On the Job: Seniors for Peace

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

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.)


Learn How to Shoot on the Move

How to photograph things that move and other action photography tips

Learn how to apply the essentials of photojournalism to everyday photography in a class I’m teaching at The Image Flow in Mill Valley.

We’ll emphasize photographing action of all kinds, from youth sports to local events to children’s parties. Conquer the technical challenges of shooting on the move (continuous focus, panning, variable exposure) and learn how to move as you shoot (being ready, being patient, being close). Understand how to make the gear you’ve got work in any situation.

The class begins Thursday evening May 24, goes for three weeks and also includes a location outing with me on Saturday, June 2.

Here are the details. I hope to see you there.

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.

Walkin’ the Dog

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

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

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

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

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.