Category Archives: On the Job

On the Job: Covering the Waterfront

Sausalito waterfront

Sometimes a photo is like the last bus home — you know it’s coming, but you just don’t know when, and, if you’re late you miss it.

This dawn view of San Francisco from the Sausalito shore is one of those images. The picture is always there. The city doesn’t move, the old pilings remain stuck in the bay mud — all you have to do is show up at the right time, be patient and then put your trust in your eye and your technology.

Simple, eh? Yep, but still not so easy. I visited this popular vantage point on the Marin shore a half dozen times before I made this shot last year right about this time. The scene is best in fall and winter, when the chances of morning fog are lowest and the incoming rains clear the skies overnight.

A few lessons I learned during those outings:

  • Shaky piers, tripods, and passing runners don’t mix.
  • Gloves are better than coffee to warm the hands.
  • A $10 flashlight makes it easier to operate a $5,000 camera.
  • The sun never oversleeps. I often do.

One other thing (something from my journalism days):

  • Always take the picture. Even if you’re not sure what’s going to happen with it, someone else may have an idea about it some other day — in this case Marin Magazine for its November cover.

Want to have this photo on your wall? Of course you do. Visit my gallery on The Marin Store.

On the Job: Elvis the Cop

Bill Palmini, Elvis the cop

When Bill Palmini breaks out the bejeweled jumpsuit, the badge-studded belt and the fistfuls of gaudy rings to dress up as Elvis the Cop, he’s only half acting. The cop part is real, but Palmini has been impersonating the King for so long (20 years)  that the transformation from chief of public safety at Hastings Law School in San Francisco to the “King of Traffic Safety” that the transformation seems seamless.

I photographed Palmini in my studio for Marin Magazine interview with him. He arrived dressed as understated as a plain-clothes cop — blue T-shirt, dark sweat pants and black walk-the-beat shoes. He carried a wardrobe bag and a steamer trunk. The former held the jumpsuit; the latter the paraphernalia — the rings, necklaces and belts Palmini called the Mr. T starter kit.

The studio “dressing room” is a space set off by a curtain. Countless numbers of people have changed clothes in that studio, and some opt to go behind the curtain and others don’t. Palmini, somewhat modestly, I thought, chose the curtain. The makeover took about 20 minutes, and, I have to say, was astonishing. Not only did the clothes change Palmini, they changed my relationship with him — a large man in a glittering, white jumpsuit commands a different form of attention than just some guy in sweats.

Making the pictures was easy. Palmini struck poses, and I shot. No singing was involved. We finished in less time than it took Palmini to pack up his gear and before I could say I ain’t nothing but a hound dog Elvis had left the building.

On the Job: The Prom Queen

Old joke: How do you live to be 100? Make it to 99 and then be very, very careful.

Being, as my wife says, a cornball at heart, I told that joke, which I heard many times from my father, to Jean Murphy when I met her at the Redwoods retirement community in Mill Valley, where I was photographing her for a feature for Marin Magazine.

Jean, 99, smiled mildly at my attempt at witticism, a  smile she had no doubt developed during her many years of teaching and had reserved for those  student she considered beyond salvation. Reaching 100 is no joke for Jean, and she is hardly sitting around waiting for her odometer to hit three digits, which it will do on Dec. 2.

In the hour we spent together in her crowded, but comfortable first-floor studio, Jean told me of outings to S.F. Symphony or Berkeley Rep or a community drumming session or protesting with The Mill Valley Seniors for Peace.

A busy lady, Jean was also this year’s prom queen at The Redwoods, an honor awarded to the oldest attendee at the event. Here’s hoping Jean wears the crown again next year.

On the Job: Good Work is Still Work

Toward the end of my newspaper career, I became intrigued by the concept of “good work,” effort that not only benefits society and meets certain standards of professional excellence but makes its practitioners feel personally fulfilled. Good work, as Bill Damon describes it in “Good Work, When Excellence and Ethics Meet,” is something “that allows full expression of what is best in us, something we experience as rewarding and enjoyable.”

It didn’t surprise me that the industry cited by Damon as antithetical to good work was newspapering. I, as ink-stained and wretched as anyone who ever chased a story, had been inside the news factory for 25 years and knew first-hand how the demands of deadline, the burdens of tradition and the rigidity of newsroom hierarchy stifled creativity, personal expression and, ultimately, the ability to consistently do the social good that newspapers in particular heralded as one of their primary reasons for existence.

After I left the industry a decade of transition defined alternately by periods of purposeful self-reinvention and intermissions of questioning self-doubt brought me to a fortunate point in my life: An opportunity to find “good work” as a photographer.

By many standards, I have successfully taken advantage of that opportunity. I shoot regularly for a local magazine, have published a much-praised book on organic farms and have managed to learn — through much trial and much more error — the basics of several types of photography.

