Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Lights. Camera. Action!

Lights. Camera. Action! 2012

(Click on images to see larger)

I’ve never been in a movie. In 1971 I showed up to be an extra for a commercial in which twenty-five seconds of men in Confederate uniforms and ladies in frilly gowns straight out of Gone with the Wind milling around an elegant old hotel lobby gave way to five seconds of a cold cuts arranged on silver platters. I didn’t get a part because they’d run out of uniforms by the time I got there. (But twelve years later I did end up working for the ad agency that made the commercial.)
Through the years I’ve stumbled onto location shoots for television shows and movies. My daughter and I were once walking down a street in Little Italy in New York where Woody Allen was filming “Melinda and Melinda.” Regular readers of this blog will recall that I practically brushed against a scantily dressed Blake Lively in Venice Beach, California, during a shoot for the television show Gossip Girls. (I had to be told who she was.)
Last summer I stumbled onto a location shoot for what I assume was a commercial. It was in the Soho area of Manhattan. There were lots of everyday looking people sitting in director’s chairs lined up along a sidewalk. There was the requisite craft services table full of food. A big garbage truck was parked in the middle of an intersection. There were cameras at street level and another one on a large boom looking down on the intersection. 

Extras, 2012

I assumed this was a commercial because there were no recognizable celebrities among the “talent,” as they’re call in the ad biz. There were none of the regulars you see on Law & Order, for example. (I would not have to have been prompted, by the way, if I’d seen the lovely Mariska Hargitay.)
It turns out most of the people I saw that day were extras, bit players dressed as regular people on the street, earning the daily minimum and keeping their union cards active. You could tell they were extras because when they weren’t shooting they spent most of the time sitting in the aforementioned director’s chairs, scarfing down free food from the craft services table, playing cards and checking their messages. The “star” was a strikingly beautiful woman with legs longer than I’m tall and looks that make her perfect for commercials that will be viewed in many countries and different cultures.
Along with a bunch of other bystanders, mostly Europeans—including a German guy who wanted to know if one of the featured models was Jennifer Aniston—I watched four takes of the scene. Here’s the gist of it: A beautiful woman in an elegant dress and high heels is being chased down a busy city sidewalk by three burly thugs. She has to thread herself through a crowd of the extras. Just when the thugs are about to grab her, she hops from the curb up onto the back of a passing garbage truck and rides away.
It’s anyone’s guess what they were advertising. A perfume called “Escape” or “Freedom,” maybe? Pantyhose that hold their shape while you jump to a garbage truck? There was no dialog. Your guess is as good as mine. 

Viewers, 2012

Monday, October 29, 2012

Depth of Field

 California Coast, 2012

(Click on image to see larger)

When you take a photo of something that’s huge you run the risk of the photograph not doing justice to the magnitude of what’s being shown. The photo above is a good example.
This photo was taken just south of Big Sur, California, along one of the most thrilling stretches of road I’ve ever been on. We were fortunate to have been given a low, European sports sedan with really good handling capability instead of the convertible I’d asked for. I didn’t know that when we picked the car up from the rental agency. But I sure appreciated it on this stretch of the Pacific Coast Highway (PCH).
The PCH between San Simeon and Monterey is a roller coaster of a road. They call it a “highway,” but using that term conjures up something straighter, faster and, well, safer than the PCH. One moment you’re at sea level watching waves that have had nothing to stop them since they formed somewhere out in the middle of the Pacific Ocean crash onto the beach. A few minutes later you’ve climbed to a point as much as a thousand feet (equal to a 100-story building) above the beach. To ascend and descend, there’s little straight road. Instead, there’s a series of dizzying switchbacks and blind curve on cliffs with nothing more than a low railing to prevent you from flying off the road and into the hereafter.
For a guy who spends most of his life within twenty feet of sea level, this is thrilling stuff, every bit as majestic as the Amalfi Coast drive overlooking the Mediterranean and arguably more dramatic, if for no other reason than that the two-laner along the Amalfi Coast seems to pretty much stay in place while on the PCH there are constant reminders—mostly temporary stretches of gravel—that the California coast is dynamic and that parts of this road feel no obligation to stay put.
This is where the issue of scale comes in. The people who designed and built the Pacific Coast Highway were incredibly ambitious and brave. Much of the highway had to be carved out of stone that might be millions of years old, but has no commitment to staying in the same place from decade to decade. The designers were considerate, too, in creating periodic spots where motorists can stop, catch their breath and take in a view.
I say, “catch your breath,” because driving this stretch of road is an all-consuming task. There are no more than a few seconds here and there to take in a view. You’ve got to keep your eyes on the road for the aforementioned switchbacks and blind curves. Even with a sturdy little European sports sedan with excellent handling, by the time we got to Monterey I felt like I’d had a full upper body workout.
 We took advantage of several of those scenic overlooks, though. I know I keep using the word “thrilling” a lot. But that’s the best way to describe the feeling I got when I’d step a few feet from the car to a cliff six hundred feet above the ocean. In most of these spots there are no guardrails to either mar the view or hold you back. Taking pictures can involve complicated gymnastics in which one hand, and your traveling companion, anchors you to a tree while the other hand holds the camera out over the escarpment. The heck with looking through the viewfinder! You just want to make sure you can return to standing on two feet.
So the bottom line here is that 1) I had no idea how high we were when I took this picture and 2) I don’t think it even begins to tell you how high up I felt like I was when I took it.
The usual remedy when dealing with views of such magnitude is to put something familiar in the picture that gives you a sense of scale. In this case, even the trees in the foreground that look like shrubs were sixty or more feet high.

