Change Come to China

Helen the kids and I were staying in Shuhe a good 30-45 minutes outside of Lijiang. Lijiang is to China what Colonial Williamsburg is to the United States. It’s a tourist attraction that’s built around vintage buildings, costumes and customs. And by vintage, I don’t mean Cultural Revolution vintage, but centuries old vintage. Many tourists, including the masses of Chinese tourists, travel the region so they can vacation in Lijiang – they stay in Lijang and never leave until it’s time to return home. Helen and I wanted to see the old city, but had no interest in more than a day visit – so we stayed in the much quieter town of Shuhe.

One of the amazing thing about Lijiang is that it exists at all – that this throwback to a more ancient Chinese civilization actually survived Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution. For the uninitiated, Mao Zedong ruled China with brute force from 1945 to 1976. Over the course of his rule, Mao went through different phases including the infamous Cultural Revolution during which he and his forces persecuted millions of Chinese people, many simply for being educated. Doctors, lawyers, historians and more – none were spared from being sent to re-education camps where they performed years of hard labor and worse. It’s estimated that 30 million people were killed during that time.

As part of the Cultural Revolution, Mao set out to reinvent China and, as part of that, to re-write Chinese history. Many of China’s historic cities and monuments were destroyed. And all this time anything that was seen as progress in the West such as education, technology and other advancements were frowned upon. China, during the Cultural Revolution, was in its own Dark Ages.

Which is why it’s amazing that Lijiang exists. That its infrastructure of ancient markets, temples and walls survived. And it’s even more odd that facing the main entrance plaza to the old city of Lijiang is nothing short of a rather large statue of the man himself, Mao Zedong.

I realize that the entrance to Old Lijiang isn’t seen here. It’s actually obscured by construction and blocked by construction barriers. But therein lies another fascinating contradiction The obvious contradiction being the construction cranes framing Mao on either side. Everything these cranes represent, from modern infrastructure and engineering to the very basics of capitalism that are behind the remarkable economic boom across China are antithetical to everything Mao believed in. One may as well waive a British flag behind a statue of George Washington or a Communist Soviet flag behind a statue of Ronald Regan to get a sense of the irony.

The folks standing at the curb are showing off various clothing styles and each different from the other. This too was antithetical to Mao’s teachings and the Cultural Revolution during which the Chinese people were encouraged (read: forced) to dress in identical outfits and to value the collective over individualism at all times.

Perhaps the weirdest symbol alongside the Mao statue is the motorcycle in the bottom right corner of the frame. The Suzuki. It’s Japanese. In fact, the Japanese are the long-time foil for the Chinese. Japan and China have been at war several times over the millennia and most recently during WWII.  in 1937, during the Nanking Massacre (also known as the rape of Nanking), the Japanese Army reportedly killed as many as 300,000 Japanese civilians. This is the China that Mao Zedong inherited – a China virulently anti-Japanese. Sadly, even today, there is cultural animosity bubbling at the surface between these two countries. That being said, there is the Japanese capitalist logo about to traipse beneath Mao’s gaze.

I am far from an expert on China – and even the most casual observer of that country cannot help but comment on the remarkable changes that this country is undergoing every day and even as I write this. I suppose, for me, the magic of this image is that if you look at it carefully and with an open mind, it captures many of China’s changes and contradictions in one stark moment.

 

Mona Lisa at the Mona Lisa

It was April, 2002 when Helen and I landed in Paris. It’s worth noting that Helen and I were coming off a year of travels around the world, mostly in hot climates, the previous three months having been spent in India. I mention this because April in Paris is decidedly cold. We had no idea, and were ill prepared. The result of the cold April winds combined with our light clothes was that we endeavored to spend as much time as possible indoors, which in Paris is certainly easy enough to do.

The Louvre is a labyrinth into itself and one in which a person could spend several days exploring and still not see everything, or at least not see it properly. Of course, the single most visited indoor attraction in Paris is likely the painting of Mona Lisa. For the uninitiated, here’s what you need to know about The Mona Lisa: it’s small. The actual canvas measures 2.5 feet tall by less than 2 feet wide. It’s not large. It’s not like Seurat’s Sunday Afternoon at the Park, for example – or a typical Jackson Pollack. Compared to many famous paintings, Mona Lisa is the equivalent in size of a postage stamp.  I didn’t expect that.

Non-flash photography was (and still is) permitted in The Louvre, as it is in nearly all major museums worldwide. Still, tourists couldn’t contain themselves nor their cameras when they stood before what is arguably humankind’s most famous painting. And so The Louvre placed Mona Lisa behind a thick case of tinted glass to protect it from errant flashes.

