Tag Archives: arizona

Autumn Gold

Flanked by evergreen pines, an aspen stand near the North Rim of Grand Canyon National Park shines golden beneath a September sky. (Bill Ferris)

Flanked by evergreen pines, an aspen stand near the North Rim of Grand Canyon National Park shines golden beneath an autumn sky. (Bill Ferris)

It’s October. Mornings are crisp, shadows grow long by mid-afternoon and evening descends just a little too early for this boy of summer. But such annoyances are minor in comparison to the rewards of autumn’s arrival. In northern Arizona, photographic opportunities abound as the aspens are turning. Northern Arizona doesn’t enjoy the cornucopia of color that makes a northeastern US a mecca for leaf peepers. That said, the area has much to entice the dedicated nature photographer. Aspens abound at elevations of 7,000-feet and higher. Whether you make the North Rim of Grand Canyon or the Ponderosa pine and aspen forests surrounding Flagstaff your destination of choice, autumn gold will be the featured attraction for photographers visiting this region of the Southwest US, this month.

On the North Rim, the curtain is ready to come down on yet another summer season. At mid-month, the North Rim Lodge will close until next May and the first significant snowfall of winter will mark the official closing of Highway 67. But for a brief period from the end of September through mid-October, the forests and meadows are alive with color. Fall color on the North Rim peaks early in Arizona. With an average elevation of about 8,000-feet, the chill of autumn arrives just a bit earlier and yields to winter well before Christmas.

A lone Ponderosa Pine stands amidst a collection of towering aspens along the Inner Basin Trail in the San Francisco Peaks near Flagstaff, Arizona. (Bill Ferris)

A lone Ponderosa Pine stands amidst a collection of towering aspens along the Inner Basin Trail in the San Francisco Peaks near Flagstaff, Arizona. (Bill Ferris)

Closer to home near Flagstaff, Lockett Meadow and hiking trails along the base of the San Francisco peaks offer access to colorfully garnished aspen stands. Lockett Meadow is my favorite destination of choice for leaf peeping, near home. The Kachina Trail connecting Arizona Snowbowl with the Weatherford Trail near Schultz Pass Road is another favorite. If your personal or business travel brings you to Arizona, this month, add a day or two side trip to Flagstaff or the North Rim of Grand Canyon to your itinerary. Golden views will be your reward.

Oh, and bring a camera so you can get out and shoot.

Bill Ferris | October 2015


Warm early morning light casts a golden glow on the canyon floor visible through Mesa Arch in Canyonlands National Monument. (Bill Ferris)

Warm early morning light casts a golden glow on the canyon floor visible through Mesa Arch in Canyonlands National Park. (Bill Ferris)

Photography is a democratizing pursuit. How so? Well, it is often said that the camera is not the most critical element of a great photograph. The most critical element is the photographer, the person who makes the image. An eye for composition, an understanding of the role light plays in transforming a nice view into a stunning scene, and a knowledge of how to manipulate a camera’s controls and settings to achieve the envisioned photo are the most important tools a photographer brings to the craft.

The unsung and often ignored quality all great photographers bring to the table is dedication. In a nutshell, dedication can be defined as your willingness to give up something of value in order to achieve something of equal or greater value. The above photograph of Mesa Arch in Canyonlands National Park illustrates the matter.

July 27, 2014 was hot and muggy in southern Utah. I had begun the day photographing sunrise in Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park in northern Arizona. Afterwards, I enjoyed breakfast at The View Hotel along with a number of guests just beginning their respective days. The drive north along state highways 163 and 191 delivered me to Moab, Utah at lunchtime. Moab is the gateway community to Arches and Canyonlands national parks. After lunch, the balance of my day was devoted to driving into Arches to the Delicate Arch parking area, making the 1.5-mile hike to the arch and waiting for a golden hour that never really materialized.

July happens to be the heart of the summer monsoon in the Southwest US. This seasonal weather patterned is defined by hot, muggy conditions, increasing cloudiness during the day and afternoon thunderstorms. The afternoon clouds were so thick on this day that they blocked the sweet, warm late-day light from painting Delicate Arch. The most dramatic thunderstorm activity was well off to the north. As a result, conditions just didn’t come together to make for a compelling photographic opportunity on this day.

