Friday, April 8, 2011

Not So Easy, It Turns Out.

Foreground, Background and Not Much In Between, 2011

Isn’t that just life? Just when you’ve got your confidence up and think you can make something interesting out of any photo outing, life kicks you around a little and reminds you not to get so far ahead of yourself.

My continuing exploration of the waterfront is turning out to be tougher than I expected. Tough is supposed to be better. Tough challenges you to do more. I guess I was expecting easier rather than tougher.

I had a chance to spend an hour on the downtown Portsmouth waterfront yesterday afternoon. The conditions couldn’t have been nicer: a bright blue sky; the temperature right around 80F; and comfortably low humidity. In short, what a lot of people would consider a perfect day.

When I decided to focus my attention on the commercial waterfront, I must have thought the pictures would just reveal themselves to me. That happens sometime. But it wasn’t happening yesterday.

Most of the pictures I took were pretty mindless. Even the brief appearance of an old cruise ship didn’t result in anything distinctive. The three pictures shown here are okay. But they’re not good story pictures and they’re not terribly interesting from a composition standpoint.

This quandary leads me to ask the age-old question: what the heck am I trying to do with this project? If it’s my goal to merely photograph ships in the harbor then what I’ve been doing is probably okay. But my goal to do something a little more unexpected, and so far these don’t fit that spec. So for now I’m just going to keep at it until the voice of the project emerges.

The purists would probably have a problem with this approach. But I’ve sometimes found it useful just to keep shooting mindless pictures until I figure out what themes within them might be worth pursuing more seriously.

Foreground, Background and Not Much In Between was my attempt to compose a balanced scene. I was trying to read the name on the cruise ship when I heard the guy in the little outboard approaching from the right side of the scene. I had a long lens (80-400mm) on the camera and wasn’t even sure I could get the little outboard boat into the frame. I’d also hoped that he’d stay farther out in the river rather than turn closer in to the pier. The result is a picture with foreground interest, background interest and not much in between. The complementary lines of the two boats are kind of nice. But ideally there should be something to connect them or at least give a little more balance to the light values.

The real workhorses of the harbor are the tugboats. It’s their job to maneuver the big ships to where they need to be without running into other ships or destroying the piers. It’s brute force work and extremely dangerous in even the best of conditions.

Each tugboat company has its own easily recognized color scheme. The McAllisters are deep red with white railings. Morans are red with different white trim. Tugs in the Norfolk Tug Company fleet, like Taft Beach, have alternating horizontal bands of red and white.

Taft Beach, 2011

I’ve written in the past about my run-ins with various security personnel when I’ve taken pictures that show Navy ships in the background. Given than history, Big Gray Ships, below, represents something of a trifecta if for no other reason than that it was taken without any grief from security personnel. It includes two U.S. Navy ships and a Navy patrol boat. In the past I’ve been hassled by security personnel for even photographing one of them while it was in the dry dock. Yesterday the guys in the patrol boat even waved at me as they passed. Go figure.

The good thing about shooting pictures of Navy ships is that they’re all exactly the right shade of neutral gray you need to color balance your photographs.

Big Gray Ships, 2011


  1. I find the multiple cranes in the shipyard, more interesting than naval ships.

  2. Your approach to the project will definitely render a more personal connection with the subject at hand. I'd love to see the array of tugboats mentioned, if only in homage to one of my favorite children's books: "Little Toot."

  3. I like the photos you posted here. I enjoyed reading your analysis of your own work, but they all catch my eye. I love the sound of the project.

  4. I love living where I do, but one thing I do miss is having a big river and the coast almost on my doorstep. Back in the 1970s and 80s I spent a lot of time mooching around the banks of the River Tyne in NE England. Most of the shipping from its heyday had gone, but somehow that big muddy river still calls...

  5. Every time I take the Elizbeth River ferry or stroll the seawall in Portsmouth, I take many pictures of whatever happens to be under repair at the shipyard, or if I am lucky enough, whatever is heading down the river. I always think the photos will be totally interesting, but when I get them home and play at arranging, cropping, adjusting, etc... they never come out like I want, nor to a point I think others would enjoy them.

  6. Sketching is more forgiving. If a composition doesn't resolve itself, I just throw in another boat, or shrub, or guitarist. It's kind of like artisanal photoshopping.