Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Trying Not to Panic

The lone surviving photo from my collection.
I am trying not to panic.

Panicking is something that I can do with such exquisite ease that it is almost a shame to try and stop. 

To rephrase Sylvia Plath:


Is an art, like everything else.

I do it exceptionally well.

I do it so it feels like hell.

I do it so it feels real.

I guess you could say I’ve a call.

Three days ago my computer shutdown while I was in the middle of editing photos. It then refused to turn on again. The first snakes of panic began to slither through my stomach, but I exterminated them with the thought of my trusty external hard drive upon which all of my work was safely stored. Sure, I would lose today's edits, but given my short attention span I wasn't even sure I could remember what they were in order to grieve their loss.

Yesterday, new computer up and running I foolishly tried to turn it on. I was lured further down the thorny path to distraction when, full of hubris, I also attempted to connect my printer, tablet, keyboard, and hard drive. When I had not realized, was that the AC adapter for my lovely little Canon Selphy printer was masquerading as the power supply to my hard drive.

The moment I put the power cord into the hard drive I heard a sickening sizzle. I pulled out the cord immediately, but alas it was too late.  My printer uses 24 volts, while my poor, electrocuted hard drive was only set up to survive at 12 volts. I have since become a jungle for the animals of anxiety. I cannot yet enumerate what will have been lost should the geek squad gods be unable to work their special brand of magic.

We shall see.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Cobbling Together a Living: No Caviar...but I do Have Shelter!

I am an assistant professor in interior architecture at a state university and I am coming up on my sixth year. I got my first job as a tenure-track faculty member at West Virginia University 10 years ago. I have dedicated a decade of my life to teaching, collecting information, creating course materials, publishing articles, presenting at conferences, and educating students.

But this part of my life is coming to a close. This past spring, I decided not to apply for tenure. This means that I have two more years on my contract that I can work and then I have to leave. I made this decision because despite the fact that being a professor is what I have always known I should be doing, what it is to be a professor has changed. Less of my time is spent on striving to make education better and more on just trying to stop things from becoming damaging. A better day is when things can be prevented from slipping away rather than actually becoming harmful.

This has been a gut-wrenching decision for me. I hate that I had to make it, but I don't think I made the wrong decision. To a lot of people it looks like a pretty foolish thing to have done. After all, one of the ultimate goals of a faculty member is to get tenure, it feels like recognition for a job well done. It signals your success to other faculty and I have spent a decade preparing myself for the review. I made it to within sight of the finish line and then decided not to go for it. I could have had it, but I was actually afraid I would get it.

It also looks foolish because I have a steady salary, health insurance, and retirement benefits. I make $60,000 a year before taxes and health premiums, I bring home about $3,500 a month afterwards. I have classes for 30 weeks a year - that's 22 weeks when I'm not teaching. I don't have to come in on weekends and in fact, some semesters I have only had classes on two or three days of the week.

Obviously there is a lot more to my job than teaching. In fact, my job has been all consuming for the last decade. I have pushed myself and worked countless hours to do what I thought was important - push the frontiers of thought. I could keep my job, do the minimum, and still get paid what I earn now. So, why not do that?

It's devastating, that's why. Tenure is a hollow victory only indicating that I played well with others. I care too much about thinking and about education to do them poorly. When you are a professor, it isn't a job, it's an identity. It's not enough to win - I want to succeed. I'm thinking about the World Cup a lot recently and it gave me a way to think about my career. When Arjen Robbens threw himself to the ground to fake a penalty that won their qualification match or when Louis Suarez bit Chiellini to take Uruguay through, the games were won for those who cheated. They won, but they failed and it leaves a bitter taste underneath the sweetness of victory. Maybe not now and maybe they will never realize it, but it is corrosive.

I don't want to win something that isn't worth having and that was based not on merit but on compliance.

On the other hand, I want to eat. I don't do well with authority, I am easily bored, I don't have a lot of actual skills, and I'm too snotty to work for minimum wage. I come from a reasonably well off background, so I have no memories of hunger to make me fear letting go of my steady income. This doesn't mean that it's brilliant - it means I am impetuous and angry.

