I don’t typically stage a photograph, but this one, I couldn’t resist. For the past two weeks, I was aboard the MS Paul Gauguin sailing from Tahiti to Fiji – my role was to provide lectures on photography and creativity while at sea, and while anhcored offshore, to lead photo expeditions through some of the most photogenic land on earth.

When I wasn’t working, I was relaxing with Helen, Jordan and Tamar. In short, it was a fabulous trip. On our third day of the cruise, we were anchored off the coast of the Polynesian island Tahaa (where much of our vanilla comes from) – from there we caught a tender to a small motu (or atoll) where we relaxed, snorkeled, kayaked and yes, took the occasional photograph.

I didn’t yet know the crew of the ship well, but I had taken notice of one of the singers, or Gauguins as they’re called on the ship. His name, I would learn, is Mihimana – and his long hair, fit shape and striking tattoos combined to create the perfect image of a stylized Tahitian man. When I saw Mihimana at the motu, I knew I had to photograph him.

Before I left the U.S., the cruise line asked me to capture a few images for them that they could use in their marketing. I don’t know if they’ll like this shot (and yes, I have it in color for them) – but for me, when I saw him strumming his ukulele and singing to welcome guests arriving at the motu, I immediately imagined the possibilities for the cruise line.

I found Mihimana at lunchtime, introduced myself and asked if I could photograph him later in the afternoon. He readily agreed and also agreed to sign a release – something that’s required for images used in advertising and, as a result, something I typically don’t concern myself with.

At 3:30, with a comfortable afternoon sun, Mihimana and I walked across to the west side of the motu, away from the tourists on the beach and set ourselves to capture a wash of light coming from one side. I didn’t have the benefit of any additional fill lighting or reflectors, not to mention any assistants to help move light around. Instead it was just me, Mihimana, the sun, the water, and a relatively short amount of time to play and capture a few images.

Mihimana is a native Tahitian – back in Papeete, he and his brother are popular tattoo artists, the tattoo being a tradition that we in the west imported from Tahiti and what is now French Polynesia. In fact the tattoos adorning Mihimana were drawn by his brother. When he’s not on Papeete, Mihimana works on the MS Paul Guaguin greeting and entertaining tourists 7-days a week for up to four months at a time. He is, in short, a warm and friendly man with a ready and welcoming smile.

I positioned Mihimana in the water where it came up to just below his knees. I turned him into the sun and then asked him to turn his head slightly to face me. That’s why his body is filled with light while there’s just a bit of a shadow crossing his face. I started shooting, then asked him to fold his arms. That’s when I thought to crouch down low to the water to add drama to the way Mihimana filled the frame. And then, the most important request I had of him that afternoon – I asked him to stop smiling and instead to look angry – as if he were about to get into a fight. That’s when I captured this image.

I love so much about this image – from the perspective that has Maihimana looking over us as if a warrior, to his flowing pareo shoring up the bottom of the frame. And one more thing, this ten minutes at the beach has sparked my imagination and for the first time, I can imagine the artistic satisfaction of working with a crew, controlling the light and working with models. That’s not something I’ve ever imagined doing before. And while there’s no time to explore this today, perhaps one day…

I captured this image in December, 2001 and I remember the moment as if it were last week. That’s the way it is with certain images. The events surrounding the photograph, the work we did to get in the right place and position, all of those memories are important and sharp.

Helen and I had landed in Adis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capitol city without much of a plan other than to be sure we toured the northern towns and visited Lalibela, that country’s famous rock-cut churches. Two days into our stay in Adis, an inebriated hotel manager introduced us to Guillome and Melina, a French and Italian couple who had driven up from South Africa in a dilapidated Land Rover (that turned out to be on its last legs) and who were looking for travel companions in Ethiopia with whom to split the gas.

We signed up for a week which, ultimately, morphed into a month of traveling together. The beauty of driving one’s own car in any country is the opportunity to get off the beaten path. In a country like Ethiopia in 2001, when no paths could be called beaten, having our own car allowed us to get off the main bus routes and travel via even smaller roads and through villages that rarely if ever saw tourists, let alone tourists with white skin. Somewhere, we have snapshots of children fondling Helen’s long blond hair, an oddity to them to be sure.

