Category Archives: Personal


Deborah Nickerson Briggs Rabin

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.

There’s a full obituary of Deborah here, at

Erika, the Red

Erika The Red

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.

Stewart Brand: Still Hungry, Still Foolish.

Stewart Brand

Stewart Brand at the Bioneers conference, 2007

“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.

Last Whole Earth Catalog

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.”

My Italian Love Affair

Speedboat in Venice

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.

To keep me motivated, I’ve pulled up some images I made last year in Italy (that’s a Venice water taxi above) and am sharing the piece I wrote about that trip for Marin Magazine a month ago. Ciao!

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.


That’s Amore

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.

Continue reading »

10 Things: Music

Cheap Therapy, the rock and roll band

Some things I’ve learned about music:

1. Nothing fills my empty spaces better than really loud rock and roll.

2. You know that thing about eating chilies on a hot day to cool you off? The same goes for sad music and depression. The blues beats down the blues every time.

3. Music surprises me more than most people do.

4. I like AC/DC and Puccini – but not together.

5. The enormous amount of amazing musical talent in the world has convinced me that I have none.

6. I play the guitar (badly) despite the above.

7. Music is better than therapy or booze – costs less and there’s no hangover.

8. Dancing is absolutely necessary.

9. A live band beats an iPod.

10. Without music, I’d have to listen to myself think all the time – and thank heavens I don’t.

Photo Notes: Above is Ben Kline, playing trombone the other night at the Presidio Yacht Club with Cheap Therapy, a Marin-Sonoma rock band. Below are a few more shots from the show, made at with Nikon D3s, ISO 12,800 and 50mm 1.4.


Instapaper: Savior or Enabler?


Will Instapaper save me or ruin me further? I ask because I’m a hoarder. Not one a big enough one to merit a reality show, not one of those disheveled types (does hoarding and dressing poorly always go together?) with dozens of feral cats and other critters living amid trash-packed rooms. No, I’m different. I’m an information hoarder.

I pile. My desk and my “office” are collections of stacks – things to do, things to read, things to use, things to organize all the other things. Partly, I blame dear old Mom, she who has never tossed a rubber band for fear that it might be useful for something some day, but mostly it’s my fault. I tell myself that all this information, all these good ideas, will come in handy when the day comes that I do something useful with my life. (Snide comments go here.)

The clutter continues inside my computer(s). The files and folders related to my professional pursuits are pretty buttoned up (money is always a good motivator), but the rest of my digital world operates on chaos theory. And nothing is messier than the hundreds of bookmarks that run downward and downward on the left side of my browser. Each is something I find interesting, compelling or entertaining, and something that some day I will read, perhaps again, perhaps for the first time, and cogitate upon.

You bookmarkers out there know that compiling these links is laborious (two clicks at least) and organizing them even more so. Who uses the Organize Bookmarks page anyhow? The result is an endless list of links, which as it grows and grows becomes a better source of guilt about ideas unfulfilled than of knowledge gleaned.

So, I’ve switched. Good-bye bookmarks, hello Instapaper. So long Command D, welcome Read Later. Now I’ve got a graphically pleasant, easy-to-read page of articles from the Times, Wired, the New Yorker and Salon. True, I subscribe to some of these publications, but they sit in a pile somewhere and it can be so tiresome to actually have to open them in order to find the content amid all that advertising. The nicely ordered list that Instapaper makes just seems so much … smarter.

And that’s why I want to read this stuff in the first place, which I will – some day.

Groupon, Group Off — Enough Already!

Group on, logo, cellphone

Apologies for the headline, but blame David Pogue. Whenever I think about the coupon company Groupon I have a Karate Kid moment (you know, wax on, wax off), and Pogue’s  column today is all about Groupon and the parsimonious groupthink that is compelling millions of Americans to decide, apparently at the whim of an app, that a set of scented candles is just what they’ve always wanted.

Hey, who doesn’t love a deal, right? And the only thing we deficit-spending Americans love more than a bargain is a bandwagon, and Groupon’s is packed to the running boards with me-too start-ups — LivingSocial, BuyWithMe and Woot to name a few (Pogue has a full list).

