It seemed I was destined to collect old men on my second visit to Penang, Malaysia. Old-timers appeared with an ominous frequency during my trip. Admittedly, I’m probably closer to being a contemporary than not, but in my mind’s eye I’m still in my late twenties. And everyone who knows me will tell you I have the maturity level of a twelve-year-old. But the old guys in Georgetown seemed to be quite taken with me, and I in turn was fascinated by them.
There was the old fisher guy in his blue aloha shirt who’d taken me out fishing on his tiny boat one morning, mostly to amuse himself. And a stick thin, dark skinned local man who started out as a photo op – his white beard so magnificent I wanted to cut it off to take home with me to hang above the fireplace – but ended up offering a fascinating cooking demonstration, a personal chef with flair who forced me to eat a dish I’d not have considered trying on my own and instead sought out again and again during that trip.
And then there was my chance encounter with a self-proclaimed professional photographer, a visitor, maybe an expat, possibly even nothing more than a crazy bum washed up on the island’s shores – his build and outfit certainly reminded me of a gnarled piece of driftwood that had been floating aimlessly for years – who offered a piece of sage, professional advice. That bugs the shit out of me even today.
I was standing on one of the smaller streets in Georgetown, impatiently waiting for the crowds to thin so I could take a picture of a small shrine hanging on a support post, a common foundation for the plastered canopies that shade many of the town’s sidewalks. I’d become fascinated with these tiny religious tableaus, and taken a dozen or so shots of them already. Each one I came across was special, maybe a bit better than the last. And I wanted my shot.
The problem with standing, not moving, on a sidewalk, camera in hand, oversized telephoto lens proudly displayed (yes, size matters in all things) and camera bag slung over your shoulder brimming with gadgets is that your lack of movement makes for easy prey, your photography equipment a target. And a conversation starter.
“What are you taking pictures of?” came sailing in from over my shoulder. Tattered shorts, beat flip flops, a tank top more suitable for someone decades younger, my inquisitor had a ready smile, a look of genuine interest in his eye, and a world class chin. The type that movie stars would pay big bucks for. It sat at the bottom of his face like a perfectly sculptured marble masterpiece. Very heroic looking. Like Dudley Do-Right. Like Kirk Douglas before the dimple in his became a basin for the constant drool of octogenarian spittle.
His chin prompted me to reply instead of acting like I don’t speak English (a ruse I often rely upon when I don’t wish to be bothered). I pointed toward my intended subject with my eyebrows and explained, “That shrine.”
“Why?” came back his immediate reply.
“Um, the colors. It’s something different. Unusual. Exotic.”
Satisfied, or bored with my answer, he tried a different track, “Been taking lots of pictures today?”
“Yup, I love Georgetown. So much to shoot. The people, the architecture . . .”
WTF? All of a sudden The Chin is a critic? Was there some taboo against photography in Penang? But no, his observation was more general, but his declaration quite specific. “Seven shots is all you need,” he proclaimed. “Any location, any trip, you should limit the number of photographs you take to seven.”
Interesting. We all choose rules to live by. His was rather unique. He explained he was a professional photographer and had travelled the world with his camera (conspicuously absent that day, evidently back at the hotel taking a rest). From his years of travel and years of experience as a photographer, he’d progressed to where he’d refined his art to a science. One that dictated a bagging limit of seven.
Always interested in details, and curious as to how he’d defend such a restrictive dogma. I asked, “Why seven? Why not six, or eight, or a dozen?”
“Only your country refuses to use the metric system,” was his curt reply. A bit off subject, possibly a little obfuscation to hide that his choice in number was but an arbitrary and capricious one. And even using the metric system, something I am loath to do as an American as he so rightly pointed out, his choice was either short by three or over by two.
At the same time, I could appreciate the ascetic nature of his doctrine, though in photography the monastic minded usually rely on black and white shots as their constraint. His concept required an admirable feat of restraint. But seven? On an entire trip? I could see, perhaps, seven as a limit for each locale. Possibly seven as a quota for the day. But then I’d taken more than seven pictures on this street alone. Hell, I’ll snap off a dozen or more shots of a single subject, later picking out the best and discarding the rest. Maybe that’s what he meant. Not a limit on the act but on the product. “You mean at the end, after the trip, pick out the seven best?”
Ooops. Grasshopper was being dense. Master was not pleased. “No. Seven. Seven photographs. You only take seven. Period. No more. Seven,” he barked.
That was pretty definite. But a bit too restrictive in my view. Maybe I could get some leeway with logic. “But how do you know? If I don’t take this shot now, I won’t be able to later. It’ll be too late. Maybe this was one of the seven shots I was suppose to take. What then?”
Yes, what then must we do? An artistic soul flying on New Age wings, possibly a Star Wars fan imbued with Yoda-like wisdom, but without the phrasing, thumping his chest he said, “You’ll know. In here. You’ll know if that photograph was meant to be.”
Seven is a good number. There are seven chakras, seven basic principles of bushido, seven colors in a rainbow, and it’s the title of my favorite Brad Pitt movie. Seven is considered a lucky number in many cultures. It’s a favorite payout symbol on slot machines, and a come out roll of seven is a quick win in craps. Seven is a highly symbolic number in all of the world’s major religions, and in Christianity there are, of course, the seven deadly sins; I’m a big fan of all seven of them. Gluttony is one of my favorites, especially when it comes to photography (though I guess sloth too plays an important role; I rarely get out of bed in time for sunrise shots). While The Chin’s rule of seven had an appeal to it, by habit, I could not get my mind to agree. I tried. I liked the idea. I liked the number. I even appreciated the abstemiously self-imposed restriction on creativity. And I can get behind the idea of less being more. But my iconoclastic nature balked at such a restrictive ideology. It seemed an appropriate time to take another picture. Possibly my seven hundredth of the day.
I raised my lens and pointed it at The Chin, who immediately gave me the finger. No, not that one. The one your mother used when you were about to misbehave. The warning finger. I laughed. He shook his head as you would at a mischievous child. An appropriately petulant response, I turned my back on him and took my fucking shot. Seven of them. All of the same small doorway shrine.
Having provided all the advice he could or would, or recognizing a failed convert when he saw one, he moved off while I snapped away, our conversation and my instruction for the day completed. I moved on too, taking picture after picture. Georgetown is a photographer’s wet dream. But his seven shot rule keeps running through my brain. I want to believe, I want to be as disciplined, I want to be so austere in my photographic habits that I too can self-righteously lecture an amateur hobbyist on the finer principles of photography one day. But then a larger part of me wants to post seven photos on this blog entry alone.