Friday, July 25, 2008
We're off tomorrow in the early morning hours for a week long trip to Vegas, Arizona and Route 66.
The pic to the right is of me and my favorite person. It's from our last trip to Vegas. It was a day so hot you could smell the heat coming off the pavement. Fortunately my wife and I absolutely love hot places. We took this pic with my eVolt 500 set on auto-timer out front of the Atomic Testing Museum (which is a wee bit off the strip -- but well worth the trip.)
I usually avoid museums, but this one was an all time favorite. You'll see some amazing photographs of people watching atom bombs going off as they sip highballs. The testing of these devices used to be the biggest tourist attraction in all of Nevada. There was even a "Miss Atomic Bomb" who wore a pic of a mushroom cloud on her swimsuit. Since it's Vegas, you can get a picture of Miss Atomic Bomb doing a Marilyn Monroe kind of pose on a poker chip. Could anything be more Vegas than that?
There are also "Public Safety Films" where you see this very calm family walking into a fully equipped bomb shelter. As they close they door the notice that their son, Skipper, isn't among them. The mother freaks out (well as much as a mother with perfect hair in a 50's style dress can freak out) and wants to go and get him. The father calmly assures her that Skipper knows to come home and that they will only make matters worse if they go after him. (I sort of suspected Father had some hostility issues toward Skipper.)
Anyway -- not to worry: Skipper shows up. He seems tired. This is understandable since he has just lived through an atomic explosion. Father calmly tells Grandma to take Skipper upstairs, take off all his clothes and put a cool washcloth on his forhead. (See? I told you Father had some issues...) Father says Skipper will be "just fine" after a little nap. Uh huh.
Vegas is an exciting place if you manage to escape from the gravitational pull of the Strip. This shopping center pic was taken as the sun was almost down. It's across the street from a Greek Isles theme casino (a study in "really tacky Vegas where seniors go to die with a complimentary watered down drink in one hand and the other resting on the handle of a slot machine") where I'd gone to see a magic show.
There's no Photoshopping done to the photo other than a little punch to the contrast.
I really believe that if you plan to photograph anything that has been photographed a LOT (like...umm Vegas), that you need to change your visual perspective and try to show it in a new way.
The detour to Death Valley and Route 66 has been on our minds for a long time. My wife and I went to Ben Willmore's "Photoshop for Photographers" NAPP seminar few months ago. Here's a guy who does amazing work. When he's not teaching, he lives in his bus and photographs Route 66. Is that cool or what? Have a look at his stuff. It's remarkable: http://www.digitalmastery.com/ So we're going to have a trip along the Arizona leg of Route 66 -- and expect to get some wonderful pictures, meet some wonderful people and build some wonderful memories. (Isn't that wonderful?)
We leave tomorrow. Today I am taking my precious grandson to the Edmonton Indy which should be a blast. Then I rush home, watch my wife pack, clean out my photography bag, sleep for a few hours and head to the airport.
So today I am brimming with expectations. What pictures will there be on the road? Who will I meet? It's a modern day adventure. I love the pre-trip excitement as much (okay almost as much) as I love travelling. How do you define that "pre-going glow?"
You're welcome to come along! Meet me here, okay?
Wednesday, July 23, 2008
There used to be a sign there suggesting where tourists might want to take a picture from. (Oddly, this was also sponsored by Kodak...in the dark days of film before digital became the norm.) I would watch as tourist after tourist lined up so they could stand there and snap a shot of the Big Boat.
I suspect that they each wound up with a decent picture. And it's obvious they weren't trying to make graphic art. They were just wanting to take a decent picture. They wanted to make a documentary picture that says "This is what it looked like. And I was there." This is a perfectly cool reason for taking a snapshot. If you are a tourist.
Graphic artists, on the other hand, are trying to make graphic art...which is why the job description fits so well. At our recent Capital X celebration, this booth caught my eye. While I am not entirely sure what Frozen Dessert actually is, I thought the very best way to present it was to use the lines in both of the ice cream cones and the lettering to point up to the dramatic sky. For this graphic I was not caring so much that the picture itself be a documentary as I was in showing the towering cone reaching for the sky. It is an absurd concept, huh?