After sunset, I made the return hike to my vehicle and, along the way, considered the available options. The issue occupying my thinking was, how should I spend the next morning? Should I find a place to photograph sunrise or just hit the road? July 28, I needed to drive 5 1/2 hours to Denver, where I would pick up my wife and son at the airport. They were flying in from New York. I was in the midst of the drive up from Flagstaff. After connecting, the three of us were going to spend a week in Estes Park exploring Rocky Mountain National Park.

There were plenty of good reasons to skip the sunrise photo expedition: the monsoon would probably play havoc with the early morning light; I had a long drive ahead and the rest would do me, well; there was almost always a crowd at Mesa Arch competing for the best locations. In the end, there was just one reason to follow through on my plan to photograph sunrise at Mesa Arch: it might be spectacular. That being reason enough, I left Arches National Park and – rather than heading back to Moab to find a hotel – turned north to make the drive to Canyonlands.

The decision grew less wise and more foolish as I drove through the darkening evening hours. Thunderstorm activity increased the further north I drove. Setting up my tent at a campground a few miles outside the entrance to Canyonlands, rain began to fall. I hurried to finish making camp and climbed into my sleeping bag just as the first deluge of the night began. I never slept more than an hour at a stretch, the occasional thunderclaps and constant patter of rain teaming to interrupt any semblance of restful sleep. When my watch alarm went off at 3:30 AM, I gave serious thought to just staying in the tent and getting more sleep.

But sunrise at Mesa Arch might – despite clouds, thunderclaps and rain – be spectacular.

So, I unzipped the sleeping bag and began to pack up. Leaving the campground, I drove through the darkness and into Canyonlands National Park. Through the windshield, it appeared the rain clouds were breaking up. Or was that just wishful thinking? Pulling into the parking lot for Mesa Arch trailhead, mine was the first vehicle on the scene. “Well,” I thought, “If it does clear, at least I’ll have my pick of spots to set up for the shot.”

Clear, it did. My dedication – however wishful or foolish in its origin – was rewarded with a fine sunrise at Mesa Arch. To be sure, this wasn’t the most dramatic of sunrises. Though warm and red, the intensity of the dawn light was muted by lingering clouds. But it was still beautiful. It was worth the worry, the sacrifice and the effort to awaken in darkness, eat a cold breakfast, remain optimistic in the face of bad weather, hike through the mist, choose my spot and to wait in hope that something magical would emerge from this monsoon morning. I could have taken the easy path. I could have driven into Moab, gotten a hotel room and slept in comfort through the night and the sunrise.

If I had, I would have missed sunrise at Mesa Arch. Now, get out there and shoot.

Bill Ferris | December 2014


Arizona fundraisers and non-profit organizations gathered at Prescott Resort to celebrate 2014 National Philanthropy Day.

Arizona fundraisers and non-profit organizations gathered at Prescott Resort to celebrate 2014 National Philanthropy Day. (Bill Ferris Photography)

I recently had the opportunity to photograph and document a 2014 National Philanthropy Day celebration at Prescott Resort. My wife, founding partner of GoalBusters Consulting and a long time fundraising professional, asked me to be the photographer for the event and I readily accepted. While my first love in photography is landscapes, I have been actively seeking opportunities to expand my horizons – and develop new skill sets – by doing portraiture, sports and event photography. Taking on this assignment would not only allow me to grow my event photography portfolio, it would be an opportunity to give back by volunteering my time and talent in support of people who make it their daily mission to improve the lives of others through the arts, charitable and other not-for-profit organizations.

My task list was fairly straightforward; make photographs of the following:

  • Award plaques
  • Speakers making remarks at the podium
  • Each honoree with their presenter
  • Group shots of the honorees and also of the honorees with their presenters
  • People attending the event

As you can see in the above photo, the conference room where the event was held features a panoramic wall of windows. With most clear skies on the day of the event, a wonderful, soft midday light filled the room. Seeing the award plaques displayed on a table at the front of the conference room, I started the morning by capturing a series of photos of the awards. I made at least one photo of each plaque, individually, and also of the awards as a group. After some introductory remarks by my wife and her business partner, the attendees settled in for a catered lunch.

I took advantage of this break to make some photos of the attendees relaxing and chatting with each other. I also scouted the outside terrace patio for a location to use for the group photos. The patio outside the conference room overlooks the town of Prescott, Arizona to the west-northwest. Arranging the honorees with their backs to the terrace wall would position the sun behind and to their right. This would put their faces mostly in shadow so, I made a trip to my vehicle to retrieve the speedlight kit, light stands, umbrellas and modifiers.

