On Little Cat Feet
FOG by Carl Sandberg
The fog comes
on little cat feet.
It sits looking
over harbor and city
on silent haunches
and then moves on.
Studying English included offerings in the basics of American and English literature, composition, and reading stories (with too many characters who had unfamiliar names) like The Iliad, The Odyssey, and The Brothers Karamazov. Then there were electives, the optional studies in the field of your interest.
My electives of choice were creative writing and poetry.
• The easy delightful stories of William Saroyan. My first favorite book (age 16) was My Name is Aram, introduced by my high school writing teacher Irv Beltrame, who doubled as the cross-country track coach. Actually that book was preceded by Henry Reed, Inc. by Keith Robertson (5th grade, my pick from the local library shelf, and who’s author my friend’s mother met 50 years later on a cruise ship), and Richard Halliburton’s, The Complete Book of Marvels (7th grade, my pick from the junior high school library).
• The once-read embedded visuals of Richard Brautigan, like… a hard-on the size of Philidelphia. And of Tom Robbins… a really young girl–fifteen, sixteen, seventeen–would scream as if a Godzilla egg had hatched in her bathwater.
• The alliteration of Edgar Allen Poe in The Raven… And the silken, sad, uncertain rustling of each purple curtain, thrilled me,– filled me with fantastic terror never felt before, so that now to still the beating of my heart, I stood repeating, “Tis some visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door” — “Some late visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door;” Only this and nothing more.
• The poetry. T.S. Elliot, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock; ee cummings who’s poems inspired by first art show of 100 pen-and-ink drawings, and one special poem with the lines…. love is more thicker than forget, more thinner than recall, more seldom than a wave is wet, more frequent than to fail, it is most mad and moonly, and less it shall unbe, than all the sea which only, is deeper than the sea… (Fondly remembered as the verse included in my wedding to artist Robert Freitas, RIP)
• And then there is the simplicity of Carl Sandburg’s poem Fog. Try as I might this past weekend in Carmel, California, I could not shake the feeling that Sandburg was standing next to me commenting on both his words and the scenery, “You don’t have to understand it, just feel it.”
Ultimately, I stopped questioning
and embraced the chill,
and the mist,
and the serenity called fog.
Color or Black and White
One of my favorite pastimes is spending time with friends doing everyday activities. I’m thoroughly entertained by going to the grocery store, the gas station, and often, we’ll grab a bite to eat and have a cultural experience. On this particular day, we made a stop to see the architecturally-inspired gardens at Sunnylands, the Annenberg Estate in Rancho Mirage, CA.
I have toMirage, SunnylandsMirage laugh because I have several friends who, immediately when they get in the car, see animals and birds. We may be on the same road I’ve driven down many times or even earlier that day – but I don’t see animals and birds, and I don’t see spirit animals. I take that back – I did stop in my tracks the first time I saw a murmuration of starlings and I do take notice when an animal or bird is out of place.
My friends who see animals and birds, think I am equally as strange when they hear me say, “Look, three houses in a row with different hues of yellow,” or “Did you see how the color of the front door was two shades deeper than the rhododendron in the front yard?” They didn’t even notice the front door, much less its relationship to the bush in the garden, nor did their mind automatically calculate the difference between the colors.
That said… it’s not surprising that I don’t see black and white. I’ve tried, but it does not come naturally. I asked my photographer friends who print in black and white, “What do you see? How do you translate the color seen through the viewfinder into black and white?” Like my friends who see animals and birds, and not color, the black and white photographers say they intuitively are able to translate. They know what the printed image will look like in black and white even before they shoot it. This seems like magic to me.
Of the cactus photo examples, my favorite is the first shot with the path, not because of how the sun falls over the barrel cactus, but because of the relationship of the grey-green shadow on the tree in the foreground to the illuminated trunk on the tree in the middle ground. And the crow, without the red of the No Parking sign, I think the image loses its punch. So at this point, I’m not ready to give up color, but I’ll keep exploring the topic of black and white because I crave an insight into the magic as seen by the great black and white photographers before they press the shutter button.
