Photography is bad for you.

I had not planned to write this blog until I woke up this morning, in pain, again. A lot of pain. I did not quite have to use my hands to pick my head up, but it was close. I’ve been there before, and I never want to go there again. I probably will, but I try very hard to avoid it, especially as it can get very chronic. Maybe I can keep it to irregular/episodic.

I have had issues with my neck since before I was full time professional photographer. I come by some of it honestly: my neck and upper back were never structurally ideal. Nor were they notably problematic in my youth, not until I took a serious horse fall that broke my collarbone extravagantly. I was ready for it to be broken when the doc went to put the brand spanking new x-ray up, but I was not prepared for the daylight between the two sections.

Over the years, pain and spasms crept into my life on a more and more regular basis. I kept problems at bay with a lot of yoga. I often joked that I should do a book called Yoga for Photographers. As my photography career picked up, I started having terrible pain and weakness in my hands, too. One week, in my busiest year ever, I photographed a wedding, flew across the country to photograph a corporate event, flew back, drove to a destination wedding and photographed it for 2 days. I woke up with such pain and weakness in my hands and forearms that I could not drive home. My life has not been the same since that day.

The western medical establishment has been entirely unhelpful. My primary care doc immobilized both my hands for months. When it did not work she suggested doing it for longer. The expensive hand specialist pretty much shrugged. The hand therapist suggested I needed more strength and flexibility, since that is what the standard approach was, even with a hyper mobile female client with the grip strength of a man. Her work just inflamed everything more regularly.

So, I have changed what and how much I can do, both on an every day basis, and over the long term. Work takes priority. Sitting at the computer for post production is often more painful that getting out shooting, though I have wrist rests, an adjustable keyboard tray, and some other ergonomic accommodations. I make it my business to find a chiropractor who helps my pain, both acute and long term management. I get a massage when I can. I use acupuncture when things get chronic, even with all the above. I found a yoga class that does not require me to stress my hands too much, avoiding all those downward dogs and planks. I have more pillows that I care to admit, searching always for the perfect one.

It was not until a minor car accident in my 30s that my neck was ever x-rayed.

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People! My neck is epically messed up. It curves backwards in a way that makes chiropractors gasp in horror. As much as the years of holding and hunkering under huge, heavy cameras has contributed to my aches and pains, it’s really my neck at the heart of my problems. Taking care of myself is boring. Being in pain is depressing, frustrating, and scary. OK, world, I’ll take boring self care for $100.

Gods, I feel so useless when I can’t work. Maybe I still need to do the Yoga for Photographers project.

So, while I exhort myself to take care of myself, let me exhort you to do the same. Stretch that body: we sit poorly and crouch over computers, steering wheels, cameras, patients, clients, counters… you name it. Strengthen that core. Break those bad postural habits. Use heat and ice: my favorite is alternating, for most things. Step away from that screen. Get the rest you need. Find what works for your body. If you have any suggestions, please comment! OK, off for some gentle stretching as soon as I have this ice pack back in the freezer.

Photographs and Memories

I found it. I found the first picture I took with my first camera. I was looking for it to accompany and earlier blog post whose wanderings of thought included memory. In the weeks since then, memory and photography have been much on my mind. My dear friend and mentor, Blaine Pennington shared a link to an article by Polly Gaillard about photographs and memories (and, no, I do not mean the Jim Croce record, though it is a huge part of the soundtrack of my youth and still excellent). It seems considering memory is pretty inherently linked to image making.

She talks about being asked for images she made of subjects who recently died. I’ve had that very great honor, too. It is one of the great beauties of being a photographer who makes images of people, to be able to give people talismans of their loved ones, to build and share that container for memory.

Citing Sally Mann’s take on photography roles in memory, she quotes from Mann’s book, Hold Still: ““Photography would seem to preserve our past and make it invulnerable to the distortions of repeated memorial superimpositions, but I think that is a fallacy: photographs supplant and corrupt the past, all the while creating their own memories.”  Discussing her late father, Mann continues: “I’ve lost any clear idea of what my father really looked like, how he moved, sounded; the him-ness of him.  I only have this (photograph).  It isn’t death that stole my father from me; it’s the photograph.