It seems every media outlet with a browser button is now in the deal-for-a-day business. Daily Candy, the entertainment list, has Swirl, deals on trendy clothes. Marin Magazine (who I do work for) has SFSpree, deals on chic San Francisco things. And, today, my local paper, the anorexic Marin Independent Journal, has a  front page, above-the-fold deal — only $64.50 for a $129 room at the San Anselmo Inn.

I smell something fishy. Is it a shark? Has it been jumped?

Is this what the all the great power and potential of the Internet has become: The opportunity to turn us into a nation of coupon-clippers? Move over, Grandma, the ‘Net’s caught up to you.

I don’t argue that for the early movers like Groupon the math is good — 10 bucks here, 20 there times a few million users  adds up to real money, so much so that the company’s upcoming IPO is valued at $15 billion. Hey Groupon, how about half-off on that?

Maybe Pogue is right and it’s all a psychology thing. As he says, “is saving $10 such a landmark event? The last time you bought a house, a car or even a night at a hotel, did you haggle for another $10 off? You probably could have gotten it. But you didn’t Somehow, though, in the Groupon context, it feels like a steal.”

Hmmm. I’m still not convinced. Half-off on botox injections or cuticle cream may entice some of you, but I’ll start clicking the buy-this-deal button when I open the Groupon app and Today’s Deal is 50% off on a new Nikon.

10 Things: New York in Winter

Upper West Side of New York seen from snowy Central Park

Lessons from a recent trip to Manhattan:

1. Martinis taste better in a crowd.

2. False alarms come in twos.

3. Digging through the closet in California for the winter clothes, including the heavy wool pea coat I’d bought in a vintage shop on Haight Street but never had the chance to use, is more fun than actually wearing them in New York.

4. When it’s 20 and the wind chill is minus God-knows-what, the weather wimp in me wins.

5. Slush sucks.

6. There’s a lot of yellow snow in Central Park.

7. It’s easier to find a table in a coffee shop on the Lower East Side than on the Upper West Side. Discuss.

8. I still love the subway.

9. New York friends make me feel more alive.

10. The best protection against frostbite is a return ticket to San Francisco.

Central Park in New York in the snow

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.

Me and My Moon

Moonrise over East Bay hills from Tiburon

I don’t ever want to get to a place again where I spend so much energy working at what I love that I stop loving the work. That road I’ve traveled, and it doesn’t lead to a good place.

Lately, I have been working a lot. In recent weeks,  I’ve photographed restaurants, jewelry, a country inn, a florist, several restored homes, several winemakers, many bottles of wine, a yoga studio (and its owners), lots of dogs, people ranging from a homeless woman living in a shelter to an Elvis impersonator to the founder of Twitter, some politicians, a university campus and more. No complaints about any of this. It’s really more than imagined I could do when a few years ago I made a U-turn from displaced newspaper editor to resurrected photographer.

What I haven’t been doing, though, is taking pictures for myself, images that have no client other than me — and that’s what got me into photography in the first place — so last night I put some effort into rebalancing the scale. Just before sunset, I loaded up the big Domke, slung it and the 300 over one shoulder and strapped the Gitzo over the other, and trudged up to the Tiburon highlands, thanking my yoga legs for the power on the uphills while cursing my ropers for their lack of grip on the downhills. (Boots? Gear? Steep gravelly trail? What was I thinking?)

The southernmost knob of the highlands provides a front-row vantage point for a moonrise over the East Bay hills, and is well worth the walk. I had the place to myself except for a group of graybeard hikers, who used a grassy spot down the slope for me as a place to break out the bread, cheese and port (!) while they took in the lunar show.

As much as I love the personal connection of photographing people, I think I love these moments of solitude more — just me, the camera and no other purpose than to make a picture of what’s before me.

The Real Mexico? ¿Y cuál es ése?

Last night while at a reception at a local art gallery I was talking with Edgar Sóberon, a talented painter whose work was chosen for the next cover of Marin Magazine. Sóberon, a native of Cuba who now lives in San Miguel de Allende, the central Mexico city known for its large community of both artists and North American expats.

I mentioned to Sóberon that my wife and I have a house in Oaxaca in Southern Mexico. Hearing that, a woman in our conversation pocket said she planned to visit Oaxaca this summer and wanted to know what it was like. “Ah,” said Sóberon, “Oaxaca is what’s left of the real Mexico.”