Tweety, on the other hand had been abandoned somewhere on the midway. I suspect someone spent $4,000 trying to win it. Tweety abandoned wasn't a particularly interesting picture. When my wife put Tweety (I've never been sure if Tweety is a boy or a girl, by the way) on a garbage can with a Navy sticker the colors, textures and contrast really popped.
I played around with putting crosshairs in the middle of Tweety's forehead, but in the end I decided to leave it the way it was.
The last fair picture is a good example of trying to take a picture of a PART of something to give a sense of the overall thing. This ride was in Kidsworld and had a wonderful rusty look to it. Colors and glass, textures and life just crackled from it as a subject.
As a straight graphic, it didn't work. So I made a selection of a border within the picture (using the Rectangular Marquee Tool and then going to Select > Inverse). The I took the Dodge tool (found in the toolbox) and set the Exposure to about 50% and very gently darkened the border.
You'll see that the dead center of the flower places in the upper right Dynamic Point in the Rule of Thirds. That is what makes the picture work.
Here are Three Great Rules For Taking A Picture That Isn't The Same As Everyone Else Is Taking And Maybe Even Getting Graphic Art Out Of It (TGRFTAPTITSAEEITAMEGGAOOI for short):
1) Try a different angle. If everyone else is taking a straight on shot of a Ferris Wheel, try standing under it and shooting upward. Try standing across from it and the angles that way. Get above it if you can. You'll be surprised at what you see.
2) Take LOTS of pictures. It's digital. Relax. What doesn't work you can delete, right? So snap away like crazy and then delete like crazy when you see how they turned out. You need to expect that most of the pictures are going to suck. That's okay. Cause one of them won't...
3) Crop like a Crazy Person. Remember that "Undo" is a wonderful command. I use it a lot. Really. Don't be afraid to skew the picture wildly to one side, or crop out a panel...or break the whole picture into panels. You'll start seeing things in the shot you never knew were there. That's where the art comes from.
Don't stand where everyone else is standing. Go the other way. Take chances with your shots. Try different exposure compensations, try different shutter speeds. Try different Scene Modes. Try lots of stuff.
Eventually you will keep doing stuff until it's no longer stuff -- but becomes Stuff You KNOW. And that kind of stuff results in great Graphic Art.
Frankly it's been a little embarassing. The height of our cultural "televisionary" experience in my childhood was The Beachcombers -- which looked, to me, like a bunch really bad actors who lucked out during "Canadian Content" madness imposed/inflicted by the CRTC.
American game shows give away trips and cars. Canadian game shows give away toasters.
So when my wife and I spent the day at Capital X and learned that Brent Butt, the star and creator of "Corner Gas" was the featured entertainer, I wasn't all that keen to see him.
He turned out to be polished, charming and intelligent -- which made me wonder how he ever got onto Canadian television. Midway through his show I decided to try to photograph him.
It was a challenge: the stage was bathed in a sickly blue light. The sun was going down and there were several hundred people milling around in front of the stage. Butt moves a lot during his show, paces back and forth, gestures wildly, talks to the audience and the security guards. I had my ISO cranked to 800 and I needed my telephoto to get any kind of decent picture. (Telephoto lenses cut out a lot of the light you really need at that time of night, by the way. Think of looking through a paper towel roll. That's what a telephoto does.)
I shot maybe thirty pics of Butt (and yes, the name still makes me laugh) and, along with the predictable grain and occasionally blurred focus, I realized that the pictures didn't come close to capturing the energy this guy was expending.
I'm always conscious of trying to convey how it felt to stand there. How do you convey a performer's energy?
For the graphic above, I chose to use Photoshop's outstanding B&W adjustment (Image>Adjustments>Black and White) option. I really believe this is one of the best things about CS3 since you can now manipulate the individual colors. The blue light started working for me. It produced a very pleasing "glow" on his shirt and his head. I used my dodge tool to darken some of the "way too bright" areas and then created an Curves Adjustment Layer. I wanted the picture to convey energy as well. I skewed it slightly to the left in the crop so it's off balance...just enough to look interesting to the eye.
Butt was a great subject. He mugged a lot for the audience, held interesting objects (hats, Spiderman hammers, etc) and had an amazingly expressive face. I had a good time photographing him.
