A photograph always lies. If there is any confusion about this, photographer Steven Laxton will explain. Talk long enough with him about it and the conversation could cause one to question if there’s any objective truth at all, about anything anywhere, ever.
At that point, a walk might be needed. Clear the head. Take a breath. See what there is to be seen. Laxton takes a lot of walks. It’s a way to escape the lens—and yet it’s also a way he informs his work. The walks let him refresh his view and find inspiration.
"You see and take in more walking than any other from of transportation," the 37-year-old Australian says. "I just like seeing people. The different cultures, foods, decor in my neighborhood. Walking means I slow down and observe the way the people interact, the way they move, their expressions, and their diverse professions."
Laxton has been a photographer his entire adult life, and walking has always been a way to regroup. He even spent a year walking through southeast Asia with a backpack in 2002.
"I was in the middle of Laos," he says, "and realized that I was getting up at 4 or 5 a.m. because it’s good light—which is kind of ridiculous—anyway, I realized that I was missing out on so much because I was hyper-focused on getting a shot and looking through the lens, and I realized that I would record a lot more and have a lot more just sitting back and enjoying it."
This is why Laxton leaves behind his camera on his walks. He sees what can be seen as true as it can be seen with his eyes. Eyes lie too, though, just not as much as the lens. Or differently than the lens. The eye is, after all, a lens. And what we see we only recall through the filter of our memory, which also shouldn’t be trusted.
"Your memories are all romanticized," Laxton says. "You painted that with your own brush."
Painting is also how Laxton describes his photography. Instead of paint, though, he uses light. Laxton thinks about light all the time. He thinks about it on his daily walks, during dinner at a restaurant, while listening to music in a dim jazz club, on a hike through the woods, in a boxing gym, and everywhere else, even when he’s not shooting.
How he uses light for his photographs has become his signature—and his signature is on everything from NFL stars to politicians to Australian commuters to cowboys to boxing legends to circus performers to Holocaust survivors to U.S. Olympians to the stars of a transgender cabaret in Thailand. He says he seeks heightened senses in his photos, an ethereal feel.
"The reason everyone’s iPhone snaps are so boring," he says, "is because it’s reality."
Laxton says his camera-free walks allow him to truly absorb the images around him, and that pays off eventually when he’s on a shoot.
"What I realized," he says, "is you see the world through the crop of the camera and you’re just looking at whatever’s in the viewfinder, whereas if you put the camera down and look around, there’s 360 degrees of stuff to take in. I felt like I was missing out on so much walking around looking through a viewfinder."
Walking can also be a form of meditation. In his book The Long Road Turns to Joy: A Guide to Walking Meditation, Thich Nhat Hanh writes: "Walking in mindfulness brings us peace and joy, and makes our lives real. Why rush? Our final destination will only be the graveyard." If that’s a little dark, maybe try this line from comedian Steven Wright: "Everywhere is walking distance if you have the time."
As for Laxton, after shooting all day long in Manhattan, he’s been known to walk back to his apartment in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, which can take hours. When he walks through Sunset Park, he experiences the best of two worlds: one side of the neighborhood is predominantly Hispanic, and the other is predominantly Chinese.
"This neighborhood, particularly, there’s just so much to look at. You see all these different people and cultures and it’s rejuvenating," he says. "You feel like you’ve seen humanity and you come back and you realize what it is—the reason why I photograph people and why I like subcultures and why I like doing all these things."