On the Job: David Harris, Honestly

David Harris

I made this photo of David Harris, the writer, onetime anti-war activist and ex-husband of singer Joan Baez, a couple of years ago, but it never saw the light of day. I was on assignment for Marin Magazine, which used a different frame (see the story and photo here.)

I came across this shot again while compressing the archives (a weekly task) and it made me think of meeting Harris.  He was an iconic and heroic figure in my youth — a former Stanford student body president who made a stand against the Vietnam War by refusing the draft and doing prison time for it, and the guy who married the most luscious chanteuse of the day in an era when politically-minded folk singers were considered hot.

David Harrs outside of his Mill Valley homeFour decades later when I met Harris in his Mill Valley home I was a bit intimidated and hoped I could make a picture worthy of my opinion of him, which when I left 45 minutes later I wasn’t sure I had (but I was even more self-critical in those days than I am now — something those who know me well might find hard to believe).

A couple of months later, the magazine chose one image and I worked up another (the one at left) for my book.  I filed away the rest.

As I culled the shoot further today for archiving, I began to really like this frame. Harris seems patient, aware of my presence, but also awaiting my departure. It’s a moment in between. There’s no subterfuge, no pretense of me not being there. It seems to be an honest photo and, increasingly, that’s all I want to make.


Here’s Harris in his own words about what happened to him in the 1960s:

“If you were a young man in the United States in 1966, you had the option of being John Wayne in “The Sands of Iwo Jima” or John Wayne in “The Sands of Iwo Jima” or John Wayne in “The Sands of Iwo Jima.”

Read more if Harris’ recollection here or read a People magazine profile of him about his post-Baez marriage to late New York Times reporter Lacey Fosburgh.

On the Job: Cancer

CT scan at Marin Cancer Institute

You’ve got cancer. You’ve got several bags of toxic chemicals connected to your body, hoping the chemo kills the tumors. Or, you’re lying beneath a huge X-ray machine, whose beams are burning the cancer out of you. In the middle of this a photographer approaches and asks if he can take your picture.

Why not? you think, so you say yes. He does, and a few weeks later there you are in a local magazine illustrating a story about the hospital where you’re being treated.

This is much of what I do — enter other people’s lives just long enough to tell a story (or, more accurately, a small moment of a story). I’m always surprised and forever in debt to those who grant me entrance, even when their  lives might not be going particularly well in one way or another.

The inside-out view of CT scan machine above and the strip of photos below were part of a story in Marin Magazine about the Marin Cancer Institute and its director, Dr. Francine Halberg, who is shown below talking with colleagues.

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On the Job: The Faces of Giving

Tina and Bill Noble

Tina and Bill Noble

One of the things I miss about journalism is the serendipity of encountering people who, through their strength of character in the face of adversity, remind me of my own good fortune. It’s called perspective, and you can never have too much of it.

For the current issue of Marin Magazine I had the opportunity to photograph a number of people — and write about a couple of them — who have benefited from the kindness of others in their journeys to overcome life’s adversities.

Tika Hick

Tika Hick and Indie

The most moving of these moments occurred when I met the people you see here — Tina and Bill Noble, above, and Tina Hick and her son, Indie, left. All of them are dealing with loss, one in a very intimate way and the other in tragically public manner.

Tina Noble is only 60 and in the latter stages of Alzheimer’s, which she was diagnosed with five years ago. Bill, her husband of nearly four decades, cares for her in their San Anselmo home. Hers is a life of diminishing capacity; his is one of increasing devotion. It is a poignant equation.  After I photographed them on their living room couch, I sat in my car and cried. How many of us are capable of the unqualified love Bill demonstrates daily toward Tina? Am I? Are you?

Tika Hick’s story is more public. A virulent cancer had attacked her. In July, a week before she was to undergo a double mastectomy, she traveled to Maui with her partner, David Potts, and their infant son, Indigo. In a horrific accident, Potts was sucked into a blowhole, dragged out to sea and never seen again. Now, Hick’s life is one of tenuous recovery, one so emotionally fragile that even the presence of a photographer in her small garden can fuel the sadness and bring more tears.

Sad stories, indeed, but also hopeful ones because within them are other stories of kindness, of organizations like Senior Access that benefit couples like the Nobles and of personal giving that supports someone like Tika Hick.

In addition to the Nobles and Hick I photographed four other people. You can see their photos below. Here are summaries of their stories and the organizations that helped them:

* Stephen Levine, who turned to Hospice by The Bay in Marin County when his wife of 24 years, Pam, was dying.

