Religious revival meetings. Big tent meetings. Prayer meetings.
They always intrigued me because I grew up in a place where they were never held. At least I don’t think so. Even though I was born on the East Coast, I grew up in Southern California. I earned my undergraduate degree in Northern California. As I know it, there was no such thing as revival meetings there. To me, at the time, they were a distinctly southern or midwestern thing.
I wanted to see one.
I wanted to photograph one.
I didn’t get around to it for most of my time in Virginia. But, after the shopper — “The Picture” — began publishing on a weekly basis, I realized I had a lot of space to fill. Remember the “Welder” picture? That publication.
Somehow I found out that a “tent revival meeting” was coming to a little town called Dublin. No. Not in Ireland. Roughly half way between Radford and Pulaski. In Virginia. I called the organizers and asked for permission and they said okay.
It good time in the country and it was a good place to work. They trusted me and gave me permission and I respected them. Done and done. Today, there would be all sorts of legal documents to fill out. Contracts. Releases. Forms. I would spend 80% of my time taking care of that. The other 20% of my time? Oh, it might be used for actually taking pictures.
I worked there for a couple of nights. This was the main picture in the crossover spread.
Technically, it ain’t great. I was pushing Tri-X film to ISO 1600. Pushing is a technique that is underexposing film by a couple of f stops while you are shooting, and then overdeveloping it to bring back the details. It gives you more working shutter speed. But the shadows get a little muddy and the highlights are usually blown out. It worked fine for subjects like high school night football.
Subjects like a revival need a little more nuance. Unless we wanted to light it, this is the best we could do. At the time. In 1980. But, with subjects like this, we likely couldn’t light it. The idea was to blend in, not cause a distraction. Of course, you can’t really blend in. The minute you raise a camera to your face, guess what? You’re a distraction. That is true, even today. You may be able to turn your digital camera’s ISO way up. Maybe produce a better quality image. But, the minute you raise the camera, you are still distraction. There is no changing that. You influence the subjects, who in turn influence the final picture.
Memorial Day. In the United States, a day to remember those members of the military who never came home.
“All the brave soldiers that cannot get older been askin’ after you
Hear the past a callin’, from Armageddon’s side
When everyone’s talkin’ and no one is listenin’, how can we decide?
(Do we) find the cost of freedom, buried in the ground
Mother earth will swallow you, lay your body down
Find the cost of freedom, buried in the ground
Mother earth will swallow you, lay your body down
(Find the cost of freedom buried in the ground)
Find the cost of freedom
Buried in the ground
Mother Earth will swallow you
Lay your body down”
Street photography in Winston-Salem. North Carolina.
Remember yesterday’s post? I said that I often left home a little early to make some “evergreen” photographs. Freestanding art, as the used to say in the news business. These are two examples of that work. If I’m not mistaken, they were made within a day or two of each other. In just about the same neighborhood. But, that was a long time ago. My memory isn’t what it used to be.
In the first picture, the seated man is blind. The standing man has just lighted his cigarette and placed it in seated man’s mouth. If that isn’t compassion I don’t know what is.
Yeah, yeah. A cigarette. But, this was the very early eighties and we were in Winston-Salem. Tobaccoland. And, the city in which many of the huge tobacco brands had their manufacturing plants.
Picture number two. It is as you see it. A group of men passing their lunch break by playing poker on the street.
The pictures. Both were made in very early 1981. Both were made with Nikon F3s. The top picture was made with a 180mm f2.8 lens. The bottom picture was made with a 35mm lens. Both pictures were made with Tri-X black and white film.
All the subjects knew that I was there. I didn’t ask permission to take their pictures before I pressed the button. But, they were aware of me. I spoke to them afterward and learned their names and their stories. That’s how I knew that the guys playing poker were on their lunch breaks and weren’t hanging out all day. If it matters, the top picture won a bunch of photojournalism awards.