A Sense of Place
Last weekend I taught a workshop, “Let Pictures Drive the Words,” at the Port Townsend School of the Arts (PTSA) in Washington State. Located within Fort Worden State Park, the 434-acre former military base is a hotbed of creativity and lifelong learning. It has 56,000+ square feet of meeting rooms and under the umbrella of Centrum provides year-round arts programming including music, dance, painting, writing, storytelling, wellness, speakers, and events. In addition to PTSA, in the park you’ll also find the Marine Science Center, Puget Sound Coast Artillery Museum, School of Woodworking, Madrona Mind-Body Institute, Copper Canyon Press (a small press), Corvidae Press (printmaking), Goddard College, Peninsula College, and Rainshadow Recording. The two miles of shoreline, dense forests, restored Victorian-age officers’ homes and barracks, not to mention the expansive lush green parade grounds and color fields of rhododendrons, make this a perfect destination for a quickie or multi-hour photo shoot.
Some buildings I did not photograph because they fell into the category of what I call ‘postcard photos that someone else took better.’ Shame on me, I should have taken them anyway because now that I want to refer to them, they are only in my mind. I can’t believe I have no photos of the parade grounds, but after all – it was just grass. Big grass. Actually, huge grass flanked by majestic officers’ homes standing at attention on one side, paralleled by starched white two-story buildings with balconies. How could I have not shot those photos? Ugh. Thankfully, I can pop in the DVD of “An Officer and a Gentleman,” which was filmed there, for a visual refresher.
During my trip, I had the opportunity to visit Port Hadlock, a few miles from Port Townsend. Although surrounded by natural beauty… huge tall trees reaching through the clouds and bodies of water that seemed to have only one shore… what caught my eye in both locations was the man-made architecture. The buildings sat properly on their own plots of land and in familial relationship to other buildings. The structures resembled human scale Monopoly buildings that had been gingerly positioned onto a giant landscaped board game.
What I did capture digitally was a feeling.
From the pastel cottages on the waterfront of Port Hadlock to the spotless whites of Fort Worden,
these simple unpretentious images recall an enduring sense of place…
lost in time, wrapped in mist.
VIEWPOINT… VANTAGE POINT
Each fall, the Central Valley Chapter of American Association of Architects (AIA) holds ‘Architectura Obscura,’ a photography competition. In 2016, three of my photos were in the show. During the reception I ate cheese and crackers, drank wine out of thin plastic cups, and chuckled when I noticed that one of my photos was hung sideways. How does one hang architecture sideways? Well, yes, it was obscure enough to hang sideways or right-side-up and still not know what you were looking at.
I love the show because I love architecture and the people who design and photograph it. Straight lines, odd angles and lots of reflections are common place in photographing architecture for art sake. But it’s those few images that twist the reality which really brings life to an otherwise expected realm of niche imagery. To show people in the photo or not; motion or not; artificial or natural lighting… it’s all part of the photographers’ two-dimensional interpretation of three-dimensional art.
The topic at last night’s local AIA gathering was the photographer and the photo. A discussion of the words ‘viewpoint’ and ‘vantage point’ resulted in the naming of the theme for the 2018 competition, “Alternative Vantage Points.”
Here’s my take on ‘viewpoint’ vs ‘vantage point.’
• Viewpoint is recognizing and capturing a specific personal choice image seen through the
viewfinder of your eye, like a targeted, missile-driven vision.
• Vantage point is the broader position, or place, from which you view, it anchors the
space; the chosen location from which to focus on the object.
Maybe I’ve just seen too many Hollywood war movies, but going into battle (to take the best shot), I would assess the situation, select my weapon (probably a ‘lens envy’ lens), trudge to the vantage point with the best accessibility to capture the image I imagine, position the camera viewfinder to my eye, focus, and engage the trigger.
