Tuesday, August 30, 2011

American Character - Family Photos

Having professed that the purpose of this blog is to explore the stories behind photographs, I'm pulling out some previously unpublished vintage images from the MojaveWest archive that have no recorded story to tell. For whatever reason, these images have become separated from the descendants of their former owners, and  thus any record of who is pictured, or any story about why the photo was taken, has been lost to time. But in that lack of a story, there is a new story, one that we perhaps project upon the anonymous characters shown, a perception of what we imagine it was like to live in their time.
Click on this, or the other photographs in this post, and stare for a few moments
into these faces. There is so much that is revealed. A husband and wife, 
and her parents, for whom life has been hard. Two boys, one who dreams of 
becoming a pilot, one whose shirt and tie seem incongruous with rumpled 
overalls. An itinerant trade hinted at by the lettering on the truck. And a dog, 
perhaps the only aspect of this whole scene that is timeless. 

In this new century, we have become a visual world, and practically everyone now has a camera of some sort, and just about every aspect of life gets shot - including many that probably shouldn't. Superstar photog Joe McNally once wrote, "Face it: every day, there are about 30 million billion digital pictures being taken. How do you make yours stand out?"* That, as I've already written, is the challenge.

But it wasn't always so. Once upon a time, cameras were large, bulky, and the singular realm of the professional. Then came Kodak and the Brownie, and suddenly the ability to record everyday life happening around you became possible to the amateur. The age of the snapshot was born. Dig through a pile of antique photos sometime, and you'll start to see a clear demarkation in time, separating the age of pro-only shooting (hallmarked by tin-types and a little later, by "cabinet photos") of the late 1800s/early 1900s and the snapshots of the 1920s and 1930s.

Pro photographers of that era, more often than not staged their images. Amateurs, on the other hand, captured unrehearsed moments in reality and time. What shines through so many times, though, is a profound sense of the character in the people imaged. Maybe it's just our perception, maybe it was because of the harsher times that they lived through, or maybe it was the honesty of the early snapshots, before people realized they could fool everyone and fake looking good. What ever it was, take a good, long look at these images and you'll start to see something remarkable. It is the character ingrained on their faces, chiseled there by the life they led, by life itself being fundamentally harder than it is today.

The California license plates say 1930. Dad - a milkman? - has
just come home from work, interrupting a game of baseball
played by his young sons. And how about that rumble seat?
As we stare into these windows of the past, though, there is a danger of deception, a fundamental trap of error that our brains fall into as we imagine their world. Like images we shoot today, they allow us to look through the eyes and with the perspective of the one person on the scene who remains unseen, the photographer. Their motives and thoughts in taking the shot might be guessed at from interpreting the outcome, but in reality remain forever veiled. But yet, what we see is not really how they saw it. In our daily life, we see things in - and our fancy digital cameras take images that reflect - the bold, vivid colors of real life. When we stare at a vintage photo, however, it's usually sepia or a best black and white. Look at enough of them and the brain gets tricked into imagining life during that era as somehow colorless, so much so that when we do come across some of the rare, early color images from those days, our mind sort of suffers a disconnect.

An interesting mental effect from this falsely monochromatic view of their world is the thought that somehow what they experienced is somehow less real than what we do. If anything, it was more so. Without our ultra-advanced climate control, summers were hotter, winters were colder. Sanitation and hygiene were different then, and thus were the everyday odors. But none of that comes through in a photo. And we conveniently forget about it, too.
A summer afternoon's visit to Grandma and Grandpa in Dad's new car?
So as you compose and shoot your next family snapshot, what story are you telling, and what story will be read into it 80 years from now by someone who has no clue who you were, but who is staring into your eyes trying to image what it was like to live in your time?

*From Joe McNally's The Hotshoe Diaries, an amazing book which should be required reading for anyone who picks up a speedlight and slaps it on a camera.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Twisting a Golden Panorama

If there's one Northern California iconic landmark that's been over-photographed, it's the Golden Gate Bridge. So last year, when we visited the place once again, I was seriously tempted to just leave the camera in the car. I mean, why even try being creative when every square inch has been shot from every conceivable angle? But there were family shots to take, so along went the camera.

As many times as one has been on the bridge, it never does actually become old. So as we were standing there on the south pier, I just allowed the size and age of the structure to envelop me. The walkway along the side of the bridge actually goes out and around the massive piers, clinging to the side of the steel, high over the water. It was dizzying.

