Friday, September 28, 2012

Me & Lee

Trio of Swells, 2010
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Lee Friedlander is one of the country’s most respected photographers, known for his use of black-and-white photography to portray America’s social landscape. It may sound silly to say, but Friedlander’s style would be very much at home at Flickr, where there are many who photograph on similar themes in similar style. Of Freidlander’s approach, Michael Kimmelman of the New York Times wrote:

With Winogrand's appetite and aplomb but with fewer neuroses than either Winogrand or Arbus; without Mr. Frank's anger or Evans's caustic wit - just by being rather cool and nonchalant, he has, over the years, refined a mischievous but fundamentally rigorous and unforgiving style.”

I’m sure that in my own study of the history of photography I have seen and studied many of Friedlander’s photographs. If you asked me to identify a single Friedlander image, though, I’m not sure I could come up with one as easily as I can recall the work of some of the other greats of photography.

In fact, I wouldn’t even be writing about Friedlander now if I hadn’t come across a spread in the September 20, 2012 issue of The New Yorker magazine about an exhibit of Friedlander’s work that opens at New York’s Pace/McGill Gallery in late October.

Pace/McGill’s a prestigious gallery. Friedlander was a groundbreaker in taking on the everyday fabric of American life. I have no beef with them, him or this exhibit.

Okay, I guess I do. When I looked at the New Yorker spread, I thought someone had stolen some of my black-and-white images. Here in the magazine in a two-page were five images that could have been from me. They include two recurring themes of mine, window reflections and mannequins. I’ve even been working on a collection of images very much like Friedlander’s taken over the last several years.

Friedlander - Part of a New Yorker Spread, 2012

And now he’s gone and scooped me! But truthfully, I bear Lee Friedlander no ill will. His work made it possible for others of us to be taken seriously on occasion. It’s just that if I go forward with this project, I suppose it will always be considered homage to Friedlander.

J. Press, 2007

I guess I could do worse.

If you’d like to see more of Lee Friedlander’s work, you can click here and here.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012


No Forced Entry, 2012

What they don’t show you on programs like CSI and Law & Order is that after the crack forensics team leaves the scene of the crime it’s the victims of the crime who have to do all the cleaning up.

We were recently the victims of a home burglary. I won’t go into the details other than to say that no one was hurt and the house sustained no damage. But stuff was taken, the police were called, and the next thing I knew there was a crack forensics technician here in the wee hours of the morning photographing the house inside and out and dusting every door, doorknob and dresser top for finger prints.

If your home has ever been burglarized, you know how this feels. Even if you haven’t had this happen to you, you can imagine. The word you’re looking for is “violated.”
I’ve not been immune to crime in my life. When I was in college I ran a pizza place that was robbed one Friday night when the place was full of high school kids after a football game. No one was hurt. But it still left us all shaking for several days.

Another job I had during college involved supervising newspaper carriers and handling large sums of cash every other week when they did their route collections. It wasn’t unusual for people in this job to get robbed, especially if you worked, as I did, in tough neighborhoods. I was stalked several times, but never robbed. But I did have to pitch in after co-workers had been robbed and it was pretty creepy walking the same streets where they’d just been robbed or abducted.

Years later, my wife and I came home to our apartment house from a weekend away to find that our elderly downstairs neighbor, who’d been reduced to taking in boarders to help pay the rent, had been murdered by a drug-addled friend of her boarder.

None of these experiences, however, involved us cleaning fingerprint dust from doors, doorknobs and dresser tops. The police technician warned me not to try to wash it off with water. She likened it to automobile brake dust, which if you try to wash it off only becomes harder to clean. Cleaning up the fingerprint dust took hours. The inside of the garage door still looks like someone set off a black dust bomb.

Given the various theoretical timelines that have been proposed, it’s possible that our dog was here when the crime took place and could tell us who did it. She’s a fierce barker, but not too physically imposing. We’ve reminded her, though, that if she’s ever given any thought to speaking our language, this would be a good time to start.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Everyday People

The Artist, 2012

I guess it was inevitable as I got onto this jag of photographing people that I would eventually be compelled to turn on my friends. It had occurred to me some time ago that there are all sorts of people in my life who have interesting looks or other aspects about them or their style that make them interesting. But because they’re people you see all the time you never think to actually photograph them.

