Monday, March 26, 2012

On Inspiration

 Spring Walk, 2012

I’ve often commented that there’s no shortage of interesting things to photograph. And yet there are many times I don’t have the will to go out and photograph something.
Lenswork magazine publisher Brooks Jensen recently described this is a quandary that afflicts many photographers, particularly those of us who respond to the environment around us (as opposed to those who work in the commercial photography sector where so many images are posed, constructed or arranged).
Jensen agrees that there’s no shortage of opportunity. What’s missing, he says, is the inspiration to go shoot it. The commercial photographer generally has a target in mind, a specific set of conditions and expectations that must be met. We wandering photographers, on the other hand, only have a conceptual target; namely, the possibility that we’ll take a picture that gives us satisfaction. We just know we’re going out with the camera. We might have a starting point. But honestly, we’re not sure what we’re going to see or what, if anything, we’ll bring home.
How do you overcome this lethargy? Jensen’s solution is simple. Figure out what inspires you and surround yourself with whatever that is.
Well, duh.
So where do you find inspiration?
You can get inspiration from looking at other people’s pictures. I know I do. And there’s no better way to learn about the art of photography than by looking at other people’s pictures. But it’s also my experience that too much direct inspiration of that sort tends to lead to derivative ideas or styles.
Inspiration usually comes to me in the form of a question or a challenge. What’s the story of this place? How can I best convey what it was like to be here to someone who was not here? How can I portray this place in a way that is different from how it has been portrayed before? That last question is the one that usually provokes me to start looking closer at things.
While taking a walk yesterday afternoon I noticed a section of our street that was carpeted in spent Cherry blossoms. It looked like pink snow. They’d been pressed flat by rain and traffic, so there wasn’t much dimensionality to them. I still wanted to try to convey some sense of the mood they elicited.
I used my camera phone to take a few pictures of the street. The results weren’t at all interesting. So I eliminated all the distractions by pointing the camera down at the street. That result—pick petals against the asphalt street—also wasn’t very interesting, more like wallpaper.
It was only when I stepped in closer and the blue trim of my shoes provided contrast to the pink petals that there started to be the inkling of an idea. Unfortunately, that’s when the rain kicked back in in earnest. I had to get back home quickly. So there’s still no story to this. But at least you have a sense of scale and a mix of somewhat complementary colors.
And since they’re so pretty this time of year, I couldn’t resist a cheap shot of these redbud tree blossoms.
Red Buds, 2012

Friday, March 23, 2012

Unnecessary Punctuation Dept.

“No” Parking, 2012

I have always been puzzled by signs and advertising headlines that have quotation marks around them. The notice, above, painted on the side of a former Fort Worth, Texas, candy factory, is a good example.
Quotation marks are used to indicate that the written text is being spoken by someone. Advertising headlines are understood to be the spoken language of the advertiser. They don’t need parentheses.
But you still see this happen from time to time. I guess someone thinks it makes the headlines more familiar or folksy.
I don’t know what was going on in this backstreet in Fort Worth, Texas. If the sign painter had wanted to attach some kind of emphasis to this message, to indicate that to park in front of it is a really, really choice, he could have underlined “No.” He could have painted the “No” in italics. He could have put “Absolutely” in front of the phrase, even though that would have been redundant. (As in, “What part of ‘No’ do you not get?”) Or, most simply, he could have put an exclamation point behind the whole deal, as in “NO PARKING!”
One of my college professors, who worried—and rightly so—that many business school students were not very good writers, once spent an entire class period beating it into our heads that the exclamation point is the most energy-packed element of punctuation. He cautioned us to use that power carefully since there’s nothing else you can use to up the emphasis ante once you’ve used your first exclamation point. We laughed at that thought, I’ll admit. But of course he was right.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

They Laughed When I Sat Down at the Keyboard

They Laughed When I Sat Down at the Keyboard, 2011
It just sits there and dares me.

