Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Shoot first. Ask later.

Taking in Venice, 2011

I once accepted a job where I would be replacing a guy—we’ll call him Mike—who’d had the job for many years. Mike was a nice guy, but also one of the most pessimistic people I’ve ever known. He’d had much sadness in his life and long ago tired of the job. I, on the other hand, was young and eager and hired to breathe new life into the position. Mike was to be moved within the department to another job where he’d essentially ride out the last few years to retirement without getting in my way.
I should mention that neither Mike nor I had much respect for our department head. He was dishonest and slippery. I accepted the job only because I’d been hired by his boss and, as such, given pretty much free reign to do as I saw fit.
The week before I was to start this new job, the department head left the company abruptly. His was a colorful story, but relevant to my story only in that Mike was temporarily appointed to fill the guy’s place.
So when I started work the following week, the guy I was to have replaced was now the department manager. I knew right then that my opportunities had narrowed significantly. Mike was never less than complimentary about my work. But any ideas I had about breathing new life into the job were quashed quickly. Mike was the expert in what couldn’t be done and what wouldn’t work.
Under Mike’s management, I could finish all the work that was expected of me in an hour or so each morning. For the first few months, I spent most of the rest of the day wandering around the building learning about other aspects of the business and trying to figure out how I could be a more effective resource for the people with whom I was assigned to work. Eventually I learned how to introduce a lot of new and successful ideas in the job. I just had to make sure it looked like they came from other people. The people I helped were very supportive of me. They knew where the ideas and programs came from.  We just couldn’t let Mike know.
If you’ve ever had a job like this, you know how mind numbing it can be. A few months later I left the company.
I think it was my friend Sybil who, when faced with a bureaucratic obstacle, introduced me to the idea of begging for forgiveness after taking a bold or risky move instead of asking for permission up front. Sybil’s a woman of high ethical standards. I know she intended no dishonesty, and was merely imparting to me a practical tip on how to get something done when stopping to ask for permission would have slowed the process down or derailed it completely.
In an interview the other day with The Telegraph newspaper, the British photographer Martin Parr was asked if he ever seeks people’s permission before photographing them. Parr, known for his unflinching and colorful photographs of modern life, wasted not a second in answering, “You would never get anything done if you did that.”
I’ve written before about the question of whether one should ask permission to take someone’s picture when out in public. I know there are times when this is the right thing to do. But more and more I’m coming to believe also that too many good opportunities are lost when you do this.
Shoot first. Ask later.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Notes from the Hospitality Industry

Arriving Guest, 2011

Some instincts you never forget.
In college I worked in the circulation department of an afternoon newspaper. I supervised the distribution and collections of almost seventy paper routes across a large area. I knew where each carrier’s paper bundles were dropped and came to instinctively check those corners to make sure the papers had been picked up even on the days when I wasn’t working.
Because I had to check back in with the office from time to time, I also had to know where all the pay phones were in my district, particularly the drive-up phones in tough neighborhoods. I still have an uncanny ability to identify places where the few remaining drive-up pay phones exist.
It was the instincts of my adolescent and teen years working as a bellhop at a beach motel, though, that came into play recently. 
I had a great time as a bellhop. I could rake in the tips.  I was supposed to be saving up money for when I’d be going to college. But still, it was crossing a great economic divide when I transitioned from cutting grass for $1.50 an hour to making five or more times that much toting luggage around the hotel.
A little over a week ago I was walking down 44th Street in New York. My old bellhop senses kicked in almost without me even noticing them when I briefly paused in front of a hotel, the same one, coincidentally, where a French International Monetary Fund official may or may not have assaulted a maid.
A van had pulled up in front of the hotel as I approached and deposited no fewer than thirty suitcases on the curb. They were all of the same size, color, texture and quality. It was an impressive pile.
When I worked at the beach hotel we used to have bus tours come through from time to time. Most of the bus tour guests were elderly factory workers from New York City. Almost all had new, cheap luggage, the kind you’d buy when you’d never needed luggage before but were planning a four-day bus trip to Virginia Beach and Colonial Williamsburg to kick off your retirement. 
Let’s just say the luggage being dropped off in front of the fancy hotel on 44th Street was not that kind of luggage. It was all leather, all black and each piece monogrammed with a gold crest in the shape of a falcon.
My old bellman's instincts told me there were good tips to be had moving this luggage. But I fought the instinct. Other people, though, stopped on the curb at the sight of all that matching luggage. A movie star, they wondered? Another French diplomat? A deposed dictator?
The doorman looked up, completely unimpressed, as if such piles of expensive matching luggage showed up at his door every day.
“Thinks he’s a f---ing Persian Prince,” he said, describing the guest. “A king or something. Here for a week. They always bring this much luggage. These are just his bags. Wait 'til you see the truck with the baggage for all the rest of his people."
Bystanders moved in close to the luggage to see what it looked like. Having done my time toting bags, I moved on.
"A f---ing Persian Prince," the doorman muttered as he wandered off to get help with the bags.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Do You DIA?

