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Archive for December, 2011


Dec 30

In Friends, history at 9:16am

Round this time of year, I usually send a message to my buddy Bill down at the Geographic about the richly rewarding experience of the passing of time, the accumulation (hopefully) of yet another year of wisdom and experience, the wonder of change, the increasing depth and importance of friendship, not to mention the shooting of a few more good frames. (The latter of course, unlike the certitude of aging, is never a given. There have been years gone by when I’ve looked around and thought, wow, I really shot a bunch of crap this past twelve months.)

The language of my missives is often ornately descriptive, flowery, even. A rhapsody to the passing of time. Then of course I yank his chain and say something to the effect of “There goes another year down the drain.” He generally responds by advising me to do something that, when considered, is anatomically impossible.

Good picture, bad picture. Tick, tock. Keep breathing, sometimes, seemingly, right through the lens. A day with your eye to a camera can be like a breath of fresh, beautiful air. At other times, back there at the eyepiece, it can feel like a bad asthma attack. So it goes, as they say.

Still, despite frustration, pitfalls, bad jobs, errant pixels and the like, passing another year with a camera in hand is cause for celebration, which is good to be able to say. At this point in my life, the calculus of making pictures is an interesting one. Not too often does it come down to, “Hey, let’s go take some cool photos!” and off I skip into the sunset, with a DSLR, a fast zoom and a light heart. As time marches, I factor in the love of the click times the degree of difficulty/expense figured against the fee, minus the arthritis in my knees divided by the 3:30am wake-up multiplied by the length of the line at JFK over the missed connection plus the cranky subject doubled by the weight of my bags. The sum of that is…..I still go shoot.

I guess I’m feeling that Father Time thing especially this morning. I’m looking down the pipe of a huge and physically challenging job for a client starting soon, and I put on weight last year, writing the book. So now, back to the gym, and back to occasionally seeing Ederin, my boxing teacher. I’ve known him now for over eight years. Massively quick, and fit, he regularly makes me feel clumsy, stupid, slow footed and witted. (To make a photographic analogy, think about the first time you took the camera out of the box. That’s how I feel every time I get in a ring with him.) Recently, he was counseling me to keep him away. “Joe, think of me as a zombie, and if you let me get too close, I’ll bite you and infect you!” A few minutes later, backpedaling with spaghetti arms, he was closing in, up against me, chest the size of a movie screen, smiling maniacally, face close to mine, shouting, “I’m a happy zombie now Joe! I’m eating you!”

But then, every once in a great while, I connect. I move through a combination with authority, my legs and arms working in concert, and when I hit his target mitts there’s a flat, satisfying crack that bangs off the cinder block walls of the gym and reports back. On the rare occasions when I do that, Ederin spreads his arms out and nods. “That’s it,” he says. He thankfully leaves out the “dumb ass.” Christ, he could be a photo editor.

But, with the passing of time, there are gifts. One I’ve come to appreciate as I’ve stuck with this is the sense that, much more important than the ever crucial, actual photograph, is, at least at times, the connection that photo might make to someone who views it. And what might happen around that photo. I guess, it’s about the wonderfully important, positive effect of pictures on our lives. It isn’t about whether it’s your best photo, or how hard you struggled as the shooter to make it. It’s about the reaction to it, and how that might affect someone’s life in a hopefully good way. You become linked to that person, even if you don’t know them. Ever see those projected maps of the world used by the FAA, and air traffic controllers? In the early part of the day, as flights get in the air, there are lines tracing the flights, city to city, all over the place,  like the beginnings of a spider web. As the day progresses, so many planes are aloft, the earth might as well be a ball of string. Same thing happens when you throw a picture aloft. It takes flight, and makes connections. Destinations? Multiple, and unknown.

Thankfully, I’m connected, wonderfully, with my good friend RC Concepcion, and his lovely wife Jen, and daughter, Sabine. They are dear friends. And recently, they gave me a wonderful gift, a kind of a present that started with a picture. Win, lose or draw, good day or bad in the field, things like this are the reason to keep putting your eye into a lens.

A gift I gave myself this year was finishing Sketching Light. Again, many thanks for patience whilst I doodled and bumbled. My dear friend Syl Arena gave it a thumbs up on his blog. Seeing as Syl knows his way around a Canon speed light better, literally, than the Canon engineers, his positive review was very welcome. I always tease Syl about being like that Denzel Washington character, Eli, from the movie. He has the book of Canon in his head, and he travels the world dispensing its wisdom.

Ron Martinsen also was wonderfully gracious over on his blog, citing the book, and showing some of the spreads.

I’m reading this book now and loving the hell out of it. It’s going to be my holiday vacation companion (even more so after I get my Kindle Fire on Christmas <g>), and I think you might enjoy doing the same. This version has more depth and details as well as a couple chapters to set your bearings before he dives in to the good stuff. Based on a 2 hour skim of the entire book, I see nothing that will keep this one off my highly recommended list, so I’m going to jump the gun and say this is a “great to have” book.