GoalBuster's Jim Anderson speaking at the podium during National Philanthropy Day at the Prescott Resort

GoalBuster’s Jim Anderson speaking at the podium during National Philanthropy Day at the Prescott Resort (Bill Ferris Photography)

The photo immediately above shows how the ambient outdoor light served as a beautifully soft light source when filtered through the window wall. I would have continued to shoot the event from this vantage point with my back to the windows, if not for two significant issues.

With most attendees seated directly in front of or to the left of the podium, speakers tended to look straight ahead or to their left to make eye contact with the audience. Rarely, would they look in my direction. As a result, there were few opportunities to see their eyes. The other and more significant issue was that honorees would approach the podium from the speaker’s left to receive their plaque. In hindsight, this is something I could have anticipated given that the awards were arranged on a table along the wall behind and to the left of the speaker.

When the first honoree approached the front of the room, she quite naturally stood to the left of the podium. This placed the podium between me, the honoree and her presenter, which made for an unflattering composition. I walked around the back of the room to the other side to get a better angle on the presentation. While standing with the podium to my left gave me an unobstructed view of the award presentations, it also meant that I was more or less facing the window wall. A proper exposure for the half of a person’s face illuminated by that gorgeous ambient light would leave the other half of the face darkened by shadow. A proper exposure for anything in shadow would leave the rest of the shot blown out.

Earlier after retrieving my speedlight kit from the car, I had made the above photograph of the attendees enjoying lunch in the conference room. Wanting both the view through the windows and the interior of the room to be properly exposed in a single shot, I had set up four speedlights to illuminate the room interior during the exposure. Two were Yongnuo YN-560 III’s, which have built-in radio receivers. The other two were Nikon SB-700’s, which were mounted on Vello FreeWave Fusion radio receivers. With a Yongnuo 603 NII radio transmitter attached to my Nikon D610 hot shoe and a Vello radio trigger mounted atop the 603 NII, I experimented with shutter speed and flash intensity until I was happy with the result.

Here, are the settings for the final exposure (Nikon D610, Tamron 24-70 f/2.8 VC):

  • 24mm
  • f/10
  • ISO 450
  • 1/160-second
  • Two speedlights at 1/2-power
  • Two speedlights at 1/4-power

While making my trek to the other side of the room to a vantage point with an unobstructed view of the honorees, I powered up and the speedlights (they were still set up and in position) and switched on the radio triggers on the D610. After a couple test shots to adjust settings, I was back in business.

An honoree (left) and her presenter at the National Philanthropy Day celebration at Prescott Resort

An honoree (left) and her presenter at the National Philanthropy Day celebration at Prescott Resort (Bill Ferris Photography)

The above photograph is one of many I shots I made using speedlights on radio triggers to illuminate the subjects. I bounced the flashes off the ceiling to create and even wash throughout the conference room. With four speedlights at between 1/4- and 1/2-power, the recycle time was kept to a minimum. When photographing the presenter speaking at the podium, I used the following settings (Nikon 610, Tamron 70-200 f/2.8 VC):

  • 200mm focal length
  • f/2.8
  • ISO 200
  • 1/200-second exposure

When the honoree came up to accept their award plaque, I made portraits using different settings (Nikon 610, Tamron 70-200 f/2.8 VC):

  • Variable focal length (95mm to 140mm)
  • f/5.6
  • ISO 640
  • 1/200-second exposure

My only concern with this set up was that the speedlights, when firing, would be something of a distraction for the attendees. However, I can safely say very few people even noticed I was using flash to illuminate the room. There was one gentleman who asked me about my lighting after the awards ceremony. Rather than finding it a distraction, he wanted to know more about the radio triggers and receivers.

While processing the RAW exposures, I noticed that the depth of field at f/5.6 was not quite enough to guarantee crisp focus on the eyes of both people. While the images are acceptable (in my opinion), I would probably shoot at f/7.1 or f/8 in the future to ensure sharp focus on both sets of eyes.