There was television in Ethiopia in 2001. It came over the airwaves, not cable, of course. And every now and again, we’d end up in a restaurant that had a television, look up and realize that the advertisements were for scythes – handheld scythes that people would use to cut back the grass and wheat in their fields. Scythes – the near perfect embodiment of an non-developed agrarian society – advertised on television.

The food we had was amazing. The people, welcoming. We drank the water, ate amazing food in village after village. I would go back in a heart beat.

Of course, the life most people led in Ethiopia was a hard one. One man asked my age, 39-years-old at the time, took my hands in his and inspected my palms and fingers. “You have an easy life,” he observed kindly. I had to agree with him. One man we met was nicknamed 44 because his father was 44-years-old when he was born. This, in a nation who’s average life expectancy at the time was 52-years.

Guillome, concerned for the health of his car, insisted on doing all the driving. His concerns about his car were not unfounded. We had to scuttle the car for scraps midway through week four. As we started off, however, it was all excitement and optimism over untold adventures and discovery. I was at the start of my real growth as a photographer and eager to capture images. Every day, we drove past countless tableaus that I wanted to photograph. But I also knew that I would quickly wear out my welcome if I were constantly asking Guillome to stop and pull over so I could explore something or other with my camera.

It was our fourth day of driving together when we passed a group of women lined up to collect water at the village well. I took it all in and couldn’t hold back any longer. I asked Guillome to stop the car. He did and I hopped out with my camera dangling from neck. I was a good 30 yards beyond the women when we stopped. And I moved slowly, smiled and waved with both hands. Critically, I didn’t touch my camera.

Amharic, the Ethiopian language, is fairly intuitive and I had learned some basic civilities. Combine that with a pocket phrase book and I was able to carry off an extremely basic conversation. I can imagine someone else in a similar situation jumping out of the car, jogging up to the women, camera in hand and attempting to take pictures. My style was and is completely different. I prefer to relax, settle in and then, with permission, pick up my camera see what I find.

I walked up to the crowd of women. At the head of the line was a man at the well spout checking that each woman hadn’t already taken her share of water. I traded pleasantries in my rudimentary Amharic and when I felt the time was right, I picked up my camera and, using facial expressions only, sought permission to take pictures. The women smiled and assented. This was before digital and film for me in Ethiopia was scarce. Even still, I shot the better part of a roll of film (36 pictures). Today, with digital, I’m sure I would have clicked off hundreds.

I got some wonderful images of the women – but this picture, which I captured as I walked away, is my favorite. I love the large water jug in the foreground and clarity of people completely disengaged with the camera and going about their lives, all interrupted by this one woman, water jug clearly on her back, staring right through the camera. As a viewer, I connect with her and can only imagine what she’s thinking. For me, that makes this image startling.

On an entirely different level, this image helps me keep my life in perspective and appreciate the smallest conveniences that we take for granted. Turning a tap and getting water that is safe to drink, is an obvious one.

I’m about to teach a photography workshop here in North Carolina as part of the CLICK Photography festival and again in a few weeks in the South Pacific thanks to Paul Gauguin Cruises. This image and my story about how I approach groups of people will certainly be part of both of those workshops.

I captured this image nearly 20 years ago in 1998, and it still stands as one of my favorite images. The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston agrees and recently added it to their permanent collection. I can remember clearly taking this picture on a hot sunny day in Rangoon. I spent slightly more than three weeks in Burma, but this scene unfolded before me within the first two days of arriving in the country.

About arriving in Burma. Back in 1998, Burma was essentially blocked from trading with the entire world. It’s a remarkable feat, really, to have pissed off all the world powers, but they had managed to do so. One side effect was that a requirement for entering the country was to bring $250 of U.S. currency – no travelers checks or credit cards, just cash – and trade that at the airport for FECs or Foreign Exchange Currency. That was one way that the military dictatorship that ran Burma acquired hard cash to buy things such as arms on the open arms market.

I, like every other tourist, had signed an agreement to bring the said $250 of cash with me. That was a prerequisite to getting a visa. And so I boarded my quick flight from Bangkok to arrive in Burma with my visa clearly taped into my passport. Oh, and I had cash. Enough to get me through a month in Burma. Only, I had most all of the cash hidden away in different places in my backpack and I had no intention of trading my cash for FECs. I also had two $5 bills in my money belt. And an emergency $20 tucked into a sock.