Stage performers are usually good subjects because they are...well...performing. This makes for some great expressions and wonderful postures. You need to be really conscious of clutter like microphones and backstage distractions. Shooting from a crowd under less than ideal lighting can make for some very tough conditions and Histograms that will make you wince. Just remember these three quickie options for "Improving Crappy Stage Performer Photos":
1) Got Grain in your image? You've got two options. You can use Photoshop to remove it (which isn't always the best option) or you can actually ADD grain. That's what I did on the top photo. Adding grain can give you a wonderful gritty effect.
2) Crop well, grasshopper. If you don't know about the Rule of Thirds (which is yet another spiffy entry on this blog) you need to learn it. The RoT is one of the best guides ever for removing junk in your image and honing in on what the picture is really about. Sometimes what the pic is really about will actually surprise you.
3) Remove distractions. All of them. If it doesn't add to the image and what the image is ABOUT, cut it out. Use the clone tool or the Healing Brush but get rid of it. In the Spidey Hammer picture, there were lots of silver poles behind my subject. I removed nearly all of them easily. What's a distraction? Pay attention to where your eyes go as you first look at the photo. Do they go to your subject or do they drift around looking at a bunch of "stuff?" Dump the "stuff."
I found the fair to be a wonderful place for shooting photos. More about that in a later blog. Right now my wife and I are getting ready for a trip that starts in Vegas and then meanders down to Route 66 and Arizona. We understand there are wonderful pictures along this partially deserted highway.
Want to come along?
Friday, July 18, 2008
My wife, the true photographer in the family, started planning where she was going to be during "golden hour" -- and, since I assumed this meant some event at a bar, I was completely on board.
When I asked her about it, she first laid one of those "are you kidding me?" looks on me and then explained that golden hour was that perfect time when the sun is just going down and a wonderful light bathes the world with soft, magical color. So we planned where we were going to rush to when Golden Hour actually happened.
While my pictures that day were nothing spectacular, I tried manfully to grasp the concept. Understanding only came when I finally agreed with myself that I could never explain the effect (and truth be told, I don't want to since something truly magical should never be explained) and simply accept that it happens...and try to position myself near something cool when it does.
The eagle statue in this blog was taken at the perfect time in Golden Hour. Other than cropping, there's no Photoshop work at all. This is the picture of an otherwise mostly uninteresting grey statue in Philadelphia. It sits at the entrance to a bridge near the Amtrak station. When we passed by it in the morning, it looked mostly uninteresting and grey. But when we returned as the sun was going down even my throbbing feet could not prevent me from wanting to stop and take some photographs.
You'll want to look very carefully at your subject during Golden Hour. If the object of your attention is moveable (you can get some wonderful portraits at this time) you'll want to move them so you get maximum light on their face. You'll be astounded at how the perfect lighting breathes magic into your subject.
What IS golden hour light? I really couldn't tell you. I have no idea how it would be replicated in a studio. And, having given it careful consideration for at least two and one half full minutes, I am convinced that the perfect lighting of Golden Hour is one thing that cannot be easily replicated in Photoshop...if it can be done at all. How would you get the great soft light and the perfect shadows without hours and hours on the screen with Photoshop? Better to just relax and take your pictures during this magical time.
I read a book once (okay...more than one book) where the advice to the 'serious' photographer was to spend an entire day around your subject. It advised that you watch carefully how the light changes and how the shadows move to create a completely new "look" to your subject. It's something I plan to do...one day. But until then I will just wait for Golden Hour light to fall on a beautiful thing and make it even more beautiful.
But there's no question: Golden Hour is God's gift to photographers.
Wednesday, July 16, 2008
Speaking of Gotham City, how about the bird head? He (she maybe?) is a minor detail on a fountain. The effect of this little picture required no Photoshop work a all -- other than the light border. I wanted the creature to be glaring at something we couldn't see. I wanted the texture of the stone and the cracks to be part of it. I used a Macro scene adjustment with a flash so that the whole background blurred and we are left looking along the same line as the stone bird.
Monday, July 14, 2008
Friday, July 11, 2008
How do you summarize what a moment felt like in a single image? It's impossible. Take New Orleans, for example. The city is still recovering from Katrina -- but the jazz is hot, the food is good and the people are smiling. It's a place that never settles into sleep. There's always something going on. There's always somewhere wonderful to go. You can tour the devastated outskirts of the Big Easy or hang out on Frenchman Street -- where the locals go to avoid all the nasty business that goes on at Bourbon Street.