As soon as I heard those words, I thought: The real Mexico? Which one is that?

Is the real Mexico in San Miguel, where thousands of older Americans, some wealthy, others living on Social Security, enjoy the tranquility, historical ambiance and mild weather the strong dollar buys them in this prosperous hillside city?

Is the real Mexico the terrorized border cities like Ciudad Juarez or Nuevo Laredo, where narco militias kill at will to protect their trafficking empires?

Is the real Mexico the one this art gallery guest hopes to visit in Oaxaca, where vendors sell colorful balloons in the zócalo, where the streets are lined with shops of artesania and where the cafés are crowded with language students having soulful discussions with their teachers?

Or is the the real Mexico the other Oaxaca — where government at all levels is marked by corruption, cronyism and crass disregard for the welfare of its citizens, where the average level of education is six years,  where three quarters of the population lives in “extreme poverty,” and where rural Indian communities continue to engage in tribal turf battles reaching back to pre-colonial times?

Real Mexico? These are all real Mexicos. And there are many others as well — the modern avenidas of Monterrey, the cosmopolitan chic of Mexico City and, the one known by most Americans, the self-contained resorts of the Pacific and Caribbean coasts.

Sadly, the Mexico most Mexicans must endure is a dysfunctional one, where government cannot — and often chooses not — to provide basic services, where narco-violence is on the rise and where the rule of law is something read about in textbooks not practiced in real life.

This is the Mexico that Laura Carlsen, director of the Americas Program at the Center For International Policy, labels on the Huffington Post as living in a state of impunity. Carlsen write in response to the April 27 murder of two human rights workers in a remote indigenous Oaxacan village, she frames the attack in the broader context of the state government’s history of not only siding with the powerful against the powerless but of actively repressing dissent.

Layers of impunity and injustice have covered crimes in Oaxaca for years,” writes Carlsen. Her list of examples is long — the shooting death of U.S. journalist Brad Will during the bloody 2006 teachers strike for which no one was ever convicted even the though shooters were video-taped; the continued iron-fisted arrogance of Oaxacan Gov. Ulises Ruiz Ortiz despite a ruling by the Mexican Supreme Court that he had committed human rights violations during that strike; and, now, the belief by human rights activists that paramilitary members sponsored by the government were behind the April 27 ambush outside San Juan Copala.

When the leaders of a society operate with corruption, arrogance and impunity, they create an atmosphere in which law has no meaning. As Carlsen puts it:

“Impunity is not merely a lack of justice and due punishment; it’s an incubator of violence and crime. When impunity becomes state policy, the rule of law crumbles. “

Although Carlsen is addressing Mexico’s most serious issues, her observation also applies to the quotidian illegal floutings of many Mexicans, who routinely run red lights, cheat on taxes, steal supplies from government contract jobs and see bureaucratic nepotism as a money-making opportunity.

I say these things even though I love so much about Mexico — its rich, blended culture; its amazingly diverse geography; its family centered communities; and, of course, its food (especially in Oaxaca). But I also love Mexico in the way I’d love a friend or relative with a substance-abuse problem — with sadness over his state, with anger his your self-destruction, and with hope that someone, some how, stages an intervention soon.

There is a Mexican saying, a dicho, that my first Spanish teacher taught me. It is apt here and goes like this: No hay mal que por bien no venga — “there is no bad that comes without a good.”

The real Mexico? That’s the one still waiting for the good to come.

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.

America’s National Pastime

Giants Baseball fans

Now, don’t get me wrong — I love overindulgence and have indulged overly and often throughout my life. I’ve always believed, though, that incessant feeding of the inner beast (corporal or emotional) also requires eventual self-correction. In other words, excess is a big “yes” and it comes with a bill that must be paid with the currency of “no.”

Sadly, many of us — and particularly Americans — just ain’t got no “no’s” when it comes to food and drink. Few places is that more on display than during a game of America’s favorite pastime, where what’s happening between the foul lines often seems secondary to what’s happening in the beer and pizza lines.

Last night, my wife and I saw a great game of baseball — Giants vs. Rockies with the Giants winning 2-0 — in arguably the country’s greatest ballpark. We took the boat from Marin, sat down low, saw the Little Panda homer and had a couple of beers and dogs. All good.