But, as satisfying as these  achievements are, I would like more. I want to be a better photographer, by which I mean one who is more creative and less constrained by the ideas of others. I want to be a better technician so I can make happen images I see in my head but elude me in camera. And I want to build my photography as a business so I have more financial freedom.

Lately I have found that pursuit of the last goal can impinge accomplishment of the first two. In other words, the more business I get the less time I have for purely creative endeavors, which are often the pathways to leaning new techniques.

I am having a decent year as a photography business (compared to the doldrums of last year), so I am not complaining (or am I?), but I am a bit tired. I am doing a lot of events and corporate work, which involve long hours on the job, a lot of gear schlepping and then longer days processing on the computer. My youthful ambition is colliding with my not-so-youthful body.

In other words, even “good work” is still work. It fulfills mentally and emotionally — and I am thankful beyond expression for that — but it’s taking a toll physically.

In the ideal world (where is that place?), I’d grow my business with more advertising and product photography.  I’ve found I like working in the studio. I enjoy both the control I have over the lighting, and also the challenge of making the simple seem more exciting. The studio is also less stressful — the gear is there, I don’t have to produce 75 or 100 pictures form a shoot and clients are often looking at the photos on the computer while I shoot, meaning they aren’t suggesting afterward that I should have shot something else.

Until then, I’ll take almost any work that comes my way. At this point of my career, it’s all “good.”


Photo notes: Flatbread by Rustic Bakery of Larkspur; shot for The Marin Store.

On the Job: “Mine” vs. “Theirs”

I am not sure what came first in my life, photography or journalism, but both influenced me greatly as a young man.

While I was in college, I worked in the darkroom at UC Extension in San Francisco, where my fellow lab rats were mostly students at the San Francisco Art Institute. In our spare time, and there was plenty of that after the day’s  chemicals were mixed, they taught me to print deep blacks and luminous whites on rich, expensive sheets of Agfa paper and instilled in me the belief that each of us can see the world in an unique manner if we only look long and hard enough.

After work, I studied photojournalism, which had its own, and very different, definitions of photography. It focused on people, it told stories, it exposed injustice, it was active and, my favorite teacher, Fran Ortiz, used to say, it was done best close in. If your pictures aren’t good enough, he’d preach, get closer.

I took all those messages to heart and, as most students do, made photographs that imitated the best photographers of both worlds. The artist in me photographed empty beds, their white sheets lit by sunlight from open windows, and then spent hours making one print in the darkroom. The photojournalist in me chased news — the trial of kidnapped newspaper heiress Patty Hearst — then rushed to UPI where I developed and dried the film (with a hair dryer!) in two minutes, made a one-minute print and put it on the wire, all for glory and $15 a shot.

Eventually, the journalism won out and by the time I was ready to leave college more than anything I wanted to be a newspaper photographer. That was not to be, though, for several reasons. I had talent, but I lacked confidence in my work and doubted my instincts, a bad combination in an industry that rewards drive and ambition (as well as talent), so when the photo editor of a big San Francisco paper suggested I try another field I was crushed.

I moved on to a job as a reporter (who did some photography) and then into a long period of editing. I did well, ran a couple of newsrooms and got to be waist deep in  some of the biggest local news of my generation. Fast forward a few years past the Internet boom and there I was successful and skilled in many things except that which I always wanted to do — photography.

About that time, when I was finishing a book on newspapers and facing an intersection on the road ahead, my wife gave me a little digital camera. That gift changed my life. I began shooting and shooting, amazed at the possibilities of digital but also frustrated by the camera’s shortcomings, so I bought my first DSLR, a Nikon D70s. Quite serendipitously, a friend co-founded Marin Magazine about the same time and asked me to be involved.

Suddenly, I became a photographer (who does some writing). The learning curve was steep. I knew the basics, I had a decent eye, I could think on my feet and I could navigate a story like a journalist, but I knew little about lighting, Photoshop and the demands of magazine photography, which are more about editorial style than the raw truth-telling of photojournalism.

But I’ve learned. I’m better. I can light just about anything, can make the software do pretty much what I want, can walk into most any situation and come out with something to publish, and can make almost anyone look good.

I consider those the basics — the things any photographer needs to make “their” photos, “their” meaning the clients, whether a magazine, a baker or a university, all of which I’ve shot for this month.

What I want now is a vision — the thing I need to make “my” photos.

Yesterday, I posted a some links to art photographers I like (see Grab Shots: Get Out of the Rut). When I see this sort of work, I see photographers shooting for and creating images for themselves, not for others. Don’t misunderstand, I am thrilled by the opportunity to make “their” photos — few people get the sort of second chance I’ve been given — but as much as I wanted to be a newspaper shooter when I was younger I now, much older, want to find photography that is “mine.”