There's just so much life rising out of the ashes. There's magic on the streets, in the music and the food. It really feels like New Orleans, as an entity, accepted the devastation from Katrina, shrugged, smiled and picked up a trumpet to lay down some great jazz.
So my plan was to try to convey that feeling to you with this image.
This isn't a blog about technique. (On the off chance you care: The graphic is a composite of two photos. The primary photo is a statue of Al Hirt -- the New Orleans trumpet virtuoso. The glow comes from a deliberately ragged extraction, inner glow and drop shadow from the Layer Style menu and a touch of white corona from Alien Skin. The cemetary shot has been changed into a "painterly" effect with the Artistic Tools as well as Virtual Painter.)
This blog is about relaxing and BEING where you're going so you can convey that feeling to others via your graphic design.
If you find yourself in a new city and are intent only on getting where you are going you're going to miss what it really feels like to be somewhere exotic. Let's face it: most tourist places look the same.
But how does the place feel?
On each trip, let me urge you to take a few minutes to just stand or sit. Let me urge you to let the cells of your spirit open up and enter into the stream of where you are. On the heels of that potentially deadly artsy observation, let me make a few suggestions for how to construct a graphic that "says it all."
1) Make Notes. My wife excels at this. She'll plop herself down on a sidewalk, grab a pen and start writing. I have really tried this -- but it doesn't work for me very well since I am pretty old and have a tendency to put stuff down and forget about it. But in any case, as you sit and start your project, keep all those sensory things in the front of your mind. It will help you stay on track.
2) Start Designing your Graphic as you Take the Picture. I will often have a rough idea in mind for how I am going to Photoshop the photograph. Sometimes I will already have a project in mind before I get on the airplane. This makes things much easier since I am actively looking for things that will fit the project I have in mind.
3) Don't be afraid to Ignore Point #2. If you are sitting down with your images, don't be so married to your original design that you ignore options that will make your design stronger. We've all had "happy accidents" which occur as you format the design. Push things around on the screen. Relax. The "Undo" command is a much better invention than sliced bread.
As you start work try to remember how your image smells. Is there food cooking? Flowers? Is the the scent of hot sun on asphalt? Try to remember the sounds: music, conversation, laughter. Try to imprint every possible thing on your memory and you will find designing a graphic much easier.
I am guilty of rushing from place to destination and not seeing much except the street signs. But every so often I manage to slow down. After all...it's not so much about the destination as it is about the journey, right?
If you've ever pressed the shutter button and absolutely known exactly what you are going to do with a photo, you understand what he meant. In each one of the pictures in this blog I knew exactly what I was going to do with them...which is unusual for me since my usual graphic design system is to push things around on the screen until they pretty much look okay.
Part of the graphic artist's job is to create images that tell a story or create a sense of atmosphere. There are a lot of ways to do that.
The image here, a man walking on the beach in Coney Island in NYC, is still one of my favorites. It really shouldn't be -- partially because it breaks a lot of rules. He's not exactly on a dynamic point in the Rule of Thirds. Neither is the gull. But there's something about this image that really speaks to me. It whispers things about solitude and reflection. It's got some of the all time great symbols: a man, small against a vast ocean, a cane, a bird. This is one of those images I can look at for a long time.
There are several things to consider in creating a graphic:
1) Is this a picture better suited to black and white? B&W is a great medium, enjoying a powerful renaissance with the advent of great digital editing tools like Alien Skin's Exposure and Photoshop. If you want a picture to look lonely -- and go directly to the heart, consider Black and White.
2) Would a PASTEL treatment be better? This is easier to do than you might think. Start by making a copy of your main photo (on the PC it's Control J) and work on the copy. Make the copy black and white or use one of the wonderful tools under Image> Adjustments. You might be able to get away with something as basic as "Photo Filter."
Once you have a treatment you like on your copied layer, go to the OPACITY setting on your copied layer and play around with the percentage. You will see the background layer bleeding through and giving you a very pleasing muted color. That's what I did with the Staten Island lifeguard picture here. You'll see some color seeping in on the bottom. If the picture was of higher resolution, you'd also see tinges of color in the umbrella. I added grain to this photo as well to make it more powerful. I used Exposure from Alien Skin to create the grain texture.