Friday, October 26, 2012

I Could Learn to Like California

Morro Rock, 2012
(Click on images to see larger)

It’s true. I could learn to like California.
I’ve been visiting California off and on since the mid-1970s. I’ve never gotten north of Marin County or more than seventy-five miles east of the Pacific coast in any other conveyance than an airplane. (Oh, wait a minute. I did go to Sacramento once to give a speech.)  But I’ve seen enough to appreciate what California has to offer.
I’ll confess, I’ve brought all the usual Easterner biases to my consideration of California. Why would you live in a place where you stand a chance of sliding into the ocean, having your house collapse around you or spend at least one season of the year worrying about whether it’ll be consumed by a forest fire?
I like where I live. So I don’t plan on moving. But still, there’s a lot to like about California. Watching the waves crash on the rocky shores of the central California coast is the kind of natural drama you have to go practically to Maine to find here in the East. Driving along the Pacific Coast Highway you can start out in the morning in bustling Los Angeles, drive up through the rolling ranches north of Santa Barbara and by lunchtime find yourself staring at a giant mountain of rock sticking up all by itself on the beach at Morro Bay. By mid-afternoon you can be ducking and weaving along a narrow band of asphalt that alternately hugs and clings (sometimes not so successfully) to the higher and higher bluffs as you wind your way up the coast to Big Sur. The geological drama of that latter stretch alone is enough to make you want to stick around a while and take in a little EST study before you wind your way back down to sea level.

Big Sur, 2012

And really, outside of LA or the Bay Region California’s cities are no more congested than Chicago, Dallas or Minneapolis and no harder to get around in during the afternoon than, say, the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill area.
They face a lot of challenges in California, to be sure. They’ve got politicians as crazy as anywhere. (But who can beat the Midwest these days when it comes to that?) And what place doesn’t face serious challenges? Besides, I sometimes wonder if other states make fun of California just because they’re not associated with the same air of opportunity that’s so long characterized California?
I’m going to be less judgmental about California from now on. For one thing, it turns out we Virginians can throw a pretty serious earthquake, too. So I’ll stop worrying about what those swaying light poles outside my California hotel window were trying to tell me about the underlying strata. But you’ll understand if I still ask for a room on a lower floor.  
Sunrise in Santa Monica, 2012

