Friday, December 21, 2012

A Fresh View of Prometheus

A Fresh Perspective on Prometheus, 2012
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Millions of people photograph New York’s Rockefeller Center every year. They’re drawn to the sunken plaza, the fountain, the magnificent Art Deco GE Building with its Diego Rivera frescos and the Radio City Music Hall.
For me the appeal has always been the gilded statue of Prometheus by Paul Manship that faces out over the sunken plaza. Prometheus, by the way, is a bit of a trickster from Greek mythology, known both for his conniving ways, his creation of man from clay, his theft of fire for human use, his championing of animal sacrifice and for his intelligence. He is also, if other stories from mythology are to be believed, a survivor.
I’m not sure which of these traits endeared him to John D. Rockefeller, Jr., who developed Rockefeller center. Maybe he liked the connection between Prometheus giving fire to mankind and Rockefeller’s roots in oil. Whatever the case, there Prometheus is, out in front in all his golden glory.
There are several traditional positions for photographing Prometheus.  One is from the staircase across the plaza. The shot there includes the sunken plaza, the statue and 30 Rock in the background. Here’s an example. The problem with using this perspective is that Prometheus is almost always a small background element in the photograph.
A more interesting perspective is from the street level plaza directly behind and over the shoulder of Prometheus.

Prometheus, Over the Shoulders, 2003

On a recent trip to New York I had a few minutes to try to do something different. I’ve taken enough “expected” pictures of the area to last a lifetime. But there I was. So I might as well see what I could do. 
Something “new” turned out to be making my photograph of Prometheus from something other than the usual perspectives. In this case, I used the statue Mankind Figure of Maiden, also by Paul Manship, as my foreground element.  My favorite is the one shown at the top of this post. It's my favorite because it features the Maiden, a piece of art that's been moved around the plaza and tried in various places before finding it's current placement. Another shot using the Maiden as a foreground feature is shown below.
Prometheus Through the Maiden, 2012

Monday, December 17, 2012

Bury My Heart in the Choir Loft

Church Window, Troutville, Virginia, 2012

My mother-in-law died two weeks ago, the victim—like my recently deceased brother-in-law—of a rapidly moving disease diagnosed so late in its advance that nothing could be done to slow it. The good thing, as people are wont to observe at such occasions, is that although death came far sooner than expected, her suffering was thankfully brief.

Family and friends gathered this past Saturday at a small country church in the hills of southwest Virginia to celebrate my mother-in-law’s life. The sanctuary was packed. Tears and laughter punctuated the service. Like us all, my mother-in-law had her vanities and faults. But her life was defined more by her liveliness, her love of family, her dedication to her faith, her enjoyment of singing and her constant concern for the needs of others. 

My mother-in-law was still a young woman when her first husband, the father of her four children and a Methodist minister, died young. Late in life she was reunited with a high school beau, himself a widower, who for thirteen years brought her much happiness and love and who is today lost without her. 

It was bright and sunny as Saturday’s service began. From my position in the front pew I noticed over the shoulder of the minister the silhouette of a tree against one of the painted windows. As the tree swayed in the breeze outside, its shadow danced back and forth across the window, a reminder of a vital life and a reminder, too, of my mother-in-law’s love of dancing. 
Trinity Church of the Brethren, Troutville, Virginia, 2012

Despite the seriousness of the proceedings, the photographer in me wanted to capture a photograph of the shadow’s play on the window. I even toyed for a moment with using the cell phone camera in my pocket to quietly capture the moment. But of course that wouldn’t have been right (though I’m sure my mother-in-law would have told me, “Go ahead, Sugar, it is beautiful, isn’t it?”).  But I didn’t, and merely said my own silent prayer that the sun would stay out long enough for me to take a picture after the service was over.

That didn’t happen. So many people came forward to share memories of my mother-in-law that by the time the minister and the congregation said their final prayers the sunny sky had turned cloudy and the dancing shadows gradually faded as the family was escorted from the sanctuary. By the time I got back in the sky was gray and the window was wiped clean of shadows. 

It would be easy to see the fading of those dancing shadows as a metaphor for the end of my mother-in-law’s life. But as several of the speakers noted, there’s a bit of her dance in all of us who knew her.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Two on the Aisle

Nails, 2012
(Click on images to enlarge)

