Memories and Musings – On Being a Photographer

In this time of COVID-19 isolation, folks are walking around their neighborhoods more. They are really looking at their surroundings and photographing what they see.

Bugle Boy, George Washington birthday parade
(Photos: Nina Tisara)

Alexandria, VA – In this time of COVID-19 isolation, folks are walking around their neighborhoods more. They are really looking at their surroundings and photographing what they see. I like seeing the photos they post. They make me remember what it was like when I first started taking pictures.

There must be a word or words to describe the visceral feeling I had then and still have when I “see” a picture, the times when a picture begs – or demands – to be taken. Years ago, when I fine-tooth-combed the streets of Alexandria stalking photos, it felt like an electric connection had been made when I saw a picture. If you’d scanned my brain, I think you’d have found that a part of my brain (is it the visual cortex?) had lit up.

Crazy as it may sound, at those times I felt like the Huntress Diana, the camera bag on my shoulder was a quiver, the rolls of film were arrows. In Roman mythology, Diana was the Roman goddess of the hunt (and the moon and childbirth). I found some of my favorite photographs on the streets of Alexandria. Others called out to me when I was photographing Alexandria events. “Tired Soldier” and “Bugle Boy” were among those.

People used to tell me, “You take good pictures, you must have a really good camera.” Sometimes they said I should go on an African safari or go to Alaska or to Asia because of the wonderful pictures I would find. Yes, I would say, but really it’s not the camera or the place. For the most part, good photographs are in your head and in your heart. You have to see and feel them.

The photography processes I learned came more than a hundred years after the glass plate negatives that were used through the 1920s. Although digital photography first came on the scene in the 1950s, it became prevalent around 2008, the year (and in great part the reason) I turned to creating mosaics.

Recently I came across a July1985 article written by Alicia Mundy, then the assistant editor of Alexandria Packet. Mundy wrote “Nina’s eyes don’t see subjects. They see stories. But then, Nina Tisara doesn’t take photos. She makes pictures…that are considered art.” I am still flattered by those words.

Tired Soldier, battle reenactment at Ft. Ward Park
(Photos: Nina Tisara)

Even then in 1985, I wanted my photographs to tell stories. My goal when I founded Living Legends of Alexandria in 2007 was to tell the story of Alexandria through the people who shaped the city I had come to love—the people who are writing its current history.

When Alicia Mundy asked what I saw when I pictured myself, I offered a poem I had written:

I am a sight-sensitive film frame. Emotions enter through my eyes And register directly on my gut. Each image is permanently imprinted, Without need of further translation. I squeeze my eyes shut to advance the film.

A major benefit of the now ubiquitous cell phone camera is that people are really looking at what’s around them. They are seeing pictures. But to my way of thinking, one thing that’s lost is the exhilaration, the pure thrill, of knowing you have one or two or maybe three shots left on a roll of film and not enough time to reload before the action is gone.

Mosaic artist/photographer Nina Tisara is the founder of Living Legends of Alexandria

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