Bob McQuillen wrote me a tune! If you're a member of the contra dance and music subculture, you know the significance of this to me. If not, here goes.
Bob is a treasure in the contra dance community. He's even a nationally recognized treasure, a recipient of an NEA National Heritage Fellowship in 2002. For over 50 years he has been playing for contra dances in southern New Hampshire, and he is also the genre's most prolific tunesmith. We played his "Amelia's Waltz," one of his best known tunes, at our wedding. His published tunes number well over a thousand.
Bob visits Seattle every year for Folklife, and he stays across the street with Frank and Dina Blade. On the fourth day of Folklife, he called me over to his seat at the edge of the dance floor, and handed me a photocopy out of his music notebook. "Plummer's Polka," it was titled.
He stopped over this afternoon to coach Alex and Tracey on how it should be played. "About half again as fast," he said. "Polkas are fast. Though this may be more of a hornpipe. Or maybe it's a shaddish. It's titled Polka because it's alliterative."
I have it on tape now. When I figure out how I go from cassette to .wav file I'll post it.
I’ve been photographing more at this Folklife than I have in years. My dance photos are getting more abstract and weird by the year, but I’ve been shooting elsewhere on the grounds as well. I’m posting one a day on the Daily, but here is a link to more: http://dougplummer.com/folklife/index.htm
Why do I look for the hard photos? Because all the easy ones are taken.
I mean this specifically in terms of shooting in a dynamic, difficult environment, like the contra dance floor at the Folklife Festival. I’ll pause in my own dancing for several sets, get my camera out of the checked backpack storage in the back, and figure out how to do yet another contra dance photo that I haven’t seen before.
I’ve been photographing the contra dance scene ever since I started dancing, back in the mid 80’s. The contra dance section of my website gets the lion’s share of the site’s traffic, hundreds of hits a day. Now that the business is flush again I’m thinking about reviving my notion of a big national sweep of the country as a dance gypsy, and finally making that book of dance photos.
I am at the head of the center set in the Roadhouse. A couple hundred people are on the dance floor. People are in motion, grasping hands, swinging, balancing, moving back and forth in long lines. A contra dance, though, has only so many elements, and they repeat after 64 bars of music. I’m watching the structure of this particular dance, looking for a repetitive element in the way the dancers are moving, and how that works in the frame. There’s a lot of thinking involved in this, but a lot of responding on that other level, the what-feeling-am-I-having-in-my-body sensation, and that is what I want to channel here.
Technically, here’s what’s going on. I want a slow shutter speed to get the ceiling lights to drag all over the frame. A lot of the time they’ll drag over the important part of the picture. In fact, most of the shots will look just awful. I’m using a flash, so that will freeze some of the action. I want to use a fairly high ISO so that the flash exposure will be modest and won’t blast a big burst in the dancer’s face and annoy them any more than I already am. I also stay out of eye level with them, and I shoot from below.
My f stop is pretty high, about f/11, so I don’t have to worry as much about focus. The autofocus is not up to this situation, so I turn it off and pick a manual focus point. My shutter speeds are around ¼ of a second—I’m going to get lots of motion. I’ve set the flash on rear curtain sync so that the motion drag is behind the subject as it moves. What I’m finding, as I shoot, is that I have to anticipate where the photo is going to be a quarter of a second before it happens, as that’s when the flash goes off.
Hands, lots of hands. This dance has a lot of balancing with other people in it, lots of grasping of hands. That's the photo, I’ve decided. I get in the groove of the music and the dance, and I release the shutter (panning with the action, blurring all those lights) way before people grasp their hands. By the time the flash fires, they’re connected.
With digital, I can bang away at this forever, or until I feel full with this shot. I am not looking at the LCD every time to decide if I’m done. That screen is too seductive. You want to examine every shot, but it’s crucial that you don’t or you’ll take offline the part of your brain that is engaged with the moment and seeing the photo. I glance at the screen after a half dozen shots to see if I’m anywhere close to anything interesting, or to see if I’m blowing the shot by massively underexposing or overexposing it. I’ll make course corrections, but I don’t use it as my main source of information. I think of the LCD as the rear view mirror I glance at while I’m driving.