DIA:Beacon Trakas Garden, 2011

About seventy miles north of New York City in Duchess County is a little town called Beacon. If you drive there from Manhattan the recommended route takes you over to New Jersey and up through the mountains to Newburgh and then back across the river to Beacon. But if you take the Metro North train from Grand Central, the view’s much better.
Why would you want to go to Beacon, anyway? It used to be a hardscrabble little town visited mostly, I gather, for its industrial printing plant and proximity to the Downstate Correctional Facility at Fishkill. To this day a fleet of taxi cabs waits outside the Beacon train station beckoning anyone “going to jail?”
But that’s not the reason we went to Beacon. (Besides, we don’t know anyone at Downstate.)  We went to see the DIA:Beacon MuseumWe took the train because why would you drive when you can take the train from midtown Manhattan to Beacon and walk a short distance up the hill  from the station to the DIA:Beacon? 
Besides, getting to Beacon on the train is half the fun. Leaving Grand Central you come above ground in Harlem, then follow the Harlem River north to the Hudson River, which is almost never out of sight the rest of the way to Beacon. You pass through places with names lifted from Cheever stories: Tarrytown, Croton-on-Hudson, Ossining (home of Sing Sing prison and Don and Betty Draper), Peekskill, Cold Spring, Cornwall-on-Hudson and, finally, Beacon. Along the way you see sailboats tugging at their moorings to be let free into the wind. Swans gather in calm backwaters. Tugboats push barges along. Near Cold Spring you can look across the river and see the majestic West Point military academy on the opposite bluff. Just before you get into Beacon you pass the decaying castle at Bannerman Island
The main reason people go to Beacon who don’t live there or aren’t going to the prison, though, is to visit the DIA:Beacon museum. It’s located in a former Nabisco/International Paper printing plant, also formerly the town's main industry.
I don’t know enough about contemporary art to know how to appreciate some of it. There's work that moves you and work I would describe as the kind of piles of metal, sand and glass that if they were in your yard you’d pay to have someone remove them.
DIA:Beacon has some of all the above. But first, let me recommend that you visit if for no other reason than that it’s a magnificent series of gallery spaces.  Under tall ceilings and skylights where giant presses once rumbled are now immense quiet galleries painted white. They’d be very cool to photograph except that you’re not allowed to do that.
The cool thing about DIA:Beacon is that it’s galleries are large enough to hold huge pieces of art that are simply too big for most galleries to show. For example, Richard Serra’s Union of the Torus and the SphereAs if to complement Serra’s immense arcs of steel, there’s Michael Heizer’s North, East, South, West, equally immense geometric holes in the floor.
There’s a long gallery of neon work from Dan Flavin, a whimsical retrospective of the late German artist who adopted the name “Blinky Palermo,” the imaginative yarn planes of Fred Sandback and work by a host of contemporary luminaries.
By far my favorite area at DIA:Beacon is the Sol Lewitt collection, particularly the Drawing Series. Each wall in the Drawing Series collection is a masterpiece of lines, arcs, squares and doodles. Some are visible from afar. Some you don’t even notice until your nose is practically pressed against the wall. I could have stood for hours before each one, letting my eyes alternately wander across and delve deeper into Lewitt’s lines. 
I don’t know a lot about contemporary art. So I have to merely let it either work its magic on me, or not. At DIA:Beacon I saw work that intrigued me, work that engaged me and work that compelled me to examine familiar things in new ways. That alone makes DIA: Beacon work visiting. (And yes, there were a few piles of metal, sand and glass that if they'd been in my yard I'd have paid to have them hauled to the dump.)
As for the picture above, it’s one of the few spaces at DIA:Beacon you’re allowed to photograph. DIA:Beacon sits on a hill overlooking the Hudson River. Artist George Trakas designed this terrace to take advantage of the view out over the River. There’s no railing on the far edge. So the effect is like that of an infinity pool.

