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Category Archives: Personal
I returned to Oaxaca this year to take a second photography workshop with Mary Ellen Mark. Here is an account of that trip — and its impact on me — that I wrote for a local magazine. It is an updated version of the story of my first workshop a year ago.
Discovering charros and more in Mexico with Mary Ellen Mark
By Tim Porter
The bull had been chased at survival-of-the-fittest speed by a charro on horseback, grabbed by the tail, and then flipped nose first upside down into the dirt, where its rolling bulk created a sideways tornado of dust and grit that hid all but its whirling hooves and horns.
Now, it was coming my way — one ton of off-the-hoof, out-of-control hamburger on a collision course with me and my Nikon. My options were few. A brick wall behind me. A cluster of horses, ridden by wranglers waiting for the bull to come out of the spin cycle, in front. A flimsy metal gate to my left.
I defied the complaints of aging knees, muttered a silent namaste of thanks to my yoga teacher and leapt for the gate.
A second later the bull gained its footing, arose from the ground like a drunken frat boy who had been ejected from a hipster bar, and looked for something two-legged on whom it could exact revenge. Its eyes, angry and aflame, found mine, doe-like and frozen, in my perch three feet above him on the gate. The bull swung his heavy, bony head into the gate, rattling my nerves and my bones. Then the charros, emitting whoops and wielding lassos, chased off the beast.
I checked the camera, noticed bull spittle on my jeans, moved back down along the wall and waited for the next animal.
Just another vacation day in Mexico.
Years ago, I worked at a newspaper in San Francisco with a British reporter who had done several stints with the London tabloids and he liked to say of a hard-to-believe yarn, “Hey, it’s a great story even if it’s true.”
This bull story is no bull. But there are greater truths to be told here.
My nose-to-nose encounter with the bull happened while I was photographing the second day of a charreada, a traditional Mexican rodeo that took place about 10 miles south of the city of Oaxaca in a town called Tlalixtac de Cabrera. There, teams of charros, the iconic Mexican horsemen whose tight-fitting suits and wide-brimmed sombreros remind tourists of mariachi bands but whose history is rooted in the horse culture brought to Mexico by the Spanish conquistadores, competed for the state championship.
I was in the lienzo charro (the arena) because of one woman, Mary Ellen Mark, the iconic photojournalist who has worked for Federico Fellini, and Life and Vanity Fair, but is best known for her lifelong pursuit of documenting those who inhabit society’s fringes — street kids, circus performers and prostitutes.
She was a hero of my youth, the reason I became a photographer. My two days with the charros were part of a 10-day photography workshop she led in March in Oaxaca.
I first learned of Mary Ellen when I was in my 20s. The ’60s had come and gone and I was living in the wake of the period’s wanton indulgences. I’d gotten a low-level job in a swanky Nob Hill hotel and returned to college, but I had no plan. School was merely a way out of a life I could no longer live.
One day I saw two photographs in a magazine, both taken in India. In the first, a boy sat at table in a cafe. His hair was long, his shirt torn. He leaned, dreamy-eyed, toward a glow coming from a nearby window. The second photo showed a hippie couple resting on a beach. 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.
In those lost children, I saw myself. The images embodied the untethered wandering that defined the era and that had led me, unwittingly, down shrouded paths from which many never returned. I’ve never forgotten those two photos.
Mary Ellen Mark was only 31 when she made those pictures, but she was already accomplished — assignments worldwide, a Fulbright, her mind and her camera focused on the social trends of the day. She has 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.”
Her desire inspired me, a confused young man who had passed from adolescence into adulthood along those same edges. I bought a camera. I learned to develop film, found a job in a darkroom and began shooting on the street, joined the community college paper, and started shooting news. There was plenty of that in those days — kidnappings, demonstrations, strikes. I used the camera to both open the world to me and to shield me from it. In journalism, I’d found a purpose. I freelanced and hoped for a career in photojournalism .
But it wasn’t to be. My work wasn’t that strong. I was too timid, too distant. More than that, I allowed insecurity to ride roughshod over passion. To stay in journalism, I started writing, which came more easily than photography. Ambition took hold and I followed the opportunities — editor of this, editor of that, editor of whatever came along.
