Steve Scalone was about 12 when he picked up a camera for the first time. It was his father’s 1950s Paxette 35mm rangefinder and while the elder Scalone had never really managed to get to grips with it, young Steve just seemed to have an intuitive feel for photographic technology.
Taken in a snow shower close to the shore of Lake Michigan in Chicago.
‘I have no idea why, but I could make that camera work, whereas my father never could.’
And from the very first roll of Kodak Gold he put through it, his approach was not that of a casual snapshooter, but of a photographer.
When you ask photographers about their earliest picture-taking forays, the subjects are typically family, pets, friends and holidays. The photographic intentions are simple and immediate, and little thought is given to the final results beyond a vague hope that the pictures will turn out more or less okay.
The Scalone family lived on a busy suburban road in Sydney’s Abbotsford and Steve for his first picture-taking effort thought it would be interesting to see if he could photograph the cars at night. More particularly, he wanted to get the light-trail effect produced by long exposures. And that was thinking like a photographer.
Confessing that he was ‘very nerdy by heart’, Steve soon had his own home darkroom. ‘I had all the black and white chemistry set up in my room and just printed every chance I got,’ he said.
Taken above a small inner city square in Melbourne CBD.
While Steve still picks up the occasional wedding, he’s now focused on developing more business-to-business work. Along with dipping his toe in the interior design market, he does a bit of teaching at Melbourne Polytechnic and, of course, pursues his own expressive work.
‘I love and enjoy the commercial work I do, and it obviously pays the bills. The teaching I equally love, but I’m also trying to get away to travel once a year, hopefully almost two-month’s worth,’ he laughed.
‘The bank balance doesn’t always quite agree with that, though’.
Steve had only recently returned from a trip to Europe and the UK, where he’d pursued his passion for travel and street photography. Asked to define the difference between the two genres, he replied; ‘Good question. For me travel’s an urban landscape I’m unfamiliar with. ‘Basically everything I do with street photography, or travel for that matter. I kind of see them as the same thing, it’ss very spontaneous.’
A museum in Chicago, taken on the top floor looking down.
On the street
‘I almost have to be in the mood, because nothing is set up,’ he confessed while describing his approach to street photography. ‘I’ll always look for a background and lighting first. I just break everything down into shapes; pure, compositional elements. Basically I look for simplicity first and then wait for some kind of human element to come into it. Sometimes it works. Other times, it just doesn’t.’
Taken on the 14th floor of Crown Towers overlooking Melbourne foreshore.
The inherently spontaneous nature of street shooting means that you don’t often get second chances. ‘I’ve gone back a couple of times to the same place, hoping that I would get a better result, and it’s never worked. That decisive moment is so… finite. It’s gone within seconds. A lot of times I’ve just missed shots because I was looking somewhere else, or I was in my own world and I could see something instantly happen and by the time I’ve drawn my camera up to my eye, it’s a lost moment.
‘That happens constantly, especially if you don’t have a camera. It’s so frustrating,’ Steve said with a chuckle.
Although the human figure is a frequent presence in his street work, Steve describes himself as ‘one of those introvert-extrovert types.’
‘I could never go up to somebody and ask for a street portrait. That to me takes a lot of courage.
‘The strange thing is I can order 300 people around in a wedding party for a large group shot and that’s no issue.
‘I don’t think I could ever be a documentary photographer or photojournalist in a war-torn country, where you would have to delve in and get really kind of aggressive with your images in order to tell the story. Basically, the way I see my street work is that the human element is almost secondary. I’m more or less grabbing the urban landscape first and just using the person as a secondary element.’
Spontaneous though it is, great street photography isn’t just a lucky dip. You need patience and well-developed powers of observation. Having found a promising combination of an interesting background and dramatic lighting, Steve explains his approach: ‘While I’m waiting for the person to walk through, I will actually count their steps in rhythm so that their legs are just the right distance apart, and I’ll take maybe two or three shots that way.’
An image of the architecture of MONA in Hobart Tasmania.
Apart from checking exposure when he first finds a promising location, he’s not one for ‘chimping’.
‘When you actually see it happening in the viewfinder, you know if you’ve got the shot,’ he said.
While most of his commercial work is shot with a Nikon D800, his usual street kit is generally the far lighter little Lumix GX1. It’s a classic street shooter rig with its fixed 28mm-equivalent 14mm lens and built-in square-format option.
On a typical street shooting expedition he often takes 400-500 images in a day, and apart from taking lots of shots, Steve’s advice for aspiring travel and street photographers is: ‘Always look for the best light first of all. And if you have a particular subject in mind, make sure that it is in a high contrast area so that it can be seen strongly.
‘If you have a great subject, I would put him or her out under the expanse of the sky for that really high contrast kind of shot. Try and have a story to your photograph.’
The relationship between Steve’s commercial and personal work is a complex one. ‘My personal work is more challenging because I’m so much more critical. It’s also a little bit more difficult because there’s no plan, you kind of go out in the middle of nowhere and say, “ok, something’s going to present itself to me that I will turn into a composition”.
Taken at the Centre Pompidou overlooking its grounds in Paris France.
‘With commercial I love the collaboration. Even if it’s a kind of business-to-business transaction I love chatting with the owner, about what kind of product he or she has, or what kind of market they’re trying to aim for – and then I love to come up with a visual solution for that. ‘Commercial can be easier because there’s a plan, even if it’s only a simple 10-minute consultation about what sort of images the client’s after.’
Working for clients, whether they’re a business owner or two people getting married, nevertheless influences his other work. ‘The beauty of doing wedding photography for so many years was that it taught me to photograph in absolutely any situation. It taught me to become a better photographer without a doubt. You couldn’t reschedule anything to do with a wedding. And it can teach you not to be entirely perfect.’
One Shot: The Violineri
A portrait of a luthier in his workshop.
‘That image took less than five minutes to photograph,’ says Steve Scalone. ‘I used to walk past his shop on the way to lunch or to get a coffee. One day I had my camera gear with me, so I just popped in – for me this was quite a courage thing as well – and said I was a professional photographer just walking past your shop; I’ve always admired it and wondered if I could take a very quick portrait of you.
‘He was quite willing and happy to do it. And I ended up taking a few photos – probably about 15 or 16 in all – of him just starting to work.
‘I noticed this large rack of violins at the back and so I set up a chair in front of them. It was more or less under a skylight – which is what attracted me in the first place. I asked him to take a seat and that was his first natural position. I said, “Don’t move!” took two snaps – and that was it.’
Although Steve made a few more exposures simply because, as he put it, ‘I thought, ”no way, this is just too easy.” But, he added, ‘as soon as I saw the image I knew it was a great one. I did try in vain to beat it, but there was no chance.’
When it came to making the final print, he says the honey-oak, almost orange tones of unfinished violins in the background would mean ‘the colour could be a little too jarring. From memory there was flourescent as well as daylight and that was contaminating the skin tones. So going either black and white or sepia for the final print was definitely a better choice.
‘Literally I was in the store for about five minutes. Personally I still think it’s one of the best portraits I’ve taken.’
Article by Don Norris
Excerpt from Photo Review Issue 66