I met this guy on the way to somewhere else. That’s when the best pictures happen.
I was walking to the second line in Central City. I parked a few blocks away. A little distance is important so I could make a quick getaway. That is, if I want to jump to another location. I’m not fast enough anymore to cut through the streets on foot and get ahead of it.
He was sitting on a little stoop in front of a battered old house. He saw the cameras on my shoulder. He called me over. He wanted me to take his picture. So I did. He wanted something in return. I know the drill. I gave him a couple of bucks (that pro tip thing). He stuck the dollar bills in his mouth. I don’t know why. I took another picture.
Which brings me to the picture.
I sort of overlooked it at first. I looked at it again. The color wasn’t working. I converted it to black and white. Then it worked. This might be my best picture of the year. Ten months into the year and I finally made a picture.
This is the dog who leads me to pictures. She’s wearing her fall season camo coat so that she can lurk in the leaves. She also needs a grooming. She really dislikes that. Luckily for her, her favorite groomer is on maternity leave. So, we wait until mid-January to even schedule an appointment.
Christmas Day. When I lived in other places, the tradition was to go out for Chinese food. That’s because Chinese restaurants were the only places open. By about mid-day, everybody was tired of Christmas food. So, off we went. In New Orleans we do not have a large Chinese population. Even though there are a couple of good restaurants around, you’d probably be better off finding Vietnamese places if you want Asian food today. On the other hand, many Vietnamese people are Catholic, so…
Maybe you should just stay home and play with your new toys. Watch more football. And, eat ham sandwiches.
The picture. For once she actually let me take her picture. I tuned it up some to make the final version richer and fuller.
Sometimes it’s best to just do whatever it is that you do. So, I did it. I try to do something photographic every day. Sometimes, I don’t actually make a new picture. Sometimes, I so some experimental post production. Sometimes, I read about photography. Sometimes, I continue the never-ending work of archive organization.
I’ve done a little of everything in the last few days. I’m mostly staying home and working on stuff. I started this picture last night. I finished it this morning. The two-day workflow wasn’t because what I was doing was hard. It was mostly because I wanted to let the first bit of post production sort of marinate overnight. I didn’t really think about it. It just sort of wandered around my brain.
And, this came out.
Along with a very weird dream. About a smudge pot. The house in which I grew up. And, my dad ignoring the smoke pouring out of the house and mowing the lawn. Don’t even try. It’s beyond explanation.
This is a portrait of a Mardi Gras Indian, or a Black Masking Indian, depending on your point of view. I made it last Super Sunday. In Central City. The picture started out in color. It was a pretty good picture.
Could I leave well enough alone?
I just had to mess with it. In terms of software, it’s a combination of things. Stackable. Snapseed. And, Efex Pro. That may have been overkill. Sometimes, the process of one steps all over another one.
Oh. I’m reading a book at the same time. It’s called “Gene Smith’s Darkroom Sink.” It’s one of a series of research books on the life of the legendary photojournalist, Eugene Smith. It’s a mix of photography and music. That’s a story in itself. And, it’s about Smith’s loft on the 6th Avenue in New York where the who’s who of jazz musicians gathered in the late 1950s and early 60s.
Luckily, the author doesn’t take himself too seriously. He wrote at one point, that it was a good thing Smith had a career because it gave him (the author) something to do for the last twenty years.
Even the name conjures up all sorts of meaning. Cowboys. The West. Freedom. Big food. Big hair. Big hats. I’m pretty sure that most people think don’t about space aliens when they think about Texas.
I found this interestingly shaped house when I was traveling around Texas back country. I didn’t stop. I didn’t ask. In retrospect, I should have. Knowing my ability to work with all sorts of people, I might have even been invited inside for a quick look around. But, really? This scene was enough for me. How often do you see something like this?
I once showed this picture to a friend of mine. A Texan. I said something like, “this explains everything.” She replied, “what the hell do you mean by that?” Texans take their state and their mythology seriously.
Sort of like New Orleanians do.
Many of them are in a serious uproar about the removal of the first of the Confederate statues. Me? I think all things must pass. Especially things memorializing a very dark chapter in my country’s history. I say grind them up and turn them into gravel to repair the potholes on my street.
But, that’s just me.
I’m not a native New Orleanian and that’s been made clear to me. I can fix that. I own property in Brooklyn. New York. I was born in Brooklyn. Maybe it’s time to reclaim the neighborhood of my birth. I’m not sure I want to live in a place where three statues memorialize traitors and slavery. And, the so-called natives support that. Oh wait. One of them said he was indigenous. I didn’t know that he came from Native American ancestory. You learn something every day. Around here.
Rant over. He said. With a smile.
The picture. Oh, the usual these days. Film. Photo paper. Scan. Tinker with it until the result is unrecognizable. Then show it to you. I think I like all the stuff that I added to the sky. The picture appears, at first glance, as if it was made on another planet.
