Fleeting Subjects

One of the most challenging, and therefore appealing, kinds of photography for me is portraiture. I am particularly fascinated by portraits of ordinary people and everyday life, and I’m beginning to appreciate how hard a photographer must work to connect with his or her subjects.  Most people, unless they are models, actors, or center-of-attention goofballs, feel pretty shy and silly in front of a camera, myself included, and it is up to the photographer to put them at ease.  My father’s late friend, Mathias Oppersdorff, was a master at this.

(Here I must apologize for my horrendous reproductions of his images.  These are photographs that I took of the pages of his book, People of the Road; The Irish Travellers.  I was too excited about sharing these to make high quality scans.  Mostly, I want you to see his content, but take my word for it, these plates are crisp, rich and gloriously textured when you see them in person).

I remember Mo as a quiet, easygoing bachelor who had a mischievous grin and a penchant for speeding us along in his Volkswagon on our way to the beach.  He was the son of Polish immigrants and resided for most of his life in South County, RI.  Over a period of nearly 30 years, Mo journeyed to Ireland to photograph Travellers (a distinct ethnic group that is frequently confused with the Romany Gypsies of mainland Europe, and sometimes referred to as Tinkers, although most would take offense to this term today), and his book illustrates the gradual transition in the late 1900’s from their centuries-old nomadic lifestyle to a more settled existence in trailer parks and housing projects, a compromise that had to be made as they saw the need for their children to be in school.  He had to work hard to earn the trust and respect of a people who faced discrimination and often violent rejection from society, and as a result of his efforts, he has left behind an extensive record of a way of life that is nearly non-existant today.  A quote by one of his subjects sums up a sentiment that seemed to be consistent among the Travellers he worked with: “Just because I live in a house doesn’t mean I’m a settled person.  I will always be a Traveller.”

Mo alludes to the difficulties a portrait photographer faces in his introduction when he says, “as photographic subjects, they were unwilling and defensive.  They were as suspicious of me as the settled community was of them.  It was acceptable for me to stop my car at a camp and take a few pictures, but then I had better be on my way.  It was another thing to be allowed into their lives.  I had to work against great odds to establish myself as a safe figure.  From their point of view, no outsider could be trusted, especially someone asking questions and taking pictures.”

Whatever he did to get his subjects to open up, it worked.  His book is a consistent source of inspiration for me, and the forward that he wrote provides an informative setting for the photos, bringing to my attention the story of a people that I previously knew almost nothing about.  His dedication is succinct and poignant: “…to the Travellers, whose many campfires I shared.”

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