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.

Farmers About to Lose Their Land

Several years ago, The University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill was, through a very odd twist of law, granted the right of eminent domain for the purposes of creating an airport for the university. UNC commissioned a study and the leading candidate for where to build the airport was 10 minutes west of town in a rural area dominated by farms that goes by the name of White Cross. This image is of two of the farmers whose land UNC threatened to take away, land that had been in their family for centuries. And, bear with me, this image has personal meaning to me that crosses several different story lines.

At the time that UNC was considering this land grab, Helen and I had several good friends who lived in White Cross. Indeed, dotted amongst the farmers living in this area are a relative handful of professionals who prefer rural to suburban living. One of our friends who lives there organized a campaign to fight UNC and the building of a new airport anywhere, never mind in White Cross (Raleigh-Durham airport is 20 minutes from UNC).

Helen volunteered to create the logo for the effort which quickly found it’s way onto yard signs and bumper stickers all over town. And I volunteered to do a photo-essay of the people who’s land was threatened – some of whom had had the land in their family for a century or more.

Having earned a living creating images that people appreciated and were willing to pay for, I relished the opportunity to use my camera to help someone else, to serve a cause greater than my creative voice. And using my camera to fight the abuse of power, in this case by the state government in conjunction with UNC, was certainly a cause I easily embraced.

I remember Helen asking me how I intended to capture the portraits of the various people. Finding the folks to photograph wasn’t a challenge – the organizers of the “No Airport” campaign would handle that for me. Making time to meet and photograph folks wasn’t going to be a problem either – I didn’t travel quite so much for work in those days and I was in charge of my time. The challenge was that I wasn’t actually very good at shooting portraits. In fact, Helen and I joked, any time I had tried to stage a portrait, I was pretty much terrible at it.

What I had always done, and done well with my camera, was to shoot things as they existed. Be it landscapes, architecture or people, I saw stories as they were on their own, and then captured them in my camera. But this project was going to be different, I would need to step into an environment and somehow create a story. And I had no idea how I would do this.

I ended up shooting 15 different folks at risk of losing land. Those folks ran the gamut from working farmers to rural blue collar workers to wealthy landowners. In each case, I spent a few hours with the folks, walked their property and, in all of that, found a story I could tell visually. Some images felt a bit forced for me, some came a bit more naturally. In each case, I  pushed myself into a space as an artist and photographer in which I had heretofore been uncomfortable. But I was on a mission, I wanted to help these folks, and I was undeterred.

The farmers shown above, Mr. & Mrs. Steer, were gracious and gregarious. From the moment they welcomed us (Helen, Jordan and Tamar invariably came with me for the shoots) into their home, they were full of life and ready with a laugh.

I remember thinking that I loved their spirit and that we should all go through life as happy as these two were, even in the face of having their land taken from underneath them. I also remember wondering how I would capture an image worthy of the larger story when the natural state of the two subjects I was there to photograph was to be laughing.

Mr. & Mrs. Teer were sitting on the couch and I had my camera on my lap. I’ve long learned that, when photographing people, don’t come in shooting. Enter the scene as a person, make a connection first, and have your camera ready, just hanging from a strap and out of the way. In this case, I was chatting with the Teers in their living room. They held hands like teenagers and laughed about one thing after another and I couldn’t help but fall in love with them.

That’s when I asked the Teers, if they could meet the people in charge of building the proposed UNC airport and could speak to them, face to face, what would they say to them? In an instant, the Teers grew quiet. For the first time in more than an hour with me, they retreated into themselves. They let go of each other’s hands for a moment and Mr. Teer’s hands curled and gripped his legs in anger. Mrs. Teer looked away to avoid sharing the pain of the moment, while Mr. Teer looked me right in the eyes with every ounce of his emotion. I lifted my camera to my eye and knew I had my shot.

The “No Airport” campaign spanned six months. It involved press releases, press conferences and claims and counter claims from both sides. State and Federal governments reserve the right of eminent domain to buy land for the public good. This is how highways are built, for example. And yes, airports too. People who lose their land to eminent domain land grabs are invariably very upset. A small consolation is that these land grabs are determined by elected officials who are accountable to voters. In North Carolina, however, the state legislature had granted the power of eminent domain to UNC, the net result of which was that the UNC Chancellor – not an elected official – could grab whatever land he saw fit.

This is what we were fighting.

Six months after the battle had been engaged, we opened an exhibit of my White Cross images at my studio. Opening night saw hundreds of people in the studio from Mayor of Chapel Hill to rural farmers who, by their own admission, had never been to an art exhibit of any kind before. The local NBC affiliate aired a story on the exhibit – clearly not their first story on the airport saga. But it was to be their last.

