Wednesday, July 27, 2011

A Life of Their Own

After you snap the shutter, some photos can take on a life of their own, and even in tragedy, can become symbols of remembrance with deep meaning not even imaginable at the time. I've left this photo buried on my computer for a number of years now, but it is perhaps my all-time favorite from the myriads I took in my five years working for Mercy Air Service.

This was the end of a cold, stormy winter's day in February 2005. I was working as the mechanic on Mercy Air 14 in Mojave, and was getting ready to go home when the call came that Air 2, the Victorville ship, was broken on the pad at Ridgecrest Hospital. Though it was an hour's drive away, I was the closest mech, and could I run up there and see if I could get them back up and in service? Of course.

They'd been sitting there, on the pad, waiting patiently, when I walked up tools in hand. The nurses were so happy to see me I got a big hug. It was only a little fuzz on a main rotor chip detector, so I had them back up in no time. The light was magical, so I put away my helicopter fixin' tools and pulled out my Nikon, and sat down on the edge of the rocks surrounding the pad. The light was also dark! The pilot fired up both of the big Pratt engines, and turned the running lights on, and I marveled at the colors. Balancing my camera on my knee, I squeezed off several 1-second long exposures, before he pulled pitch and climbed away. To me, it wasn't just a helicopter picture, it was a mood, a feeling, an urgency...storm coming, need to get back to base. The shot became a favorite amongst the crews, and graced a number of company computers as wallpaper.

Then tragedy struck. Just under two years later, this helicopter crashed in Cajon Canyon, with the loss of all three crewmembers on board, including Flight Nurse Katrina Kish (an amazing ball of joy and energy to touched everyone around her), who just happened to also be onboard the night I took this shot. From a thing of joy, this image became a thing of sorrow, and was one that was used a lot at the memorial service.

I haven't looked at it much since then. It was one of my first images in my quest - if only accidental this particular time - to master night photography, and I've gone on to other subjects, although none of which can approach this one for poignancy. So when I came across the image in my archive, memories came flooding back...the smell of a helicopter transmission, the hugs of nurses, the whine of twin PT-6s winding up, the cold stabbing of rotor blast, the loss of friends. All in a moment's capture of some pretty lights at night. All in the life of a photograph.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Welcome to Light in our Lens

After I stopped posting to my Mojave Skies blog back in 2009 (kinda hard to continue, since a job change regrettably took me away from the ever-wonderous Mojave flightline; never fear, you Mojave history buffs...all the posts are there, safe and sound), I've thought it would be fun to start a new one with Rebecca Amber in conjunction with our photography enterprise, MojaveWest Media Works. When you're chasing light through your lens, there is always an adventure, and a story to tell behind the pics that we capture, and that's the aim of this blog, to tell those stories...and to look at pretty pictures.

Ah, procrastination. But finally, we're starting it...

After shooting a wedding together, Rebecca recently posted on Facebook a shot of me shooting, with the quip "You can tell the photographer by his attraction to light". Indeed. There are a number of things that drive me as a photographer, but probably the foremost is the challenge of capturing the light of a scene in a way that I don't thing other photogs would. Ok, maybe that's a little egotistical, but it's what goes through my mind when approaching a shoot. There's a gazillion photographers out there scrapping for the attention of the world's audience, many of whom are far better at the craft and art than I am. I have my heroes, experts who I would love to emulate, photographs that downright inspire me to see if I can manage to shoot as good. But I don't want to create just another shot just like someone else's, so how to set mine apart?

That's always the challenge. Occasionally, very occasionally, I actually succeed. For instance, when I found out back in June 2010 that there was going to be a lunar eclipse early one morning, I felt that challenge nudge me (and it takes a lot to nudge me out of bed at 3am to go shoot!). I looked around the web at how other photogs shot lunar eclipses...mostly they were just shots of the moon with an interesting foreground. One multiple exposure that has always stood out in my mind, featured in the book SpaceShots (edited by eminent astronomy writer Timothy Ferris, published in 1984), is by Akira Fujii and shows the moon passing through the earths shadow. Because the moon would be setting at sunrise before the completion of the transit (and it was only a partial eclipse, anyway), something similar wouldn't work for me. Another of his, this time a solar eclipse, showed the progression of the event as it moved across the sky. In this approach, rather than zooming in with a long lens on the moon, as I guessed most other folks would try, Akira went wide, and the result was an impressive context shot...the event in relation to the expanse of the daytime sky. But aside from Fujii, I didn't see a whole lot of folks taking this almost counter-intuitive approach of using a wide-angle lens to shoot the moon. So that was my different, go wide.

To get away from city lights, I headed out to the end of a dirt road at the southern edge of Edwards Air Force Base (50th East, just north of Ave E for those who know the Antelope Valley), and tried to keep myself awake. The lens was zoomed out to 40mm and I shot an exposure every five minutes, mainly because that gave the earth enough time to turn so that there wasn't too much or too little of a gap between where the moon was in the ensuing images.

Partial Lunar Eclipse, June 26, 2010
Back home, I layered all the images in PS, using the lights of a distant farmhouse to align everything correctly, then started cutting away the top of each layer above the moon to reveal the layers underneath. Since the sky started to lighten with dawn during the last few exposures, this created an nice bluing band at the bottom, allowing the distant San Gabriel Mountains to be seen. When it was done, I was indeed came out differently than what I saw others doing, and gave the eclipse the context of the world we live in. On a whim, I shared this with my friend Alan Boyle, who writes the Cosmic Log column about all things scientific over at MSNBC, and before I knew it, there was my experimental photo at the top of his piece two days later, leading off his coverage of the eclipse.

Trying to be different does indeed pay off!