Do I know what “mine” is? No, not yet, but there is a kernel of it in this picture, which I made for Marin Magazine to illustrate a story on school costs. The magazine used a different frame, one a bit more flattering to the girl, the child of a local parent. That was theirs.

This one is mine.

On the Job: Marin Magazine Cover

Marin Magazine February 2010 cover

Marin Magazine gave me a wonderful opportunity in the February issue — eight pages of photographs to illustrate the beauty of Marin County. To my surprise, the editor also chose one of the images for the cover — a grove of oak trees on a Novato hillside.

I made this photo quite by accident a year ago. I was looking for an elevated vantage point to photograph the Buck Institute’s distinctive I.M. Pei building as part of a story on Buck’s scientists.  As I climbed this little hillside with my gear, the sun suddenly came out from behind some storm clouds and lit up the grass and the trees. I shot about 10 frames before the cloud cover returned. Another shot from that moment is in the photo layout.

The text I wrote to accompany the pictures is below.

See all the photos in a slideshow. And, of course, they are available for purchase as fine art prints through the Marin Store.


Marin Views (text from magazine)

Much of my career, in photography and in journalism, has focused on people and their peccadilloes. They were rogues and rascals mostly, types you wouldn’t readily invite home for family dinner. Such was the business of news.

That changed when I began making pictures for Marin Magazine. Even though we have our share of local rapscallions, what captivated me as I ventured deeper into Marin than ever before were its various scapes—landscapes, seascapes, and, yes, bridgescapes. I was often out and about at first light or early evening, when nature presents its very best.

The beauty of this marvelous place filled me with wonder—the forested wilds of Tam, the windswept solitude of the beaches, the verdant promise of spring farmland, all of it connected, majestically, by a golden span to San Francisco.

–Tim Porter

On the Job: Jewelry

Jewelry by Alix and Co.

Today and tomorrow I am shooting jewelry in the studio for the magazine. Even though I am happy to have the work–especially after the advertising disaster that was 2009–photographing jewelry is one of my least favorite things to do.

I do a pretty decent job with it– the above shot is of  bracelets from Alix and Co., Mill Valley jewelers–but there is still plenty for me to learn. There are nuances to the  lighting, especially to minimize unwanted reflections, I haven’t mastered, and I’d love to have a camera with perspective control into order to control depth of field more, but I’m not planning on buying a 4×5 any time soon.

I spent several hours in the studio yesterday working on new lighting set-ups, and even woke up last night about 3 a.m. thinking of another. This time, I am using more diffusers (including scrimming the whole shooting table) and more fill, and shooting on white plastic, which bounces the light very evenly. The quality of the light is the best I’ve made so far. Still, I have not figured out how to keep the camera from appearing in a reflection and continue to have difficulty controlling highlights while shooting on white.

Since I returned to photography five years ago–after a 20-year detour into newspapering–I have learned a great deal about the technical aspects of the craft, but acquiring the knowledge about shooting jewelry – or other tabletop products for that matter – is difficult for me because I don’t learn in a linear fashion. I am a sporadic learner, taking bits of know-how from here and there until I’ve put together a workable toolkit. Jewelry techniques, however, require certain amounts of exactitude and understanding of math and are best learned in a step-by-step manner, a method I have always found elusive.

At times like these, I wish I’d had the opportunity to apprentice with a commercial photographer and acquire some tricks of the trade from a master instead of picking them up piecemeal from books, the Internet and, of course, the lessons of past mistakes. But that is not the route my life took, and my photographic journey continues, one day at a time, one shot at a time.

I’ll let you know how it turns out.

On the Job: Austin de Lone

Austin de Lone

I love photographing artists and musicians where they work. Some have studios, some have garages, some have bedrooms in their homes that double as office, closet and creative space all crammed into a corner. And that’s where I found Austin de Lone, amid his keyboards and computer, wedged into a tiny spare bedroom in his Mill Valley home.

De Lone, known to fans and friends as Audie, is a former stage-mate of Elvis Costello and longtime Marin musician who sings and plays with his soul exposed and his heart wired to an amp. Marin Magazine was doing a profile of him in advance of a benefit he had put together to raise money to fight his young son’s rare illness, Prader-Willi syndrome.

Austin’s cramped studio was a joy to behold–perfectly, artistically cluttered–but also a challenge to shoot in. A grand piano not only dominated the room, but pretty much filled it. The instrument filled nearly one wall, and left only a narrow passage to walk through on the other side. Its top end abutted a closet and at the business end was just room enough for Austin to sit with a desk behind him. The room was also dark, little by only a 60-watt lamp.

In that cozy space, I needed a small light. I had brought along a small, 17-inch square softbox that fit over a Speedlight. I wanted to hang it from a boom over the piano, tight in on Austin so the light wouldn’t spread too much. There wasn’t enough room, though, to fully open a lightstand. I managed to get the legs of one half open,  hung three 15-pound sand bags over them and cranked the boom out over the piano with the light on the end. It wobbled precariously. I prayed to the stability gods and started shooting.

