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.)

On the Job: San Rafael Pacifics

Bud E. Luv sings the national anthem at Opening Day for the San Rafael Pacifics.

Bud E. Luv sings the national anthem at Opening Day for the San Rafael Pacifics.

The San Rafael Pacifics, an independent minor league baseball team, played its first game last night.  I was on hand at Albert Park in downtown San Rafael.

I needed a  picture for Marin Magazine, but since it was for the August issue so I wanted something from the scene and not from the action — and there was plenty of both — a couple of home runs from the home team, a duck mascot (Sir Francis the Drake), seats on the field, kids and families galore and a kitschy character singing the national anthem, Bud E. Luv (above).

The idea to renovate the old ball park (which seats 800) and use it for a summer baseball league was controversial. Neighbors worried about traffic, noise and rowdy fans. My studio is a block from the stadium, so I understood their concerns.

Based on what I saw last night, though, those worries were baseless. Parking was easy, the crowd was chill and despite a few opening day glitches (announcer Will Durst bowing out at the last minute, for example) all was under control.

I recommend a visit. The baseball is fun, the stadium is beyond intimate and the dogs are as good as those at AT&T. Now I want to go back and shoot some baseball.

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On the Job: A Painter

Greg Martin, Marin County painter and Marin Magazine cover contest winner

I had the opportunity this year to again photograph the winner of Marin Magazine’s annual cover contest. The winner, chosen from among more than 400 entries, was painter Greg Martin.

I photographed Greg in his studio, a basement space in his San Anselmo home. The studio is small, not more than than 10 x 20, and Greg is a big guy, what some would call a strapping lad. I squeezed a small strobe and umbrella against one wall, and let the light ricochet around the studio’s white walls and ceiling, producing a nice, soft look.

Greg’s artwork, which walks the line between whimsical and ethereal — a fun place to be — provided the backdrop. Later, I noticed he wore the same deep red Pelton’s Triumph T-shirt that he has in his bio photo for his website.

Greg was the main attraction at the magazine’s Open Studios’ party celebrating the finalists for the cover. Here are  some snapshots of him and some of the others. He has a show up at Gallery Bergelli in Larkspur (the opening is tonight.)

I enjoy photographing artists, especially painters because their studios and their painting supplies fascinate me (although Greg’s was a bit too clean for my taste). Here’s my post from a year ago about photographing the 2011 cover contest winner and a collection of other artist portraits.

Visit your local Marin artist this weekend (May 12-13) during Marin Open Studios. I’m showing my newest work at The Image Flow, 401 Miller Ave., in Mill Valley, from 11-6.

On the Job: Copita Margarita

Copita margarita, with Larry Mindel and Joanne Weir

Two of the things I love to photograph are people (of course) and food. Occasionally, I get the chance to do both at once.

That happened recently when Marin Magazine asked me to photograph restaurateur Larry Mindel and former Chez Panisse cook and and writer Joanne Weir, who have teamed up as owners of the new Sausalito Mexican restaurant, Copita.

The idea for Copita, which bills itself as a tequileria, came out of Weir’s book, Tequila: A Guide to Types, Flights, Cocktails, and Bites, so I also wanted a picture of what Weir calls her “perfect” margarita.

I photographed Mindel, Weir and the “perfect” margarita on a weekday afternoon at Poggio, Mindel’s Italian restaurant on Bridgeway in Sausalito. For the picture of them, I used a quiet back corner of the restaurant, a big front window for light and and the helping hands of a publicist to hold a reflector. For the margarita photograph, I used a small Nikon Speedlight and left plenty of space for the art director to lay in some type.  The lime wedge was Weir’s idea and it made the shot.

(For more of my food and restaurant photography, go here. And, don’t forget to buy my book: Organic Marin: Recipes from land to table.)

On the Job: Marin’s Tweeps

Marin Tweetup in San Rafael of Marin twitteres

Marin Tweetup of local tweeps at Aroma coffee shopPut 10 or 12 people in a dark coffee shop, add in a freelance writer, a magazine editor, a roomful of customers and a couple of homeless people in the back, and you’ve got a scene.

I show up with a big light, a step ladder and a lot of attitude, hoping I can herd all these cats in front of the camera long enough to make something to illustrate a story about Marin’s twitterati. Yep, this is a tweet-up and these are the tweeps of Marin.

I’d rather photograph 10 kids than 10 adults. The kids will pay attention to me, out of fear or curiosity or the simple habit of listening to adults, but the grown-ups won’t stay focused for more than 10 seconds at time. They chit-chat, they get bored, they fuss. And when you throw in the cell-phone-in-your-hand factor, they check email, texts and tweets.