This is also where I began to practice what I still do today. Urban street photography. My style is very different from many photographers who practice a sort of watered down street photography. They tend to shoot from their hip or from across the street. I’ve never been very sure about that. I want to learn about the people I just photographed. After all, there are two forms of the story. Visual and written. Combining the two is like the old saying. One plus one equals three.
I moved from the newspapers in Virginia to the Winston-Salem newspapers in early 1981. I was hired for a lot of reasons. One of them was because I could find street pictures and fill a newspaper on a slow news day. I applied for the job because a friend of mine, a photographer at the Richmond, Virginia newspapers told me about it. The company who owned the four newspapers — morning and evening papers in each city — did not advertise the job. Word of mouth was very important back then.
I was sort of the hired gun. I was 27 years old. I was used to working about 80 hours a week. Now I was working for guild paper which meant I was working 37.5 hours a week — a full-time position. That meant I was always rested and full of energy. And, the paper was sort of old-fashioned in how they were managed. The last person who was hired worked the evening and weekend shifts. I started at noon and left by 9pm unless there was some special assignment. Then I just arrived later, or accrued a lot of extra off time. Eventually, as staff left the newspaper and replacements were hired, you were moved to what was considered to be prime shifts.
This meant a couple of things.
Working noon to 9pm, is fairly cool. You can get stuff done in the morning. You can go home and go to sleep at a reasonably normal hour. Being off on Monday and Tuesday also meant I could get the usual errands done without dealing with weekend crowds.
But, more importantly, I had a lot of great assignments. I photographed football on Friday night and Saturday afternoon during the season. That meant that I covered Wake Forest and, on occasion, North Carolina. They played teams that I was used covering at my previous job. Virginia Tech and the University of Virginia.
It also meant that for 67 night shifts in a row I covered basketball games. North Carolina is basketball country. I covered every level of the sport with the exception of the pros. High school. College. University.
With night deadlines I had to work fast. I got so I could shoot the first ten minutes of a game, make a pretty good picture, get back to the newspaper, develop the film, print the picture, write the caption and deliver it to the sports desk by about 10pm.
If I was running late I would find a pay phone — no cellphones back then — call the sports desk to tell them what shape the picture was and what size it deserved to used on the page. They would hold the space for me. Think about that. No LCDs on the back of the camera. No way to know if I actually even got a picture in focus. Just a lot of confidence in my own skills. And, very fast hand-eye coordination because — wait for it — no auto focus. All manual focus.
I also photographed whatever stories were assigned to me and looked around for all kinds of evergreen art. After all, that’s a big huge reason I was hired. Often I would leave a little early for my shift and take the back roads and streets. Many times, I would arrive at the newspaper with a couple of rolls of film in hand.
This is one of those evergreen pictures.
The picture. I used staff gear. That was big change. I started with Nikon F2s and five lenses of my choice. It was very cool. After I received my newspaper ID and press cards, I went to the local camera store and bought two bodies, five lenses and whatever extra gear I needed. The assistant chief photographer came with me, signed the bill and away we went.
A few months later, the staff was upgraded to the new Nikon F3. We turned in our F2 bodies and received two motorized bodies and a third non-motorized body. They were great cameras. But, the light meters were never consistent from camera to camera. We solved that in our own way.
We also had a pretty good selection of shared “pool” gear. Long lenses. Really wide angle lenses. Portable studio lights. And, so on. My favorite lens was the old Nikon 400mm f3.5. It was a monster. Big, long, and heavy. A lot of people used it with a tripod, or a monopod. I was strong enough that I could hand hold it and brace myself. So, I used it almost every day to shoot all that evergreen art. I wasn’t sneaking around or shooting from across the street. I just believed that you need bold, graphically clean photographs to carry a newspaper page. Working with that lens fairly closely the subject couldn’t miss seeing me. And, the compression turned a mundane picture into something a little special.