As you can see from the distortion, I was in close, a couple of feet away. I moved around as best I could, but Austin provided much of the action. He played a bit, hummed, sang a few bars, and told a story or two. All in good spirit.

In 20 minutes, I made several pictures I really liked. Austin was completely relaxed and at times seemingly unaware of me and my camera. I’ve seen other artists and musicians do the same in their studios. I think studios become extensions of their artists, a place where the hands and eye and the heart are indistinct from the tools–the keyboard or brush or computer. The studios and the artists meld, and there, even when creativity turns elusive  (as it so often does) they find their most comfort–and in that comfort good pictures can be made.

On the Job: Tim Hockenberry

Tim Hockenberry

Tim Hockenberry, a Mill Valley singer and musician, is the kind of good-looking guy women notice — tall, stylish and, as my wife would say, twinkly. He caused quite a stir the day he came to my studio in San Rafael to do a shoot for Marin Magazine. One of my building-mates is a food stylist whose kitchen and studio is down the hallway from mine. She and a photographer were shooting hamburgers the day Tim arrived, and they had the door open when he passed by their studio from the elevator en route to my space.

After I got Tim settled in, I left him for minutes to chat with the writer and went down the hall to get something. The stylist called me in as soon as she saw me. “Who is that?” she said in a voice much spicier than the food she was styling. I told her. “Send him down here when you’re done.”

An hour, and several changes of clothes, later, Tim and I were done. We’d had a great time shooting — he was fun, engaging and knew how to pose, everything that makes my job easier. I made a variety of shots, including a batch with his trombone (his first instrument). For laughs — and much to the delight of the writer, a woman — we also shot a few shirtless ones as he changed clothes. I submitted about two dozen proof shots to the magazine, which ultimately used the one you see here and another in the table of contents. The shirtless photo didn’t make the cut, apparently, but later, on a visit to the magazine, there was a printout of it hanging above the desk of one of the writers.

On the Job: A Rainbow Burns

Barbara Meislin

I’ve met countless hundreds of people in my many years of journalism and photography, but few possessed the uncomplicated goodness and sweet soulfulness of Barbara Meislin, the Tiburon writer and singer best known as the Purple Lady. Following the death of her young daughter, Meislin dedicated her life to bringing happiness to children. Her symbol was a rainbow; everything else in her life — clothes, cars, garden and home — was purple.

Yesterday morning, the Purple Lady’s home, a large, airy structure astride a hillside above San Francisco Bay, burned. The flames took almost all she owned, leaving her — as is the cliche in these events — with little more than memories of the 43 years in which she made that home distinctly her own.

I photographed Barbara in her home a couple of years ago for a Marin Magazine profile of her. She told the writer, while speaking of her daughter’s death, “Loss can be an incredible teacher. Often, the highest and best teachers appear when one’s loss and sorrow is the deepest.”

Prophetic words indeed.

Barbara MeislinBarbara and I became friendly acquaintances and I would see her occasionally during my jaunts around Marin. She is a bright spirit and any encounter, like one a few weeks ago at Ruth Livingston’s gallery in downtown Tiburon, made me feel good.

Standing in her driveway yesterday talking to neighbors, firefighters and a reporter, Barbara was a portrait of sadness. As much as she mouthed words of hope — “I’ll have to rebuild this house,” she told the Chronicleher eyes, moist and red, spoke of the ache in her heart. She was dressed in blue.

Clutching a box of tissues and an orange in one hand, Barbara talked distractedly, her thoughts spilling out as they occurred — how the fire started, why didn’t 911 answer, the narrowness of her escape and the fate of her many, many photographs.

It was a familiar scene for many journalists, but not one I’d witnessed for many years. As a young photographer, and later reporter, I’d stood on many sidewalks outside burned homes or across from crashed cars and seen the very same face Barbara was wearing — drawn, vacant, a bit confused about how all that was good suddenly went so bad.

Later, as I became an editor and traded in the streets of journalism for its desks, others went to the scenes and returned with the stories that, to the cynical — and, sadly, there is much cynicism in the news business — seemed cliched, tired and repetitive. I confess that, at times, I was one of those.

I often tell people who ask what I do now that I’ve returned to my roots — writing and photography. But, in truth, the roots go deeper, extending into a belief that itself has become a cliche: That in everyone there is a story. That in the ordinariness of life, we find the extraordinary. That people are, for better or for worse, endlessly fascinating.

As I drove away from Barbara’s house yesterday, the golden sweep of the Marin hills and the Golden Gate unfolding before me, I noticed I smelled like smoke. I thought again of this wonderful woman, standing tearfully in her driveway, grieving in public, and marveled at the privilege I have to share the lives of others.

