After twenty years as a professional wood sculptor and amateur photographer, Ron Mayhew put down the chisel and committed to the camera. Now retired, he’s able to give in to his wanderlust, combining his love of photography and travel into “cultural photography”: street scenes and informal, intimate portraits of the people he meets.
I chatted with him about street photography, composition, and why Cuba is his current favorite destination.
Along with his WordPress.com blog, Ron maintains a portfolio site at RonMayhewPhotography.com.
His images have been published in a variety of print and digital media, and his aerial photography of the waters around his Florida home will be featured in an upcoming book.
What’s the driving philosophy behind your work as a photographer?
I have this ongoing, innate need to create. That coupled with wanting to be challenged is what drives me: “My next photograph will be my best photograph” is always my goal.
Having long suffered from wanderlust and curiosity about other cultures, other places, my camera is my excuse to wander. I travel to find and make photographs and, conversely, making photographs is my rationalization to travel. Not surprisingly then, most of my images are of people being themselves in their own environments. I love walking the streets of a new city, searching and waiting for just the right moment when a story all comes together in a single moment, in a single frame. If I had to label what I do, it would be “Cultural Photography.”
What are your favorite subjects? What subjects do you find most challenging?
People are my favorite and most challenging subjects by far. It can be very difficult to make a photograph where the subject is relaxed and at ease in her surroundings, the lighting is good, the background uncluttered.
Tell us how you choose and order which images appear in your photo essays. How do you craft a story using just images?
Adobe Photoshop Lightroom is my photo-processing workhorse and image catalog. My blog post always starts there. As I browse my catalog for images I may want included, I create a “collection” folder and drag all potential images there. Then, the hard part: weeding out weakest images, again and again, until just the best remain. The images that make the final cut are cropped and tweaked before being sent to the media library on my WordPress site.
There are no set rules for ordering images from there. It depends on the essay. I may want them to appear to be in a random order. Or chronologically, as a story would unfold.
Sometimes I want them to relate to one another as images on the pages of a book would be, as in this post grouping portraits of a variety of people around the world. They all depict a level of contentment and dignity, regardless of social or economic stature. The two dignified, elderly women from different cultures were a natural pair. The next two images of the young men went well together, and the hint of red in the Haitian man’s hat visually connected that image with the red uniforms of the “boys in the band.” The three young women all seem comfortable with their beauty and were aware they were being photographed. All together, the photos illustrate something I’ve come to believe quite strongly, the more I travel and photograph: we are all more alike, our goals and desires much the same, than our politicians and press would have us believe.
You get incredible candid captures of people, something that’s often challenging for new street photographers from both a composition and comfort point of view. Can you tell us a little about your process?
You just gotta show up. It takes a lot of shots to get a few good ones.
You just gotta show up. It takes a lot of shots to get a few good ones. Sometimes I keep moving, looking for something that catches my eye. Other times I find an interesting background and wait for something interesting to pass through the frame. Often the subject does not know they have been photographed. These are my favorite kinds of images. The subject is at one with their environment going about their daily lives. If the scene is fluid and the subject somewhat animated, so much the better.
I never photograph someone whose dignity is at all compromised. Likewise, if someone notices me, I never photograph them without their permission; a gesture or nod will suffice. Anyone who knows they are being photographed will be somewhat on guard and posed.
The results of the two techniques will be different but each can be effective. My best advice is to keep your head up and your eyes and heart open.
How does your background in wood sculpture help here?
Over the years I developed the ability to visualize, to plan, a sculpture in my mind’s eye before putting chisel to wood. This helps me with composing a photograph; I am able to visualize the final image in my mind’s eye before pressing the shutter release. If the scene before me is too fluid, I still try to visualize and thus can often make minor adjustments by moving slightly or waiting just a moment longer.
What are the most common composition issues you see in the work of inexperienced photographers? How can a photographer improve his or her eye?
Explore some of the rules of composition in this piece from The Daily Post’s Photography 101 series.
Sloping horizons and leaning buildings make me crazy. A photographer should care enough about their work to straighten those lines; it is a simple fix. Otherwise, there are a lot of rules of composition. Read about them but don’t obsess over them. Continually look at pictures, especially those of photographers you admire. Think about why you like this image or that. Then, go out and shoot. Review your work critically, and again, think about why you like certain images.
You’ve made several trips to Cuba. What draws you there? What do you love about shooting there?
Cubans are warm and friendly and have a grace and spirit about them like people in no other place I have been. Havana surely was one of the most beautiful cities in the world in the first half of the twentieth century, and that beauty shows through its decay today. Quite simply, Cuba is a photographer’s dream and my favorite destination.
I would rather look like a local — or even a tourist — than a photographer.
What’s in your gear bag when you’re shooting in a city?
Nothing! I don’t carry a bag when shooting in a city.
The sight of a gear-laden photographer is intimidating. I want to be invisible when shooting. I simply carry a smallish Olympus OM-D E-M5 Mark II micro four thirds body with a Panasonic f 1.7 30mm equivalent lens, and a spare battery and memory card. I would rather look like a local — or even a tourist — than a photographer.
What’s next on your travel agenda?
Cuba, of course. I took a group of twelve there in December and would very much like to do that again. Otherwise, I feel a need to visit Southeast Asia again as well as the British Isles. There is much we have not seen in the US.