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Thursday, January 11, 2007

What Are Your "Sidewalks" Stories?

By Ken Tanaka

I'm a mug for good, tiny-scale photo documentaries. Large bodies of work that cover wars, famines, floods, and hurricanes are usually interesting and informative. But I'll gladly temporarily set aside such big work in favor of a tiny piece that reveals something otherwise unseen about my immediate slice of world.

That's exactly the type of work that Chicago Tribune writer Rick Kogan and photographer Charles Osgood deliver in spades with their Sidewalks: Portraits of Chicago. Readers of the Chicago Tribune's Sunday Magazine will recognize this book as a collection of the long-running weekly column of the same name. Each piece looks at some small, and often unusual, Chicago topic. Each consists of just a few short paragraphs accompanied by one photograph.

I have two reasons for bringing "Sidewalks" to my fellow T.O.P. readers' attention. First, it's a well-done body of work that many people will find quite interesting. But, of course, long-time Chicagoans (like yours truly) will probably find it most interesting.

Beyond its local appeal, however, the format of "Sidewalks" serves as a terrific suggestion for people who want to pursue documentary photography but struggle to find inspiration beyond snap-shooting personal subjects. Each piece in the book deals with one limited subject by using only one photograph accompanied by a 2–3 paragraph essay.

This is an excellent framework for beginning to assemble a body of documentary work. Even the busiest of people can find time to prepare such a small piece on an accessible subject close to home. Forcing yourself to select one picture—and only one—to illustrate an essay demands that you hone your skills as an editor. Preparing a brief essay on your subject, while not part of photography, is an excellent way to devote some constructive introspective thought to your subject and your photograph. (Not to mention that it's a good way to practice your writing skills.)

So if you've resolved to make more use of your camera in 2007 but are having trouble getting traction, get a copy of "Sidewalks." Beyond being a great little book, it may give you some excellent inspiration and ideas for your own work. Once you've created one of your own "Sidewalks" stories, another will surely soon follow. Then another and another. Then larger essays and richer bodies of documentary images. Soon Magnum will call you to attend their annual meeting in Paris. Get it?

Posted by: KEN TANAKA


Blogger Ralph Eisenberg said...

Thanks Ken for pointing out this interesting work with your usual refined and perspicacious commentary

9:01 AM  
Blogger said...

I still have a prickly sensation on my neck after reading/seeing this. Incredible series of photos with matching play by play!

10:08 AM  
Blogger slubomirski said...

Hi Ken,
Another really excellent article, which in a way summarises why photography as a career or hobby is so rewarding. There is always something out there to study, interpret and photograph. I do it all the time between paid assignments and get a lot from it - honing of skills, working in new environments and often coming across new interesting people in the process. My latest project looking at Christmas trees discarded in the streets after Christmas can be viewed on
I look forward to future articles from you and Mike

9:40 AM  

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