Texas, the Throw-away State

Other than serving as home to several members of my family, there’s not much I like about north Texas.

One of the state’s more sad characteristics is its emptiness. I don’t mean the vast openness of the Texas landscape — which is alluring — but rather the pockets of  nothingness that mark the cities and their suburbs.

These are spaces that Texas has abandoned its rush to rebuild and rebrand itself as the Dubai of the American southwest.

Once they were strip malls or factories or farms. Now they are vacant storefronts, rusting hulks or fields given way to seed.

Amid the glassy gleam of Dallas and Fort Worth’s new downtown towers lie the discards of yesterdays dreams, tossed aside, left to rot and lacking — ironically in a state so obsessed with religion — a proper burial.

These photos are from Fort Worth, made on Christmas trip to Texas to see my Mom.

Muertos — a Day of Life

Sister Mary Timothy Simplicity
Death is a lot of work. The dead are gone in a minute, but their survivors need hours and days and weeks to prepare a celebration for them.

In Garfield Square yesterday, El Día de los Muertos, the sons and daughters and widows and widowers and friends and colleagues of the dead devoted the afternoon to building shrines of all sizes and complexity to their mothers and fathers and husbands and wives and partners and fellow members of the Sisters of the Perpetual Indulgence who have died, some years ago, some just the other day.

All around them, as they laid out orange marigolds and family photos and precious possessions, and erected boats crewed by skeletons and created fanciful trees of wire festooned with clay creatures crafted by schoolchildren, life went one, life that had nothing to do with the dead.

In the center of the square, on an iridescent carpet of green artificial turf separated from the more muted verdure of the actual grass by a chain-link fence, teams of young girls played soccer. Their voices, exuberant, and those of their coaches, urgent, provided a soundtrack for the day.

Along 25th Street, occupying the concrete lip of park’s northern edge, where a shaft of western sunlight warmed the block, drunken men clustered in boozy amiableness, alternately ignoring and suffering the transgression on their turf by the altar-makers.

In increasing numbers photo-tourists arrived. Their baggy old man jeans marked them immediately, too clean, too blue, and too suburban for the dark grit of the Mission and the bright colors of Muertos. Politely, their pointed their big cameras at small children who face painters had transformed from angels into ghouls.

I confess to interloping myself. I am now a tourist in the city I once called mine.

Decades ago, I lived a few blocks from Garfield Square. Rent was cheap – and for good reason. Drug dealers and gang bangers were much more plentiful than children. There was no outcry over forced evictions in the Mission because there was no line of people waiting to move in. Sadly, I have not walked this neighborhood for many years.

Despite my long absence, I felt at home. The streets around the park were familiar in shape, sight and sound. The long views along Bryant – to faraway downtown and to nearby Bernal – resurrected mental albums of similar images I stored away long ago. The preponderance of concrete, uninterrupted from stoop to stoop, recalled my years of walking those streets – for work, for drugs, for sleep, for lack of anything else to do. On those streets of San Francisco, in the Haight, in the Mission, I died many times and I was reborn just as often, resurrected by luck or coincidence or the helping hands of others.

More than all that, though, I felt at home among the people making the altars.

They were urban, meaning they were accustomed to living among other people, used to being stared at and open to having an instant conversation with a stranger.

They were gay, meaning that at some point they broke from the path their parents hoped they would travel and found themselves, either by intention or instinct, living in a community of others who had done the same.

They were artists, meaning that they created for the sake of creation and they found no lack of sense in devoting an immense of time to build honor a friend or a loved one with a shrine that would last only a few hours. They found meaning in the doing.

I am a tourist among them as well. I left the city, I lost my intentions, I sought reason for creativity.

Saying this another way, on the Day of the Dead in the Mission I found parts of the life I left behind and now hope to recover.

I left Garfield Square at dusk. Dinner with friends – out of the city – waited. But, I was more interested in the people building the altars than those who come in the night to view them. And I had no desire to photograph the after-dark parade through the Mission, which, in addition to the Latinos an of the city and beyond Muertos is a connection to their roots, draws thousands of young anglos who know see the event as just another hormonal opportunity to drink and act out in public. But that’s life, too.

Below are a few snaps from the day.

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The Mission on the March

Anti-gentrification protest in the Mission.

If San Francisco’s Mission District were a wild animal, it would be on the endangered species list.