3) Think hard about every element in your graphic. It's very simple to take elements out with the Clone tool. You don't want any distractions: you just want to see the main elements. Distractions weaken the impact of your visual -- and can throw off the balance. If it doesn't fit -- cut it out.
4) Maybe it needs to be a painting? This actor played Ben Franklin. It was a very crisp photograph that was going nowhere fast. Ben just didn't look right in a photo, so I used a number of the Artistic Brush treatments, added a Canvas Texture -- and finished the whole thing off by using my Virtual Painter plug-in (http://www.virtualpainter5.com/) to complete the effect. I use VP a LOT. For my money (and I am very protective of my money) it's the best digital art plug in out there. You can get a fully functioning free trial.
5) Crop Cleverly! A lot of people zip right past the crop. I can't for the life of me figure out why. Good cropping is critical for an image that works. You must consider all the distractions that detract from the power of the image. You need to really consider the Rule of Thirds. If you pay the proper amount of attention to the crop, you will reach that "AHA!" moment when you know the picture is perfect.
Because as Durante said: "When you know, you know."
Thursday, July 10, 2008
Cropping the pic was a matter of positioning photo paper under an enlarger, moving it up or down, refocussing and finally exposing the paper to light and praying.
Photoshop and the hoard of digital editing software make the job much easier. Best of all? Nothing stinks.
The girl in this picture was giving away free hugs in Union Square in New York City. (Yes...I got one.) When I asked her why she was hugging strangers, she told me "There needs to be more love in the world."
Uh huh. My wife didn't buy it either.
But it makes an interesting picture, right? A pretty girl smiling at the camera and holding up a sign with interesting words written on it. I had almost talked myself into thinking this was the finished photo. She's engaging and the picture almost works, based on the subject matter itself.
But the job of the graphic artist is always to make the picture better. We need to ask ourselves how the picture can be made stronger...and what we can do to cut back on meaningless detail or any detail that doesn't strengthen our subject.
So let's plan the crop, shall we?
The guy's feet and hands are a huge distraction on the right side of the picture. They've got to go. And then there is the whole Rule of Thirds thing. (There's a complete blog entry about this a page or two back, by the way.) To briefly summarize: the Rule of Thirds asks you to put an imaginary "Tic Tac Toe" grid over the picture. The four areas where the lines intersect are called "Dynamic Points." For professional results, you need to put your main subject on one of those Dynamic Points.
What is the subject? The girl. What's the secondary subject? The sign. The Rule of Thirds makes the crop easy. We can cut out the guy, bring the main subject onto a Dynamic Point and build a much stronger visual. Take a good look at the two pictures above. See how perfectly following the Rule of Thirds allowed us to remove tons of meaningless detail and strengthen the main message of the photo.
"Every face tells a story." So does every graphic. You want to tell that story as simply as possible with as much precision as you can muster. That means no meaningless bits. It means deciding if the space you choose to allow around your subject serves to make the photo better or whether it is just cluttering your image. If it clutters it up, crop it out.
Someone is going to write in and talk to me about "Negative Space." This is the notion that putting space around the main subject actually ads to the overall impact of the photo. And, while Negative Space can be very effective in enhancing your graphic, it is often just an excuse for wimpy cropping.
Ask yourself the Three Questions of the Crop:
1) Is my Main Subject on one of the Dynamic Points?
2) Is there meaningless poop in my graphic? Everything should have a REASON to be there. If it doesn't have a reason to be on your image, delete it. Poop is poop.
3) Does the graphic say what I WANT it to say? I will often do my best with an image. Then I will put it away for a couple of days. When I re-open it, I see it with fresh eyes. I'll often find that the stuff I thought was so very clever when I was doing it just looks dumb now.
Wednesday, July 9, 2008
It was a strange story. The first reports from the scene were that Lennon had escaped serious injury. Then came the news that he had been badly wounded and, following that, the sad news that he'd died.
Every visit to NYC will see me dragging my wife along so we can take a few minutes in Strawberry Field -- the John Lennon mosaic memorial in Central Park. While it is true that we just had the most wonderful trip there yet (see the blog below) -- my interest goes way beyond John Lennon.