One year after our visit, in April 2003 Dan Brown’s novel the da Vinci Code was published and in May, 2006 Hollywood released it’s version. With the da Vinci Code  a worldwide sensation, traffic to see the Mona Lisa in person rose to a point where The Louvre reportedly stopped tourists from taking pictures anywhere on the second floor of The Louvre. Today Mona Lisa resides in a newly designed room on the first floor and photography is, once again, permitted.

Back in April, 2001, Helen and I explored the Louvre for the better part of a day. At one point, we allowed ourselves to be pulled into the vortex that was the viewing room for Mona Lisa. We squirmed our way to the front of the crowd where a single metal post served as a barrier. Like countless others, we leaned against the barrier and marveled at the painting’s small size absorbed every inch of this small canvas that is seen as the pinnacle of  renaissance artwork. Once I had taken in Mona Lisa for myself, I picked up my camera and began shooting. I was at the early stages of adding to my Art Watching series and I hoped I might capture clever and amusing images of people interacting the world’s most famous painting. I wasn’t disappointed. I have several images of people interacting with Mona Lisa including one that I’ve blogged about previously in which a woman looks downright miserable in front of the masterpiece.

When I had my fill and felt I had taken up too much space up front, I retreated to the back of the room. There, I would be out of the crush and, I hoped, would get a good overview of the scene. I didn’t want to photograph peoples’ backs, exactly, but I wanted to see what the entire room looked like. I let my camera down around my neck, power still on, ready to go, but I was clearly taking a break.

That’s when I saw, out of the corner of my eye, a woman walking into my field of view. I registered immediately that she looked like Mona Lisa herself and so I pulled my camera to my eye and with no time to think to or consciously frame the image, I captured this moment in time. It’s one shot, one frame on a roll of 36 pictures (remember film?). I never spoke to this woman, I had no idea who she was. It wasn’t planned or set up, it just happened.

Back in the days of film, before we could press a button and see an image immediately on the back of our cameras, I would very occasionally snap a picture and realize I had something special – something that I planned to pounce on once I got the film back from the lab. This was one of those times. I knew what I had the moment I took the picture and was excited. When I returned home to San Francisco and processed the film, I wasn’t disappointed. The woman is Mona Lisa’s doppelgänger – from the part in her hair to the crook in her smile, she is the woman in the painting.

A fascinating postscript: Earlier this year I received an email from the woman in the photograph. She’s a New Yorker who had been on vacation in Paris – she even remembers me taking her picture. I’ve since sent her a signed, limited edition fiber print. And I look forward to meeting her either here in North Carolina or on a future trip to New York. Amazing that twelve years after the fact, that she ran across this image and got in touch with me. It’s all incredible, really – life is full of fascinating moments, many of which are hard to believe. I am fortunate to capture some of those moments, such as the one shown above, with my camera.

 

 

Guard at Tiananmen Square

Devout followers of this blog may have picked up on the fact that, prior to this summer’s trip to China, I hadn’t captured any new images in nearly two years. This, despite having traveled in Nicaragua, Panama and the Canadian Rockies (just to name a few highlights) and all without my camera. It’s not that there weren’t amazing and intriguing subjects to be photographed in each of the places, there were. It was just that my attention was elsewhere – namely with my children.

As anyone who is either a photographer or in a relationship with a photographer can tell you, photography is at it’s core a selfish exercise. When you take capturing images as seriously as I do, it’s not something to do casually, but with passion. When I pick up a camera and look through the viewfinder, I am transported and consumed by what I see. And that’s a good thing. It’s how and why I’m able to capture the images that I do.

When the kids were very young, it was all and adventure and -with Helen’s help and determination – easy enough to have the kids in tow. In fact, having Jordan and Tamar along on trips when I was shooting counted as quality family time.

Later this month, Jordan and Tamar will turn 11 and 9 respectively. What I realized two years ago was that this was the time for me to set down the cameras – at least temporarily – and make sure that when we spent time together traveling as a family, that my priority would be our kids. There would be no running off to capture an image, to chase the perfect light, or wander markets on my own looking for the perfect story. And this realization was liberating. In all our travels for two years, the only camera I had with me was my iPhone. My vacations were exactly that. Did I miss capturing images? Sure, absolutely. But I also enjoyed reading books, sleeping, being with my kids and not taking time away from them to do anything.

As a result, 2012 and 2013 were camera free years. And then a funny thing happened. My kids became concerned. Their dad, as they see it, is at his core a photographer. I’m sure that’s what they tell their friends, “my dad is a photographer.” That’s the dad they grew up with. But then they realized they hadn’t seen me with a camera for a while. And that frightened them. Some of my co-workers too, seemed to hint at their desire to see me pick up a camera again. David Winton, our Creative Director, went so far as to encourage me to buy the latest best Nikon pro camera, which I did earlier this year.

