Capturing Funk On Film
A Stroll Down L.A. Melrose Avenue

Graphic murals abound, this one on a wall bordering a parking lot.
Photos © 2000, Dave Howard, All Rights Reserved

The dictionary defines the quality of funkiness as, "unworldly simple or unsophisticated in style; unconventional and individualistic in behavior or style; tasteless, lacking style or good taste; unconventionally stylish and new; having a strong, unpleasant odor." Depending on where you're from, your age and background, the commercial stretch of L.A.'s Melrose Avenue can exhibit all of the above in spades. As the saying goes, "You're not in Kansas anymore." If you're accustomed to white picket fences and polite children who address you as sir or ma'am, then the trashy streets and "colorful" residents of the area are guaranteed to be a large dose of culture shock. On the other hand, if you were stunned speechless by anything out of the ordinary, you probably wouldn't be a photographer.

Regardless of your personal lifestyle philosophy, it's impossible not to be fascinated by the prolific presence of vibrant colors and bold graphics that confront you at every turn. It's kind of like a carnival with no admission charge. But even if your normal photographic diet consists mainly of pastoral landscapes, shifting gears occasionally and tackling totally different subject matter will help keep your vision fresh.

Melrose Avenue's version of homespun quaint.

Melrose Avenue is within my figurative back yard (in L.A. that's anywhere within a 50 mile radius), so the "Gollleee, Martha, wouldja lookit that!" factor has long since worn off, but it's still a favorite haunt for testing new "warm-biased" films. Besides, once you let yourself get into the spirit of the place, it's a just plain fun morning or afternoon shoot (depending on the season and which side of the street you want the sun on). Businesses and trends come and go, so change is constant, providing new photo opportunities with each return visit. For that very reason, don't pass up a shot for "next time"; like as not, next time it won't be there.

Pick Your Spot
All that is said here, of course, applies to similar islands of funk that exist somewhere within the environs of most large cities. Area chambers of commerce can steer you in the right direction, as well as provide interesting background information. A little homework ahead of time can lead to places just off the main tourist game trails that result in pictures not found in every local post card rack. It feels great when you're showing your photos of the outing and a friend says, "Hey, where was that? I was there last year, but I never saw that cool mural!"

Pick Your Time
As intimated previously, time of year can be important when shooting urban locations. You may have seen a picture of some wonderful colorful architecture, ablaze in the sun, only to find that it remains in gloomy shade all winter (during your visit, of course). Depending on latitude and exact compass orientation, the nominally south side of some streets (in the northern hemisphere) are never sunlit. In such cases, adding a warming filter, such as an 81A, will add life to shadowed building fronts. You may also be able to incorporate interesting reflections in windows of the sunlit northern side of the street (don't meter just the reflection, even with slide films, or the overall shot will be underexposed; split the highlight/shadow difference).

Oversized graphics and vivid colors contribute to Melrose's bold atmosphere.

Pick Your Gear
While any camera type can be used effectively, experience in such shooting situations has led me to favor the 35mm SLR. And, as much as I enjoy using my classic, totally mechanical, non-electronic anything cameras, a modern SLR with a good matrix (segmented) metering system is a blessing that will up your shooting-on-the-fly batting average considerably. The Melrose Avenue pics that illustrate this article represent one 36-exposure roll of film, shot in about an hour (I'm familiar with the area and knew where I was going; first visit gawking will lengthen the shoot considerably). I used a new Minolta Maxxum 7 that I still had on hand from a test review; the meter was so on-the-money that I had to edit hard to choose my finals. Even in very contrasty lighting, I never had to comp the camera's exposure by more than 1/2 f/stop. Believe me, that's good, and avoids time-consuming, film-wasting wide exposure bracketing.

This kind of shoot typically involves subject matter of widely varying sizes and shooting distances. A wide-to-medium tele-zoom (I used a 24-105mm), preferably with some macro capability, will prove most convenient here. On occasions when I'm using a camera for which there is no zoom available (e.g., most rangefinders), I try to remember to look around after taking a picture to see if there's another composition suitable for the lens that's on the camera, before switching lenses for a picture of differing scope; this helps to cut down on constant lens changing, which can get old in a hurry.

Locals pause for their daily latte or espresso.