Friday, August 26, 2011

A friend of a Friend of a Friend

Chris Prowls for Pictures, 2009 and 2011

I try to end the week with posts that have something nice, or even pretty. This week you'll have to be content with two pictures of me.
This is actually a response to an e-mail I got yesterday from someone I don't even know.  Her name is Nancy and she's a friend of a friend of a friend, one of those people so far removed that you'd have never known her in the pre-Internet, pre-Facebook days.
But because she’s a friend of a friend of a friend who sent her a link to my blog, Nancy wrote to ask, "How do you slip in and out of places without drawing attention?"
The quick answer is that I don’t. I told Nancy that although there are a few tricks of the trade that any shy person knows—dress in keeping with the place (but not so as to draw attention), stand away from the crowd and simply stand still so that you become as unnoticed as a potted plant—I'm really not much of a stealth operator. In fact, compared to my friend Gary Clark, whose presence elicits only the warmest and most welcoming expressions from the people he photographs, people look back at me with a sneer that says "WHAT THE HELL DO YOU WANT?"
As evidence I offer up the two pictures above that show me as you might find me in an early morning walk. Both were taken, as coincidence would have it, in front of the revolving door that has become my de facto New York self portrait studio. One was taken a year and a half ago in the dead of winter, the other last weekend. Both show how rumpled or disheveled I can be when I head out for a morning walk.
My point in showing these is not to show off—neither is particularly flattering—but to demonstrate to Nancy that on some occasions I'm anything but stealthy. This past Saturday I was out for a walk in Midtown Manhattan dressed in the same paint-splattered shorts I wear when I walk in the morning at home.  I’m okay as long as I’m walking among runners or other walkers. But the minute I step away from them I very quickly become a guy wearing paint-splattered shorts in a neighborhood where people usually only wear paint-splattered shorts within the confines of their own homes, if at all.
Being in cities makes me want to be a little more presentable than I am when I'm home and revert to my usual “relaxed” style. But if you catch me early in the morning before I’ve shaved and cleaned up, there’s no guarantee of what you’re going to get. 

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Another Picture That Caused Trouble

A Certain Financial Services Company, 2011

You know me. I can find trouble with a camera just by walking down the street. Which is exactly what I was doing when I took the picture shown above. I was walking up Vanderbilt Avenue in New York. I noticed this building and admired the clean lines of the entry way and the warm light indoors.
Normally, I might have taken this picture and later discarded it. There’s not much of a story in it. There’s little I’d want to keep.
But not this time. There’s principle involved here!
Just as I lifted the camera to take this picture, a security guard stepped out from the curb behind me and attempted to put his hand in front of the camera. When I recoiled, I got a reproachful wag of the finger and was told that I shouldn’t be taking this picture.
The building in this scene happens to be the headquarters of a very large financial services corporation that’s been taking a lot of heat lately. I won’t name the company—though there are two conspicuous cues in the picture—because whoever owns this building had absolutely nothing to do with why I photographed it. I photographed it because it’s a wonderful example of 1960s corporate design from Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. It was originally the headquarters of Union Carbide and is still know by some as the Union Carbide Building. It served as the headquarters of the Worldwide Wicket Company in the 1967 movie How to Success in Business Without Really Trying. So it’s not exactly a shrinking violet when it comes to being photographed.
Perhaps the security guard, an imposing man in a tailored suit, thought I was hoping to catch some kind of corporate malfeasance with my camera. Nothing could have been farther from the truth, of course. And even if it had been my motive I wasn’t photographing anything that wasn’t visible to the thousands of other people who walked by this same place and looked into these same windows on the Saturday morning I was there.
So you’ll just have to forgive me today for having no more story nor reason to show this picture than to thumb my nose at the security guard and his employer.
The laws regarding the photography of privately owned places aren’t as cut and dry as you might think. Many people believe that if you take a picture of a private structure—i.e. a residence or even a big commercial building like this—you are free to do what you like with it. However, even if you’re standing in a very public place when you take a picture of a privately owned building, you do not have the right to market that photo for commercial purposes without the permission of the building owner.
I do not intend to make any commercial use of this image. No money was paid for this mention. So there, Mr. Security Guard!