Photography, especially fine art photography (I'll deal with the term 'fine art' later...) isn't the road to riches. It isn't the road to the middle-class. It might not be the road to dignified poverty. It's something I love though and that I can't stop doing. Sometimes, I try to - I remind myself that it's not earning me money (just like this blog isn't...) and that I should do something useful. I can't.

Instead, I have been doing freelance writing and it is beginning to look like I might be able to make a way for myself. I don't know that I will replace the salary I was earning at the university. I do know that I don't hate myself while I'm doing it. I've only been doing it for a couple of months, so who knows what it will be like long term, but I've managed to get a couple of clients who like what I do and I am thoroughly enjoying the hyperactive nature of it.

I write an article, 500 - 800 words about one topic and then, generally, I don't really have to think about it again. I become an expert in something and then I can move on to becoming an expert in the next thing. This is what I wanted from academia; the ability to explore across connections, to know a bit about everything and see how the world is woven together. In academia they want you to go deep, to know everything there is about one thing. That's fine, but not for me - I love connections, the spaces between, the sticky threads that pull wildly different things together. It's like magic. It's as close to the feeling of religious ecstasy that I will ever get.

I'm not writing about big ideas right now. Sometimes I'm writing about liposuction and sometimes about photography and sometimes about 3D printing. The connections are mine to enjoy.

I get paid to do this. Sometimes it's $15 an article, sometimes $20, sometimes $50 but I can put these things together so that my day is varied and I can be flexible. If I want, I can push myself and on another day, I can take a nap on the hammock. So, while I won't be sharing beluga caviar on my yacht any time soon, I'll be home when my husband has a day off and I'll know things about the world and I won't have to betray my principles.

I think it will be a worthwhile tradeoff.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Addendum to Vietnamese - Soup of the gods

I have returned from another dinner at Binh Minh Vietnamese restaurant in Greensboro and I am pleased to say that it was, once again, fantastic. I think that this was the best bowl of Pho that I have ever had, and I am no stranger to the dish...that's pho sure. Okay, last pho pun, sorry, I couldn't help it.

Pho with Chicken and Shrimp
We went with our friends Barbara and Pawel who were in town for the evening and, in fact, it was Pawel who told us about the place. I may have to invent some kind of award just to be able to give it to him. I will have to do it when I am not as full as I am right now though. Now, it's just about all I can do to keep from exploding.

But back to the food...

Barbara ordered Sesame chicken which was perfectly crunchy with this wonderful garlicky spicy sesame sauce. When it came to the table, it had the kind of smell that lets you know that you are willing to burn your tongue because you can't wait long enough for it to cool down, you have to eat it right then.
Sesame Chicken

But the pho...oh my. I put two slices of jalapeno peppers in it and let them sit and it got just a bit spicy, but not too much. It has a tinge of sweetness to it and, of course, comes in a bowl large enough to lose a cat in.

My daughter, once again, refrained from letting any actual food enter her mouth (she survives, I think, entirely by absorbing vitamins through her skin) and contented herself with drinking lemonade and asking if we were done eating yet. I answered her in the spirit of John Paul Jones, by saying "I have not yet begun to eat!" And followed with "I regret that I have but one stomach to give for this food!" She did not think either reply was funny and I am greatly looking forward to her teenage years when she will have the good sense to be embarrassed by me.

My son had the clear broth soup the he had ordered last time. There is this delicious sweetness in the broth, almost a hint of licorice, most likely anise. It is so simple but absolutely divine. He took his bowl to another table so that he could watch a replay of the afternoon's game of Belgium vs the US in what we convinced him was a rematch. He was certain the US would win this time. Luckily we left before his little heart was broken.

Clear Broth Soup with Scallions

I remember to take pictures this time. I have only just been able to stop licking my screen long enough to post them. Then I must go back to lying down and feeling like a glutton. Seriously though if you are within a radius of less than the earth's circumference, you should go here immediately.

If it isn't open, just sit outside with your faced pressed up against the window. It will be worth the wait.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Food Post! Binh Minh Vietnamese Restaurant Greensboro NC

Before I get distracted: This restaurant is at 5211 Market Street in Greensboro, NC
And an apology: I was so excited by the food, I ate it before I could photograph it. I will remedy this...and exercise more self discipline in the future...probably.