Then it was over. That’s too long a story to tell here. Suffice to say that 30 years after finding myself, I was lost again. Time passed. One day I took out my old Nikon, loaded some film and wandered about the suburban marshes. Just like that, it all came back.
My wife, more perceptive about me than I am, gave me a small digital camera. I learned the software. I bought a bigger camera. I found work with a local magazine that needed someone who could both shoot and write. Over time, more work came. And better cameras. And lights. And a studio. 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.
There was still that itch, unscratched — the edge, the margin, the harder truths. Don’t get me wrong. Living and working in Marin is a good life that many would like to have. But edgy it ain’t.
Then, 18 months ago serendipity struck. I learned of Mary Ellen Mark’s workshop in Oaxaca (where my wife and I had built a house). So tantalizing, so coincidental it seemed impossible — Mary Ellen (my inspiration), photojournalism (my abandoned child) and Oaxaca (my adopted city) all combined.
I joined the workshop last year. I met Mary Ellen (an extraordinary woman of relentless authenticity). I photographed in garbage dumps and garlic fields and the bedrooms of transvestites. I jabbered all day in Spanish. I came home with several good photos and a vow to return — which I did in March.
This year, when I returned home from Oaxaca, a friend asked, What did you learn?
I didn’t have a thoughtful answer at the time and instead something about getting closer with my camera. Since then, I’ve considered the question more and here is what Mary Ellen taught me:
- That photography soothes me with its seeing and excites me with its engagement.
- That I am moved by the tenacity and spirit and generosity of those who struggle daily for survival. I wish I were more like them.
- That 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.
Good lessons, yes, but truthfully I knew all of those things before I went to Oaxaca in March, so you might say I learned nothing. You would be wrong.
What Mary Ellen Mark taught me most of all was to trust who I am. In that sense, I learned everything.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
I 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.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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
One of the treats of working with Marin Magazine has been meeting Dan Jewett (right), who by day is the magazine’s managing editor and the rest of his time is the guitarist for The Hollyhocks, an Oakland indy band that also includes Dan’s wife, Yuri (bass, vocals), Jason Silverio (drums) and Kristin Sobditch (guitar, vocals).
The Hollyhocks new CD, Understories, came out this week and tonight it officially debuts at the Makeout Room in San Francisco. Critics are loving the CD, as they should. It’s bright, it’s smart and it rocks – just like the people who made it.
I had the opportunity to photograph The Hollyhocks a couple of times, including once in Dan and Yuri’s home as they were working on some of their new songs, and again for a group shot of the band. For the latter, we fence-hopped onto Caltrans land beneath a freeway maze in Oakland. The picture above came from that session.
I love photographing musicians, in part because I get caught up in the emotion of their music, but also, truthfully, because doing so enables me, a man who couldn’t carry a wounded tune to a hospital, to vicariously share the stage with them. (See my new Music section in my portfolio.)
The gallery below has more of my photos of The Hollyhocks. Take a look.
Marin Open Studios kicked off its season last night with a packed party in the Town Center in Corte Madera. Painting, photography and sculpture from more than 200 artists — and, of course, plenty of wine, food and dessert — drew several hundred folks to the event on a warm, perfect Marin evening.
The exhibition and party was put together by a group of local artists — co-led by ICB Building painter Kay Carlson (above) — who came together after a brouhaha involving Open Studios’ longtime sponsor, the Marin Arts Council, threatened to cause cancellation of the 19-year-old event. (Here’s the background story.)
The exhibition will be up through May 13. Go visit.
I’m showing photographs at Open Studios this year for the first time, with much thanks to Kay, who encouraged me to participate. Come see my new work May 12-13 (11-6) at The Image Flow in Mill Valley.
I’m participating in Marin Open Studios this year, and thanks to the good folks at The Image Flow in Mill Valley (401 Miller Ave.) I’ll be hanging out in its gallery space the weekend of May 12-13 from 11-6 showing new work, talking photography and having a good time.