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Ezra Stoller

In the Style of Stoller, 2007

Like a lot of guys, I once dreamed of becoming an architect. I don’t know if I had any earthly idea what that meant. My vision of the profession was shaped by books, movies and by a few friends and neighbors who were architects. The fictional characters were interesting and compelling, men manically driven by their imagination and their desire to leave a lasting mark on the landscape. The real live architects I knew were similarly interesting, worldly people.
I suppose some of us are builders by nature. I built fanciful structures with wooden blocks long after it was age-appropriate. When I should have been listening in class I instead made drawings of buildings in the margins of my notebooks and imagined majestic interior spaces. In my quest to learn more, I visited buildings. I read architectural design magazines. When I was in college and should have been paying attention to other things, I spent evenings sequestered in the library pouring over books about architecture.
I failed to achieve my dream for reasons of my own making. I embraced three-dimensional design, the challenge of placing distinctive structures in context and the tangible aspects of solid geometry. But I couldn’t seem to get my mind around more conceptual math. I still have a hard time building anything with a straight edge or precise corners. So in the end it’s probably a good thing that people’s lives were not put at risk in buildings I designed.
Back in those dreamy days of youth, though, no photographer fueled my interest in architecture more than the late Ezra Stoller. (I wrote about Julius Shulman, another member of my architectural photography pantheon, here.) Stoller’s photographs filled the pages of Architectural Record and accompanied stories about modern architecture in other magazines and newspapers. My interest in architecture bloomed in the early 1960s. Many of the great architects of the Twentieth Century were working in those days, and Ezra Stoller was their preferred photographer.
If this kind of photography interests you, there are a lot of Stoller’s photographs on Google here.
If you’re more interested, a new collection of Stoller’s work, Ezra Stoller: Photographer, is coming out in December. And if you’re in New York, there’ll be an exhibit of Stoller’s work opening at the Yossi Milo Gallery in January. Finally, you can also check out the web site for Esto, the firm that was built around the Ezra Stoller body of work and continues to represent a small group of superb architectural photographers. 

Monday, October 22, 2012

Seeing (at all)

The Flower Lady, 2012

I know now that going out to take pictures on a beautiful bright day just after your eyes have been dilated is a fool’s errand. But that didn’t stop me from trying on Saturday afternoon.
It was a gorgeous days. There were all sorts of things going on that I could have photographed. But instead of getting down to business I decided to start by doing something about my “indoor” glasses that had developed some kind haze on the exterior finish of the lenses that made it difficult to see through them clearly.
I didn’t think this would be a problem. I innocently thought I could go up to one of the big eyeglass chains and get a new pair of glasses using the same prescription as the old ones. What I didn’t realize was that the glasses were old enough that state law required a new prescription. That required an eye exam.
That didn’t upset me, though. I was due for an eye exam and a nearby eye doctor was able to see me without too much of a wait.
(The part of the doctor is this little play of mine could have been performed by Martin Scorsese. The doctor’s a nice guy, neat in appearance, short in stature and precise in his work. But he had a slightly manic air about him that reminded me of that hilarious amped up cameo role that Scorsese had the Albert Brooks’ movie, The Muse.)
I’ll save you all the wear and tear of the exam. My eyes were fine, the prescription didn’t require changing and new glasses were subsequently ordered. But the doctor’s assistant was delayed in dilating my eyes, which not only delayed the completion of the eye exam, but sent me back out into the sunny day with eyes that were wide open. Even with very dark sunglasses it was like walking in a bright white cloud. I stopped at a couple of places to take pictures, but much of the opportunity of the day was wasted on me because being out in the open air was making it very difficult to see. I spent most of the rest of the afternoon looking down at the ground. By the time my eyes were back to normal the sun was starting to set.
The only successful picture of the day is the one shown above. I was so distracted by the light that I didn’t even get the lady’s name. But she was so willing when I asked if I could photograph her that I couldn’t pass her up. And fortunately, given my temporary partial blindness, she was shorter than me and, as such, well within my range of vision.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Seeing Red

On the Avenue, Fifth Avenue, 2012
(Click on images to see larger)

Isn’t it amazing how a little red makes a picture stand out?
I could be wrong. But I don’t think there’s a picture that can’t be improved by adding a little red. Or blue or green or yellow, for that matter. Fact is, I’m going to go to bat for all the primary colors.
I’m not much on shades. Colors like “sea foam,” “almond toast,” “Biloxi,” “ruffled clam,” “warm cocoon” and “burnt sienna” don’t do anything for me. I mean, really, what does “warm cocoon” look like? Is it something you’d want on a wall around you all the time? And given all the combustible things in the world, I wonder how long it took someone to get around to burning sienna just to see what the color would look like?
Look at this pair of pictures. There’s nothing remarkable about either. I might have normally tossed them out in the first cull. But something about the red in them compelled me to keep them around a little longer.
The picture above was taken late last Friday afternoon on Fifth Avenue in New York. There was nothing special going on in it. People were just their way home from work. But then the lady in the red jacket walked into the scene and all of a sudden it came alive for me.
In the photo below, I was initially taken by the reflected light some early morning tourists at Rockefeller Center. It would have actually been a pretty dull scene except for the guy in the red jacket. An otherwise dull scene was enlivened by the red jacket and the light on the guy’s face.
I didn’t engage with either of these people. I didn’t set out to photograph them. But by virtue of the colors they were wearing the scenes became all about them. 