The day the exhibit opened, UNC surrendered. Six months after the first meeting of folks in White Cross to discuss the impending threat, the day the exhibit opened at our studio was the day that UNC announced that they had abandoned their plans to build an airport and that they were no longer interested in grabbing land from rural folks in White Cross.

Of note, several years later, Helen and I purchased ten acres of wooded property in White Cross where we built the house we live in today.

And of final note, while UNC never did build the airport, the right of eminent domain still resides with them.

Cloudscape over Endicott Arm, Alaska

Taking pictures in Alaska in the spring is a bit of a love hate situation. First the love. If you’re there in the springtime, as I was, there is as much as 18 hours of usable light. Eighteen hours! Sun rise was at 4:30 and sunset was at 9:30… trim off an hour and you’ve got 18 hours during which you can shoot. Now for the hate part.. probably not a surprise: you’ve got 18 hours of usable daylight! It’s great and terrible all at once. You can always be shooting. That’s a blessing and a curse.

Take having dinner, for example. I was leading a photo expedition through Alaska for Regent Seven Seas Cruises and sailed from San Francisco up into Alaska for a 10-day excursion that ended in Juneau. After a long day of exploring and shooting I would sit down to dinner with Helen and the kids. Of course the ship was underway, sailing through the inside passage. And there was plenty of light. So as one amazing landscape after another flirted past our window, I would jump up from dinner, run outside and grab more shots. I barely got to eat and certainly missed any chance at a relaxing meal with my family. It was the same all night long and as early as 5AM when most sane people were still asleep.

If I hadn’t been on a cruise ship, then maybe the 18 hours of usable light would have been a gift that would have let me shoot whenever I so pleased. But on a moving ship, where the landscape was changing from moment to moment and never to be repeated, the long days and overwhelming shot opportunities are as much a curse as it is a blessing. Suffice it to say, I wished for fog. Just one day of fog – which came, but only for a few hours.

I captured this particular shot along Endicott Arm, a passage that narrows at the end. Well ahead of the turn around, we were treated to an incredible show of clouds, shapes, texture, form and density off in the far distance. I have a range of shots from Alaska that are similar in content and form, but every time I find myself looking at one of my other shots – many of them quite striking as well – I always find I’m wishing I were looking at this shot instead. None of the other shots of mine measure up.

What is it about this particular image that so intrigues me? The reflections in the water and the firm black of terra firma on the bottom left of the image set the stage as are seen in many of my B&W images from Alaska. What grabs me is clearly the cloud formations – and in particular how every vertical layer of the clouds provides a different form of engagement; lateral mountain hugging clouds at the bottom, the mountains poking out, the curved hooking clouds, all the way to the top of the frame where the clouds persist in a peaceful backdrop. All of it, each part of it, grabs my attention and imagination.

As for the trip and timing – all kidding aside, if you’re headed to Alaska, be it for a land excursion or a cruise up the Inside Passage, the long shooting days afforded by late spring and summer are a photographer’s paradise. Just don’t plan on sitting through an entire meal – in fact, don’t plan on sitting down very much at all.

There’s a fun story behind this picture – not only is it in the permanent collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, but it’s also an image I nearly botched. And that would have been a shame given how hard I worked to get the chance to take this picture in the first place. I had been courting NASA for several years – and they had previously granted me access to photograph the Space Shuttle in various stages of repair. That, in and of itself was fascinating. What I really wanted, of course, was to photograph a launch.

Until you try to watch a launch, it’s hard to imagine the havoc trying to do so wrecks on your schedule. Launches are scheduled far in advance and then delayed sometimes days before the launch, sometimes minutes before. In effect, you have to have maximum flexibility – and a supportive and understanding family!

For this launch, I was relatively fortunate. The launch was scheduled and the liftoff date shifted by just one day – and that was after I was already on site. It was a daytime launch and into clear skies… all of which, I learned, one should never take for granted.

The onsite prep for the shoot took two days. I had to pick up my press credentials, go through security, find the resident Nikon pro, Scott Andrews, and borrow the pre-arranged 500MM Nikon lens from him, set up a couple of cameras underneath the launch pad equipped with sound triggers (thanks to Scott) and then, the day of the launch, arrive at 8AM for a 3:30 launch – this in order to get through security and avoid traffic jams and such.