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Taking the High Line


High Line Lawn, 2011

Despite forecasts to the contrary, the weather was gorgeous when we arrived in New York this past Friday afternoon, which was as good an excuse to visit the High Line as I could think of.
For those unfamiliar with it, the High Line is a park built atop a former elevated railroad line that snakes its way along Manhattan’s lower West Side.  It once carried cattle into the city to be slaughtered and goods manufactured in New York out to the rest of America. Eventually, manufacturing declined and trucks moved what was left.
For years the High Line languished, mainly because it was up over everyone’s head and, like much of the decaying industrial area that surrounded it, out of sight and out of mind. Every now and then you’d see a series of photographs by someone who’d snuck up onto the High Line and documented the abandoned tracks and wild vegetation. But by and large the High Line went unnoticed and unbothered.
Today the High Line has been reconceived by landscape architects James Corner Field Operations and architects Diller Scofidio + Renfro as a roughly 20 block-long urban park that connects the West Village and Meatpacking District at the south end to Clinton at the north end. The first section of the park was opened two years ago. The second section, from Twentieth to Thirtieth streets, opened earlier this year. You can get a better idea of the park here , and a full introduction by clicking on “View the High Line Design.”
We visited the first section of the High Line about a year and a half ago. For this visit we wanted to see the second, newer section. Because we were staying in Midtown and having dinner in the West Village, we started our visit at the Thirtieth  Street entrance.
The first thing that strikes you before you even ascend to the High Line is that the lot underneath the Thirtieth Street entrance has been transformed temporarily into a pop-up roller skating rink and, for the grown ups, beer garden. When we arrived the place was full of families and children skating in the sunlight while hundreds of twentysomethings sat on benches under the High Line drinking beer and tasting the delights from a fleet of food trucks parked around the perimeter of the lot. This enterprise is being operated on an experimental basis this summer. It’s easy to imagine it becoming a fixture in future summers.
Under the High Line, 2011

The first thing that strikes you when you climb up to the High Line itself is what a different perspective you have of Manhattan when you’re 30 feet off the ground. You start with a panoramic view of old rail yards at Hell’s Kitchen, a formerly rough area known being remarketed under the more genteel name of Clinton.
 High Line 65, 2011

Walking south from Thirtieth Street you encounter stone paths that vary in width. Some still have the old railroad tracks embedded in them.  Every now and then you encounter a section that dips down to seating that gives you a bird’s eye view of the streets below or that alternately climbs up over a densely planted stretch of trees and wildflowers. Because the original elevated rail line was designed to serve manufacturers, the High Line winds its way between and sometimes through old factories that today house everything from the Chelsea Market to The Standard Hotel, Chris Whittle’s Avenues school and Diane von Furstenberg’s fashion design studio. At every cross street you can look out in one direction to the Hudson River and to the East River in the other direction, reminding you just how narrow Manhattan is in some places.
Along the way are benches, lounge chairs, places to buy food or cold drinks and places to meditate and otherwise find silence in an otherwise noisy city. The High Line provides open social places and quiet private places. There’s a wonderful water feature for dipping your toes. There’s a further elevated stretch of lawn where you can stretch out a blanket or just wiggle your toes in the grass.
For me, though, one of the best features of the High Line is the way it compels the eye to look above street level and notice all the various features of the buildings that surround it. There are buildings very much of this time and buildings that look straight out of the Industrial Age.
The High Line is a place where the rich and the poor mingle without prejudice and where you’re as likely to trip over a celebrity as an unknown.
The tourism marketing people in Asheville, North Carolina, have long said that “Altitude affects attitude.” That certainly applies to a visit to the High Line. You can climb to the Thirtieth street platform full of all the stresses and tension a city like New York can create. When you descend the stairs to Gansevoort Street at the southern end, you’re a different person, calmed and refreshed and ready to take on the city again.
 High Line 35, 2011


Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Me and the Damned Bird

 Bird & Chrysler, 2011

While in New York a couple of weeks ago I took the picture (below) that shows the south facade of Grand Central Terminal. I hadn’t really figured on including the stone eagle that’s perched in front of the terminal. But then I decided to use the eagle as a foreground element since most shots of Grand Central are just that; namely, head-on shots with little additional interest. The sun didn’t favor this shot, though. I wasn’t crazy about the outcome, but found the confluence of four different elements—the canopy at the corner of 42nd and Vanderbilt, the eagle just above, the façade of Grand Central and the Met Life building—to be briefly interesting.  I thought the scalloped edges of the canopy and the eagle’s beak made for an interesting silhouette.

Bird, Grand Central  & Met Life, 2011

I was back in New York this past weekend and had hoped to find better light on the Grand Central façade. I had plenty of chances, that's for sure. I walked over to Grand Central around 7:00 a.m. on Saturday hoping the morning sun would illuminate things nicely. Not so, it turns out. I hadn't counted on the hotel to the east of the terminal blocking the direct sunlight.
The second chance came about an hour later when the sun was higher and I discovered that the City had closed Park Avenue to all but runners and bikers. I don't know where the closure started or ended. But after realizing that the elevated stretch of Park Avenue that runs under the Helmsley and Met Life buildings and around Grand Central was included in the closed section, I joined the other walkers and went up on the elevated roadway. There I found myself practically face-to-face with eagle. By looking west instead of east, I ended up with what I thought was an interesting photo, as seen below. But again, it wasn’t the one I wanted.
 Bird  & 42nd Street, 2011