The one missing factor is the tripod, which I personally think hampers the spontaneity of the moment. It was pointed out during the discussion that a tripod doesn’t have to have three legs or even one leg – it can be as simple as bracing yourself against a tree or carrying a doorstop to stabilize your camera on a rock in a river.
So, armed with my oversized orange grade school doorstop, I’m ready to shoot some architectura obscura.
Learn more about the Architectura Obscura photo competition at www.aiacv.org
(image #2 – Bandaloop repelling off the library at California State University Sacramento 4/15/2015)
ANGLE or STORY
Hardly a day goes by when I’m not thinking about either the angle or the story.
Whether it’s writing or photography, telling the story effectively falls back to identifying the target audience and crafting the message to their sensibilities. For instance, a remodel project, however interesting, when written from one perspective can easily come across as a yawner and from another, quite exciting. Likewise a perfectly balanced and technically pristine photo might not offer the observer the visual information required to applaud the ingenuity of the design.
If a story is written for do-it-yourselfers, they’ll need to see the finished product and at least one behind-the-scenes construction detail. The writing needs to be clear, easily understood, and in logical order of thought. The audience who hires interior designers might respond better to pictures of the luxurious final project and don’t care how it was built. Sentences that expound on how the new design makes the owner feel could be more effective than bullet points about efficiency.
Tips for making a better shot and writing a better story to deliver your specific message to your target audience:
• Change the angle of the camera. All photos don’t have to be shot directly head on. Try shooting up, down, or from the side to change the visual context (i.e. story) of the photo.
• Add or subtract light. Open or close window coverings enabling natural light; turn overhead and ambient lights on or off, and bring in additional directed lighting. Candles, flashlights – why not – if they offer the lighting impression you imagine.
• Add or subtract props and people. Pay attention to color and pattern – is it used as accent, does it complement or clash with the primary subject? Do the props indicate age, seasons, or attitudes that enhance on conflict with your message?
• Change the angle of the story. Write from a different perspective – who’s the storyteller? Develop the personalities of the characters or narrator.
• Think visually. Create more interesting surroundings by including details.
• Sneak in something unexpected. Humor, education, history – there are a million ways to give the reader a surprise.
Final thoughts – remember that your viewer/reader isn’t there with you. They will only see what is in the image – no explanation available. They have to be able to “read” the story told by the photo, just as they can only “see” the vision through the combination of words in the story.
CLOSE-UP or LONG SHOT?
Today’s topic is…the close-up or the long shot. Which is more important – the captured image in the tight shot or the memory of the big picture. Let’s explore.
With the pristinely painted lips of a child’s porcelain doll, the reclining Buddha is all about serenity as it issues the smile of a pleasurable dream. Gracefully arched eyebrows, and a smooth even line hugging the edge of the eyelids, suggest that a make-up artist has readied the face of the statue for a close-up.
A change in our viewing position and we see one hand gently supporting the head while the other relaxes on the soft curve of the hip. The simple diagonal lines of the garment add fluidity and stretch out the torso. It is not until we take in the full view that we recognize the massiveness of the body in repose. This gentile statue, bedecked in gold, is 54 feet long. In comparison, her toes would hang off the end of a flatbed truck.
Although the reclining Buddha is the largest single statue in the venue, it is certainly not alone. The other 89 statues, which celebrate the life of Siddhartha, are spread throughout the grounds of the Cambodian Buddhist Temple (Wat Dhammararam) located in Stockton, California.
After circling the statue vignettes near the reclining Buddha, my eye is drawn to a row of statues sitting atop bejeweled bases that serve as thrones-in-line for a ceremonial occasion. Anchored by a painted mosaic carpet of blue, even the back of the procession is finely adorned. My companion today on “Places Unknown: Adventure #2, 2018” is 6’4”. Imagine their size.
See for yourself at the annual Cambodian New Year Celebration, April 14-16, 2018
And, in answer to the question posed… the close-up or the long shot? Although I suspect the serene demeanor of the reclining Buddha may send me quickly off to dreamland tonight, today’s close-up doesn’t compare to the big picture memory.