Believe it or not, I debated whether or not to bring the cameras to China. I went back and forth. I loved traveling with my family and not being distracted by the insatiable need to take pictures. I also knew that China would be special and that, given the once-in-a-lifetime chance, I would come home with terrific images. I wavered from week to week. Here’s who didn’t waver. Helen. Helen was determined from the start that I would bring cameras and take pictures.

Two weeks before we left for China, I agreed. I pulled out the manual for the new camera (Nikon d800), contact my friends at LowePro and got their newest travel pack (thanks, it was perfect!), trimmed down to the minimal gear and ordered plenty of media cards. Even Jordan and Tamar were excited. And several of my co-workers expressed how happy (read: relieved?) that they were knowing that I would back in the saddle.

Two challenges remained… mostly, would I be able to find the right balance between taking pictures and being present with my family? And secondly, photography is a muscle. With two years of lack of exercise, how would I do? Would I find the story? Would I be quick enough? Would I still enjoy the day-to-day work of taking pictures?

This picture above is one of the first images I captured on our first day in China. I like the universal story of a soldier standing guard at a ubiquitous government building. I like the contrasts in black and white, the crisp focus of the soldier and the lack of focus of the building he’s guarding. Maybe most of all, I like what most people will never know – that wandering the vast expanse of the world’s largest paved square, Tiananmen Square, I decided to photograph this guard, framed the image I wanted, set the focal length for effect and captured what was, in effect, my first image in two years. Now there’s there real story behind the picture.

The story has a happy ending, by the way. I successfully navigated family time and shooting time and captured 10,000 raw images over 3.5 weeks. I had so much fun that a month later when we returned to the Banff and the Canadian Rockies, I brought my cameras and shot there as well. Jordan and Tamar need not fear, they can always tell their friends that dad is a photographer.

We were visiting the relatively small Yunnan Province town of Xizhou, when we decided to visit the morning market on a rainy Monday morning. We walked through mostly shuttered streets on our way. We happened across one man standing in street-level room, the large windows open to the street – he in slacks and t-shirt as he ironed a shirt, presumably for the day. I stopped and motioned with my camera – could I take his picture, I asked? A quick, irritated wave-off was my answer. I don’t speak Chinese, but I knew enough to know what he said under his breath as I walked away.

If you have read this blog for long enough, you already know that I don’t take pictures of people who don’t want to be photographed. In markets and other crowded public places, I rarely ask permission – but if someone waves me off, or otherwise makes it clear they don’t want my camera pointed at them, I dutifully comply. In other situations, where it’s more or less one on one with my camera in a quiet setting, I first ask permission.

This policy of mine goes back to my mother, Ilse Kalisher. “Photographer don’t take pictures,” she once told me when I was young,”they steal them.” Her point was simple – respect your subject and don’t photograph them if he or she objects.

Back in Xizhou, I shrugged off the man in the t-shirt who didn’t want to be photographed and headed the to the market where one vendor after another turned her back to me when I raised my camera. I relegated myself to photographing close-ups of food and long shots of the market.

At one point, I found two elderly people sitting with two children I took to be their grandkids. I asked permission (I lifted my camera and smiled), the grandparents nodded their consent and I began to fire away, occasionally stopping to share the images off the back of my camera with kids and grandparents alike. We were at the northern edge of the market, squatting in a dilapidated room with a makeshift stove and few provisions. And we were all having a blast.

When I had enough shots, I stood up, said “Xie, Xie” (thank you) and turned to leave. That’s when a woman who I hadn’t previously seen and whom I presumed was the children’s mother, stomped in and whacked me on the shoulder while firing off a few choice words in Chinese. “But I had permission,” I protested in English. No use, of course, she was mad and, truthfully, the moment was over as quickly as it had begun.

On the walk back to our hotel, the rain coming down a bit harder, some of the previously shuttered windows were now open. There was the metalsmith, the shoe salesman, the odds and ends store and more. And then there was the barber. Ah, the barber.

I stepped up and peered in the window and it was perfect. A man was lying done prone in the chair while the barber gave him a close shave with a straight razor. This is a lost art here in the United States. And there was more. The barbershop was full of people, as barbershops worldwide are supposed to be. The barbershop as social hub- America, China, it makes no difference.

I walked up to the open window with my camera hanging down from my neck – we all traded hellos (Ni Hau) and smiles. After a brief moment, I raised my camera and, by raising my eyebrows, asked if I could take pictures. The gestures I got in return were overwhelmingly welcoming. Now the real work began – finding the right angle, making sure the people were ignoring me, finding and framing the shot that would tell the story.