That all means that this kind of shot is lot of fun. As I shot away using almost ridiculous exposures — 1 or 2 seconds to burn in the ambient light while hitting them with the strobe — there was lots of joking, which I pretended wasn’t directed at me. Hey, they were laughing with me, right?

The group shot was done in five minutes, but the editor also wanted some casual, non-posed shots, so I gathered several of the tweeps together in a “non-pose,” moved the light in above them, put the 17mm  on the camera and encouraged them to act it up as I shot. They did. And I did. The result is the vertical shot you see here, which ran full page in Marin Magazine as a section opener.

Thanks to Mimi Towle (@mimitowle) for organizing it and the tweeps: Sally Kuhlman (@Sally_K), Sarah Houghton (@TheLib), Suzanna Stinnett (@Brainmaker), Maria Benet (@Alembic), Toni Carreiro (@toniCarr) and Marilyn LoRusso (@fun_master).

And I’m @timporterphoto.

On the Job: The Threat of Rising Seas

Bike rider in Bothin Marsh at high tide

High tide already floods the bike path through Bothin Marsh in Mill Valley.

I wrote and photographed a piece for the current issue of Marin Magazine about the projected effects of climate change, most specifically sea-level rise, on Marin County.

Marin, like much of the San Francisco Bay Area and other parts of California, faces a wetter future. If current temperature and sea level trends continue through the century, routine tides could be as much as 55 inches higher than they are today  and even higher during storm surges.

Imagine the affect of four-and-a-half feet more water on coastal communities such as Mill Valley, where today’s highest  tides already flood city streets, marshes and recreation areas.  The bike rider above is crossing Bothin Marsh between Mill Valley and Sausalito, which is already inundated several times a month by winter tides.

If what scientists predict comes to pass — and some form of it will despite all of today’s “green” mitigation efforts — rising seas are going to change the way we live and extract severe financial and social costs.

Here is the opening section. The rest is below the jump (or here online).

Rising Seas: Marin prepares for a wetter, warmer future

On the winter days when the monthly tides are highest, you can stand on the narrow, asphalt ribbon of the bike path that traverses Bothin Marsh in Mill Valley and watch the water of Richardson Bay climb over the man-made banks and rise slowly, inexorably, until its cold wetness reaches your shins. You are no longer on dry land. You are in the middle of the bay.

Flash forward to the year 2100. The earth has had 88 more years to warm up, and the seas have been rising a little more every year. Your grandkids stand in that same place on the marsh and wait for high tide. When it comes, the water flows over their heads.

That’s climate change. That’s the threat Marin County faces — higher seas, bigger tides and stronger waves that could drown the marshlands of Mill Valley and Novato, flood neighborhoods built on reclaimed land in Tam Valley, Santa Venetia and Hamilton, and erode the coastal bluffs of Bolinas.

The mess that rising seas could make of Marin is but a small part of the larger challenge climate change presents to the planet. But this story is not about the global effort to regulate carbon emissions, not about the national yammering of politicians, preachers and scientific professionals about why the earth is warming (is it man, is it nature, is it a vengeful God delivering payback for our profligate ways?), and not about whether the earth is in fact getting warmer. The mercury is rising and the oceans along with it.

This story is about Marin County and how a lot of people here are trying to make sure that come the day when the waters of San Francisco Bay — which have already risen 8 inches in the last century — are lapping at the doorsteps of homes and businesses now hundreds of feet from shore, that the inhabitants of that warmer, wetter future do not ask of our generation: Why didn’t they do something?

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On the Job: College Catalog Cover

Lenore Alford for the College of Marin

Even after putting  30 years in at the media factory, I still like getting the cover. It must be an ego thing, because it certainly isn’t the money.

This is Lenore Alford, an organist, conductor and generally all-around smart woman. I photographed her for the College of Marin, where is she teaching a class on Nadia Boulanger and the American School of musical composition in Paris — heady stuff, indeed. The college needed a a tall vertical for its community education catalog cover and Alford was the perfect subject.

The picture was made in the Mill Valley living room of one of Alford’s friends.  The piano, a baby grand, was crammed into the corner and up against a set of large, bright windows that flooded the room with morning sunlight.

I didn’t want to shoot into the windows, fearing the backlight, so at first I tried shooting away from them and toward the wall behind the piano, lighting Alford with a ProFoto D4 head into a small box. The background, though was too messy to put type into and I couldn’t blur it because I couldn’t get her far enough away from the wall.

