Candid Conversations: Karen Commings

Karen Commings

Karen Commings
Street Photographer
Harrisburg, PA



My first career was in the theater, and in the theater we had a saying: “There are only 20 people who work in this business and by the time you’re done you’ll have met them all.” I’m starting to believe it’s the same in the world of photography. It’s all about connections, and once connected, well, you’re pretty much in for life. When I put out the call in search of a photographer who did something other than landscapes, and was preferably female, my people did not disappoint!

I am now happily connected to Karen Commings. (Who, as it turns out, is nearly a neighbor!). Karen is a 69-year-old retired librarian, who has had many vocations. She has been a columnist for Cat Fancy Magazine, wrote seven cat books, one dog book and is also a short story writer. Now she can add street photographer to the list. Karen is intriguing to me for a few reasons. For one thing, this is an avocation that she found later in life. (I love late bloomers!) And she is a street photographer. An activity I love to look at from afar but don’t partake in because it scares me to no end. (People . . . scary.)

 It fascinates me why individuals pick up photography either as a hobby or as a profession.  My personal observation is that if it is not a profession from the start people pick it up later in life. They dabble through their early years, possibly through their middle years, but all of a sudden it becomes an obsession in the post -50 years. Some of it may have to do with having the available time or money, but I think there is something else to it. I’m not sure what, but I’m determined to find out. (Maybe I’ll make it a new series. Photographers who are late bloomers!)

In the meantime I’ll keep working on the unresolved question that plagues me. Why do we do this thing called photography?

Eat It [Photo Credit: Karen Commings]

The Conversation

What is your first memory of photography?
I had a Brownie box camera. When I was in 7th grade I took photos through a microscope for the science fair. My Dad built me a stand so I could put the camera on it and practice how long I had to keep the shutter open for various things. It wasn’t a very powerful microscope. I would take photos of things around the house like fabrics and thread. Just stuff. It was really fun.

Photography is a means of communication. What do you feel you are trying to communicate and to whom?
I have to separate out the street photography from the other types of photography. The street photography I do fairly consistently. I periodically take trips to New York because it’s easier in New York than it is here. I try to make it about telling a story. It’s not enough for me to just take a picture of someone crossing the street or using their cell phone or other common activity.   There has to be a narrative or emotion associated with it. I ask the viewer to try and figure out what is happening or ask the questions in their own mind.

I like photographing architecture. I have a whole series of photographs of industrial sites.  Many of my photos I convert to black and white because I think there is more of an emotional impact. With color you are looking at the color and thinking “oh,  gee, that’s a pretty picture.” Black and white images seem to force people to look at something else. You look at the patterns; the shapes, the lines, or the creases in someone’s face. It seems to elicit more of an emotional response.

What is your process? When you take a photo, do you think, “This is going to be black and white?” And / or in your post processing, what are you looking at to determine this warrants black and white process as opposed to color? When you are talking about eliciting an emotional response what is going on in your mind when you are making these processing decisions?
When I go out to do street photography, this is going to sound really weird, I am not thinking about processing. I am not thinking about photography. I’m really not thinking about shutter speed or aperture. I set those things  beforehand based on light conditions and I go out with a clear mind so I can respond to what is happening. If you are thinking about all of those things, the different decisions you have to make about taking a picture, you miss the moments. Those moments occur in a nanosecond. You have to be able to predict that something is going to happen even a few seconds before it does. If you wait for it to happen, the moment will be over by the time you get the camera to your eye.

I just see street photography in terms of black and white generally. I do have some color work, but the color work I do is more on the order of Sally Davies. She does slice of life street photography.  It’s a block on the street or a storefront on the street and people walking by. Nothing particular is happening, just life. In a fluid sense it’s simply the street and what’s going on, but it’s not the kind of story telling or emotionally impactful photo that I like to take. So I tend to leave those in color. She works in color too and, like I said, it’s slice of life.

With my black and white street photography I feel there has to be a narrative. I could probably describe it more when looking at certain images.

Three Faces of Steve [Photo Credit: Karen Commings]

How did the street photography come about?
I belong to a camera club and one of the things our president does is schedule field trips to view other photographers’ work. I was on several field trips where I saw street photography and the one in Washington DC was a turning point.

It was in 2014 that I saw the Garry Winogrand exhibit and I had made up my mind before we went on the field trip that I was going to do some street photography. I spent about 4 hours in the afternoon at the mall shooting. It just grew from there. It wasn’t really a conscious attempt to become a street photographer, it just piqued my interest and then one thing led to another. In September of that year, I attended a 3-day street photography workshop in New York conducted by the In-Public Group. That was really helpful.