The neighborhood is hunted by predatory real estate developers who toss out longtime tenants like last week’s garbage, encroached upon by relentless and City Hall-sanctioned gentrification, undernourished by new immigrants (who can no longer afford to move there), and infected with an invasive species of screen-staring clones who seem so culturally unaware that one wonders if they realize a real world exists outside of their digital lives.

Yesterday, those who prefer to keep the Mission ethnically diverse, affordable (for San Francisco) and cross-culturally vibrant gathered at 24th and York streets to march and to protest the attack on their home turf and, hopefully, ignite a broader, citywide effort to preserve working-class San Francisco’s neighborhoods in the face of increasing upscale development and what is essentially the legal deportation of anyone who cannot afford $5 coffees, $200 jeans and $4,000-a-month rents.

What is happening in the Mission saddens and enrages me. I came to San Francisco poor and damaged,  a refugee of the Sixties. San Francisco welcomed me with affordable housing in its then-fringe neighborhoods (Precita Park, Bernal and the Outer Mission), hands-on jobs that paid the rent (delivering newspapers, hotel banquet work) and an opportunity to drop back in via a low-cost city community college that itself now borders on extinction because of neglect and incompetence.

Without any of those things, I would not have been able to have the journalism career I did, to buy the houses I did, to pay the taxes I do, and to contribute, as I can, to the world around me.

Those opportunities will not exist in a San Francisco that eats its own culture, that destroys itself by driving out the very people who make it unique, that chooses development over diversity. The City — as we called San Francisco in my former newspaper — will become just a city.

The 24th Street march, as demonstrations go, was small, but the message was big. Sadly, San Francisco’s last remaining full-size newspaper,  the Chronicle, couldn’t be bothered to cover it (it did find the means to report on a skateboard contest that happened at the same time — shame, shame, shame).

However, Mission Local, the local news project of the UC-Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, was there and live-reported the event. And, much has been written about the gentrification of the The Mission and increasing use of the state Ellis Act to force evictions citywide —  by Tim Redmond, by El Tecolote and, yes, by the Chronicle.

My pictures are below. In them you see the faces and energy of The Mission — and the soul of San Francisco. Let’s not allow them be wiped out.

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On the Job: Psychics

Zorica Gojkovic

Not all psychics are alike. But then some of you already knew that, didn’t you? It was a lesson I learned when I recently photographed several psychics and tarot card readers — they prefer the term “intuitives” — for Marin Magazine.

When I got the assignment, I was thinking flowing robes, lots of jewelry, candles, you know, exotic. Except for Jetara Sehart, below, who does tarot readings under the name of Angel Counsel and certainly looks the part (complete with crystal ball), that’s not what I found.

One psychic was selling real estate (“Wouldn’t you want a real estate broker with good instincts?” she told writer Calin Van Paris) and another worked in a bookstore in San Rafael.

Then there was Zorica Gojkovic, above, who has a Ph.D. in English, provides counseling under the name The Time of Light, and loves to read mysteries and Westerns when she’s not gazing into the future. Zorica looked like my Aunt Helen, as “normal” as could be. I did my best to add a bit of mystery to her with the photo (which is not the one the magazine used).

Here’s the story. Take a look.

Jetara Sehart

On the Job: Marin Housing Debate

Aging vet pleads for affordable housing in Marin County

An aging veteran whose lost his home asks the Marin County Board of Supervisors to approve a plan authorizing more affordable housing in the affluent county.

I dropped by the Marin County Board of Supervisors yesterday to photograph the newest board member, Katie Rice, for Marin Magazine. After I made the pictures I needed of her, I hung around to take in some of a contentious hearing on a countywide affordable housing plan.

There’s no need to go into details about the plan here (much ink and many pixels have been devoted to it), but the debate struck me as a common one — a liberal plea for housing for residents and workers who aren’t hedge fund managers or lawyers vs. a NIMBY-esque argument that low-cost, high-density housing would mean more traffic, not enough tax revenue from the news residents to support local services and environmental dangers.

The crowd — on both sides –  didn’t fit the Marin stereotypes. There were no yoga pants, few facelifts and more than several walkers. It was not the haves vs. the have-nots. It was the have-less vs. the have-no-so-much. Those who feared the new housing lived in Marin’s more middle-class neighborhoods — Marinwood, Tam Valley and Strawberry (well, not so middle-class for the latter). Those who argued for it lived in those locales as well, but also in Marin City and Hamilton.

For me, it was a chance to put faces on an abstract argument, which is always a reminder that all these policy debates in the end effect the lives of real people.

