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.

Times Square at the Millennium

Helen and I met in January, 1999 in Guatemala. We traveled together for six weeks through Honduras, Nicaragua and parts of Costa Rica. By May, 1999, we were living together in San Francisco. Neither of us held a regular job and life was full of fun and adventure. When we realized we would still be together over New Year’s, there was no question. We were bound for New York.

I grew up in Manhattan. The Manhattanites I know leave Times Square to others (tourists, mostly). The alternate New Year’s celebration in New York is in Central Park and includes a 4 mile midnight run and a few subdued fireworks. For New Yorkers, this is akin to walking the park the night before Thanksgiving to watch the floats being inflated.

Roll back the clock and try to remember the year 1999. This was after the first attack on the World Trade Center and the Oklahoma City Bombing – terror attacks from both outside and within. Times Square the night of the millennium was an obvious target and nerves ran high. Add to this the threat of Y2K, the much hyped (and in the end entirely false claim) that all the world’s computer systems would fail as the dates changed to 2000, a number pundits claimed the then current software code was incapable of recognizing. Within this atmosphere, more than a million people streamed into Times Square for New Year’s Eve.

Helen and I stayed with friends on the Upper West Side. Our friends planned a New Year’s Party and in an effort to stay out of the way, Helen and I spent the day wandering around the island from Washington Heights where I grew up to, as you can see above, Times Square.

That night, we would enjoy a champagne tasting at our friend’s apartment and then walk the few blocks to Central Park to ring in the New Year. Helen and I were newly in love, we were in Manhattan and celebrating New Year’s Eve for the first time together at the dawn of a new millennium. Life was amazing.

Amidst that backdrop, Helen and I headed to Times Square in the late afternoon – in part to experience the madness and in part to capture a few images. The crowds were already well established. There were no metal detectors and even back then, I looked at everyone with backpack with concern and suspicion.

The police put people in pens – each pen was roped off with a combination of wood and rope barriers. And we were told in no uncertain terms that a) we had to select a pen from which to watch the ball drop (the streets would be cleared of people wandering aimlessly an hour after we arrived) and b) once in a pen, there would be no leaving until after the ball dropped – so hit the porto-potties now.

For Helen and I there was no question. It was fun to be amidst the scene while we were there. But we had zero interest in standing in a crowded pen for hours on end, freezing, waiting to countdown to watch the ball drop. That was best left to others.

Still, we were there – in the thick of things. And I had my camera ready to go. This is very early in my career as a photographer. I shot with an inexpensive Pentax zx-50 back then, with the cheapest imaginable lens. I’ve taken some of my most iconic images with that camera – which stands as proof that it’s not the equipment one has, but what one does with it that matters.

In this case, I had my camera up at my chest ready to go as we pushed through the crowd. And here came this woman with the quintessential Y2K glasses. I lifted my camera and she stared right into my lens. That, for me, is perfection. I love direct human contact with the camera. Just to her left is a man sticking out his bottom jaw in a way that reminds me entirely of home. And then, just above the woman’s shoulder to the right, there’s a man looking over his glasses and right at the lens as well. The shot itself is claustrophobic, there’s no where for the eye to escape, no place to relax- perfect for the moment. Everything about the image says New York to me and, I suppose, that combined with the Y2K glasses makes the shot a gem for me.

To capture an image like this one one needs to first be willing to throw oneself into situations like Times Square on New Year’s Eve – and then, just as importantly, one needs to be willing to hold up a camera with a 50MM lens and point it, at close quarters, directly at a stranger. This doesn’t come naturally to most of us, but once we learn to do this, the results can be extremely rewarding.

Sixteen years have passed since I took this photograph. But the memory of Helen’s and my time in Times Square is vivid and can easily recall the moments surrounding the instant that I clicked the shutter and captured this image.

Here’s to the magic that brings people together to celebrate seminal events such as New Year’s. Here’s to New York and all that the city represents. Here’s to 16 years of love and life with Helen. And here’s to 2015. Happy New Year’s!

Change Come to China

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Mona Lisa at the Mona Lisa

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Guard at Tiananmen Square

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Uncommon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Pyramids at Dawn

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s when I saw this scene.

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

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

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

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