I love to photograph Strawberry Fields because the people who show up there are so darn interesting. So are the items they leave behind and the stories that they share. I vividly recall making the trek to Strawberry Fields on a freezing day just before Christmas. There was just myself and a Japanese tourist. He stood there for a long time and then started to sing "Imagine." He didn't sing it particularly well -- but he was sincere. And he wasn't singing for me anyway.
Each time I have been there, someone has left something behind. Sometimes it's pictures. Often flowers. Sometimes a walrus or a guitar or a poem. But there has always been something. The interesting thing is that what's put on the ground usually stays there, untouched, which in my experience is very unusual for New York City.
Who does this? Until our most recent trip to Strawberry Fields, I had assumed that people brought stuff with them. But as I came back time and again I started to see that things were starting to look very much the same. Flowers were always arranged in a peace sign. I kept seeing the same props again and again.
The mystery was solved during a long conversation with Red, a street person who makes Strawberry Fields his hangout.
Who does all this work? Gary does.
Yup. According to "informed sources" (ie "Red" -- the guy the blog just below this is about) have revealed that Gary's behind everything. Red says a street person named "Gary" makes it his business to ensure the mosaic is treated with the reverence it deserves. He painstakingly sets out his props each morning and every day he makes the rounds of florist shops and they donate the flowers. It's one of those great New York stories that makes travel so very interesting.
Red thinks Gary does it because it allows him his "fifteen minutes of fame." But let's face it: cool is cool -- no matter why it's done.
Now you know.
As for photographing this great monument, you need to consider some things. It's flat. It's a mosaic. It's relatively big and it's round. (This could easily read "visually uninteresting" for a photographer.)
Light plays a key role in getting the mosaic picture just right. There is a time in the mid morning when the sunlight will dapple the mosaic and give you those rich tones like the one in the picture above. Use Photoshop to apply a Brightness/Contrast Adjustment Layer and you'll have the kind of graphic that would even make Gary smile. I'd planned for the photo to be off balance. I wanted shadows and flowers. I wanted the picture to be more than a shot of a round mosaic in Central Park.
But there are other considerations when photographing monuments. Give it a little thought. What's a monument for? It's purpose is to honor something or someone. Given that premise, it ALSO follows that the monument picture isn't just about the monument -- it's about the people who go to see it. Who are they? What do they leave behind? What do they do there?
We've all seen the Vietnam memorial, right? It has the names of soldiers who have died. Great concept -- lousy photograph. It's just a bunch of names on a flat stone. But most of us have seen pictures of men in uniform reaching forward and touching a name or weeping or sitting quietly and looking at the names. Suddenly the names on a flat stone can rip your heart out. Suddenly they aren't letters. They are people. Why? The subject (the wall) has been brought to life because it has been "humanized" by actual humans. You can't help but relate on some level to the graphic.
Words are easy to ignore.
People aren't. Figuring out a way to "humanize" a monument or statue will make your graphic talk to viewers in any language. We relate because an emotional connection has been built through a human element.
More than adding context (the fifty dollar way to say "where the thing is") -- the addition of people interacting with the monument adds an element the viewer can relate to. It humanizes stone.
Flowers on the Imagine mosaic do the same thing. They make the whole picture wonderful because they pose questions: "Who does this?" "Why do they do it?"
Of course now you know the answer -- at least as far as Strawberry Fields goes. It's Gary.
That's what Red says anyway.
There's no way he is ever going to read this. He has only an abstract knowledge of email. You'll find him most days around Strawberry Fields, the John Lennon mosaic memorial in New York's Central Park.
My wife and I arrived there on a blisteringly hot summer day and watched hundreds of tourists file past. Some paused to have their pictures taken squatting over the mosiac. Tour after tour came through and I found myself sharing the very dim New Yorker's view of "Herd Tourists." (So many people come and look...but they just don't actually see anything. This is quite unlike myself. I notice everything. Every blade of grass. Every insect in the air. Ahem.)
Sitting on a bench, surrounded by a huge backpack and several shopping bags is Red. His hair hangs well beyond his waist in one unruly mass of dreads. There's a ring in his nose and a stainless steel ball in his ear.
He swears at anyone who tries to take his picture -- but he's a compelling figure. There's this air of dignity about him. No. I'm not making it up. Here's a guy who can fit all his worldly "stuff" into a couple of bags and I am deep into "photographer mode." This means that if I see something or someone that will make for a good image, I will take it.