The meeting opened on a high note — several of them actually — with an a capella song about “there’s a lot of love in Marin” by local sax player and singer Richard Howell. That was the last sign of love for the afternoon.

There was no vote. That’s scheduled for next week. (More photos here).

On the Job: Gavin Newsom, the Light and the Dark

July 23, 2013 – 365:15:204 – DUI Stories

I recently photographed Gavin Newsom for Marin Magazine and took advantage of the opportunity to make some images for myself after I’d gotten what I thought the magazine needed.

Newsom, the current lieutenant governor of California and a former mayor of San Francisco, was pushing his book, Citizenville. I’ve photographed him before at several public events and he is photogenic and very camera aware so it is difficult to capture him even momentarily out of character.

During the interview with writer Stephanie Martin in a bright corner of Murray Circle, the restaurant at Cavallo Point in Sausalito, I used the strong daylight streaming through a pair of large windows and the rich warmth of the walls. Those are the images the magazine used and you can see them below in the slide show or on the pages of the article. The color was so intense I had to take out quite a bit of the yellow.

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For myself, though, I wanted something darker, so in the five minutes I had with Newsom between the end of the interview and his departure I photographed him with the harsher light of a single oct0box hung over his head. Later, I converted one of my favorite frames into black and white, which you see above. The other black-and-shot shot (below) was lit with the window light and I think it works better in monotone than in color.

Ever since returning from the Mary Ellen Mark workshop in February, I’ve been working more with black and white conversions and very much liking the effect. As much as I love the excitement color can bring to an image, I feel that it can also distract from the subject.

With Newsom, a man who knows he is working the camera, black-and-white seemed to penetrate his shell a little deeper. What do you think?

An aside: Last year, I photographed Newsom’s wife, Jennifer, in my studio. Here’s a video of me doing the shoot.

Gavin Newson, lieutenant governor of California

On the Job: Farm to Table

State Bird, corn pancakes

I had the opportunity recently to photograph two of my favorite things — farms and food. Writer Mimi Towle put together a feature on San Francisco restaurants that use the organic food of Marin County to create their menus, and I photographed both ends of the food chain. (Here’s the story).

The story featured four farms, four restaurants and four dishes. Today, I’m posting the shots from the restaurants. Later, I’ll follow up with those from the  farms.

The restaurants and their dishes are:

  • State Bird — Sweet corn and chive short stack (above), topped with melted Cowgirl Creamery Mt. Tam cheese. (I ate three of these after the shoot!)
  • Slanted Door — Manila clams with green garlic puree (garlic from Allstar Organics).
  • Michael Mina San Francisco — Early Girl tomatoes and grilled octupus (tomatoes from County Line Harvest).
  • Ristobar — Fresh summer salad (strawberries from Fresh Run Farm).

All the food was photographed on location.  I love shooting in restaurants because they — and their crews — remind me of my newspaper days. Both restaurants and newspapers operate under deadlines, are staffed with idiosyncratic people who are drawn to pressure and shut it all down at the end of day only to start fresh the next.

(Be sure to take a look at my cookbook, Organic Marin, Recipes from Farm to Table, which celebrates the organic growers of Marin.)

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Running Free

Golden Gate Bridge

One day not long after 9/11, I fell victim to the fear infecting the country and stayed away from the Golden Gate Bridge after the government warned of a possible attack against the span.

I felt cowardly and ashamed afterward. To erase those feelings, I did a run over the bridge — a small act of personal atonement for giving in to fear. In return, the magnificence of the bridge gave me inspiration and belief in the possibility of mankind when I needed it most.

Here’s a piece I wrote about the experience. It’s long (and over-written), but seems apt today in the wake of the horror on Boston.

***

Nov. 10, 2001 — On a bright, brisk morning, suspended on a hanging roadway 22 stories above high tide, even the winter’s glare cannot mask the glorious view — San Francisco Bay, its deep blue surface eddied by current and interrupted by islands Angel and Alcatraz; the rim of hills near and far, golden in the last days before the rainy season; the urban uprising of San Francisco itself, rolling unbroken from the Financial District westward to the beach; and, out beyond the Gate, the absolute beginning of the Pacific Ocean, stretching into an unfathomable distance.

I am running on the Golden Gate Bridge, running for the beauty of steel, running for the audacious imagination of architects and engineers, running to honor the American belief in the possible. When the California governor said terrorists might bomb the Golden Gate, I betrayed the bridge and abandoned it to whatever destructive fate might come its way. I canceled a dinner with friends in San Francisco. I had had enough of heightened alerts, of armed men in airports, of the barrage of bad news. For at least that one night I wanted no more. Now I am ashamed, and my atonement is to run the bridge.