* Mayra Moncado, who learned from the Women’s Initiative how to make her Fairfax salon business a success.

* Pashia Lord, a Marin City mom who found a positive direction through the Performing Stars of Marin arts group.

* Sheldon Playdle, a San Luis Obispo college student (and possible future bio-tech executive) whose path to higher education was paved in part by 10,000 Degrees.

Here’s the full package in Marin Magazine. My test on Tina and Bill Noble follows:

“Why did I get Alzheimer’s? Why me? And how did I get it? I’m so young—just fifty-five.”

Tina Noble wrote those words five years ago, just after being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Today, the former college professor with a Ph.D. in anthropology lives under the 24-hour care of her husband of nearly 40 years, Bill, a retired naturalist.

When Tina does leave the couple’s San Anselmo home, it’s usually to spend the day at The Club, a Senior Access program for people with memory impairment.

“It’s a beautiful place way up on top of the hills in Terra Linda. Sunny. Open,” says Bill. “There is a school next door so there’s the wonderful chatter of young kids all the time. There are lots of interns and aides and resource people. They do everything from elder yoga to having performers of various kinds come in. It’s delightful.”

More than 5 million Americans have Alzheimer’s and nearly 15 million others perform roles like Bill Noble’s, caring for family or friends. Senior Access recently opened another day care center in Belvedere to meet the rising demand in Marin.

Bill and Tina’s daughter, Wren, a graduate student in photography, has been documenting her mother’s illness. You can see her pictures here.

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On the Job: Johnny Heineken

Having the name Johnny Heineken is cool enough, but add in good looks, golden locks, an engineering degree and a world championship in kitesurfing then you’ve got more cool going for you than most 23-year-olds might deserve. Luckily, Johnny Heineken is as laid back as he looks and fun to photograph.

Here he is in the studio in San Rafael during a shoot for Marin Magazine. I’m sharing this wider shot so you can get see  how much of what my wife Johnny Heinekensometimes calls “photo crap” — i.e., gear — is involved in making what becomes a simple white background image when printed. Here there are five lights, three of which you can see and two others behind the black foam boards pointed at the background.

I adjusted the lights several times during this shoot depending on where Johnny held his kitesurfing board (made by Mikes Lab in El Sobrante) in order to keep shadows off his face.

As I messed with technical stuff, Johnny chatted with writer Mimi Towle, who, among other things, learned three key facts about Heineken:

1. Johnny’s favorite drink is a Lagunitas at the Silver Peso in Larkspur.  “I can skate there and walk home.”

2. His favorite pizza? Stefano’s chicken pesto.

3. And, yes, his last name is connected to that Dutch beer company.

Here’s the whole interview. And on the left is how the final shot appeared in the October issue of the magazine.

On the Job: The Ranch, Redux

Mike and Sally Gale, Chileno Valley Ranch

One reason I like hanging out with ranchers is the simplicity of what they do: Raise animals, then sell them to the rest of us as food. As a basic business model, it can’t be beat conceptually.

Of course, there’s nothing simple about ranching these days. There’s the ever-rising costs of grain and land and gas. There’s the mega-ranches driving down milk and beef prices so low that smaller ranchers are cashing in good grassland for condo developments. And, there’s the work, the seven-day, crack-of-dawn-t0-last-light, never-ending work, a list of to-do’s that runs longer than the barbed wire around a 40-acre plot.

That means that family ranchers aren’t simple people either anymore. In order to have something more left at year’s end than a promise of another 365 days ahead like the ones just finished, something they can leave their kids with the hope that they’ll stay on the land, many small ranchers are now applying the same effort to expanding their businesses, eliminating the middleman and connecting with consumers as they always have to breeding their herds, compiling their silage and keeping the barn cats happy.

Dairymen are making cheese. Cattlemen are growing organic apples. Ranching families are leasing and to urban escapees who want to try their hands at something new, such as raising water buffalo in order to make mozzarella.

Marin County is a national leader in this sort of agri-innovation and for the current issue of Marin Magazine I had the opportunity to illustrate a story – reported and written by Inverness journalist Jacoba Charles – about how four local families are changing the concept of ranching.

In the course of shooting on the different ranches I got licked by a water buffalo (not so bad), had my index fingered suckled by heifer (more fun than I should admit) and more than once knelt in something soft and warm (hey, it’s organic).