Neither Gaillard nor I share that experience/opinion. While I do believe that a photograph catalyzes only pieces of memory, that a collection of photos is a tight edit of a life and that it, therefore, contains its own biases, I do not think it robs us of memory. My experience is that it extends our memories, it catalyzes memories we might otherwise have lost.

Without the photos of my childhood, I would have fewer memories as vivid and fully realized that I do. They make for a bias in memory, but so does what I have forgotten and remembered on my own. And, there are those gone from my life of whom I do not have any pictures. More and more, I have just the feel of them, just the feelings I hold for them. I have their basic shape and palette, but the details of the faces are fading, and maybe I have them entirely wrong, now. Who knows? Is one way or another better or more true? I don’t think so. But, I do know that I derive joy and pleasure from my trove of images. And, I love the questions they raise, the possibilities as well as the definition. Reflections, stories, questions… I can’t resist.

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This unimportant old thing, this dingy shot from a plastic camera made by an 8 year old, shot from the back porch on the blah Christmas day she finally got her first camera: is it true? Is the memory it sealed in my mind valid? I think so. I’d have a basic idea of what the back yard of the house I grew up in looked like, with the wood pile in the back corner under the maple tree, by the tremendous American Elm stump. But, would I recall the fence extension that my dad had to rig up, when our big black lab, Max (the best dog ever), figured out he could walk up that convenient stacked wood staircase and just pop over the chain link? Would even reflecting on the space in which I grew up make me think of my dog? And, how much we all loved him? That his dog house was in this same back yard, and I used to go hide int here with him on really bad days? I can’t say that it would. It’s important to me.

Yeah, I’m a sentimental fool. But, I guess a lot of us photographers are. Thank goodness so many of you are, too.What do you think? Photography: memory maker or breaker, or something more subtle?

OK, now I need to go put on some Jim Croce.

The Home Exercise

This week, it’s back to the practical talk on photo skills and exercises. Possibly my favorite exercise was the one given to me originally by a photography teacher in college. Having quit the world-renowned film school at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, because they would not let me take a still photo course, I’d transferred to the Gallatin Division, where the entire university was open to me. Felix was teaching or in residency at The International Center for Photography, and I was fortunate to have him as my photo teacher for one semester, the only still photo course I would take at college in the end.

The digital revolution as still far off, and we were putting rolls of 35mm through our cameras for all our class work. Felix assigned us early in the semester to shoot two rolls of where we lived, no styling or set ups allowed. The idea was to try and cultivate a new vision for the place most familiar to use, the things we most took for granted, to bring a photographer’s perception to our everyday surroundings.

I lived in 5th floor walk up. We had hot water, but they were still called cold water flats, from when the tenements were built, and the bathtub still stood in the middle of the main room of the 600 square foot, 2 bedroom apartment (learn more at The Tenement Museum).We did not have to boil the water, but we did have to shower in that main room, and the only sink was right next to it. The dishes stacked up in the tub when we got busy, and sometimes you had to do the dishes if you wanted to bathe. Oh New York. It also had high ceilings, transoms, wavy old glass, wood floors and wood trim, and an only slightly obstructed view of the twin towers. I brought a kitchen cabinet and drawers from the glorious new Ikea and a kitchen table with two stools. My tiny room featured huge shelves and a loft bed with my clothes hanging underneath, and no room for anything else. We used to time people coming up the five flights, and we called them old if they were slow. Ah, youth.

Any way, it was funky little boho paradise. With my limited gear and experience, my 2 rolls (I favored rolls of 36 exposures over those of 24: who wouldn’t want to take more pictures?) came out reasonably boring. I think the close up of the crackled skim coat on the wall by the tub was probably the most interesting shot. Felix agreed.

It was on subsequent versions of this exercise that its real point and possibility came alive to me. The next place I lived in which I did this exercise frustrated me terribly. It was plain apartment and it was filled with second hand and leftover everything. It was fine to live in, but it did not inspire. The next place I had more success. Its vaguely modern lines were easy to abstract a bit, my first real success in this exercise.