Continue reading »

Venezuelan Face-off

Venezuelan election at the Venezuelan Consulate in San Francisco

On Sunday, Venezuela held a presidential election, choosing between Nicolás Maduro, the hand-picked heir to Hugo Chávez, the U.S.-taunting strongman who died of cancer in March after 14 years of rule, and Henrique Capriles, a state governor who, under the flag of an united opposition, ran against and lost to Chavez in October.

Maduro won, but not before hundreds of Venezuelans converged on the country’s consulate on Mission Street in San Francisco to vote and to loudly proclaim their allegiance to one side or the other.

Capriles supporters, most clad in some form of red, yellow and blue, the colors of the Venezuelan flag, far outnumbered the chávistas, who used bullhorns to compensate for their lack of mass.  The chávistas, wearing red, included an assortment of other left-leaning demonstrators, whose banners proclaimed support for socialism in Mexico, the Bolivarian revolution  in general and, of course, Che Guevara.

Until recently I would have not devoted part of a sunny, spring Sunday to standing on a San Francisco sidewalk amidst a crowd of vociferous Venezuelan expats, but the small Spanish school  in Marin where I engage in my own revolution against the demands of  the subjunctive is run by a couple from Caracas and the current state of their native country is a frequent topic of conversation.

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On the Job: America’s Cup

John Kostecki, America's Cup

John Kostecki is the brains behind the boat. As the tactician for Larry Ellison’s 2013 America’s Cup team, the 48-year-old world champion sailor is the guy who will be plotting the course when the team’s 72-foot catamaran races this summer on San Francisco Bay.

I photographed Kostecki at Oracle Team USA’s headquarters off lower Third Street in San Francisco. When Kostecki told me to meet him at the team “shed,”  I envisioned some shanty-like building sitting dockside along the water. Wrong. The “shed” is massive warehouse on Pier 80 whose size dwarfs the 44-foot hulls of the catamarans team used last summer for preliminary races.

As I usually do, I had little time to make a picture, and went with one light and a wide lens. I wanted to highlight Kostecki, of course, but also show the spaciousness of the shed.

Here’s the interview by Stephanie Martin of Kostecki in Marin Magazine.

A Community Blooms

Canal Community Garden, San Rafael

Food fosters community. I used those words from a young Bolinas farmer to start my book on organic farming. On Saturday, I saw them come to life again in the opening of the Canal Community Garden.

Located on what was a vacant quarter-acre of city land where the butt end of Bellam Boulevard collides with the salt marsh separating San Rafael from the Bay, the garden represents a successful collaboration between the Canal Alliance, the Trust for Public Land, local government and a clutch of private donors and volunteers. (Marin IJ story.)

With 92 plots of soil, a modern greenhouse and a composting complex, the garden gives its urban farmers the chance to  bring fresh, local, organic food to one of Marin’s poorest neighborhoods. But more than that, it does what all farms do: Promises that today’s effort will bring tomorrow’s harvest — a message of inherent hope in a community where life is challenging.

Farming is always an investment in the future. The soil, the seed, the crops, the weather, all are unknowns that the farmer — whether in Iowa or Marin — must cope with and curate through the season, believing that work, nature and a bit a luck will fulfill the cycle of land to table.

There is dignity in the dirt. Weathered skin, encrusted fingernails and achy backs are badges of honor. Thanks to the Canal Community Garden more of us will have an opportunity to wear them.

(Here’s my post from last November, when volunteers were installing the mosaic centerpiece for the garden.)

(Buy: Organic Marin: Recipes from Land to Table).

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On the Job: Cleaning Up Your Mess

Conservation Corps North Bay, CCNB, picking up litter on U.S. Highway 101

Many of us are pigs. Sadly. We toss our plastic bottles, takeout containers and other trash out of our cars, inconsiderate of the environmental damage it does, the aesthetic blight it causes and the cost to to clean it up.

I spent some time walking a section of U.S. Highway 101 in Marin County with a crew from the Conservation Corps North Bay (CCNB) for a story in Marin Magazine about how, even in the wealthiest of the Bay Area’s counties, motorists use public roadways as their private dumping grounds.

The CCNB crews consist of young men and women who were born into challenging lives and, with the help of the Corps and the sweat of their brows, are turning them around.

Next time you’re about to dump your double-decaf-mocha-grande cup out of the car window, think about who has to clean up your mess.