I admit it: I was trying to figure out how to get his picture without getting myself pounded into the ground by this guy.
But on this particular New York morning, I got a lesson that changed everything about how to photograph strangers.
My wife and I sat on a bench across from the Imagine mosaic (more on that in a later blog) and we were both silently watching Red bum a cigarette from a German tourist. Said German tourist is on the edge of getting seriously freaked out by this particular New Yorker and surrenders the smoke without a fight. Red thanks him and shambles back to his bench. He's a big guy, I think.
"Wow," says my wife. "Look at him."
I don't say anything since I know my woman well enough to figure out where this is going.
"You should go over there and talk to him," she urges.
I snort, desperately hoping to head this off while there exists even the remote possibility that it is indeed "head-offable." What I think is "Are you nuts? Have you heard that guy yell? Do you REALLY think it's a good idea to go up to a street person with a ring in his nose and start talking? Are you freaking nuts???"
But I grunt something that doesn't commit me to anything.
"Don't you want his picture?" she asks.
"No," I lie.
She looks at me in a way that makes me want to be somewhere else far away, gathers up her stuff and without another word goes to talk to him.
I follow because that's what every man should do when his wife does something that has the potential for getting herself knifed by a street person. I am muttering under my breath and praying at the same time.
"Hello, Sir," says my wife, laying her #10 Charming smile on him. She settles in on the bench beside him.
"How you doin'?" says Red.
"Do you mind if we talk with you for a minute?" asks my wife.
Red shrugs. I am trying to recall the precise series of defensive actions taken by Chuck Norris in the last "kick their butt" movie I saw. But I think my days of flying drop kicks are over. (Okay. They never were.)
They get into a conversation. Red explains that he's from Texas, that he served in the military, had aspirations to be a history teacher, has been a roadie for the Grateful Dead and has worked on movies as a grip. He sleeps on the stairs in front of a synagogue..and is only afraid for his safety when the skinheads come around. He's fascinating. Well spoken. Intelligent. An amazing storyteller.
A cynical part of me is wondering if it is all true. But I work with actors every day. This guy isn't acting and there's a ring of truth to the way he speaks. He's not trying to impress anyone. Believe him or not. He doesn't care.
My wife asks if I can take his picture. I hold my breath. Does this woman have NO fear? Hasn't she seen the way he responded to others who tried to take his picture?
"Naw," he says. "Go ahead. Can you guys throw me a couple of bucks?"
We already were going to -- and I start taking pictures. I had this absurd feeling as I did so. Here I am a hefty tourist with an expensive camera, a full belly and new clothes taking pictures of a street person, like he is an exhibit in a zoo. I really don't feel that way. And I really don't want him to think that...and I have a sudden understanding for why he yells at tourists who point their cameras at him and start shooting...like he was a fire hydrant or a building.
Y'know...like I was planning to. It shames me just a little. I can't really explain it any more clearly than that.
Suddenly I wanted to tell people something about Red. That's what the picutre above and this whole blog is about. I really want you to know there is a human being of wonderful depth waiting for you at the John Lennon memorial in Central Park. And I don't want him to come across as just another street crazy. I want to show him to you as a human being.
How is that different from the way I used to do it? To be honest...my most likely course of action before this would be to put on the telephoto lens and "steal" a shot. I would have robbed Red of a fraction of his autonomy...and I would have robbed myself of encountering one of the coolest New Yorkers I have ever met.
Think about it for a second. I would have taken a furtive shot and hoped for the best. I would not have accorded my subject the respect that allowed him to relax. He would have been a "street person" photograph -- instead of a man named Red.
My wife, who makes her own bracelets, took one off of her wrist and presented it to him. (Red has rings, earrings, bits of cloth woven into his massive dreads...) and he took it with genuine respect. He wrapped it around a strand of dreads and admired it with the joyful intensity that only someone who has very little can muster.
We left our umbrella and twenty bucks with our friend that morning. And he left us with a wonderful travel memory and photos that allow us to glimpse his heart.
So if you're travelling to NYC and you happen to see a man with a ring in his nose and dreads down below his waist don't be afraid to sit and pass an hour or two with him. Your time will be well spent. If you remember, tell him David and Sheree will be back to say "hey" one day soon.
And try to start your conversation by calling him "Sir." He'll like that.