Monday, July 30, 2012

Why I Love This Community

Chris by Anne Watkins, 2012

One of the nicest parts of being a participant in an online community like Flickr is that you come across the nicest people and create more and more diverse friendships than you ever thought you might have.

Because I travel a lot in the course of my “day job,” I’ve had the opportunity and pleasure of meeting a number of Flickr friends. This past week I had the opportunity to meet New York-based watercolor artist Anne Watkins for the first time in person.

I first started admiring Anne’s work several years ago. Her simple and lithe brushstrokes reminded me of the illustrations used for print ads for New York’s stylish Paul Stuart clothing store. That probably shouldn’t have been a surprise because it turns out Anne is the creator of those illustrations. Go figure. 

Anne's watercolors of New York and New Yorkers, especially her society ladies, are a joy to see. You can see samples of Anne’s work here.

Anne Watkins, 2012

I’ve been hoping to meet Anne for some time. A few years ago she had a show of watercolor portraits of dogs at a gallery in the East Village that opened the same weekend I was in New York. But other commitments intervened and I was unable to meet Anne on that trip.

So it was a special treat one afternoon last week when I was able to wander over to Bryant Park, where Anne was conducting an outdoor workshop. Just as it has been with many Flickr friend meet-ups, Anne and I didn’t greet as strangers, but instead embraced as old friends. Anne insisted that I sit for a quick portrait. 

I hope this will be the first of many good conversations with Anne.

I Asked Anne to Show Me “Hostile,” 2012

Friday, July 27, 2012

Call Me Avedon

Jim 30, 2012
[Click on image to enlarge.]

Yesterday I did something I’ve never done before. I photographed live models in a professional photography studio. I’ve usually been on the other side of the lens when it comes to professional photo studios. I’m the one being photographed, not the one doing the photographing.

We’d spent most of the day before studying studio lighting basics, familiarizing ourselves with the vocabulary and physical layout and learning all the finer points of bossing around finicky models and lazy assistants.

By the way, when my daughter and I were at dinner the other night we were seated across from a group that included super model Ève Salvail. Salvail, who hails from across the border in the French-speaking part of Canada, is probably best known for her shaved head and extensive cranial dragon tattoo, both of which you can see here. Standing what must be a good foot taller than me, Salvail is indeed quite impressive.

The models we worked with yesterday do not have dragon tattoos across their heads (though the male model does have the bald part down). But they were terrific to work with and both helpful and patient with those of us who have never commanded a studio before.

It’s easy when you work with attractive people to want to do “beauty” shots. Indeed, most of my young classmates made photographs that could easily appear in Vogue or Elle. But being young and fresh and, for the most part, free of the inhibitions of Americans, they fresh and interesting perspectives to a category in which one has to believe every possible physical permutation of body shape and clothing has been done hundreds of times.

I, on the other hand, followed my traditional “try to do something unexpected” approach and asked my two models to work with me to create a variety of hostile and aggressive poses. My studio partner for the day—we alternated as shooters and each other’s assistant—is a high school chemistry teacher who similarly wanted to shake things up a little. She had them jump up and down and crawl across the studio floor. 

My results for the day aren’t all that out there. But for someone who’d never worked with models in a studio before and whose entire previous lighting experience consisted of shining a flashlight up under my chin on Halloween--which is, I've learned, known in the studio trade as "Halloween light"--I was pleased that I could remember how to do anything when entrusted with a bunch of wireless devices, several thousand dollars worth of lights and vast expanses of seamless backdrops. These are just a few of the almost two hundred photographs made during an hour of shooting. There are lots of really aggressively hostile images. But these were some of the shots I liked the most.

[You can click on any image to enlarge it.]

Jim 26, 2012

Jim 44, 2012

Jim 62, 2012

Katrine 108, 2012

Katrine 119, 2012

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Let Me Get in Your Face for a Minute

He Called This His “Blue Steel” Pose, 2012

I’m in New York this week taking a photography workshop on the topic of “Photographing People.”

There are people in my photographs. But generally speaking, I seem to work hard to keep people out of my photographs. So my goal in participating in this workshop is the break down the wall between me and people.

It’s not that I don’t like people. It’s just that years ago I got into the habit of leaving people out of my photographs because 1) they “got in the way” and 2) I had this naïve sense that my lack of model releases would make the photos unsellable; no people, no model release worries.
This was also when I also had the naïve belief that my photography would some day be worth something commercially. And while it has generated a wee bit of income for the Bonney economy—enough to support a few camera supply purchases, but not enough to qualify as a business in the eyes of the Internal Revenue Service—it’s not like the lack of people has been holding my brilliant photographic career back.

There are seventeen people in our workshop. I’m pretty sure I’m the oldest member by a good twenty years. But rather than treating me like some arcane relic—I’ve been taking pictures longer than the workshop instructor—some of the younger kids have taken me on as something of a genial grandfather.

