Thursday, June 30, 2011

Negative Space

The View from Glen Eagle, 2008

(Click on picture for larger image)

Having never had more than a single art appreciation course in high school another in college, the latter of which I remember absolutely nothing about, I've had to learn about art pretty much on my own. It probably would have been easier to learn about art more formally and methodically. But I'm living proof that an autodidact can learn enough to get by from reading and looking at visual imagery whenever the opportunity presents itself.

One of the tricks of art that I’m pretty sure I never learned about in class was how to use negative space. Technically speaking, negative space is said to be any space around the primary subject. But in photography, at least, I think most of us think of negative space as a method for filling most of the frame with a single element—usually a single color—in order to highlight the primary subject that occupies the remaining area.

The View from Glen Eagle, above, shows an example of this. It was taken on the outskirts of Missoula, Montana, late on an August afternoon. It had been a beautiful day earlier in the day and would be beautiful again later. But at this moment a violent thunderstorm was about to pass. I probably shouldn’t have been standing out in the open atop a bare hill when I took this. But who thinks about lightning when you have a good picture in your frame?

The negative space is the black portion along the bottom of the frame. It’s rolling enough to not be boring or predictable to the eye. It allows the reeds to be highlighted against the light blue sky and the light blue sky to be highlighted against the darker storm clouds. I wish there’d been either more reeds or a little more cloud action in the middle of the frame. But one can summon only so much weather or arrange so many reeds on short notice.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Into the Woods

Into the Woods, 2002

For all but just a dozen or so years of my life I have lived very close to what is today known as First Landing State Park, a 2,900-acre reserve in the northeast corner of Virginia Beach.

It’s a rich natural resource with thick woods, tall dunes, ponds, lakes, swamps and all manner of crawly, slithery reptiles, chiggers, ticks, indigenous plants and itchy vines. Needless to say, it’s one of our favorite places.

But seriously, it’s also serves an important ecological purpose and as a bonus gives us an appreciation of just how wild and untamed much of our heavily populated coastal area used to be.

The state bought the land for the Park from private developers during the Great Depression. Its miles of trails and many of its structures were built by African-American Civilian Conservation Corps workers who, as if trudging through the swamps and dealing with the aforementioned slithery reptiles, chiggers, ticks, indigenous plants and itchy vines was not enough, were prohibited from using the very park they’d shaped until it was integrated during the early 1960s. (In one of its many regrettable moments in modern history, Virginia very nearly got rid of all of its state parks during the 1950s rather than submit to court-ordered racial integration.)

Growing up so close to it—for much of my youth it was right at the end of our block—I’ll admit that I took the Park for granted. As kids, we played in the dunes. I used to ride my bike back to the little sandy beach at the Narrows between Broad and Linkhorn bays and crab.

The Sand Hills, undated postcard

As I grew older I gained a greater understanding and appreciation of First Landing State Park. I started visiting the park again and tried to be cognizant of my surroundings there than I’d been before. I’m still not a great fan of snakes, chiggers and ticks. And I’m no longer immune to poison ivy and poison oak like I used to be. But every now and then a walk in the Park is just what the doctor ordered (especially in the winter when the reptiles, chiggers and ticks are less of a problem).

On one such walk in 2002, I happened to notice the line of live oaks shown in the photograph above. I wanted to reduce what I saw to its most basic elements. So instead of presenting the image in its original color and texture, I converted it to black-and-white and increased the contrast significantly in order to emphasize the wind-blown tree trunks. In this form it remains one of my favorite pictures.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Another Favorite Time of Day

Before Dawn, 2005

(Click on photo for larger image)

In the lessons of photography you read a lot about the “Golden Hour,” that magical time just before sunset when the debris in the earth’s lower atmosphere so filters the last direct rays of the sunlight that they cast a golden glow on everything. I’m as much a lover of this time as the next person. But I’ve learned that shooting in the Golden Hour or in its sunrise counterpart is, as the old saying goes, like shooting fish in a barrel. It’s hard to take a bad picture at sunrise or during the Golden Hour.

But there’s yet another pair of times I’ve grown to love. They are the moments before sunrise and after the Golden Hour. The picture above, for example, was taken just before sunrise. A different camera in a steadier hand might have captured a more precise depiction of the moment. I, on the other hand, was shooting without the benefit of a tripod. But I like the result.

