With the arrival of November and the seriously cold weather, I just put my motorcycle away for the season. The way I was taught to “winterize” my bike involves a series of steps; changing the oil/filter, filling the gas tank and then chemically treating that new fuel. The last step involves partly disassembling the motorcycle in order to remove the battery, which comes inside with me for the winter. At the end, I look back with a bit of sadness at my pride and joy because she is splayed in pieces across the garage, as I pull the garage door shut. The whole process is slow, precise and requires a certain methodology. At the same time, it also marks the change of seasons for me.
The season I am about to enter is of course, winter, but it is also the time of year when I am no longer able to ride my motorcycle a few times a week. As much as I will miss the sheer joy of riding, what I have come to realize is that I will also miss the way that riding keeps my seeing and reaction skills at their highest. That lead me to thinking about what I (or any photographer) do intentionally or coincidentally, to maintain those very important skills.
When I teach workshops, I raise this question by telling my students that about four days after the class they will be the best photographer they have ever been. I say that, because it takes a few days after any class for all the lessons of the class to be fully internalized by the students. I tease them that the following Wednesday they will be as good as Ansel Adams or Henri Cartier-Bresson. I then go on to scare them by saying that within another week they will have lost much of what they learned. My point is to get them thinking about some kind of regimen/routine/ practice system in order to maintain or even build upon what they learned in the class. Workshops are one way to do that, but so are camera clubs, competitions or critique groups.
In trying to better understand what I do to maintain my seeing and reaction skills, I first looked carefully at all the work I have done over the last five years. It became quite apparent that the majority of my photographing happened during the non-motorcycle riding season. (I know this because I have used a uniform naming convention for organizing all of my digital files since I ”went digital” in 2003. It is pretty easy to track when I was photographing based on the image names on my various hard drives, because my naming convention includes month, year and some brief location information. )
Pondering how I unintentionally subdivided my year into two seasons first lead me to thinking about how I plan my schedule so the bulk of my workshops are held in warmer climates. The preference for escaping the winter cold of New England seems logical (and obvious.) What is less obvious, until I looked at it recently, was how those workshops mostly also take place in the non-riding season.
A workshop in Guatemala or India in February is certainly pleasant, climate wise, but I now realize those also help me keep my seeing and reaction skills at their best. In those workshops, I am out photographing every day, along side the students, in the field. Though not all the classes are formally about street photography, the bulk of what I do is in fact street photography. I have to be just as much “on,” and in the “zone,” on the streets of Bangalore, India as I am when I am riding my motorcycle back home.
Just like on the streets of New England, things are coming at me from every direction, some traffic is not following the rules and people do unexpected things at the oddest moments. Whether dealing with traffic in New England is more or less risky than dealing with traffic in Guatemala is another issue. In both cases, I have to be thinking fast, because so much is coming at me from every direction.
I wonder how many other street photographers are motorcycle riders, consciously or subconsciously refining their photographing skills atop a bike. I am not advocating motorcycle riding as a training regimen for all street photographers, but it has helped me. What I am thinking about, as I think every serious photographer should be, is how to maintain your skills as a photographer throughout the year. Photographing twice a year is hardly the way to grow as a photographer. Photography, like motorcycle riding or speaking a foreign language requires weekly practice. I am about to start my workshop season so I know I will be continually practicing my skills. What will you be doing about that?