On the Job: Going With the Wind

” You can’t always get what you want, And if you try sometime you find, You get what you need.”

The Stones

It was the first day of summer, the solstice, and a chill wind was blowing fierce off the ocean. Perched as we were on a ridge high on Mt. Tam, we were catching it full on — me, my wife, a friend and her husband, who was the “model” for the above photo.

The wind was so strong that even 50 pounds of sand and two people could barely keep the softbox from becoming airborne.

We were here to make a picture for Marin Magazine, where I do a bit of writing and a lot of shooting. The editors needed an opening image for the magazine’s annual Editors Choice issue that illustrated the thrill of living in Marin County.

The top editor had an idea in mind — something she had seen in a stock shot — of someone stretching languorously against the sky, relaxing and letting out the jams after a hike or run on Mt. Tam, the 2,600-foot peak that forms Marin’s skyline signature.

The whole concept of the shot depended on location, a place that overlooked the ocean, faced the sun and had enough other visible landscape to say “Marin” — golden hill, blue sky, etc. I only had one day to scout and the evening before the shot drove all over the mountain looking for a spot. None were perfect, but I thought this ridge might work even though at this time of year the sun sets much more to the north than to the west.

Soon after we set up, though, and I began making test shots while waiting for the sun to drop further it became clear the angle was not going to work. Even on a ladder, I couldn’t get all the elements in the frame the way I wanted.

There was one other complication: Our “model,” while in decent shape was far from buff. Cove-up was needed. My wife donated her vest.

We shot for about 45 minutes up and down the ridge, and I didn’t have what I needed. Pack it up, I said. We opened a cooler, broke out the brew and began stowing gear. Just as we started to break down the strobe, the sun touched the top of a hill to the north, spraying golden light all over us.

I jumped up with a camera, the model set down his bear, the others grabbed the light (just holding the boom in their hands) and I shot about 15 or 20 frames, switching for the last few to a 17 mm with a graduated neutral density filter screwed on the front.

There it was. A shot. Not the one I came for, but one I could take home.

(Here’s a slide show of the whole Editors Choice shoot.)

California Dreamin’ (Marin County style)

Novato and Fairfax theaters

Lots of work this month with little time to write, but I want to share some of the images I made for the August issue of Marin Magazine and its annual Editors Choice awards. The package featured a perfect day in each Marin community, from Sausalito to Novato to Point Reyes Stations. I was fortunate enough to be able to photograph the entire series. Click on the image above for a quick slideshow (and a bit of California dreamin’ on this summer’s day.)

As always, my photos are for sale. If you just MUST have a print of the Novato or Fairfax theaters on your wall, or any of others from the series, visit my Pictopia gallery.

Thanks for looking.


On the Job: New Portfolio Cover

Following the advice of founder Brad Mangin, I’m changing the cover of my liveBooks portfolio once a month. Above is the first one. The goal is to have a fresh cover that better reflects my range of skills than the the shot of the Golden Bridge at dawn that’s been up there for a year (fans of that photo can find it here), as well as put my contact information front and center.

As always, each of these images has its own story.

The twins are Noah and Logan Miller, author and actors who made the movie Touching Home and wrote a book, You’re Either In or In the Way, about how the film came to be. I made the picture for Marin Magazine in Nicasio in Marin County, the setting for both the book and the movie.

The child wrapped in her mother’s hands is Maya. I also made this photo for Marin Magazine for a short Mother’s Day feature. The longer story behind this picture involves me blowing the first image I tried to make with another child.

The young woman in the upper left part of a series of portraits I’m doing of people with red hair. This was shot in her East Bay home.

On the Job: Community College

College of Marin students YouTube is awash with behind-the-scenes videos of famous photographers like Annie Liebowitz and other high-end shooters doing magazine or fashion shoots. The videos show gobs of equipment and small armies of camera assistants, stylists and make-up artists. With all these people scurrying about, usually to an up-tempo soundtrack, the viewer is given a sense that each of these photographers’ images — and by extension the magazines who pay them — is a production of grand artistic and financial scale.

The everyday reality for most photographers (Liebowitz included) is quite different. Although I do hire assistants and stylists for some jobs, many others consist just of my primary crew: Me.

The picture, shot for the cover of the College of Marin’s latest class catalogue is a good example.

The image started with a call from the college’s communication director. We had worked together a few times before. She needed a picture of several students in one of the school’s new medical programs and wanted to use the emergency room sign at a local hospital for a backdrop. She also needed the photo taken the following day. And at mid-day — the only time everyone was available.

I responded with a photographer’s two most important words: No problem.

I drove by the hospital for look-see. Awful. Cluttered background everywhere, and all but one of the emergency room signs were in parking lots.

