A Community Blooms

Canal Community Garden, San Rafael

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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On the Job: Cleaning Up Your Mess

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

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

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

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

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

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Spring Training with Style

Arizona Biltmore

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

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

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

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

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

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On the Job: Seniors for Peace

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Seniors for Peace, Mill Valley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Earlier, in the 2008 story, Usher said,

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

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

Seniors for Peace, The Redwoods, Mill Valley

Simplicity

Stinson Beach

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is me falling on my sword. Ouch.

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

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

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

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

Simple.

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

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

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

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

 

On the Job: Brenda Chapman, Oscar Winner

Brenda Chapman, Brave

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

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

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

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

Congratulations to Brenda.

On the Job: Claudia Cowan, Fox News

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

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

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

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

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

Working with pros makes me look even more professional.

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

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Finding Photography

Reina Lopez, San Bartolo, Luis Lopez

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Zaachila, Oaxaca, Mexico

Scenes from the Ranch

Chileno Valley Ranch, Mike Gale and Sally Gale

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

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

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

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On The Job: Christmas Lights

Christmas lights

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

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

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

Merry Christmas, all.

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On the Job: The Garden in the Canal

Mosaic artist Rachel Rodi, right, helps volunteer Joanne Gordon at the the new Canal Community Garden

Far out on the edge of the Canal, past the blocks crammed corner-to-corner with parked cars, beyond the rows of sagging apartment houses packed with immigrants, on the other side of the new Mi Pueblo grocery, where Mexicans and Guatemalans and Salvordorans shop for sheets of chicharron, fat plugs of quesillo and other foods that make home seem less distant, far the from busy intersection where broad-backed men line up for day labor, not near any of those things, but on the long, low flat of fill that stretches to the Bay and one day will hold some brand of box store if the city fathers have their way but for today, at least, sits empty, they’re building a garden.

Canal Community Garden map

The Canal Community Garden, located on a quarter-acre of city land at Bellam Boulevard and Windward Way, is an array of 5-foot-by-10-foot, redwood-rimmed beds that, come next year, will abound with organic, herbs, fruits, vegetables and flowers, each plot the labor of someone whose desire to extract bounty from the land overcame the unlikelihood that they’d ever be able to do it in a place as infertile as the Canal.

Work on the garden began in September. Seeds go in the soil in February. When the first harvest comes, the urban farmers and gardeners of the Canal should thank The Trust for Public Land and the Canal Alliance for making it happen.

I was there on Saturday, talking with a Philip Vitale of the Trust for Public Land, the project manager. He filled me in: a budget of more than $600,000; 92 garden plots of various sizes; a greenhouse for sprouting; a storage shed with lockers; a central space for classes and education; and, centering it all, a circular mosaic celebrating the overlap of art, food and community.

The mosaic came together while I watched. Oakland artist Rachel Rodi, the designer, and a half-dozen other women worked shoulder-to-should around a rectangular table, cutting sheets of blue, purple and green tile into shards of many shapes, laying beads of glue on the pieces and inserting them into the unfinished mosaic. It was a jigsaw puzzle with a twist: There were no pieces until someone made them.

The Canal Community Garden is the successor to one that was lost to the expansion of the Pickleweed Community Center in 2005. Since then, said Vitale, The Trust for Public Land has worked on a replacement. Partnering with the Canal Alliance, the neighborhood’s primary social service and advocacy organization, was key to the success of the project and ensures ongoing management of the garden, he said.

Daniel Werner, an AmeriCorps VISTA staffer on loan to Canal Alliance, is the garden coordinator. (To learn more about the garden or to apply for a plot, contact Werner at danielw@canalalliance.org, 415-306-0428.

I showed up at the garden on Saturday to scratch an itch, one that’s festered in the years I’ve been out newspaper journalism — a desire to feel the connection to community I felt when I first fell into photojournalism and, then, reporting.