In just three days last week I took six flights. There aren’t many places you can fly directly from where I live unless your destination is a hub airport or, say, Orlando or Las Vegas. Around here you get used to connecting flights and look upon any time you can fly directly to your destination as a gift from the gods, a heavenly nod of appreciation for all the times you missed your connecting flights in Philadelphia, Chicago, Cincinnati, Charlotte, Washington or New York.
I started last week’s airline travel as I frequently do, with a stack of magazines and photocopies of things I’d been meaning to read but just hadn’t gotten to yet. Two or three reasonably uninterrupted hours on a plane can be a godsend when it comes to catching up on your reading. If I play my cards right, I actually jettison carry-on weight as the trip progresses, leaving behind newspapers and copies of The New Yorker, The Economist, The Nation, Fast Company and other periodicals for others to read.
If I’m going to have even a little while to take pictures when I’m traveling for business I’ll bring along a “real” camera. But on this trip last week I wasn’t going to be in any of my destination cities for as long as twenty-four hours, and most of my waking time would be spent with clients. Except for the aforementioned reading materials, I was traveling light, my only camera being the one in my phone.
So it was with some disappointment that I didn’t have a better camera when I noticed that the woman sitting across the aisle from my on my first flight of the first day had such fancy fingernails that I simply couldn’t let them go unphotographed.
Not that they’re great art. Once ladies stopped using red fingernail polish I stopped paying much attention to fingernails. But these were too ornate and bejeweled to overlook. So as soon as we’d gotten settled into our seats and it was decent to look around and establish eye contact I admired the lady’s fingernails and asked if I could photograph them.
It turns out this lady works with autistic children at a school in rural California. I asked if her nails sometimes hurt the children she works with, especially since some autistic children can be quite active, curious and unpredictable. She assured me without a bit of hesitation that her nails are not dangerous or, at least, “…not after the edges have been worn down some.”
Later on I noticed the couple below. At first I thought the lady might be scared of flying and that the man was comforting her. Then, when he didn’t take his arm from around her, I concluded that he either thought that if he removed his arm she might float away or, more likely, that they are two lovebirds scared of being separated.
Love and Support, 2012

Monday, December 10, 2012

What is Hip?

 The Hip Room, 2012
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When I travel for work I tend to stay in hotels designed for business travelers who aren’t trying to break their clients’ travel budgets. This means I value cleanliness, comfort, a congenial staff and good wi-fi and don’t go to many places that have swim-up bars.
Over the last year, though, circumstances have landed me in hipper hotels than usual. Many are older hotels that went “boutique” (which used to be referred to as “European” until the designers got hold of the concept and repositioned it as young, urbane and hip).
I don’t have anything against boutique hotels. Some are quite charming and strike a good balance between authentic hip—e.g. young, urbane and edgy design—without completely losing sight of the concepts of comfort, customer service and basic ergonomic practicality. The Mercer, in New York, is extremely hip, but hasn’t lost sight of why people stay in hotels. The Shangri-La, in Santa Monica, manages to combine comfortable and stylish rooms and attentive customer service in a carefully updated Art Deco building overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Despite a name that conjures up images of illicit Hollywood affairs—and any number are said to have taken place there—I could stay at the Shangri La for a while and be quite happy and comfortable.
At the other end of the spectrum, regular readers may remember how I was told, when I complained to thedesk clerk at one of New York’s Gansevoort hotels that the sink didn’t have a stopper, “The designer didn’t like they way they look.”
The Soho Grand, too, is famous for hiring models to do hotel jobs. They don’t care whether the models have any qualification to do the jobs for which they’re being hired. What’s important is that they look good and impart a stylishly insouciant attitude.
I can live with all of these attitudes. You expect it in style-centric cities. Besides, attractive models aren’t hard on the eyes when you’ve been stuffed into a window seat in Row 56 for a few hours on a plane.
What bugs me, though, is the proliferation of self-styled “boutique” hotels that have sprouted around the edges of airports and interstate highway interchanges. I stayed in a place like that last week in Dallas. It was built to resemble an old warehouse. The interior floors are polished concrete. The walls are rough concrete. All of the infrastructure—plumbing, wiring and HVAC—is exposed. The furniture is so tragically fashion forward that it’ll be stylish for all of a week. 

NyLo Dining, 2012

But as far as being hip is concerned, it’s a fake. The “warehouse” is three years old. The wall panels in the elevator that are supposed to look like a stainless steel-lined freight elevator are instead made of plastic. My guest room was barely ten feet wide and the bed’s headboard was so hard against the typical and decidedly overworked suburban motel-style heating and cooling unit—a device with such a bad compressor that it groaned like a dying buffalo—that I barely got any sleep.
The place I stayed makes no concession to urban life. It’s surrounded by a big suburban parking lot, for crying out loud! How modern and hip is that?
Sometimes I think I’m getting too old for this s--t. But I’m never too old to hear Tower of Power’s mighty hit, “What is Hip?”

Friday, December 7, 2012

The Dearth of Chipmunk Talk

 Helium Shortage, 2012

(Click on Image to Enlarge)

In case you’ve been wondering why there don’t seem to be as many people walking around talking like chipmunks lately, I have it on good authority—or at least the authority of the young man shown here, and who am I to question him?—that there’s a shortage of helium gas.
I saw a television show recently about how helium is used by people who commit suicide rather than endure the horrible pain and suffering of certain terminal diseases. Apparently, their helium tanks are petite and pink and as close as the local party supply store.
But that must be different helium than the kind used for these big balloons. If I’d paid more attention in chemistry class I might understand the difference. But my knowledge of helium goes no deeper than a single helium element on the Periodic Chart. (“He,” if I recall correctly.)
Whatever kind it is, it took about thirty of these cylindrical tanks of it to fill the half dozen or so balloons shown. When I asked the guy in charge whether they ever take a quick huff of the gas to play with silly chipmunk voices, he answered seriously that the shortage of helium is so severe that they can’t waste precious gas on such frivolity and that, in fact, he was thinking about complaining to the company that supplied these tanks because he was convinced they weren’t filled to the capacity for which he’d paid.
I guess working around helium is like when my wife worked in a bakery during college. At first, all that sugar and icing seemed so enticing. But after a few days it was just so much colored sludge.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Like Harvesting a Crop