That’s how this picture came about. I stumbled into these guys doing a full dress rehearsal and identified myself. They were happy to help out. Mostly they did their thing. And, I did mine. I made about 20 frames on Tri-X black and white film. Yes. I got every name. After all, I am a journalist as much as I am a photographer.
This was in 1981. Seems like I’m doing the same thing in 2016. Photographing musicians in the street. In New Orleans.
The words are longer than I intended. Sorry about that.
A little housekeeping. I’m not publishing pictures in any kind of order. Right now, I’m just showing you pictures as they inspire me. Eventually I’ll get back to the start.
In fact, I rarely do. You’ll never confuse me with a studio photographer who shoots nice family portraits. That’s okay. For all of us.
But, there is a great backstory here.
When I was working for The New River Newspapers in Virginia, the advertising staff came up with an idea to sell ad space. They created an entirely new product. It was designed like a magazine, but it fit in normal newspaper specs. It was basically, what some people call, a shopper. It also created a lot more work for me. I was already working something like 80 hours a week. Young newspaper staffers, looking to make their marks and move on to a bigger newspaper, do that. My executive editor sold the idea to me by saying I would get the cover and the middle spread to publish whatever pictures I wanted. And, I could control the layout and design of the crossover spread. Now, that was something. My pictures. My stories. My way.
Oh, and by the way, the new product was called, “The Picture.” The tagline was “Get The Picture.” A perfect advertising sales tool.
When the advertising stuff saw this picture they just about fell on their faces. This was not what they had in mind. They were thinking of nice, sweet pictures of flowers, puppy dogs and maybe toddlers. But, the executive editor stood by me. So, this was the first cover.
The picture. It was made in spring of 1980. Nikon F 2 and an 85mm lens. Tri-X film. That I know for sure. What I can’t remember is where I took the picture. I provided a lot of “evergreen art” for use by the layout editors when they needed to design a page and didn’t have a photograph and story combination. These were pictures that stood on their own and were not time or story based. So, I drove around a lot. Looking. By a lot of driving, I mean a lot. To the point that it was far more cost efficient to issue me a company credit card rather than to pay my mileage. The bosses allowed me to use it for every car-related thing. Oil changes, repairs, tune-ups. And, of course, gas. They even let me use it for personal trips because that was how they paid for wear and tear on my car. Of course, how many personal trips could I take working 80 hours a week? It was an okay deal. But, not great. Still, who pays my car insurance? And, all those miles killed any good trade in deal on a new car.
So. I was just out looking around. As usual.
This guy caught my eye because I saw the sparks from his welding torch. I stopped. We talked. And, he let me hang out and take pictures. Somewhere along the line, I asked him to flip-up his mask and look at the camera. This is the result.
The inside spread was more along the lines of a picture story. It showed process and scene. I don’t have any prints or tear sheets of that. Thank Hurricane Katrina. But, I do have the negatives. One of these days…
I was working for a small chain of regional newspapers called The New River Newspapers. There were three. One was located in Pulaski. Another in Radford and a semi-weekly in Blacksburg. Virginia.
As I recall, this picture was taken early in the morning of the election. Jimmy Carter v Ronald Reagan for the presidency. The economy was terrible. There was very high unemployment. The Iran hostage crisis had been going on for a year. The United States attempt to rescue them ended in failure with helicopters crashing in the desert. Reagan promised, “Morning in America.” The sitting president — Carter — was crushed in a landslide which ushered in the Reagan Era. The rest, as they say, is history.
Which brings us today. I don’t comment on political issues on Storyteller. Let’s just say that this is the longest and worst election season that I’ve ever witnessed. I can only begin to guess at what my friends in other countries think.
The picture. I made this picture in Radford. For the News-Journal. I think that I walked down the street to find a polling place. I used to call this picture, “It Takes Three to Vote.” That’s not fair. The three women were working at the polling place. One of the machines was having problems. They were trying to repair it, without shutting it down.
I was still using heavy gear at this time. Likely Nikon F 2 bodies. The lens was 20mm, which was — like today — my bread and butter lens. The film was Tri-x, which I probably pushed a stop from ISO 400 to ISO 800 to get a little more speed in darker places.