A group photo of the honorees and presenters at Prescott Resort for Arizona's National Philanthropy Day celebration

A group photo of the honorees and presenters at Prescott Resort for Arizona’s National Philanthropy Day celebration (Bill Ferris Photography)

After the ceremony, I went outside with the honorees and presenters to take the group photos. I made an exposure of the full group without using speedlights and, as expected, the faces were in shadow. After retrieving the Nikon SB-700’s, I recruited a couple of lighting assistants to hold the speedlights, one to the left and the other to the right of the group. I then made an exposure firing the SB-700’s at full power. This photo looked overexposed so, I reset the flash intensity to 1/2-power on each unit and retook the group photo. The resulting image is presented, above.

While the speedlights definitely help this photograph, I should have done a better job of arranging the group so nobody would be in shadow. Also, I had to do a fair bit of processing in Adobe Lightroom to recover highlights and reduce the overall exposure. Shooting in RAW compensates for a multitude of sins. I reduced the exposure by 1.10 stop without losing any detail in the final image.

So, what did I learn from this experience? First, it is critical to be equipped for any lighting situation. The speedlights gave me more shooting options. When the ambient, natural light was at my back, I could simply switch off the radio triggers. When shooting toward the window wall and into the light, I could switch on the triggers and use the speedlights to illuminate my subject. Second, using down time (I chose to forego lunch) to make the wide angle photo of the luncheon paid huge dividends. With the speedlights already set up, it only took me a minute to power them back on and adjust their intensity. As a result, I was able to very quickly adapt to a new shooting location and a different lighting environment. I only missed photographing one award presentation during the ceremony and was able to make that up as soon as the ceremony ended.

Finally, I should have taken the time to better arrange the group shot and do test exposures on the outdoor terrace. This would have taken only a few minutes, but would have resulted in better images and saved some worry on the drive home. Shooting in RAW allowed me to recover all the detail that was lost in the original, overexposed photographs. If I had taken the time to properly arrange the group photo and to adjust my exposure settings, those original RAW files would have been better exposed and nobody would have been in shadow.

A celebratory embrace during the National Philanthropy Day event at Prescott Resort

A celebratory embrace during the National Philanthropy Day event at Prescott Resort (Bill Ferris Photography)

I was also reminded of the joy of giving. As each presenter shared the story of their respective honoree, I was so impressed by the generosity and compassion of the human spirit. Each award recipient had generously given their time, talent or treasure in support of a non-profit organization or cause. Attending this event and hearing these stories, I was reminded that the simple act of giving often delivers the greatest personal rewards.

Now, get out there and shoot.

Bill Ferris | November 2014


Bucket List – Grand Canyon

A late summer afternoon glow fills Grand Canyon as seen from Yaki Point on the South Rim. Cedar Ridge and O'Neill Butte bask in the light in the foreground. (Bill Ferris)

A late summer afternoon glow fills Grand Canyon as seen from Yaki Point on the South Rim. Cedar Ridge and O’Neill Butte bask in the light in the foreground. (Bill Ferris)

The summer travel season is in full swing and, over the next three months, photographers from around the world will descend upon Grand Canyon National Park. They will arrive by car, bus and train. They will number in the hundreds of thousands and all will have the same goal: to make a once-in-a-lifetime photograph.

With annual visitation of nearly 5 million people, Grand Canyon is among the most photographed natural landscapes in the world. While 4 million of those visitors will come from the United States, travelers from around the world make Grand Canyon their vacation destination of choice. 200,000 Brits, nearly the same number of Canadians, 100,000 Japanese, another 100,000 Germans and 50,000 Dutch will be among those visiting the South or North rim of the canyon.

So, what can you do to maximize your chances of capturing that bucket list photo? First and foremost, chase the light. Great light makes for great photographs. A view of Grand Canyon can be awe inspiring at any time of day. But sunrise and sunset are the times when the quality of light is almost guaranteed to be amazing. These “golden hour” times, offer the best and most reliable opportunities to capture great images. Sunrise has the added advantage of being so early in the day – you’ll need to wake up no later than 5:00 AM to catch a 5:30 AM sunrise – that you’ll be competing with relatively small crowds for position to make your bucket list photo.

Second, pay attention to the weather. Grand Canyon is located entirely within the state of Arizona in the American Southwest. Since record keeping began, June is the sunniest and driest month of the year in this part of North America. With July comes the summer monsoon, the annual rainy season for this arid high desert environment. A typical monsoon day will dawn clear and dry. However, humidity and clouds build throughout the day. By late afternoon, thunderstorms dot the horizon throughout the park. Some of the greatest landscape photos feature dramatic weather and its impact on the immediate environment. If you are visiting Grand Canyon in July or August, leave your late afternoon schedule flexible so you can take advantage of clouds, lightning and rain to capture a dramatic landscape photo.