So. A cold front passed through Southeast Louisiana. The temperatures dropped into the upper 50s. That might be on the warm side for some of you right about now.
Obviously, I didn’t make this picture yesterday.
But, the notion of a cold front started my brain spinning around. Especially this late in the year. We are a week away from Jazzfest. Usually during the second week of the festival, the weather turns hot and very humid. And, wet. Lots of rain. Summer starts even though the calendar says it’s still May. Early May.
I rooted around in those long missing archives and came up with this picture. A cold front. Of a different sort. Snow. Ice. Really cold weather. I made it in New York City many years ago. How long ago? Well, that’s an interesting question. There are no notes to go along with the picture. I’m willing to bet I made it between 1992 and 1999. Probably closer to 1992 when I spent a huge amount of time in the city.
The picture. I use f 5.6 as my base exposure for a lot of subjects. Even at night. If I can hold the camera, or brace it, or place it on a tripod, that works very well. Even at night. You get some motion — the falling snow. But, the main subjects — the trees and buildings — stay fairly sharp. Once again, the picture was made on film, printed, scanned and then tinkered with. I sort of like this process. I’m even starting to shoot a little film on newer projects.
Once, as I was entering the small Route 66 town of Seligman, Arizona, I stumbled upon this old Air Stream trailer on the eastern edge of town. At first, I thought it was abandoned. But, as I started making pictures I realized two things. It wasn’t abandoned. And, it was functioning as an artist studio. Those square objects in the window are actually canvases in various states of completion. The artist wasn’t there or I would have asked to see his or her work. And, step inside.
Seligman. And me. The little town is a touchstone to my own history. When we were young, our parents liked to go to the Southwest. Often, they didn’t have enough time for a really leisurely road trip, so we’d leave after normal work hours on a Friday, drive all night and stop in Seligman. That became a day long rest stop because you could explore from there.
In those days, the little town wasn’t the tourist attraction it is today. Most buildings were abandoned and boarded up. There was a little motel and a restaurant called the Copper Kettle. My memory is not that great. I know this because it is still there today, some fifty years later. It was marginal then, and it is marginal today. Vegetables were, and are, an unknown to them. The best they could do was either glazed carrots or creamed spinach. From a can. But, they served great country breakfasts. They still do. Go there for breakfast. Go to another town for lunch.
Today, as small as it is — you can see all of it in about five minutes if you are in a hurry — the town is booming. It seems to be the depository for all things Route 66 in that general region. Old cars. Old signs. Old gas pumps. If you like the kind of rolling junk iron cars you can find in Cuba, you can find them in Seligman. Without the humidity. If you like road food like burned hamburgers, cheap hot dogs and soggy french fries — yep — you can find it in Seligman. If you are trying to photograph Route 66, like I was at the time, you can probably do most of it in Seligman and just tell your client you drove 1,200 or 1,500 miles.
I didn’t do that. I’m kind of OCD about that stuff.
The picture. Well you know. More of my playing around. The Air Stream is actually in really good shape. Even its tires were properly inflated, which is one of the first things to go in the dry desert heat.
One more thing. I usually do these kind of road trips in the spring or fall. The light is better and it’s not so hot. But, for the full Route 66 experience I suggest you do it in the dead of summer. When, even with an air-conditioned car, you stick to the seats.
These are my last two pictures of the 2016 holiday season. I didn’t make a lot of “big” Christmas pictures this year. I didn’t feel like it. As we all know, the passing year was a rough one. 2016 was hard on everybody. I guess it shows. Especially, since I believe all art is autobiographical.
Don’t get me wrong. I had a fine Christmas. It’s not about the holiday. It’s about all that preceded it. And, what many fear will come. Storyteller isn’t a political blog, but the world is changing and not in a good way. Two political events happened this year that nobody believed could happen. And, a never-ending war in the Middle East blossomed into one of the largest humanitarian crises the world has ever seen. Innocent people were killed. Ancient cities destroyed.
Of course, there were the passings. People left the planet. Ancestors is what we call them in New Orleans. We mourn. Then we celebrate their lives. So many artists — in the form of musicians — died in 2016.
But, some of those who left inspired all of us to do better, to create on a higher level, no matter our art. The cycle of mourning and celebration never seemed to end this year. We all need a break.
I have no idea. I don’t know what’s coming. As they say, it’s above my pay grade. Well above my pay grade. But, I do know that I have to shake this off and move beyond it. To be better. To create at another level. I can’t speak for any of you. You all know what you have to do. Or, not do.
The pictures. I took them walking around. There is a sense of isolation in both of them. You know. That, “all art is autobiographical” thing. Rearing its ugly head. If you look closely at “Santa and Me,” you can see a dog leash on the bottom right of the picture. Guess who was with me? Yep. The dog. The one who sees things. Who helps me take pictures.