However, it was the next one that really opened my eyes. Why? We moved for one month into a Courtyard Marriott long term/corporate housing set up. We brought clothes and a computer and precious little otherwise. Corporate housing land was not inspiring. And, yet, somewhere in me, I knew I had to do the Home Exercise. For a little while, it was agonizing. It was reaching the point of desperation that lead me to the leap forward. If there was nothing to take a picture of, no subject, I had to look in a new way. I had rely solely on lighting, angles, depth of field, texture… I had to find these and find how I could combine them. The pictures I took in that series were hands down the best pictures the Home Exercise had ever produced, and they remain so to this day.

So, if you want to work with your seeing, perception, how to work with some of the most important tools you have at your fingertips as a photographer, I suggest you try the Home Exercise. Some of you might be lucky enough to live in place so wonderful that you have a great story to tell. Many will rely more on the foundations of photographic form and content. I still always want to tell a story of my home, but I’ve never quite gotten what I was hoping for when I have tried. It’s the light and forms and isolated details that always have done the trick for me. So, go crank out two rolls or at least 75 frames of that most familiar place, and tell us what you got. I’d be delighted if you shared some images.

I have not done this exercise where I live, now. Maybe I’d better get on that. Well, when I get home. I’m writing this at 30,000 feet and won’t be home for a couple of weeks. That means I can do it in my on the road homes, doesn’t it? I can also search for some of those past images when I get home, if ya’ll want some show and tell.

Talking About Myth and the Examined Life

I had the great pleasure this week to be a guest on the one hour radio program, Myth America. It was on WIOX radio, out of upstate New York. It is not archived to stream, but when I get a copy, I will share it here. I met host Leigh Melander on a forum years ago, The Art of Natural Dressage. The forum’s focus is the gentle art and science of classical dressage training, with a focus on the horse’s welfare and building real relationship between horse and human.

It became clear pretty quickly that we had a lot in common. She, too, had a varied path: performer, author, coach, as well as horsewoman (I’m torn about that term: I always prefer horseman as feminized titles kind of drive me insane, but this one is pretty common…. Hmmmm…). We had always wanted to meet in real life, and that her beautiful retreat center, Spillian, is close to where every summer I photograph the great Richard Thompson’s music camp, Frets and Refrains, seemed promising. But, we never managed to pull it off.

When she asked me to join her on her weekly radio program, I jumped at the chance for so many good reasons, though I was a little reticent, at first. I’ve not developed a rap on the mermaids, per se. I was not quite sure about filling an entire hour talking about them, but Leigh assured me it would be a great conversation, and that seemed very likely. She knows her stuff, with a doctorate in cultural mythology and psychology and is on the board of The Joseph Campbell Foundation. I know my work and, more or less, how and why I make it.  So, I reviewed what I have written about the mermaids and my art, and reminded myself that she had asked me on the program to talk about my work. I am a well spoken person. I should just open up and let it roll.

That’s exactly what we did. We talked about myth and horses; about the attention of the camera and feeling seen; the honor and joy of witnessing the arc of a story with my camera; about photographs as talismans; and, of course, about going back to the old, scary myths to find the inspiration for my mermaids. Starting out with the dead suitor in the tank pretty much set the tone for the series, after all.

We also talked about making a photo versus taking one. I told her that I am sure in my own blindness, that I do stumble off the path, but that I am much more focused on making a photo than taking one. Of course it is a very subjective mater, deciding what a situation offers a photographer in this matter. But, I have never been one to press the shutter during sensitive moments. I’ll never be a star photo journalist. Horse broke its leg on the steeplechase course? Nope, couldn’t take that picture. People in the throes of grief? Nope. Car accident? Negative.

Of course, the opportunity to make important photos of intense human experience is available in those moments. Many very important images have been made in just such circumstances. But, that is not my work. Those are not my images.