So, I embraced the windows, deciding to blow them out and use their avalanche of light for the background. I changed Alford’s  position, took down the ProFoto, and set up a Nikon SB800 on a boom, attached a small softbox, turned the power way down (about 1/16th) and inched the light to within two feet of her head. The sunlight provided fill and tossed in some rim light as a bonus.

There is nothing technically complicated about this picture or, dare I say, artistically unique, but it is something that’s part of my daily life in my third or fourth or fight career (who’s counting, anyhow?) and might be interesting to those of you who wonder what photographers who aren’t Annie Leibowitz or Chase Jarvis do all day.

The hardest part of the shot was deciding on the lighting, not once but twice, and making those changes while Alford, the art director and the homeowners looked on — and making everyone feel not only like I knew what I was doing but that were being included in something fun.

The whole thing, from walking in the door with the gear to  schlepping it back down the drive to my car took less than an hour, a normal shoot here in the shallow end of the photography pool.

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: Rock ‘n’ Shoot

Go ahead, pay me to spend my time in bars photographing musicians. Go ahead, turn up the music, open up the tap, fill up the dance floor — and cut me a check. Go ahead, just send me to heaven.

For me, there’s nothing better than being in front a band, camera in hand and lost in the experience of the moment, while trying to also capture it frame by frame.

Maybe it takes me back to my wasted youth in rock ‘n’ roll palaces, cowboy saloons and down-another-flight clubs. Maybe it reminds me that being adult doesn’t have to mean being safe. Maybe we all just need to be overwhelmed by the moment more. Whatever it is, I love it — so go ahead and pay me.

These images accompanied a story in Marin Magazine by writer Dan Jewett — no slouch of a musician himself (become a Hollyhocks fan!) — about open mike nights here in Marin.

The gallery below is from 19 Broadway in Fairfax, taken at show put together by keyboardist Jonathan Korty, and from Finnegan’s in Novato, where K.C. Turner sponsors a weekly open mike. The photos show, in order of appearance, are:  Brandon Zahursky, dance floor at 19 Broadway, Danny Uzi, the bathroom at 19 Broadway, Derek Hoki, and 19 Broadway. Above, is Krickie, who organize’s open mikes at Peri’s, also in Fairfax.

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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: Two Good Men

I saw something rare yesterday, something inspirational not only for its elevation of community service over personal ambition, but also for its demonstration of political hope and good will in a time when both are nearly absent in public life.

That something involved this man, Dr. Curtis Robinson, who I photographed last year for Marin Magazine, and attorney Andrew Giacomini, a member of one of Marin’s most influential political families. They were competing to represent the county Board of Supervisors on the board of the Marin Community Foundation, a billion-dollar force in local philanthropy.

I was at the supervisors’ meeting to photograph Kate Sears, the body’s newest member, and saw the board split 2-2 between Robinson and Giacomini (the fifth supervisor, Hal Brown, is ill with cancer).

After a short recess, the board reconvened. Here’s a newspaper account of what happened next:

Giacomini …  approached the podium … and withdrew, urging support for Robinson.

I don’t think you can make a mistake,” Giacomini said, adding he talked to Robinson during the break.

“I was just going to ask the opposite,” Dr. Robinson quipped. “That’s very special and very kind and will never be forgotten,” he told Giacomini.

In seconds it was over. The board unanimously approved Robinson, and what could have been a moment of rancor and division became one of cheer and unity. One good man had holstered his ambition and stepped aside for another good man, one who had been prepared to do the same.

I suppose it’s sad that such a thing amazed me, but we live in a country where cynicism, negativity and dangerous zero-sum political thinking — victory defined by the destruction one’s rival — rule what remains of public discourse. Yes, of course, this is Marin and, of course, Robinson and Giacomini are much more alike than they are different, but still the swiftness with which they, and the supervisors, acted to resolve rather than inflame a disagreement showed me that the practice of servant leadership in public life is not dead.

At home later, I came across David Talbot’s column announcing his return to Salon magazine, which he founded 16 years ago. As forthright as ever, Talbot wielded a cudgel of outrage over the grim state of national affairs and declared Salon’s dedication to an “American revival.” He said:

“We will cover the people who are rebuilding America from the ground up — taking over their local schools, creating community gardens and food barter networks, launching green start-ups.

We’re inspired by Robert Kennedy, who — after failing to convince President Johnson to end the war in Vietnam — came back to his Senate office in a mood of dark despair about the fate of America. “Oh, to hell with it,” RFK told his young staff, with a new fire in his voice. “Let’s start our own country.”

It’s time to start our own country.”

I read that passage thinking of the sacrifice of ego that Robinson and Giacomini had made, a small thing to be sure, but just the sort of sublimation of self the nation is going to need if Talbot’s sentiments are to become reality.