Lost Souls [Photo Credit: Karen Commings]

Why photography as a medium?
I haven’t stopped writing. And I was painting for about seven years as well.  It’s been all of these different outlets. When you are writing or painting you are sitting in your studio or your room or office by yourself. You aren’t having people over while you are writing your novel.

Doing things with the camera club has been so great! I get out. I’m not cooped up in my office all day. I’m out with other photographers and we have a blast. It’s social as well as artistic. In fact yesterday three of us went to an antique mall to photograph and then had lunch. It’s fun. There is nothing deep or heavy about it. It’s just fun.

Is there any one subject that you shoot that gets you into the zone more than others?
Street photography is pretty much it.  For other types it’s more of a conscious effort. Like my series of Industrial sites.  I have to stay alert when I’m doing that. I try to do it on Sundays when the places are closed. I don’t know how well I would be received photographing these places. Several of them are featured as a Merit Portfolio in the current issue (#116) of Black & White magazine. That was a special award for me. These things offer me some credibility when sales may be lacking.

I have to say that street photography is about it. If I were a landscape photographer I might feel that way being out in the field, but I don’t do landscape photography and I don’t enjoy studio photography that much either.

I like observing people. I feel I can do it by staying inconspicuous and without immersing myself in what’s happening.

He's An Asshole [Photo Credit: Karen Commings]

I generally don’t like to ask technical questions but I think for this it’s important. How do you prepare yourself and your camera before you get out to the street?
I shoot manually with one exception.  I use auto focus because the camera can focus faster than I can. I generally set my ISO when I go out. I want an ISO where it’s not overly grainy but will give me the fastest shutter speed.  I may change the aperture periodically depending on where I am and how much background I want in the photograph.

In New York when you walk block-to-block it can be in complete shade or complete sun. With the camera I am using now, a Fuji  X100S, all of the dials are on the outside with numbers on them. I don’t have to look at a screen to see what the shutter speed is changing to. Same with the aperture.  As I’m walking I’ll change those settings as I’m moving. If I have doubts I’ll just point the camera somewhere, take a picture, and then check to see if it’s right.

Are you self-taught as far as composition? Is it something you studied or does it come naturally?
Partly natural. I have a degree in Art History. I’ve studied it. I tend to look for balance. And I think I’ve always done that.

When I see street photography that is really compelling and tells a story it can often times be compositionally “incorrect” or technically poor quality. My question to you is, why is okay for a street photographer to have these things that are not perfect but it’s not okay for the landscape photographer to have things that are a little off?
It is okay for the landscape photographer. Fine Art Photography, or Art Photography, as opposed to photojournalism really tells what the photographer is seeing. It’s not to tell you what the landscape looked like or what the street looked like. It’s how the photographer views it. So if the photographer wants to skew a landscape or have things out of focus, well, go for it. I’ve seen landscapes that aren’t perfect. I think you’re right, though, that there is more of a tendency with landscape photography to show what’s there, but I’ve seen landscapes that are blurred to a point where they become an abstract. John Barclay related a story during the camera club workshop about Ansel Adams getting hate mail from someone who visited the national parks and was disappointed that they didn’t look like his photographs.

No Takers [Photo Credit: Karen Commings]

When you are out there, are you thinking about these perfection things? Are you thinking through all of those compositional things?
No. You should be experienced enough to understand composition, but you can also break the rules of composition. Maybe you want the background in focus or maybe you don’t. If I go out and shoot a parade and someone is coming down the street on the float. I may or may not want the people on the other side of the street to be in focus. When I am doing street photography I am not always conscious of these things. 

There is a photograph I took in New York on Halloween. What attracted me about this gentleman was his funny hat. Behind him were these two posters looking at me. I didn’t realize it until I got home and  uploaded  the photo. It must have registered in some way because I included them in the composition. I arranged the image so it included all three faces, but I was surprised to see them when I uploaded the photo. I think it happens a lot. I’m not thinking about camera settings and composition. A lot of it is gut instinct.

Blow [Photo Credit: Karen Commings]

How do you prepare mentally or emotionally?
That’s an interesting question. Because I have had at least one trip to New York where I was going with high expectations and it was a total bomb.  I got no photos that I really liked. So the next time I decided I was going to go and have a good time I’m not going to expect anything. Whatever comes along comes along and that’s fine. I’ll just deal with that.  And it was so much better. I ended up crisscrossing Manhattan for four and a half hours. I got some interesting shots. So it’s just better for me not to have expectations and to just go with the moment.

Do you ever ask people permission to take their photos? Do you run into people who are aggressive with you? What is that experience like?
If people are in a public place there is no expectation of privacy in this country. I’ve only once had someone be aggressive about it. I photographed a guy on the NY streets selling clothes to a woman from a suitcase, probably hot merchandise. They both started yelling at me so I just continued walking. I knew he wouldn’t follow me because he would have probably had his stuff stolen. I have had people who have been surprised, and I usually start a conversation with them. Most people are flattered. I do have some photos where people are actually giving me the evil eye. There are times when I ask and if I photograph kids I usually will ask the parents.

