Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Among Artists

I’ve written here before how, in my 30-some-years as a photographer, my cameras have given me an excuse to be nosy, to see life in a way that sometimes makes me feel like I have a ticket for a show that others might miss.

I just returned from a week visiting my mother in Ohio. I go “back home” several times a year, and when I’m there Mom and I often visit the nearby Oberlin College campus and the school’s well-known and much-respected Conservatory of Music. When my sister, brother and I were growing up, our parents were both music teachers in public schools in Northern Ohio, and music filled our home. I was a trumpet player through high school, blessed with enough natural ability to be reasonably decent without having to apply myself or spend a lot of time practicing, but it wasn’t until I discovered photography that a creative fire really began to burn in me.

Walking around on the Oberlin campus this past week, there was no doubt in my mind that I was in an atmosphere where the young musicians were as passionate about their art as I am about mine. One afternoon when I was nosing around in the Conservatory building, a fire alarm went off. Even after the alarm was turned off and the all-clear was given that students could reenter the building, one musician strapped her heavy ‘cello case to her back and told her friends she’d carry her instrument with her to afternoon classes, just to be safe. Another evening, my mom and I attended a concert of the Oberlin Chamber Orchestra. Because Mom and I arrived an hour before the performance, I was in the empty concert hall when harpist Xiao Du was on stage, tuning. She graciously permitted me to make a few photographs.

Xiao Du was about to perform her art, while I was just practicing mine.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Limitations (Not!)

I've been having Fun With Photography this week, playing a game to see what kinds of images I can make while following two simple rules:

--My personal pictures have to be shot with a 24mm lens.
--I have to shoot the pictures no farther than 50 yards from my door.

I started the game thinking these arbitrary constraints would be challenging in their limitations, but I'm finding that, in practice, the rules I've set up are surprisingly freeing.

I'd probably never approach a professional shoot with only one camera and one lens in my bag, but what I'm experiencing this week by playing with fewer toys will certainly influence the way I "see" next time I set out with a whole arsenal of equipment.

Lighten Up, Dude

Today’s modern digital point-and-shoot cameras can sometimes make photography seem awfully easy. The Hollyhock image above was shot with a new Panasonic LX3, a camera about the size of my wallet (which, by-the-way, is empty now, owing to the recent purchase of the aforementioned camera.)

On the other hand, the close-up insect photo (below) was shot with a Canon 5D SLR and a 100 mm macro lens. This camera/lens combination is about four times the size and I’d guess maybe two or three pounds heavier than the Panasonic pocket camera.

For most of the 30-some years I’ve been making my living shooting photographs, the size of the camera mattered when it came to image quality--the bigger the camera (and the negative it produced,) the better a print would look. A pocket snapshot camera was what old ladies used to take pictures of the grandkids’ birthday parties, not something a pro would take on a “real” assignment.

Today, however, small cameras seem to be where the action is in modern digital camera design. Heck, even cell phones these days can produce pretty amazing images.

These small cameras are good news for those of us who have been around the block a time or two. We of the much-abused-spine crowd are learning that photography is a lot more fun if we're not stooped-over, struggling with the weight of a heavy camera bag.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Getting Out

Because I generally don’t post my income-producing (wedding work) pictures on this site, I sometimes wonder whether folks who read this online journal might get the idea I’m a fellow who doesn’t have a “real” job, a lucky man with a camera who wanders around beautiful, visually stunning areas of the Pacific Northwest photographing mountains or waterfalls or idyllic pastoral scenes. Or perhaps it seems that I’m one of those fortunate individuals who invested in a bunch of Microsoft stock at just the right time, sold it--also at the right time--and retired at the age of 29 to devote full time to my hobby of photography?

Well, “No!” to all of the above. For the record, I spend most of my weekdays staring into a computer display screen, going through (one-by-one) hundreds of images I’ve shot for clients at weekend weddings. I enjoy my work, but it is "work."

This week, however, a friend insisted I take a day away from Mr. Macintosh and hike with her in the high country near Mt. Rainier. Though I try to fit some kind of exercise into my life every day, I hadn’t had a pack on my back or hiking boots on my feet in months. It felt SO good to be in the mountains again.

My friend and I hiked to a high alpine meadow at an elevation of about 6000 feet. Fall color is beginning to show itself up there, and it’s interesting to me how the two photographs I’m posting here, both shot from that same high meadow, look so very different. The color image above feels (to me) like the Cascade Mountains in fall. The black-and-white photograph below reminds me--except for the pine tree--of scenes I’ve shot in the desert Southwest, maybe Monument Valley.

Color or black-and-white, I really don’t care.

Have I mentioned that it was good to be out?

Monday, September 15, 2008

Good Fortune

The summer after my sophomore year in college, I had a photography internship at National Geographic Magazine. As you might guess, that job is one for which every college photojournalism major in America would give up a lifetime’s worth of pizza and beer.