Why not? It’s complicated, as you might imagine. Firstly, I am a very sensitive person. It is a great gift, but like many traits which one might have in depth, it can also be a weakness. Looking at something as closely as I do when photographing means it will be deeply etched in my mind; it will be deeply affecting. To take in my subjects’ trauma, and grief, and loss is very taxing. It is unsustainable. To just take a shot without really looking would be disrespectful to both subject and to my role as a witness. It would not even be likely to make a strong image. Secondly, I feel that my role, like a doctor, is governed by the axiom, “First, do no harm”. To intrude into such searing moments is a grave thing, and it can have terrible effects on those already suffering the consequences of dramatic conditions. It is not that I think it should never, ever be done, but I know it is not my work.

I was faced with just such a moment this morning. I headed out for what is likely to be one of my last walks of the season down to the greenbelt. It’s finally getting summer hot in Austin, and it was 80 degrees by the time I headed out of the door at 9:30am. I always take my little Fuji on walks these days, getting to know it at my own pace and better every time I use it. I’m still not as fluid with it as I am with the Nikons, but we’re getting there, and the slower pace of using it suits a contemplative stroll in the woods.

As I progressed down the path, a man cautioned me, “There’s a dead animal on the path.” “It’s a dead dog,” chimed in his young daughter, mercifully seeming reasonably unfazed. I was not sure what I would find, but boy was I glad I’d had the warning. It was pretty grisly, with the hindquarter missing, amongst other injuries. I thought, “Should I photograph it? It surely has impact.” I decided no, it was not for me. This image would not serve me, and I could not serve it. To take it would have been sensationalist crap. I looked to see if I might get just a snap of the face for ID purposes if someone was looking but did not know to find their lost pet on this particular trail. No, it, too, was too awful. I tucked a mental image this clearly well cared for fluffy black dog with a brown collar in my mind. I could post an ad made of words or respond to any lost dog posters, should it be necessary. I turned back, “Am I sure? It’s real. It’s valid. No one needs help. No one is even here.” No, it was not for me, and I proceeded down the trail.

In just a little ways I came across a handsome, young, white man. His casual clothes and shaggy blonde hair gave him a hippyish vibe. But, his barely reined in emotion was palpable, and he carried a blanket with him. It was clear he was in acute dread when he asked, “The dog on the trail?” I told him it was just a little farther down the path, as he hustled by me. I heard him cry out wordlessly when he spotted her. And, again, I thought, when he got to her. And, then, my heart broke, “I’m sorry,” he wept. I decided to go back out and reach out to him. Our society is not too good with handling emotions, and I am actually a trained crisis responder.  I went slowly, allowing him some time. When I got to him I asked, “Do you want any help? Can cover her up for you, or would you like to be alone?” He thought a moment and told me he’d like to be alone. I gave him my heartfelt condolences and continued my walk.

When I got to a good sitting rock, I pondered all of this. And, I was so glad I did not stop to take that picture. How terrible it would have been to come upon some stranger taking a picture of your beloved pet, savaged by coyotes and laid out on the rocky path? I was glad I did not take one of him kneeling over his dog in his shock and grief. I could have. The Fuji is near silent, and the photo would have been gripping. But…. ewwww. Actually, I did not even think of it as I went back. Only after.

So, with my motivations examined and my behavior sympatico with them, some days it is good not to take the shot. We may all come to different formulas and conclusions, but I believe it is important to act from an examined head and heart. I’m glad Leigh and I had touched on this just a couple days ago. It was easier to stay true to myself with that ground recently surveyed. I’m not always great with gore. And, while sad, I still feel strong and grounded. I did the right thing for me. The examined life, yes: that’s the one for me. And, myth is one of the ways we examine our lives and out world. Thanks, Leigh.

Eugene Smith in American Photo

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The great American photographer W. Eugene Smith is one of my heroes. Brilliant, totally committed, revolutionary, difficult, and complex: he is sometimes credited as the father of the photo essay. In 2010, American Photo Magazine published a previously unknown written essay by him. Two quotes stood out to me then, and I rediscovered them recently:

As a photographer who covers and collaborates with many performing artists, I related to this struggle:

“An artist whose work intrudes into the creative life of another artist is faced with a perplexing choice. To intrude enough to properly interpret, to translate, necessitates (at least when time is limited) a forcing of the situation in a way that might be damaging to the thin, intangible creative thread of the other artist. Yet not to do this is certainly frustrating and damaging to the interpretation of the intruding artist.”

