Saturday, February 9, 2013

Lang's Metropolis, and the Winter of my Discontent

I woke up, surprised to find about
$3000 worth of new camera gear...
and 15 lbs of extra hip padding.
This winter break felt really long...Not because I was housebound, watching torrents of snow, wind and grey weather rail against my window (like I am today), but because I had to keep running out the door to get somewhere else. For good reason, there was family sickness and a death, crises and triage, a Chicago business trip and even nasty head colds to attend to. Finally, when the running was over, I decided to attend to my weight, which had mysteriously (and hideously) packed about 15 holiday pounds around my waist, back, and neck. I was horrified because I missed all the fun holiday parties and still felt like I ate too much plum pudding and drank too much egg nog. I did eat greasy Dim Sum decadently at a Chinese restaurant in Manhattan with my sweetheart after seeing Tarantino's Django Unchained on Christmas Day. The winter holiday wasn't all doom and gloom.

Roger Miller plays some haunting synth
I looked around at what I had bought to celebrate my first IRS tax refund in five years (longer, if you count the 15 years before that that I never saw the checks), and there were a couple of new cameras, about four new camera bags, a very large softbox and, like magic, all of my old Nikkor glass now works on my new cameras. And all this with a giant DeSisti focused halogen lamp with a 2000W bulb shining on me. In all that running around, someone must have been planning to shoot video this year, so I started out with Fritz Lang's Metropolis and this very cool three piece percussion and synth ensemble called Alloy Orchestra that composes their own music and soundscapes to accompany these silent classics. Turns out Roger Miller, the keyboardist is lead guitar in Mission of Burma and the whole group is based in Cambridge, just one town away. I grabbed my new Nikon D800 and packed in it my new Domke F-2, along with a couple of Metz heads and a Photoflex StripDome that's become by portable softbox of choice and headed up to Keene, New Hampshire.

My guess: Ken Winokur and Terry Donahue are
discussing the prospects of eating
at the Zorn Cafeteria
I got there just before soundcheck and the crew was still awaiting a floor plan for the music hall. It seemed they had to light it from both walls of the auditorium, but without center spotlights, so that it didn't spill onto the big screen behind them and seeing how this light created harsh shadows on the faces of the performers. When the musicians arrived, they were really just cool cats and set up their gak in front of the stage. I introduced myself to Ken and Terry and explained that I would LOVE a portrait shot of them, when they were ready.

To prep for that shot, I looked around the theater seats and found Josh Demeule, a film major at Keene State and asked him to assist by holding my monopod/softbox assembly with the remote trigger. We tested it a couple of times at full power, I got on the floor, and seconds later whipped together this great shot. It's so nice when the stars part and the clouds align!
Alloy is absolutely Monumental at thirty-six megapixels!
When the performance came later that evening, if nothing else, I had to shoot a video clip with my D800 of the scene at the factory and the opening scene of the Metropolis. Most surprising was how much the focus kept hunting with my AF 55/2.8 Micro Nikkor, which is perfect and rectilinear for crisp stage shots from front of house. Instead, I went back to my old standby lens, my Dad's 50/1.4 Nikkor S, newly converted to AI-S by John at, and focused manually and set to f4, figuring that 24 frames per second was the equivalent of 1/60th shutter speed, I set the ISO to 800, tested the remote trigger to control the movie, and prayed for the best.

Terry plays an assortment of found
objects, lit only by light of the screen.
With the trio shrouded in darkness, it was nearly impossible to pull any light onto their faces just as you can see shadows in front of the lighted music stands, but still managed to squeeze off a couple of the side of the stage and post-process the HECK out of them. Mind you, NOTHING focused right in that darkness so I needed my good ole eyes to do the AF.

A couple of days later, Ken, also Alloy's manager  sent me a really nice note offering to buy the ultrawide image of the trio in front of the title screen.

