The Home Exercise

This week, it’s back to the practical talk on photo skills and exercises. Possibly my favorite exercise was the one given to me originally by a photography teacher in college. Having quit the world-renowned film school at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, because they would not let me take a still photo course, I’d transferred to the Gallatin Division, where the entire university was open to me. Felix was teaching or in residency at The International Center for Photography, and I was fortunate to have him as my photo teacher for one semester, the only still photo course I would take at college in the end.

The digital revolution as still far off, and we were putting rolls of 35mm through our cameras for all our class work. Felix assigned us early in the semester to shoot two rolls of where we lived, no styling or set ups allowed. The idea was to try and cultivate a new vision for the place most familiar to use, the things we most took for granted, to bring a photographer’s perception to our everyday surroundings.

I lived in 5th floor walk up. We had hot water, but they were still called cold water flats, from when the tenements were built, and the bathtub still stood in the middle of the main room of the 600 square foot, 2 bedroom apartment (learn more at The Tenement Museum).We did not have to boil the water, but we did have to shower in that main room, and the only sink was right next to it. The dishes stacked up in the tub when we got busy, and sometimes you had to do the dishes if you wanted to bathe. Oh New York. It also had high ceilings, transoms, wavy old glass, wood floors and wood trim, and an only slightly obstructed view of the twin towers. I brought a kitchen cabinet and drawers from the glorious new Ikea and a kitchen table with two stools. My tiny room featured huge shelves and a loft bed with my clothes hanging underneath, and no room for anything else. We used to time people coming up the five flights, and we called them old if they were slow. Ah, youth.

Any way, it was funky little boho paradise. With my limited gear and experience, my 2 rolls (I favored rolls of 36 exposures over those of 24: who wouldn’t want to take more pictures?) came out reasonably boring. I think the close up of the crackled skim coat on the wall by the tub was probably the most interesting shot. Felix agreed.

It was on subsequent versions of this exercise that its real point and possibility came alive to me. The next place I lived in which I did this exercise frustrated me terribly. It was plain apartment and it was filled with second hand and leftover everything. It was fine to live in, but it did not inspire. The next place I had more success. Its vaguely modern lines were easy to abstract a bit, my first real success in this exercise.

However, it was the next one that really opened my eyes. Why? We moved for one month into a Courtyard Marriott long term/corporate housing set up. We brought clothes and a computer and precious little otherwise. Corporate housing land was not inspiring. And, yet, somewhere in me, I knew I had to do the Home Exercise. For a little while, it was agonizing. It was reaching the point of desperation that lead me to the leap forward. If there was nothing to take a picture of, no subject, I had to look in a new way. I had rely solely on lighting, angles, depth of field, texture… I had to find these and find how I could combine them. The pictures I took in that series were hands down the best pictures the Home Exercise had ever produced, and they remain so to this day.

So, if you want to work with your seeing, perception, how to work with some of the most important tools you have at your fingertips as a photographer, I suggest you try the Home Exercise. Some of you might be lucky enough to live in place so wonderful that you have a great story to tell. Many will rely more on the foundations of photographic form and content. I still always want to tell a story of my home, but I’ve never quite gotten what I was hoping for when I have tried. It’s the light and forms and isolated details that always have done the trick for me. So, go crank out two rolls or at least 75 frames of that most familiar place, and tell us what you got. I’d be delighted if you shared some images.

I have not done this exercise where I live, now. Maybe I’d better get on that. Well, when I get home. I’m writing this at 30,000 feet and won’t be home for a couple of weeks. That means I can do it in my on the road homes, doesn’t it? I can also search for some of those past images when I get home, if ya’ll want some show and tell.

One thought on “The Home Exercise

  1. Idony Lisle

    My current home is overcrowded. But then, you know me, my kids, and our unfortunate fascination with STUFF.

    If I did this, I would probably take pictures, not of the house, but of the fascinating view from our living room windows: We live across from a pocket park, and have a small tree growing literally out of one of our windows. The old landlord would come in and crop it in desperation, but the new slumlords, not so much. We just let it grow; it is our green rebellion. The windows are set in a curve, which is kind of cool–our building looks so funky from the outside, but the inside is the sort of low-income housing where they have linoleum. :-( All through the apartment. :-( (Better than welfare shag, but still.) Other pictures would be of the things on and above my desk–my Goku shrine and the illustration from the 16th century French book that went in my dissertation.

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