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I think most folks who get serious about their photographer, whether as profession or avocation, can relate to this frustration:

“The number of rolls used on any of my stories is nobody’s business, for unless the thinking and the way of developing a journalistic story is understood thoroughly by outsiders, they will misinterpret. If a writer says that he wrote 26 versions of his last chapter, it is interpreted as showing what a diligent, careful, hard working perfectionist he is. With a photographer, it merely is interpreted as showing that if you take enough pictures, some are bound to be good!”

Reading the article as it plumbs these depths is highly recommended.

If you are interested in seeing and learning more about this seminal figure, I suggest the fantastic photo bio, Let Truth Be the Prejudice. How can I not love something with that title? I trust you are familiar with at least some of his images. They are among the most famous of the mid 20th century.

 

My Favorite Online Photo Resources, 2016

The resources I use most for my on-going photographic education have changed over the years. I’m going to share with you the three I go to the most right now, and, in return, I’d like to know what places feed your mind and your creativity.

  1. Digital Photography Review was the first, best gold standard for research on cameras and gear. There’s a million resources, now. But, DP Review is still my go to. They have not failed me yet. Mind you, when I am researching potential purchases be it for myself, a client, or a friend, I mine many resources, but DP Review is like starting with the textbook before going out to the research library. When it is gear research, I still start there.
  2. F-Stoppers. I think I found them on a Facebook link, but that’s years back, now. Again, there’s a billion places to go to read and watch about technique, but I find great value at F-Stoppers. Everything I have gleaned there has been free. I have several of their articles and videos in my bookmarks, and I go back to them when I forget the fine details of a technique I have not used in a while. I think I fell for them over their frequency separation for shiny skin article. I have shared a commercial bottle lighting tutorial of theirs with a new distillery that’s still in the DIY phase of start up (side note: Bone Spirits in Smithville, TX makes a gin so good that I sip it straight).
  3. Most recently, I have come to appreciate the more in depth series at Creative Live. They have terrific professionals teaching in all areas of photography: Chase Jarvis, Ben Willmore, Brooke Shaden, Franz Lanting, Art Wolfe, etc. That is not all. Alongside their Photo & Video section, they also have sections for: Art & Design; Music & Audio; Craft & Maker; and Money & Life. I could weigh into almost all of those. And, if my man were not a world class audio engineer*, I’d be saying all of them. Know when to leave some details to others. They tend to work on a free intro trailer/paid class structure, but they are quite affordable, and there are several I am looking forward to taking (after I get through a creative Photoshop course I am already taking from another source: summer = hiding in the AC = lots of computer work, and I’ll report back later on that). I just noticed that from June 6 – July 1 they are doing a free Photoshop basics course.

*I designed his site/did his branding for Rumiville. Go have a listen.

I hope you find some interesting bits and bobs there, and please share your favorite resources. The web is such a big place, and there is nothing like a personal referral to make a difference in finding the hidden gems, or even the obvious ones. Thanks!

The Triangle Effect – Composition Tool #1

In my first photographic technique tip, I shared with you the handy exposure elements chart that had helped me bring together my understanding of how the basic variables of exposure work together to effect your picture: f-stop (and its effect on depth of field), shutter speed (and its effect on motion), and ISO (with its effect on quality).

Subject number two is considering the entirety of your frame. It is most people’s instinct to look at their main subject and press the shutter button. To improve the quality and effect of your images, I suggest working to train your brain to be more able to perceive the whole of the frame. There are very many exercises to do this, I found one in a training by photographer and Photoshop leader Seth Resnick particularly effective.

I had been urged to join the American Society of Media Photographers (ASMP) early in my career by photographer Michael Bailey of Charlottesville, VA. I definitely suggest finding a photographers group that will help support your learning about all subjects photographic: technical skills, creative approaches, business, and promotion. It was through the Portland, OR chapter that I attended most of the training I have found of greatest value in my career, and that is where I enjoyed learning from Seth Resnick.

