Ever since I wrote this I’ve been thinking about why I enjoy shooting photographs of traffic signals. I’d never really given it much thought before.
I first photographed traffic signals in 2009, as part of the Utata Storytellers project. The project ended, but I continued to wander around and shoot the signals. I wasn’t trying to make a point or suggest something meaningful—I just wanted to create a certain mood. The traffic signals were just the compositional device that tied the various photographs together.
But having finally turned my mind to the idea, I think I’ve figured out why I’m drawn to traffic signals. First, they’re all essentially the same—one stoplight looks pretty much like another, one Walk/Don’t Walk signal is identical to all the others. But the backgrounds change. What I like is the continuity of the subject matter and the variety of the surroundings. I enjoy finding the best angle from which to photograph the signal, finding the right light, finding the right moment. There are some traffic signals I want to photograph, but not until the shadows are right. There are some that will, I believe, only become an interesting composition if there’s a person in the frame. I’ll sometimes wait ten, fifteen, thirty minutes hoping for just the right person to walk into the frame—and then I need to catch them at just the right point and, it’s to be hoped, in a posture that complements the traffic signal.
I enjoy this because sometimes it’s incredibly easy and sometimes it’s incredibly difficult. I enjoy this because there are traffic signals wherever I go. I enjoy this because even though the photographs are about traffic signals, they’re not really about traffic signals at all. They’re about being alert to possibilities.
I was in the skywalk when I spotted this kid strolling down the sidewalk and texting. I probably wouldn’t have paid him any attention at all if he hadn’t come to a sudden John Belushi-style halt. He sort of bounced up and down on his toes for a moment, then rushed over to the standpipe, sat himself down, and began texting furiously.
I started to take his photograph, then hesitated. There was something about his posture that led me to think he wasn’t getting pleasant news. I watched for a bit, feeling sorry for the kid and feeling a little guilty for spying on him in his misery. At least I assumed he was in misery; for all I know he could have been involved in some furious last-minute Ebay bidding on an autographed Lady Gaga poster.
So I stood there for a moment. It occurred to me that I’d have had no hesitation shooting his photo if he’d appeared happy–so why shouldn’t I take the shot just because he seemed distressed? Why should his mood be the deciding factor on whether or not I take a photograph? Why should that matter?
But it did. All the same, I shot the photograph. I felt like a voyeur, and in the end I only shot the one frame–but I took the shot. Afterwards, I found an exit from the skywalk and strolled over to the drugstore, though I’m not sure what my purpose was. I guess I thought maybe I’d see or hear something that would give me some hint as to the kid’s mood. But by the time I got there, he was gone.
I wish now I’d taken my time and shot three or four frames. If you’re going to do a thing, whether it’s morally questionable or not, you may as well do it properly.
I like to think that at heart I’m really a black-and-white sort of guy. Not in my worldview, but in photography. B&W is all about form and shape, without any of that distracting color. B&W is visceral. You see the shot and it passes directly from your eyes through your balls and straight to the finger on the shutter. B&W is Tom Waits.
I like to think that at heart I’m a black-and-white sort of guy…but I’m not. Oh, I can get close to it now and then—I can visit the territory, but I don’t belong there and I’ll never be a resident. I do enjoy passing through, though.
I used to dislike giving titles to photographs. Then, for reasons I’ve never bothered to try to understand, I began to enjoy giving titles to photographs. Sometimes the title means something; sometimes it’s just a word or phrase that makes an otter slide into my head and I slap it on the photo.
I did that this morning. I was getting ready to post a faux Polaroid in my traffic signal series and I needed a title. I called it Lodestone. No idea why. I wasn’t entirely certain I knew what a lodestone was—a primitive magnet of some sort used as a compass?
It turns out a lodestone is a naturally occurring magnetized mineral called (are you ready for this?) magnetite. But what’s really interesting is that lode is the original spelling of load, and in Middle English it meant a path or a course. Somewhere around the 16th century, miners began to speak of following a vein of ore through the rock—following the lode. They would then carry the lode (load) out, and eventually folks began to differentiate between lode and load.
Because magnetized stone would, if suspended, always point North, a lodestone was a stone that showed one the way.
I still don’t have any idea what that has to do with the photograph. But I learned something new. So there’s that.