A Conversation with John Farnsworth
When I started the blog, I hoped to be able to showcase other people’s photographs and also to interview photographers whose work is an inspiration to me. I am pleased today to present a conversation that I had with John Farnsworth, one of my favorite street photographers. This blog is longer than my usual ones, but I found it to be a great story that I want to share in its entirety.
You are a photographer and an artist. Which came first?
I painted, drew and photographed since childhood. My first camera was a miniature Dick Tracy camera that I won by selling flower seeds door to door. (OK, disclaimer: My mom bought most of them.) I was 9 or 10 at the time. The prints were about an inch or inch and a half square. They are all gone, now, but there is one that I remember vividly.
I have always loved taking pictures, but never developed a feeling for the darkroom and it’s smelly chemicals.
In 1960, I sold my first watercolors to the U.S. Army while serving at Fort MacArthur, in San Pedro, California. Fourteen full sheet watercolors of outdoor sports to decorate the newly remodeled mess hall.
I continued painting and photographing in my spare time while working as a draftsman, graphic artist, commercial artist, Indian dealer, Indian trader and museum preparator until 1967. At that time I decided to devote myself full-time to painting. A camera became my sidekick then, as a means of gathering research for my paintings, starting with a Yashica Super 8 movie camera with a cable release for shooting hundreds of still frames that served as excellent little sketches when viewed on a tiny movie editor. I eventually worked my way up to a 35 mm Pentax ME, followed by a series of video cameras, which put me back in the game of a lot of research for little expense.
Then along came digital, and was I ready for it. Now I could not only shoot to my heart’s content, I could, on a computer, caress my “snapshots” into something more, just as I had always done with a brush! So, after a fifty year career as a painter, I could now be an artist with a camera as well.
You are currently using a mobile phone and a DJI OSMO Pocket?
Yes. Currently an iPhone 6s Plus and an iPhone SE. One or both always with me. The iPhone SE is perfect for street stealth shooting, and now with iOS 13, it should be good for another four or five years. The Osmo is something I’m experimenting with using as a street camera because of its tiny size and the fact that it is a self contained three axis gimbal 4K video camera, excellent for Vloggjng, which is something I hope to get into soon.
Have you ever used a standard DSLR?
I haven’t. Because in the early days of digital I was primarily using my camera as an information gathering tool, a sketch pad, if you will, I started with smaller, compact cameras, then in search of better, bigger images, I bought a more ‘serious” camera, the Olympus E-100RS, or Rapid Shot 10x stabilized optical zoom, 15 full size frames per second, 1.5 Megapixels, in October of 2000.
Wow! I!m still amazed by this camera, and occasionally use images from it on my Instagram feed. I have also used images from this camera for full page ads in national magazines.
Following the megapixel wars through the years I had some great experiences with Panasonic’s excellent bridge cameras, then their travel zoom cameras, all because of their smaller sensors allowing zoom ranges of 10x, 20x, and beyond. The image quality was as much or more than I needed, really, they were great for travel, and I had been hooked on zoom since that first super 8. The thought of dust on sensors and lugging around multiple expensive lenses, plus a degree of stubbornness, along with the impression made on me by the images made by people using pinhole and plastic cameras, all contributed to my avoidance of the DSLR.
By the time I had worked my way up to the iPhone 6s, I realized I could zoom best with my feet. I now shoot everything including rodeo, with my “eyeCamera”.
You take mainly street portraits. Are they mostly candid, or do you sometimes or always ask permission to take the picture?
Almost always candid. Usually from the hip, the waist or the shoulder. Even when I do ask, I usually manage a couple of before and after candids.
Your pictures typically fill the frame. In order to do that with a mobile device, you have to be very close. How far away are you usually from the subject?
That can vary from infinity in landscapes, which I also do, to inches for still life. Environmental portraits can range from a half block away to candid head shots just inches away, and everything in between.
I will admit that I sometimes dream of a mirrorless camera with a large sensor, allowing for more cropping, or post-zoom. But I prefer to spend my money on travel.
Have you had circumstances when someone realized you were taking the picture and objected?
Very rarely. Usually a smile and a nod, sometimes a polite discussion will take care of the situation. It helps to be friendly, thoughtful, discrete, or best, stealthy! Because I often shoot intuitively, before I’ve had a chance to think, I sometimes get a scowl, like my favorite shot of a small boy bathing in a washtub in the backyard of his home in a village in Peru. I had squeezed off three or four shots. When going through them I realized his mother was also in the shot giving me a very stern look. In the next frame, though, she was smiling.
Only two occasions come to mind that were a bit upsetting. One perfectly innocent, rapid, reflex shot of a boy in Nice resulted in a shouting and shoving father, and a Mexican Charro gentleman I had been trying a little too hard to get a shot of because of his costume and grand mustache told me I’d better stop. So I did.