Late in the afternoon I had yet another chance to stop by Grand Central. I thought that maybe the afternoon sun might bend around the corner and hit both the eagle and the facade. No such luck. The whole façade was in shadow. But once again, by changing my perspective I ended up with a picture I liked—Bird & Chrysler, seen above—because it includes the eagle in the foreground and another one of my favorite places, William Van Alen's Chrysler Building, in the background. Van Alen was something of an unusual character, mainly because for having designed such a distinctive building, very little is known about him.
On Sunday morning I didn’t even try to take a picture of Grand Central Terminal. The hell with the façade and the eagle!
If I paid attention to such things, I’d say this was one of those times when life was trying to tell me there were better opportunities right in front of my eyes, even if they weren’t the opportunities I was looking for. 

Monday, August 22, 2011

It Didn't Have to End This Way

Villard Houses, Closed, 2011

About a year and a half ago I wrote about the sale of New York’s Duane Reade drug store chain to Walgreen’s. Duane Reade stores are nothing special. But they’re one of those elements of New York City that you come to expect. Like Starbucks, they’re everywhere. My only connection with Duane Reade is that they’ve bailed me out a few times when I found myself in New York without shaving cream or deodorant, two things it’s unwise to ever be without in New York.
But I learned to live with the Duane Reade sale, and am even a bit amazed that as of at least this past weekend the Walgreen’s people haven’t even changed the name of the Duane Read stores.
The Villard Houses are another of those New York fixtures that you don’t expect to change. And yet they’ve really gone and done it!
Yesterday morning while out for an early morning walk I made a pilgrimage to the Villard Houses. Regular readers will recall that this is one of my favorite places in New York. I’ve written about them several times, most recently last fall.
The Villard Houses have survived a lot. In 1882 railroad tycoon Henry Villard had McKim, Mead and White design six attached neo-Italian Renaissance brownstone residences around a courtyard. Later the Archdiocese of New York owned them. Then they became commercial spaces, housing, among others, the founding headquarters of Random House publishers and its Modern Library.
There was a period when it looked like the Villard Houses might be knocked down and replaced with office buildings. Their location on Madison Avenue right behind St. Patrick’s Cathedral must make developers salivate. Prominent preservationists got involved, though, and managed to attach sufficient landmark status to the property to prevent their demolition. But the deal with the devil was that the Helmsley Hotel chain would be allowed to build a modern glass and steel hotel tower immediately behind the Villard Houses and incorporate some the houses into the hotel’s public spaces.
For a while things have seemed pretty safe. The New York Preservation Society occupied the North wing. Restaurants have generally occupied the South wing. The middle section served as a gateway to the hotel. The courtyard facing Madison Avenue, according to what I’m told was the original landmark agreement, remained open to the public. That means people like me who like to sit on the doorsteps of one or the other wings and have a few moments of peace in an otherwise noisy city.
Yesterday morning, though, I had a real shock to the system. For one thing, as I approached the Villard Houses, I noticed that the basement windows are now covered with ads. You could have knocked me over when I saw the first one. This is like hanging an advertising banner for American Apparel across the front of Mount Vernon!
In Manhattan, advertising is all about capturing eyeballs and maximizing revenues therefrom. The Villard House basement windows are at eye level on at least two sides. So it doesn’t take a very imaginative person to wonder how much money could be made selling that space to advertisers. Certainly the hotel’s current owner, The Sultan of Brunei, has people who think about this kind of stuff. But most creative people would have enough taste to realize, too, just how tacky that would be.
But there they are. Ads, I mean, covering the basement windows. I take some modest comfort in knowing that the ads I saw are for the hotel itself. But if they’ll do this for themselves, how long can it be before they’ll sell that space to Mercedes, K Mart or Glenn Beck?
 Villard Houses Ad, 2011
As for the courtyard, that former oasis of peace, it’s now an outdoor cocktail and dining area arranged around a giant Jeff Koons-like dog.
And worse yet, despite a sign that states otherwise, the whole courtyard was locked up tight for all but hotel guests.
I can get over the sale and even the renaming of a drug store. But when they start selling ads on the side of the Villard Houses, I start feeling every day of my cranky age.