Here are snapshots of the four shoots (the full story is here):

* Mike and Sally Gale’s ranch is on Chileno Valley Road, one of West Marin’s prettiest roads, undulates over 600 acres, plenty of room for the Black Angus cattle they raise and sell directly, butchered and freezer-ready, to grass-fed beef lovers. Since returning to Marin in 1993, the Gales have expanded the offerings of the Chileno Valley Ranch to pork, eggs and organic apples, pears and more.

* Bob Giacomini has been raising Holsteins in Point Reyes Station for more than 50 years, and is part of a sprawling farm family whose Swiss-Italian roots extend back 100 years in Marin and Sonoma counties. Ten years ago, Giacomini’s four daughters – Karen, Diana, Lynn and Jill – launched the Point Reyes Farmstead Cheese Company. Now, they’ve added The Fork at Point Reyes, a cooking school and event space located dab smack in the middle of the family’s 700-acre ranch overlooking Tomales Bay.

* What the Giacominis are to Point Reyes, meaning iconic and ubiquitous in name, the Lafranchis are to Nicasio. Fredolino Lafranchi, also a Swiss immigrant, began ranching in Nicasio in 1919. Today, his grandchildren still make milk, although now it’s organic, and use it as the base for a line of farmstead cheeses sold through their new Nicasio Valley Cheese Company.  “We looked on it as a chance to allow the ranch to continue, because the dairy business has been really hard for the last 10 years,” said Rick Lafranchi.

* Craig Ramini has traded in the high-tech life of Silicon Valley and software consulting for the decidedly retro world of Tomales and cheese-making. Ramini leases 25 acres from longtime rancher Al Poncia that he’s using to raise Asian water buffalo, whose milk he’ll turn into mozzarella di bufala and sell under the name Ramini Mozzarella. Ramini is living out a new dream and Poncia is finding a way to sustain his family ranch.

Here’s what Poncia told the Marin IJ earlier this year in a story about Ramini’s plans:

“A long time ago, sometime in the late ’60s to mid-’70s, someone who was pre-eminent in the dairy business told me, ‘Al, agriculture in Marin County is dead.’ But I wanted my chance. And I’ve had it. And luckily, because we’ve held on up here, I’m now able to provide other people with that opportunity — including my son, who is working very hard with his grass-fed beef operation (Stemple Creek Ranch).

“And now Craig’s come along with his boutique cheesemaking plans, and I think that fits into where Marin, Sonoma and the whole Bay Area’s agriculture is going,” said Poncia, whose grandfather purchased his ranch in 1901. “Our ranch is now producing diversified products for a local market, which is something we haven’t been able to do for quite some years.”

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On the Job: Editors’ Choice Cover

Surfer at Rodeo Beach

The August issue of Marin Magazine contains its annual Editors’ Choice package, a best-of-Marin feature that this year listed 101 of the staff’s favorite things about Marin County.

The list ranged from Mount Tam to the Buck Institute to great burgers and beaches. I shot almost all the images for the package, about 40 in all, and was thrilled when one of the shots was chosen for cover — a silhouette of a surfer walking along Rodeo Beach at Fort Cronkhite.

I made many of the images outdoors, relying on the beauty of Marin and an early wake-up call (and no fog) to get the photos I wanted. The Mt. Tam and Buck Institute photos below are in that category.

Many of the shots involved food. Some of those I shot in natural light, like the ahi tuna sandwich below at the Buckeye Roadhouse in Mill Valley, using only a reflector and a tripod, and others I lit, like the colorful drinks on the porch at Cavallo Point in Sausalito.

The entire package is online here.

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On the Job: The Architect

Craig Hartman, architect, Skidmore Owings & Merrill

Much of the photography I do for Marin Magazine involves showing up at someone’s office, studio or home not knowing what I’m going to find there and then having a half hour or so to make a picture.

When I first returned to photography seven years ago after a long stint as an editor and writer, these sorts of assignments were nerve-wracking. My technical skills were weak, and I’d spend so much time getting the lighting right — or at least acceptable — that I had little time left over to connect with the person I was shooting.

It’s different now. I’ve mastered a few basic techniques and have come to love opening the different surprise package that each location offers. With a couple of small lights, some stands and a boom, I can make almost anything work. I’m not Annie, but I get the job done and have fun doing it. And, importantly, I no longer let the gear eat up the short time I have to establish a rapport with whomever is in front of my lens.