What was evident, though, from the moment we boarded the ferry in Larkspur until we returned hom five hours later was many people view a ballgame as simply an excuse to publicly drink and eat as much as possible.

Guys were buying beers and cocktails two or three at time on the ferry, enough for them to get well lit by the end of the hour-long bay-crossing. At the park, people around us ate non-stop for nearly three hours. I watched them inhale hot dogs and mounds of garlic fries, crunch down plates of cheesy nachos and bags of peanutes, then wash it all down with beer after beer after beer.

The result was not bad behavior — nothing more than the usual Bud and testosterone-fueled boisterousness at any Giants or Niners game — but bad bodies laden with fat, sugar and carbs.

The young couple in front of us (above) were in their 20s, but were already 40 to 50 pounds overweight apiece, poundage that surely increased during the game. Nearby seats will filled with “older” people — 40s and 50s — whose beer-bellied guts ballooned out like those of pregnant women, whose knees, aching from carrying the extra weight, wobbled on the stairs, and whose backs, pulled forward by years of too many pounds, were hunched and rounded. They looked and acted decades older than their age.

And, yet, young and old alike, they ate and ate and drank and drank throughout the game, saying “yes” to thousands of calories. Clearly, they had indulged their ravenous appetites for years outside of the ballpark, but just as clearly the game provided an opportunity — and an excuse wrapped in the bunting of the national pastime — to amp up that indulgence to a feverish pace.

Why should I care? For a couple of reasons.

First, the drinking among men in their 20s and 30s these days seems to outpace even that of my generation, and I always thought we had set a high benchmark for self-excess. Of course, I realize this observation is ridden with irony and smacks of inter-generational typicalness.

More importantly, though, I should care (and so should you) because Americans are eating themselves to death and costing our society billions in the health care needed to treat diseases cause by obesity.

During the whole contentious debate on U.S. health care reform, obesity has been called the elephant in the room — one most Americans don’t want to hear about because it would force an admission that a simple change in behavior would improve their own health (and their children’s) and lower the overall price all of us pay for medical care.

If America’s National Pastime was just saying “no” to overindulgence more often, we could start saying “yes” to health care reform. Yes, it is more complicated than that, but it’s a good place to start.

Walkin’ the Dog

What do you get when you combine the relentless self-absorption of Mill Valley with the cheery self-entitlement of dog owners? A cluster of dogs, people of all ages, wandering tourists and the standard assortment of Marin eclectics, all crammed into a corner of the downtown square on a foggy late afternoon for a cute dog contest. (See the slide show.)

Sponsored by Pacific National Bank, the contest attracted hundred of entries, including my mother-in-law, who entered her rambunctious terrier, Topper. A snapshot I made of him was displayed among with those of fellow contestants on the bank’s windows.

The winners — small and large — were chosen yesterday and the grand prizes (paintings of the winning dogs by a local artist) were secondary to the event itself. As dogs strained at leashes, reaching for tables of dog biscuits, chews and chocolates, owners socialized, strutted and, some too obviously, preened vicariously for their canines. Good fun.

As I meandered through the scene, I shot with my 17 mm held low to the ground, using the auto-focus to get down to the dog’s level. Some shots came out pretty well. Take a look.

New York Walkabout

Softball game in Central Park

One day. One lens. One great city. That’s a combination to live by — especially when it gives me the opportunity to resurrect one of my photographic roots: street photography, which I’ve always taken to mean as nothing fancier than walking around with a camera and shooting whatever comes my way.

My wife and I need a regular New York fix — museums, meat, martinis and, for me, a Manhattan walkabout. I indulged in the latter (after too much of the former) on a Sunday afternoon. Starting at the southern tip of Manhattan, I strolled Battery Park amid a glut of other tourists, circumnavigated the Staten Island Ferry Terminal, walked up to Wall Street to Trinity Church and then caught an uptown train to Midtown for a B&H break, and finally onto Central Park.

I only took two lenses to New York –a 50 1.4 for nighttime and 17-35 2.8 for everything else. This is part of a discipline I’m trying to adhere to of carrying less and looking more. I had only the wide zoom for the walkabout and, I’ll think you agree, it served me well. (Full gallery here.)