The top picture is the very last picture that I made in Winston-Salem. North Carolina. The bottom picture is the very last picture that I made in the New River Valley. In Blacksburg, Virginia. While I was working there.
The pictures. You know the drill by now. Nikon camera bodies. The top picture was made with an F3. The bottom picture was made with an FM. The lenses were at 24mm f 2.8 and, on the bottom, a 180mm f 2.8. The film was Kodak Tri-X black and white film.
I’m not sure what more there is to say about these images. My style was obviously evolving. Even though these pictures were made roughly 35 years ago, the top picture is very close to how I work today. Except it’s black and white film. And, I probably would light it instead of pushing the film a couple of F stops. That’s why it is so contrasty and the shadows are so deep.
A couple of you like my black and white work. It makes me think that maybe I should keep it up. No. Not with old pictures. But, some new work. Let’s just hope that I can see in black and white. Every image would be a conversion for color to black and white. Only one camera, a Leica, currently in production makes pure black and white image files.
Also. A very nice person whose email address says that he or she works at Virginia Tech sent me the details on the basketball picture I published yesterday. Thank you.
It also ain’t the training. When I went to college, most of us already knew how to take pictures. We needed to learn how to think about photography. How to think about photojournalism. How to tell visual stories. We had to learn about ethics. But, all of us understood the mechanics of taking a picture. Exposure. Light. Framing. We knew that stuff. We were expected to know it before we ever started making the kinds of pictures you’ve seen on Storyteller.
I’ve never considered myself to be a great sports photographer. That’s a whole genre in itself. Sure. I have pretty good hand – eye coordination. I’m pretty good at capturing peak action. But, the real trick is to be able to do those two things and tell the story of the game, or set or match.
Too bad for you. I’m going to publish two days of sports pictures. My versions.
That said, I’ve been pretty lucky. I was able to photograph some big events. And, a lot of little events. Little events are far more fun. You can pretty much work from wherever you want. You can pretty much not have to battle other photographers for position. And, as participants get to know you, you can cheat a little and work from places that you normally wouldn’t be allowed to work.
The pictures. First, the gear. Nikons. Either F2s. FMs. Or, F3s. The football picture was shot with a 300mm f 5.6. The baseball picture was shot with an 500 mm mirror reflex lens. It only had one f-stop. F8. Lee Trevino was taken with the magic 400mm F3.5 and the bodybuilder was made with a 135 mm F 2.8. The film was, as usual, Kodak Tri-X rated all over the place depending on the situation.
A few back stories.
Football. I must have been in the groove that game. When I look at the film, I see several series of peak action where I just leaned on the button and let the motor drive do its thing. I don’t normally do that. I pick my shots.
Baseball. I was testing a Nikon F8 reflex lens. They were manufactured from 1968 to 1983. They idea was for the light to bounce around in a system of mirrors which kept the lens small, compact and lightweight. In theory it was a brilliant idea. It also needed brilliant light to be even marginally useful. Or, you needed a tripod which defeated the original purpose of small and light weight. Because of the way the light bounced around inside the lens it also created those round circles which we nicknamed donut holes.
Lee Trevino. Sometimes, in Winston-Salem, we were able to shoot big time events. I forget what it has been renamed, but in 1981 the golf tournament was called The Greater Greensboro Open. There are a lot of things to know about photographing golf. With the pros. Or, at any level. One is that your camera makes a lot of noise unless it is baffled. You cannot take pictures when a golfer is actually concentrating, especially when he is on the putting green. But, not to worry. Big time pros like Lee Trevino knew how to work with us. We needed a picture. He wanted publicity. He would look up and make a face. First, to the right. Then, he’d do it again to the left.
Body building. This is where that learning to think about pictures thing came in. The traditional pictures of these contests are actually pretty boring. They all pretty much look the same. What to do? What to do? I looked up and saw a balcony. I went upstairs and shot down. Once I did that I found all sorts of interesting angles and pictures. This one picture opened my eyes.
There was some weirdness about this assignment. It started a huge argument in the newsroom. I shot this on a Sunday night. My boss, the chief photographer, called me on Monday to ask if I could stop by. My day off. Uh oh. Trouble. For me. He was very disappointed in what he thought was my coverage.
The sports night editor picked the weakest picture of the winner holding a trophy. You have to take that picture. But, for me it was an identifying picture. Not something to be published. I asked my boss to come with me to the sports desk. I handed him the stack of pictures that they didn’t use. He apologized to me, raised the roof with the sports editor and magically I was given a page to design using my pictures. The so-called sports out takes. The sports editor wrote what I call some “spin copy” that said something like “due to the lateness of the event we could only run one picture, but here’s what the contest really looked like.”