Evening twilight and a cobalt blue sky frame Desert View Watchtower on the South Rim of Grand Canyon National Park (Bill Ferris)

Evening twilight and a cobalt blue sky frame Desert View Watchtower on the South Rim of Grand Canyon National Park (Bill Ferris)

Third, include a strong foreground element in your photos. Whether the gnarled trunk of a Juniper tree, a blooming cactus or desert plant, or the imposing profile of an inner canyon butte, a strong foreground element gives your photo a subject. It anchors the image and draws the gaze. At Grand Canyon, there are great views to be had from every overlook on both rims. Since the South Rim gets the lion’s share of visitation, those are the overlooks people flock to for their photo ops. Hopi Point is often recommended as “the best” overlook from which take in a sunset. However, I would recommend you explore a variety of overlooks during the day in search of that perfect place from which to photograph sunset or sunrise.

My favorite South Rim overlooks include Desert View, Lipan Point, Yaki Point and Mather Point. Desert View and Lipan Point are exceptional for both sunrise and sunset. The Desert View Watchtower offers a great compositional element. These overlooks also offer the best views of the Colorado River from the South Rim. Yaki Point and Mather Point are also nice sunrise vistas. However, sunsets offer the most dramatic light for photography from these overlooks. Mather Point is conveniently located near the park visitor center. Yaki Point, though technically accessible only by shuttle bus, can be accessed on foot. If you park your vehicle at the picnic area just down the road from the Yaki Point drive entrance, you can follow social trails through the forest to get to the overlooks.

As sunset's golden light washes over Grand Canyon, a summer monsoon rumbles across the great chasm as seen from Cape Royal on the North Rim. (Bill Ferris)

As sunset’s golden light washes over Grand Canyon, a summer monsoon rumbles across the great chasm as seen from Cape Royal on the North Rim. (Bill Ferris)

My personal favorite overlook for photography of late afternoon thunderstorms rolling through Grand Canyon National Park, is Cape Royal. Located on the North Rim, Cape Royal offers an astounding view of flat-topped Wotans Throne. The gently curving ridge of Kaibab Limestone connecting the North Rim to Wotans Throne introduces a natural leading line that guides your eye directly to the subject of the photograph. As sunset approaches on a July afternoon, thunderstorms bathe the inner canyon in a brilliant warm glow. The quality of light combined with dramatic weather and  the imposing landscape creates an almost alien scene for the camera. Being a North Rim overlook, photos taken at Cape Royal have the advantage of standing out from the crowd of images made along the South Rim.

To summarize, chasing the golden hour light of sunrise or sunset, taking advantage of a dramatic mid-summer thunderstorm and adding a strong foreground element to your composition are three key things you can do to make a bucket list photo during your visit to Grand Canyon National Park.

In the meantime, get out there and shoot!

Bill Ferris | June 2014

Lasting Light

Lowell Observatory staff and workers work to remove a 400-lb. counterweight from the mount for the historic Clark Refractor. This 120-year-old telescope is undergoing a complete refurbishment.

Workers prepare to remove a 400-lb. counterweight from the mount of the historic Clark Refractor. This 120-year-old telescope is undergoing a complete refurbishment at Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona. (Bill Ferris)

Photographers and astronomers share a lot in common. Arguably, the most important shared quality is their reliance on light. For the photographer, light paints the subject. It imbues a scene with certain qualities. Light can be bright and happy, dark and brooding, or any of a variety of personalities. For the astronomer, light is information. By examining the light from a celestial body, an astronomer can determine its distance, size, composition and how its moving. In the same way that light adds drama to a photographer’s composition, light – and the information it carries – allows an astronomer to answer fundamental questions about the universe.

In the 1890’s Percival Lowell established a research observatory in the sleepy railroad town of Flagstaff, Arizona. Lowell was, in many respects, a pioneer of modern science. He built his observatory in the western United States far from his Boston home. At a time when many observatories were still being built at locations near major cities and universities, Lowell chose the site for his observatory for its remoteness and the quality of its skies. As important as light is to the astronomer, the best places from which to explore the night sky are those far from city lights where natural darkness allows the feeble glow of distant objects to be seen.