 Singled Out in Red, 2012

Monday, October 15, 2012

Xo Xo's Revenge

Xo Xo, 2012

I would like to believe that this is the kind of subject I wouldn’t photograph. But here’s proof that I’m not above it. Besides, the following story won’t make any sense if I don’t ‘fess up right from the start.
I was standing on East 2nd Street in New York this past Saturday afternoon, waiting for the rest of my party to come out of a shop. It’s a very nice shop if you’re into home décor. My curiosity about such shops tends to run out rather quickly, though. So I thought it best to retire to the sidewalk so that the shoppers could continue their quest without my bothersome presence.
I happened to be looking at the temporary wall erected in front of an adjacent property to protect pedestrians from construction danger when I noticed this poster. I really wasn’t drawn to what I’m pretty sure are the buttocks on the poster, but rather to the “Xo Xo” written above and below the buttocks.
You see, I’m gradually working my way through Mark Leyner’s hilariously Vonnegut-like (or at least what Vonnegut would have written like if he’d been on methamphetamines) novel, The Sugar Frosted Nutsack. Yes, I realize that this title only reinforces the notion that I’m some kind of lecher. But no less than the New York Times says this book is, “compulsively readable, created by a literary mind that seems to have no precedent." And fact is, one of the most hilarious characters in the novel is a vindictive, time traveling, sex-crazed goddess by the name of Xo Xo (pronounced “Ho Ho”).
I’d just stepped away from this scene when a lady about my age carrying a camera happened along. She took a look at the poster and then at me. I mumbled something like, “You never know what you’ll see on the Lower East Side.” But instead of lecturing me on morals or the objectification of the female buttock, she lifted her camera up and took her own picture of the poster. “I have a whole collections of heart-shaped things,” she bragged.
I hoped she’d just move along. But before I could even turn around she launched into a fully five-minute-long monologue about her job at a New York City public hospital and how she’s fed up with people who feel entitled to free healthcare and how one lady called her a bitch and jumped over the counter because she hadn’t gotten her “f—king” pills fast enough and how she had to call security and when it was all said and done her boss wanted to know what she’d done to offend the lady and how she was just going to have call Bruce the union representative to save her job and….
Well, that’s just the first fifteen or twenty seconds of it. She was so animated that I actually wanted to take a picture of her. But I was so worn out from just listening to those opening volleys that I was scared she’d never stop talking if I took a picture. Besides, although we were in a perfectly respectable location, she leaned over to tell me, as if confidentiality, “I really shouldn’t be seen here.”
I experienced all this just from taking a picture of a butt crack. Let me tell you. It’d be just like Xo Xo to set me up like that.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Words and Eyes


Splash! 2012
(Click on images to see larger)

In a recent biography of the artist David Hockney I came across the following observations:
“You realize that the moment you put a word on a painting, people do read it. If there’s an eye in a painting, you can’t not look at it, as you can’t not read the word.”
Hockney shook up the art world by occasionally putting words on his paintings. They were part of the story of the paintings, an expression as meaningful and as integral to the thoughts he was conveying as the colors and paint strokes that accompanied them. They were not a gimmick.
I get that. Several years ago I was in a competition with another photographer who had taken some rather banal images and written a description of the day they were taken all over the photographic prints. I didn’t happen to like the result, and was a little disappointed that he won Best in Show in the competition. But I accepted that his work was a legitimate artistic expression. And I’ll confess, too, that until you got very far into what he’d written on the prints you were at least drawn into them by your mind’s natural tendency to try to read written words when they are put before you.
I suspect, too, that portrait painters have always known that a portrait will be perceived to be more life-like if the subject’s eyes are looking directly out from the portrait. As Hockney says, you can’t not look at them and I’m sure most of us have experienced a portrait where it looked like the subject was looking back out at us from the canvas and even following us around the room.
Look at this photograph from a restaurant in San Francisco. Do you not feel like Ava Gardner’s looking at you? It’s easy not to engage with Sinatra. He’s looking away. (My guess is that he’s looking at the women who are admiring Ava Gardner and the men who are jealous she’s not with them.) 

Ava Gardner and Frank Sinatra (photographer and date unknown)

The workshop I took this past summer in New York focused on engaging people when we photograph them. That means no candid shots captured on the sly. It also means that however we may pose our subjects they should be looking directly into the camera.
This isn’t some hard-and-fast law. Artistic rules are frequently made to be broken. But since eyes are humans’ most immediate windows into the souls of people, it stands to reason that having eyes looking at the photographer and adding the judicious word or two provides a great deal more information and creates greater viewer engagement than when neither conditions is present.