Many thanks for the kind words, guys. I’m quite sure the long suffering, ever patient Peachpit team–Ted Waitt, Lisa Brazieal, Charlene Will, Kim Scott, Scott Cowlin, and Sara Todd–appreciate them, too. They were about to transform themselves, I think, from being book editors into a SWAT team, and show up in my driveway with a bullhorn. “Just give us the book, Joe, and nobody gets hurt.”

More tk in 2012…..Happy, safe, and blessed New Year to all…..

Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, To All

Dec 24

In Thoughts at 9:31am

Have always enjoyed this picture. Made it years ago, during the Persian Gulf War. This kid’s mom was deployed, and she befriended a neighbor’s draft horse. A sweet picture for this weekend. A better shot, even sweeter, is over at my bud RC Concepcion’s blog. It’s one of the most beautiful pics of a kid with Santa, ever. Definitely go here.

Enjoy the weekend everybody, and many, many heartfelt thanks to all who occasionally stop by the blog… for 2012! More, as they say, tk…..

Bridges At Night

Dec 22

In In The Field at 8:55am

While I was over in Europe, went out at the edge of darkness to do some shooting, and I learned something. (This is just me catching up, really. I’m sure lots of folks already use this technique.)

When confronted with dicey shutter speeds without a tripod handy, my traditional approach is to hold steady, obviously, and also find something to brace on. (My tripod was where it usually is, back at the hotel room.) For the above I rested my elbows on a railing. Then I went to continuous high on the drive, settled in, and started bursting the camera. Hits and misses, as always, but sheer volume dictated I would have a reasonable number of sharp images.

My wife Annie, who’s got a terrific eye, was right next to me, shooting quite a bit slower. She counseled me that I should go to a feature called mirror lock up, available on lots of camera models. (In Nikons it’s up on the ring where you dial in your shooting mode, labeled Mup.) In this mode, the mirror swings up and out of the way, and the shutter opening is not immediate, as in normal operation. There is a lag between the mirror bouncing upwards (which can be the cause of vibration within the camera, and loss of sharpness as a result) and the actual picture being taken.

Now, this was news to me, as I’m sure it is not to most folks. But, seeing as we’re heading into 2012 and I’m still working on my first rough draft of the nineties, it comes as no surprise.

It’s one of those bells and whistles features I generally overlook, mostly because I still use the cameras, as fancy as they are, about the way a blacksmith uses a hammer and an anvil. But, it was cool. I started shooting in that mode, while Annie started humming the theme from Space Odyssey. (Joe make discovery!)

Looking at our respective takes later, her results were consistently sharper than mine. So it was a good outing, and I learned something. A walk with Annie, camera in hand, beautiful sunset, and I learned something? Christmas came early.

More tk…

And Furthermore….

Dec 20

In Rambling at 8:08am

Geez. Some interesting commentary yesterday, ranging from feminine physiques to Photoshop to posing to pixels. In the interests of advancing information here’s a production snap from the lagoon, taken by our buds Rob and Jen Lace. There’s another version of the shot below.

Hopefully these snaps confirm a few things. A) Sara does have a left arm. B) She is on an island of sorts. C) The c-stand used in this picture is still sort of rusted out and has a hint of a sulfur smell. D) We are on location and I didn’t shoot this on a green screen. E) It’s only the combination of the lens and the angle of the above production picture that makes me look like Shamu wearing a cap:-)

Here’s another pose of her on the rock, sans, jacket. I didn’t like the pic nearly as well. In fact, for all the debate about her positioning, I have to say, I loved it. When she curled up, somewhat impossibly, on that rock, she balanced the frame and became a counterpoint to the lighthouse, graphically. It’s one of my favorite pics in the new book. This one below, not so much. But folks might like this. Or not. It’s okay. That’s the eternal beauty and damnation of photography. There’s no real right or wrong.

But there is passion, that’s for sure. Lots of people had interesting takes, and some advice, some of it even sort of medical. (Talk of extended or flexible hip joints and the like.) The fact is, I have often asked people to curl up, contort, or curve for a picture, for all sorts of reasons. There was Mary Ellen Clark, the famous diver. I shot her nude for LIFE, and this pose, a simulated tuck, was a good way of making sure, as she put it, nothing was hanging out.

Then of course, there was Pilobolus. But, this sort of contortion is cheating really, ’cause this is what they do.

I asked Jada Pinkett Smith, somewhat improbably, to hug a wall.

And Michelle Yeoh to crawl across the desert floor.

And the basketball giant Greg Oden to bend way over to fit into a frame. And then I gave him a tiny basketball to make him seem even more outsized than he is.

Also, the whole idea of  incongruity is one I’ve been in love with since momma dropped my on my head. I like taking disparate physical elements and placing them together, in unlikely context to each other, in hopes of creating something serenely surreal and beautiful. Or just plain odd. (Why is she on a rock in a lagoon? I don’t know.) The idea is to arrest the eye of the viewer. I took, for instance, this homespun clad, magnificently voiced trio from the New York City Opera into a Japanese pachinko parlor during the opera’s historic tour of Japan. They were styled for “Little Women,” a quintessentially American opera. So, I took them someplace quintessentially Japanese. The fun thing? These folks are in full throttle, singing beautifully in the parlor. Not a single person even looked up from their game.Wonderful.