And as I stood there, taking it all in, I started to wonder if there was a way to shoot it and capture it all in one image, or at least one panorama. Now I've shot a lot of panoramas in my time, even back in the days of film where I had to tape a whole bunch of prints together before framing them. Of course, the stitching capabilities of today's Photoshop makes it a lot easier. There have been a number of panoramic images of the bridge shot and offered to tourists...I know, because I saw them in the gift shop before I walked out on the span. But how do you shoot a panorama of an object while you're actually on the object itself? How do you capture the length and the height of an object in a pan?

Then it struck me...I'd fallen into the typical trap of thinking two-dimensionally. Pans are usually shot in a horizontal fashion, with the camera being turned in a horizontal circle about the photographer. But what if I panned the other way, starting with the view at one end, arching up directly overhead, and ending with the view at the other end? So I did. Stitched together, this is how it looked in its raw form:

Taking this, then, and bending it into an arch so that both ends were right-side-up, was a simple task with the warp tool in Photoshop.

It was fun to do...and was the only "keeper" of my images from the bridge that day, and it certainly was different from all the other images offered as posters and postcards, so my primary objective was achieved. And I was reminded to break from the habit of thinking only two-dimensionally. Does the image work for you? Let me know why or why not!

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Picture This Dead End

Alan Radecki
Sometimes - maybe more often than not - the opportunity to shoot a unique scene happens totally by accident...or by taking a dead-end road when you think you’re actually going somewhere. It was on of those “doh-” moments. We had just gassed up the car in Salinas, and were heading for Capitola, and Alan thought he knew a) where the highway was and b) that the back road we were on would connect up with it. Watch out for men who aren’t using maps!

As we came around one corner, there was a cool-looking, ramshackle old house...perfect for the kind of photography we like to do sometimes, so of course we had to stop. It turns out that the house is a part of the Monterey County Historical Society's Boronda Adobe museum complex. We’d just started shooting away when we were approached by James Perry, the museum’s Curator as well as one of the docents, who offered to give us a personal tour of the place.

Rebecca Amber

Alan Radecki
The yellow victorian turns out to have been the personal home of the well-known central California architect William H. Weeks. Active in the late 1890s and early 1900s in the San Francisco and Monterey Bay area, Weeks is responsible for having designed hundreds of buildings, many in his signature neoclassical, Greek revival style, including many libraries and schools, throughout California, Nevada and Oregon. In 1898, Weeks built this house for himself and his family, and it is noted for some of the unique architectural features, including the witch’s hat roof over the elliptical porch.

The museum grounds also included a number of vintage tractors and trucks, including one tractor that holds the distinction of having been used in the first strawberry planting in the whole Salinas Valley, a crop which today is one of the area’s most lucrative.

Rebecca Amber
Rebecca Amber

Alan Radecki
The irony is that the central feature of the museum is the Boronda Adobe, the first house built in the area, back in 1842. Though we were given a fascinating personal tour of this place by Perry, neither Alan nor I shot anything of it...it had been fully restored, and thus just didn’t have that “character” that makes for an intriguing image.

The docent asked how we’d found the museum, since it’s a bit out-of-the-way. Alan mentioned that we were just passing by on the road and saw it. She looked puzzled. Why would we even be going down that road, she asked. It doesn’t go anywhere. Just dead ends a little past the museum. Yup, be careful of men who don’t use maps. Until next exposure - remember to be ready to shoot when that dead-end street leads something unexpectedly cool.

Alan Radecki

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Rainbow web

Photo lesson of the day: when hiking in a redwood forest, don't forget to look up! I'm at that age when my thinning hair can result in sunburn on the top of my knob after a nice day's hike, so I typically wear a ballcap. Downside of that is that sometimes the cap's bill acts as a blinder...and I forget that the forest that I'm hiking through is three-dimensional, and there's really cool stuff high overhead.

On this particular day, we were climbing up through the woods of Niscene Marks State Park in Aptos, and one of party, Jennifer, did what I hadn't: she looked up, and exclaimed at the sight of a leafless tree filled with spider webs, and one in particular that was shimmering with color. Now, I've shot a lot of webs over the years, and occasionally I've seen it where the strand of web will defract the light a little...but nothing like this one.