Now...back to my rambling:

I know that a lot of people eat fast food just because they know it. You know that it’s not going to be great but you’ll be full and you know what to expect. If you stop somewhere else, it could be awful or they could only serve things you hate…the horror!!

I know it well. I get food anxiety because I love to eat and I hate to waste an eating experience by having something gross or even just blah. However, I decided to stop eating fast food about a year ago (partly because I have an allergy to soy which my body has decided it wants to communicate to me by making my hand so itchy that the only thing I want to do is leave everything behind so that I can devote myself full time to scratching) and I have had so many more amazing experiences than not. What I mean is that if I stopped on the road – the only time I really eat out – at a fast food restaurant the mediocre experience level was 100% but the fear was 0. My fear of a new place was pretty high (plus salt and fat are weaknesses of mine and fast food has those in spades) but my positive experiences have been about 95% and the other 5% were just ‘meh’.
I think Americans are generally willing to sacrifice the possibility of something amazing to the fear of the bad. It keeps us from doing a lot of really cool stuff. The most profound regrets I have are almost always when I gave way to that fear not when I decided to hope for the best. Anyway, that’s the set up. Scene:

I love Vietnamese food…okay, I love food in general…but it is harder to be soy free with Asian food in general. It’s really, really hard to be soy free and eat outside of your own house these days, you’d be surprised at what has soy in it (Tums for example…) I also really, really don’t want to be that person who can’t eat something and makes a big deal out of it. If you have a peanut allergy that will kill you, I get it – that’s pretty intense and you can never ben too sure. Soy makes my hands incredibly itchy, that’s my burden to bear and not something I feel like explaining all the time, so I usually don’t ask about food’s contents. Is this a brilliant strategy? No. But, oh well.

Anyway, let me interrupt my digression by telling you about this restaurant. Greensboro has really high quality Vietnamese food, it’s not what you would necessarily think, but if you are passing by Greensboro and you are a traveller who doesn’t know what to try that isn’t fast food, you should give Vietnamese a try. Even if it isn’t Binh Minh.

Binh Minh doesn’t make any concessions to super finicky people – if you want French Fries, you aren’t going to get them. If you have an eater in your party who is fussy (like my daughter) they may have to just settle for the cut melon and orange desert…or complain (like my daughter) and then eat macaroni at home. My son is an excellent eater and he immediately found the salmon, he has a radar for it. My husband is not as adventurous in his food forays but he is also not a scaredy cat, so he ordered lemongrass chicken. A friend who came with us ordered the Pho, which I immediately envied when it arrived.

I got a Vietnamese crepe that was epic. I saw that you could order one or two and I, fool that I am, assumed that they were about the size of a spring roll or so. Nope, it’s a full oval plate omelet sized creation. It was stuffed with shrimp, tiny corn, onions, and sugar snap peas. It was topped with lettuce and cilantro and came with a clear sauce. I ate way more of this dinner than I needed and as I was nearing full, the second crepe appeared. I shared that one with the table…and then ate some more of it. It was delicious, the crepe was so light and fluffy with just a touch of crispness.

Before I knew it, my 9 year old had eaten an entire plate of salmon and was attempting to consume the rice by squishing individual grains onto the end of his chopsticks and get them to his mouth. I revealed the secret fork collection and things seemed to go much more smoothly. There was a clear broth with scallions that came out with the food and I could have made a meal out of that. It had such a delicate flavor, not just the heavy salt that a lot of broths like this have. When my son was done eating (and my daughter done trying not to have us ask her again if she was sure there wasn’t anything she wanted) the kids peeled off to stare at gold fish and watch a bit of the world cup.