Friday, August 19, 2011

The Half-Life of Photographs

Jet Trail, 2006

I was thinking the other day of what I jokingly refer to as the half-life of photographs. Half-life usually refers to the amount of time it takes something to completely decompose. It’s usually used to describe scary things that don’t go away quickly, like uranium. I’m actually thinking, though, about how long a photograph lives, so maybe I should come up with a better term.
Either way, every one of us can probably bring several iconic photographs to mind without thinking too hard. If pressed, we can probably come up with a dozen or more. When I do this, I see Matthew Brady’s Civil War images, tintypes of the ballooning Montgolfier brothers, Steichen, Walker Evans, Ansel Adams, Dorothea Lange, Frances Johnston, the Capas, Kertesz, The Family of Man and so on.
But in the big scheme of things, those iconic photographs are but an infinitesimal percentage of all the photographs ever taken, and even a tiny proportion of the photographs taken by even the photographers who took the iconic photographs.
These days we’re exposed to more visual imagery than ever. I can’t begin to imagine how many photographs are taken each day around the world. It’s got to be in the hundreds of millions, if not billions. Some of these images—a very few—will become acknowledged as great for one reason or another and ascend to iconic status. The rest…well, those are the ones I wonder about.
Most people who take pictures will likely never share them with more than a few people. Negatives will fill up closets full of old shoeboxes. Hard drives will harbor thousands of digital images.
Those of us who post photographs daily to sites like Flickr know that we have not only an archive, but also a daily audience that can range from the dozens to the thousands, depending on the number of “contacts” we have and the eye appeal of our thumbnail photos.  Some of us wish we had more traditional gallery followings. But in truth we have the opportunity to share our photographs with more people in more places in just one day using Flickr than we would if we were in the most prestigious gallery in the world. 
But that’s just it. You get a day, if you’re lucky. But it’s probably more like a few seconds, no better than a common ad, before the viewer moves on to the next image. My challenge to myself—which, by the way, I don’t think I achieve often—is to post images that will hold someone’s attention for three seconds. That’s a painfully brief amount of time. But in today’s visual clutter, that might be all you get.
Every now and then I go back through my photo archive and find images that gave me great pleasure. But once shown they went to the archives, where they will likely remain until after I’m gone. This seems awfully wasteful. I think it’s possible that some of these images might give other people pleasure, too. 
Until I figure out how to do that, though, I’ll be happy with three seconds. Web site consultants tell me three seconds can be an eternity.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

More Than a Print

Malibu 001, 20110

I was talking to a friend the other day about lottery tickets. He’s a CPA and simply can’t imagine how anyone could be so foolish as to justify the investment in a lottery ticket, given the monstrous odds of losing.
As it happens, I’ve done a lot of research among people who buy lottery tickets. I explained that nobody who buys a Lottery ticket really expects to win it (though in most cases someone will). The real value of the dollar spent on that ticket is the license it gives the buyer to enjoy a day of dreaming about what he’d do if he did won. That dreaming is limitless and, as such, is a darned good return on the investment of a single dollar, if you ask me.
I’m not sure if my friend bought this. Dreams don’t count for much on balance sheets. But whether he did or didn’t, I went ahead and used the metaphor of the lottery ticket buyers’ pleasure as a bridge into a conversation about all the different ways a photo can provide pleasure.
Did you ever hear that old saying about firewood; how it heats four times? (When you chop it, when you split it, when you move it and when you burn it.)
Photography’s a lot like that.
For some people, photography’s all about the print, that piece of paper that has chemicals or ink arranged on it in such a way as to portray a place, a person, a thing, or an event or moment in time that existed only as long as the camera’s shutter stayed open.
I can understand this point of view. Why would you take pictures if you weren’t thinking about how they were going to, as we used to say in the days of film, “turn out”? 
For me photography is too much like chopping wood to be reduced to just that single physical outcome. For the curious person, the camera is like the lottery ticket in that once it’s in our hands it’s a license to go looking around. You get to decide where you’re going to go and what you’re going to look for. You get the pleasure of thinking about how you’re going to frame what you photograph and all the ways you could interpret that moment. These days you get the immediate pleasure of taking a quick peek at what you’ve shot and the additional pleasure of looking at it on a larger screen when you get back home.
I’m leaving out a lot of steps. But you get the point. Photography provides satisfaction at any number of points between the time you pick up the camera and the time you see the finished print. Revel in all of those moments as long as you can. And if you should end up with a print or two that is satisfying to you, look upon that as the icing on the cake, the high point in a day well spent.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Let it happen. Just let it happen.