The next day, the communication director and I met at the hospital, walked the area together and chose this spot, the only one I thought would work. What you see here is just a few feet of sidewalk. On either side is an array of pipes.

I set up one light in a round softbox, snooted another on the sign, gave direction to the students and started shooting. I’d stop every few frames to move them a bit, add or remove a prop, take off the white jackets, put them back on and adjust the light (which is only about 3 or 4 inches out of the frame.)

I made this frame about halfway through 20 minutes of shooting them as a group. I then did individual shots of each.

Later, after the college chose the shot it wanted from a set of proofs I put online for them, I worked up the image extensively in Photoshop — lots of skin smoothing and cleanup, about an hour in all.

This was not a big job, but it was a satisfying one. A good client needed a photo in a hurry. I overcame a horrible location with some selective framing and light. And the college was happy with the results. A good day’s work for a working photographer.

On the Job: Scientists

This is Victoria Lunyak, one of a dozen amazing scientists at the Buck Institute for Aging Research I photographed for the current issue of Marin Magazine.

The assignment was to create a package of photographs and text marking the 10th anniversary of the institute, whose focus is seeking treatment for diseases associated with again such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinsons.

To the non-scientific community, the Buck is perhaps better know for it’s striking modernist building designed by I.M. Pei. For that reason, I wanted to emphasize the faces and voices of the scientists who work there as a way to demystify the institute. We selected a dozen scientists, people like Lunyak, who runs her own epigenetics lab, to junior staff scientists who spend much of their time moving fruit flies from one jar to another.

I asked them why they became scientists, what they hoped to achieve and how they see the role of science in modern society. (Answers here.) I was struck by the amount of passion in their responses. Nearly all expressed a motivation to find cures to debilitating diseases, and some told compelling personal stories about why they became a scientist.

The portraits were done over two days, with locations ranging from open labs to the fruit fly room to the Pei buildings striking interiors. All were shot with small speedlights, using two or three lights in some instances to just one in others, like this shot above.

I also made three pre-dawn visits to the Buck to photograph the exterior at first light, once in the rain. The magazine used one of those shots (see below) in the table of contents, but the opening photo, which ran across a page and three-quarters, I shot one afternoon purely by chance while on a scouting mission, confirming once again that in this business serendipity can be as important as preparation.

You can see the series of portraits and some exteriors here. The magazine package is here.

On the Job: Marin Magazine Cover

The last couple of months I have been purposefully shooting landscapes with the goal of getting more covers on the magazine. This means I have been going out before first light in the morning or trying to catch the last light of the day, the proverbial golden hour.

The best light in the Bay Area happens during the winter, and that’s especially true here in Marin County, where the almost daily summer fog literally grays out the first morning light and can dull the evening light. Winter also brings rain clouds, something we don’t see in Northern California during our arid summers.

This picture was made in what may seem like an unlikely location — in a bayside marshland behind a sewage treatment plant. What the spot lacks in olfactory appeal, it more than makes up for in its marshes and wildlife. I have shot here several times and made some nice pictures, but nothing I considered having the necessary “grab” for a cover. When I saw this scene in mid-December on a day that had been showery, I knew I had found my moment.

Later, when I showed the editor of the magazine a half-dozen images — from this day and from other locations — she immediately went to this one. The final cover image was about a three-quarter crop from the original, with the art director taking some off the bottom. I had shot the original with the cover crop in mind.

Technical stuff: D3, 17-35mm lens, ISO 400, 1/160, F4, handheld.

A Recipe for a Cookbook

My new book – Organic Marin, Recipes from Land to Table – punctuates a lengthy transition from newspaper journalist to photographer and (still) writer. The passage has been at times unsettling, exhilarating and frightening in ways I never foresaw.

The journey continues. The photography challenges me technically, artistically and financially, but it represents what I set out do as a younger man and I remain compelled to pursue it. I write less, but what words I do put down are more honest.

How this book came to be might, I think, interest anyone who finds himself at one of life’s many crossroads forced to choose a direction, perhaps one less familiar than the well-trod path that brought him there.

As we age, the road ahead shortens and opportunities for change lessen. I am fortunate. Change has come to me often, though not often easily. This latest new direction, though, was the hardest. My job became my identity. I defined my worth through professional success. When one day it was gone, I drifted, uncertain how to value myself. Then, through the goodness of family and friends I found my way forward by reaching into my past. There, still aflame, was the passion of youth, waiting to be put to use.

A few years ago when I wrote a lot about newspapers, I often referenced a book written by Stanford professor Bill Damon, Good Work, When Excellence and Ethics Meet. It explored the differences between professions in which most workers were fulfilled (such as biotechnology) and those in which most workers were not (such as journalism). Damon summed up the personal pursuit of ethical work (good work) with this line:

When faced with a difficult decision, when considering if a line is worth crossing, ask this question: “What would it be like to live in a world if everyone were to behave in the way that I have?”