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Spring Training with Style

Arizona Biltmore

A bunch of us gathered in Phoenix over the weekend to take in some desert sun,  celebrate a friend’s 50th birthday and catch some Giants-ball at Spring Training.

Our ticket package came with great seats, hats, T-shirts and a stay at the Arizona Biltmore, which until I read this Wikipedia entry had always thought – along wth the rest of the uninformed masses — was designed by Frank LLoyd Wright.

It wasn’t, but he was the initial consultant on the hotel, which opened in 1092 and as designed by one of Wright’s protegees, Albert Chase McArthur.

Even minus Wright’s name on the finished product, the architecture is captivating — angular, etched facades reminiscent of the Zapotec temples of Oaxaca;  nooks, crannies and walkways that open onto round, green lawns bordered by concrete cottages; placement that pitches one building against another, creating depth in every direction.

Here are a few snapshots from a walk around the ground one day after a ball game.

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On the Job: Seniors for Peace

Seniors for Peace, Mill Valley

For 10 years, a group of elderly residents of Northern California’s hippest retirement community, The Redwoods in Mill Valley, have gathered every Friday afternoon at 4 o’clock on the street corner in front of their complex to demand peace over war.

Mill Valley Seniors for Peace, as they call themselves, began the weekly demonstration in protest of the U.S. invasion of Iraq in the spring of 2003. It has continued without interruption, through the winter’s rain, the summer’s fog and the inevitable deaths that occur in a group whose members include several who are well into their 90s.

Seniors for Peace, The Redwoods, MIll Valley, Bill UsherAs street theater, they are rowdy and spirited and impossible to ignore, yet, reflecting their generation, they are also respectful, polite and welcoming to strangers (and strange photographers) who stop to chat with them or take their pictures.

Led musically by Rolly Mulvey (above), an 85-year-old retired paper salesman who strums a 12-string guitar that is short a few strings, the group gathers for hour, some standing, some sitting, some in wheel chairs, to sing songs of Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie, to applaud passing motorists who honk in support,  and to remind all of us, in a greater sense, that passion, commitment and action are not the provenance of only the young.

I’ve photographed these folks several times over the decade they’ve taken to the corner, including once for a Marin Magazine feature on The Redwoods. (Here’s a PDF of the story).

For that ariycle I not only photographed the weekly demonstration (see the photo below), but made portraits of the seniors themselves (left.).

Bill Usher, the grandfatherly-looking gentleman in the upper right, is one of the group’s founding members. He was 91 when I took that picture. Today he is 95 and still out there on that corner. He told Marin Magazine, which ran a one-pager on the group to mark its 10th anniversary: “We live right here. And we’ haven’t missed a Friday since January of ’03, when Bush talked about a war against Iraq.”

Earlier, in the 2008 story, Usher said,

“I feel strongly about it. If I could talk to President Bush, I’d tell him 9/11 was justification for invading Afghanistan but our going into Iraq was wrong in the first place. We took our eye off the ball. It was a terrible, terrible mistake.”

For the photograph this time I tried something different. I brought my Profoto pack with me and hung a beauty dish above the group as they sang, beat drums and waved signs. I wanted a photo that was as bright and animated and full of life as the Seniors for Peace are. I was happy with the results.

Seniors for Peace, The Redwoods, Mill Valley

Simplicity

Stinson Beach

I was trying to make a picture the other day, but my camera and my computer wouldn’t let me. Sound silly, but it’s true. And it’s making me think my photography has become more complicated than it needs to be.

I had the studio all set. The paper was out, the lights were up, I’d metered front, back and sides. All good. Then I hooked my camera up to my laptop so the pictures would flow into the computer screen as I shot.

Nothing happened. No connection. Without one, no pictures.  I was using a new camera, a Nikon D4, and the software – also made by Nikon – wasn’t “recognizing” the camera. No problem, I thought, I’ll download an update.

As I began to do that, the clients showed up, a mother and her daughter. The mom is a dancer, her daughter a middle-schooler. I was photographing them for the magazine, full-length on a white background, hopefully with some leaping and frolicking.

We chatted and I told them where to change. I returned to the computer, thinking I could install the software patch before they came back. No luck.

Annie ParrI found the patch, but it wouldn’t install. Nikon wanted the original registration number, which was home on my other computer, plus it required me to install every version of the software between the current one on the laptop and the latest fix – and there were three of those. No time for that.