I enjoy shooting in corporate offices because they often have a lot of space and therefore give me several choices for a location. When I arrived a while back at the Skidmore Owings & Merrill architectural offices in downtown San Francisco I found my spot as soon as I stepped off the elevator.

The reception area was spacious, already nicely lit and featured two large wooden models of buildings the firm had designed — and one of them (on the right) was the Cathedral of Christ the Light in Oakland, whose designer was the man I was there to photograph, Craig Hartman, who also designed the International Terminal at the San Francisco airport. It was perfect.

I usually have to set my lights before my subject shows up, and I did that here — nothing more than a small light to the background on the right and a round softbox hung off a boom over a bench.

Hartman arrived about 10 minutes later, wearing a deep blue jacket I knew would photograph well. He was relaxed and easy to work with. I shot for a short time, changing lenses and position a couple of times and it was over. I had been in the building for 30 minutes.

Here’s the shot the magazine used. I prefer the one above.

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.

On the Job: Photojournalist for a Day

Dominican gubernatorial debate

I’ve been out of the newsroom for 10 years now, and even when a collision of events produces a yearning for the stain of ink and the wretch of deadline, I don’t miss newspapering. And even though I spent 22 years as a working journalist and another three dissecting the dysfunctionality of newsrooms, I’m not sure I really miss journalism either — but the jury’s still out on that one.

What I do miss, though, is covering breaking news (which is not necessarily the same as doing journalism).

Even before 24-hour cable, the infinite news hole of the Internet, and the insta-twitterness of today’s reporting, news was all about the now. It was a story told in a language dominated by Five W’s and a Big D (for deadline). It happened fast, was reported faster, written quicker still, and often forgotten in the next news cycle. If you could focus on the now and forget the later, you could thrive in the world of breaking news — as I did.

I’ve long thought that the character traits needed to do deadline news are in conflict with those that make us better human beings — impatience, aggressiveness, competitiveness, and a relentless search to find the negative in almost any situation, to name a few of the former. That’s why journalism is so complicated: On the one hand it attracts many people whose moral compass guides them toward deep, insightful stories that can right society’s wrongs, but on the other it rewards more frequently people who can feed the daily beast — now the minute-by-minute beast — with headlines designed to grab attention today without regard for the impact they may have tomorrow.

Still, I confess to occasionally missing the rush of big news events. They are, despite the blase facade adopted by the reporters and photographers who cover them, exciting. There is tension, there is conflict, there is urgency and there is a hierarchy of importance of the players involved — at the center the newsmakers, on the rim the audience, and in the middle the media.

I got to return to that space one evening in October at Dominican University in San Rafael, which was hosting the third of three debates between California gubernatorial candidates Meg Whitman and Jerry Brown (who won the election three weeks later). For a few hours I was inside the ropes, shooting the crowd, the candidates and the debate. My deadline for Marin Magazine was the next morning, so I wasn’t filing as the story unfolded like most of those in the pressroom, but it was enough of a crunch to get the adrenaline pumping.

I’m not confusing the fun I had that night with the value of that type of reporting, which is mostly worthless to the average person. Inches upon inches of words and video upon video of yadda-yadda from each candidate and from reporters and pundits keeping score. Some call it horse-race journalism, and that’s apt. I’m not defending the practice; I’m just saying it’s a thrill to ride the horse now and then.

* Slideshow of my pictures.

* Marin Magazine story.

Tom Brokaw

On the Job: Covering the Waterfront

Sausalito waterfront

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

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

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

A few lessons I learned during those outings:

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

One other thing (something from my journalism days):

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

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

On the Job: Elvis the Cop

Bill Palmini, Elvis the cop

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

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

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

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

On the Job: The Prom Queen

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

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

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

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

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

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: “Mine” vs. “Theirs”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This one is mine.

On the Job: Marin Magazine Cover

Marin Magazine February 2010 cover

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

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

The text I wrote to accompany the pictures is below.

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


Marin Views (text from magazine)

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

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

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

–Tim Porter

On the Job: Austin de Lone

Austin de Lone

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

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

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

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

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

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

On the Job: Tim Hockenberry

Tim Hockenberry

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

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

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

On the Job: Going With the Wind

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

The Stones

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

California Dreamin’ (Marin County style)

Novato and Fairfax theaters

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

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

Thanks for looking.


On the Job: Scientists

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

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

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

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

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

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

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