Surf Series 019, 2009
I was once again talking to someone yesterday about where pictures come from. I’m not talking about the history or chemistry or digital technology of pictures, but rather where in our minds the ideas or recognition of opportunities for interesting pictures come from.
There are a lot of people who don’t think they have the capacity to be creative. They’re convinced that they’re just not wired that way. To be sure, there are people who are, shall we say, more loosely wired than others, and certainly a lot who are more tightly wound up. The former can be fun to work with, but there’s not much reasoning with the latter because the walls they’ve put around themselves are just too thick and too high.
Whenever I encounter someone who doesn’t think that he or she has the capacity to create original expressions one of the places I refer them is to Betty Edwards’ Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain . Let me stipulate right here that reading this book will not turn you into a Renoir or Picasso. But if it does nothing more than give you the confidence to at least break free of the conviction that you’re incapable of doing anything creative, that’s half the battle.
Yesterday afternoon while driving home from a meeting I listened to Tricia Rose Burt tell a true story about her life on The Moth, a true story telling radio program and podcast that I heartily recommend to anyone who likes personal accounts of life experiences. Ms. Burt described her transition from being a tightly wound, results-focused, briefcase-toting public relations executive to being someone who pieces together a less financially certain, but far richer life around stories, art and the creative process.
It took Ms. Burt several extremely deliberate lessons for her to learn to let go of the belief that every action she took in life had to be competitive and result in not only some grand achievement, but also in her being acknowledged as the most successful person at it.
When people look at my pictures and wonder where the ideas or the composition come from, I have answers to their questions, of course. But they’re almost never what the questioner wanted to hear. That’s because what they hope I’m going to tell them is a trick, insight or single simple technique that, once applied, will immediately improve the quality of their images.
The answer I give most often is this: “Let it happen. Just let it happen.”
There are a couple of ways people react to this. They can either dismiss it quickly as some kind of flaky, feel-good advice and then rush off to ask someone else about what kind of lens will make them a pro overnight or, if I’m lucky, they’ll think for a moment and realize that while “seeing” interesting photo opportunities may not be something that can be learned in a single moment, a certain amount of deliberateness can condition your mind and your eye to become more cognizant of your surroundings and the photo opportunities within those surroundings.
But first, you really do have to say to yourself, “Let it happen. Just let it happen.” Slow down. Be still. Open up. Become aware. Watch. Listen.
And if you’re honest about doing this, whatever “it” is will happen.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Trois D'un Coup

Trois D’un Coup, 2011

Sometimes in your quest to make a photograph of a familiar place that is different from what you’ve done before you strike upon a new angle or perspective or notice some feature of that familiar subject that you haven’t noticed before.

That’s how it was one morning two weeks ago when I arrived in New York. I’d taken the shuttle bus in from La Guardia that drops you off on Park Avenue in front of Grand Central Terminal. I was toting a briefcase and dragging a roll-aboard suitcase and had twenty blocks to walk to get to my hotel further downtown. (It was such a pretty day that I was happy to have the walk.) But as regular readers will know, I can’t be that close to Grand Central and not pull out the camera.

What I wanted was a new and hopefully more interesting photo of the southern façade of Grand Central. Unfortunately, every angle I tried resulted in a picture I’d either taken or see a hundred times before.

Then I decided to just let go and forget what I thought I wanted to photograph. I snapped off a dozen or so completely mindless shots. Then, standing at the corner of 42nd Street and Vanderbilt Avenue, instead of looking out, as I have many times through the year---here and here, for example—I instead looked up. The picture above was the result.

I really hadn’t cared to make the MetLife Building the dominant feature in this photograph. And I suspect someone could look at this photograph and wonder whether I’ve just Photoshopped all of the different buildings into it.

I didn’t. This is straight from the camera. While the resulting image is not what I set out to photograph, I am intrigued by the way I was able to use the canopy over a doorway as a framing device. I wasn’t as successful as I’d hoped, however, in featuring the eagle whose silhouette you might just be able to pick out, as a foreground element. Live and learn.

I hope to be back at Grand Central briefly later this week. If the sunlight is good, I’m going to see if I can do a better job.


Monday, August 15, 2011

Respectfully Yours

Live it Up, 2010

Like a lot of people, I’d like to see The Book of Mormon, the new hit Broadway show from the guys who brought us television’s South Park. I’ve listened to the music and seen a few scenes performed. It’s hilarious and thoughtful and profane. Tickets are said to be impossible to get. So it’ll probably be a while before we get there.

What may not be immediately obvious to many people who only hear the most superficial comments about The Book of Mormon—especially with respect to its coarse language and seeming ridicule of the Mormon religion—is that The Book of Mormon is actually quite respectful. It doesn’t set out to criticize Mormons or the Mormon religion. Much like South Park, The Book of Mormon lets its subjects take care of themselves. If you find it worthy of a few snarky chuckles that Mormons believe Jesus lives on a planet named Kolob or that God waited until 1978 to acknowledge blacks as legitimate human beings, then so be it. Authors Trey Parker, Matt Stone and Robert Lopez merely state the facts and let you come to your own decision. (Apparently, Mormons love The Book of Mormon, demonstrating, if nothing else, that along with some unusual belief they at least have a healthy sense of humor.)

