street scenes
  • Markets and vendor stands
  • Community bulletin boards, such as those posted in markets. Whether they offer yoga lessons, firewood, or taxidermy tells a lot about the character of the place.
  • Points of sign overload, through advertising, directions, or lists of rules
  • Roads and autos
If you have traveled a long way to Bali or Singapore the crowds and markets are likely to seem exotic, not ordinary. In that case you won't need a reminder to take some pictures. Be aware that when people travel a long way to your home town, they are likely to see it as exotic. One older traveler from China to the United States was unimpressed by the Grand Canyon. Nice scenery, yes, but there is nice scenery in many places. The profusion of goods for sale in supermarkets, however, was mind boggling.

None of this is to suppose that scenery or sunsets or exotic plants and animals should be downplayed. Beautiful and interesting things are, well, beautiful and interesting. Nor is the argument to make art out of broken light bulbs; if you can do that, fine, but that is not my point here. The point is that more things are interesting than one might suppose. Mix in shots of ordinary things with your picture taking.


Notes on the photos at right:  The hotel room image is a vertically stitched panorama, yielding a wide angle view from a pocket camera. The wine bottles and flowers were on the wait station in a Macaroni Grill chain restaurant; I put the camera on a water glass for the long exposure. The lobby of the Ontario, California, La Quinta Inn is a panorama stitch of three images. The fast food restaurant shot, Rubio's in Vallejo, California, is a stitch of two images.