As many did, I wandered into journalism by accident, but once there found enchantment and intrigue in the stories of ordinary people. I began as a photographer and loved capturing the faces of people with the camera. When I started writing, I became addicted to the interview, the act of questioning and asking why and how and who. I was nosy and I guess was needy and the conversation satisfied both.

Eventually, I let many of those things slip away. I managed people instead of photographing them. I wrote memos instead of stories. I looked far ahead and missed what was in front of me. I’d succeeded in the business of journalism, but I’d stopped honoring the passion that brought me to it in the first place.

Now, I’m, if not wiser, certainly older. I don’t confuse ambition with passion any longer. I recognize the difference between what I must do and what I love to do. I admire more the great storytellers, visual and written, and the work they do to bring those stories to us. And, perhaps with some regret – because we all have just a little, don’t we? – I wish I had made more of an effort to become one of them.

I didn’t, though, so I do this – stop by an empty city lot on a cold fall afternoon to meet a group of good-minded people who are building a garden, an enterprise that enriches the neighborhood, elevates the  common welfare and rewards them with the individual satisfaction. I take some pictures, I ask a few questions, I find a small story and I share it. It is journalism with the smallest “J” possible. Not hard-hitting. Not world-changing. Not much of anything really other than a thin slice of truth, a small dollop of daily life, and a healthy reminder to myself that this is who I once was – and who I can be again.

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On the Job: Children of the Canal

Monica Rivera, Canal Alliance

Immigration is not an abstraction. Beyond the policy debate and political posturing are real people who make their way to the United States in search of opportunity, their bodies ready to work, their minds intent on success and their hearts filled with dreams of better lives for their children.

Four years ago, I spoke with some of those children, boys and girls — sons and daughters of immigrants from Mexico and Central America — enrolled in a Canal Alliance education program about their future. Their stories and their pictures ran in Marin Magazine under the headline “Sueños de Niños,” dreams of children. Recently, I talked with six of them again, all young women now, some in high school, some in college, one already a mother. Their dreams have changed and so have they.

Here are their stories from 2012.

Here are their stories from 2008.

The photos below are from this year. Inset into each is the photo from 2008.

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On the Job: The Survivor

On April 14 the Low Speed Chase, a 38-foot yacht named after the infamous televised police pursuit of O.J. Simpson, set off from San Francisco Bay for the Farallones Islands, a  jagged outcropping of rock  27 miles out in the Pacific, as part of the annual Full Crew Farallones Race, an and out-and-back competition known to test the  skills of even the most experienced sailors.

Eight souls were aboard the Low Speed Chase. Three returned to shore alive. The death of the other five crew members — one of the worse U.S. yachting tragedies — and the confluence of massive seas and miniscule course miscalculations that led to the foundering of the Low Speed Chase is well documented. (See a video of ocean conditions at the time). What was originally  missing were the personal stories of those who survived, plucked from the sea and the shoals of the Farallones to sail another day.

That gap was filled in part by Bryan Chong, one of the three survivors. The 38-year-old Tiburon father and tech company vice president first told his story to Latitude 38, the voice of the Bay Area yachting community, and later, more extensively, to writer Jennifer Woodlief, an investigative sports reporter, author and former Sports Illustrated scribe.

Woodlief, who also lives in Tiburon, used Chong’s account at the heart of her 6,000-word accounting of the tragedy, which Marin Magazine published in two parts in its October and November 2012 issues. (Part 1, Part 2).

I acted as photo editor on the story, getting shots made by San Francisco Chronicle photographer Brant Ward from Polaris, by the U.S. Coast Guard and by Sophie Webb, a Farallones researcher who was on the island and witnessed the  Coast Guard Rescue of the survivors.