I’m talking about a piano. It’s been in my living room for fourteen years. And before that it was in my mother’s various living rooms for forty years. According to the production number on its cast iron frame, this piano was built in Baltimore in 1912. So it’s safe to say that over the hundred years of its life this Kanabe baby grand piano has graced a few other people’s parlors, as well.
A piano is like a persnickety living thing. It needs to be played regularly. Changes in humidity and temperature cause it to go out of tune. All the little wooden pegs and pieces of felt become worn and brittle with age.
This piano was my mother’s most valued possession. I’m pretty sure it was a wedding gift from her second husband. I know for sure that it was the only thing she took with her when their marriage ended. No matter where we lived thereafter, the one constant in our life was this piano. No matter how tough things were, she’d never sell the piano.
I took piano lessons when I was little. I have a good ear for music. But I never reached a level of proficiency where I could just sit down and play. It was something about the eye-hand coordination. But I always wanted to be able to play, so I bought a piano and tried taking lessons again as a young adult.
I’ve read that not having learned to play the piano is one of the most mentioned regrets people have. This is probably a generational thing. In my parents’ youth, a piano was the social center of any respectable home. Today’s kids play electronic keyboards and Garage Band.
When my mother moved to an apartment too small for it, her piano came to live with us. I thought she might visit from time to time and play it. But she didn’t.
I thought I would take up playing again, too. But I didn’t. But I can’t bring myself to get rid of the piano, either. It’s like a world of enjoyment sitting right there in the living room if I could just crack its code. Meanwhile, it dares me to pull out the Hannon exercises that are tucked safely under the piano bench and practice.
This past weekend we had dinner with several other couples at a friend’s house. It was St. Patrick’s Day. Dinner was corned beef and cabbage. To be honest, nobody was looking forward to corned beef and cabbage. But the hostess is an excellent cook and the corned beef and cabbage were terrific.
The real pleasure, though, was the hostess’ 87 year-old mother, who keeps her mind and body limber studying and learning music for the piano. After dinner Marilyn sat at the piano and played. The family’s Irish, so she started with “When Irish Eyes are Smiling,” “Peg O’My Heart” and other tunes from the old sod.
It was when we ran out of Irish songs to which we knew the words—and this didn’t take long—that Marilyn really found her place on the piano bench. Debussy. Rachmaninoff. Ravel. They flowed out of her fingers like old friends. Marilyn has the ability to interpret the emotion in music that separates mere piano players from pianists.
One of the pieces Marilyn played is Beethoven’s Sonata #14, better known as the Moonlight Sonata. Like the Schumann Träumerei, another popular recital piece, the Moonlight Sonata’s one of those pieces that sounds so simple that anyone with half an ear for music thinks he or she should be able to pick it up quickly. But like the “Träu,” the Moonlight Sonata’s a minefield of sharps and flats and tricky phrasing. Believe me, I’ve tried them both.
Which brings us back to the Kanabe in my living room. My wife has been very patient with it. When it came to live with us I pledged to start playing again. But I didn’t. For fourteen years it has teased me.
I think I’m ready going to give it another try.
Haunting Me, 2012
 ["They laughed when I sat down at the piano" is one of the most famous lines in advertising history. Written by John Caples, it was used to sell music correspondence courses. You can see a copy of it here.]