Find the event on Facebook here.
And, don’t miss Open Studios opening night gala at the Town Center in Corte Madera, this Saturday (4/28), 5-8 p.m. — wine, food and all the art your eyes can feast on.
Winter didn’t come to Marin until Spring had already arrived. Barely a week into the new season, the rain is playing catchup, greening the pastures of the west county, soaking the marshland along the Bay, and dowsing the slopes of Mt. Tam with more than enough fresh water to fill the gullies with gushing streams, babbling brooks and carousing cascades of white water.
it’s good weather for a walk, a good time to carry a tripod into the hills, and just the right moment to straddle a stream — carefully now — and point that big, black camera down at the froth below.
This little rivulet is one of hundreds available for instant view right now on Mt. Tam. You can find this one, if you choose, on the Dawn Falls Trail above Ross. Enjoy.
I just finished Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs and would recommend it to anyone who uses an Apple product or who is interested in creativity, intuitive thinking or, as Isaacson put it, the “intersection 0f artistry and science.”
The last couple of pages of the book Isaacson devotes to a verbatim reflection from Jobs on what he hopes his legacy might be. Here are a few selections from that extended quote. Maybe there will spur you to read the whole book.
* On market research: “Some people say, ‘Give the customers what they want.’ But that’s not my approach. Our job is to figure out what they want before they do. I think Henry Ford once said, ‘If I’d asked customers what they wanted, they would have told me, “A faster horse.”‘” People don’t know what they want until you show it to them.
* On art and science: “Edwin Land of Polaroid talked about the intersection of the humanities and science. I like that intersection. There’s something magical about that place.”
* On startups: “I hate it when people call themselves ‘entrepreneurs’ when what they’re really trying to do is launch a startup and then sell or go public, so they can cash in and move on. They’re unwilling to do the work it takes to build a real company.”
* On honesty: “I don’t think I run roughshod over people, but if something sucks, I will tell people to their face. It’s my job to be honest. … Maybe there’s a better way, a gentlemen’s club where we all wear ties and speak in this Brahmin language and velvet code-words, but I don’t know that way, because I am middle class from California.
* On personal growth: “You always have to keep pushing to innovate. Dylan could have sung protest songs forever and probably made a lot of money, but he didn’t. … The Beatles were the same way: They kept evolving, moving, refining their art. That’s what I’ve always tried to do — keep moving. Otherwise, as Dylan says, if you’re not busy being born, you’re busy dying.”
Deborah Rabin, my mother-in-law and a great friend, died a couple of weeks ago from cancer.
I made this picture of her in July 2006 in my living room in Mill Valley. I had just bought some new strobes — my first “big” ones — and she came over with an armful of hats to help me test them.
I knew next to nothing about lighting, so I pointed a softbox at her face and shot away. Her extraordinary beauty did the rest. I love the shape of her face and the directness of her look in this shot. Pure Deborah.
Today, I would change the lighting — and certainly the crop — but nothing about her. Deborah lived life with unrelenting, and enviable, self-fulfillment and expected all of us who knew her to do no less.
I miss her.
Sometimes I get so busy trying to make a living — which generally means satisfying
demanding control freaks clients — that I forget to do things for myself.
I am not complaining. I have, by any standard, a wonderful life, with, as David Bryne reminds me, a beautiful house and a beautiful wife.
But — and there’s always one of those, right? – if I’m not doing enough of my own work then I might as well return to the 9-t0-5 (or, as was the case in my old world of newspapers, the 7-to-7).
In that spirit, here’s a recent image that has no commercial value, no intended purpose and no reason to exist beyond my lifelong effort to answer Byrne’s questions:
You may ask youself
What is that beautiful house?
You may ask yourself
Where does that highway go?
You may ask yourself
Am I right? … Am I wrong?
And you may say to yourself
My God … what have I done?
Want to see more redheads? Look here.
“Stay hungry. Stay foolish.”
That farewell maxim from the final issue of the Whole Earth Catalog encapsulated the message Steve Jobs delivered in his now famous 2005 Stanford University commencement address. With Jobs’ death, the words have gone viral.