BALANCE in the FRAME
I recently entered a photography show at Viewpoint Photographic Art Center in Sacramento. The theme was Balance and the juror, Jane Edberg, Professor of Art at Gavilan College. Out of the 400+ entries, she selected three of my photos (thank you, thank you, thank you) for the 60 piece show.
As a street photographer, it is my good fortune to often be carrying a camera when I stumble upon a scene worthy of recording. When it came to choosing entry images for the Balance show, “I like them,” was about the extent of my methodical plan. After I learned that three were selected for the show, I decided to take a closer look to discover the balance Ms. Edberg might have seen in the photos.
“The Last Peach” On the final day of harvest, I visited a friend’s ranch in Linden, CA. It really was the end of the harvest and 1,500 tons of peaches had already made their way to the processing plant. As we drove down the road, back to the barn, I blurted out, “Stop the car” and shot this photo.
Triangular shapes: the ladder; three color blocks (brown, green blue)
Symmetry: ladder in the middle; peach between rungs; vertical ladder support visually slices the ladder
Hard & soft: ladder angles are sharp, offset by the round peach and foliage
“Sea Saw” Taken by the Ligurian Sea in Monterosso, Cinque Terre, Italy, these women seem content just sitting. The way I framed the photo always makes me question if they are really on the Italian Riviera or actually sitting in front of a mural on the side of a building in downtown South Beach.
Shapes: the round woman on the right seems to anchor the elongated woman on the left; the shadow on the left anchors the absence of shadow on the right. The black swimsuits act as bookends while the shapes and colors of the bags between the women are like well-worn volumes on the shelf.
Texture: the cement and the water appear both hard and soft at the same time.
“Strike” During a practice photo shoot for a restaurant opening in Elk Grove, CA,
I wandered off to find the restroom and came across an open door with glowing colored light blasting out into the hallway. I stuck my head inside, noticed the big man on the far wall, and pulled out my camera. The bowler came into my sightline just as I snapped the shutter.
Color: glow blue complements black; white and grey on both bowler and actor
Shape: round ball/upright pins; smaller full body bowler/large torso actor; three linear lanes lead to square screen; round bowler, ball, and actor all centered in an angular setting
OBSERVING INDEPENDENCE DAY
Plastic coolers with wheels fill the seasonal aisle in the grocery store and fireworks stands sprout on street corners, yet even with the visual hints, 4th of July is one of those holidays that always seems to sneak up on me. Although I have a Statue of Liberty collection of more than 200 pieces, including a life-size Lady Liberty streetlight, I am not an avid collector of patriotic paraphernalia. That said, I do have a portfolio of images titled “Americana” which I seem to revisit each year when the outside temperature inches its way up, triggering the air conditioner to the ‘on’ position.
As a street photographer, I shoot what is before me. Nothing is posed. I just happen to be where an image wishes to be captured. In the “Americana” portfolio there is a photo of a girl wearing the American flag as a skirt, several scenes with comical road signs, and a shot of an overstuffed chair abandoned on a barren hillside. These are statement photos. The images I found curious at this viewing were those which captured an experience, more specifically, an experience that caught my attention for its potential of going unnoticed.
I’m convinced that artists (including all realms of creatives) are more observant than those who claim they are not creative. Photographers seem to be especially sensitive to their surroundings. Take a walk with a friend and you’ll quickly be aware that you see the same thing differently. Your friend sees a tree and you see shapes and colors supported by a gnarly trunk and bending limbs that reach to the sky. Artists do see what is immediately recognizable, like the tree trunk, but we also see further into the core of the knots as they protrude from beneath the bark like slow-growing bunions.
My interest in the upcoming holiday does not lead my eye to the front porch handrails festooned with yards of red, white, and blue bunting, or the community parade, or waving sparklers that make light trail patterns against the night sky. My attention is drawn to the people in the experience.