It was the kind of dinner where even before we finished eating we were trying to find reasons that we needed to come back and planning what we would order. I can already taste the Pho…

For my daughter, the highlight was the paper umbrellas in the fruit, I’m hopeful that some of the fruit might have accidentally been absorbed through her skin to augment her only macaroni diet.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Men At Work, 3D Printing, Squirrels (Hint: Not a Recipe Post)

Currently, there is a squirrel hanging upside down from a baffle eating suet out of a squirrel proof feeder. Thank goodness they're so cute or I guess I'd be upset. What this has made me realize though is that if I ever get to design my own house, I don't want any window muntins, just sheet glass and screens that can be lowered only when desired. Sometimes there is cool stuff going on outside my window and if I go outside, it will stop, but if I take the picture from inside, I've got window panes and screens. This is probably the only thing standing between me and universal recognition.

In the meantime though I have gotten a cool gig writing articles for and have been learning some really interesting stuff about 3D technology. I'm still just a baby in the field (interesting visual for you) but am really enjoying the research and writing. I'm still working on liposuction stuff as well (writing not performing) and now all of the side bar advertisements on every page I visit are for cosmetic surgeons. Data mine much? I'm interested to see if it starts to combine these interests and offer me ways of 3D printing with fat. ew. sorry.

The day before yesterday I drove to my son's school to drop off a letter for the principal, and it took nearly 1/2 hour for the normally 5 minute drive. This is because I live in one of those suburban developments that has only one entrance and one exit and the city is repaving the road that goes between those two points. There's no way to get around it because every street is a cul-de-sac or only 2 blocks long and they all connect with this main road. I didn't really mind because my summer schedule is pretty relaxed but it gave me time to think as I was watching them do this work. There's so rarely anything of visual interest going on in my neighborhood. All the houses look the same, there's not much wildlife (not counting the squirrels hanging from my feeders and the chinchillas living in my house) and people aren't outside very much, so this would be a perfect opportunity to take pictures without going very far. 

So, I suited up in my new double camera holster. I really only need one camera with me most of the time, but it doesn't balance right with just one, so I wear the other too. Then I walked up and down the approximately 1/2 mile stretch of road where work was going on that day and photographed the men and machines. I got a chance to talk to everybody, even if only to ask them if I could take their picture. It was a very pleasant experience and kept me out of trouble. I did get one photobomb where two guys walking buy lifted up their shirts while I was taking a picture. Unfortunately, I missed them and I'm devastated because I'm sure it would have been the sexiest thing I had ever seen two unemployed guys do. Oh well, I guess that's the decisive moment that Bresson was talking about.

I have to admit that I sweat like an Olympic athlete. Actually, maybe more. I'm pretty sure that's my body's natural defense system because if I were living in the wild and something attacked me, it would be immediately repulsed and run away, damp, back to its hiding place to whimper. As I was working on this essay, People at Work, I realized that the next time I should do People at Work in Air Conditioned Places instead because it was just sad - I was sweating more than the workers.

It was good practice going around and talking to strangers too. I always want to go take pictures of people I don't know, but I'm generally too shy to ask or just take them from such a distance that people don't know. I keep reading that it is important to talk to the people you are going to photograph and then decided I will just have to either avoid taking pictures of people or that I will only be able to do it after several shots of Tequila. The problem with the latter approach being that the photos become somewhat less focused as time goes on. However, after 'screwing my courage to the sticking place' (or something of that nature) it really wasn't that hard - it was almost fun. Who knows...maybe I'll be able to do this again. 

I think I'll start by chatting up the squirrel.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Selfies, Selphy, Self

My very first selfie taken in Mexico, 2013
I cannot take selfies…I cannot tell a lie. First, it never occurs to me that I want a picture that I am in. After all, I have an image in my head of what I look like and I feel perfectly fine until faced with irrefutable proof that it is wrong. Second, it’s hard to hold a heavy camera out far enough and I still end up with more chins than are necessary. Third, I actually don’t have a smart phone. I have a cell phone that has actual individual buttons that I have to actually individually press and so there is no screen where I can see what is in the picture if what I want in the picture is in front of the lens. So, I can only guess and apparently my self image also has a very different idea of my location than reality will confirm and so I am rarely even in the photo even if I try to be.