I enjoy much about this picture – the razor on the man’s face to be sure. But look to the left, there’s a man leaning in with a great smile on his face. He’s sitting, by chance, in a chair that placed him underneath a hair dryer. And then look just to the right of the barber’s elbow, there’s a poster of a smiling model staring right at us. And then there’s the army shirt of the barber himself. You probably can’t see it on this web jpeg, but the label where a soldier’s name would typically go it says – and in English no less – FASHION ARMY.

Sometimes a strong image is comprised of a single subject. Think of a close up of a flower – or even a dramatic landscape. Sometimes a strong image captures one person, in a moment, that tells a compelling story. And sometimes a strong image is a tableau with multiple moments and stories. This is the latter – and were I younger and earlier in my career, I might have allowed myself to be deterred by all the folks who didn’t want their pictures taken and, as a result, this image might not have existed.

In the end, I’m glad I didn’t give up and pack my camera away when so many other folks were frustrated by my camera. I’m glad I didn’t take any of the rejections personally – I’m equally proud that I’ve been true to my mother’s admonition – and, in this case, I’m very glad was able to capture this image not in spite of, but because of all of the above.

 

First things first. It’s ironic that the same month my collection “One World” is released as a book with my images from many parts of the world – but not China – just happened to be the very same month that I found myself taking pictures in, you guessed it, China. Last month, I captured nearly 10,000 images over three weeks in China and as a result I am, admittedly, still knee-deep in editing. That being said, I thought I’d share this one image as a sneak preview. I shot in Beijing, Shanghai, Xi’ian, across Yunnan Province and then in Hong Kong – which is to say there was a lot to choose from. That said, this one image leapt out at me as a great encapsulation of China today, at the crossroads.

First of all, this image should never have existed – that is to say, Helen, the kids and I were trying to enter a walled garden area in Shanghai that is supposedly a key point of interest worth visiting and we were rather turned around. Not lost, exactly, but also nowhere near where we intended to be. In short, we were wandering narrow streets of Shanghai that, had we been where we intended, we never would have seen. Of course, this unexpected detour turned out to be my favorite part of Shanghai. Here, away from the tourists and the tourist shops was the heartbeat of Shanghai. Here were the street stalls, people going about life that was focused around Shanghai and China and not the growth and materialism that China has most recently imported from the West. Here was life in all its technicolor glory.

There is a lot going on in this image and that’s what makes it interesting for me. In the background are the street food stalls – coincidentally, from which we ate some of the most memorable food we enjoyed in our three weeks in China – and people going about the business of their lives.

The hero of the shot, and the reason I selected this image to share is the man on the bicycle – he’s wearing sandals, riding his bike and is on his cell phone at the same time. This, for me, is China at the crossroads. In other areas of China, bullet trains that run off the latest technology and hardware bisect fields that are being plowed by oxen and rice paddies that are being tended by hand. Beijing, Shanghai and other cities are dazzling displays of modern architecture, BMWs, Rolls Royces and other rolling status symbols are common sights while sidewalk garbage cans are still tended by people on bicycles pulling rolling garbage bins.

China is a country in transition. And, for me, the juxtaposition of the street life including the man on the bicycle against the fact that this man is on his cell phone captures it all.

You’ll notice the image is a bit crooked. I’m fine with that. The goal was to capture the critical elements – the food stalls, the street headed back behind them – while making the man on the bicycle and his cell phone the hero of the shot. The angle allowed me to keep most of the bicycle in the frame and not lose anything else I wanted in the image to help tell the story. Of course, all this unfolded in front of me rather quickly. There’s the fun and the challenge as a photographer – to see the scene, understand the story and to quickly (instantly) frame the shot and capture it before it disappears.

There are plenty more China pictures to share – with any luck, I’ll have them all edited and online by the time I blog again next month. In the mean time, here’s China in all her transitional glory.

 

 

Uncommon

Sometimes, the best stories are in the small details – this image is, for me, a terrific example of that. And it’s the perfect example of the image I never set out to capture, but that lives on as one of my favorites.

Several years ago, I was commissioned by two different hotels to shoot at roughly the same time in San Antonio and New Braunfels, Texas. That led to a great trip. Helen, the kids, and I flew to San Antonio and spent a couple of long days shooting the river walk, the local historic architecture and several missions (at one of which, I’ll never forget, our young son Jordan braved a nasty attack by red ants).

From San Antonio, we drove north to New Braunfels. For the uninitiated, New Braunfels, Texas is a water wonder not to be missed. The two centerpieces for the community are the Comal River, filled with inner tubes gently gliding downstream and ending in a man-made white-water chute, and Schlitterbahn. Schlitterbahn is the Disney of water parks – it rises up out of the unsuspecting Texas landscape with massive scale and is a siren to children and teenagers for hundreds of miles in every direction. Shooting in New Braunfels was a treat I hadn’t anticipated.