The dance ends. I check my camera, and get back on the floor.
Martin Stabler over at Sightlines called my attention to a review of Henry Wessel’s photographs in this past Sunday’s NYT Arts and Leisure section. It’s a good thing he did. The unread Sunday Times was in that big slush pile every newspaper subscriber has in their living room. Robin works through the paper all week, and yells at me if I try to recycle it prematurely.
The article mentions the influence that this relatively obscure photographer has had on a generation of photographers. In 1976 I was in a workshop taught by him at the Sun Valley Center for the Arts. I count myself as one of those so influenced, and he has been a seminal influence on my style for the past 30 years. His work appears casual and innocently snapshotish, but there is actually a deep formalism at work in the photos that rivals the precision of a Walker Evans.
In the article, Wessel speaks to a process I refer to often: "Part of it has to do with the discipline of being actively receptive. At the core of this receptivity is a process that might be called soft eyes. It is a physical sensation. You are not looking for something. You are open, receptive. At some point you are in front of something you cannot ignore."
There’s a hint in the article about a key part of the photographic feedback loop that doesn’t receive much attention. But it’s vital. Sure, you’re open and receptive, and the images are pouring through this process of yours. They’re piling up on the contact sheets, or the digital card. What then?
"One of Mr. Wessel’s rules is to put his contact sheets away for a year before deciding which images to print. ‘If you let some time go by before considering work that you have done, you move toward a more objective position in judging it,’ he said. ‘The pleasure of the subjective, physical experience in the world is a more distant memory and less influential.’"
That is a disciplined, rigorous solution. I wonder what my clients would think if I tried it?
"The function of the overwhelming majority of your artwork is simply to teach you how to make the small fraction of your artwork that soars."
I came across this quote (from "Art & Fear", Bayles and Orland) on the quotations page of auspiciousdragon.net. It points to an important piece of the motivation and process we engage in as imagemakers.
I photograph every day. I don’t go out with the intention of making a masterpiece every day. Most of what I do is process, not product. I do it to keep my eye limber, and to stay conscious of my ordinary, everyday rhythm and routine. I do it to remind myself that the special moments "worth" photographing occur only because you devote your attention to seeing them. Even when I’m working for a client and I have to come back with the goods, most of my shooting is not purposefully oriented to making that one final, stellar image. That comes about while I’m doing that other thing, exploring where I am visually and viscerally, with my camera. I know my process well enough that I'm confident, at the end of the day, there should be a shot good enough for my client to publish. Or for me to put up as the Photo of the Day.
I can take pretty good pictures most of the time. The really powerful ones, they’re gifts. I’m always amazed when I come upon that one photo I made that does soar way above the others. How did that happen? It is almost never an intentional act at the time. Sometimes I don’t even recognize it for awhile. It emerges out of the proof prints (if I’m working analog) or I have to be directed to it by the profound effect that an image seems to be happening on people who see it.
It is a mysterious, compelling process. I don’t need answers, but I do like that there’s so much about it I don’t know.
I confirmed arrangements today for my first workshop teaching venture. It’s going to be held at the Newspace Center for Photography in Portland, Oregon on July 29th, and it’s tentatively titled, "The Photograph Within." I’m team teaching it with my wife, Robin.
Every photographer has to come to grips with an essential decision: how do you know that a photograph is in front of you? In my process, a lot of what I pay attention to is visceral. My internal state has nearly everything to do with that decision to photograph. It can be merely cognitive, in placing the frame around the world in front of me until I have a pleasing or familiar arrangement of shapes. But I think the deep work happens when you learn to pay attention to more visceral clues. You feel it. Emotionally, sure. But, you feel it in your body. You feel it in your gut. You feel the energetic presence in an environment, and figure out where to stand in a place. You feel the connection with a person, but you feel it inside yourself. When you can harness that sensation to your photography, you start growing the work, and yourself.
That gut feeling can be learned. That’s Robin’s part. She knows a lot of performance enhancement techniques. She knows the physiology of the brain, and how it connects with our psychological state. What’s she’s really good at is uncovering that slippery pathway between our unconscious yearning and its expression. My job is to focus the work toward a photographic outcome.