At the Rangoon airport, the handful of tourists on my flight dutifully handed over their $250 and received $250 worth of FECs in return. They would spend those FECs in Burma and receive Kyats, the local currency, as change. Any FECs left at the trip would be all but useless. Even trading Kyats for dollars was tough.

When it was my turn to hand over my $250, I presented a credit card, knowing full well that due to all of the banking blockades, no one in Burma – not least of all the government – could take a credit card. The authorities made a big show of pointing out the paper I had signed agreeing to bring $250 of cash into the country. I pointed out that in the rest of the world a credit card was the same as cash and shrugged my shoulders. They confiscated my passport and started asking questions. “How are you going to pay for your hotel?” they asked. I told them I would go to the bank and have money wired in. “It is Sunday, the banks are closed,” they pointed out. I’ll go tomorrow, I told them. “How will you pay for the cab?” They asked incredulously. Oh, I told them, I have $10 with me.

I opened up my money belt and fished out the two lonely $5 bills I had placed there before leaving Bangkok.

The police at the Burmese airport demanded the $10. I laid $5 on the counter and insisted that I needed the other $5 to pay for the taxi into town.

The net result was that a $5 bribe got me out of paying $250 in exchange for FECs. The police took my $5, gave my passport back and sent me on my way. Two weeks later, after spending four days together – a guide in a remote part of Burma asked me to explain what happened at the airport. He then proceeded to let me know that I had been followed and tracked ever since arriving in Burma and that he, as my guide, had to report to the police on everything that I did. Among other things, the government wanted him to find out from me was how I ended up with money to pay for my travels when I had arrived with no money. “I worked it out at the bank,” I lied.

There was a lot to see and photograph in Burma. I had stepped out of my backpacker hotel the first night and stepped into a scene that was utterly unrecognizable – the sheer magnitude of people living on the streets and going through all manner of life that we go through behind closed doors and just laying it all out there for everyone to see. That was Rangoon at night in 1998.

During the day, the chaos still existed, but it was more recognizable. I remember watching the public buses pass through the streets filled beyond capacity with people moving around the city. And then this unfolded before me. I had but a moment to get into position, move around yet more people headed toward the door, focus, set exposure and shoot. I was shooting film, of course – digital didn’t exist yet. And I had limited film with me and, of course, no assurance that I could buy film in Burma. So every click of the shutter was precious. I took one picture of this scene – unheard of today – and this is it.

I love every nuance within the scene. Look carefully and you’ll see someone in the doorway staring out at me, looking directly into the camera. For me, he makes the shot. This image alone sparked the idea for me to create a series called The Daily Commute. I have played with this idea off and on over the years and while I have yet to launch the collection, I have plans for this series that I am, to this day, still excited about and plan to pursue again when I have a free moment.

This image works for me on many levels. It’s a fascinating moment in time. It’s well framed and composed. And, truthfully, it’s a stark reminder as to the varied lives that people across our planet are living right now, even as you read this. I am grateful that I was able to travel in Burma, grateful that I’ve had the broad range of experiences that exposed me to how people live in countries both wealthy and poor – and grateful that I was able to capture this image on film.

I recently printed this image again and framed it in our new framing facility. It now sits on the floor in my house awaiting a decision as to where it will hang. Soon enough, this daily commute will again, albeit as a 2-dimensional image, be a part of my daily life.

The Boys of Summer

I captured this image in San Francisco in the summer of 2001 – it was later acquired by the Smithsonian National Museum of American History and added to their permanent collection. The outing to what was then PacBell Park was an experiment. Baseball was in the infancy of its steroid crisis and I wanted to see if I could create images that captured the old-fashioned romance of the game.

Before multi-million dollar salaries and drug and steroid scandals had become the mainstay of the sport and before the rise of the NFL, baseball was America’s sport. The teams and players captured our imagination and our hearts. That’s the spirit I wanted to capture on film.

Helen and I traipsed off to the ballpark with several canisters of film in hand. Looking back at the contact sheets, I shot three rolls of film that day. That’s 108 pictures over the course of a three hour game. Film processing and printing pictures costs money – and I was on a budget. I could experiment, sure – but not with hundreds or even thousands of pictures. Today, of course, everything is different. Given the same situation today, I’d probably click off 108 frames inside of 20 minutes and have 1,000+ images before the game was finished. Shoot more, edit later. But that wasn’t how it was back then.