Once finished in New Braunfels and with dreams of returning there one day to idly play in the water, rather than re-trace our steps, we continued north to Austin. Austin is, of course, the capital city of Texas and there we spent an afternoon and a morning shooting. It was the end of an intense week focused on photography – and so while Helen, kids and I were determined to capture images of Austin, we also tried to remember how to relax without being tied to a shot list and the sun’s trajectory. In short, we sat down for a meal in a restaurant and took a moment to breathe.

Still, there were icons to be photographed. I captured a few images of the capital (with amazing clouds as the perfect backdrop), as well as various landmarks around the city. Lunch was up on South Congress, the strip of funky shops and great restaurants just beyond downtown. There we strolled up and down the avenue scouting out where we wanted to park ourselves for lunch – which also gave me a chance to photograph this eclectic neighborhood. Here is where I slipped on the 70-200MM lens and started looking for details. Whenever I see a street lined with interesting shops, my instinct is invariably to go for the details. The broad shots rarely do a street like this justice – to capture the spirit and fun of a neighborhood, I am invariably drawn to the fine points.

As I scanned the areas just above the street level – this is where I traditionally find the most interesting subject matter – I was not disappointed. There were murals and architectural details to be captured. It was a feast for my lens. I was blissfully having fun, delaying lunch as long as reasonable, when I spotted the cowboy riding a giant rabbit. The sculpture was great – but then underneath the sculpture was the sign for the store Uncommon Goods. My challenge was instantly clear. Capture the image so that the word “uncommon” was framed perfectly below the jackrabbit and cowboy. There stood my perfect story.

I love so much about this photograph. There’s the dilapidated  air conditioner just to the left of the rabbit. To the left of that is the curtain pinned back as if an invisible person is staring back out at us. There are graphic elements that run horizontal and frame the picture toward the top and at the bottom. And now that I’ve told you, you can see the start to the letter “G” at the bottom right, but the truth is this isn’t a distractor. The word “uncommon” is centered with room enough to breath on either side – and the cowboy and his rabbit are off center to the right. I couldn’t have asked for a better composition.

I’m sure I laughed as I took the picture. After I stopped laughing, I put my cameras away. I had the best shot of the day in the can. It was time for a wonderful, well-earned, relaxing lunch with Helen and the kids.

The Pyramids at Dawn

This is not only my most collected fine art photograph, it also taught me an invaluable lesson about photography which I still carry with me and teach to others to this day. More on that in a bit.

Arriving in Cairo at age 39 was something I had dreamed of doing for 33 years, since I was six and first read a book on ancient Egypt. When I was a teenager, I made a passing attempt at learning to read hieroglyphics – that seemed cool, but not cool enough to get me to stick with it for very long. I wouldn’t say I was more Egypt-obsessed than other kids, but clearly, the mystery and majesty of the ancient civilization fascinated me from an early age.

Helen and I arrived in Cairo in what turned out to be the mid-point of our year-long journey around the world. We had been in Turkey, Syria, Jordan and Israel. Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, Zanzibar, India and Paris still remained ahead of us.

A lot of backpackers warned us about Egypt. It’s a tough place to travel, they told us. Egyptians are not nice to westerners, we read. They will harass you at every turn we heard more than once. We entered Egypt overland from Israel, driving on a bus into the Sinai Peninsula. It was a large coach bus and we were the only two people, aside from the driver, on the bus. We were prepared for the worst.

Let me just say for the record, we loved Egypt. The people were great – and there was a near universal sense of humor which, once we tapped into it, made our stay there amazing. So much so, that we extended our four-week visa so we could stay two extra weeks.

Cairo fell in the middle of our visit to Egypt. And that was perfect. I could barely take another day’s anticipation waiting to see the Pyramids at Giza.

Helen and I spent a full day exploring the Pyramids. We rejected the many offers for a guide and took ourselves around one monument after another. Even with my limited film resources, I nonetheless captured a wide range of images. At one point in the afternoon, I realized I wanted a shot from a mile out in the desert – and that shot, of the three pyramids grouped together, was a morning shot.

That is why Helen and I got up at the crack of dawn for the second day in a row and headed back to the Pyramids. We had decided to head to Alexandria on an 11AM mini van that doubled as a taxi. That meant getting to the Pyramids before 8AM, walking out into the desert, grabbing the shot and heading back to the min van stand area all with single minded purpose.