I opened another piece of software, Lightroom, and configured it to capture the pictures coming from the camera. This was an unreliable workaround because Lightroom sometimes  quits in the middle of a shoot, causing me to lose pictures, but I had no choice.

OK, I said, to the mom and daughter, I’m ready. But I wasn’t. Even thought I’d metered the lights,  the first shots looked terrible – the light was muddy where it should have been sharp, overblown where it should have been no more than bright. I’d used this set-up at least 100 times previously and had no idea why this was happening.

I fiddled, I fussed, I moved things around and I changed settings on the camera. Things improved. I’d learned over the years that different lenses can produce different exposures under the same lighting conditions, but now I was learning that moving from one pricey Nikon model to another could do the same.

OK, I said, to the mom and daughter, I’m ready. But they weren’t. The 30 minutes I’d spent hacking at the software and moving gear dampened  the enthusiasm they’d walked in the door with. But they were gamers, so they perked up, posed a half-dozen ways and I made some decent shots, enough, at least, to get the job done.

The weirdness with the computer and the lights ate up half the time they had. The shoot felt rushed – because it was. Their faces showed strain at times – because their patience was running out. The resulting images were good, but limited – because there was not time to try other things.

The shoot wasn’t a failure, just less of a success than it could have been. My fault. I should have checked the software compatibility with the new camera. And I shouldn’t have used a new (well, I’ve had it six months, but haven’t used it in the studio) camera on something that had to be done right the first time.

This is me falling on my sword. Ouch.

With the pain out of the way, I can say this: It shouldn’t be this hard to make a picture. Oh, I know, I can hear Michael Corleone saying in The Godfather, “That is the price you pay for the life you choose.” I get it. I just don’t have to like it.

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Last weekend I tried a different type of photography, something not dependent a computer or software. Inspired by Mary Ellen Mark and her workshop in Oaxaca (here’s the story of my trip), I rented a Mamiya 7, a boxy slab of a camera that focuses manually, uses film and, because it is a rangefinder, requires whomever is using it to remove the lens cap in order to expose the film (something it took me several frames to remember).

Other than the lens-cap thing (Photography 101, folks), the Mamiya is simplicity embodied. I spent a few hours with it, walking around empty buildings near the ocean, framing windows and doorways and chairs. The roll of black-and-white film in the camera only held 10 exposures, so I devoted more time to looking than actually shooting, making the experience much more about seeing the world rather than capturing it. That patience, yogic-like mindfulness, was intensely relaxing.

Then there was the camera itself – no electronics other than the meter, a body made of smooth, heavy metal that always felt cool in my hand, a lens  silent and smooth as my fingers adjusted its focus and a shutter that just whispers its acceptance of its role, no ka-chunk of a mirror, just an affirmative, soft click to acknowledge the making of the picture.

Simple.

The Mamiya does demand one more thing – faith. Since it isn’t a digital photo factory, there is no immediate playback to look it, nothing to verify whether the picture is exposed correctly or framed adequately or has any other additional merits as a photograph. It is up to the photographer to have faith in the judgment he or she exercised with the press of the shutter, and then wait hours or days for the film to be developed to determine whether that faith has been rewarded.

Here we have a camera – and a way of making photographs – that is not only mechanically simple, but encourages patience, faith in your vision and technical knowledge (sorry, no histogram, you chimpers).

These are attractive qualities in a world like mine, which is dominated by technology, subject to the demands of deadlines, and often less focused on taking the picture than on remaking it later in the computer to satisfy the whims or needs of clients.

I’m already trolling eBay with a boxy, black slab in mind.

 

On the Job: Brenda Chapman, Oscar Winner

Brenda Chapman, Brave

Brenda Chapman won an Oscar for co-directing the animated feature “Brave,” but before she did that she stopped by my studio a few months ago for an interview with Marin Magazine and a photo session.

She was delightful. As she talked with writer Mimi Towle, Brenda mugged for the camera, sketched some drawings on a large pad she’d brought with her and generally kept us all in laughter — mimicking, for example, her heroine’s (Merida) stance with a bow and arrow.

Merida, by the way, is based on Chapman’s 13-year-old daughter, Emma, a student at Mill Valley Middle School. She told the Marin Independent Journal in an article published today that when her daughter was younger …

“… She was so strong-willed, challenging me every step of the way. Honestly, I never did that to my mom. It was old school in my house growing up. But my daughter took over my life. I’d be going to work thinking about the morning I had with her. It evolved into channeling that energy into creating something positive around it.”

Congratulations to Brenda.