This is a first time venture for myself, though Robin has led dozens of workshops for other therapists. I’ve always wanted to do something professional jointly, and this is our opportunity. Now we have to write a workshop this summer.
Another award came my way today, this time from the International Color Awards. There’s been a bunch of new photography awards shows the last few years—this one, the Lucie, the Spider Awards. The first year of the Lucie Awards I won first prize in the landscape division, which got me a ticket to the awards ceremony in LA. I’ve gotten an honorable mention every year since, which is a good excuse for a press release when it happens.
Which is the whole point, I suppose. I enter these things because of the self-promotion opportunities. The judges for the ICA are drawn mostly from the advertising industry, so the winning work is a bit on the slick side. I didn’t exactly win anything in this competition, I made it to the "Nominee" stage, the top 50. Still, it offers modest bragging rights.
The shot that got "nominated" is an old one, from the mid 1980's (this contest has no limitation on date, so I get to pick through my "greatest hits"). I was tramping through a marsh, in rubber boots, and I came across this dead Great Blue Heron. I was in the "assistant" phase of my photographic career, and didn't have a lot of money for film. I took three frames.
I've been getting various emails of praise from my client and the schools about the work I've just completed. But this note just came in. It is the most meaningful to me because it came from one of my photo subjects.
Doug. I am glad that YU chose you to take these photos- you have a personality draped around your neck, not just a camera. Your personal viewpoint and warmth shed an effusive grace and beauty into your work like a permeating light that makes your work glow. You stand out as an artist in your field.
Hope you are having an enjoyable week of photo shoots, Shavua Tov and Good Shabbos, Jeremy
My ability to effectively process my RAW files requires frequent breaks and change of tasks. My eyes and brain go batty after a couple of hours. So I’m going to engage the writing part of my brain for a bit.
The last three weeks has been, if nothing else, about managing a tsunami of data. These college shoots are high volume events as far as photos go. So, here’s my workflow for an on-location, multi-day assignment.
The first layer of data capture is the compact flash cards. I carry seven 2 gigabyte cards, and four 1 gig. A 2 gig card holds about 115 RAW format images. So I have a capacity for about a thousand exposures. It is usually, but not always, enough for a day of shooting. I’ll be buying some more cards before my next assignment.
Each card is numbered, and I always use the cards on sequence. When a card is full I turn it over in the wallet, so it’s obvious which cards are full and which are unused. I tried out several wallets before I found one I liked: a Lowepro case that holds seven cards and zips securely closed.
I carry around a laptop during my shoot (a Fujitsu Lifebook, 4 lbs). I try and take several breaks during the day where I can get off my feet. Downloading cards makes me feel like I’m productive during those break times, and it’s a good way to see how the shoot is proceeding. I use Photo Mechanic as my ingest and review software. For awhile I also used a dedicated card reader device to download the data, but I decided it was redundant. It introduced an element of uncertainty as to which cards were downloaded onto which device.
In the evening I go through the take on the laptop, and delete the obvious trash images. It’s about 10% of the shoot generally. My digital charge is based on the data volume after deletion. If a client is working me too many hours, and I don’t have time to edit, then they’ll also pay the premium for those dead images. Then I duplicate the images twice onto two 80gb USB hard drives. When I have the data securely in two separate devices, then I’ll format my cards. I log in my hours and the gigabytes on a spreadsheet. Then I go to bed.
On this assignment I took the additional step of burning DVDs on the weekends, and shipping them home. If something were to happen to my luggage or computer on this trip, I wanted to minimize the disaster.
This was a long assignment, which maxed out my data capacity and then some. I frequently had to delete files from the laptop and defragment the drive (I have just 40gb available for storage on it—it may be time to start looking for a replacement). In New York I bought another hard drive, a 100gb Lacie. I should have bought two, as I couldn’t puzzle out a way to have a duplicate set of all the data (115 gb by the end) divided between three drives.
That’s over 6000 images. It’s all on the local hard drive now (and the server). It will take me the rest of the month to chew through this mountain.