I loved the freedom of almost no gear and the demands it placed on me to move and adjust. Instead of bringing the picture to me, as a big fat bag of lenses can do, I had to go the picture. I also had speed. For those of you who jump to the gallery, look at the wedding shot. It was a turn and shoot, over in a 25oth moment. One lens, ready to go, makes that possible.

These days, as I chase assignments, try to learn technical skills others learned long ago, and spend hours at the computer doing high-rezzes and cataloging, it’s easy to forget the joy simple photography brings — the frame being filled, the captured moment, the image preserved. These were the thrills that drew me to photography originally.

A photo walkabout on a sunny New York Sunday does wonders to refresh the eye, lighten the head and remind me, again and again, of the wonders of photography.

Click here the images (and a few choice New York quotes). I hope you enjoy seeing them as much as I did making them.

Play Time

Work, work, work. Everyone’s worried about it. There’s either too much or — for many photographers and writers these days — too little. The best way I’ve found to beat back the anxiety beast is to pick up a camera and shoot. Making pictures is what got me started, and making pictures is what keeps me going. That’s why I love any opportunity to just play with the camera.

I had the chance to do just that last week when family came to visit from Paris and Lost Angeles. After a couple days of doing the tourist thing, we gathered one morning at my studio with bags full of colorful hats and scarves, and spend a fun couple of hours dressing up and being silly.

The one child in the group — Vanessa, 4 — tired of the fun before the adults, which says something about the need we grownups have to let loose the inner child more often.

Above is Vanessa and my mother-in-law, Deborah. (The hat became Vanessa’s favorite and she’s considering, as much as a 4-year-old can, of changing her middle name to Rose.). Below is Vanessa and her mom, Karina.

Pobre Mexico

A few days ago the Wall Street Journal published a lengthy story about the ominous criminal, political and social conditions in Mexico that have combined to degrade civil society in many parts of the country to the brink of public disorder.

Fueling this collapse are two evils — the ravenous appetite of the narco cartels for control of the border, of law enforcement and of the proverbial hearts and minds of Mexico’s impoverished citizens; and the endemic, ubiquitous and persistent corruption of government on all levels.

The Journal piece focused on the implications for the United States should the rule of law fail in Mexico. It quoted a high-ranking official in the country’s current ruling party, the PAN:

“The Mexican state is in danger. We are not yet a failed state, but if we don’t take action soon, we will become one very soon.”

For me, it’s more personal. I have good friends — Mexicans and Americans — who live there. I have a house in Oaxaca, Mexico’s most beautiful state and also its poorest. I have seen the country’s working people, through resilient desire and endless effort, carve out good lives for themselves amid a system that favors the wealthy, the connected and the corrupt. And, sadly, I have witnessed well-off people I considered friends express disdain for the poor and for the creation of a society of laws. They are, after all, the beneficiaries of the current system.

I don’t cry easily. The scar tissue laid on during 20 years of daily journalism usually keeps the tears in check. But these days Mexico makes me cry.

In the fall of 2006 I stood in the zócalo, the main square, of Oaxaca – a place I love, where I got married, where I built a house on the far end of a dirt road – and watched a battered TV play a video of the day state police rousted striking public school teachers from the square. I watched the rise and fall of batons on makeshift shelters. I saw the march of heavy boots through darkened streets. Fires burned. Rocks flew. The camera shook. Above all, I heard the sound of helicopters, which police used to fling canisters of tear gas into the crowds below.

I cried right there as the video played. A woman next to me, dressed in the traditional apron of a southern Mexican housewife, saw me, an aging gringo journalist laden with camera gear, and said, “Que triste. Que triste.” How sad. How sad.

A few days later, local thugs — some say off-duty cops — opened fire on a protest march, killing freelance American journalist Brad Will. (Here’s a picture — not mine — of the shooting.)

The resulting international outrage — far beyond any that accompanied the earlier deaths of dozens of Oaxacans — prompted the federal government to send troops into the city restore order.

More than two years later, nothing has changed for the better in Oaxaca. The economy, highly dependent on tourism, has yet to recover. The governor who attacked the striking teachers remains in power. The leaders of the strike are jailed. The killers of Brad Will are free. (The photo at the top of the post is from an anniversary march in Oaxaca’s main square two years after the 2006 attacks.)