Everything went to plan. We arrived before the Giza plateau opened, had some tea and bread which two teenage boys sold us from trays atop their heads, then at 8AM sharp, we walked with purpose out into the desert. A Bedouin man atop a camel followed us into the desert and tried to sell us camel rides. I used a line that I had honed to perfection in Egypt, channeling my best Obi Wan Kenobi, I said with a wave of my hand, “We’re not the tourists you’re looking for.”

Like the others I had used the line on before him, this particular Bedouin looked us over, turned his camel and headed back to the Pyramids, one assumes in search of more willing tourists. All without so much as another word. I grabbed a terrific shot of the Bedouin atop his camel, riding off toward the Pyramids. I also got the shot we had come  for… the three Pyramids all next to one another.

Picture in hand, Helen and I walked quickly back to the Pyramids. No time to waste, we had already spent an entire day there and we had a van to catch. We walked between two Pyramids and then close the middle of the three structures. Fully past the middle Pyramid and about to leave the Giza Plateau forever, I reconnected with the six-year-old still inside of me. My inner six-year-old didn’t want to leave. At a minimum, the child in me wanted to say goodbye. That’s when I stopped and turned around to wave farewell to the Pyramids, to seal the experience and soak it in for one final time – to satisfy the needs of my six-year-old self.

That’s when I saw this scene.

I dropped my backpack, fished out my camera and, for the moment at least, there was suddenly no van to catch. Time stood still and all the other shots I had taken in the previous 25 hours melted away into  nothingness. In that instant, I knew I had something special. It is one of the very rare moments – in the days of film, at least – when I captured a shot and even before I got it back from the lab, I knew I had something remarkable. For the next six months as Helen and continued our travels, I kept seeing this image in my mind’s eye and when I finally got the contact sheets back in San Francisco, it was the first image I looked for.

Since I first printed this image in the darkroom, countless people have told me that I managed to photograph the Pyramids in a way they they have never been photographed before. I find that hard to believe – but clearly many people, including museum curators and fine art photography collectors believe this to be true.

Here, for whatever it’s worth, is the magic lesson I learned in capturing this image: Sometimes, the best picture is behind you. It’s a simple thought, but walk down a street in one direction and then turn around and walk the other way and you’ll realize the stretch of real estate that you just traversed, eyes wide open, looks entirely different when retracing your steps in the opposite direction.

I’m glad I was able to travel to Egypt. I’m grateful that I never fully lost touch with the 6-year-old inside of me. I’m very glad I listened to that 6-year-old and turned to wave goodbye to the Pyramids. I captured a timeless image – and learned a valuable lesson all at once. That’s a great day in my book.

 

There are times when I set out to capture a certain image only to be disappointed that the image I wanted doesn’t exist. Usually, my initial disappointment gives way to the wonder of surprise and the delight at capturing an image I had no idea awaited me. This was one of those times.

To set the stage, Helen and I backpacked around the world for the better part of a year in 2001/02, before kids, before a mortgage, before we started our art business and, truth be told, before I had established my reputation as a fine art photographer. Indeed, some of the images I would capture on this trip, including this one, marked the turning point in my career.

Our journey started with a brief sojourn in England, then off to Turkey and over land through Syria, Jordan, Israel and Egypt. Then through Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania and Zanzibar before heading off for three months riding the trains and exploring India.

Before we had so much as packed our bags and left San Francisco, we knew India would be on our itinerary. And while I wouldn’t categorize myself as having been impatient to get there, I was certainly excited at the thought of seeing (and photographing) the Taj Mahal.

Finally in India and as we rode the train from Trivandrum to Chennai and then north to Bhopal, I started allowing myself the fantasy of photographing the Taj Mahal in all her glory – the white marble, the light bouncing off the water that would sit motionless in the reflecting pools. The longest train ride we took in this stretch was 30 hours. That’s a lot of daydreaming about capturing the perfect shot.

We arrived in Agra on a Monday afternoon and quickly settled into a nice hotel (by backpacker standards) walking distance from the Taj. That night Helen and I set our alarms and the next morning we were up well before sunrise and were the first to enter the famous mausoleum an hour before the sun came up.

A quick note, we paid $60 in entrance fees – and while today we’re fortunate and wouldn’t think twice about the cost, back then, we were traveling on $30/day – between the two of us. So the entrance ticket was an extravagance.

Imagine my chagrin, therefore, when we got inside the compound only to discover that the reflecting pools had been drained. I took a few shots in sheer frustration and waited for the sun to come up and to see if the pools might be filled later in the day.

While I waited, in vain I might add, the workers came out to clean the pools. Now, suddenly, I knew why I was there – on this rare day – when there was no water in the famous reflecting pools. I was there to shoot not the classic Taj Mahal shot, but to capture the odd image, the image not of glamour but of reality, in which we see the workers doing the most common and mundane of chores, cleaning the bottom of a pool. Only this pool was in front of one of the seven man made wonders of the world.

