A few years ago, I had an ah-ha moment while visiting Baltimore. On this late spring day my wife and I were strolling around the Inner Harbor. This is the touristy area of downtown Baltimore, full of fine restaurants, wonderful shops and things to see including the well-known National Aquarium and the historic Maritime Museum fleet. We were enjoying the balmy weather and the warm glow of the light the setting sun cast across the sky. Near the Maryland Science Center we stopped to watch the city skyline as it began to sparkle against the evening sky and its clear reflection as it shimmered on the water before us. The sight reminded us of an evening twilight view we had seen across the Bay on our one and only trip to San Francisco. Suddenly, it dawned on me (considering the time of day it would be more accurate to say it twilighted on me) that I coulda, shoulda photograph Baltimore, too.
Although we have lived nearby for 20+ years, I have nary an image of Baltimore. I started to read local history books and sought out the work of Maryland and DC photographers. I began to walk around town to scout places and to determine what to shoot and when. Along the way I discovered Baltimore's charm and DC's attraction, that cities and each of their neighborhoods have a unique and palpable character, that the urban landscape provides innumerable photo opportunities, and that it is exciting to seek out and capture them. If you listen carefully, you can almost hear Gilberte Brassai, photographer of the well-known image of "The Steps of Montmartre," saying ... Na, duh.
I discovered that the 8 mile-long promenade that winds along and around Baltimore's Inner Harbor provides more to photograph than I had imagined at first: skyline views, tallships and other historic ships, street performers, marinas full of sailboats and pleasure craft, delightful historic neighborhoods, reflections and abstracts, architectural detail, etc. An even bigger delight was learning this wealth of photo opportunities is even better at night. Then, one has the skyline set against the gorgeous twilight sky, illuminated buildings and ships, new and different reflections on the water and in windows, moonlit marinas, restaurant districts that come alive with neon, and huge fireworks displays on July 4th and New Year's Eve.
I am now fascinated with city life and urban photography, so much so that my wife and I recently sold our house in the suburbs and moved into one of the historic neighborhoods surrounding Baltimore's Inner Harbor.
Given the current housing market, I do not suggest that you too abandon the burbs, but I do strongly recommend that you get out and discover what your home town has to offer. Shoot the skyline expanse as well as intimate cityscapes. Use your longest lens to capture architectural detail high up on the buildings. Get up early for first light; then, stay out for evening twilight and the moonrise. Look for the extraordinary in the ordinary ... seek out different angles, patterns, reflections and shapes. Shy about asking people for permission to photograph them? Then find an interesting background and wait for someone to walk into it. Check out local events where you are sure to find wild and wacky characters. Shoot all the iconic images, but then be on the lookout for new and unique views of them. And, be sure to get out year-round at all times of the day and in all types of weather.
Once you begin to build your hometown portfolio, look for and create images that tell a story. The accompanying images tell one of my favorite visual stories about Baltimore ... our iconic Domino Sugars sign is visible from throughout the Inner Harbor and surrounding neighborhoods. Do you live in Chicago? If so, you could create a series of images that demonstrate Chicago is a windy city. If you call San Francisco home, shoot images that show just how foggy the city can get.
Your hometown will provide you a wide variety of options for photo projects, limited only by your imagination. One of my ongoing personal assignments is called "Up on the roof". It includes images created from our upper deck and rooftop terraces of family, friends and neighbors. In return for access, I give folks a matted print. I plan to start asking public buildings for access to their rooftops.
Again, I encourage you to embark upon a photo journey of your hometown. Get out and see the nearby sights and lights. Once you do, you are certain to make a number of discoveries, have fun, and build a unique portfolio.
P.S. For those nature photographers who may be thinking they prefer the outdoors to shooting cityscapes, please note that one of my most rewarding discoveries was finding how much nature there is to photograph in and around Baltimore. To name a few, I found wood ducks close-by in a state park; a large colony of yellow lady slippers in a county park; and, along the Potomac River, almost all the spring wildflowers one finds in the Smoky Mountains. So, send your camouflage outfit to the cleaners, put on your civvies, and see what natural wonders await you in your hometown.