I let the San Francisco Giants know in advance what I wanted to do and they granted me a media pass for the day. Helen and I used the passes to mostly roam the stands and look at the game from different vantage points – and in every instance, I was looking for the story.

A lot of playing the game of baseball involves standing around and doing nothing. Some folks believe this makes the game slow and boring… other folks believe it adds to the romance of the game. After all, there’s an art to athletes in their prime staying engaged and involved with the game during long stretches of nothingness.

Sports photographers typically capture the action. The catch. The slide into home plate. They capture decisive moments of excitement on which a game turns. I am not a sports photographer. I wasn’t looking to capture a great image of a decisive moment of sports action. Instead, I was looking to capture an admittedly old-fashioned spirit of the game. And, as a result, instead of pointing my camera at the action, I decided to look through my lens and find the boredom.

I have images I captured that day of ballplayers in the field inspecting their gloves in moments of silent reflection. I have wide shots from above of home plate, with batters in various stages of swinging at the baseball, catcher and umpire clearly in view – those images more a photographic version of a Norman Rockwell painting than a Sports Illustrated cover shot.

But it is this image which stands out to me. This image captures precisely what I came to the ballpark that day to showcase – baseball players in what, for me at least, is a true reflection of the game. Each of the players looks to be in a different state of either boredom or engagement with what’s going on on the field.

I’ve often said that for me a great image is one in which the content and the style compete equally for our attention – the result being that we don’t know if we like the image better because of the story it’s telling or its aesthetic. As much as I love the story told by the players in this image, I also love the aesthetic. Tilting the camera at a slight angle gave everything life – it forces my eye naturally through the frame and created a series of parallel lines that are the final magic of the image for me.

When the Smithsonian asked to acquire a dozen of my prints, this seemed a natural part of the collection. The images of mine that they selected ranged from the Taj Mahal, the Pyramids, the Space Shuttle – among others – and this wonderful image of the boys of summer. I’d say this image and the boys of summer are in great (and perfect) company.

I was shooting in Charlotte several years ago and had the thought to photograph The Charlotte Motor Speedway. The media folks at the speedway granted access easily enough. The weather when I was shooting was spectacular. Helen and the kids were with me, which always makes me happy. The only thing I neglected to take into account was that it was August – in North Carolina. I would pay for that.

When we arrived at the track there wasn’t a race going on. Not even so much as a practice lap being run. I figured the lack of cars would present a disappointment. Actually, to the contrary, having the track to myself was a treat.

I was directed to drive through a service tunnel and to park my Prius on the infield. We were free to roam the track as much as we wanted – so long as we didn’t drive on it. And while I didn’t drive on the track, Tamar was still in a stroller back then and so I took the opportunity to race her around one of the banked curves in her stroller. There was no rule against that.

One shot I wanted was of a banked curve captured from ground perspective. And here’s where I ran into trouble. It was August in North Carolina and the track was black asphalt. I was dressed in shorts and a short sleeved shirt and lying down to take the shot was, in a word, painful.

I did all I could to contort my body so that no bare skin touched the ground. Even then, I could barely lie down for ten seconds before the heat became entirely unbearable. I would stand, set my camera settings, lie down, focus, shoot, adjust settings, shoot again – all while counting to ten – which is when I had to stand up to avoid being burned. I did this several times. And just when I thought I was done, I would see the track from a new angle and start again. I tried laying a rain jacket on the ground. That bought me five additional seconds, no more. I was lucky to get away without damage to skin or clothing.

On my way back to our car, I walked past pit row and there, at the exit to the pit, I saw this scene and couldn’t help but chuckle. I’m not sure why someone needed to spray paint the word “finish” on the asphalt – but they did and the nonsense of it struck me as funny.

Fortunately, this wasn’t a shot that called for me to lie on my belly. I crouched a bit and made the shot about the track – you’ll see just a hint of sky at the top and the letters in the foreground coming off as large enough to be an important part of the shot while not taking over. I love the way the lines work – the V that hits the center of the frame, the banked curve in distance, wrapping the shot from left to right, the word “finish” left of center. For me, this is an image with strong composition and good story – and the humor is in the fact that I can’t quite discern what the story really is.