On the Job: Claudia Cowan, Fox News

Claudia Cowan, Fox News reporterThe key to looking good in a photograph – aside from being biologically blessed with an attractive array of DNA — is being relaxed. That’s why I like pointing my camera at broadcasters and actors. They’re used to being in front the lens. They know how to hold themselves, how to smile and how to wait (which is important during a shoot because there always seems to be a lot waiting — for something technical, for the makeup, for everyone to say what they need to say.)

Nothing much phases them. Ordinary people — meaning you and I — get nervous when they wait or, say, there’s a computer glitch (which happens regularly these days with tethered shooting). Oh, oh, they think, the photographer’s having a problem and I’m going to look terrible.

That doesn’t happen with pros like Claudia Cowan, Fox News’ San Francisco reporter. I photographed her for a Q&A with Marin Magazine (here’s the story). She brought a couple of dresses, several hats and the other important thing for this kind of glammy photo with a lot of lights — a makeup artist, a good one like Christina Flach.

Christina and I worked together once before — only that time it was more personal. I photographed her husband, ex-tennis pro Ken Flach, who hung up his racket to open a barbecue joint, Best Lil’ Porkhouse in San Rafael.

My work is small time compared to much of what Christina does — TV ads, print campaigns, etc. — so she was as cool as Claudia, which makes my job pretty easy. All I need to do is get the lights right, make sure the cords are connected and push a shutter button a hundred times or so.

Working with pros makes me look even more professional.

(See Claudia and Christina together in the gallery photos below).

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Finding Photography

Reina Lopez, San Bartolo, Luis Lopez

Years ago, after the ‘60s and all the wanton indulgences of that time, I’d regained enough of myself to return to college. I had no plan, no major, no desire to be anything in particular. School was an escape, a way out from a place I could no longer be and still stay alive.

I had a job, my first in years. It was a hotel, a new, fancy one on Nob Hill. I set up tables and chairs for meetings and cleaned the rooms afterwards. I swept, I vacuumed, I emptied trash. I enjoyed the orderliness after a long time of disarray. The job was union and paid decent. After rent and food, there was enough to buy things.

One day I saw two photographs in a magazine. Life, I think, but I’m not sure now. In the first, a boy sat a table in a café. His hair was long, his shirt torn. He leaned, dreamy eyed, toward a glow coming from a nearby window or open door. He was in Bombay. He was me, a blond version, untethered, ungrounded. In the second, a young couple, also hippies, rested on a beach, also in India. They wore white, wispy clothes. The boy’s hands rested on a harmonium, an Indian hand organ. He and the girl gazed languidly toward the sea. They, too, were me, looking searching, in between places.

They were the first pictures I’d seen that captured the disconnection I felt during those years. I’ve never forgotten them. Nor the name of the photographer: Mary Ellen Mark. She was young then, just past 30, but already accomplished – assignments worldwide, a Fulbright, lens focused on all the social trends of the day. Later she said of those years: “I’m just interested in people on the edges. I feel an affinity for people who haven’t had the best breaks in society. What I want to do more than anything is acknowledge their existence.”

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She inspired me. I bought a camera, a Pentax. I learned how to develop film, got a job in a darkroom and started shooting on the street. I was terrible, too timid, too afraid to approached people. I joined the community college paper, started shooting news. There was a lot in those days, kidnappings, demonstrations, strikes. Plenty to point a camera at. I got less terrible and used the camera – now a Nikon – to hide behind and overcome my timidity. At once, it opened the world to me and shielded me from it. I’d found a love. I wanted to be a photojournalist.

It never happened, though. And why that was is too long a story to tell here.  Here’s the short version: I did freelance. I chased the little jobs at little magazines. I did PR work. I made money. But I didn’t commit and that showed. My work was distant, a long way from terrible, but just as far from great.

Small newspapers offered me jobs. First one in an oil town, then another in a farm town. I said no. I worked part-time at a big San Francisco daily, the Examiner, as a gopher, and I saw the bright lights and that’s what I wanted. I got an interview. It went badly. The head of photo told me I didn’t have it, not the talent nor the desire. Best get out of it he said.

Dejected, despaired, defeated, I took his advice. I left town for one of those small newspaper jobs. I shot pictures, but I also began writing. The editor was a redneck, a cowboy and a grind. Writing came easily to me, more so than photography, and when an editor’s slot opened I took it in order to move up the chain and get more leverage.

Ambition hooked me. The photography stopped, then the writing and I moved where the opportunity led – editor of this, editor of that, editor of it all. Lots of work, even more stress.