This whole thing is about having a restless eye, one that is never patient, or self-satisfied. One that keeps pushing, and is happier thinking about what it will see next than it is dwelling on that which it has already seen. Win, lose or draw, the eye has to be an ever hungry hunter.

There was lots of talk, as there always is, about the pixels and the PSD and various digital whatnot. That’s okay, too. It’s important to discuss and assimilate the mechanics of all this. But it’s important to remember that the how exists only to serve the why. The how addresses the infernal machine, and the bells, whistles and dials. But the why is the real deal. Why pick up a camera at all? Why do we let ourselves in for all this frustration in the first place? Why go to the lagoon in the freezing cold? (That coffee house was much more comfortable.) There’s a ton of “how to” in Sketching Light,” but the larger, more important discussions dwell on the why of all of this.

It’s important to dive into the mechanics, to be sure. But not too far. When we pick up every pixel, and hold it up to a magnifying glass, looking at it every which way, like a precious bauble we just found during a walk on the beach,  it is self defeating, not to mention boring as shit. There’s an old phrase that describes that type of discussion and examination. I can’t remember it exactly, but it has something to do with the forest and the trees.

More tk….

We’ve Made PS Disasters Again!!

Dec 19

In News at 6:30am

This just makes me proud. All of us, actually, in our studio last week, observed a moment of silence, an interlude of quiet pride if you will, when the news arrived that we were once again featured in Photoshop,  that storied pantheon of post production goofs. Cali got a little choked up, truth be told.

Seems the gang over at PS disasters have well, issues with the more sensitive areas of the female anatomy. I’m still trying to figure out what they are. Sara, our absolutely lovely, graceful, athletic Icelandic model is perched on a rock in one of that northern island’s famed thermal lagoons. We helped her out there, and then, because I wanted to keep her out of the fading sunset light, and control the foreground area with flash, I asked her to see if she could comfortably, artfully crouch (We do ask ridiculous things, don’t we?) on this slippery, two foot square boulder poking out of the steaming, mineral laden waters of the lagoon. She popped down there as easily as a songbird arriving on a tree branch. If I had tried to assume this position, they would’ve had to medevac me out of there.

Okay, here’s the red circle image. Now, I’m still trying to figure this out. Do the guys over at disasters think her, as they put it, crotch, is missing? Or badly re-touched and manipulated somehow? Trust me, if the lovely, youthful Sara had arranged herself into a personal predicament, I would have pointed that out, and encouraged her to adjust. And, if she had been wearing, say, colorful, zebra striped underwears, and thus needed some re-touching, I do believe that’s a task the guys back here at the shop would have embraced in diligent fashion. But, we are shaking our heads a bit, because, well, see below.

Here’s a screen cap of our RAW D3x file in Adobe Camera Raw, and below is the untouched JPEG, right out of camera. Outside of a touch of color correction (very subtle) and a hint of saturation, we did….nothing to the picture.

Maybe that’s their issue. We did nothing, and we were supposed to? I’m unsure. One thing remains certain, though. I do suck at Photoshop. Me and the computer have never had a particularly comfortable relationship. So, I resolved this weekend, once again, to go to work on my post production skills, given the ignominy of once again being featured as a disaster, which of course is just a fulfillment of what virtually every nun who taught me said I would ultimately become. Some type of disaster. What do you think of the below? Do you think they’ll put a red circle someplace on this one?

This is the second time we’ve actually graced PS Disasters. The first summons they issued me was about a shot of Olympic gymnast Shawn Johnson astride a tipsy balance beam in an Iowa cornfield, shot for Sports Illustrated. Her dad’s hand is seen, positioned under the beam to catch her if she fell.

It was a great opportunity for me to riff on the helter skelter nature of weekly magazine journalism. It appeared then, and I’m sure still now, that there are folks out there who think that the business of closing a news magazine on deadline is a considered, deliberate process, rife with nuanced debate, and delicately handled decisions. A parallel experience could perhaps be a classical music concert, held out of doors on a summer’s evening, where lovely notes mix with balmy breezes and fading sunset.

It’s nothing like that at all. It’s more like a screaming death metal concert at a beer sloshed mosh pit. It’s a business populated with intelligent, talented people who are stretched so thin, and so over-worked into a state of near delirium by the budgetary demands currently reigning in the world of publications that they might be hard pressed to find their ass with both hands on a good day. It’s a bruising endeavor fraught with frailty, ego, error, miscalculation, nastiness and outright bungling co-mingled freely with intrepidity of effort, dedication to excellence and moments of sheer, informational, story-telling magnificence. Much like, I don’t know, organized religion, for instance. My commentary on the above shot and the process of seeing it grace the pages of Sports Illustrated can be viewed here. It’s a lively read that actually has some interesting info.

Thanks to the gang at PS Disasters for one of what I would regard as our high moments of the year. More tk….:-)