There was one image I happened to look at this morning. There was a Culture Fest here in Harrisburg. There was a woman walking around with a dog on her shoulder. I asked her if she minded getting her photo taken. People with dogs seem to love having their photo taken. She said it was fine so I took a couple and then she finally turned away from me and the dog’s tongue came out and I took the shot in profile.  And that was the best one I got. When she wasn’t aware.

There have been times when someone says no and I will respect that. Typically I try to be inconspicuous. The times that I’m taking “street portraits” I will ask them first. But if there is an event unfolding I just try and get the shot.

Untitled#1 [Photo Credit: Karen Commings]

Did that come easy for you? To approach strangers and ask them?
It comes easy. Sometimes I’m a little uncomfortable depending on what the event is. I’ve chosen to not photograph certain things, such as homeless people and just walk away.  Sometimes you take someone’s picture and it startles them, so I will usually say something. Compliment them. “Oh, I love your hair,” or “I love your outfit.” And then, a lot of times, they will pose for me.

Most people are nice about it. And in New York, especially, everybody has cameras and everybody is getting photographed all the time. I’m probably in some photographs somewhere too!

How do you keep it fresh?
In this area, where I live, my friends and I typically go to First Friday celebrations. And we often go to Lancaster. Sometimes we go down there and there’s nothing. And then there are other times we find a lot of things to photograph. And sometimes it just has to do with your own mood.  How well you are seeing. You can’t always control that so you just have to keep going.

I’m not one to stop. I hardly got out to photograph this winter because it was so cold. But I feel like if I don’t get out and shoot I’m losing my touch. That’s actually what gets stale. I have to keep going. And I’m a person who just doesn’t give up easily. So I can make trips to a half a dozen places and if it doesn’t work out I go to a half dozen more. It’s just what I do.

What do you do on those days where you do go out and just don’t have it?
I usually go out with other people unless I’m specifically doing street photography. That I like to do by myself. But when I do go out with people, we will go out and split up and meet in an hour or so. If nothing is happening you shoot what you can and then maybe something comes out of that. Because sometimes it does. When you’re feeling your worst and you get a shot that you really like it will change things.

I don’t know that I have ever gone out and said, “Ugh. There’s nothing,” and then come home empty handed. You have to find something. You have to keep your eyes open. You can’t wait for something to present itself. Look in the corners. Look at the textures.  Photograph something. Take away something. It’s digital. It’s not costing you anything.

This comes out of a “Photo a Day” project I did for a year. I had heard John Barclay speak at one of our camera club workshops. He was so inspiring. The next day I was out at a pet sitting client’s house and happened to have the camera in the car. It was spring and her magnolia tree was in bloom. I took a photo of the magnolias. It’s common. Everybody photographs them. It’s like “so what?” It was just so pretty! And I thought, “I’m going to do this every day.” And during that year I took more than 20,000 photos. Every day I either went somewhere or if the weather was too awful I did something in the house. A lot of those days were really uninspired. A lot of those photographs were really bad, but it was the best learning experience I ever had. I learned so much during that year.

Nighthawkers [Photo Credit: Karen Commings]

So, what did you learn?
Well, do you want a list? [Hell, ya!] You learn how to shoot. You learn about exposure. You learn about depth of field. You learn how your camera works. You learn about lighting. You learn about all of the things a photographer puts together to take a picture. And the more you practice it the better you become. And I just learned that practice is what it takes. But I think the most important thing I learned was how to see, how to look at something and see a photograph in it, not of it but in it.

What do you find is your biggest challenge as a photographer?
Keeping up with the software. Oh my god! I post-process in Lightroom and am comfortable with that, but don’t use Photoshop. I have Elements but some of that escapes me. Specifically layers. Which is not something I do with street photography. I think that’s why I haven’t really pursued it. Because the photographs I take are not ones you would use some of those advanced techniques for.  The software and the technology is my biggest challenge.

Do you sell your work?
Yes. I try. While I was out in Death Valley earlier this year, my street photography was on exhibit at the Harrisburg Art Association. People don’t typically buy Street Photography. It’s usually what you put in a book. I do have work in a gallery in Harrisburg and I’ve had work in other galleries in Pennsylvania and Maryland. Every Memorial Day weekend there is an arts fest in Harrisburg and our camera club has a booth so we can sell our work there.

What do you find is the biggest challenge facing professional photographers today?
I don’t know that I can speak to professional photographers. There are a lot of people taking  a lot of photos. It seems like the market is saturated. Everybody with a cell phone can take photos and some of them can be very good. I think the challenge is that there is not as big of a market for the amount of photography that is out there so finding a market niche is what’s challenging if you want to sell your work.

