2022 06 18
The Russian River

We had been on our road trip for more than a week when we got to the Russian River Valley north of San Francisco.

Up until then, the landscape had looked familiar. Then suddenly the dusty tones and earthy tans of Southern California gave way to gray clouds, a misty drizzle and a vibrant blanket of towering redwoods and green mountains. It felt abrupt, as if we got dropped into a colorful set piece in a topographical board game. I had never been this far north in California but having lived as a child in Vermont, the mountain terrain felt familiar. I admit the change was welcome. Sunny skies look great on a postcard but are a challenge to photograph especially when shooting digital. Extreme light overwhelms mid tones, shadows go black. Nothing is subtle.

This afternoon in the Russian River Valley everything seemed special and new. The soft filtered light, the deep greens and changing shades of brown and red more pronounced. It was miraculously beautiful. An occasional stray spill of sunlight struggled to poke through the clouds. What could I bring to these vistas that hadn't been captured by better photographers and lucky tourists before me? I wrestle with a variation of this question every time I take a photograph, which paralyzes me and is unhelpful. So I tucked the question away and continued to drive down the valley past the sloping fields of wild grass to the ocean. Everything felt wild and ancient that day. I could imagine people living in cities but couldn't imagine why.

2022 06 15
Three Stacks and a Rock

With photography you’re by yourself a lot of the time, which gets lonely, so I like to travel with someone else even if it’s just to help with driving and to share a meal after a day of shooting.

Last month my niece was winding down her winter season as an outback wilderness guide in Colorado. She wanted to get close to the ocean again so we made a plan to drive up the Pacific Coast Highway with a loose goal of making it to the Oregon border. One of the first stops on our road trip was Morro Bay, a fishing town half way between LA and San Francisco.

The town is famous for Morro Rock, a remenant of a long extinct volcano that towers above the entrance to Morro Bay, and the three skyscraper-tall power plant smokestacks that stand vigil nearby. The close proximity of the two landmarks, which locals call Three Stacks and a Rock, is as striking as their opposites: man-made power versus nature’s power to shape the earth. As we walked through town, one or both of the landmarks would jut into view, shape shifting in the fractured afternoon light. It was a warm day. My neice trailed lazily behind me as I stopped to take pictures. A thick, white haze moved slowly inland from the bay's outer reaches. We had walked for awhile and would be heading back soon to our car and the Airbnb we rented nearby.

2022 01 25
You are wrong to want a heart

I sat next to a middle-aged man on the plane ride from Los Angeles to Kansas City. The man wore wire-rimmed glasses and had a beakish nose. He seemed pleasant enough but wrestled with his newspaper for much of the two-hour flight.

He would fold the long edge of his paper with a manic rustling sound, crease it, and fold it again until it was a square. This continued for much of the flight. When I wasn’t listening to the paper rustler, I was reading my book and looking out the window of the plane as the jagged, red-tinged Colorado mountain tops gave way to flat prairie. I was flying to visit my sister who lives in Lawrence, Kansas which was one of our hometowns when we were kids and where she had returned to years ago. With a modest savings she had taken time off from her cashier job at the Dollar Tree and moved into a small apartment on the far east edge of town. 

After several days of getting my sister settled into her new place, I got into my rental car and headed north on Route 59 toward Atchinson. Perched on a hill above the Missouri River, the town  is known for being the birthplace of the famed aviator Amelia Earhart. It was a cloudy early fall day. From my car window, I could see the tall prairie grass barely hanging onto its summer colors. Farms and barns and red and green resting combines flanked the road and a distantly familiar mix of manure and fresh dug earth tickled my nose. I tried to think like a photographer, or what I thought a photographer should be thinking of,  but all I could think about was how I had arrived here and why our family had to leave in the first place. I was a teenager then. Now, so far removed from my younger self any memories I had seemed borrowed from someone else.  Did I really have bottle rocket wars on dried out river beds and come home so exhausted and exhilarated I could barely sleep? Why did the gully near our house scare me so? What was so important that our father uprooted his family to start all over again in another new town? 

I was thinking about all these things when I took a left turn off Route 59 and drove into Oskaloosa, one of the many towns sprinkled throughout Kansas which reflects on its origin as a Native American territory. I  walked around the town for a while and through it’s small center looking for photographs until I arrived at a ramshackle house that was getting a paint job. I saw a woman in the front yard and asked if I could take her photograph. She was patient enough to let me, an acceptance that continues to surprise me when it happens. When I got back to my sister’s house later that evening I showed the photo of the woman to my sister and asked her what she thought of it. “I see women like her every day at the store,” she said. “She’s lived a hard life, but she’s a proud woman.” Kansas is made up of rugged people. You’ll need your own version of strength too. I don’t know many people that get to escape that.
2021 11 05
Everything is important

For a long time, cars were a problem for me to photograph. Every time I photographed a car it came out badly.

It wasn’t that I photographed it incorrectly. It wasn’t that I picked the wrong aperture, or lens, or shot too near or far from my subject. It was an emotional  issue, not a technical issue. I just didn’t care that much about what I was photographing and my not caring about cars showed up in the photographs I took. My pictures of cars weren’t very good.  

But not photographing cars wasn’t the answer. Cars are hard to avoid, especially in Los Angeles where I live. And if you’re a photographer, not photographing something just because it’s difficult for you is a road to failure, so what happened? The pandemic did. I had to start to spend less time in my photo studio with real people and more time outside with - you guessed it - cars. Cars were more visible everywhere I went during the pandemic. Cars parked in front of houses. Cars on their way somewhere. Cars were taking up more visual space with more people staying inside so I started to pay attention to them differently.

I had to really notice where and how cars sat within my camera’s frame. I had to treat cars more like an actual subject. Something to bring attention and intention to. Why was I choosing to have this particular car sit in this particular place within my camera’s frame? What color was it? What was the car doing? What did the car add to the picture’s meaning, if any? This is still a work in progress - like everything else I take pictures of - but I learned a valuable lesson. The more you care, the more intention you bring to your subject, the better chance you have to make a good photograph. Now I treat everything within my frame, whatever it is, however seemingly insignificant it may appear to be, the same way - as something important. Hopefully that will lead to better pictures.