As this 4th of July approaches, I look in my “Americana” portfolio and recall celebrating on previous Independence Day weekends… the child riding away from the parade line-up, the boat traffic jam when everyone decided to leave the lake at the same time, and the nonchalance of grilling burgers in the shadow of Lady Liberty. This year I’ll again look to capture the spirit of the moment through the uncorrupted and often overlooked experience.
FOREGROUND as the SECONDARY SUBJECT
Sometimes when I frame an image, I know it’s a keeper. It can be the first in a series of shots, or the last, or in the middle. I feel it when the composition, color, shapes and story all come together at one precise moment. Other times, I think I’ve just wasted my time. I typically download those images into a file without even looking at the shots. Days or months pass and then, for no reason, I remember that particular day at the park or the beach or at an event, and open the file.
Because I function from logic, it makes no sense that I would spend three hours taking 250 images (my typical amount in an afternoon before I get distracted) of nothing interesting. If nothing clicked… what was I doing? That’s when a different kind of magic begins. I know there must be a secret hidden below the surface and I start to dig.
My first pass through, I glance at the thumbnails looking for several shots of the same scene from the same vantage point. What caught my eye to make me stand in the same place shooting the same scene.
From the similar thumbnails, I select the one with the least amount of clutter and open it up. Ah, a photo of a girl on a cell phone. Another grouping at the same location is of a bride and groom posing for pre-wedding photos. I notice that my two images are similar in that both foregrounds are of the secondary subject, with the primary subject, a bride and groom repeating their vows, in the background.
Then it all came back to me. The grounds of California’s State Capitol are always alive with tourists, locals and events. Parking spaces are at a premium. If I have my camera in the car and see an empty space, I usually pull in. This day, I was on my way home from shooting at the river. It was Saturday at 4:45pm, the changing of the guard aka wedding parties, which explains the empty parking space. A wedding was in progress in the Rose Garden and when I left 30 minutes later, five sets of bride and grooms, with their photographers and entourages had entered or left the scene.
Would I purposely have gone to Capitol Park to shoot a wedding? No. Are these good wedding photos? No. Did I capture images with the type of secondary subject oddities often seen in my photographs? Yes. The message here is… your subconscious knows better than to waste your time. File the ‘not an interesting photo shoot’ images away and return when you have an open mind. You’ll be surprised.
THE COMFORT POSE
Posing implies deliberate staging. As a street photographer, the idea of statically posing a subject in the frame seems as unlikely to me as the thought of becoming a Mongolian throat singer. To wrap my arms around this posing process, I took a portrait class at the oldest museum in California, the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento. Hats-off to professional photographer Farrell Scott who patiently enlightened our group of 12 students during a three session primer on portrait photography.
We posed for each other, moving in-and-out of light, shooting in stairwells, in the formal carved-wood ballroom of one of California’s “big four” families, and on the outdoor patio under dappled shade and whirlpools of newly fallen leaves. The contemporary architecture of building expansion offered a backdrop of clean lines and a complement to the formality of the original mansion aka museum.
My take-away from Farrell was: 1) accept the available light, 2) take advantage of the background, and, 3) when at a loss for posing stances, refer to her posing cheat sheet handout.
When Karen Phillips asked me to shoot a headshot, I approached it from my perspective as a street photographer. “Wear something comfortable, not white, and meet me at the Italian shopping center at 3pm.”
Karen arrived in her denim shirt and pants, and we wandered through the Renaissance-styled center with its textured walls, sitting areas, and rustic landscaping. By interacting with the surroundings, the stiffness of a studio portrait was eliminated and presto, the street photographer’s version of a portrait… “the comfort pose”… revealing undeniable honesty.
Our final destination was happy hour at an outdoor restaurant. With her sunglasses propped on her head and me with camera in hand, the handsome young server watched Karen intently and lingered over her drink order ‘knowing’ that she was a star with her personal paparazzi. There was the look of disappointment on his face when the bill was paid with cash, offering no hint of a name as would be found on a credit card. If he happens upon this post, he’ll learn that Karen Phillips is a star, she’s an award-winning book cover designer and mystery writer, and she was smiling at him when her sunglass photo was taken.