Monday, March 19, 2012

Playing Down by the Tracks

Texas & Pacific Terminal, Fort Worth, 2012

In all the years I’ve been traveling to Dallas on business, I’ve never had the chance to go over and visit the neighboring city of Fort Worth. Dallas people like to portray themselves as all uptown and sophisticated, what with their with Neiman-Marcus and swanky malls. They look upon Fort Worth as, well, a cowtown, the kind of place where people use steer long horns as hood ornaments.
It’s true, Fort Worth thinks of itself as a gateway to the American West. The old stockyards are one of the city’s leading tourist attractions. But there’s a lot more to Fort Worth than cowboys and cattle. One morning last week I had a chance to go over and see some of it.
To be honest, cows weren’t high on my list. Instead, I’d hoped to do a quick walk-through of either the Kimbell Art Museum or the Amon Carter Museum. I’d especially wanted to see the Kimbell’s original building, an elegant example of the work of architect Louis Kahn. There’s also a recent addition by Renzo Piano. The pictures I’d seen of the latter didn’t seem to do justice to the addition, so I was anxious to see it for myself.
Warehouse, Post Office, Terminal, 2012
But that’s not what I ended up seeing in Fort Worth. The first things that caught my eye as I drove into Fort Worth were three old buildings along the railroad line that skirts downtown. I hadn’t planned to visit downtown. But these buildings were too rich to pass by without a closer look. So off the Interstate I went. Good-bye culture. Hello snooping around old buildings.
The first building is the 15-story former passenger terminal of the Texas & Pacific Railroad, a terrific example of the zig zag moderne art deco style. Opened in 1931, it’s a giant slab of a building, skinny and long, like a bunch of Pullman coaches stacked on top of each other. Passenger trains haven’t run out of this building since 1967. The lobby, however, has been restored and some of the upper floors are being made into apartments.
T&P Terminal - West End, 2012
A block away from the terminal is an abandoned warehouse. It, too, is tall and skinny and long and built in the same zig zag moderne style. So it was no surprise to learn that this building was the T&P Railroad’s freight warehouse.
Tucked between the terminal and the warehouse is the main Fort Worth post office, also opened in the early 1930s when the mail moved by rain, and as grand and ambitious of a Beaux Arts edifice as you ever saw.
It turns out all three buildings were designed by the late Wyatt Hedrick, who I was surprised to learn was not only a Virginia native, but also the designer of Eudora Welty’s house, which I visited in Jackson, Mississippi, last summer. Small world, eh?
T&P Warehouse Corner, 2012
So I didn’t get to either of the museums. I did, however, nearly ruin a pair of good dress shoes wandering around in the mud behind the T&P warehouse. But that’s the kind of thing that happens when you thick you’re going to visit a nice museum and instead ending up hanging around old buildings down by the tracks.
T&P Warehouse Detail, 2012

T&P Terminal Entrance, 2012

T&P Terminal Ticket Hall Ceiling, 2012

T&P Terminal Doors, 2012

Friday, March 16, 2012

Once Again, Design Matters.

Ad Astra, by Michael di Suvero, 2012

In my work I am frequently called upon to assess the effectiveness of products, product design and various kinds of marketing communications. I see a lot of new products and advertising campaigns before anyone else.
Over time I’ve learned to recognize characteristics that enhance a product or campaign’s appeal or kill it. Some believe there are “rules” about such things, and I don’t have any magical “sixth sense.” But I’ve been around long enough to know that rules can’t explain it and that my ability to discern such things is more related to the ability to recognize the intersection between efficient functionality and good design and recognize and diagnose the extent to which some products and campaigns can’t find that intersection.
I’ve found that things created by engineers and accountants tend to be efficient and extremely linear in their functionality. They work well, but they don’t excite anyone but other engineers and accountants. Conversely, things that are said to be “arty” in their design sometimes aren’t very practical. I’ve had to explain to many an art director that advertising isn’t called commercial art for no reason.
Still, for a long time I gave art directors and designers wiggle room when dealing with such situations. I knew that presenting good design took guts and that designers had to stick up for their work because many people are scared of things that are new and different.
Eventually, though, I became less tolerant of frivolous design. Product design that doesn’t meet functional expectations is not good design, no matter how “arty” it is.
A few years ago I wrote a short essay about how the men’s clothing category had become stale. Everyone was blaming it on the economy. But the truth was men were bored with what was being offered in the way of men’s clothing. There was little new and interesting for us to get excited about.
Eventually, men’s clothing designers figured this out and got back to work creating men’s fashions that drew men back into clothing stores and to online merchants. While most men may still not be “fashion forward,” at least there’s a bit more diversity in men’s fashion.
I was reminded of this the other day when I heard an executive from Google say:
“If you can imagine it, you can build it. If you have time to make it, you have time to make it wonderful.”
Wow! In just a few words all the difference in the world. Wonder why some people prefer Apple products instead ubiquitous PCs? Wonder why people continue to like little sexy red cars over more simple and practical vehicles? Or wonder why some people gravitate to art that’s easy to see and understand while others prefer art that’s layered with multiple interpretations?
When I was in Dallas earlier this week I happened to stop briefly at the upscale Northpark Mall. Two things really impressed me about this mall. One was that instead of the predictable fountains and benches in its open areas, the main intersections of this mall featured large-scale original sculptures by Claes Oldenburg, Coosje van Bruggen, Mark di Suvero and others. At age fifty, long after most malls would have been torn down, Northpark Mall remains extremely busy for having turned shopping into a cultural experience.
The second thing was that the most upscale merchants at Northpark Mall understand visual merchandizing. The black-and-white design scheme of the Valentino boutique, for example, was a thrilling backdrop for a classic red Valentino gown. The window below was another merchant’s way of doing something artful instead of merely hanging a couple of haute couture dresses in the window.
All this reminds us that design matters. You can have practical or you can have artful. Both work. But one makes life or work merely move along, while the other makes life or work worth moving along.
Making Shopping Wonderful, 2012