One of the great pleasures of today’s generation of sophisticated digital cameras is that they’re very perceptive of the variations of light and color at times when your eyes aren’t. A slow exposure taken in the dark of night will reveal a light blue sky that your eye wouldn’t notice. Before Dawn was taken almost a half hour before the sun crosses the horizon. I could not with my own eyes detect the gradation of light in the sky that the camera noted.

Before Dawn benefited from this digital perception and such elements as the foam of the surf at the left, the white clothing of the woman in the center, the lamps of the boardwalk and the lights on a fishing pier in the distance that provide a nice horizontal line linking the built up environment to the lady and thence to the ocean. The low angle from which I shot makes the surf more dramatic and draws everything together. The photograph violates the “rule of thirds” and commits the sin of putting the horizon smack dab in the center of the frame. I compensated for this, however, by cropping the image as you see it here.

I don’t know what the lady in the photograph was doing out that early. I like to think she was, like me, enjoying the cool breeze, the sound and energy of the waves and the emptiness of this normally crowded beach.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Another Thing I've Learned

There is No Off Season, 2011

My father liked golf—he played for more than sixty years—because he thought it was a sport you could play for decades and still learn something about the more you played. The seemingly endless variations on approach, stance, swing and so forth kept him coming back.

Photography’s the same way. You can get certain mechanical basics down and still learn something about style and composition because no two moments in the great game of life are exactly alike. The landscape changes. The light and shadows change. People move. I was talking with a friend the other day about shooting at sunrise and we were noting how everything changes every ten or fifteen seconds as the son starts to approach and cross the horizon.

I don’t want to ascribe too much wisdom to this observation or to myself. One of the things that brings me back to photography and the same physical places repeatedly is the infinite ways of seeing them and portraying them in a photograph.

So what is that thing I’ve learned?

It’s this. As those of you who follow my Flickr, Facebook or Twitter streams will know, I’ve been taking pictures the last month or so of people on the Boardwalk that runs along the oceanfront at Virginia Beach. It didn’t occur to me until this past Saturday that the key to the shots I’ve liked most so far is that they were all taken when the Boardwalk was mobbed with people.

Since May there has been a Latin Festival, a national sand soccer competition, the Boardwalk Art Show and assorted walks, runs and smaller events. Each one attracts thousands—sometimes tens of thousands—of people to a roughly mile-long stretch of the Boardwalk.

Take thousands of people, cram them into a 15’-wide strand of Boardwalk left over after the tents and booths are erected and you have the makings of very high density. What I’ve learned is that the kind of street photography I’ve been doing lately requires this density. There is No Off Season, for example, was shot during the Boardwalk Art Show.

When I went down to walk on the Boardwalk this past Saturday afternoon, there was no big event going on. Thousands of people were on the beach and the Boardwalk. But they were spread out with a lot of space between them. My attempts to get up close—what I’m calling close-enough-to-read-the-tattoo-close—were thwarted because I couldn’t do it stealthily. I needed the crush and noise of people around me—close and tight around me—to be able move up close enough to people to get the shots I wanted. Without that crush, I was too conspicuous. Without that noise, my camera was distracting. Fairies Watching Her Back, below, shows how open the landscape was.

Fairies Watching Her Back, 2011

I could, and did ask people if I could photograph their tattoos. But to be honest I didn’t like the results. They were too predictable, too lacking in spontaneity.

I’m going to have to work on this. Like golf, you can haul your camera around for decades and still be amazed by all there is still to learn.

Friday, June 24, 2011

When in Blaine

The History of Sallisaw, Oklahoma, 2011

(Click on photo for larger image.)

One of my favorite movies is Christopher Guest’s mocumentary Waiting for Guffman. The premise of the movie is that the city fathers of Blaine, Missouri (“the stool capital of America”) have hired aspiring director Corky St. Clair to produce a musical pageant in celebration of Blaine’s one-hundredth anniversary.

If you’re familiar with Guest’s other films—such as For Your Consideration, , Best in Show and A Mighty Wind—you’ll recognize Guest’s versatile company of players: Fred Willard, Catherine O'Hara, Parker Posey, Bob Balaban, Eugene Levy, Harry Shearer, Michael McKean, Michael Hitchcock, Don Lake and Larry Miller. I’m such a fan of them that I start laughing at the mere mention of their names.