Of course, when I was done with this image, Helen, Jordan and I ran along the track as I pushed Tamar in her stroller. That was a fun stollen moment with my family. When we were done, we climbed in our cylinder hybrid and drove off the NASCAR track where, I’m some part of me thinks we probably never belonged in the first place.

That young boy on the foreground is now 11-years-old, so yes this image goes back several years. Helen, kids and I were in Austin trying to balance family time and relaxing with capturing images of the city. Some trips are squarely in the photography camp, some are squarely in the family-time camp… our few days in Austin fell precisely in the middle. And so imagine my delight when the two competing needs intersected perfectly as they did here at Barton Springs.

Photography is an inherently selfish vocation. We chase light and stories – and once we submit to pursuing photography as a profession, our families are invited along for the ride as our cameras and our muse tend to dictate everything from where we go on vacation to which part of town we stay in down to what time we get out of bed and, alas, what time we’re finally able to call it a day. Photography is, I suppose, a very demanding mistress.

Fortunately for my career as a photographer, Helen loves to travel and had nary a reservation about traveling with kids of any age to just about anywhere. Furthermore, as an artist, Helen could appreciate what I was attempting to accomplish. And, I suppose, it helped that she inevitably liked the images I captured while she was wrangling children in unfamiliar cities across America and indeed around the world.

I took this photograph in 2006. Six years later, when the kids were 9 and 7, I came face to face with the fact that every trip we had taken since the kids were born had been driven, at least in some part, by where I wanted to take pictures. It helped that Helen doesn’t like to go back to places she’s already been – so we were always headed to new countries and cities and always with an aggressive shot list and camera gear in hand.

With my kids in the forefront of my mind, in 2012, I decided to start taking the occasional vacation without my camera gear – vacations in which my only camera would be my iPhone and in which my attention would be focused entirely on my family.

This picture, of course, came much earlier in my career – when I was still building the core of my portfolio and, truth be told, to some degree still searching for my voice. I was also searching for the ever elusive work-family balance, even as I traveled with my family.

What I love about this image falls into several different categories. On a personal level, I love the intersection of family and photography. I had just been swimming and playing in the water with my kids. I stepped out, toweled off and looked over to see Jordan alternately standing and dancing by the pool’s edge. My camera was quickly in my hands. Then there’s story: the child dancing with no sense of the consciousness we acquire as we grow older.

There’s an expression of pure joy in Jordan’s dance move by the pool. I envy him that, just being able to feel pure unadulterated joy, never mind have the freedom and ability to express it. I can barely dance on the dance floor without embarrassing one family member or another and if I try to dance at a random moment of life, fuggedabout it – I’m shut down faster than a liquor store in the South on a Sunday morning. So, yay for Jordan and for being 3-years-old.

There’s more to the story. Look in the water to the right of him. There, you’ll see adults in all their seriousness – perfectly oblivious to the dancing child alongside of them.

Finally, there’s the composition. The lines are terrific and draw us into the image. The balance of blacks and grays work well also, perfectly framing the image and helping our eye move across and around the frame. There is nothing I’d change about this image.

When I teach, I often talk about a great image being a struggle between content and style – if we’re attracted to both the content (aka: the story) and the style (aka: the aesthetic) and if we don’t know which of the two elements we like better, if both elements are competing for our attention, then we have a great image. This image has this going for it – I love both the content and the style and, ultimately, I suppose this is why I proudly consider this image to be one of my best.

Symmetry (at the Louvre)

I took this picture inside The Louvre during the fall of 2009. I’m proud of this image and a bit ashamed of it at the same time. I’ll explain shortly. First off, a quick answer to the question many folks ask straight away – yes, one can take photographs inside The Louvre (and most major museums around the world), the one requirement is that you don’t use a flash. Next, a point of interest and pride – The Louvre, not known for collecting photography in particular, acquired an original, limited edition copy of this print along with a dozen other prints of mine back in 2010.

