Monday, March 25, 2013

Rainy Day Impression

Rainy Day Impression of JT’s Grommet Park, 2013
(Click on image to see larger.)

I blew Saturday off, so far as making pictures was concerned. The day started ugly and cold. The sky was gray and featureless. Overcast skies can be good for providing even light. But I imagined that most anything I’d photograph would look dull and flat.

Sunday was predicted to started similarly cloudy and then have rain after noon. I don’t usually rush out to photograph when it’s raining, especially when it’s as cold as it’s been lately. But I was determined to make up for the time I’d wasted not making pictures on Saturday. I even challenged myself to see how I could use the rain as a feature in the pictures.

I should mention here that not every photo outing is successful. Sometimes you come home with a bunch of pictures you like, something just a few and sometimes with none at all. That doesn’t bother me. I’m not in a race to finish first or with the most pictures.

I mention all this because it’s the fun of being out making pictures that is the joy of this pursuit. It’s aiming for, and sometimes getting into your “zone” that’s so satisfying. Even if you come home with a bunch of dud images there’s a chance you had a passable time creating them.

I should also mention, as I have before, that giving yourself an assignment can be a valuable way to start taking pictures. But if the assignment does nothing but lead you to a spot where you discover something better to work on, there’s nothing wrong with that, either.

With all of this to set me up, I headed down to the oceanfront resort area. Just to the west of us they were getting snow. Down by the ocean it was just rain. The resort area lends itself very nicely to black-and-white images this time of year. In another few weeks the resort area will be teeming with color as the tourist industry gears up for the season. But on a rainy day in March it still looks pretty much like winter and I was expecting to end up with mostly b&w images.  

Cameras and lenses are a lot more durable and weather-tight than they used to be. You can take them out into the rain with a lot less worry. But I don’t like being out in the rain when it’s just above freezing. So I edited my assignment to seeing what I could do with the rain and also the car window as a frame. The first place I stopped had lots of interesting color, however, and that changed the mission slightly. I did shoot a number of pictures using the car window as a frame. But they turned out to be uninteresting. Maybe they’ll eventually resurface. But for now, it was the study of lines and color and rain that I enjoyed the most.

If I were a painter, this is what my paintings would look like.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

On Aspirations

 You Know You Want It, 2012
(Click on image to see larger)

Having spent most of my career in and around the world of advertising, I know a thing or two about aspirations. Much of advertising is about nothing but aspirations. Anyone who’s ever bought anything that came off the drawing board at Ralph Lauren or any of dozens of other brands like it has absolutely no ground to stand on when it comes to disavowing aspirations.
Still, I got more than a few chuckles from a Talk of the Town piece in the March 18th issue of The New Yorker magazine that tells the story of a young New York City man who works in the design industry and, more notably, recently purchased a $12,000 Hermès Birkin bag.
I wouldn’t know a Birkin bag from a grocery bag, though I gather they have about the same carrying capacity. I’m pretty sure, though, that capacity has nothing to do with it. The person who spends twelve thousand dollars on a bag probably has people who do the heavy lifting.
I don’t think I’ve ever spent $12,000 on anything I couldn’t drive or live in. But when I have purchased high-ticket items, I’ve generally been treated pretty nicely. Because I like to study store design, I’ve been in very fancy boutiques in New York, Rome and Paris where I had absolutely no intention of buying anything and still been treated as if I had potential.
Not so at Hermès, it seems, where apparently they’ve mastered the art of understated customer service. When the young man asked a saleswoman at the Hermès store if he could bring a friend by to look at the Birkin bag before he paid for it, she said she could hold it “for five minutes.” Asked if he could see one in the other colors the bag comes in, she replied that there was just the one bag in New York. And when the young man told the saleswoman he’d take it, she was, in his words, “zero excited.”
Yes, I’ll take your $12,000. But don’t think that buys my respect.
I’ll be the last person to criticize anyone for aspiring to own something. I’ve had my own aspirations, though on things far less costly than Birkin bags. I’ve also learned just how meaningless the subjects of my aspirations things are in the long run of things that matter in life.
Still, I always get a kick out of people who tell me, “Advertising and status don’t influence me,” and then go on to tell me about their fancy cars, clothing labels and electronics and how superior each is. Believe me, they didn’t buy them because of their durability and engineering.
But if I’ve learned anything, and I’ve been fortunate to meet people from many different walks of life, it’s that dreams are not a bad thing and that it’s the people who don’t have dreams or aspirations who are probably not worth spending much time with.
As for the young man with the Birkin bag, he told The New Yorker writer, “Don’t get me wrong. I do not think this is worth twelve thousand dollars. But I think [my boyfriend] understands that it was worth it to me.”