In photography, it can be very easy to ridicule other people. People come in all shapes and sizes, some hilariously unusual. If you’re shooting in a studio you can change the mood entirely with a single light source. If you’re shooting outdoors, you don’t even have to go looking for funny looking people. All you have to do is stand in one place in public for a little while and they’ll parade right by you.

But for me, though, that’s being cheap. I know I’d be good grist for someone looking to take a snarky photo. My friend Walt Taylor has been drawing wonderful snarky illustrations of me for almost thirty years.

Chris by Walt, 1983

My wife and I went to the Bill Cunningham New York movie the other night. Octogenarian Cunningham rides his bicycle around the streets of Manhattan most every day, photographing interesting clothing without any apparent interest in the people wearing them. If they’re beautiful, as many of his female subjects are, then it’s obvious. If they’re not, Cunningham’s images make no statement about it. That’s a pretty classy approach, if you ask me.

But there are people out there who set out to ridicule others for their own political/social/class/snarky pleasure. Last week debate spread through the media community as to whether Newsweek Magazine had been responsible or not in its selection of a photographic cover portrait of Michelle Bachman that made her look like a crazed maniac. (One of my acquaintances commented, “Is it even possible to take a picture of Mrs. Bachman that doesn’t make her look batshit crazy?”)

And there’ll probably always be debates over whether Diane Arbus exploited her subjects or merely turned an impartial eye to them.

The bottom line is this: I try not to be too snarky in my pictures. If the subjects are worthy of snark, I’ll let them make the point.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Funky, Funky Venice

Venice 220, 2011

There are at least two places in America that call themselves Venice and probably countless neighborhoods in other cities that call themselves “little Venice.” I think it’s safe to speculate that all of them were the creations of real estate developers anxious to turn some kind of low, marginal land into desirable residential property. Having been developed to maximize the number of building sites, though, none of these ersatz Venices have the serendipity and narrow serpentine canals of Italy's Venice. Instead, where there are canals—Florida’s Venice doesn’t even have the canals—they are of uniform width and neatly lined up parallel to one another.

Florida's full of communities built along canals carved out of muddy swamps. Most were developed to appeal to "snowbirds" and, as such have the neat and tidy look of places where old men wear white shoes, play shuffleboard and reminisce about their old winter heating bills back in Minnesota.

California's Venice is like the other American Venices in that it was created by a land speculator, in this case a man named Abbot Kinney who built a giant amusement park and pier for the sweaty masses from nearby Los Angeles and later carved out a vast network of canals. But compared to Florida's neat and tidy Venice-as-snowbird-haven, California's Venice is decidedly shabby chic. Parts of it are downright shabby, others just comfortably casual enough for it to be clear that it takes millions of dollars to live there.

Venice, California, isn't just canals, though. (Besides, many of Kinney’s original canals were eventually filled in and turned into roads.) Venetians like to brag that they’re second only to the Mission District of San Francisco on the funkiness scale. Venice has a beautiful wide beach and oceanfront promenade that's home to all kinds of flaky businesses, buskers, body builders and vendors. Looking for a doctor who’ll certify you for medical marijuana? There's one in just about every block. Looking for psychic crystals, magic beads and throat whistles? Check, check and check. How about a freak show with a lady with three heads or buskers channeling everything from Peruvian pan flutes to old Doors songs and Hendrix riffs? Yep, all of those and more.

Venice Homage to Starry Night, 2011

Pretty Women ATM, 2011

I’ve never been to Venice Beach when the promenade wasn’t crowded with people. Last Thursday was no exception. Thousands of people strolled, biked and rollerbladed along the concrete strand. The streets, alleys and parking lots were further congested by a fleet of Warner Brothers trucks and craft vehicles on location filming an episode of "Gossip Girls." At one point a cute young girl wearing little more than a bathrobe brushed past me. Nothing about her and her scanty clothing seemed out of place in Venice. Only because hundreds of people lifted their cell phones to snap pictures of her gave me reason to ask someone who she was? (A starlet by the name of Blake Lively, it turns out.)

Freak Show Teases, 2011

Taking In Venice, 2011

When the crowds got to be too much for me, I wandered a few blocks over to the much quieter residential neighborhood where the canals are. As the sun began to set, neighborhood residents sat enjoying drinks and conversation in their yards overlooking the canals. Some visited with neighbors along the narrow walkways that line the canals. Once upon a time this area was a hangout for bohemian dropouts. Today it’s said to be one of Los Angeles’ most expensive neighborhoods. It costs nothing to walk in Venice, however, which made this a wonderful place to end the day before I had to go to the airport for an overnight flight back east and home.

Venice 220, 2011