I’m not one of those people who refuses to be in photos because my hair isn’t right or my makeup isn’t on. I just don’t want to take those pictures for myself. Other people can see very clearly what I look like and so accept a photo of me as something that actually reminds them of me, whereas I cannot see me and am perfectly happy remembering what other people look like and what I felt like while I was taking their picture. Someone, who shall remain nameless, took a picture of me while I was joking about taking selfies with a big camera and then had the nerve to post that photo on Facebook and it was exactly the photo I have in mind when I think about bad photos. It’s all upper arms and double chins combined with it looking like I actually take photos of myself with a telephoto lens.

Self Portrait in Gatewood @ UNCG
I will now spend the rest of my life indoors.

But, I won’t suffer for it because now I have the cutest little photo printer ever: the Canon Selphy. Since I only have about 10,000 more photos from Mexico that I need to print and put in my photo albums that should keep me busy roughly until the earth crashes into the sun. The only thing I can’t figure out is how to send the pictures directly from my computer to the printer. Instead, I have been putting them on a memory card and then moving that from my computer to the memory card slot on the machine. I haven’t spent a lot of time trying to fix that though because I am so excited to print that I can’t be bothered.

The printer uses a dye sublimation process for printing and the quality is fantastic. It pulls the little piece of paper through four times, the first time it prints all of the yellows, the second pass prints all of the magenta, and the third prints all of the cyan. Then it goes through a final pass where it lays down a semi-gloss clear finish that keeps the pictures from smudging or scratching…et voila! The kids are really enjoying watching it because you can see the picture after each pass so it’s like watching it appear – almost like the fun of old school developing but without the chemicals from that which cause cancer (it’s probably just a whole new batch of cancer causing chemicals…) So far I have printed 100 images and it’s still going strong – it is also super easy to load paper and ink and hardly takes up any space at all. That’s the size I needed too since I hardly have any space at all…you know because I have things to strew all over my desk.
First Photo in Self Portrait Project

I renewed my subscription to because I missed the tutorials. Yesterday I watched on of The Practicing Photographer tutorials with Ben Long. He outlined an interesting project that I would like to do if I could just come up with an idea. It’s a year long project that requires me to pick a frequency (daily, weekly, bi-weekly, etc.) a scope (anywhere, my city, my neighborhood, my yard, my chair, etc.) and a subject (an object, a color, a cliché, an emotion, etc.) Then, I would have to carry that out and at the end of the year I would have a pretty interesting collection of images…if I had any ideas. Right now, I’m drawing a blank.

Self Portrait #2: Hands
The only thing I keep coming back to are self-portraits because I hate the way I look in most photos, because I am always available to me, because people are interesting subjects, and because I will be extremely patient. I could mess around with lighting, makeup, costume, setting, etc. I think I would just like some more parameters for myself, but maybe if I just start doing it, the things I need to try will become more apparent. What I don’t want are a series of my face in the camera, filling the frame. I’m not interested in watching my face change over time like those series that some people have done (which are amazing, just not what I’m trying to focus on here). I’m more interested in the self-portrait as a subject. I found this fantastic compilation of 100 seriously cool self-portraits - there's a lot of interesting things to think about!

Hmmm…maybe I’ve just had my idea, right here.

You’re such a good listener!

Thursday, May 15, 2014

MayDay: Warning...Opinion Included

This morning I got a message that there was going to be a stop in Greensboro on the 'Give America a Raise' Bus Tour in support of raising the minimum wage. I had just finished reading about the filibuster that prevented the vote that would have raised it from $7.25 to $10.10 - a vote that would have been in its favor. I've heard all the arguments about why this would be bad...but frankly, I don't buy them. In any case, I thought it might be a good photo opportunity and so I dragged my comfortably resting husband into the car and across town. 

I was entertained/irritated to see that there is a billboard truck that is apparently following the Give America a Raise Bus around the country. I won't reiterate its rhetoric because it isn't worth validating, but I did wonder how much the driver of the billboard truck was being paid. The event this morning was attended by a number of religious leaders from a wide variety of faiths. There were also some workers there who spoke about trying to live life on minimum wage as well as a speaker from Americans United for Change. A bishop suggested that all the millionaires in the US be asked to spend some time living on $7.25 an hour and see just how long it was before the legislation passed. Everyone seemed to agree that even $10.10 wasn't going to be enough but at least it was a step. 