I had loved my job, but it was not the “good work” I wanted – and apparently needed.

From the Newsroom to the Blogosphere

One of the most innovative thinkers about modern journalism, NYU professor and blogger Jay Rosen, did me the honor of praising the writing I had been doing on my former blog, First Draft, about how poorly newspapers were responding to the digital media revolution.

The roots of First Draft were in part cathartic, exploring why I became a journalist and why I eventually left its institutions behind; they were also conditional – in my early 50s I was out of work after the bust of the Internet Boom. I had plenty of skills, but was unsure where or how to apply them. Newspapers remained an option, but a desire to write, to photograph, to fill empty spaces with self-expression that existed long before I ever became a “news executive” was a creative itch that ached to be scratched.

Through a friend I became involved in a three-year newsroom innovation and learning project. I dumped what I learned from that work into First Draft, and much of what I discovered was contrary to the way I had practiced journalism and managed people for two decades. Rosen called me “a man humbled by a lack of knowledge who decides to go out and get some.” He described me this way:

“He approaches this task with a certain intensity, and even anger, because it is revealing of his own career— in fact his own illusions. With Porter, the education is coming after the experience.”

His characterization was correct: I was intense, I was angry and, perhaps mostly, I was disillusioned by a profession I loved, but one I also believed had let me down in a way I couldn’t articulate at the time. This cauldron of emotion, made frothier by interviews I’d done with hundreds of working journalists, resulted in The Mood of the Newsroom, the First Draft post that triggered Jay’s encomium.

I wrote about the nostalgia for the past and frustration about the future I had found in newsroom after newsroom, a combination that prevented individuals and institutions from embracing the changed needed to keep journalist alive in the digital age.

“Professional life,” I wrote, “isn’t turning out quite the way these journalists thought it would – and it makes them mad.” Of course, those words applied to me as well.

As it turned out, Mood of the Newsroom was an apogee. It triggered a self-realization that I no longer wanted a traditional journalism career, especially one that favored the past over the future. I continued the blog for another 18 months while I finished the project (and a book with my partner, Michele McClellan), but what followed was mostly denouement. Mentally, I had moved on.

The Rebirth of a Photographer

About the time I wrote The Mood of the Newsroom, my wife gave me a little digital camera. It was a life-changing gift.

I had studied photography in college, first in art classes and then in journalism school. My first post-college job was as a photojournalist on a small newspaper, where once the editors learned I could also write asked me, occasionally at first, but then regularly, to put together packages of photos and feature stories that could fill lots of weekend space.

The writing expanded, ambition took hold and I jumped into editing, where I stayed for nearly two decades.

Three years ago, a friend started a new magazine where I live, Marin County, just over the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco. Would I write for it, she asked. Only if I can take pictures, too, I replied.

That’s how it began. I bought a small Nikon DSLR and started shooting – quite badly. My technique was terrible, my vision was unformed and nerves in those first few months made it all worse.

Over time, through much trial and much more error, I improved. I learned to control the light, I learned how get the most from a digital file and I learned how to trust my visual instincts.

As I grew as a photographer, so did the magazine’s confidence in me. About 18 months ago, just as my friend, Lisa Shanower, the publisher, and I were talking about doing a book she met someone with publishing connections and soon we were mocking up a prototype.

The original idea was not a cookbook (and I’ll keep that idea under wraps for now), but we wanted the publisher to think we were serious so our proposal included the outline of a second book, one on organic food.

A few weeks later we got the good news from Andrews McMeel, the publisher: Love the book idea – the cookbook!

Lisa talked with a local chef, Farina Wong Kingsley, who became my partner in the project, and Andrews McMeel assigned a project manager and designer, Jenny Barry. All I had to do was learn to photograph food.

If you’ve read this far, I’ll reward you by skipping the details of the photo shoots. I’ll say only that the learning curve was steep and I would not have succeeded as well as I did without the help of numerous others.

Indeed, while Organic Marin was a fulfilling project on many levels, the joy of this long-term collaboration with others is what thrilled me most. Even though newspapers require immense amounts of teamwork to produce, they are hierarchical and driven by deadline, daily necessity and a demanding canon of tradition. Collaboration among peers is rare.

I have arrived now at a point, somewhat late in life, where people matter more than process, where curiosity and self-expression drive my actions and where, more commercially, I try to build a photography business that blends the best that journalism gave me with, as Jay Rosen might put it, my continuing education about a future still under construction.

On the Job: Tourists

Tourists at Golden Gate Bridge

I like tourists. Maybe that is because I like being a tourist myself — seeing new places, talking with people from other cultures, finding wonder and amazement in what the locals consider to be the quotidian.

