Photo Prose

By Gary Rabenko

Sometimes all the best intentions and advice do not work. We can learn from other people’s experiences. But watching how a situation tends to develop and continues to unfold for others allows us an opportunity to draw some nuggets of wisdom that can be extrapolated to our situation or applied in the future. Sometimes it helps us appreciate where we are coming from and the decisions we make. Sometimes it leads us to be happier with those decisions.

Photographers can often be misunderstood. Those that truly care and want to do good can be resisted and prevented from doing what they could do, due to this lack of understanding, to the point that they are not able to produce the superior results that they strive for. On the other hand, lesser photographers with minimal skills and substance can often be considered the defining standard of a professional photographer because they have always been helpful and are around the community always volunteering or being there when photos are needed. I have known people to lessen their interest in photographers because of the low-level results that they experienced from the pro they already knew.

Sometimes a better vendor is limited from providing the stellar results he is known for by situations beyond his control. That is sad, when it could have been avoided. The question is how. And is it something we can learn from?

Photographers learn from these experiences. Most will tell you that they have learned how everyone is different. One never knows what to expect and, sadly, you cannot please everyone. I care, I try to learn from my mistakes, and I want my clients to be pleased. I know that is not always possible in an industry where it has always been said: “the most important picture is the one the photographer missed!” Rather I suggest that the missed photo may not have been so important. Considering that if it was so vital, if it was the single most important photo of the whole contract, then would it not have been prudent to tell the photographer this up front? The glass breaking, for example, is important. How important is it to you? If you tell me that it is the most important, then I would speak to the rabbi, the eidem, the parents, and siblings–all to be sure that we have an uninterrupted view. I would not stop until a perfect shot was most likely. But considering we often cannot see people’s faces from the back, nor the foot or the glass from the front, and that the best shot of the foot in mid-air is no proof that the moment to come actually saw the glass’s demise, many realize that perhaps that shot is not the most important after all–once they have it, of course.

Sometimes photographers might learn not to try so hard. Here is a situation that still sticks with me. It’s a complicated scenario and I still ask myself, what is the point–what does it mean?

A family of five booked me for their son’s bar mitzvah. The grandmother used to enjoy browsing my photography and recommended her son hire me. “He is an artist,” she said about me. They booked me for the party, knowing I was personally unavailable but would be sending a crew. A midweek session in their home was also booked that I would personally do. I was excited about their project. I loved the grandmother and having done their friends’ events, wished I could be there for the party. So, when they decided to have a local Sunday brunch on the rosh chodesh before the party, I volunteered to do a few shots, so they would have more of my personal touch.

First was the home shoot. I came to do exciting, interesting, and meaningful photography of all the family members. From the start, the father only wanted to talk to me about how I make my big prints. As I kept talking about emotional things and the bar mitzvah, he would interrupt with technical questions that did not celebrate the bar mitzvah and the family at this important time, but actually isolated and distanced himself from those moments. Their baby was adorable, but also a terrible two. The mother was trying to strong-arm her into posing. Repeatedly I would advise the mother to tell her how beautiful she was, how pretty, to talk to her about her new dress, her toys, and how she is feeling. But repeatedly she would ignore me, as if she did not hear me, and would simply continue to struggle and discipline the girl while telling the girl to smile for the camera–which is exactly the one thing I suggested she not do. I wondered if as loud as I was speaking, she perhaps did not hear me, because she insisted on doing the opposite, over and over again. Later, the father would tell me that the wife found my advice of how to talk to her daughter insulting, as if she did not know how to be a good mother! Wow. Nothing was farther from my intent. I simply know that you get more with compliments, and a shy, difficult child who wants attention will respond well to a nurturing and loving voice. It works every time. The parents and other children allowed that single terrible-two to totally dominate the shoot and made much else very difficult. It’s good to give the vocal child a break in that case. Let her relax and calm down. Their nanny was home, but they insisted on passing the child all around, sucking up all the time, until they were ready to pass out. All the other family members beaten up by that one child. Well, maybe I would do better at the brunch.

I offered them the option of my photographing the actual bar mitzvah that Sunday morning. But they opted just for the one hour’s courtesy visit. It was a good time to get all the very large extended family in a photo.

That was their goal. Mine was to do some meaningful photography of their immediate family and maybe some great shots of the grandparents, as well as the parent’s siblings in various combinations.

The father told me to ask his wife what she wanted. It was all up to her, he explained. She insisted that she only wanted the one large group of both families together . . . though she had not much family and his was very large. She had stepped away from her guests to tell me this–one large group. No one else will have patience. I knew the grandmother would have plenty of patience, and the older kids and the parents, and why not the uncles and aunts. But she only wanted the group. “That was it!” she insisted. Well OK. “Maybe it would be a good idea to know how large a group,” I thought. “Just one question; how large–how many people?” I asked.

So reader, you understand, all I was asking for was a number. I had no limit and no problem doing any amount of people, I just wanted to be prepared because those sizes require different techniques and this way I would not keep them waiting. I prefaced it with the word “approximately.” I was expecting a two-second response like 25, or maybe 15, or possibly 85. Approximately.

Instead, she spent a few minutes thinking of and naming each of the persons in the group. I did not know if she was counting or if I was, but her guests were trying to get her attention, and I felt bad. I did not mean to monopolize her. So when she got up to about 20, I said, “It’s OK, I do not need to know the relationships or the names, just approximately: 20, 40, 60, 80?” Would you believe, she started listing them one by one all over again! After about 30 names, I interrupted her and said, “Please, it’s OK, a large group. No problem. Thank you. Your friends need you,” I gestured. Maybe she liked the mental challenge, but her response was to start enumerating all the names over again, I guess in an obsessive-compulsive attempt to give me the exact count. But she was not ever to finish. Her husband came over with a drink in hand and explained to me that I cannot detain his wife any longer!

Only to photographers, my friends. Only to photographers! v

Gary Rabenko may be reached at Rabenko Photography & Video Artists is located at 1001 Broadway in Woodmere.


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