Launch day. I got through security and arrived at what’s known as the Press Mound by 9:30. My job then became to stake out my position. We were three miles from the launch pad itself, and I was told that’s the closest that any human beings are permitted, with the exception of a handful of soldiers in a tank who sit at the base of the pad as part of an emergency evacuation plan.

The goal here is to get some height – to get above the tree line and get the clearest shot possible of the launch. And so I made my way to the tallest structure on the Press Mound, the CBS building. I asked nicely and CBS gave me a spot where I could set my tripod and shoot the launch.

11:00,  my tripod was set up. I was good to go. I wandered about, grabbed some lunch and made my way back to my tripod around 2PM. A quick word about that tripod… it had a pistol grip. The regular launch photographers used a tripod with a U-shaped mount, kind of like the housing for binoculars at the top of the Empire State Building… the pros had tripod mounts that would swivel up and down. I was going to do it the old-fashioned way, with a regular tripod head… albeit one that swiveled on a ball when squeezed the pistol grip.

2:00PM, back at the CBS Building, I practiced tracking what I imagined would be the Shuttle’s trajectory. I needed to have a smooth, fluid motion. There would be 3-5 seconds in which I could get the shot… then it would all be over. Get the shot or not, I had one chance at it. I practiced a smooth lift of the heavy lens, my left hand cradling the lens, my right hand squeezing the tripod’s pistol grip.

2:45PM, I met Drew Levinson who was reporting for CBS an arm’s length from where I stood, then excused myself and began gaming out what could go wrong. I tend to shoot with an automatic exposure and bracket a bit to make sure I get what I need. There wouldn’t be time for bracketing, and of larger concern, what if the camera overcompensated due to the brightness of the flame and/or the white smoke plumes? Everything would end up under-exposed. Here’s a useful digital tidbit… better to overexpose – there’s more information in the bleached out areas than there is in the underexposed dark areas. For this shot, I took the exposure off of auto and set my aperture and shutter speed manually.

3:00PM (t minus 30 minutes). I hit one of the CBS guys up for some gaffer tape. With my aperture and shutter speed set, the next problem would be if the auto-focus had trouble finding an edge on which to focus. There’s no time for the system to bog down. So I put the lens on manual focus and set the focal range to infinity. I took the wide, silver gaffer tape and taped the focal ring in place on the camera – just to be sure that as I tracked the Shuttle’s launch, I wouldn’t inadvertently shift the focus.

3:15 (t minus 15 minutes). I practiced tracking the launch a couple more times… and then my adrenaline started pumping. I had my left hand on the 500MM loaner lens and my right hand on the pistol grip… I could track the Shuttle’s trajectory just fine. There was only one problem. I needed a third hand to press the shutter and actually take the picture.

Months of advance work with NASA and Nikon. The perfect window, the perfect weather. Days on site at Cape Kennedy. Fifteen minutes from the launch and I was about to lose the picture because a) I had the wrong tripod (one that required my right hand to squeeze a trigger in order for it to move) and b) I hadn’t thought this through until the last minute.

I quickly ran through different scenarios. The camera off the tripod was too heavy and the slightest camera shake would ruin the shot. The pistol grip needed to be squeezed to allow me to pivot – and there was no way to disengage the grip.

3:20 (t minus 10 minutes). I took out my radio-controlled remote trigger and experimented with the trigger in my left hand with the lens. Then I tried it in my right hand with the pistol grip. But I couldn’t get either hand to work two jobs… the remote trigger was not the solution.

3:25 (t minus 5 minutes). In desperation, I tried cradling the large lens in the crook of my left elbow, and lo and behold, I was able to reach around with my left hand and – just barely – hit the shutter release button. It worked!

With moments to spare, I had my solution. Thankfully.

There’s a large countdown clock that we could see from the Press Mound… but there’s no countdown over a P.A. system. With a minute to go, I took my eyes off the clock and focused on the Shuttle through my viewfinder. There’s no warning, you just suddenly see the sparks and the large clouds of white smoke billowing out from two sides of the rocket. There is complete silence.

The Shuttle began to lift off, still silent, as my weird system of cradled lens, contorted arm and outstretched finger fired off one shot after another. Sound travels one mile every five seconds. Fifteen seconds after I witnessed the launch, I heard it roar through my eardrums. Some seconds after that, I felt it vibrate through my entire being.

I had the shot. I had the experience of a lifetime. And I had a healthy dose of humility and a good lesson that no matter how many times I’ve headed out with my camera, no matter how successful I’ve been in the past, I’m still capable of overlooking something – the lesson, of course, is to stop and properly game through every shoot before I leave home.