Here in Marin County, we get tourists — about 13 million a year who arrive by boat, bus and, more frequently of late bike (over the Golden Gate Bridge.) Last month I did a photo story for Marin Magazine about local tourism. I did the usual reporting about numbers and economic impact, but the most fun I had was shooting the tourists.

I photographed about 40 individuals, couples or families, mostly in tourist-heavy locales like the Sausalito waterfront, the Golden Gate Bridge view area or the Marin headlands — people from all over the world: Finland, Turkey, New Zealand. Only one couple said no, a pair of very paranoid Americans who all but shrank when I approached.

The above shot of a cute French couple was the double-truck opener for the piece.

The technique was simple: A 17-55mm on a D2Xs in my right hand, an SB800 with a remote trigger in my left, on quarter or eighth power.

Here’s the whole story. Or go to the jump for the opening anecdote about four fun-loving ladies from Arizona and one’s desire to be frisked.

Continue reading »

On the Job: Father’s Day

Father's Day Little Leage GameEach month for Marin Magazine, I make a photo and write a short essay (200 words) that fills a page in the front of the book. Here’s an example about Life on the Edge, and another about being Between Sea and Sky.

For June, the editor wanted something about Father’s Day, a cliche idea, but I liked the challenge of creating something that wasn’t a cliche and thought I might find it at a local Little League game.

I spent a couple of hours at one game and made some fine actions shots, but couldn’t capture the moment I wanted between a coach and a player or a father and a son. I was looking for that instant, communicated visually, when knowledge moves from one generation to the next.

I returned a week later, this time to a night game and spent about an hour shooting before the game as the kids and dads warmed up, playing catch and a bit of pepper. As the light faded, I looked for some final shots. It would soon be too dark to shoot the game. Suddenly, the coach called all the boys near and he knelt before them. I has to change lenses and got off two frames before the huddle broke. The above frame image ran in the magazine.

Below is the essay I wrote to accompany the picture.


… And They Will Come

“Little League baseball is a good thing ‘cause it keeps the parents off the streets and it keeps the kids out of the house.” — Yogi Berra

Yogi Berra, the language-mangling New York Yankee, also once said, “You can observe a lot just by watching.”

What you observe when you watch the boys (and a few girls) take to local Little League diamonds is that this diminutive form of baseball depends as much on the coaching talents of fatherhood as the hitting and fielding skills of the sport.

Take a night game, for example. The fathers arrive fresh from work, some in their suits, others already changed into colorful T-shirts bearing the names of their children’s teams – Thunder, Storm or Raptors, outsized words for such pint-sized players.

Out come the gloves, the bats and the balls. A simple ritual begins. Catch. A child throws. A father catches. Back and forth. Back and forth. Encouragement is given, adjustments made. The moment is timeless, the lessons eternal.

As game time nears, the young players gather around their coach. He makes eye contact, commands attention. A man never seems so large as when he is surrounded by children who look up to him. A good coach, like Eric Dahlke of the Timber Rattlers in the Mill Valley Little League, takes a knee before his team, knowing that little ballplayers need men who are big enough to meet them at their level.

On the Job: Run & Shoot

One of my great challenges in photography has been making new techniques work the first time out on the job. I haven’t always been successful at that, so if the job permits (meaning there’s enough time or the art director doesn’t have a specific shot in mind) I usually plan on a back-up shot as well, something I’m sure I can pull off.

I shot the two pictures in this post to illustrate a story in Marin Magazine on trail running here in the Bay Area. The women belong to a Luna Chix running team headed by the magazine’s web mistress.

We chose a trail on Mt. Tam called the Sun Trail because it provided some great views (I wanted the context of the geography) and was close to a road (to cut down on the gear lugging.)

My original idea was to light three of the runners along a curve in the trail (like in the shot below), but after a few test shots I realized it would be very difficult to time the runners so a strobe hit each one as she passed. Also, I was shooting from 100 feet away on a rock out-cropping and would have needed an assistant to help reposition the lights after each test shot. Since this wasn’t a Chase Jarvis-type-budget-shoot, meaning it was just me and five runners, I went for Plan B.

First I shot three of the runners going through the curve. This was my sure shot. They were great sports because it was about 90 degrees out and they ran it a half-dozen times.

Then, I set up four SB800s along an upper portion of the trail — two in front and two along the side — and had them run toward me. When the led runner crossed a line I had made in the trail she shouted to me and I shot the group with a 12mm lens. I could only get off one frame each time since the flashes were firing on full power and needed recycle time, so the team ran it about 20 times. I did several variations of this shot, including backing way off with long lens.

The final shot (above) isn’t perfect, but it worked for the magazine and I learned a lot about lighting a group of moving people outdoors. Next time, I’ll concentrate more on separating each person, targeting them with an individual light and watching their expressions more.

The magazine used the above shot in the index and the below one as the lead shot for the story.

Luna Chix