Picture Story: A Quirky Take on Small-Town Life

By David Walker

© Ben Garver
This image of a Williams College football team practice, which Ben Garver shot on a whim with his cell phone camera, inspired him to experiment visually, eventually leading to the monthly photo column, "Eagle Eye." To see more images from the column, click on the Photo Gallery link below.

Since 1994, photo editor Ben Garver of The Berkshire Eagle in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, has been shooting small-town newspaper fare: headshots, ribbon cuttings, fires, sports and feature photos. “Four, five, six assignments a day can sap you,” he says. “You forget that you started photography to make images that are completely delightful. Every so often in my career I re-discover that.”

It happened last summer, after he got a Casio G’zOne Commando smartphone with a camera that is, by iPhone standards, quite rudimentary: It has no zoom, no aperture controls and a shutter that is “wicked slow to respond.” But it is weatherproof, and Garver first used it to document Hurricane Irene in real time for the paper’s website. Afterwards he began using the phone to shoot personal images—“quirky pictures between my mundane assignments,” he says.

Within a few months, Garver had about 100 select images that he posted on Facebook, to a positive response from Eagle readers. He called the series “This Is Where We Live,” and his guiding principle was to focus on subjects within ten miles of his house. The Berkshire Eagle publisher Andrew Mick and executive editor Tim Farkas took note, and suggested that Garver make the project into a monthly feature.

“You’re always looking for interesting features to entertain and stimulate your readers, and you’re wanting to attract new readers,” says Mick, who saw Garver’s smartphone images as an opportunity to offer something different.

“So we re-started ‘Eagle Eye,’” a popular photo feature from the 1960s and 1970s by former Eagle staff photographer Bill Tague,” Garver explains. Tague served light fare, including images of things like cats, waterfalls, boats—“Photo features for fun,” Garver notes. “But [it was] very popular at the time.”

In a nod to 1960s photojournalism and Tague’s work, Garver decided to present the resurrected column exclusively in black-and-white. But he’s taking on weightier subjects than cats and waterfalls (although a forthcoming installment of “Eagle Eye” will be about people and their dogs). “I’m trying to tackle things that we’re normally afraid to talk about at the paper, like religion, and the environment and how we’re dealing with it,” says Garver.

Each monthly installment of his “Eagle Eye” photo essay is built around a different theme. “I address very human issues,” and the diversity of local perspectives on those issues, he explains. His essay on religion shows the different ways people around the Berkshires worship, and he worried (needlessly, it turned out) about the backlash of showing Jews and Muslims on the same page.

Another essay Garver did explored waste, and a local recycling economy that it drives. The columns tend to be observational. One featured images of residents engaged in a range of physical activities, while another called “Hands On” showed close-ups of different peoples’ hands at work, and at play. But some of the essays are more conceptually challenging, such as one essay celebrating the creative inspiration that artists find in the Berkshires, with images of artists and the subjects they’ve interpreted, as well as images of people interacting with works by local artists.

The project is free-form, with unassigned and unplanned essays that gradually coalesce as Garver goes about his daily assignment routine. “There’s an extraordinary amount of freedom,” he says. Topics begin to emerge around groups of his smartphone images. Once he realizes a topic is almost ripe for an “Eagle Eye” feature, he draws on his extensive contacts in the community for subjects to round out the essay. He then sketches a layout and collaborates with features editor Charles Bonenti on the final page design.

The smartphone camera remains an essential ingredient of the entire enterprise. Garver started using it to shoot exclusively black-and-white images out of frustration with competitors who were re-posting Eagle stories without permission. He hoped that by posting black-and-white images, he might discourage theft by making the origin of the stolen images more obvious. “I could call them on the carpet,” he says. But Garver also liked the esthetic. “It felt good,” says Garver, who is 44. “I shot a lot of black-and-white on my way into this profession.”

He also realized how liberating the camera was, despite—or perhaps because of—its technical limitations. “The camera became a place to go [creatively] where nobody was watching, and I could really make cool stuff,” he says. He found subjects less distracted by the camera—“You’re completely invisible with a cell phone camera” because people are so used to seeing everyone use them, he explains. He also found that he could shoot with the camera away from his face, and get much closer to his subjects without making them feel he was invading their personal space.

Garver says he also felt “nobody was watching” in the sense that his own internal editor—programmed by the automatic habits he’d developed as a newspaper photographer—seemed less guarded when he picked up the cell phone camera. He noticed he was using “every inch of the frame, and using it more creatively, packing it with more information and arranging it more slowly with layers and silhouettes and the framing. I was being more of a visual acrobat, and giving myself permission to go there.”

An example, he says, was when he had to shoot a portrait of the football coach at Williams College last fall. The coach wasn’t enthusiastic about the shoot. “But I did what I had to for the assignment, then stood back and noticed the football team was [practicing] behind a giant tree. So I took a picture of the tree, and along the bottom you see a white band of football players. It said something about football in the country, the season and about Williams College, which is an important landmark around here.

“That was a typical example of how I could use foreground and background and composition a little more deeply than I would if I was just rushing though an assignment,” Garver says.

He realized also that he had to exercise and build on his photographic skills—most notably composition—to compensate for the technical limitations of the camera. “The whole thrust of this was to find a way to force my creative hand,” he says. “I wanted to explore how I could expand my visual vocabulary.”

He adds, “If you’re an articulate photographer with a large visual vocabulary, you’re going to do much better in your day-to-day newspaper work.” Garver says he’s re-invented his work, and re-discovered his passion for photography.

Nearly a year into the project, a growing challenge is finding fresh themes for future installments of the “Eagle Eye” column, which is expected to continue indefinitely. “I’m running dry on ideas,” Garver says. “I’m really going to have to work on the next batch.”

Related Article:

Ben Garver Photo Gallery

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