He told several tales about learning over many years from the august Jay Maisel. While I enjoyed hearing about the sudden demands to take an image immediately within a five foot radius of where you stand (an exercise that I understood as learning to look in new ways at what seems at first glance unremarkable), the one that sticks with me to this day was one of Jay’s tools for evaluating images. On appraising the day’s shooting, he repeatedly pointed out lost little triangles in the corners of Seth’s images.

With the corners of our frames naturally serving as two sides of a triangle, it is very common for a piece of subject matter to transition not far from a corner, causing the triangle effect. Now, there are no hard and fast rules about composition, but very often, these triangles only serve to weaken an image. And, they tend to come from not considering the entirety of our composition.

Sometimes a triangle might be very much part of a conscious decision, but it is only in looking into those far corners of our frame that we can consider our entire composition. It is not so much that corner triangles are de facto wrong, but that they are often weak and often the result of not looking at your entire frame, your entire composition. Thinking, “Do I have triangles?” forces us to look in ways we do not look just off the cuff or when absorbed in a subject.

I was looking at a book on improving your image making the other day. I already knew I’d likely write about this, but I’m a researcher. As I flipped through, I looked for triangles in the corner of all the example images. Only one had them, and it was image all about geometry and curves and lines.

Of course, we can crop our images after the fact. But, learning to look and see while you are photographing is an important facet of improving your image making. So, go look through your existing images and think about those corners. Go look through your viewfinders and at your screens, and shoot the entire image, corner to corner. Let me know what you see and what you get.

Image How I Became a Photographer, Part 1

OK, it’s time for another common question I get. Not surprisingly, many people want to know, “How did you become a photographer?” I tend to answer along one of two lines, either, “I have always been a photographer,” or, “Well, it was a long and winding road.” I’ll speak bit to all of that.

I remember being a young child. As a marked youngest in the early 70s, there was not a lot of photos taken of me. But, do remember 2 adults who were avid amateur photographers asking to take my picture. One was a neighborhood friend. I think he as doing a class, and he asked to take a photo of me with my favorite holiday present. I can remember feeling so special and so honored to stand there with my fashion doll as he posed me and that dolly, like a classic portrait photographer. He was taking my photo. He was interested in me. My aunt also did a portrait of me when I was quite young. I remember the lift it gave a glum young me to be the subject of a more casual, photo journalistic photo. When I saw the image, the fact that it was in black and white seemed very sophisticated, indeed. Photo bliss.

My experience of photography as an act of love, of honor, and indicator of value was set at a very young age. My dad got his Olympus OM-1 somewhere back there, and it was generally produced for occasions that could be seen as special or important: vacations, holidays, special events. In those moments where I was included in a picture, I felt seen. To be attended by the camera’s gaze was a much needed dose of validation. With all this meaning already in place, I embraced photos, valued them acutely, and even found them a little bit magical. It’s not surprising that the role of photographer was innately attractive to me, as well.

When my older sister got a camera for Christmas one year and I did not, I was overwhelmed with envy. I think I was five or six. It would be a couple more years before I, too, received a Kodak Instamatic camera for Christmas. Hers had a blue color block on the front. When it came time for mine, they had moved on to a red strip and upgraded from flash cubes to flip flash. I was styling.

From then on, my greatest recurring joy was to get my pictures back from being developed, along with new film and flash. For as long as I can remember, most of my allowance went into things photographic. I entered my terrible snaps in the summer camp competitions. When I was ten, I got a shot of a contentious moment at a friendly regatta and enjoyed the hubbub around the crews wanting that photo evidence. Being behind the camera was even more validating than being in front of it. I pointed my camera at what I thought mattered, and when people saw the results, they clearly agreed. Now, that was a refreshing experience. That never gets old.

I was asked the why-are-you-a-photographer question by some would be bohemian type at a studio party. When I answered that it was because I felt that every frame was an act of love, he rolled his jaded eyes and all but shouted, “Oh come on!” For me, all my roles as photographer are best done, and most happily done, with love, from those in which I serve as witness to those in which I act as creator.

When I met up with my riding camp mentor many years later, she asked what I was doing. “I’m a photographer.” “You always were the girl with the camera.” Well, how I got from the one on to the other will be another post.

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