I don't like Halloween. First of all, I never understood why Halloween is held at the end of October (yes, yes I know it's an old Wiccan holiday) when, most of the time, it's too damn cold to prance outside in some skimpy cat outfit. Of course, there are always intrepid and determined revelers who won’t be stopped no matter the weather. I admire their grit, but that's just not me. The only Hallmark holiday I like even less is Valentine's Day (not really a shocker, I suppose). But there is another reason I have become antagonistic towards this seemingly fun affair: Halloween is really, really hard to photograph.
To those who have never photographed Halloween, this may seem somewhat illogical. It's a holiday filled to the brim with visual treats. How could partying people in elaborate costumes and hordes of masquerading kids not be a photographer's thing? However, it's all fata morgana. In other words, a trap.
My introduction to shooting Halloween came in 2005, just a couple of years after first picking up a camera. This was also the first time I used a flash, more out of necessity than choice, since I didn't know how to photograph at night without it. I took hundreds of pictures of the Halloween parade in New York City. The results were an unfortunate mix of blurry and uninteresting. And then, a bit of magic happened. I got this image.
Sometimes a photographer is given a gift, a photo that comes out so effortlessly that it feels accidental, as if someone else has taken it. This happy “mistake” can make you feel like a bit of a fraud, especially when you’re just starting out and poking your way around. Instead of owning the photo as a deliberate triumph, you might feel like the proverbial monkey in the infinite monkey theorem, just pressing a button over and over and over until you strike gold. The photographer's main contribution becomes being a good editor — recognizing this unexpected gift in the smoldering trash heap of unsuccessful attempts. The question then becomes: What do you do with it?
A great photo can be taken by someone just picking up the camera, with the right combination of nascent skill, randomness and dumb luck. What separates a professional photographer from a beginner is the ability to take a such a photo on demand, over and over again. Photography is a practice born out of incessant repetition. At that time, I realized that the image was a fluke, a one-off, but it seemed to shine a flashlight in a direction that felt both instinctual and exciting. The interaction between the three figures, the dramatic, vibrant colors and a touch of the absurd in the situation were all themes I wanted to eventually, and consistently, include in my work. Photography suddenly started to make sense.
I also assumed, foolishly so, that the photo was partly the result of Halloween being a photographer's playground. For the next few years, I went out to Greenwich Village to photograph the festivities, resolved to bring home another gem. Each year, I came home defeated, with nothing. It took me a long time to understand that the photo above happened in spite of it being Halloween and not because of it.
Here is why Halloween (or any costumed event) is hard to shoot. People in costumes are not just ready, but expecting, to be photographed. Everyone seems to be roaming the street looking for someone to point a camera at them. Even though I am usually a ninja at stealthy street photography, on that night going unnoticed becomes next to impossible. Determined Halloweeners anticipate me quicker than I am able to click the shutter. In the end, 90% of the images are of people posing and smiling into the camera (my biggest pet peeve).
And then there are kids. Lots of them. Images of children is one of triumvirate of all photography traps, along with cats and sunsets. Most of the time, they are just too adorable to make an arresting photo. A kid in a pirate costume? Might as well put it on a Hallmark card and call it quits. The night that seems like a lurid spectacle becomes too performative, too posey and just way too cute. I am not saying photographing Halloween is impossible. I am sure someone can pull it off in a way that would leave me shaking with jealousy. And if you love posed portraits of people in costumes, then it's your night. But approaching it in a documentary manner reveals the festivities as having little tension or complexity and very few interesting moments. Once I understood all that, any lingering interest in the holiday instantly dissipated.
When I was looking for images for this story, I looked through about 5 years’ worth of material. I pulled out a scant amount of decent imagery. Nothing great but not entirely embarrassing. A part of me whispered, "You are a better photographer now. Go out this weekend and prove yourself wrong." And my ego took the bait. I may just try again this Sunday.
Find me on Instagram @dina_litovsky