My classmates are a diverse group. I thought I was going to be the outsider because I come from Virginia Beach. But it turns out only five of us are from the United States. The rest come from as far away as Milan, Buenos Aires, Guatemala City, Beirut, Mexico City, Caracas, Rio de Janeiro, Taiwan, and even Yekaterinburg, which if you didn’t know—and I didn’t—is the fourth largest city in the former Soviet Union.

Some of my classmates are, or are hoping, to become professional photographers. Others, like me, merely want to advance their skills, but have day jobs doing things like working as a librarian, chemistry teacher, newspaper and magazine journalist, hotel manager, hairdresser, psychologist and human resources manager. Some live in places where you can stand on any street corner and photograph people. Others live in places where this could get you shot or “disappeared.”

The first day of class the instructor talked for a while and then threw us out into Bryant Park and then Rockefeller Center to photograph interesting looking strangers. I’m pretty sure I asked more strangers if I could photograph them on that one day than I’ve asked in my whole lifetime. Most of the people said “Yes,” and even of those who said “No” weren’t hostile.

Well, except for a man who was playing chess and kept insisting that I photograph his partner, but who instead became quite hostile when I did just that. (We were advised to wear comfortable shoes and run away quickly when that happens.) Or classmate Joe, who was verbally and nearly physically assaulted by a mentally unhinged lady. But don’t feel sorry for Joe. He made up for it later by getting the e-mail address and phone number for the cute lady running the Mr. Softee stand.

As for me, needing something to focus my efforts on so that I wouldn’t just accost innocent civilians, I decided to concentrate my efforts on making friends with some of the people who work in Bryant Park. Oh, and this girl with the cool tattoos.

“Give me a dolphin,” she said, 2012

Monday, July 23, 2012

Dept of Plumbing Affairs

Department of Plumbing Affairs, 2012

When I travel for business I usually stay in hotels that cater to frequent travelers. I’m mindful of my clients’ budgets and, unlike some consultants, don’t try to live it up too much on their dimes.

I stay in hotels that are, if not five-star resorts, at least respectable, clean and generous with the Wi-Fi. (Like many travelers, I find it ironic that the hotels that cost the most are also the places that charge extra for feeble Wi-Fi. Are you hearing this Intercontinental Hotel Dallas?) Free breakfast is nice. But many of the budget places that have free breakfasts are playing fast with their interpretations of what constitutes a meal.

I stay in these vanilla places so that when Mrs. B and I travel we can stay in something a little nicer. Sometimes it doesn’t matter; you’re going to be in the hotel such a brief amount of time that clean and safe and convenient are what you look for. But sometimes, like this recent trip to California, we were vacationing and it was also a trip in celebration of a couple of landmark birthdays.

The place we stayed in Santa Monica—the one with the “intimacy kits”—was a good example of this. Our room wasn’t exactly roomy. But it was comfortable and—this is another one of my pet peeves about hotels—had a comfortable sitting chair. The bed was very comfortable. The lighting was just right. The view from the windows was heavenly. Everything that was supposed to work worked.

It was the plumbing that got us. I should mention that the latest thing in boutique hotels seems to be bathrooms “with a view.” The one in our Santa Monica hotel had not only glass walls, but also curtains and a large window that opened between the bathroom and the bedroom. Theoretically, one using the tub—or the toilet, for that matter—could pull the curtain back, open the window and look straight out across the bedroom to the blue Pacific Ocean.

We Bonneys are a little more modest when it comes to that kind of sharing. The curtain and the window stayed closed. But living as we do at the dead end of a street and, therefore, the dead end of a city water line, we're used to the level of water pressure in our house that you might expect from the end of a long water line that passes a whole lot of houses before it reaches you. Therefore, we really appreciate a hotel with robust water pressure. 

This reminds me of the story of how when Lyndon Johnson moved into the White House after JFK’s assassination, one of the first things he did was have water pumps added in the family’s quarters so that the president’s shower would have extremely robust water pressure.

LBJ probably had a butler to run his bath. At our hotel in Santa Monica we had only our wits to rely on. And, at least at the outset, they weren’t enough.

Mrs. B. was initially impressed that there was not only exceptional water pressure, but also water issuing from three different fixtures. At first blush I thought that was pretty impressive, too. But upon further thought, I realized how incredibly wasteful that was, especially when you think of just how precious water is in the Los Angeles basin.
The answer to this profligate behavior was to simply turn off the tub and shower fixtures that were issuing water you didn’t want. This proved to be easier said than done. 

I’m neither the worlds’ smartest nor dumbest guy. But to adjust the flow of water in in this bathtub/shower, it seems you needed either be a plumbing engineer or have a frequent flyer account at Restoration Hardware.

At first, the flow and temperature of water didn’t seem to have any connection with any of the knobs and controls. You’d turn one off that seemed to control, say, the showerhead, and instead you’d loose all the hot water. You’d turn off the one that looked like it might control the cold water and the tub faucet would stop.