Also, I looked into doing books and what it takes. When I was writing, I was writing non-fiction books, you would get an advance and people wanted to publish them. But it seems like it’s difficult to get a publisher to do a photography book.

Untitled#2 [Photo Credit: Karen Commings]

Who inspires you? Who or what is your muse?
There are particular street photographers I like. If we go back to this photo-a-day project that I started, it was John Barclay’s presentation to our camera club workshop that inspired me to start that.  And he’s a landscape photographer. But he wasn’t pedaling landscape photography. It was about being creative and following your passion.

Chuck Kimmerle has been my favorite landscape photographer. In fact, the year I was doing the photo-a-day project I saw an article in one of the photography magazines specializing in black and white photography and he was featured. That’s where I first came into contact with his landscape photography. I loved the minimal works.

As far as street photographers I guess one of my biggest favorites is Joseph Koudelka. He emigrated from the Czech Republic and I got his book Exiles. The first thing that popped into my head was that all of the photos that need to be taken have been taken. You can just stop now. It’s dark and grainy work, but impactful emotionally.

Vivian Maier. I love her work. Also, Alex Webb who actually does a fair amount of color. Robert Frank’s The Americans. Boy there are so many – Trent Parke who does wonderful things with light and shadow. I read Erik Kim. He posts a lot of things on his blog like 10 things that “so and so” taught me about photography. He deals with different photographers and they are always interesting. I think it’s important as a photographer to become familiar with the history of photography and those whose work lives on.

One For the Money [Photo Credit: Karen Commings]

I want to go back to your statement “Everything that needs to be taken has already been taken.” How do you get over that hurdle and tell yourself, “No. I have things to say and my things to say are also important.” How do you jump that hurdle to go out and continue?
I’m not sure I have a good answer for that. You just go out and do. I don’t quit. That’s all I can say. Okay, I’m impressed with those photos and I’m awestruck, but I have a voice too and I’m going to keep going and see where it goes. And I think that’s part of it. Just not knowing where it goes. I don’t know what the end result is. I don’t know what the end goal is. There seems to be none. It’s the journey that makes it interesting.

Have you surprised yourself?
Yeah. One of the fellows that came to see my exhibit at the Art Association said, “You really crop in unusual ways. It’s not the typical way to crop but it really works.” I started going through my photos and it’s not the typical way to crop, but, yes, it does work. Sometimes a viewer can offer insights that you miss about your own work.

I hadn’t realized that there was a continuum of that. I try to crop in camera. I’m not opposed to cutting off the top of people’s heads to get the focus and to get the viewer to see what I want them to see. It was surprising to hear someone notice that and then see it in so many photos in the exhibit because I hadn’t noticed it as a characteristic of my work.  Others have commented on the layers in each photograph (not layers as in Photoshop, but visual layers). It’s a result of me wanting the photo to tell a story. The presence of background or foreground activity separate from the main subject is what gives the photo a narrative. It’s nice when people see that.

Laughter Is The Best Medicine [Photo Credit: Karen Commings]

If you could give the young you some advice what would it be?
It would be the kind of advice that John Barclay gave everybody in his keynote. Don’t stop believing in yourself. Follow your passion. Keep doing what you love to do in spite of what everyone tells you not to. I was constantly told when I was a kid, “Oh, artists are a dime a dozen you want to go into business.” I heard that over and over and over again from my father so that’s what I did. I regret that.

The Questionnaire

10. Color or Black and White? – Black and White
9. Film or Digital? – Digital
8. Traditional Darkroom or Digital Darkroom? – Digital
7. Objects or People? – People
6. Urban Jungle or Pretty Landscapes? – Urban Jungle
5. Weddings or Root Canal? – Root Canal (colonoscopy, speaking in public…)
4. Kitted out with Heavy Long Lens or Holga? – Neither (fixed lens Fuji x100 s 23 mm lens)
3. Commercial or Fine Art? – Fine art
2. Tell me about the one that got away.  – There have been lots. One occurred in Philly. I had parked myself at a street corner to photograph and was looking around. While I was gawking, a group of 8 or 10 young women walked across the street all wearing the same white sunglasses. It was really funny but I couldn’t get myself in position in front of them fast enough to take the shot. I kicked myself for the rest of the day. I can still see them crossing the street even without a photo to remind me.
1. Tell me about the one you are still chasing. – Well, one of the things is a project involving amusement parks, but I don’t want to go into any more detail than that. [Editors note: We’ll be waiting!]

The Parting Shot

If you only go out once a month or do photographs only when you are in a certain place, like traveling or something, you don’t grow as a photographer. You might get some good shots, but to grow you have to practice your art.

The Party's Over [Photo Credit: Karen Commings]