If you’ve ever been involved in community theater, you know all the characters in Waiting for Guffman: the fey director whose “girlfriend” is always somewhere else; the husband and wife song and dance team ; the beautiful female lead, the ditzy ingénue, etc. But this being a Christopher Guest film, these archetypes are all turned askew and played with an improvisational subtlety that makes each one a gem.

The conceit of Waiting for Guffman, a take off on Samuel Beckett’s absurdist Waiting for Godot , is that Corky has arranged for a “way off, off, off, off, off” Broadway theatrical agent to come see the show. The actors, teased by the delusion of having a shot at the big time, ham it up like never before. Only like the elusive Godot, Mort Guffman never makes it to Blaine for the one and only star-spangled performance of Red, White and Blaine.

I was reminded of all this during my recent whistle stop tour of Sallisaw, Oklahoma. I can imagine that Sallisaw is very much like the fictional Blaine. What really caught my eye was the mural, above, that tells the history of Sallisaw, from Cherokee Days right up through the late Twentieth Century. In reality it stretches about 90 feet along the street side of a building. You can double-click on the photo above to see it larger.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

This Week in Travel

Checking in With the Home Office, 2011 (iPhone photo)

Three days. Six flights. You’d think in that much travel I’d have a few good “overheards” to share. But this week seems to have been pretty dry for such insights into the human condition.

Still, there were moments:

On my first flight of the week I sat next to a rather androgynous young man who produces drag queen reviews. I thought he had dreadlocks under his Rasta hat. But it turns out he has long dark hair like Cher.

I seemed to be seated around a lot of people who were coming from or going to family reunions.

While sitting on the floor of a departure gate in Charlotte, I noticed a young coed who has "Proceed with Caution" tattooed on the side of her left foot.

A lady in Chicago came into the departure lounge complaining about the indignity of being asked to walk through the full-body scanner. I thought she was just a little too upset over nothing. This feeling was confirmed when she sat in the row behind me on the plane and complained about how everyone and everything in her life is letting her down. (I wanted to turn around and tell her to get a life.)

The St. Louis airport looks like a giant hand reached down from the sky and shook all of the glass out of the windows. There’s enough plywood over windows and skylights to make you think you’re in a bombed out city. Turns out the airport took a direct hit from a tornado not long ago.

Every plane I was on was full and every plane was full of the kinds of summer family travelers who greet every aspect of air travel as a new and exciting experience (and slow down lines while they call their friends back home to tell them about these new and exciting experiences). "Can you believe it, Hazel?” one lady shouted into her phone. “They have Cinnabons right here at the airport where you could buy one if you were waiting for a plane. What’ll they think of next?”

One of my seatmates, a young man in a serious suit, conducted a painful passive aggressive phone conversation with his wife, at one moment telling her how worthless she is and the next telling her how much he loves her. (I wanted to smack him, too.)

Delta clearly isn’t the great airline it used to be.

On the flight from St. Louis to Cincinnati, a young boy who cried when his mother put him on the plane to go spend the summer at his father’s thought he’d died and gone to the coolest heaven when a teenager with a Mohawk haircut sat down beside him.

A lady on the final flight to Norfolk could not understand why the flight attendant on the little regional jet would not instruct the pilot to call ahead to her sister in Portsmouth to meet her at the airport with a shoe “since I done blown out this one.”

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

A Spaceship on the Beach?

Amococo, 2011

Since it was started in the early fifties, the Boardwalk Art Show has been all about art and artists. It used to feature mostly local and regional artists, and mostly painters, at that. But while there are still some local and regional artists participating in the show, the majority of participants these days are members of a loose company of artists who travel up and down the coast during the warm months setting up their tents at a new show every week or so. They stay with friends and in cheap motels and pray for good weather so that the crowds will be big enough to give them a fighting chance of earning back their expenses. In the winter a lot of them return to small towns in Florida.

The show also includes a wider mix of art forms these days, and a host of commercial exhibitors. I’m still trying to figure out, for example, why there’d be a booth for a company that installs bathroom tub inserts at an art show. (I guess there’s no wrong target audience for that business.) The show is a benefit for the Contemporary Art Center of Virginia, though, so we fans agree to look the other way when it comes to exhibitors whose commercial interests seem out of place but which pay the bills.