His best comment to me was: "I immediately noticed that you were unusually on top of the situation (balancing the light....". I think that comment alone was worth the weight.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

The world according to DX

Recent studio image of Bronwyn Sims,
Monadnock Ledger Transcript
Last year, about this time of year, I upgraded my workhorse camera to allow me access to better quality theater and studio shots. By all accounts, it was a VERY successful year, with several published images, three permanent banners at Keene State College along with some very satisfying breakthroughs in my photography technique. Then, this past weekend I upgraded my workhorse camera again so that I could see beyond to the next level. Only, this time, I went to the top-of-the-line Nikon and something else happened that hadn't happened before: All my lenses drastically changed what I saw which, until now, the changes had been very subtle.

The last time this sort of "seeing" event happened, was probably 20 years ago, when I borrowed a medium format camera from a local pro camera shop. For $50 a day, the feeling of slowing down my shooting process to take a single print on a roll of eight pictures was intoxicating, as was the amazing quality of the slides that I produced with this camera. I distinctly remember that feeling as I handheld a Fujica "Texas Leica" with a 90 mm lens on a cold Baltimore morning, pointed it at a doorway and took a single image that would eventually grow into a mounted four foot by six foot print at my first gallery show in Washington, DC.  Mind you, the pictures from this Fujica's 90mm lens looked more like a 42mm lens but this technical translation was purely an academic exercise. And, unlike my 35mm camera, I didn't have other lenses to choose from, no zoom lenses to properly frame a shot, not even other focal lengths, just a lot more film to expose and work with. So, in effect, what I saw with that camera was simply more volume and detail than what I saw before. And it was really hard to go back to seeing less.

Seeing more in medium format also meant that my 35mm Olympus lenses that I had been using successfully for years, no longer satisfied me to look through. Compared with the Texas Leica, these lenses didn't seem sharp enough to be able to justify charging people money for the results, and that was the defining moment for me when I turned to Nikon, like my father before me. This time, I bought well, just a couple of sharp, prime Nikkor lenses that I used thoroughly over time. For a 35mm film shooter, those were the "salad days" when film technology, my confidence, and my technique converged. During this time, two children were born and photographed with these Nikkors, sculptures lit, and art portfolios made, eventually resulting in a magazine cover in 1999. Although I ignored the changes to digital happening all around me, these were, in reality, the last dying days of film and as much as I could hold out, it wasn't until five years later that I went to a digital single lens reflex. That camera, an auto-focus Nikon D70 (which I still use for less critical event work) was now affordable at just over $1000 and it never occurred to me that anything had changed from what I saw through the viewfinder, but it had, and the difference was surprisingly subtle.

November 1999 cover of the Improper Bostonian
Of course, for the first three years I used the only autofocus zoom lenses I owned and, on occasion, one of my manual focus lenses. With my eyesight starting to degrade, autofocus went from a novelty to more of a necessity. My 20mm ultra-wide lens, a 28-70mm zoom kit lens and a 70-300mm zoom became pretty much my standard workhorse kit. Without questioning, I accepted the degraded quality of the zoom lenses along with the ability to shoot thousands of digital images at a time, for no cost. But aside from that, what else had I given up? It took more than eight years to figure it out and now I know what it was I lost: my perspective. And I lost it because, like many of us, the 35mm film cameras seemed like an era gone by, rather than a perspective change.

Big format quality, a 35mm perspective, combined with digital speed
So, what was the perspective change? Well, like the translation I had made accepting that a 90mm lens looked more like a 42mm lens to a Fujica 6x9 medium format camera, I had accepted that my 20mm looked more like a 28mm, my 55mm looked more like an 85mm, and my longer zoom lenses, well they looked even longer (which was better), However, aperture "sweet spots" were gone, and so was real depth of field meaning that every shot I took tended to hide fine detail behind the digital "wall of pixels" rather than bring out what was there in better detail. Sure, a better DX camera and  professional editing software helps to sharpen and clarify colors and details but it is that ability to nail details and gradually blur out others was never going to happen until I could see the actual perspective of each lens. And never going to happen until my camera exceeded the limitations of the lenses I own which, really, puts everything back to square one.