A word about my parents that’s relevant to this story. My parents were eclectic artists who were married for seven years, had me and quickly split up. I’ve always said that I was a “save the marriage baby” that didn’t work. My father, many readers of this blog may already know, is a celebrated New York street photographer. In 1976, he published his second book, “Propaganda and Other Photographs,” and on page 20 is an image of my mother, Ilse Kalisher, sharing a meal with me as I sit in a high chair at a Howard Johnson’s restaurant. My mother felt this picture unflattering and disliked it intensely and was always frustrated that my father included it in the book against her wishes. I was 14-years-old when that book was released and my mother famously said to me as one of many life lessons and with no small amount of bitterness, “Photographers don’t give pictures, they take them.”

Clearly, I’ve never forgotten those words. And so, when I abandoned my advertising career at age 33 and began the odyssey of morphing into a fine art photographer I kept my mother’s words close to my heart. As I began traveling the world with my camera and searching for my voice, one rule I had – and still have – for myself is to never take someone’s picture if he or she doesn’t want it taken. I have my own personal code of conduct that goes with this. People in a public setting, a market, a town square, a museum, are all fair game. I don’t hide or photograph with a telephoto lens – I am out in the open where people can see me. If someone shrinks away or waves me off, I drop the camera from my eye and put my palms up – I may not be giving pictures, but I’m also not taking them – at least not at all costs.

Have I missed capturing terrific images as a result of my code of conduct? Of course I have. There was a great elderly woman in Vietnam whose face shared incredible stories – I can still see her in my mind’s eye, but she waved me off and I left her alone. In Morocco, in China, as well as here in the States, I’ve put my camera down and my palms up many times. If I were a photojournalist, I might feel differently. But as an artist, as a storyteller, there’s no image so important that I feel the need to invade someone’s privacy and take their picture against his or her will in order to capture it.

This image of the two women in the Louvre is as close as I’ve come to breaking my quiet promise to my mother to respect her lesson about photographers and photography. In 2009, Helen and I returned to The Louvre with Jordan and Tamar. I was excited, as I always am, to have time to explore a museum with my camera. Magic happens when we take in art – we let down our guard, stop posing for the world and start interacting with art in the most pure version of ourselves. This is the perfect arena for me and my camera. The stories I find inside a museum are as varied as they are endless.

And so imagine my delight as I walked into this room and found these two women sitting on a bench beside one another. When I first saw them, they were sitting upright and facing forward. What struck me straight away was how similar they looked. You can’t see all of it here, but they have similar facial features, clearly similar hair styles and they’re both in similarly styled skirts and sleeveless shirts. I am attracted to symmetry and knew immediately that I wanted to compose an image that featured these two women who I could only assume were mother and daughter.

There was only one challenge. The two women sat on a bench in the middle of a fairly open and empty room. I would have to stand in front of them and then face them in order to take the picture. Standing alone in an open room otherwise devoid of people, I would be far too exposed. I knew that once I faced them with my camera they would either waive me off and feign embarrassment, or they would pose, thus ruining whatever organic moment I hoped to capture. If my mom were there, I’m fairly sure she would have advised me to move on. But I couldn’t leave – the mother and daughter with so many similarities intrigued me and I didn’t want to give up.

Here’s what I did instead. I walked to the perfect position to take their picture, only I didn’t look at the two women at all – in fact I didn’t even face them. Instead, I stood facing 90 degrees to the right of the women and pointed my camera directly at a statue. I set my exposure for the light in the room and while my body and camera faced the statue, I looked out of the corner of my left eye at the two women. The women were looking up and in my general direction as I played out the scenarios in my head – how could I swivel 90 degrees to my left, face them and capture the image without drawing attention to myself? I was working out the possibilities when the mom and daughter turned away to reach into their respective purses.

I’m sure I let out an audible gasp. Everything about the two women moved in harmony. Look at everything from the angle of their arms to the position of their hands, their legs, even the dip of their heads – all nearly exactly identical. I saw this in an instant, pivoted 90 degrees to my left, clicked off two frames, then swiveled back to my right to again face the statue. When then mother and daughter looked up, they would be no more the wiser and would have no idea that I had just taken their picture.

I am, truthfully, a bit ashamed of that moment. It’s the only time I’ve moved to steal a picture of someone with the specific goal of that person not knowing what I’m doing. To be clear, I take lots of pictures of people in public places where I’m confident the people in the image have no idea that they’ve just been photographed. But, for me, that ignorance is always a matter of circumstance (or happenstance) and never a matter of such overt planning on my part.