Another thing this year—in what I think may even have been a first for the Boardwalk Art Show—the show’s organizers brought in an attraction. Spread for almost eleven thousand square feet of beach was Amococo, an inflated plastic labyrinth of passageways, skylights and colors. I heard people say it reminded them of being inside a piece of Chihuly glass art. But for me it recalled nothing more than the 1960s movie The Fantastic Voyage, a now laughably simplistic bit of science fiction about a submarine shrunk so small that it can navigate the passages of the human body and save the life of a famous diplomat.

I’m intrigued by the idea of Amococo, even though it seems a little more like a carnival attraction than a piece of art; sort of an adult inflatable trampoline house without the trampoline. I would like to have gone into Amococo, too. But the line was long, the day was hot and, to be honest, I’d left my wallet with the necessary $3 admission fee back in the car.

You can see more about Amococo here.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Men and Their Tools

Big Sky, 2008

I learned that it was all over when the ship stopped in Algeciras. We were carrying oil from the Middle East to New York. The company mail pouch from the States carried a brown envelope containing the final divorce papers from my lawyer in Newport News. Signed and sealed by the Honorable Walton Tait of the General District Court of Eastern Virginia.

When you spend nine months of the year at sea, holding a marriage together isn't easy unless your wife is a very independent sort. I thought Joyce was, and she is. The problem turned out to be something else.

I knew we were a long shot to begin with. We met four years ago when the Cape Deloris put into the shipyard in Newport News for an unscheduled turbine repair. The repairs went slower than expected and I had nine days to kill in Virginia.

Joyce worked for the bank that handled our company’s financial dealings in Virginia. I fell for her immediately. I took her to Olive Garden for dinner that first day and never went back to the ship until the repair was finished and we were ready to sail.

I should probably mention that I have a bad history with marriage. There were three before Joyce. Jackie came first. Marrying her was just plain stupid. I’ll admit it. I thought Sue would be better. But she couldn’t stand us living apart so much. I wouldn’t quit and find a job ashore. That was that.

I waited a while before Melanie. Thought I was being smarter, that I’d learned from my earlier mistakes. But that woman turned out to have more loose screws than a hardware store. I couldn’t deal with all her constant demands. When I left her to go back to sea I didn’t return.

When I met Joyce, Melanie and I were still married in the eyes of her bible thumping Pentecostal preacher father and the State of New Jersey. It took a while to get out of that. At one point I had two days to get off the ship in Boston, drive to New Jersey to get my stuff before Melanie put it out on the street, drive it all down to Virginia to store in Joyce’s garage and then get back to the ship in Boston.

I had a lot of confidence in Joyce. She’d been on her own for some time after a high school sweetheart turned out to be a cheat. She’d never worked any place but the bank, where she’d risen to the highest job anyone who never went past high school could get.

Our marriage was like a magnolia blossom. It came fast and was sweetly scented. But also like a magnolia blossom, it, too, was short-lived. In this I was truly caught off guard.

Joyce is nothing if not compulsively neat. Everything in her house is just so. You’d have thought she’d appreciate the attention I give my tools, some of which belonged to my Dad and Granddad before me. But one day when I was home from sea and had spent the whole morning sanding and repainting my wheel barrow she came storming out the front door of the house in a way that made it clear to me that our time was running short.

She was angry that I’d thought it would be okay to paint the wheelbarrow in the front yard. What would the neighbors think? This wasn’t some damned redneck neighborhood, you know, she said. Heck, I told her, I was right by the garage door where all my tools and supplies were. The garden hose was nearby so I could wash the rusty pieces down to the street. The driveway was out in the open, so the paint would dry quickly in the sun. It made perfect sense.

Or so you’d have thought. She knocked the wheelbarrow off the saw horse onto the lawn and said it was clear I loved my tools more than I love her. When I tried to make a joke and said, “But I love you more than buying life insurance,” it didn’t go over well.

Things got colder fast. I asked a guy I’d met down the street if he knew of a good lawyer. I started the proceedings before my break was over. Then I moved all my stuff to a storage unit up on Jefferson Avenue near the airport and went back to sea. I haven’t been back since.