Shalief Johnson, Worker
I spoke to one of the leaders of the faith-based component of the rally, Reverend Hamlin  from the Ecumenical Poverty Initiative and she asked if I could be convinced to travel to Raleigh that afternoon to photograph the rally there. Pepe couldn't come with me to that one because, legally, someone has to pick up our children at their after school care or they (the after school care) get very cranky. 

When I arrived in Raleigh it looked like it might start to rain but the air was refreshing and the wind was fabulous, so it felt good to be there. It had been hot in Greensboro and I had lathered up with sunscreen so as to not burst into flames during the Raleigh event, but it turned out to not be necessary. I felt that my being engulfed in flames might distract from the event's core message.

The Raleigh event was also attended by religious leaders who spoke eloquently and passionately about the human rights issues at stake. The anti billboard truck was there and the driver had pulled it up to park behind the speakers, thinking he would then be in all of the video coverage. The guy who drives the Give America a Raise Bus though seems to be part of his vehicle and he lithely scooted it just between the billboard truck and the speakers, providing a beautiful, vivid back drop.

Religious Leaders in Greensboro Supporting $10.10
This actually turned out to be a paying gig, which is pretty exciting and I'm working on the photos right now, but I wanted to write about them on May 1st. Mayday - and it is needed. I make a lot more than minimum wage (for now) but it still keeps me on my toes. I can't imagine working and still being desperately poor. My feeling has been that if businesses can't afford to pay a decent wage, then they shouldn't hire people. Go out of business if you can't do it, that's the deal. If we are going to plunge people into debt to pay for school then it seems bizarre that we are also willing to suppress their wages to assist business. At what point do PEOPLE get to be in the position of first priority? 

While I'm on this - education should be free, then students could be students and they wouldn't have to work and they wouldn't compete with people who need jobs thus driving down the wages and fracturing the worker's movement. As for this idea that jobs will be lost, again, it's the ones that we can stand to lose that will go and the rest we just might have to pay what it's worth for. I guess we could get up to 100% employment if the wage were $0.10 an hour but how is that kind of employment helpful? It's just a meaningless number. I want to know about the percentages of employment that pays a living wage, when will we get those numbers down?

Finally, I always feel like the anti-minimum wage argument is a bit like being in an abusive relationship. I spent six years with a man who told me that he treated me badly for my own good, to help me better myself; that if I didn't like it, he could always find someone else younger (and cheaper) who would; that no one else would take me and I'd be alone for the rest of my life. I believed him for a long time but you know what? It turns out he was a filthy liar. He just wanted everything for himself and if it meant he had to build his joy on the destruction of mine, then so be it. And when I left, it turned out that the world didn't collapse, I didn't spend the rest of my life alone, and I didn't need him at all. 

So, enough with the threats of pending impoverishment. If we don't pay a living wage, we've got all the impoverishment we can handle. I say: It's time to leave the bastards who tell you that you aren't worth it and realize that you are beautiful and valuable and powerful. 

It's not going to be easy...but it's definitely going to be worth it.

Friday, May 2, 2014

Nude Pantyhose and Alien Skin

It's like this with me, drought and then flood. I know I just finally posted yesterday but I've been thinking since then. Some of what I have been thinking has been, "Why the heck can't my kids learn not to slam the door?" But that's not really all that relevant here. 

My other thought was this: Do you remember when there was a crayon color called 'nude' and it was supposed to be flesh tone, only flesh comes in so many different tones that it really wasn't particularly similar to what most people see when they are nude? The same thing used to be a name for pantyhose. Helpful if you were as certain shade of Caucasian but didn't know how to match it just by looking at the color but not a great marker for match for anybody else. I'm not about to wax nostalgic for those days, instead, they helped me frame something that I've only just realized. A sort of blinding flash of the obvious.

Different skin tones require different exposures and different filters and affects. I've been using this great PhotoShop plug called Alien Skin in and it tells me that a particular Kodak Portra film was low contrast and therefore great for good looking skin in portraits. Generally, the people I shoot portraits of are members of my family who, although we are each a different nude, are on the lighter end of the spectrum. Yesterday, I shot at a rally attended by a broad spectrum of dark to light skin and when I was working with the images later, I applied the low contrast filter and just felt that the pictures looked dead. That's when I realized that the filter that says it is good for portraits really meant that it was good for portraits of light-skinned Latinos and Caucasians. It simply forgot that there are people who are darker than that who also might want to look good in pictures. 