We did finally master the plumbing. But it took so long that I’m sure our names have already been added to a list of people who will automatically be turned away should we ever again try to make reservations as chic boutique hotel.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Sailing on the Hip Ship

Suite 700 View, 2012
[Click on image for larger view]

We started our California trip with a few days in Santa Monica. My patience with Los Angeles runs a little thin. But Santa Monica and the neighboring Venice Beach offer just the right mix of sun, surf, good food, eclectic bohemia and some just plain crazy shit.
We stayed in a stylish hotel across from the beach. It was suggested by a friend who spent some time there earlier in the year. He’s more of a celebrity than I am. A little Googling tells me that Madonna and Sean Penn also used to hang out at this hotel. But I don’t think there was any intersection between my friend and Madonna. He’s not that famous.
The hotel describes itself as “a striking beacon of Art Deco elegance, a chronicle of Old-Hollywood glamour, and a quintessential nexus of culture.” I don’t know if all that’s true. But you could see that the place could have once had the kind of raffish charm that led Madonna and Sean Penn believe they could misbehave there. 
These days the place is freshly renovated with all the modern amenities you’d expect from a stylish beach hotel. The building itself is white and has curves where there would normally be corners. All in all, it has the look and feel of an ocean liner one might have boarded in the 1930s for a relaxed cruise to Havana.

The View from 416, 2012

One of the amenities of the hotel is a rooftop bar with a terrace overlooking the Pacific. If you have to endure a West Coast sunset, this is not a bad place to endure it. The indoor part of the bar is all streamline moderne, with lots of chrome and mirrors.
The first night we went up there the place was crawling with a smart crowd of young creative types, dressed in a seemingly insouciant style that was in all likelihood anything but insouciant. The girls looked either like Tina Fey or super models. The guys looked like they'd just stepped out of the summer issue of GQ. These young people were not only stylish, but had the appearance, good manners and wicked humor reflective of good educations and worldly exposure. Listen for a little while and you could easily imagine any one of them having been the editor of the Lampoon or president of the Hasty Pudding Club. In short, they’re the kind of young people from whom you’d expect a lot of smart stuff.
This is why it was a bit of a shock as we got to know them and learned that they all work for a media company just up the street that produces reality television shows. I’m not talking about smart reality shows, as if there is such a thing. Rather, I’m talking about shows like Wife Swap, Celebrity Wife Swap—apparently there’s no limit to extensions of the wife swapping franchise—Hard Core Pawn and Lizard Lick Towing.
All in all, though, they were a nice bunch of kids. When we all moved outside to watch the sun set they were as awestruck by the view as anyone and we were all one congenial crowd as our giant deco ocean liner sailed into the night.
Like a Deco Ocean Liner, 2012

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

I Hate Being a Tourist

Cannery Row, 2012

I hate being a tourist.
That said, I was a tourist in California last week. But any time I was in areas designated for tourists I got edgy and realized that there is a big difference between being a “tourist” and being a “traveler.” At least I like to think there’s a difference between those who go to a place to do the same things they can do at home and those who go to wander, explore and otherwise experience the gestalt of a new place and new people.
Years ago I did research among people who vacationed at Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, a little town along the highway that leads up to the entrance to the Smokey Mountain National Park. The Smokey Mountains are beautiful. The people who went to Pigeon Forge liked to tell their friends they were “going to the mountains.” But the majority—at least when I was studying them—never got past Pigeon Forge’s resort strip. The mountains were clearly visible, barely a mile or two away. But the tourists never got there.
Instead, they went to Dolly Parton’s Dollywood amusement park. They went to a place where there was a caged brown bear that drank beer. They went to the Buford T. Pusser “Walking Tall Museum” and stayed at the Elvis Presley Heartbreak Hotel. And I don’t think I’ve ever been anyplace where people ate biscuits and gravy at so many meals.
I felt like one of those people last week while I was standing on the sidewalk at Cannery Row in Monterey, California. I don’t know what I expected from Cannery Row. I grew up reading the books of John Steinbeck. I knew Cannery Row had been a gritty and dangerous place in Steinbeck’s time. I anticipated that it would be a tourist district.
What I didn’t expect from modern Cannery Row was an almost complete lack of authenticity. True, there are a couple of buildings that have some history to them. But instead of housing museums or other acknowledgements of local history, commerce and culture, they house t-shirt shops, Starbucks, Johnny Rockets, Bubba Gumps and, coming soon, a PinkBerry.
[I should mention that the Monterey Bay Aquarium is first-class. There’s also the Museum of Monterey, a short distance away, that covers the local history, commerce and culture. But I’m willing to bet few of the tourists who wander Cannery Row buying off-price Pebble Beach golf shirts and having their names engraved on a grain of rice ever get there since it has the word “museum” in its name.]
Monterey Bay Aquarium, 2012

There wasn’t much time. But the morning we left Monterey I got up at sunrise and wandered over to the commercial wharf. It was cold out. Fog shrouded the hills behind me. Seals frolicked behind the breakwater. I talked to a couple of watermen getting their boats ready to head out into the Pacific. Pelicans fought over scraps of bait tossed aside by the fishermen. I talked to a few people rigging their sailboats. I even talked to a few mentally unhinged homeless people whose demons had driven them to the solace of the water’s edge.
After that, I left Monterey much happier and feeling more like a traveler than a tourist.

Monterey Commercial Wharf, 2012