Joyce didn’t fight me on the divorce. I half think she was glad to see me out of her house. I’d thought we had a chance. But I tell you, some women just don’t understand how important taking care of tools is to guys.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Of Time and Tides

Port Angeles 556, 2009

The other day I watched a documentary about British artist Andy Goldsworthy called Rivers & Tides. (You can see short clips here and here.) If you enjoy Goldsworthy’s work I suggest you watch this film in a comfortable place because for most of the film Goldsworthy and his associates are out in the dark hours before and around dawn in the cold north of Scotland. Even if you like that kind of weather, Goldsworthy spends a lot of time reminding you just how miserable it is.

Goldsworthy’s not out then because his enjoys frostbitten fingers. He’s there because that’s the best time to create the ephemeral things he likes to create around water. (Get it? Rivers and Tides?)

I’ve always associated Goldsworthy with durable things like stone walls. If that’s your impression, too, Rivers & Tides will turn your impression upside down because it’s all about things Goldsworthy creates that are purposely short-lived and designed to be destroyed by the same materials that they’re made from.

Along the edges of freezing rivers and bays Goldsworthy builds stone totems, timber towers and fanciful, arcs of ice, the latter of which he fashions by breaking natural clumps of ice apart and reshaping them using the heat of his hands in the way that a sculptor of steel would use a welding torch.

Ice (Screen shot from Rivers and Tides), 2001

Goldsworthy doesn’t assemble these works up on the high land where they might be seen and enjoyed by others. (He apparently missed the Sunday school lesson about the danger of building castles in the sand.) In fact, he builds them exactly where he knows time and tides will destroy them. Sometimes they go from concept to completion within a single tidal cycle. I’m not sure that the concepts are even planned in advance. One gets the impression from this film that Goldsworthy just shows up and works quickly with what’s at hand.

One also gets the impression that many of these ephemera will not be seen by anyone. The various projects shown in the film certainly aren’t, or at least aren’t seen by anyone else while they actually exist.

Still, there’s something appealing about them. Maybe it’s the sandcastle builder in me that likes them. One of the great pleasures of my childhood and again when our daughter was young was building sandcastles at the beach. Our castles may not have been all that imaginative—we were big on the dribble school of design—but they did have vast networks of caves and arches and moats. And like Goldsworthy’s stones and timbers and ice, they were all blown away by the wind or washed away in the next high tide.

This, Too, Will Wash Away (Screen shot from Rivers and Tides), 2001

All of this seems to go entirely against the notion of why some of us embrace photography. The history of photography is all about recording things so that they survive, so that they endure. We even have a tool, the Polaroid process, that enables things to be revealed over time. I don’t know that we have anything that purposely takes away other than our own poor darkroom skills. Lots of the pictures I took of historic structures and architectural details in Richmond, Virginia, during the early 1970s have faded with time.

But watching Andy Goldsworthy purposely create things that he knows will last barely longer than it took him to build them, that would barely qualify as performance art because they can’t be duplicated because the materials themselves go away does make one wonder what the photographic interpretation of this idea might be. Pictures that purposely fade away? Pictures that you purposely destroy after a certain amount of time?

I’ll have to think some more about this.