It threw me for a loop.

I played around with a lot of different filters and realized that the low contrast film filters make dark brown skin have a grayish undertone - an unhealthy one. It clears up the red from white faces (or as my daughter calls them pinky faces) but is disastrous otherwise. I have done almost all of my work in black and white up until now and so I was really focused on contrast rather than color but maybe one of the reasons I have like black and white so much is that I couldn't ever get the right feeling when the faces are brown. 

This caused me to think back to a lesson I saw on - I wish I could remember who had given it - about portrait photography. This particular photographer was using an Indian model and shooting in natural light outdoors. He mentioned that he generally underexposed a bit for darker skin because otherwise it tended to overexpose and lose its rich beauty. I also found in post processing that each time I figured the exposure, I had to move it back down about 1/3 of a stop or the skin just became shiny and plastic.

It also made me think about old movies and old paintings where people of color were depicted and something was just a bit 'off' about them, something I just couldn't put my finger on until I realized that they had used white models or white actors and then just dolled them up with the superficial trappings - generally something to shape the eyes or just face paint. It never looked right but I guarantee you that those painters and directors hadn't spent anytime contemplating the faces of Latinos or First Nations people or Africans. I have really been doing the same without thinking about it. Just as I had been doing without really thinking about it - assuming that a visual representation of the very surface which marks us would be the same despite the difference. 

I need more information. A beginning search on Google led me to a really interesting essay by Monte Zucker called "Photographing People of Color." It turns out my approach is still not right and it's going to take a lot more looking to really get this right. Recognizing this lack of skill on my part was a first step, realizing that other people have begun to talk about it was another step. The camera can't do everything, the photographer has to know what she is doing AND she has to remember to really see what or who she is looking at.

The institution of portrait photography needs to be broken open a little bit so that rules about how to photograph people really means all people. We need to talk about the gradient that exists not as an exception (which makes being 'white' the 'norm') but as a state of existence in which we will always find ourselves and that we would be foolish to ignore if we want our portraits to reflect the individual that can be clearly seen without them. 

Never let a photograph get in between you and an opportunity to see someone beautiful.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Noctural Brilliance

Headstone in Monticello Graveyard
I should keep a pen and paper next to my bed because I have all of my most brilliant ideas just before I fall asleep. At least, they seem brilliant - so far, I can't remember most of them in the morning to really evaluate them. I assume that with a pen and paper on my nightstand, I will soon receive the McArthur Genius Award. My plan was to share my latest insights here, but I can no longer remember them...

Tulips on the grounds of Monticello
I just got back from a 40 hour architectural whirlwind tour with first-year students in the UNCG interior architecture program. A total of 31 faculty and students traveled from Greensboro, NC to Charlottesville, VA and then on to Cumberland, MD and Bear Run, PA in order to visit two great American architectural treasures: Jefferson's Monticello and Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater. Including a 3 hour 'layover' during which we waited for a mechanic to arrive and fix our bus, we were on the trip for 42 hours.

It is interesting to see Monticello and Fallingwater in the same trip because they are so different and yet so similar. Both houses reflect the wealthiest segment of the population, bothy were unusually innovative, and both are attempts at a new American architecture. Jefferson placed his home on the top of the landscape while Wright's building is integrated into it. It is difficult to photograph either of these places. 

Fallingwater: The classic
Monticello Grave Crow
Pictures inside of Monticello are not allowed - supposedly because some of the items in the house are on loan and they don't have the photographic rights to them, but I'm unconvinced that this is true because they don't need to have photographic rights in order to allow non-commercial photographers to capture images. I think that the only time they would need rights would be if they were going to use the photographs to advertise or make money. I think it is probably to get you to buy the book that has pictures of the interior). Fallingwater offers a different tour in which photography is allowed, it is a longer tour and more costly, so they freely admit that it is a way to earn the money needed to support the entity. 