Considering those brave souls who photograph in war zones, I don’t worry too much about what I do.
Oh, I forgot. At the end of an afternoon of shooting in a certain part of Panama City’s Casco Viejo, a man stopped me and informed that I didn’t belong there and that I’d better go! I went!
Your work is mainly rural US, and South and Central America. Do you think your style would work in an urban area?
Oh, yes! I have shot extensively in Nice, Madrid, Sevilla, Jerez de La Frontera, Los Angeles, Mexico City and Buenos Aires, as well as Montevideo, Panama City, Paris, Venice, and, years ago, in Phoenix.
But I also love photographing in small towns and villages from San Antonio de Areco in Argentina to Eymet and Saintes Marie de la Mer in France to Taos Pueblo in New Mexico.
I just love photographing people going about their daily lives. And if colorful costumes are a part of their daily lives, all the better.
What is your long term hope for your work?
I would hope that some of it might be of use as a reminder of our brief time in human history. I hope, also that it might inspire others to enjoy photography as much as I do. I am currently working on a series of books as a way of seeing and showing my work in print and in context or in some sort of serial form. Prints and exhibitions and competitions are less of a concern for the moment. Remember, I’ve been doing that sort of thing for fifty years with my paintings.
You have a preference for using Snapseed right now. Have you ever used other post processing software, specifically Adobe products?
Yes. I was strictly a PC guy from the beginning until the iPad came along and changed my life. I had Photoshop on my machines for years but seldom used it. Early on, I preferred Paint Shop Pro, which often had features way before Photoshop! I later switched to ACDSee and PhotoForge2, which I used for years. At one point I taught myself Adobe InDesign for a catalog that I produced for an art school I was involved with.
A lot of my friends use Lightroom, but I tried it and didn’t care for it. And I really don’t like the idea of monthly payments!
I now have ACDSee on my iPad and just getting started switching over from Photoscape. I have also been looking into the Affinity Photo app, a real contender!
You like to post process,
I love Post Processing! For me, the hunt, the capture is half the fun. Playing, developing, creating in post is the equal second half of the fun.
do you ever use Snapseed filters?
I do. However I seldom ever just slap on a filter and let it go at that. I have no set pattern, but bounce all around, back and forth between any number of the available tools and filters, playing, caressing each image according to its needs, playing those sliders with and in opposition to each other. It’s a lot like painting, really!
Do you ever significantly crop a picture?
Not always, but often! Sometimes mercilessly! To me, the only thing that’s sacred is my final rendition! I always shoot wide and in color, taking in as much as I can, then I select just what works for me and the image I have in mind, not necessarily when I shoot, but when I start processing.
This has real implications when the files are comparatively small files that mobile phones produce.
You are so right, Diane! However, since I am currently creating primarily for Instagram and for book page images measuring ten inches or less, it’s not as much of a concern as if I were shooting for billboards or large exhibition prints. Also, I am far more concerned about the content in my pictures than in tack-sharpness or pixel peeping. To a fault, I’m sure some would say. In addition, I am learning to treat an image a bit differently if it’s to be printed.
What are your three favorite Snapseed tools?
I don’t honestly know. I don’t think much about them anymore. They’ve become sort of like keys on a keyboard or a piano. It all depends on what I’m trying to say at the moment. Let’s see. I guess I most often start with Ambiance. I may come back to it during the process, depending on what follows, sliding all the different sliders back and forth, searching for a balance.
In black and white images I generally end up using the Warmth tool, just because I’m a sucker for sepia. In between, I suppose I use the brush tool the most, in all its forms. To enhance, exaggerate or tone down the results the other tools provide.
I do use the Healing tool a lot in Snapseed, for spotting and general cleanup. If there is something it can’t handle, I use an app called Touch/Retouch’s Cloning Stamp, or, occasionally, Line Removal, but it’s touchy.
Is there a tool you believe you use more than most people who use Snapseed?
Probably the brush tool. I am a painter, after all!
Do you print pictures from the iPhone? How much can you enlarge your pictures in a print?
I haven’t yet. I’m confident that many could go up to 20 inches; some even larger. I would love to try certain ones as really large prints, maybe 40 or 50 inches. Time and storage space are holding me back. Maybe next time I’m in Antigua.
Is there something else I should have asked or that you would like to add?
I usually use the native camera app, but am leaning heavily toward Pro Camera mainly for its full screen shutter and arrangement of its menus. Because of the menu arrangement in the native camera, many of my best shots have been destroyed by my thumb having inadvertently switched to panorama mode while shooting from the hip, with disastrous results!
As you may know from my IG profile, I now travel for as long as three to six months with only my iPhones and iPad; no other cameras and no laptop!
You can see John’s work on Facebook at John Farnsworth, on Instagram at @johnfarnsworthphotographer, on his website johnfarnsworthphotographer.com.