One of the self-assigned projects I am working on combines two of my favorite things–no, not warm woolen mittens and whiskers on kittens–houses and photography. For the past few weeks I have been taking little side trips through the streets of the Pasadena area to photograph old craftsman homes. For me these old houses represent the quintessential family neighborhood of yesteryear. Most were build around the turn of the 20th century and were designed to fit with the warm California climate. They tend to have low sloping rooflines (no snow to build up on a roof here) and wide shady overhangs and porches to shelter the inside from the heat and provide a nice spot to sit outside and socialize with neighbors. For the west coast of the U.S. these are old houses. Sure, they are not 500 year old farmhouses in Tuscany, but it’s about as much history as we have here.
What attracts me to these places? Old houses have personalities, stories and secrets. The face they present to the outside world might be very different that the reality inside. They are a mystery. And at their best they are also works of art. They were built in a time when craftsmanship and attention to detail meant something. They were build to last and for the most part they have. Many of these old neighborhoods are being actively revived. Layers of bad paint are being stripped off, natural wood is stained and varnished and concrete is being replaced by natural materials like gravel and decomposed granite. In one such area, called Bungalow Heaven, the residents had their streets declared an historic district, making the owners legally responsible for keeping the homes’ details period accurate.
My little self-assigned project started with shooting portraits of these beautiful little houses. It was easy to find a charming house, take a few shots, and move on. That approach has gradually changed though. I have found that when someone happened to be home caring for their yard, or just enjoying their porch, adding a human element to the photo exponentially increased the interest. It is amazing what happens when you put a person in your photo.
As humans we relate to other people, not to objects and places. Just adding a person watering a plant or mowing a lawn transforms a photo from a shot of a house to a captured slice of life. It says to us “people like you and me make this house their home.”
And as soon as I started shooting photos of people something interesting and unexpected happened. These people began to talk with me. Sure, they probably wanted to make sure I wasn’t casing their house to rob them later. But once they seemed assured that my intentions were good, the people I’ve met were more than happy to engage with me. One nice man took me all around his house to show me the fine historic features that I might like to photograph. It always amazes me how open people really want to be, how much they want to share their passion with others who show an interest, and how much they are just waiting for someone to reach out and offer to connect.