Soon after Lowell Observatory was established, its founder contacted Alvan Clark & Sons and commissioned them to build a 24-inch refracting telescope. It would be among the largest such instruments in the world and from first light in 1894 through the 1960’s, the Clark Refractor at Lowell Observatory regularly contributed to the science of astronomy. Lowell staff astronomers used the Clark to make some of the first photographic images of the planet, Mars. The Clark was used to study the motions of so-called spiral nebulae. These observations produced the first evidence of an expanding universe. During the Apollo program in the 1960’s cartographers used the Clark to make detailed maps of the lunar surface. Apollo astronaut Neill Armstrong even visited Lowell Observatory to observe the Moon through the 24-inch Clark, before making his one giant leap for all mankind.

Workers prepare to lift a counterweight through the open shutter of the Clark Dome at Lowell Observatory.

Workers prepare to lift a counterweight through the open shutter of the Clark Dome at Lowell Observatory. (Bill Ferris)

In recent decades, larger and more powerful telescopes have replaced the Clark Refractor as the principal research tools used by the Lowell science team. However, the 24-inch telescope has definitely not been put out to pasture. This historic instrument has been used almost every clear night for years to share the wonders of the universe with the general public. For several years, I had the great privilege and pleasure of working at Lowell Observatory as a tour guide and observer. The joy I experienced when operating the Clark was exceeded only by the awe felt by visitors when, for the first – and possibly only – time in their lives, they stood in that darkened dome, peered into the eyepiece and saw Mars as it can only be presented by a world-class refracting telescope.

Of course, the decades have been at work on this historic instrument. Time, use and the elements have taken a toll on the great refractor. In January 2014, Lowell Observatory staff removed the telescope from its home on Mars Hill to begin a months-long project to refurbish the Clark. When friend and Lowell Observatory Communications Manager Kevin Schindler invited me to be there for this historic happening, I immediately jumped at the chance. Although it has been years since I last observed with the Clark, memories of astounding views of Mars, Jupiter and Saturn are still fresh in my mind. There was no way I was going to miss this once-in-a-lifetime event.

Lowell Observatory's Ralph Nye (on right in blue jacket) inspects progress toward removing one of the 400-lb. counterweights from the mount of the Clark Refractor.

Lowell Observatory’s Ralph Nye (on right in blue jacket) inspects progress toward removing one of the 400-lb. counterweights from the mount of the Clark Refractor. (Bill Ferris)

The telescope was removed from its dome in stages. The lens cell and lenses are the heart and soul of any refractor. The 120-year-old optics of the Clark were removed, first, and stored safely away from the work area. Next, several 400-lb. counterweights were removed – one at a time – from the telescope mount. Finally, the 32-foot optical tube was disassembled, with each section raised through the open dome shutter by a large crane.

I was struck by the number of people in attendance and the variety of ways they were documenting the historic undertaking. The observatory had hired a professional videographer and a pro photographer to capture the event. Additionally, several observatory staff used smart phones to make movies and photos. I was there with my D600 shooting a time lapse video. There was at least one iPad in use and a quadcopter hovering just outside the dome. While observing this hive of activity, it dawned on me that if this work had happened five years ago, there would be no quadcopter, no iPad, no DSLR’s shooting video. It is amazing how much can change in just a few years.

Of course, I’m looking forward to the return of a refurbished and fully-functional Clark telescope. That should happen in 2015. And on that day, I plan to be back on Mars Hill with my camera documenting the homecoming for this historic instrument of science and public education. That will be a grand day but the real treat will be the next clear, dark night in northern Arizona when the 24-inch Clark Refractor sees first light for the second time in her life.

Now, get out there and shoot.

Bill Ferris | February 2014

Hit the Street

It's a busy Friday night at "The Sweet Shoppe" in historic downtown Flagstaff, Arizona. (Nikon D600, Tamron 24-70 at 70mm, f/2.8, ISO 6400, 1/250 sec.)

It’s a busy Friday night at “The Sweet Shoppe” in historic downtown Flagstaff, Arizona. (Nikon D600, Tamron 24-70 at 70mm, f/2.8, ISO 6400, 1/250 sec.) (Bill Ferris)

Street photography is all the rage. Candid images of unsuspecting people capture the personality of a community. On a recent Friday night, I roamed the streets of Flagstaff looking for scenes of real life to photograph. The above image of a friendly exchange between a customer and employee in a downtown Flagstaff business, captures a touch of the good feeling that filled the streets on this particular evening. It was the first Friday of the month. People were out and about having dinner, buying a dessert to share with a friend and enjoying out the diverse collection of art and artists on display. It was wonderful to be out and in the midst of such a positive vibe.