Pick Your Shots
If people photography is your thing, and the colorful denizens of Funktown, U.S.A., strike you as being particularly noteworthy trophies, be sure to ask permission first. The majority of these folks are quite proud of their unique and highly individualistic appearance, and many are happy to pose briefly for your camera if approached in a friendly manner. They appreciate genuine interest in themselves and their community, but resent being regarded as a freak show. Remember, this is their turf. Fits of laughter at (to you) wild hair, makeup, clothes, and myriad body piercings could result in your 80-200mm zoom becoming a suppository. Dressing casual helps, too, as jeans and T-shirts are greeted with less suspicion of motives than a suit and tie.

Variety in your compositions contributes greatly toward creating a successful visual essay, as opposed to just a string of record shots. To that end, mix up your long, medium, and close-up compositions, and vary your shooting height as well. Outlandish statuary will often look more imposing (or ludicrous) when shot from a low angle, and colorful curb-standing signs hold your attention better when photographed from their own level or lower. Pedestrian and automobile traffic shots usually gain interest when shot from a higher vantage point, whether the modest boost of a bus stop bench or the more pronounced perspective of a second-story window or balcony. This also helps record storefronts from across the street without having unavoidable parked cars obstructing details near sidewalk level.

Tacky is the norm here. Watch for and make use of incidental background elements and juxtapositions.

Funky locales are predictably reliable troves of potentially humorous or poignant juxtapositions of elements. Bizarre signs and window displays abound, all clamoring to be paired with each other, campy locals, or straight-laced tourists. When moving people or vehicles (here in "SoCal," some of the personal modes of transportation are as zany as the people and buildings) are to be included, timing is everything.

The time between recognizing an impending juxtaposition and its occurrence can be frustratingly brief. It is mandatory that your camera is ready to shoot without hesitation, or the fleeting opportunity will be lost. I frame the static elements and let the mobile element move into the frame, releasing the shutter at the appropriate instant. If your camera is autofocus, this sequence gets the focus and exposure chain of events over with before the moving subject arrives at the desired point, avoiding the otherwise annoyingly long time lag between pushing the shutter button and the actual firing of the shutter, which could reduce capturing "the decisive moment" to pure guesswork.

Also try to occasionally include "identifiers," such as street signs, store names, or billboards that identify the location and help anchor your picture story. These are often most effective when they appear as an incidental part of the composition, rather than as a blatant close-up "name tag." I seldom use flash under these circumstances, as it draws attention and often offends. In the rare instance that supplementary fill is necessary, the built-in pop-up units on many SLRs are more than adequate. As a matter of courtesy, I never use flash on strangers; I carry a small (18") collapsible reflector for the purpose, which provides a more natural lighting effect.

Gritty grubbiness is ever-present on Melrose.

Don't spend all your time taking pictures. Enclaves like Melrose Avenue offer an eclectic assortment of goods for sale that you aren't likely to find in the Sears catalog. From antique and nostalgia shops to clothes that would embarrass a Frederick's of Hollywood clerk, if you're in the market for a conversation piece, you probably won't go home empty handed.

Before closing, I should also recommend taking the precaution of keeping close track of your camera gear. I try to bring a friend or assistant with me on urban shoots, because it's all too easy to become parted from your expensive equipment while you have your eye glued to the viewfinder. That may sound paranoid, but, an ounce of prevention, etc€

So wherever your quest for photo-funk opportunities takes you, remember that maintaining an open mind will enable you to extract the maximum photographic benefit from your encounters. Get into the spirit and enjoy yourself. Keep in mind that what's weird to you can be normal to others, and, conversely, what's normal to you can be downright strange to the next guy. Residents of Melrose Avenue might well be aghast at the regimented tidiness of a New England village. It's all a matter of perspective, mental as well as photographic.

Funky Locale Check List

  • Research beforehand. Area chambers of commerce can often provide walking-tour maps, and point out lesser-known highlights.
  • A wide-to-moderate tele-zoom lens, preferably with macro capability, will provide the most flexible compositional options.
  • Funk and vivid color go hand-in-hand, so use a "warm-biased" film for maximum effect.
  • If need be, "dress down" a bit to blend more unobtrusively with the locals.
  • Ask permission when photographing people. Colorful characters are proud of their individuality and are often happy to pose briefly for you, but they resent being treated as a freak show.
  • Look for unusual juxtapositions.
  • Don't just shoot flat-footed; mix camera angles and height for effect and variety.
  • Most importantly, get into the proper frame of mind. Accept the locale and its residents on their own terms (e.g., go with the flow!).