The Black &White Christmas Taxi, 2012

(Click on Image to Enlarge)

My illustrator friend Walt and I went out the other afternoon to photograph people who were assembling to take part in a holiday parade. Walt takes pictures to serve as references for his illustrations. I’m just out for the pictures.
To be honest, we didn’t really have any great interest in the parade itself. For photographers and illustrators, the real fun is in mingling with parade participants while they’re waiting for the parade to start. They’re in an expectant mood, alternately doing last–minute and costume checks, practicing whatever it is they’ll do in the parade—dancing, playing an instrument, strutting, etc.—talking with their friends, checking out the other parade participants and taking a few moments for some quiet.
Virginia Beach’s “Holiday” parade relies entirely on groups in the community and a few corporate sponsors to make up the parade. For example, the first group in the parade was a bunch of ladies in various holiday-themed costumes walking their dogs. There are no miles of aging Shriners wearing fezzes and no cheesy themes like the Neptune Festival. It’s pure holiday, no matter how you celebrate them. (Unlike those who rage hysterically about the “war on Christmas,” no one seemed offended by this multi-cultural gesture by the City of Virginia Beach. Anyone who wanted to take part could and any anyone who did could express their holiday cheer in whatever fashion they liked.)
The parade was scheduled to begin just after sunset. Given the quickly changing light in these days leading up to the shortest day of the year, I wanted to work on my flash photography skills some.
Walt and I wandered up and down Atlantic Avenue for an hour or so before the parade started and left no long after it started. On the way back home, Walt said something that I’m sure many of us think after we’d been out to shoot pictures, sketch, paint or do whatever it is we do. He said, “I can’t wait to get home and see what I’ve taken out here today.”
We photographers used to say, “I can’t wait to get my film back” or, if we had our own darkrooms, “I can’t wait to process today’s film.” These days, of course, it’s all digital. The gratification is far more immediate.
Still, there’s a gap of anticipation. Whatever your mode of capturing moments, looking at the results of time spent out making photographs is like harvesting a new crop of opportunities. And there’s a lot of joy in that.  

Monday, December 3, 2012

Closing the Loop

Nantucket Avenue, Oak Bluffs, 2008

I was a holiday print sale and party the other night at photographer Glen McClure’s studio. One of the photographs on the wall of the studio shows a beautiful young woman in a marching band in Ireland. I can’t remember whether the picture was taken on St. Patrick’s Day, or not.  Whatever the event, the band was dressed in its finest ceremonial gear. Just looking at the picture you can imagine the cacophony of marching column of buzzing fifes, moaning bagpipes and rat-a-tat drums.  
The tradition, as told to Glen, is that the band starts beating its drums at first light and marches from village to village over the course of the day, picking up other bands and players in each place. Villagers ply the musicians with food and drink.
But that’s not the story here. What’s relevant is that Glen so liked this particular portrait that on a subsequent trip to Ireland he returned to the town where he’d taken it and tried to find the girl so that he could give her a copy of the photo. She was out of the country. But as luck would have it, the local pub keeper knew the woman’s family and said he’d get the photo to them.
Several months later, after he’d returned to the United States, Glen got an e-mail from the young lady. She was tickled to have such a fine portrait of herself and beside herself with appreciation that Glen had gone to the trouble of bringing a print back to Ireland for her.
Those of us who share photographs online have this kind of thing happen from time to time. We know what it is to connect with someone and give them the gift of a nice photo of themselves or their home or some other subject that has personal meaning to them.
Over the years, a few of the people I’ve photographed have found me and I’ve been able to share copies of photos with them. This happens a lot, too, with homes and farms and such. A photograph of a farmhouse I took out on the prairie near Beatrice, Nebraska, elicited all sorts of comments from Nebraskans who knew the house—one person drives past it every day on her way to and from work—and the family that owns it.   
On another occasion I was contacted by someone whose best friend owns a summer home I’d photographed at Thousand Island Park, a summer community along the St. Lawrence River in upstate New York. We arranged for a print to be framed for the homeowner’s 70th birthday party.
Just recently I got a phone call from a man who lives on the lower end of Cape Cod. It turns out I’ve photographed his family’s iconic summer home at Oak Bluffs, Massachusetts, several times through the years. (It's the house shown above.) He’d seen one of my photos of the house in a magazine and tracked me down to get a copy of the print.
Sharing photographs like this doesn’t earn you any money. But the joy and pleasure it brings are worth far more than money.