Often, street photographers seek out subjects that challenge our senses or sensibilities. There is nothing wrong with taking that approach unless it crosses a line and becomes exploitation. Homelessness is a real problem in America. At the very heart of this problem is a healthcare system that leaves far too many people without access to needed professional medical treatment for mental illness or addiction. Mental illness and addiction make it incredibly difficult for a person to function in society. As a result, far too many people suffering from these illnesses are out on the streets–homeless.

Homelessness is tragic. It is all around us and easily recognized. I suppose this explains, in part, why the anonymous homeless person is a favorite subject for some street photographers. What the photographer sees, is the person’s circumstance: homelessness. What is missed, is the person’s condition: illness. Personally, if I never see another black & white photograph of an elderly person in tattered clothes, blankly staring and oblivious to the passing world, it will be too soon. There is a good chance the person in that photograph is suffering some form of illness. And that, in my opinion, makes the act of photographing the person a form of exploitation.

It seems to me there is a misguided notion that photographing the homeless carries on a tradition begun during the Great Depression. What most people don’t understand is the fundamental quality that made homelessness during the Depression so different from today’s version. During the Depression, the underlying condition or cause of homelessness was not a physical or mental illness. The underlying condition was a global economic collapse that had destroyed the very foundation of society.

The catastrophic economic disaster which produced the Great Depression sent tens of millions of Americans out of their homes and onto the streets. By and large, these were not folks struggling with mental illness or addiction. They had been fully-functioning members of society–working, raising a family and being neighbors. But the physical institutions that served as the foundation for American society had been hit by an economic tidal wave. With entire industries destroyed, there literally was no societal framework within which a person could function. There was only chaos, a maelstrom engulfing millions who lost their jobs, their homes…everything.

The families and individuals featured in the most iconic of Depression-era photographs were just like you and me with one significant exception: They were homeless. An economic collapse was sweeping across the nation like a plague. Jobs had not been lost as casualties of a dreadful addiction or a debilitating mental disorder. The jobs had simply gone away. Not given to another person. Just…gone.

You could see the despair in people’s eyes in those photos. You could also see the determination and the dignity. These were people who had all the potential and ability in the world. In any other circumstance, they would have been the neighbors we met at the local super market, joined in worship on Sunday or socialized with at the next school open house. What made the Depression-era homeless so admirable, was that look in their eyes. They had been stripped of every physical element of dignity. But that circumstance did not touch their inner sense of dignity. They were survivors and they were determined to regain what they had lost.

In the 1930’s, homelessness was a random act of cruelty. Today, homelessness is more preventable and treatable. This makes the act of photographing a homeless person different. Depression-era photos are evidence that a person can lose every worldly good, and still retain their resolve and dignity. Photographing the mentally ill and addicted exposes people at their weakest, at a time when dignity and resolve are rare commodities. It is a means of objectifying a person in need of medical attention. It is exploitative. We may not be able to rescue every homeless person from the addiction or illness that has sent them to the curb. But we can, at the very least, treat that person as more than a compositional element in a photograph.

A patron sits lost in thought at a downtown Flagstaff cocktail lounge.

A patron sits lost in thought at a downtown Flagstaff cocktail lounge.in a different circumstance altogether. (Bill Ferris)

So, while out walking the streets of downtown Flagstaff the other night, I wasn’t looking for homeless people to photograph. Instead, I looked for every day people. People like you and me. People who share the same dreams, struggle with similar worries and who, on a Friday night, were seeking a brief respite from their work-a-day lives. I looked at the man in the above photograph and wondered, “What is he thinking?” I suppose he could have been contemplating some great world problem. Or maybe, he was thinking what I would have been thinking in that situation, “Should I go home or have another beer?”

When I got home that night, I did enjoy a cold beer. But I didn’t head home, right away. I had my camera, a fast lens and a downtown full of interesting people to photograph. People like you. People like me. Good street photography reveals the qualities that make a town a community. It celebrates the people, their dignity, their compassion for others and their ability to enjoy life’s simple pleasures. Like a bag of chocolates or a cold beer.

Get out and shoot!

Bill Ferris | November 2013