I grew up in Aliquippa, Pennsylvania. Aliquippa was the home of a giant steel mill; at one time it was the largest in the world. The entire monstrosity was near 11 miles long and employed close to 15k workers.
The town was like something out of a rust-belt boom-town dream. Or was it a nightmare? Aliquippa was in the Guiness Book of World Records for having the most bars per square mile. A recent article in our local newspaper put it this way. “Aliquippa was a dirty little town of 30,000 with more bars, bordellos and gambling rooms than most would care to admit. In 1918, a state Supreme Court justice offered the following assessment of Aliquippa:
It is said that the region is largely peopled by uneducated foreigners, who invariably carry concealed deadly weapons; that murders are common; and that when a quarrel ensues, the question as to who shall be the murdered and who is murdered is, largely, if not wholly, determined by the ability to draw such a weapon quickly.”
When I moved to Los Angeles I understood that this place certainly had its share of dangerous areas and situations. It was the 1980s and there was a crack epidemic and gang violence was a scourge in LA. So I resolved immediately to stay on the Westside and far from the bad areas of town. And I held onto that resolve for the first ten or so years that I lived here. But, you know, being a person from the place where I come from, the street has its attractions to me and after playing it safe for so long I longed for something that seemed more like home. Sounds weird to me now even to type that.
So I become somewhat familiar with some of the more interesting parts of LA. And at night. So when digital cameras finally became available with their convenience and the ability to experiment, check your results in real-time, and move quickly on, I had the greatest idea. Go out and shoot the bad parts of town with my digital camera. lol.
Well, ISO capabilities back then weren’t at all like what we have today on our digital cameras. And I didn’t actually, it turns out, have a death wish. 😉 So this project wasn’t something I devoted many evenings to. But it was an interesting time in LA. I think the LAPD had street crime on its heels at that moment. Or was it the exact opposite? I remember both periods quickly followed each other. Different police chiefs and different approaches. Anyway.
I had some tricks. I would go out on really REALLY cold nights. Nights that cold are really uncommon in LA so when the chill hits here, the streets can be very deserted. Anyway. Hope these images capture the imagination that I was gripped with when I took them. I would be the first to admit there’s probably not a single really strong image in the whole bunch. But they do capture something of the atmosphere of the city back then. The darkness and strangeness I was after more than anything else.
Two years of shooting film with my M7 and then an M6, limited but unconcerned by the usually 200-400 ISO range of the film loaded in my cameras, I think I learned to stop whining about high ISO performance and noise and learn to do the things necessary to take pictures after the sun goes down.
Yes, sometimes I would shoot some really wonderful and cheap Kodak 800 speed film I’d picked up. But the process and discipline of making what in the digital sense are low ISOs work, holding the camera very still, tight against the face, learning to love shooting at 1/8th of a second instead of needing 1/250th… these are the changes that have enabled me to feel free and easy shooting with a camera that most photographers today consider to be lagging in the ISO and image noise performance area.
A while ago someone surmised that with the high ISO capability of modern digital cameras, we don’t really need the superfast 2.0 and 1.4 lenses that Leica happens to specialize in making and selling for thousands of dollars. Who needs any of that when your camera will produce clean usable images at 12k ISO?
Well, that kind of thinking and that kind of equipment will certainly give your photography a certain look, along with the capability afforded in the high ISO performance. And for professionals, at this point, there really isn’t any substitute for great high ISO performance.
But I would counter that the opposite of the idea of chucking super fast and expensive glass is equally as true for photographers wishing to use their cameras to create unique work that differentiates itself from most modern digital photography by its emphasis on photographing light where it exists and an adherence to the old ways like simply holding a camera as still as is humanly possible.
But as evidenced here and in a lot of images to follow, there’s also other ways to get around the problem of shooting low ISO film or digital camera sensors we can’t push much beyond 800 ISO and that is to photograph lights themselves or things that are well lit.
The images here aren’t intended to be a demonstration of any one technique for shooting in low light. They’re intended to be a demonstration of boldness and an attitude of let’s get over blaming equipment for what it doesn’t do and instead praise the almighty dollar that we can afford a cell phone or a Diana or a Pentax or a Leica film or digital camera and just get out and make the pictures your gear allows you to make.