Funny thing about this picture. I made it on the day that Ronald Reagan was elected president. By the time he was inaugurated, I had moved on to the next step in my career ladder. I was working in Winston-Salem. North Carolina.
A few of you asked me if I would show my very early work. My black and white work.
This isn’t my very earliest work. But, it’s sort of close. If I’m not mistaken I was still in college. But, I was almost done. Ready to graduate. I was freelancing around the Bay Area. In California. And, looking for newspaper work.
This picture was taken in 1975. Not at my school, which was San Jose State University. It was taken at Stanford University. In Palo Alto.
With yesterday being Bob Dylan’s 75th Birthday, I thought this was the picture to publish today. The Band. Arriving at their concert less than six months before they retired from touring in San Francisco. At Winterland. Their last concert is known as “The Last Waltz.” It featured famous musicians of the time. And, today. Folks like Neil Young, Eric Clapton, Dr. John, Joni Mitchell. And, many more.
Prior to that, The Band was still touring. So, they came to Stanford. They were the main act. I cannot for the life of me remember who opened the show. In those days, things weren’t so packaged. They weren’t so controlled. They rolled through the crowd on an old fire engine. That would never happened today. You couldn’t get close to them now. Not like this.
While many of you might not know these guys, they were famous. A heavy weight band. They recorded with Bob Dylan. They were his touring band. They wrote songs that were symbolic of the time. People of a certain age still love their music. Earthy. Swampy. Real music.
The picture. Tri-X black and white film. With a Nikon F. Big, heavy SLR. It had a Photomic head, which meant it had an internal light meter. It was manual focus. I processed the film in the darkroom. I made contact sheets. I made prints.
This time, it’s about traffic in New Orleans’ Central Business District. At night.
You’re probably gonna laugh when I tell you how I made those repeating “W” shapes with the light. At the very moment I pressed the shutter release button I did the New Orleans thing. I hit a pot hole. Where would this city be without potholes? Luckily, it was a small one.
In those “Ws” you can see just how I hit the pot hole. Down, bounce, bounce, back up to the normal street level. Sheesh. Wherever there was a light, the camera made a shape.
The picture. Press the button and hold on while I run over a pothole. That’s about it. No. I didn’t plan for this one. I couldn’t have.
I made this picture in 1991. I was in New York for business and probably the big photo convention at The Javitz Center. We had a little free time so we wandered around and looked at stuff. One of my walking partners was Chuck O’Rear, a pretty well-known National Geographic photographer. He was hip beyond the era. For instance, he wore red-framed round eye glasses. Not many people did that back then. I don’t think many people do it now.
Since I was shooting Fuji Velvia, which had an ISO of 50 and was best used at ISO 32, he suggested that I switch to aperture priority, set the f-stop to f 5.6 and let the camera do whatever it needed to do to make the correct exposure. He also said that since the human body has some constant natural movement that even if I braced myself against something, working like that without a tripod would still introduce motion blur. So, I should just let the picture be really blurry if that was my intention.
At ISO 32 with an f-stop of 5.6, the shutter speed was around two seconds. This image was the result. Getting to it was controllable, so I could repeat it. Which I did in various forms for many years.
Why is this important? This is the first time I ever did this intentionally. I fell in love with this approach. I used it whenever I could. I experimented with different f stops and shutter speeds. I am at the point that I can pretty much predict the outcome of these kinds of impressionistic motion studies.
With the advent of digital photography, I could do it more and more often and check the results on my LCD. But, like so many other photographers I fell into the sharpness trap that digital capture offers. Oops. Time to get back to my mid-career roots.
My early career? Photojournalism on black and white film. You’ve seen some of it here, now and then. If you want to see more, let me know. I was going through some it a couple of nights ago. At least the material that I’ve already scanned. It wouldn’t be very hard to show a few images to you.
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