Friday, June 17, 2011

A Classier Set of Dames

Let's Have a Girl's Day Out! 2011
I will stipulate right up front that no one’s going to confuse me with Scott Schuman, also known as The Sartorialist. Scott does an excellent job of photographing the fashionable. (The dean of this kind of on-the-fly fashion photography is undoubtedly the New York Times’ Bill Cunningham.) No matter how zaftig or sleek, the people Scott photographs on the streets of New York, Paris, Amsterdam and especially Milan always look interestingly fashionable and comfortable in their own style.
Let’s just say I have neither their sense of style nor fashion confidence. Like a lot of American guys, my sense of fashion locked in somewhere between high school and college. Fortunately, men’s fashion is cyclical enough that if I just hold on to the clothes I can count on them coming back in to fashion at a point and there I’ll be, momentarily—and only momentarily—back near the front of the curve.
To be honest, I don’t care to look like some of the silly looking young men Scott photographs, like this guy. Skinny high water jeans will never look good on me. But I could probably learn something from this guy, or these guys.
I was reminded of all this yesterday afternoon while taking a power walk down to the Boardwalk to see the 2011 Boardwalk Art Show. The show started yesterday and runs through Sunday. Over the years I’ve learned that it’s best to go to the show on Thursdays before the crowds start pouring in for the weekend. I’ve also learned that Thursday and Friday are typically ladies’ days at the Boardwalk Art Show for the “ladies who lunch” set. Yesterday was no exception.
Lady in Louis, 2011
In place of the usual frumpy tourists in tee-shirts and flip flops was a diverse crowd of local ladies. They came in all sizes and shapes, ranging from oversized seniors in muumuus and sequined sweaters to young artistically inclined mothers pushing strollers to country club ladies dressed in Lily Pulitzer and Talbots. They weren’t pretentiously attired. But they were, in any event, dressed for an art show.
I believe Scott Schuman shoots with a 50mm lens and the full cooperation of his subjects. This gives him the ability to stand back a bit from his subjects, take a moment to think about what he wants to do and indulge in some nice short depth of field. I, on the other hand, was not prepared to shoot like Scott. I was armed with a 17-35mm wide angle lens (because I was still ostensibly on my tattoo hunt), was shooting while walking and was working without the cooperation of anyone because I didn’t want to lose the spontaneity of the moment.
After seeing these pictures, I’m beginning to wonder if spontaneity is overrated.
Green is the New Orange, 2011

Thursday, June 16, 2011

The Girls

The Girls, 2011

You have to like dogs to live in our neighborhood. There are seventeen of them among the seven houses on our dead end lane. We’re the only people to have just one.

The dogs used to all wander freely. Some liked to swim in the river. Others would hang out in the woods. The late Cookie, a beagle, liked to stretch out and sleep in the middle of the lane, daring the mail carrier and Fedex guy to pass. Cookie was a real sweetie, but you had to be careful when you leaned over to pet her because she liked to French kiss.

Then some new people moved in across the street and let it slip out that they had a mean dog. “Uh, I hope she won’t be a problem.” Indeed, that dog bit assorted children and grownups until the owners finally installed an underground electric fence. She even went after some of the other dogs. So everyone else started installing underground electric fences to keep their dogs contained. (We’re the only people not to need one of those, either.)

The Girls, above, shows four of the eight dogs living next door to us. They are all labs, from left to right, Skyler, Annabelle, Lucy and Gracie. Skyler is mother to Gracie and great aunt to Lucy. Annabelle is of uncertain parentage. Missing from the scene are three Yorkshire terriers and a giant American pit bull, the latter of which we’re told is “just visiting.” All of them are female except for one of the Yorkies, a feisty little guy called Wookie because he looks like a miniature Chewbacca from the Star Wars movies. All you need to know about Wookie to understand him is that he has a Napoleon complex.

When we moved to the neighborhood two of the neighbor's labs served as our passive security system; one spent her days sleeping on our front steps and the other did the same at the back. No one messed with our house.

These particular neighbors have had a total of fourteen dogs since we’ve been here. The lady of the house looks upon the death of a dog as an opportunity to thin the herd. But the man of the house is never happier than when he’s surrounded by a bunch of yapping dogs. So the roster of canines never declines and has actually increased by two over the last year.

One of their dogs used to be famous for swimming across the river late at night. Her owners would be wakened at all hours by phone calls from people on the other side asking them to come pick up the dog. It’s not far across the river as the crow flies. But it was a 40-minute round trip drive if you had to go pick her up, not counting the small talk. So they eventually started taking off her collar and ID tags at night. That took care of the calls and they knew that if you just left the dog alone she’d eventually swim home on her own.

The dogs on our street live too well to want to run away.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011


Here We Come, Ladies! 2011

One of the photographer’s greatest and most frequently overlooked tricks is to vary the point of view (POV). Most of us shoot our pictures from the same level as our eyes. The resulting pictures look lifelike to us because they show what we saw. But they frequently lack any drama or element of the unexpected.

By shifting the POV, it’s possible to come up with an entirely different and possibly more interesting image.