I do love the image. And, I suppose, if asked if the ends justified the means, in this instance I suppose, when pushed, I’d have to say yes. Would I do it again? For this particular shot, yes. But I doubt I’ll sneak around for an image again in the future. There’s something inelegant about doing that. My mother is no longer around, so I can’t ask her perspective. But I know what she’d say – her voice is ever present in the back of my head challenging me to be a photographer of a different sort, one who can find creative and professional success without ‘taking’ from people, at least not against their will. I may not always succeed, but I will always try to live up to that.

Arriving at Frank Gehry’s Disney Music Hall with camera in hand is like showing up at a world famous ice cream shop with your own spoon. You know you’re in for a treat and you can’t wait to dive in.

Photographing people and buildings are clearly two different skill sets. But for me, it’s more than that. It’s as if I’m accessing entirely different parts of my brain. It’s the difference between solving complex math problems and reading poetry. Photographing  people in a public space where I’m not in control of the movement – that’s a complex math problem. Every step I take lets me see the situation from a different angle and changes my perspective. Like a math equation, I can go down a path that leads nowhere – or I can do down a path that leads to enlightenment… And like my view of a complex math problem there’s an unseen choreography between the events unfolding before me and the choices I’m making that all – hopefully – culminate in a successful outcome.

Photographing a static object is entirely different and is much more like devouring an intricate poem. Assuming a clear sky (intermittent clouds, by contrast, tease and challenge us), I can arrive at a static object and, like reading a new poem slowly and taking in every word and turn of phrase, I can take a few minutes to fall in love with whatever it is I’m about to photograph. I can observe its lines, its curves, I can drink in every aspect of it, every comma and line break, and do my best to intuit the intentions, the romance, perhaps even the frustrations of its creator. I have the luxury of time. I have the luxury to fall in love – and I have, over the years, fallen in love with sculptures, the very occasional bridge, a clock (!), ancient structures of various types and, yes, Frank Gehry’s Disney Music Hall.

I’d heard tell of the Disney Music Hall of course. Begun in 1991 and beset by fundraising challenges, the hall was completed in 2003 to mixed reviews. While a stunning work of architecture, two of the rooms were clad in a polished glossy metal (the rest in matte finish) – and the sun reflecting off of those two halls was creating havoc for nearby condominium residents and heating certain spots on adjacent sidewalks to as much as 140 degrees Fahrenheit. Gehry ultimately sanded down the exterior metal finish on the two halls in question and eliminated the problems.

That, minus some of the finer details of dates and temperatures, was the sum total knowledge that I possessed when I turned the corner, camera in hand and took in Gehry’s creation for the first time. I was on a photo mission for a Sheraton hotel in Los Angles, looking to capture images from a wide range of Los Angles landmarks. Helen, Jordan and Tamar were with me. I was working, I was with my family – it was a great, albeit hectic time.

And then, this gorgeous creation came into view. The sky was clear with a brilliant blue sky (thank you, Los Angeles, for that!) and, the kids’ patience notwithstanding, I knew I had the luxury of time. I took in the building in its entirety, but then quickly dived into the details, soaking in every curve, every nuance of contrast and story. In short order, I fell in love.

A few years later, Frank Gehry acquired a print of this shot and my friend Barbara Lazaroff was quick on her feet and captured this snapshot of the man himself with my print. I like to think that Gehry appreciates the poetry and magic of his design that I managed to capture in this one detail. This flips in nearly every area of this image from black to gray to white intrigue me. The lines, not all straight, but all complimentary and in concert with one another, indeed in a choreographed dance, capture my spirit and my imagination.


Finding an image like this through my viewfinder is not difficult. The practical end of things are easy enough. I put on my 200MM lens and scan the building through the viewfinder, looking for compositions that intrigue and delight me. I am constantly scanning the four corners of the frame, the details in those corners – for me at least – are often the difference between a snapshot and a photograph. I look for stories and inspiration. And while it’s true that I take a lot of pictures and edit like mad, every now and again I capture an image and in that very instant know that I have something amazing. This was just such an instance.