The sudden resonance of that 40-year-old quote lies in part to its momentary revival of social awareness in Boomers who have slipped into the mental dormancy of their seventh decade. More than that, though, it was welcomed into the hearts of an iGeneration who has come of age in an hour when the promise of a bright digital future is obscured by the persistent fog of a dismal global economy, a stagnant and hostile political state, and a well-founded anxiety that their time is passing before they ever had the opportunity to take advantage of it.
They voted for Barack Obama because he offered hope and change. They eulogize Steve Jobs because he gave it to them.
The intellect behind the Whole Earth Catalog belongs to its co-founder and editor, Stewart Brand. After Jobs died, I Googled my way through Brand’s life and rediscovered a man whose impact on the ideas and sensibilities shaped — and continue to shape – a broad swath of the world we live in. His footprints are embedded on constructs as diverse as electronic social communities (The Well) to strategic corporate thinking (Global Business Network) and the current debate about the use of nuclear power as a long-term energy solution (here’s the book).
Given all that, Brand had a bit more to say than “stay hungry, stay foolish.” Here, then, are some other quotes from Brand. Maybe they’ll compel you to learn more about him (or to reacquaint you with what has slipped out of memory).
* “Information wants to be free.” Often cited by those who believe ownership of digital content is universal, it was part of larger statement in which Brand also said, ” … information wants to be expensive, because it’s so valuable.” Here’s the whole story.
* “You own your own words, unless they contain information. In which case they belong to no one.” The sign-on message of The Well.
* “A library doesn’t need windows. A library is a window.”
* “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.”
* “Civilization’s shortening attention span is mismatched with the pace of environmental problems.”
And, perhaps my favorite:
* “Once a new technology rolls over you, if you’re not part of the steamroller, you’re part of the road.”
Summer is sprinting to an end, which means I’ll be heading to Europe for a couple of weeks — and that means it’s a race to get all the work I owe people done before we leave.
From Italy with Love
If you must leave Italy after one of the best vacations of your life — and, honestly, I say don’t do it unless you really need that paycheck back home — then the only
fitting way to say ciao is what I’m doing right now: Standing at dawn in the open stern of a wooden speedboat caroming at 35 mph across the choppy water of the Laguna Veneta en route from Venice to Marco Polo Airport.
Warm spray kicks over the mahogany side panels of the 30-foot water taxi, landing on the lens of my Nikon as I try to capture the city’s receding profile. I don’t care. My mind, revved hard by all the incoming stimuli, is a-churn with a wild, reckless idea, one that is, yes, crazy, but really no more weird than any other fundamental, life-changing realization, a true Paul-on-the-road-to-Damascus moment.
I look across the boat to my wife. She is leaning outward over the windscreen, her face full into the breeze, her hair arrowed straight back. If she were a dog (and I can tell you this is not a metaphor she will care for) then she would be in canine nirvana, you know what I mean, head-out-the-car-window-on-road-to-Stinson happiness.
“Hey,” I yell to her. She turns. “Let’s sell everything, move here and buy one of these.”
That’s my idea: Get back to Marin and get rid of everything we own, all of it — the over-priced house on the under-sized lot, the cushy cars, the techie toys. Sell it, sell it, sell it, and then say “see ya” to the relatives, book a pair of lie-back seats one-way to Venice, and buy one of these gorgeous, gleaming boats — which at about $200k, go for less than a few hundred square feet of rancher in Novato. After that, we’re in the water taxi business, shuttling sunburned Brits and other tourists to and from the mainland for 100 Euros a scoot.
“Whaddya think?” I say to my wife. The wind has eaten most of my words, but I can see she’s gotten the gist. Her smile broadens. She nods. Oh, yes, such a good idea.
Until this trip, France had been my favorite place in the world. I adore Paris with its cafés, its architecture, and its gardens — the Luxembourg and the Tuileries especially — and I love the rest of the country as well, from the stout breezes of Normandy to the impressionistic villages of Provence, all of it accessible by fast, efficient and inexpensive trains.