Monday, December 10, 2012

The times, they are a'changin'

That's me at 4, in Central Park,
in the earliest picture I could remember
'71 Nikon F sans embroidered strap
My very first SLR
My dad, from the earliest days I can remember (but before I could read the word "Nikon" in black letters on the pentaprism), shot Nikons. My father, who was missing his left hand, somehow found it possible to do his photography of the people whom he loved most as his subjects. I can remember as if it was yesterday, the solid clack of the shutter and tan canvas bag with three or four lenses he carried with him on every camping trip. I think I was forbidden from looking through the bag as much as I was allowed to use his beloved '71 Nikon F Photomic. As I grew older, he passed me his older cameras and always said to me that I could shoot as much as I want and he would develop it. So, I took him up on it. For my thirteenth birthday, he gave me his Honeywell Pentax H3V, a basic and simple camera with a 50mm f1.8 Takumar lens that screwed in. Not having any other lens to use, I assumed that there weren't any others to be had. My work from that point forward never ignored the intimacy and power of that 50mm lens.
My youngest, Beckett, at the same age
as I am above

I took that Pentax everywhere and shot prolifically, and developing my own black and white Tri-X and PanX film in the basement darkroom of a neighbor, but it was the color slide film, Kodachrome 64, that fueled the passion to see, create and make new. I always considered black and white to be "test shots", and is what you shot when you weren't sure how it would turn out.

Liam at 12, moody and slowly becoming a man
Charlotte at 9, sitting for me, when she'd rather be behind the camera
My eldest, Sebastian, resists me,
except for the rare instance when he can just be himself.
Charlotte at 10 can see, but always has
For some reason, until my mid-thirties, color print film never did it for me. I'd look at the orange emulsion, the weird cyans and muted greys on the negatives and think "what could I possibly do with these?". These were the days before good quality automated prints were available, little variety in affordable color print film speeds or emulsions, and certainly before 35mm slide scanners. I learned to print color at New England School of Photography, with a man named Tom Petit, who could see that once I had access to an Omega Dichroic enlarger, several Schneider-Kreuznach enlarging lenses mounted on lensboards, and a great 30" dry-to-dry processor at my beck and call, there would be no stopping me. And this was 1999, just when digital cameras started becoming affordable to the masses. I made nearly 1000 prints and ended my two-year color film project entitled, "The T Experience: Idling and hurdling through Boston's Underground" published in a local color semi-gloss paper, The Improper Bostonian. My middle son, Liam, was days away from being born and NOTHING could drive me to print more than that event. I'm happy to say that, 13 years later, he sits here in my home with me, more a man than I was at that age. It's my daughter, however, who is the artist and fearless in her pursuit to be creative. I suspect that one by one, she will inherit the gift of seeing as I have and use it just as well.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

With a Little Help from My Friends

Larger than Life, Todd Rundgren and ETHEL moves the crowd with an "old chestnut", Bang on the Drum
I would have loved to have shot a 70's era Utopia or Todd Rundgren solo performance almost as much as I wished I had been on tour with the Stones like Annie Liebowitz in 1972. Oddly enough, unlike the Stones and Liebowitz, there are very few concert pictures published online of Todd Rundgren, a man renown to have such amazing energy live, and that's a shame; He's such a larger than life presence!
ETHEL's version of Led Zep's Kashmir's excellent rock and roll finale
Todd Wails with ETHEL!
Last week, I had the honor of spending two days shooting '70's rock luminary Todd Rundgren on their "Tell Me Something Good" tour with the modern rock string quartet, ETHEL. Over Thai food in Keene, NH I got to speak to Mr Rundgren, Dorothy Lawson (cellist), and Kip Jones (violin) and Dave, their road manager and sound guy, informally as we dug into many fried appetizers and even shared the Pad Thai that Todd himself ordered. I would go as far to say we became friends that evening and over the course of the next day or so, I made it a point to shoot their three hour sound check, master class, as well as the great stage performance that evening. I even managed to squeeze in a five-minute portrait session with the five of them, requiring such intense logistics, the likes of which I had rarely experienced.