Some webs capture bugs, this one had captured a rainbow, and stunningly so. Of all the webs in the tree, this was the only one that glowed like this. The web was about 10 feet over head, so I broke out the 70-200mm, and fired away. There was a slight breeze and the web wafted back and forth, the colors changed, waves of blue, green and red floating across the surface of the web.

Moments later, as the sun marched through the treetops, the light angle had changed enough that the color was gone...in fact a glance up at the tree didn't show any webs. For the rest of the afternoon, I made sure I looked up...saw lots of gorgeous scenery, even a few more webs, but not another single one that had captured a passing rainbow.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Wind and Space - how a grab shot paid off

Editor's note: Upon occasion, we'll be featuring guest photographers who have taken images that have a dynamic and interesting story behind them.

Today's guest is Bill Deaver, a well-known writer and photographer in the Mojave area. Bill is a public and government relations consultant and the former editor and publisher of the Mojave Desert News; he writes a weekly column in the Antelope Valley PressBill served on the staffs of two Members of Congress and a California State Assemblyman; held positions in the administrations of  Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush in Washington , D.C. , with a public relations firm operated by his brother, the late Michael K. Deaver, in Washington, D.C. and served some 20 years in law enforcement.

By Bill Deaver - President, Mojave Transportation Museum Foundation

As a long-time resident of Mojave, California, home of the Mojave Air and Space Port, I like to tell people that this is one of the few places on the planet where you can look up and see something in the sky few people have ever seen before.

Copyright 2003 Bill Deaver; used by kind permission
As a local journalist I have taken many pictures of airplanes, and the advent of my friend Burt Rutan’s space program in 2003 offered an opportunity to record a truly fascinating moment in aerospace history.  It also gave me the chance to snap a photo that has paid-off for me more than any other in my 75 years!

The shot was a happy accident. Flight tests at Mojave happen in the early morning and landings are usually on runway 30, the airport’s longest. Unfortunately the light is usually terrible — you are shooting into a rising sun!

Lucky for me the opportunity came about on one of the first “captive-carry” flights of SpaceShipOne attached to its mother ship, White Knight, on July 29, 2003. After a test flight, the pilot decided to do a west-to-east flyby, and I got my shot — with Mojave’s famous wind turbines in the background!

What I love about the picture is that it highlights two of our area’s major industries — aerospace and renewable energy. The photo has appeared all over the world, in annual reports, on Scaled’s website, etc. I have made more money from it than from any other picture I have ever taken in a career that began with a Kodak Brownie Box Camera, which I still own. It was also one of the first pictures I took with my then-new Olympus digital camera, at very low resolution, which means it can’t be enlarged very much.

On the wall of our living room in Mojave is a print of Wind and Space, framed with SpaceShipOne and X-Prize pins, and bearing a small metal plaque that notes that this copy of my prized photo was “cargo” on the final, X-Prize-winning flight of SpaceShipOne on October 2, 2004.

It is one of my most prized possessions!

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Those left out

Like many a photographer, when I submit a selection of images to a magazine with an article, I'll typically send in more than the bare minimum, to give the photo editor a little bit of a selection. (and maybe to give myself a break from the hard task of making that final cut...). For my recent article on the Mojave Spaceport's Plane Crazy Saturday monthly festival of aviation (you can read the mag online here), there were three images that I really had hoped would be used, but which got cut instead.

The first was from Bill Deaver, the former publisher of the Mojave Desert News and current president of the Mojave Transportation Museum Foundation, among other things. It was taken during the very first Plane Crazy Saturday back in 2009, and to me epitomizes what PCS is all about...families getting to come out and get up-close-and-personal with planes and their pilots...something that is very rare anymore. And, it also shows the possible start of yet another stellar aviation photographer!

Copyright 2009 by Bill Deaver, used with kind permission

The next is an HDR taken by my MojaveWest and Light in our Lens partner, Rebecca Amber. She'd wanted a different angle on SpaceShipTwo than everyone else was getting, and so talked airport security into letting her up on the catwalk of the old control tower...being credentialed media has its perks! 
Image courtesy of Rebecca Amber/Aerotech News

Lastly, I shot a three-image pan of SpaceShipTwo...it can be so hard to get the whole thing in and still give an impression of the hugeness of this airplane/spaceplane combination...so here it is. Just goes to show that one's favorites aren't always gonna be the photo editor's favorites...but that's why he makes the big bucks, too...