For example, while driving to a client meeting recently I happened to look over into a field of flowers adjacent to our local farm market. Carolyn, the woman who runs the flower section of the market was walking into the field. I immediately saw the potential for a photograph, as they say, “worthy of a painting.” The color of the light, the shadows, the lines, the colors of the flowers, Carolyn’s shape; everything about the moment screamed for documentation. But I had a meeting to go to, was not dressed to go tromping in the field, didn’t have the means to achieve the elevation I would have wanted to compose the picture and, perhaps most importantly, didn’t have my camera with me.

Since then I’ve had it on my list to start photographing the people in my life. People like the flower lady mentioned above. The café owner, cook and waitress at the place where we have breakfast on Sunday mornings. The kid who waits on us at the neighborhood restaurant where we’ve been going every Tuesday night for years for cheap burgers. We all have people like this in our lives. They all have stories. There are interesting visual aspects to each of them. Why not photograph them?

One day last week I happened to be having lunch with the eminent illustrator Walt Taylor. We ate in a café where the walls are covered with his drawings. I suppose you could say he’s their resident artist, though I noticed that resident artist status apparently doesn’t confer free lunches.

Walt’s famous among his friends for pulling out a camera and shooting quick candid photos. You never know what malicious use he’ll make of them. You might end up on Facebook as the punch line to an embarrassingly obscene joke or, as happened to me, have your earnest portrait put into Taylor’s Photoshop grinder and come out looking like an axe murderer who can’t keep food from dribbling out of his mouth. I’m sure he had something suitably devious in mind when he pulled out his camera at the cafe and started snapping pictures. It was only the arrival of our friends Sue and Freda in the midst of this little episode, I’m sure, that spared me from some grotesque Taylor-esque depiction.

I, on the other hand, seek only truth and therefore choose to portray my friend as he is, in all his megalomaniacal glory.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Respect the Ink

I got these in prison,” 2012
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In my limited experience trying to become better at photographing people, I’ve learned that the easiest people to photograph are people with tattoos. Really, they’re the photographic version of shooting fish in a barrel,
People with lots of tattoos may look mean. But relatively speaking they're easy  to approach. They’re not reticent. They want to make a statement. They’re flattered if you ask to photograph them and will go out of their way to show you their best sides.
Case in point: When I approached the young man shown above all I could see was the trail of tattoos down his arm. Before I even got close I'd already worked out the framing of the arm and the t-shirt. When I asked if I could photograph him, though, he immediately pulled the t-shirt off so that I could see the full inked tableau.
“I got these in prison,” he proclaimed proudly.
I didn’t get the story of his friend, below. He was just pissed that I hadn’t asked to photograph him first. So you can be sure I didn’t miss him before I moved on. I didn’t even have to ask. He just thrust his hands out and turned them over for me to see.
Good as a Dollar Bill, 2012

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Embrace the Flash

Made in Roanoke, 2012
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I have never been a big user of photographic flash units. I’m never happy with the ones that come built into cameras, and the Speedlight I bought to attach to the top of the camera upsets the balance of carrying the camera.
Having said that, I have been fully aware and respectful of the value of using flash units, especially for providing infill light for low-light settings and backlit portraits.
I’ve just always preferred natural light.
But after taking the workshop this past summer, I was reminded of how much I miss by not having a flash unit handy when I’m out taking pictures. I was also reminded of just how untrained I am at using a flash unit.
This past weekend I pledged to start 1) carrying the flash with me and 2) using it. This is harder than it sounds. Having a flash unit attached to the top of the camera really does change the weight distribution, and if you’ve been carrying a camera for one way for forty years you don’t embrace that kind of change rapidly.
But I put the flash unit onto the camera and stepped out of the car to photograph people at Roanoke’s downtown farmer’s market.
I should mention here that I didn’t stay at the farmer’s market very long. The place was teeming with photographers. Every third guy, it seemed, had a camera in his hand. Three or four stopped me to say, “Nice camera.” What do you say in such situations? I didn’t make the camera. I was just fortunate enough to be able to afford to buy it. 
The light at the farmer’s market was just right for using a flash for infill. That is, the foregrounds were dark and the backgrounds were extremely bright. You could expose for one or the other, but not both successfully without some kind of supplemental light.

Nation and World, 2012

I hesitate to show these feeble efforts of mine. But as you can see, using a flash unit for fill light isn’t as easy as just clipping the flash onto the camera and firing away. The poor guy in the photo above looks not only stunned, but also like a one-dimensional cutout. (And let's not mention the bright vegetables.) The lady with the red glasses was a little better, but still too light in the foreground. 
Just something more to learn.