One of the first assignments the magazine gave me was to travel to the beautiful mountains near McCall, Idaho to photograph a Fourth of July rodeo. I was a 19-year-old kid from Ohio and had never been west of Missouri. When I set foot in the American West, I knew where I had to spend the rest of my life.

This past weekend--30-some years after my Geographic internship--my cameras took me to a job in the staggeringly beautiful San Juan Islands of Washington State. Just the ferry trip to Orcas Island where I was working was over-the-top amazing, and I was
reminded--for the eight zillionth time--how much I am smitten by The West. Mount Baker (which I’ve climbed a number of times) was a mama hen, protecting her island-chicks, and even a common seagull had a regal look about him.

I love where I live, and I promise I will never take that for granted.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Lost and Found

Sometimes it might be a good thing if a photographer (me, for example) is not too well-organized when it comes to the filing of images. Not long ago I was digging through the ragtag collection of boxes that pass for my image storage system. I was looking for one set of pictures when I came upon some others--pictures I’d forgotten about.

Though the photographs you see here won’t make it into my all-time Greatest Hits album, I’m glad I unearthed them. I like the light and the shapes in the images, and I certainly enjoyed the trip to Southern Arizona where the pictures were made.

It’s not easy for photographers to separate how we feel about images from the experience we had in making them--which I guess this is why God invented Picture Editors. A good editor can be the clear-eyed individual who tells a photographer what’s good and what’s not, without the complicated emotional attachment a shooter can have for an image because it was hard to get, or the people in the photograph were pleasant, or the weather was wonderful.

A picture editor might also tell me my filing system needs some work, at which point I'd be reminded what an uneasy alliance sensitive-artist-photographers have with know-it-all editors.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008


If you are of a certain age, you might remember the cartoon character Pepe Le Pew, an amorous skunk who was smitten by a beautiful girl-creature who Pepe was convinced was the skunk-mate of his dreams.

In his love-is-blind state of male passion, Pepe neglected to pick up on the sad reality that the object of his affection was a cute little female black cat, not a skunk.

What I actually remember most from that cartoon, however, was the way the animators had Pepe float. Catching the scent of the female-cat-not-skunk, Pepe would drift through the television screen air, carried toward bliss--and often a collision with a tree, or a drop off a cliff. Do you remember how the cartoonists gave a visual life to the fragrance? It was drawn as a mist, a moving cloud, and Pepe would follow that olfactory invitation to trouble every time.

We have those very same mists present in our house these days because Leah is spending her every free minute in the kitchen, canning peaches and plums and what-have-you, the fruits of our orchard's summer bounty. Working with the same kinds of glass jars and metal canning lids my grandmother used, Leah’s putting-up of preserves sends out a fragrance that transports me back in time, into my grandmother’s house, and yes, even into those long-ago days when cartoons were a big part of my kid-life and Pepe and his cat girlfriend were my imaginary friends.

Today our house is filled with a peach and plum fragrance that has me drifting through the air, following my nose toward the kitchen.

Pepe, mon frere, I understand the lure of le parfum.

Friday, September 5, 2008


“Every day, think as you wake up,
‘Today I am fortunate to have woken up,
I am alive, I have a precious human life,
I am not going to waste it;
I am going to use all my energies
to develop myself,
to expand my heart out to others,
to achieve enlightenment for the
benefit of all beings;
I am going to have kind thoughts towards others,
I am not going to get angry
or think badly about others;
I am going to benefit others as much as I can.’ ”

H.H. The XIV Dalai Lama

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Hall Pass

What do you do with your days off from work? If you’re a doctor, do you take your stethoscope in hand and go door-to-door near your house, asking to check your neighbors’ hearts and lungs? Perhaps you are a plumber and you grab a wrench and crawl into that tiny space under The Wife’s kitchen sink to tighten a leaky pipe?

Well I’m a photographer, and when there’s a day when I’m not getting paid to take photographs, I do them anyway. For fun.

I began learning photography's magic when I was 16-years-old. I was editor of my high school’s newspaper and also shot pictures for the school yearbook. Many school days my journalism teacher would give me a hall pass, and, while other students were stuck at their desks solving geometry problems, I was moving freely around the school taking pictures of whatever I pleased. Several times when I ran out of film, another teacher gave me the keys to her Fiat sports car so I could make a quick trip--again, while other kids were in class--to the local camera shop.

In the nearly 40 years since high school, not much has changed in my life. My camera is still my passion and my excuse to be curious, my hall pass to move freely from here-to-there, looking at what my fellow human beings are up to. Last week I spent several happy hours at an event in Seattle called Tibet Fest, a coming-together of Seattle’s small Tibetan culture. There was music and dance and wonderful food. The Seattle Center House was filled with prayer flags and Tibetan flags and beautiful human faces.

I once read (I wish I could remember where) that "photography explains man to man, and each man to himself.” So often I meet people who express envy that I am able to make a living as a photographer. What those folks don’t understand is that, more than making a living, photography helps me find Life.