Monday, March 18, 2013

What I Needed Was Two Sets of Eyes

 The Pond at Pleasure House Point, 2013
(Click on image to see larger)

From time to time I’ve toyed with shooting video. The availability of so much powerful video editing software has made it possible for even the layman to be a passable filmmaker.

I’ve been fascinated by how movies are composed ever since I noticed Stanley Kubrick’s long, painterly, slow reverse zoom shots in his 1975 film “Barry Lyndon.” (Here's another.) Those shots were so elegant and revealing that they made me want to learn more about the craft of making telling stories with motion pictures.

Just recently I’ve been working my way through this 15-part “Story of Film,” available on Netflix. It’s narrated by the Irish film critic Mark Cousins. You could learn a lot from this series, though I’ll warn you that Cousins’ delivery is so emotionless that you could easily be excused for dozing off after the fiftieth or sixtieth reference to The Thief of Baghdad.”

I started playing with video in 2001 after my wife gave me a digital handheld video camera for Christmas. The next spring I took the video camera with us on a trip to Italy, where I learned quickly that working with a video camera calls for very different talents and visual perspectives than working with the still camera. This was not just “taking a picture.” It was about composing sequences that had logical beginnings and endings and a modicum of story in between.

I enjoyed using the video camera on that trip. But after I came home and edited that material the video camera went into the closet. Since that time video camera quality has improved so much so your average smartphone has better video quality than that old Sony, even if it doesn’t have all the bells and whistles of a dedicated video camera.

This past weekend I took both the old Sony video camera and my digital SLR out to shoot at Pleasure House Point, a nature reserve near where we live. It was a good day for a walk. But the experience was dreadful.

Shooting still photographs is about capturing a specific moment or impression of that moment. Composing video requires you to think not only about the immediate moment, but what’s going to happen next. I found myself juggling between the two cameras so much that I used neither well. The video was awful and the fifty or so still images weren’t much better.

Maybe it was just an off day. I prefer to think I was trying unsuccessfully to see two ways out of one set of eyes.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

A Peaceful Memory for this Stormy Morning

 St. Lawrence River View, 2006
(Click on image to see larger)

One of my favorite places is Thousand Island Park, a summer community on Wellesley Island, a rocky outcropping that sits in the middle of the St. Lawrence River on the border of New York State and Canada.

Thousand Island Park was one of the summer encampments of the Chautauqua movement of the late 1800s. They started as summer retreats for Christian groups. In the case of Thousand Island Park, people from central and western New York State would head north to the St. Lawrence in the summer in search of cool river breezes. They pitched tents and attended revivals under open-air tabernacles. Over time, the religious influence faded, seasonal cottages and hotels replaced the tents and the Chautauqua communities became popular summer resorts.

For someone from a crowded and humid Mid-Atlantic beach resort town, Thousand Island Park is a welcome refuge in the summer. Considering that it’s on roughly the same latitude as Bar Harbor, Maine, the days are warm and the evenings cool. Our friends who summer at Thousand Island Park swear that even in August a fire in the fireplace is necessary to take the chill off an evening. We haven’t found it that cool, but the idea sure sounds nice.

Thousand Island Park is like summer camp for families. Most of the cottages have stayed in same families for generations. There’s a weekly schedule of activities for people of all ages. People garden, play tennis and softball or play on the river during the day.  There’s a yoga group that meets each morning at the waterside pavilion. There’s an old-fashioned ice cream shop at the center of town, and an old hotel that has a few rooms for the occasional transient visitors. At night children chase fireflies. Residents stroll up and down quiet lanes visiting on front porches or dancing at the pavilion.

(It’s worth mentioning that Wellesley Island is so cold and desolate during the winter that Abbie Hoffman, of Chicago Seven fame—for you younger readers, click here--lived there for years on the lam and was only apprehended when he made a run for public office.)

Anyway, long story short. I received an e-mail over the weekend from the owner of one of the loveliest summer homes at Thousand Island Park. She’s also the head of the local historical society. She'd come across my Thousand Island Park pictures at Flickr and wanted to know if I would share some of my pictures at the society’s web site and for Wikipedia.

Of course I was happy to share the photos. And as a result I have a new place to have a cool drink on a summer afternoon if I ever get back to Thousand Island Park again.

The picture above isn’t of the house in question or even taken from it. In the course of looking for house pictures I came across this photo of the St. Lawrence River taken early one summer morning. Behind me the yoga class members chanted their mantras, while in the distance the ore carrier Manitou sounded its horn as it neared the International Bridge. The memories of that morning have already got me into a languid mood on what promises to be a busy and rainy day. I hope this scene will do the same for you.