I also photographed Chong on a gray, damp August morning at the San Francisco Yacht Club in Belvedere, making the photo you see here. Woodlief, who was very pregnant at the time with her fourth child, wrangled a light-stand for me as we all stood on the wobbly dock.
In the 30 minutes we were together, Chong was relaxed and at ease. We didn’t talk about crash. I didn’t ask him what thoughts were in his head when he was in awash in the ocean. Woodlief did, though, and here is part of her account:

“Bryan experience the the helpless sensation of losing his breath while accidentally swallowing mouthfuls of water. He thought about giving up, he thought about his wife and baby son. … Time after time Bryan pulled himself up to safety just as waves pitched over him and hurled him backward, locking him underwater. ‘It was so steep and the waves kept hitting me,’ he says. ‘It was a constant struggle to get on the rocks.’

Read the whole story.

Witnesses to War

A mobile rebel unit with a truck-mounted gun moves through rebel-held streets. Syria.

With Hamas and Israel at it again, I’m reminded that there has been conflict in the Middle East all of my life. The killing and the dying never ends. A wry joke during my newspaper days was that we could save the headline “Mideast Violence Continues” and use it as needed, which was often.

But there is nothing humorous about the cycle of bloodshed-truce-and-more-bloodshed between Israel and its Arab neighbors, nor about the now 18-month-old conflict in Syria.

Given the region’s history of continuous conflict of one form or another, it might be easy for we comfortable Americans to ignore the human suffering that is inevitable in such a world of relentless repression and aggression.

Thankfully, there are journalists who go physically where so few of us even want to venture emotionally. Below are links to recent work from photojournalists in the region.

* The Guardian published a set of images by freelancer Narciso Contreras from Aleppo, the center of the Syrian conflict.

* The Atlantic includes of Contreras’ work and that of other photographers in this extensive collection (48) of photos from Syria, published a week go. The magazine reminds us: “Syria’s horrific civil war continues. In some places, it has worsened.”

* The Guardian (again) a month published a set of photographs from Spanish freelancer Maysun vividly showing the human casualties in Syria. Warning: These are graphic images.

* The Guardian (yet again) streams photos from the new Israel-Hamas fighting. The fear or the people on both sides of the border is evident.

On the Job: The Music Man

John Goddard, Monroe Grisman, Gillian Grisman, at Sweetwater in Mill Valley.

Sweetwater, the resurrected music club in downtown Mill Valley, was its usual early evening scene — a Lululemon-clad smattering of late lunchers lingering in the outside patio, handsome families arriving for early dinners, clogging the entrance with strollers and dogs, and aging hipsters making their daily migration up the block from Peet’s as they transitioned their intake from caffeine to booze.

I was there to photograph John Goddard, who for 40 years was the proprietor of Village Music, the revered record store that closed a few years back, victim of Mill Valley’s morph from hippie haven to hedge fund heaven and, some say, last remaining vestige of a Marin County better known for its creative spirit than its stratospheric housing prices. John was coming with Monroe and Gillian Grisman, brother and sister, children of mandolinist (and Jerry Garcia collaborator) David Grisman, and makers of Village Music: Last of the Great Music Stores, a film that would debut at the Mill Valley Film Festival and about which Dan Jewett of Marin Magazine was writing a story.

I’d hoped to photograph the three of them on the patio with Sweetwater in the background. One look at the crowd told me that wasn’t going to happen. At minimum, an unfortunate incident with a weak-bladdered Golden Retriever a couple of years ago taught me never to leave lighting gear exposed in the presence of dogs.

Inside the front door, though,wrapping along one wall of Sweetwater’s small cafe, was a yellow banquette, its leatherette shiny and bright against the building’s red brick wall. There, in the corner, beneath a window was my spot.

Another lesson I’ve learned: Don’t ask permission. I told the hostess — politely — what I was doing and brought in a pack, a stand and a light, moved some tables out of the way, did a test shot and was ready in a couple of minutes.

Goddard and the Grismans showed shortly thereafter. Everyone knew them, so it took me a while to get them inside. I wanted to get this done because folks were filling the tables and I was losing my shooting space (and probably the patience of the waitresses).

