Photographer Don Usner photographs lowriders, among other subjects related to his lifelong love for Northern New Mexico’s natural and cultural history. The cars, he says, “are incredible creations, beautiful art pieces.” But he adds that his work is “more about the people and seeing the cars as an expression of their cultural ethos. What’s exciting and rewarding about this kind of photography is the engagement and contact with people and the exchanges of ideas and inspiration about art.”
Usner will be teaching a three-day workshop this month at Santa Fe Photographic Workshops, introducing students to lowrider culture and how to photograph it. He shared with PDN some advice he’ll give his students about approaching subjects, overcoming fear, and making photographs that tell human stories.
PDN: How do you get students to see not just cars, but the larger car culture?
Don Usner: For me, it’s about communication. If I form a good relationship with the person I’m photographing, and I have a meaningful, warm exchange, that’s the most important thing. If I get a good picture also, that’s icing on the cake. But the first step to getting a photo is establishing a relationship that is mutually trusting and open. There’s a notion among photographers that you go in and get the shot and get out. I’d like to cultivate the notion that it’s more about forming a relationship that both people [photographer and subject] feel good about. Then if there’s a photograph out of it, that’s even better.
PDN: What’s your advice to students for developing those kinds of relationships?
DU: I tell them to be open, to be curious, to be inquisitive and to listen and try and really appreciate what the person is presenting. I also advise that if somebody is not comfortable having their picture taken, you courteously acknowlege that and say and be content with the exchange regardless of the outcome photographically. It lends a sense of trust that allows people to be more themselves, and share more of themselves.
PDN: What do you find the students struggle with the most? What’s the biggest challenge for them?
DU: People have a fear of approaching strangers and asking to take their picture, and being comfortable in the role of a photographer. That is somehow intimidating for people. I find that students are tenataitve about being open and saying, “Here’s who I am, I want to know who you are, and I want to tak eyoure picture,” and getting past that fear that you’re going to be rejected, or that you’re violating somebody’s personal space.
PDN: How do you help them get past that fear?
DU: I encourage them to be curious, open, light, respectful, and to show some of themesleves, too. Make it a two-way conversation, and open up avenues for dialogue: “ I used to have a ’57 chevy,” or whatever. It’s all about the attitude and openness and not being apologetic about the fact that you’re a photographer. In my own practice, I have a camera around my neck, I get out of my car, I walk right up to people and the camera’s right on me, so there’s no secret, and there’s no mincing words: “I’m a photographer, I’m here, I want to meet you, I want to learn about you”. And I’m not ashamed of it, you know?
PDN: What’s your advice for students who are introverts, or who aren’t good conversationalists?
DU: Just to be yourself. If you’re an introvert, that’s OK, but you still have to make contact. And you can do that in the context of: “This is kind of awkward for me. I’m not used to engagine people and asking to take their picture, but I’d like to do it.” It’s just a matter of honesty. I’ve had tremendous introverts do really well, because people relate to that: “Oh, yeah I’m kind of an introvert, too, and we can do this without a lot of words.” You don’t have to pretend or project but you have to overcome your own fears of trying to make a point of contact, whatever the tone of it is.
PDN: How do segue from making a connection to taking good pictures?
DU: It has to be a spontaneous process. If the moment arises, you ask: “Can I get a picture of you by your car?” Or: “Can you show me how this part of your car works?” Fortunately, this particular population is proud of their creations and not camra shy. They’re more than happy to cooperate. Then technique comes in: how to compose a picture, how to include important elements of a car or its environment. I don’t like to isolate cars as objects, but to see them in context. What’s the yard like, what’s the garage like, what’s the family like that’s often nearby? It’s about the physical environment and cultural enviroment, and tuning into that to find compositions that include elements that tell the story about this culture and these individuals. Its ultimately about telling the story.
PDN: How do you get it all into one frame?
DU: You look for the salient elements that tell most eloquently the story your’e seeing, or that reveal the character of the person you’re photographing. As a fallback, you can use a wide angle lens and photograph the car from every conceivable angle. But more intelligently, or sensitively, it’s noticing that, well, this guy is really into this aspect of his car—maybe it’s his connection to the mural that’s painted on it. That’s where his passion is, that’s where he’s invested himself, so I want to get him talking about that, and pointing to it or being near it. I was in a guy’s garage and he’s really into speed. On the wall was a picture of his car with the tires really burning up in a drag race. So his portrait was with that [picture] beside him. It’s a process of trying to become aware and keeping open to what’s presenting itself. There’s always a photograph presenting itself. It’s just a matter of opening yourself up to realize it.
Usner’s workshop, “Exploring the Lowrider Culture in Northern New Mexico: Capture to Print,” takes place October 14-17 in Santa Fe. See complete details at the Santa Fe Photographic Workshops website.
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