Multiply this one incident — a strike, a shooting, a disregard by the authorities for even the facade of justice — throughout the country and amplify it along the drug-trafficking lanes in the border cities and you begin to get grasp of the severity of the challenges Mexico faces. Here’s one fact: 6,000 people were killed in Mexico last year in drug-related violence. The U.S. dead in Iraq for six years of war is 4,200.

Perhaps you wonder why you should care about what happens in Mexico. After all, aren’t the beaches in Baja still beautiful and the pina coladas in Cancun just as tasty? De veras, they are. But Mexico is much more than an American playground.

First, it is also, as the Journal points out, the largest U.S. trading partner and with our economy already on life support we don’t need to lose our best customer.

Second, if you think having more than 4 million undocumented Mexican immigrants living in the United States is troublesome, then imagine the immigration pressure on the border should the Mexican government collapse. Says the Journal:

“It has 100 million people on the southern doorstep of the U.S., meaning any serious instability would flood the U.S. with refugees.”

Finally, there is morality. What is happening in Mexico is simply wrong. It is wrong to oppress the poor so the wealthy can prosper. It is wrong to deny people jobs because they belong to an opposing political party. It is wrong to glorify crime and drug use. And, it is wrong to kill journalists. (Read this report, or this one, or this one from the Committee to Protect Journalists.)

Poor Mexico. I cry for you. I wish I could do more.

Advice in a Storm

I have, to paraphrase Blanche Dubois, always benefited from the kindness of strangers. By this I mean I have had many guides — good people who, through advice, action or simply mannerism, provided me with a way forward when I could not see one and anchored me against the storms to which I have always been unwisely drawn.

One of the most important of these people was Fran Ortiz, a photographer with the “old” San Francisco Examiner who taught me the principles of photojournalism at San Francisco State and, later, encouraged me to pursue a career in it. I took half of that advice — I kept the “journalism,” but dropped the “photo.” Now, I am trying to reunite them in some form.

Fran was a man of immense visual talent, but what made him such an accomplished photographer were his patience, gentility and humor, qualities that enabled him to insert himself (and his camera) into the lives of his subjects so seamlessly.

As a teacher, Fran was persistent in pushing us toward excellence. He taught me how to read a contact sheet to understand how I shot, how I moved through a scene or interacted with the person I was shooting. One frame, he would say, says little about the photographer. The entire shoot reveals his technique, personality, strengths and weaknesses. The same observations apply today on a screenful of images.

He told us to get closer, to move in, to be amid the action not apart from it, and to get in front of people — faces, not asses, he would say. These techniques were all part of Fran’s belief that, as Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer Kim Komenich said in this tribute: “Fran realized a photo should be made and not ‘taken.’ He based his entire way of seeing on the idea that the negative is the score and the print is the performance.”

Made not taken. I try to judge my own work by that standard and still fall far too short far too often.

One of the best times to make pictures, Fran said, was in the worst of weather. When the weather gets bad, grab the camera and head out, he would tell us in class. During these last few days of heavy (and welcome) Northern California rain, I’ve heard Fran’s voice in my head quite often.

The shot above — San Francisco under a storm — is my response. I like it, but I keep wondering how Fran would tell me to improve it. (Take a bigger look.)

Frosty Vignette

It’s been cold here in Marin — well, California cold, meaning below 40 at night. Yesterday, morning brought a crunchy layer of white frost over the deck, a coating, that with the cool-blue, pre-sunrise light, made for a nice picture.

The scene also illustrates a continuing issue with my D3, a camera I otherwise love. It vignettes most of my lenses when they are wide open and have a hood on them — which for me is often. This is shot with 28-70mm, 2.8 Nikon, a crispy sharp lens known as the Beast. At 2.8 with a hood, it vignettes on the D3, as does my 70-200mm VR (even without the hood) and my 17-35mm, 2.8. This didn’t happen with my D2Xs.

For this kind of shot, I don’t mind the vignette, but for editorial work — my bread and butter, it’s a pain and not something art directors want. I have to spend time Photoshopping it out. Any suggestions (other than switch to Canon or stop down?)