As for the large black birds – I had no idea they were there. I was focused on the workers, trying to compose a shot with seven different people in it, all moving at their own pace and direction – and trying to conserve film at the same time. This was before digital. Because I only traveled with 20 rolls of film at a time (I purchased film as we traveled), each shot had to count. Suddenly and without warning, these birds took flight, appearing out of nowhere. I clicked the shutter and got one frame with the birds in the image. And this image is, by far, my favorite shot of the Taj Mahal.

Helen and I spent the rest of the day watching the light (and the tourists) transit the Taj Mahal. It was wonderful to have an excuse to spend an entire day in the presence of such beauty.

By sunset, the pools were still empty. And while I thought I had some interesting shots in the can, I still wanted my reflecting pool shots. On Tuesday, we strolled back to the Taj Mahal but this time we passed on paying our $60 until we could be sure there was water in the pools. This turned into an odyssey unto itself. The helpful folks outside the compound directed us to the central office in charge of the monument that in turn led us into a rickshaw taxi and a trip around Agra going from one office building to another in search of the bureaucrat  who would tell us when the reflecting pools would be filled.

On Thursday morning, Helen and I were fairly sure the empty pools had been filled. We awoke well before dawn and made our way to the Taj Mahal entrance. Only we let the folks there know that we weren’t in a position to pay $60 again unless we could be 100% certain there was water in the reflecting pools. In effect, we said, we wanted a free look to be sure – if the water was there, we would pay, no problem.

The folks who ran the ticket office didn’t know what to do with us. Finally, a tall, lean and rather firm standing soldier came by to speak with us. His English was wonderful. He was sympathetic and said he’d walk with me into the Taj Mahal compound where he and I would see for ourselves what the situation was.

Off we went at such a brisk pace that, all these years later, I still remember struggling to keep up with him.

And then a funny thing happened. To enter the Taj Mahal compound requires entering a main gate and then another inner gate. Both gates are guarded by the military. As we approached the outer gate and at the sight of my escort, the guards snapped to attention as if their jobs depended on speed and perfection. I took note, but thought perhaps this was merely a show for the tourists outside the gate.

But no, inside and out of sight of all the tourists save myself, one soldier after another snapped to attention as we strode past. When we got to the inner gate, the guards fell over themselves to come to attention and then open the gate as quickly and efficiently as possible for my escort and myself.

I turned to my escort and remarked, “You’ve been holding out on me. It seems you’re the commanding officer here.”

“Indeed I am,” he said with a smile.

And then there we were – inside the inner gate, facing the Taj Mahal in all its pre-sunrise glory. “Is that enough water for your photographs?” The commander asked, waving gallantly at the now full reflecting pools.

“Most certainly,” I said.

The commander had work to attend to and asked me to show myself out of the compound. Which, of course I did, getting curious looks from the guards the entire way back to the ticket window where Helen waited with our backpacks.

Helen and I spent another entire day at the Taj Mahal. By early afternoon, the guards were chatting with us, noting that they had seen us there for an entire day several days earlier and also wondering how it was that I knew their commanding officer.

“It’s just part of my job as a photographer,” I told them.

This picture was as fun to capture as it is to look at. There are a few places in the world famous for its pigeon population. St. Marks Square in Venice, Trafalgar Square in London and the entire Island of Manhattan come to mind. Having grown up in Manhattan, I found it difficult to be enamored with this particular bird under any setting. That said, once one finds oneself in, say, St. Marks Square as I did one lovely morning, one can’t help but get caught up in the fascination that borders on hysteria over these globally common birds.

For the uninitiated, St. Marks Square is, among other things, a large tourist attraction at one end of Venice. Part of it’s attraction is the part of the square that sits at the entrance to the grand canal with a perfect view of San Giorgio. Part of the attraction of St. Marks Square are the buildings, the architecture, the museums and the cafes that make up the three walls of the square. And then, there are the pigeons.

The pigeons at St. Marks Square are there to be fed. By tourists. Tourists buy food from vendors, put a small amount of food in their hands and then hold their arms outstretched and wait, for a few moments, until one or more birds alight on their hands to feed.

As I mentioned earlier, I grew up in Manhattan. The idea of willfully and actively attempting to get a pigeon to land on one’s outstretched hand is about as attractive as diving into a pile of old garbage. Which is to say, for someone who grew up as I did, willfully interacting with pigeons was something best left to people playing with less than a full deck.