Once they were seated, it went quickly. I made some safe shots first — as I always do to ensure I’ve got something — and then played with the window above them, changed lenses to the 17, climbed on a chair and made a few frames from above. My clambering either amused or frightened my subjects. I’m not sure which. But it resulted in this frame, my favorite from the day.

(Here’s the shot that ran in the magazine.)

 

On the Job: Red, White & Blue

American flag in Marin County

I just voted and am feeling more American than usual. To spread the democratic spirit — and to inspire your apathetic keister up off the couch if hasn’t voted yet — I offer this collection of stars and stripes, which I shot for Marin Magazine for its July issue.

You may be surprised, as I was, by how widely the flag is displayed here in one of the nation’s most notoriously liberal counties, although truthfully its does fly more frequently in the cul-de-sacs of surburban Novato and than in redwood canyons of hipster Mill Valley.

Flags are symbols, interpreted differently by each of us. For some the American flag signifies liberty, for others oppression. Four years ago, Barack Obama used its colors to communicate hope. This election, Mitt Romney wrapped his opposition in it.

In its earliest iterations the American flag represented individual freedom and collective self-determination. Freedom is now a politically charged word, hijacked by conservatives who wield it as a cudgel against those who question their values and sneered at by liberals who dismiss it as the refuge of small minds.

On this day, when we vote, something so many of the world’s people can’t do in a meaningful way, let’s embrace the flag as a symbol of opportunity — to make a choice, to live as we please, to speak our minds — something I hope we can all agree upon.

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On the Job: The Lemonade Girl

Vivienne Harr, lemonade stand

Now that we’re one day shy of the first day of Fall, I’m getting around to sharing some of the photos I made this Summer — and this is one of my favorites: Vivienne Harr, an 8-year-old Fairfax girl who set up a lemonade stand in a local park and with the help of her social media savvy dad, Eric Harr, has raised more than $30,000 (and counting) to combat child slavery.

Vivienne has drawn plenty of media attention. She’s as cute as they come, her organic mint-infused lemonade is tart and tasty, and her story is a compelling one: A photograph of two Nepalese children carrying heavy slabs of rock, taken by Marin photographer Lisa Kristine in her book Slavery, inspired young Vivienne to do something. She launched a web site (makeastandlemonade.com), opened her stand in Doc Edgar Park in Fairfax and set a goal of taking in $150,000 to be donated to Not For Sale, a anti-slavery organization. (How terrible is it that as this point of human history there is even a need for an “anti-slavery” group?)

Vivienne is still out there at the park in Fairfax if you want to donate (or you can skip the lemonade and use your credit card on her web site.) Or, connect with her on Twitter or Facebook.

One of the shots I made ran with this short feature in Marin Magazine.

On the Job: Teaching (and Learning)

Whenever I teach, as I’m doing this summer in a short class on action photography at The Image Flow in Mill Valley, I find two things to be the most challenging: Explaining to others what I do instinctively in a way they understand and not knowing what the students don’t know.

Blurred runner at Blackie's Pasture in TiburonThe first forces me to think in granular terms about what I do with the camera — and why. For example, one student asked me why I usually use ISO 400 as my base setting when most digital cameras have ISO settings lower than that. Well, I answered, somewhat lamely, it’s because I grew up on Tri-X, Kodak’s legendary  black-and-white film. It had an ASA of 400 and my earliest lessons about light and manual exposure were learned using that number as a base — and those lessons still work today. In other words, it’s a habit, albeit one that serves me well.

The second challenge is more difficult. What each student knows about photography in general and the intricacies of their own camera in particular varies widely.

Most, not surprisingly, came to photography in the digital age and with cameras so advanced and so automatic  that they skipped the need to studdy the basics of photography, so they have a poor understanding of the connections between light and exposure, between shutter speed and aperture, and between focal length and depth of field.