The other reason why these places are difficult to photograph is because they are so iconic. The view dead on of the back of Monticello is on the nickel and the view of Fallingwater can really only be captured from one particular spot and it is the photo that is always seen of the building. When so many other people have photographed or drawn a building from the exact same view it seems almost silly to photograph it again. After all, my picture of Fallingwater looks just like everybody else's picture with the exception of the time of year foliage or my technical abilities. 
Fallingwater: The zoom

I was determined to see if I could get a different image. After all, I have seen collections of images of the Eiffel Tower or the Washington Monument in which each image has really been distinct, and surprisingly different than the postcard image that I was used to seeing. Fallingwater is particularly difficult because there are only 3 views of it possible, two of which are at least partially blocked by trees. It is designed to be hidden, so the question becomes, how do I capture the experience? I figured this was a good time to experiment since the 'perfect' shot is one that I have seen so often, it would be easy to compare and contrast.

Fallinwater: Alternate View
Generally, I try to look for another angle, then for a different context, and then to the details rather than the whole. On this trip, students were spending time sketching the different buildings and so I tried to use them to create a different setting for the architecture. I also tried zooming while I took a long exposure shot of Fallingwater - I didn't have a tripod, so it's not great, but it was the first time I have tried that. I also worked with the exposure time as much as I could, it was a pretty gray day and so I couldn't underexpose too much, but I did manage to move the waterfall from nearly frozen to blurring streamers of water.

Fallingwater: Student Context
I don't think I captured anything particularly noteworthy, but it was an interesting exercise. It made me really think about what the point of taking a photograph is if it is just like 1,000 others that I have seen and that I could print off the internet. There is something about having 'captured' it yourself but then it also provides you with a platform for experimentation because you don't have the same amount of initial exploration to do. It's harder to see anything new that might be there but also to realize that sometimes there are things to be learned by understanding how and why others have captured a particular image which can only really happen when you are looking through the viewfinder yourself. 

It's always a challenge to create images of something that is so iconic and so restricted - it's not the images that I created that made it worth it, it's the experience gained in the way of seeing that was the most valuable for me.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

The Only Useful Camera

I missed an image. 

It wasn't because I was too slow or didn't have the right lens or a good angle. It was because I hadn't brought my camera with me. I know better, but I didn't listen to myself. The only useful camera is the one that you have with you.

I was only going to Target, about a mile up an extremely non-photogenic road. A suburban development and a busy intersection with chain stores. All on a drizzly day, what could I possibly miss? On my way back from Target, I saw a heavy-set bike cop ditch his transport and chug up a small hill into a 12' high hedge. A brief moment later, I saw a teenager dart out of the same hedge at which point a police car pulled up onto the grassy shoulder. When he saw the car, he immediately lay down in the grass. Two cops ran over to him and aggressively handcuffed him face down on the grass. At this point, my car was parallel to the kid about 10' away from him. We made eye contact. It could have been an amazing photo. 

It might not have been either - after all, the police seemed to be acting within the bounds of their authority, there was no Rodney King style beating. The kid didn't have blood on his hands and we weren't in some war torn neighborhood. However, I am still kicking myself. Maybe the newspaper would have wanted the picture and I've got to fight for every opportunity I can find to make my way in the world of photography. Maybe they wouldn't have, but it might have been a beautiful piece. The contrast between the white, middle-age, large police officers and the skinny, black youth; the look in his eyes as I looked back at him. The point is, that I won't know any of that and I missed my chance.

One of the reasons why I have gotten so many good pictures is because I always have my camera with me and you never know when something interesting is going to pop up. Even if I'm on my way to Target or Taekwondo or to pick up my kids from school, the world is a fascinating place and those decisive moments don't present themselves more than once. There will be thousands more in my life but that one that was missed will be memorable.

These are some images I have been lucky enough to capture because I had my camera with me when I didn't know I would need it. None of them depict world events or captured fame or the making of a hero. Instead, they were animals standing in just the right place, pilgrims traveling on horseback on the side of the road, and bottles filled with colored water in the room through which I could see an event space. The sign at the cemetery and the sculpture of the cars in the trees were happy accidents.

There will be more. And next time, I will have my camera with me.