In this summer’s series of photographs from the Boardwalk at Virginia Beach, I’m playing a lot with POV. Many of these shots, like the one above, are being made without me composing them through the viewfinder of the camera. I’m having to look ahead as I walk to see if there’s anything interesting coming towards me and then compose the scene without benefit of the viewfinder. I try to avoid drawing attention to myself by holding the camera no higher than waist level.

Sometimes the process is further complicated by me having to look completely away from the scene if I think the people in the scene will be drawn to the clicking of the camera shutter. If I look away it creates the impression that although the camera may be clicking I’m not really looking at them. Fortunately, the crowding is such on the Boardwalk that most people aren’t paying any attention to me. I can settle into the middle of a group of people and let the ambient sound cover the sound of the camera shutter.

One thing I’ve learned from this is that I have no idea how to hold a camera level. Most times I think I’m holding the camera pretty level. But as this photograph shows, I’m actually doing nothing of the kind.

Often this doesn’t turn out to be so bad. Every now and then I hold the camera in such a way that I don’t even get what I wanted to photograph into the frame. But other times I get angles and points of view I’d never let myself shoot if I were more in control of the composition. By shooting literally from the hip I get a whole new POV.

For every shot that works, there’s one where the perspective is askew enough to upset your equilibrium. I think Here We Come, Ladies! might be right at the edge of what works and what doesn’t. The horizon is nowhere near level. But the leaning lines of the young men in the photograph add an interesting dimension of motion. They lead you from mid right to bottom left and then back up into the center of the sky.

Had the camera been tilted a little bit more, though, you might be rushing to find something to throw up into about now. I hope that isn’t the case, and that you’ll be able to enjoy the sharp blues and greens of this photograph.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Speaking Truth to Power. Everywhere.

Ghandi on the Boardwalk, 2011

As I sat down to write this I was reminded of the Dr. Seuss book, And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street. In that story a little boy, bored with the view out the window of his nondescript house on a nondescript street starts noticing all kinds of amazing things he’d never expected to see.

I have to admit that neither the Boardwalk in Virginia Beach nor a tattoo are places I’d have expected to find the words of Mahatma Gandhi. But the more I pay attention to the life of the oceanfront the more I’m realizing that you can see a little bit of just about everything there. To wit, the young man above.

“Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever.”

I don’t know a lot about tattoos. But I know they come in all varieties. In just a few minutes this past weekend I saw everything from discreet little roses to palm trees to dragons to cannons firing. They were sentimental (“Mom,” “Parrothead”), religious (“Jesus is Awesome”) or completely in your face (“BACK OFF, MOTHERF-----S!”).

Years ago I stayed in a hotel Philadelphia where a national “body art” convention was taking place. After that, I thought I’d seen it all then. But clearly I had much left to learn.

There’s one thing I can say for sure, though. It’s that most people with tattoos want you to see them. I noticed a young man the other day, for example, who had one sleeve of his tee-shirt rolled up across his shoulder just so the tattoo on his upper arm could be seen. I wish I’d gotten a picture of that. But I didn’t because I wasn’t ready. I’m learning that if you want to shoot tattoos in a crowd you have to shoot fast and worry about composition later.

The young man in the picture above caught my attention because he has so much “written” in the tattoo on the back of his neck. Your garden variety redneck with a Confederate flag inked across his back doesn’t hold much mystery. But someone with several lines of text; well that takes some determination.

I was shooting with a wide-angle lens—it was too crowded for anything else—so I didn’t have the luxury of standing back from my subject. I got up close enough behind the young man to take this picture. But to be honest, I wasn’t close enough to read the tattoo. When I got home and looked at the picture, I thought this might just be another young disaffected man—there are a lot of them around here—with an attitude. “Live as if you were to die tomorrow” sounds like one of those bad attitude lines you’d hear Nicholas Cage say in a movie.

But then I read the second line, “Learn as if you will live forever.” That definitely didn’t sound like a Nicholas Cage line. Disaffected young men don’t walk around espousing lifelong learning. So I Googled the line and learned that this tidbit of a life lesson was originally spoken by Mahatma Gandhi, the modern godfather of civil resistance.

The only mystery left now is to figure out why the young man has this message tattooed on the back of his neck where he can’t even see it instead of some place where he can be inspired by it and see the reaction of other people reading it. I mean, if your life’s going to be a lesson for other people, don’t you want to see if it’s working?