Jim, the Model, 2012

Monday, October 8, 2012

"Plug it in! Pull it out!"

  Early Morning Workout, 2012
(Click on images to see larger)

You’re apparently nothing in Santa Monica if you don’t take part in an early morning workout session. Almost from the time the sun starts to peek over the mountains to the east, the grassy park that runs along the bluff above the Santa Monica oceanfront becomes a seemingly unending series of workout classes.
Mind you, I don’t know this because I was in one of these classes. I was just walking back to our hotel from the Santa Monica Fishing Pier when I came upon this undulating carpet of colorful spandex tops and shorts.
Brief aside: For a place that can seem to noisy at other times of the day, the hour just after sunrise is glorious in Los Angeles. On this particular day in Santa Monica, the ocean lapped quietly at the shore. There was little traffic noise. A large circle of people who’d all been touched by suicide stood together at the water’s edge sending their grief out with the retreating surf. The Santa Monica Fishing Pier is long enough that by the time you get out to the far end of it you can at least mentally check out from the chaos of mainland America for a few minutes.
Pacific Sunrise Panorama, 2012
As for the people working out, I’m not making this up. There was barely a stretch of lawn in the park that didn’t have a group of people working out on exercise mats. None of them looked like they actually needed to work out. That’s California for you. (And, yes, I understand that regular workouts are probably why these folks look so trim.) My wife told me later that what I saw was probably the latest iteration in the Billy Blanks tae bo fad.
Just before I headed across Ocean Avenue to our hotel, I came upon some stragglers from a workout group that was a little more rag tag than the others. The members of this group weren’t all trim. Their outfits weren’t as stylish. They were working their hearts out, though, huffing and puffing and jumping about and running back and forth.
This wasn’t the strange part. The strange part is that while all of the other workout groups were working almost silently—after all, you can’t carry on much of a conversation when you’re hustling just to keep up with the hectoring instructor—the members of this group were all chanting.
I couldn’t hear what it was they were saying at first.  Then one of the group members took a run past me. He looked completely beat, but challenged himself to take yet another step by yelling out the mantra: “Plug it in! Pull it out!” He just kept repeating it, even when it seemed like he didn’t have enough breath left to verbalize anything. I have no idea what he meant.
Eventually I tired of watching all this physical exertion and crossed the street to our hotel. Along the way I came upon a lovely lady walking her Welsh Terriers. (Our Welsh Terrier looks most like the one on the left.) She was agreeable when I asked if I might take a picture of the dogs to show my wife. Looking back now, the difference between the picture I took that morning and how I’d do it now is striking. Why the heck did I leave the lady out of the picture?
A Couple of Terriers Out for a Walk, 2012

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Serenity Now

Serenity Now, 2012
(Click on images to see larger)

Back in July I wrote about my dislike of being a “tourist,” and used as the focal point for that essay a day spent in Monterey, California. Two months later, I haven’t changed my impression about Monterey. Aside from a terrific aquarium, the old cannery row is a tourist trap.
But enough about that. Today I speak up for a few moments of serenity that also occurred in Monterey.
In the daytime Monterey is overrun with tourists. But like a lot of places that are popular with tourists during the daytime, the early morning presents a very different impression.
We stayed just outside of the main tourist area at a place that was just across the street from the Pacific Ocean. At sunrise this little stretch of beach was quiet and, with the exception of just a few people walking their dogs, I had the place to myself. I wish you could have heard it. 
Monterey Bay meets the shore here with none of the drama of points further out on the Monterey Peninsula. There’s an intelligently landscaped park between the street and the beach. Fog obscured the long view and softened the edges of things.
I walked along the beach until I came to what looked like the only working wharf left on the downtown waterfront. A few fishermen were preparing their nets for the day. Occasionally you heard the chug-chug-chug of a fishing boat headed out for albacore.  
Across the harbor I heard seals making their distinction guttural bark. It took a while for me to realize that the sea lions were fighting among themselves for space on the transom (the back) of a small commercial fishing boat. As I watched them jump up onto the boat and make space by pushing other sea lions off of the boat, a harbor policeman approached and explained that so many sea lions had recently been trying to sun on the deck of another commercial fishing boat that their weight had caused the boat to capsize in the harbor.
Sometimes your serenity comes with a little humor from the natural world. It sure did for me that morning in Monterey. 
The San Giovanni, 2012