And then it ended. Another long story. Here’s the short version: Thirty years after finding myself, I was lost again. Years went by. I moved out of the city. I was working, but had time on my hands. One day I took out an old Nikon, loaded some film and wandered about the suburban woods and the marshes. Just like that it was there again, the rectangular image, the clarity of the prism, the reassuring clunk of the mirror, and, most of all, the precious instant of seeing, the moment the image became mine with the press of the shutter button.

My wife, more perceptive about me than I am, gave me a small digital camera. I returned to photography. I learned the software. I bought a digital Nikon. I found work with a local magazine that needed who someone who could shoot cheap and also write. (That’s me: under-priced and multi-talented). Over time, more work came. And better cameras. And lights. And a studio (shared). I became, at last, a photographer.

Happy ending, right? Boy wants girl. Gets rejected. Wins over girl years later. Fade to black. Roll credits.

Hold the Hollywood moment. One thing went wrong: the boy got the wrong girl. I didn’t get Mary Ellen Mark; I got a version of Real Housewives. Not quite. But I do spend an awful lot of time making good-looking people and good-looking places look even better. It’s a good life. Many would like to have it, but there’s that itch, still unscratched.

Then, serendipity struck. A few months ago I was in Oaxaca, Mexico, where my wife and I built a house (here’s that long story). I saw a poster touting a documentary photography workshop led Mary Ellen Mark. So tantalizing, so coincidental it seemed impossible – Mary Ellen Mark (my inspiration), photojournalism (my abandoned child) and Oaxaca (my new love) all combined.

I signed up. I went. And I’m back. What happened during those 10 days in Mexico is yet another lengthy narrative I won’t relate here. For now, I can say what I learned. And that is this:

I love photography. I am fascinated by the imagery, with its patterns of light and shadow and shape and color. I am addicted to the capture, to the preservation of the moment. I find peace in the seeing.

I am drawn still to journalism and documentary, especially as tools for social change and justice. I am moved by the tenacity of humans whose lives are a daily struggle for survival and I am heartened by their humor, spirit and generosity toward others (even those, like me, who have much more than they). I admire those who celebrate this humanity.

I remain, after all these decades, hesitant in the face of challenge, overly self-critical on the verge of success and easily distracted from the pursuit of the long-term by the gratifications of the  short.

I relish the company of smart, creative, genuine people. I want to be one myself.

Truthfully, in my heart I knew all these things before I went to Oaxaca, so you might say I learned nothing. Still,  the workshop – and Mary Ellen Mark (an extraordinary women of relentless passion and authenticity) — taught me to trust what I know, so in that sense you might say I learned everything.

I finally found photography. Now I need to put it to good use.

Zaachila, Oaxaca, Mexico

Scenes from the Ranch

Chileno Valley Ranch, Mike Gale and Sally Gale

A longtime friend who works for the U.N. is on break from her duties in South Sudan and enjoying the verdant wonders of West Marin while ranch-sitting in Chileno Valley. The other day, she  invited us out for an afternoon of hiking, chores and chili.

The day was sunny, the air crisp and the chili chunky with grass-fed Angus beef raised in pastures that straddled Chileno Valley Road.

I took a few snaps during the walk, which you can see below. The most memorable scene of the day eluded my camera, though — a newborn calf, still slick from the wetness of its mother’s  womb, unsteadily testing its earth-legs for the first time as mama cow munched nearby on a post-partum snack of winter grass. They were too far, the sun was too low and my lens was too wide to record the scene digitally, but I have it my head, an unforgettable image of the continuity of life.

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On The Job: Christmas Lights

Christmas lights

I love Christmas lights. What’s outside a house during the holidays says a lot about who’s inside. Are they garish? Tasteful? Excessive? Subdued? Artistic? Do their lights have a message? Something religious, something commercial or maybe just: “Peace.”

Last December I photographed dozens of homes, houseboats, trees and yards in Marin County festooned with lights, mechanical Santas and inflated snowmen. Some, such as the single peace sign on a driveway gate, made me wistful. Others, such at the Mill Valley home above, made me marvel at the creativity of its decorators. And a few, such as a Mill Valley waterfront home ablaze with thousands of lights (see the slideshow) made me wonder about sanity of the people who lived there. (They turned out to be a wonderful older couple — here’s their story.)

Marin Magazine collected a dozen or so of the shots and ran them in the December issue. Here’s the layout.

Merry Christmas, all.

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