This is my small part, then, this little story of two big-hearted men. It’s a pebble tossed into a big sea that needs a major change,

What’s your story?

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.

On the Job: Artists in Residence

Jeff Beauchamp

A while back I had the opportunity to photograph a few Marin County painters in their studios and write a short piece for Marin Magazine about the curiosity the artist’s studio holds for most of us who earn our keep in more prosaic ways. This allure is one reason for the success of open-studio events, which allow the general public to wander, glass of chilled Chardonnay in hand, amid the wondrous clutter of these creative spaces.

“We flock to them like curious visitors to a carnival sideshow,” I said. “Oh, see how they live! There are their paints! What whimsical furniture! … the voyeur who lives in all of us?—?the one who surreptitiously peeks into the closets of friends (and don’t we all?)?—?is thrilled by the backstage pass into this normally cloistered corner of the art world. Perhaps the paint-spattered floors will reveal the key to innovation? Maybe the pungent varnishes will awaken dormant inspiration? Could that rack of half-finished canvases spur completion of our own inchoate dreams?”

A bit much? Perhaps. But nosy I am and in search of inspiration as well, so I never pass by the open door of someone else’s studio — especially if I have camera in hand.

Fairfax painter Jeff Beauchamp (above) works out of bland, beige office building whose monochromatic exterior belies the explosions of color on canvas he produces. Jeff won the magazine’s annual cover contest and I photographed him in his studio with his vintage Fender Telecaster, which occupies his hands when his brushes are idle.

The gallery below includes some recent artist portraits, all painters except for  Mill Valley musician Austin de Lone at his keyboard. His story is here. The artists in the order shown are:

Elizabeth Gorek; Georgette Osserman; Kay Carlson; Eric Zener; Sue Averell; Austin de Lone; Jeff Beauchamp.

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On the Job: Affordable Housing

Katie Crecilius

Few issues incite people more than the debate over affordable housing. As a term, “affordable housing” not only sounds benign but seems undeniably just. Who, after all, would be in favor of “unaffordable housing”?

But, when such an abstract social concept morphs into physical reality, perhaps in your neighborhood, that’s when cultures clash and fears of crime, color and crashing home values cause many of Marin’s famously liberal communities to put progressive ideals on hold and start arguing the nuances of zoning laws.

In Marin, one of the country’s most affluent counties and one of its most expensive places to live, housing ain’t cheap. Even after the big burst of the real estate bubble, young couples still drop more than a million for a so-so rancher in a good Southern Marin school district and the median price for typical tract home in a Northern Marin community like Novato starts at $500,000.

Most of the teachers, cops, and restaurant workers in Marin don’t have the scratch for that kind of mortgage, so they rent – or they commute. (Marin’s drive time is one of the longest in the region because the everyday working folks can’t afford to live here.)

Marin is also very white – very, very white – which is also a matter of economics since most of the members of California’s emerging minority-majority haven’t yet accumulated the wealth to buy into Marin.

This is where the affordable housing debate comes in.

Housing advocates, who want to comply with state laws by building clusters of subsidized housing in cities around the county, say Marin needs to provide a place to live for those who school our kids, serve our meals and staff our boutiques. Plus, they say, more diversity would be a good thing.

Those on the other side argue that the market should prevail and they welcome anyone who can afford the price of entry into Marin. Providing subsidies, they argue, increases density, attracts people who commit crimes and, thus, lowers the value of nearby homes – theirs. It’s not a matter of race, they say, but one of values.

I photographed people on both sides of the issue for a story writer Nate Seltenrich did for Marin Magazine on Novato, Marin’s northernmost city and the center of the current debate. Novato is not the place most people think of when Marin comes to mind. There’s no Golden Gate Bridge, no Muir Woods and none of the hipster quotient that defines smaller southern towns like Mill Valley and Sausalito. Novato is pure suburb, a collection of developments and shopping centers linked by Highway 101 and extending out from an aging downtown that seems to be undergoing perennial revival.

I made several trips to the Novato for the story, a couple to photograph the people and locations where housing might be built, and another to shoot a community meeting about the issue. I came away from the story with mixed feelings about the matter.

On the one side, there are plenty of examples, not only in Novato but also elsewhere in Marin, of affordable housing that works, meaning it not only provides shelter for people who don’t own a Range Rover, but also fits into the community architecturally and socially.

On the other side, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t like it if the city council in my leafy town decided to put 100 apartments on my block, but I also hope I’d find away around that concern and get my head in spot where I did the right thing – and I think we all know what that is.

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