A while ago I started to hear a term that photographers use in the context of the “El Dorado” of photography. They call it “being in the zone”. This is in not the Zone System that Ansel Adams made famous, but apparently, you are in the zone when an alignment of circumstances occurs that allows you to focus entirely on creativity, which, when it happens flows freely and your vision is accurately reproduced in the images that you take. Sounds exciting! However, I never heard how you know if you are in the zone and therefore I was a little disappointed since I had no way of knowing if I had been or would ever be “in the zone” when taking my photographs.
This concept came back to me recently when I was preparing for a trip to photograph at Coney Island, NY. I knew that I was only going to be there for a long weekend and wanted to make the best of it that I could. I wanted to be “in the zone” when I was there and I figured that I could influence the “alignment of circumstances” by making some decisions that would help me. The following list is what I came up with.
1. I wanted to experience the Coney Island that people call home all year round – not the Coney Island that visitors see for only a few short months each year. Therefore, I wanted to go in the winter months.
2. I wanted to stay in Coney Island to maximize my experience of the sounds, smells and sights, with the hope that I would somehow use these in my images.
3. Although I only had planned a long weekend, I wanted to be there for a sufficient amount of time that would allow me to go back to the same place again and again at different times of the day (or night) and in different weather or lighting situations.
4. I wanted to be alone. I wanted to be responsible for myself and didn’t want to have to worry if anyone else was having a good time, if the weather was miserable what other plans would have to be made, meal arrangements, etc.
5. I also wanted to take equipment with me that I was familiar with so that I wouldn’t be distracted with trying to figure out how to use my cameras features etc.
Well, as is often the case, even the best laid plans fail. The weather forecast for the weekend wasn’t good and true to its word I drove for 4 hours in torrential rain and winds gusting at over 75 mph. When I finally arrived I quickly discovered that there are no hotels in Coney Island and therefore I had to stay in the nearby Brighton Beach area. The rain didn’t let up for the rest of that day and the hotel that I was staying in actually swayed in the wind. It was miserable and I was feeling very sorry for myself that the few days that I was going to be there were going to be a total washout. After talking with my family back home that first night I felt very alone. I was ready to drive straight back home. But it was already late and I didn’t want to drive for another 4 hours in the rain and in the dark. So I decided to stay and set off back in the morning. I awoke before day break and the winds had gone. The torrential rain had been replaced with drizzle and fog. I can photograph in this and so I decided not to beat such a hasty retreat back home. I set off at daybreak to see what I could find. Coney Island was deserted, except for a few diehards who were braving the forecasts of more wind and rain. I was still feeling a little disappointed, miserable and lonely. But I decided to make the best of it and so I pushed on. The morning quickly turned into afternoon and just as quickly into evening and I remember sitting alone in some rundown restaurant eating dinner thinking that although the day had gone by quickly I was pretty sure that I didn’t have much in the way of memorable shots. Although this added to my disappointment it gave me sufficient motivation to sit it out for the next day and the day after that. But each evening, when reflecting on the day that had just passed, I continued to feel that I didn’t really have any good images to take back with me.
And so, when my 3 days were up I came back home and although I didn’t expect to have any good images I decided to download them and then over the next couple of weeks I slowly looked through them. And then it hit me. I noticed a pattern in my images, a theme. Although I had gone to Coney Island with some ideas about the subject matter that I wanted to capture there was something in the images that I had taken that reminded me of how I felt during my time there – the feeling of being alone. I realized that I had taken many images of other people, also being alone.