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.