Gondola Races a Cruise Ship

Helen, Jordan and I were in Venice. Let’s stop right there for a moment. Any story that starts with some form of “we were in Venice” is sure to be a good one. This was back in the summer of 2005. Jordan was 22 months old. Helen was 7 months pregnant with our daughter, Tamar. That was a great trip. Really, I’m not kidding.

Let’s start with Helen’s fear that Jordan would run off and fall into one of the canals. For a brief moment, she considered getting one of those kid harnesses – but reason prevailed and we found other ways to keep him safe without restraints. One whacky consequence of traveling to Venice when we did was that I carried Jordan, in his stroller, up and over every single bridge – all day, every day – in Venice. That, when combined with 35 lbs of camera gear on my back made for terrific exercise.

In between carrying my son in his stroller, making allowances for meals and naps for both my son and my very pregnant wife, I found time to shoot. Venice is, of course, a marvelous city for finding iconic imagery to capture with a camera. The trick for me, in a city like Venice, is to balance capturing images of recognizable landmarks with capturing images that tell an unexpected and perhaps surprising story.

This is just such an image. We saw this from the tip of St. Mark’s Square, looking out at the entrance to the Grand Canal. Of course, this called for a fast lens change and the challenge of capturing both the spirit of the Gondolier and the immense proportion of the cruise ship.

I have another angle of this image that’s cropped tighter in on the gondola and is a vertical shot. But it’s this shot that I love for the sheer scale of it. Look closely and you can see guests leaning on the their balcony rails, staring down at the Gondolier – and we can see the Gondolier, arms stretched out, straining to get past this goliath alongside of him.

My biggest challenge in capturing this image was keeping the 70-200 zoom lens steady in my hands as I laughed, peering through my viewfinder. An image like this rarely presents itself – but when it does, you need to move quickly, calm down and focus on the task at hand. Exposure, shutter speed, focus, composition – and then the options for each of those. It’s a game of beat the clock as the moment is lost within seconds of having recognized it in the first place.

I’m always glad I captured this image in Venice. It is, along with an image of pigeons from St. Marks Square that I shared back in April, 2014, my favorite from my entire week on the island. I’m also glad that Jordan never fell into one of the many canals. That would have been bad.

Batman and Superman

Sometimes it’s good to ignore the thing you came to photograph and find the story somewhere else instead. This was precisely one of those occasions. I had come to capture images of Grauman’s Chinese Theater – a famous Los Angeles Landmark – and when I got there, I was immediately confronted with these costumed actors busking money from the many tourists.

A word about Grauman’s Theater: it opened in 1927 with Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford among it’s handful of owners. It was, at the time,  the most lavish movie theater in America. The splendor of the theater combined with it’s location in the heart of Hollywood and it’s A-List ownership made it a natural for extravagant star-studded movie premiers. From there, it was a short leap to having movie stars put their handprints in the theater grounds and, once that took hold, the theater became enshrined in the Los Angeles/Hollywood tourist trail.

And with the tourists… come the costumed buskers.

And while I originally arrived at the theater to take pictures of the architecture, it was these iconic figures who captured my imagination. The actors really fit their parts, from their natural features to the way they carried themselves. Of course, the costumes don’t always fit perfectly which adds to the charm.

For me the challenge was simple: keep the light at my back while framing a picture that contained a couple of the actors and also told a story that interested me. There’s a bit of controlled chaos at the front of the Grauman’s Theater with actors attempting to corral tourists, some of whom aren’t exactly sure what’s happening. Everyone’s moving around in unpredictable ways, and while it’s certainly not difficult to take pictures here, it takes a bit of patience and the ability to see a shot as it’s in the process of setting up.

What’s particularly delightful for me in this image is the woman in the foreground reaching into her purse. The cash for snapshot transaction is not unusual, but it seems so poignant here, with these formidable super heroes in their indestructible poses waiting for a token payment from a tourist.

In the end, of course I captured images of the theater itself with it’s marvelous architectural details – much of which was rebuilt and updated after the 1994 earthquake. But, conveniently enough, buildings don’t move. And with enough light to spare, I worked the street scene until I felt I had what I wanted and then and only then did I turn my camera and attention to the architecture and that which I had originally set out to photograph.

My thanks, of course, to the actors who ignored me completely and let me go about my work.