Of course, photographing people with pigeons on their outstretched hands was another matter entirely. I had photographed a Parisian man feeding pigeons once. If one can judge by appearances, he seemed to be marching to the beat of his own drummer. The folks in St. Marks Square were different, of course. They were tourists. And they were having the time of their life doing as the other tourists were doing around them, feeding the pigeons from their hands.

I took several shots of this while pigeons darted this way and that around the square, sometimes in search of more food and sometimes for reasons known only to them. In most cases, the movement was chaotic, entirely of purpose and without poetry. But on occasion, I noted, many of the birds would fly together, in a graceful arc, around part of the square. This caught my eye.

I could imagine an image of the birds, several of them, together, flying past the architecture. But of course, I’m shooting a still photo and the motion would be lost. I could remedy this by shooting at a 30th of a second and panning – if I did it right, one or more of the birds would be in focus and the famed Venetian architecture would be blurred but recognizable in the background.

Seemed like a great idea.

Only there was one challenge I couldn’t surmount. The birds didn’t fly a large enough arc, meaning they weren’t in the air long enough for me to get my telephoto lens on them. By the time I would get my camera up and have the birds in my viewfinder, they had landed. I tried several times and failed.

I switched out my lens for the 35-70MM and returned to photographing scenes in the square that were directly in front of me. At one point, I was walking through the square, camera hanging over my shoulder, when several pigeons began flying together and on a low arc, almost waist high. Here, I knew, was my moment.

In an instant, I pulled my camera to my hip, slid one of the control knobs to give me a long shutter speed, clicked the shutter and, as the birds flew past, waved the camera in a blind attempt to track the birds’ trajectory. There was no time to look through the viewfinder – the entire shot was from the hip.

It’s a bit of a miracle that this shot worked out. But it did work out. I got the image I had envisioned without so much as looking through the viewfinder never mind picking a focal point.

I’m sure there’s a lesson in there somewhere… I’m just not sure that I want to know what it is.

One World

I recently selected this image as the cover for my upcoming book, “One World.” Yes, we’re publishing a book of my B&W global images – that should be available by June 1st, possibly sooner. More on that in a bit. First, this image – which I captured at JFK International airport in 2009. That’s our daughter Tamar on the left and our son Jordan on the right, at the time, ages three and five.

We were on our way to Barcelona and more than a month of travel in Spain, Gibraltar, Morocco and England – and here were our kids sitting in a picture window at the airport staring out into the abyss of the airport tarmac. My cameras were safely tucked away in my bag and, truthfully, my thoughts were about getting through the over-crowded boarding area and onto settled into our seats and not at all about the possibility of being presented with an intriguing image. But there it was in front of me.

I knew immediately that this was a great shot I needed to capture and so I dug out my camera, made sure I had my 35-70 lens on it, framed the shot, adjusted the aperture and captured the image. It’s a challenge for me to separate the image from the fact that these are, in fact, my kids. I do love this shot because of the tabula rasa of youth, staring out into the unknown adventure of travel – but then how much am I influenced by the fact that it’s Jordan and Tamar? I’ll never know.

Still, this is one of a select handful of images that I come back to time and again. When I curated the collection “One World” I was adamant that this image be included. And when I turned that collection into a book, I knew before I began that this image would be the closing picture. There are more than one hundred images from all over the world – and this shot, of two kids staring out into an airport, about to embark on not just the trip in front of them, but on a lifetime of travel, this was the perfect capstone to the collection.

What I never expected, however, was that this would be the cover shot. There were so many more likely candidates for the cover. My shot of the pyramids at dawn comes to mind. Or my shot of the workers in front of the Taj Mahal. There are many obvious choices. But when we looked at those various options mocked up on the cover of the book, they felt expected. The didn’t, as a trusted co-worker offered to me, make one want to pick up the book and see what’s inside.

That’s when I offered up this picture as the cover shot – and it just clicked, and not just for me, but for all of us who were working on the book.

I’ll add one footnote about this image. It’s a shot that’s technically challenging to capture. You’ve got inside light, inside subjects, glass and then outside light and subjects. The answer for me is simply to bracket (shoot at different exposure settings) and see which one comes out the best, understanding that with a digital camera, over exposure is always preferable to under-exposure (there may be details in the blown out areas that we can pull out, but unlikely to be able to get information out of the areas that register as black).

There are times when leaving the camera in the bag is clearly the path of least resistance. It’s times like that when I recall an amazing shot of sky, clouds and sun I missed in the mountains of Tanzania once because I didn’t want to hop off a bus a mile before my destination (I thought I’d walk back, but by the time I did, the shot was gone) – or the handful of times I didn’t make the extra effort required to visit a new location when I was within striking distance. I did that on this day in 2009, fought inertia, pulled out my cameras and captured an image that unbeknownst to me at the time would, five years later, become the cover shot to my next book.