Despite his torchsong piano beginnings
he then belts out some amazing guitar work
The concert starts off with ETHEL solo (if you can describe a quartet that word) performing an amazing version of Led Zeppelin's Kashmir. When Todd comes out by himself, the "Todd is God" fans went wild. I even heard that one fan wanted so many autographed album covers that he distributed them amongst other fans to get them all autographed.
The illuminating glow of a Utopia album on a couple of Todd Mega-fans faces
 After the concert, the fans all waited expectantly for Todd to emerge and, when he did with a half-slice of pizza, he was mobbed! I managed to get all my shots and even have a nice chat with Ralph Farris, one of ETHEL's founders, as he packed up the merch table en route to Columbus, Ohio. A couple of days later, I received a very nice letter from Tema Watstein, the quartet's violinist asking to use my shots, sight unseen, for ETHEL's promo efforts, which of course, I was flattered by the offer. Without sounding presumptuous or egotistical, my next question would be: Where would you like to have my work published?
Todd Rundgren surrounded by ETHEL
lined up as neat and tidy as a class portrait

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

F*@K Speedlites

If you're a pro photographer, you've probably heard about "triggering Speedlites" as much as you've heard about any high end camera, say, the Canon 5D Mark III. So I say: fuck Speedlites!

It's not that I don't think Speedlies are cool, they are...but seriously, they are grossly underpowered flash heads with too heavy a price tag for what they actually do. Like the shutter speed dial and the aperture ring, flash is some of 35mm photography's oldest technologies, and if you don't know how to shoot in full manual mode, you'll never know how to use a Speedlite. Why would you? Light, like air, is free but knowing how to shape and mold and harness it's power is the reason you use flash in the first place. In the days of film, an automated flash head like a Speedlight was a godsend, saving your ass on that criitical wedding shot or tricky lighting mix, but today's high speed digital cameras and professional editing software make all that automation completely irrelevant. Just dial in your desired Lightroom settings and shoot with reasonable settings within noise and clipping tolerances and you're golden.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Climbing The Capitol Steps

The Capitol Steps troup were kind enough to gather for a goofy group shot, before breaking down their set and rushing out the stage door.
Obama-like praising the Lord...
...then dancing the hora!
You'd never know that election year comedy was SO big in the swing state of New Hampshire, until you've nearly collided with a man wheeling an oxygen tank. In fact, I usually have to muffle my shots but not for the laughter in the almost full house performance of The Capitol Steps. These guys are quick both in physical comedy and costume changes and make fun on a bi-partisan basis. I spent an evening with the comedy troupe and managed to gather a few gaff shots of my own.

Sarah Palin literally scaring the country
I guess you just had to be there to hear this dirty ditty

Friday, September 28, 2012

Flowers, Iron and Sky: In the shadows of the Kosciuszko bridge

I spent a lot of time this past Sunday, September 23rd,  looking up at the sky and specifically at the Kosciuszko bridge, a subject of intense interest for several weeks. I'm pretty sure that no one else has seen the bridge the way that I do; a dark iron hulking structure about to be torn down and replaced with this concrete monstrosity, below:
The NY Daily News offered this optimistic
view of  Boston's Leonard Zakim Bridge, instead
Furthermore, it is one of the last of the existing super span iron bridges you will find in the New York City area and the most dangerous with 28 major safety violations makes it the most dangerous bridge in New York State. But who really cares about the constant traffic over the bridge anyway? Unless your car is in the impound lot there, or you're the former Mr. Walsh resting peacefully below it, or several of the million drivers passing across it, you can easily find a reason to wish the bridge would survive another 50 years.
The most amazing view of the bridge is the underside, which is fenced in on both sides
So I took my violinist friend, Todd Reynolds, with me and we did a photo walk on my 46th birthday, to find out who else lives there besides Mr. Walsh and Mr. Reynolds, who rents a flat nearby. We were treated to terrific weather. no traffic and amazing light!

Todd Reynolds in the light below the bridge, in front of the corrugated fence
separates us from the NYPD impound lot 
I was "in heaven" with this light, until I quickly realized that
I was surrounded by more legitimate holders of that distinction
Todd and I spent the day finding our way around the west side of bridge and returning in the late afternoon for better light and with Todd on lookout, I climbed over a stone wall to shoot, while a truckload of NY's Finest drove by in a van. Needless to say, I got my shots of the behemoth Kosciuszko!

Keep shit basic, I always say...