They all have inexpensive lenses that in a short twist of the barrel leap rom wide-angle to telephoto, so they’ve never had to master the physical art of moving through a scene with prime lenses in order to change the point of view or to get closer to or farther from a subject.

Because of these gaps, each time I attempt to explain something more advanced, such as capturing the fleetness of a runner with a pan or freezing the motion of boy on bike in a half-pipe, it opens the door to a more basic discussion about the principles behind the technique and where to find the buttons and dials on a particular brand of camera in order to get the technical stuff right.

For this reason, I learn along with my students. I learn about my own habits (good and bad), I learn how different types of cameras work (even their Nikons don’t function as mine does) and, most importantly, I learn I need patience in order to succeed — and that’s a lesson that applies to photography as well as teaching.

On the Job: The Stand-in

Nate Seltenrich, Oakland writer, inside Terrapin Crossroads

Hey, Tim, I’m often asked, what’s the secret to killer lighting? (Really, it happens all the time).

They’re thinking I’m going to say expensive Swedish strobes (got ‘em) or compact, go-anywhere Nikon speedlights (got those, too) or even a hand-painted, Avedonish backdrop like Annie uses (don’t have that).

John Truong, photographer, in front of the Lark Theater

Wrong. Wrong. And wronger.

What I tell them is this: The secret to killer lighting is a stand-in — someone to be in front of the camera while you fiddle with the power or feather the softbox or pile sandbags on the stands because you’re doing an outdoor shoot in gale-force winds.

Sometimes the stand-in can be an assistant, someone you’re actually paying, such as photographer John Truong, left, posing with the Lark Theater behind him in preparation for a shot of the movie-house’s owner (here’s the final shot).

Other times the stand-in might be a writer you’re on assignment with, such as Nate Seltenrich of Oakland, above, who occupied the velvet couch for me inside Terrapin Crossroads in San Rafael while we waited for Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh and his wife, Jill. (Writers are generally less thrilled about standing in than assistants.)

Oftentimes, the stand-in might be a somewhat reluctant PR person (whom I won’t show for fear of losing future favor) or and even more reluctant spouse (ditto).

Who the stand-in is really doesn’t matter as long as they have the patience to hang in there until you get the lighting just right — that is, killer — so when the actual subject shows up (often someone with no patience whatsoever) you can make his or her picture straight off just like the professional you are.

 

On the Job: Bernice Baeza: 1943-2012

Bernice Baeza, photographed in April 2011 outside the Lark Theater in Larkspur for Marin Magazine.

Bernice Baeza was sticky, meaning you only had to meet her for a few minutes, like I did, and she’d stick in your mind for long time.

At least that’s how she was for me. I photographed Bernice in April 2011 outside the Lark Theater in Larkspur for Marin Magazine. The magazine was writing about her successful resurrection of the moribund movie-house into a thriving community center that not only showed first-run and classic movies, but filled its seats with Oscar parties, simulcasts of opera and London theater and a long list of other events. When we met, she had just undertaken a similar project with a shuttered movie theater in Novato.

Bernice died on July 21, of lung cancer, the paper said. Nothing could have surprised me more. Was she sick when I made this photograph? She certainly didn’t seem so — although a disease as relentlessly deadly as lung cancer surely had to have been at work in the background then.

My first impression of her on the April evening was how un-Marin she was. The way she stood, solid and occupying her ground. The way she spoke, gently but directly. The way she dressed, dark even on this warm Spring night. All said New York, not Marin.

We chatted as I fussed with the lights and waited for the sky to darken so I could get the colorful neon of the Lark just right in the background, and I learned she was indeed a New Yorker. I told her a story about incident in my misspent youth when I rolled a car on the thruway near her birthplace of Nyack. She smiled knowingly and I thought we had a bond.

But maybe not. Maybe that’s just how she made everyone feel, welcome and worthy. Whatever it was, she stuck. I wish I had known her better. (Her family is maintaining her Facebook page.)