Karen Commings got her first digital camera around 2005. It was a haphazard project at first, a hobby with no real goal. But around 2011, she joined her local camera club. “When you’re in a camera club, you learn all about the rules of photography,” Karen says. At the same time, she started a year-long one photo a day project. Each day, she would make as many pictures as it took to get one she was happy with. At the end of the year, Karen had taken over 20,000 photos! Between her project and the club, she was getting quite an education, one that would kickstart her passion as a photographer. But Karen was about to evolve.
In 2014, the camera club took a group trip to see a Gary Winnogrand exhibit in Washington, D.C. By this time, Karen had been reading up on street photography. She decided she would head to the Mall after the exhibit to take her first stab at street photography, and she would process the photos in B&W only. Karen considers that day the beginning of her journey with street photography.
Later that year, Karen took a three-day workshop with InPublic. There, she discovered different street photography techniques and adopted walking as her preferred approach. She also learned a lot about how to see on the street. “Knowing what you are photographing and why is so important,” she relates. In most of Karen’s work, she “sees” by being cognizant of people – especially their interactions with one another and their facial expressions.
It’s obvious how honed Karen’s powers of observation have become over the years. One thing that jumped out to me about her work are all the images where she’s not only captured interesting expressions, but multiple interesting expressions on several of her subjects’ faces, who are generally layered throughout the scene. When I asked Karen how she managed to notice and capture so many expressions in a single frame, she replied, “My superpower is being invisible in a crowd.”
Karen may have a natural ability to blend in and disappear amongst the throngs, but she takes a few practical steps too. “I consider it rude to insert myself into other people’s interactions on the street,” she admits, so she takes steps to be discreet. Karen keeps her autofocus light turned off and her shutter set to electronic mode so it’s silent. She also avoids shooting in burst mode, which she says can make you miss or even destroy a moment on the street. If you start “spraying and praying” people will notice you and they won’t stay in the moment you’re trying to capture. Karen says a better approach is to try to visualize what is about to happen and do your best to hit the shutter at the right moment. If you miss the moment, don’t sweat it. There are always plenty more opportunities on the street.
The result of Karen’s approach is a collection of photos that are steeped in the human element. Many of her photos feel simple and warm. Bob describes them as “unpretentious slices of life.” It’s easy to see that Karen knows people, and that she feels comfortable on the streets. Likely, her level of comfort has much to do with the freedom street photography offered her.
Making Her Own Rules
Karen is the first to admit that being part of a camera club has been a huge part of her journey as a photographer. One of the ways she’s benefitted is by always participating in the club’s competitions, which has meant receiving plenty of criticism over the years. It’s been incredibly helpful. Over the years, club members have commented on what could make specific photos better, and sometimes they were right. “You don’t always get that kind of feedback when you enter a photo competition,” Karen admits. But she takes a balanced point of view now that she’s a street photographer. “I take all criticism as someone’s opinion. Even when someone commends a photo I’ve taken, I know it’s all subjective. I’m always ready to take the good with the bad.”
This approach has helped her know when to accept criticism and when to “agree to disagree.” On one occasion, a judge told her one of her photos was lacking detail in the shadows. At first, she took it as something to improve on, but after studying the works of a few of the masters of street photography, she found that detail in the shadows wasn’t always necessary.
On another occasion, Karen was reviewing some photos she took at Knoebels, a large amusement park in her area. There was one she took at night that was dark and blurry. She was about to delete the photo for good when she decided to convert it to B&W. The result was an image that was surreal, and creepy, and surprisingly good! That photo now hangs on her wall, and it was the beginning of an ongoing photo project she spent nearly a decade on dedicated to capturing the creepier side of carnivals. As it turns out, following the rules isn’t always necessary to make a powerful image. Here are a few examples:
These days, Karen always gives herself room to break a few rules when she’s out shooting the streets. “My friend and I used to joke after our camera club meetings that if we entered a photo by Robert Frank or another great street photographer, they probably wouldn’t have made the cut,” she chuckled. She has a point. Many of Frank’s photos feature out-of-focus areas or subjects cut off as they entered or left the scene – faux pas as far as many photography perfectionists are concerned. “Street photography has allowed me to escape from the rules,” Karen mused. “You abide by them to an extent, of course, but the streets are a place where you can make your own rules.”