Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Imagine THAT!

Where were you when you heard John Lennon had been shot? I was a reporter working at a rock radio station. It's one of the few times I was able to break into regular programming with a news flash.

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.

Photographing Street People in New York

His name is Red.

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 he was a fire hydrant or a building.

Y' 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 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.