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Phoebus, Gateway to Freedom

 Phoebus, Gateway to Freedom, 2012
What can you say about a village called Phoebus? The name has no great historical significance. It may or may not have ever had a prime time. It’s always been somewhere you stopped in, or more likely passed through, on the way to or from somewhere else.
Phoebus (pronounced “Feeb-us), Virginia, is located at the Southern tip of the Virginia Peninsula, where the Chesapeake Bay meets the James River. It was first visited by members of Captain John Smith’s hapless band of English settlers in 1607. Back then the area was known as Strawberry Banks for, I suppose, either wild strawberries that grew along its banks or for, more likely, the shallow local waters.
It wasn’t, in any event, until the beginning of the Twentieth Century that Phoebus got its current name in honor of local businessman Harrison Phoebus, who’d been instrumental in bringing the railroad line to town.
Snow Bike Shop, Only Open on Saturday, 2012
Wikipedia will tell you that the town of Phoebus is “extinct.” It’s true that in 1952, Phoebus was annexed into the adjacent city of Hampton. But I’ll bet there are a few long-time Phoebus residents—Phoebeans? Phoebecians?—who would argue that while Phoebus’ time in history might have peaked long ago, it’s not out for the count just yet.
Today Phoebus is home to a mix of watermen, laborers and workers at the nearby VA Hospital and Hampton University. A few grand homes dot the waterfront. But mostly it’s a mix of old bungalows and simple two-story houses. Today people who probably wouldn’t have chosen to live side-by-side somewhere else reside side-by-side in Phoebus, sometimes peaceably and sometimes not. And while Phoebus arguably qualifies as a “walkable” neighborhood, most people appear to drive and it’s unlikely one could be sustained completely by Phoebus’ retail offerings and services.
Peeling Off the History, 2012
[Although it has little do to do with the overall tone of this post, I feel compelled to mention to anyone thinking about going to Bender’s Comic and Used Book Store, a sizable time machine of old comics, magazines and action figures, should know in advance that there’s a sign in front of the “Adult” section informing you that there’ll be a “30 Minute Limit.” It had to be explained to me while that’s necessary.]
 Never Came, 2012
Despite facing many challenges, Phoebus has ambitions. It was, after all, the first place on the Peninsula where Captain John Smith’s men landed in 1607. (And look what that triggered on an unsuspecting North American continent!) In the Twentieth Century NASA trained astronauts just up the road from Phoebus until Lyndon Johnson used his political clout to have NASA headquarters moved to Texas. If you’re old enough to remember when space flights were cause for around-the-clock television coverage you might remember the name Christopher Craft. Turns out Craft, former NASA flight director and “voice” of NASA for all those flights, was born in Phoebus. (That seems to complete the list of Phoebus natives who made it big.)
I don’t know whether it’s the historic connection or the space age connection that Phoebus is working with. Not much of either played out within Phoebus’ precincts. But like a lot of places, Phoebus needs something to be proud of, and for now it is, as the pennants that hang from the streetlights proclaim,  “Phoebus, Gateway to Freedom.”
 Phoebus Fire Department, 2012