This is what I've been doing this summer. I'm still uncovering my office from the disruption.
This is what I've been doing this summer. I'm still uncovering my office from the disruption.
One reason the contradance calendar looks so good is that I have a great team. The designer, Joanne Kelly-Lauterjung, is a dancer and understands the community. She is living in Myanmar these days, and we worked on the calendar via email and Dropbox. AdPro Litho in Mukilteo is the printer, who did a fantastic job last year. Jenny Anttilla is the print broker who brought us together and manages our communication.
But my secret weapon is Dick Busher, of Cosgrove Editions. He is one of the industry's preeminent experts on color proofing and printing, with too many awards to keep track of. He publishes small run, ultra-high quality art and photography books; the latest is "Johsel Namkung: A Retrospective," a stunning monograph of the Northwest landscape photographer. It's well worth the $175 price tag.
He has tweaked the color and tonality of every single photo in the calendar. He managed the conversion from RGB to CMYK, a task that generally scares me. Every pixel is in gamut. The Delta E of his proofs are astonishingly low. The calendar is going to look fantastic because of this close attention.
I know just enough about color management to be dangerous. He fixed the color cast that I inadvertendly gave every image and made most of them difficult to convert to CMYK. Without adult supervision, this calendar could have looked dreadful. It looks like my next purchase is going to have to be a newer, better monitor, and a newer monitor profiler.
I just looked over the latest proofs, and made some modest color changes to several images. I'll approve the altered proofs early next week, and then the files go to the printer.
Workshops are a crucial ingredient for a photographer. They formed my sensibility as as photographer early on, when I was a student at the Sun Valley Center for the Arts in Idaho in the late 70's. I still draw upon the lessons I learned from Sam Abell, over a decade ago, at the Santa Fe Workshops. I thought the pinnacle I would reach as a photographer was when I would start leading workshops myself and join that august company. Little did I realize that I would find that fulfillment at a contra dance camp.
“How To Take Dance Photos That Don't Suck,” was the ambitious title I gave to a workshop I thought to throw into the BACDS American Week schedule, in an effort to boost enrollment (I'm on the planning committee). It seems everyone takes pictures at contra dances now. Most of them are awful.
I have a few ideas on how to make them less awful, to the point that I'm self-publishing my second calendar of contra dance photos. That particular body of work appears destined to become my legacy as a photographer, if I acquire any degree of fame at all before I die. I've been photographing this subculture for over 25 years, which is as long as I've been a dancer.
What I found out is that I really like teaching. I'd never done this before, at this sustained level, meeting every day for a week. And I had a blast. My students had a blast. They grew as photographers, before my eyes. I like sharing what I know, which is apparently a lot. I like supporting these budding documentarians and photographers, regardless of the level they are when they come to the table.
Mostly, I infected them with my bias toward imagery, which is that form is as important, if not significantly more crucial, than content. That you exploit what the technology you have can do, and revel in its limitations. We had two people who shot with iPads. Four shot with their phones. I shot one night of dancing with my iPhone to demonstrate what was possible, as a kind of eat-what-you-kill exercise. There were just two DSLRs in the bunch. Only one person knew what RAW capture meant.
Obviously, this was not a technical workshop. It was a how-to-see workshop. It was a how to be conscious of the moment workshop. It didn't matter what camera you used. It was about finding the photograph. I started each session with a brief talk about an issue, in which I mostly talked extemporaneously based on what my students were coming to grips with, and then we looked at each other's work.
My biggest fear was that people would copy what I did. After the second day I ceased to show my own work. As it turned out, I had no need to worry. What was illustrative for everyone was how individualistic their work was. I believe that every photograph is, in some measure, a self portrait. You respond to what inside yourself is mirrored in the outside world, and the compelling drive for coherence is what drives your growth as a photographer. It certainly showed in the work. Everyone grew as an image maker during the week.
I couldn't be more proud of my students. Here's what they did:
One of the hardest environments to make good photos is in exotic, sensational situations. This may not be evident on the surface; after all, what better place could there be to get a great photo than someplace where strange and unusual things are going on? What ends up happening, more often than not, is that all the juice of the image is in the subject, often of a sort we've seen a thousand times before. It's the Lonely Planet syndrome—exotic-natives-that-don't-look-like-us photos. The elements that make a good photograph, regardless of subject, are often not in the equation.
The Fremont Solstice Parade is about as rife a target for this sort of photography as you can find in Seattle. Outrageous costumes, a plethora of nudity—it can be hard to bring anything personal or unique to this kind of situation. That didn't appear to dissuade anyone—I don't think I've ever seen such a density of high end DSLR cameras as I did today at the Parade.
I've been going to and taking photos at this parade for over 20 years. I can't claim I'm not subject to the Lonely Planet syndrome myself, but it's in my mind constantly. How can I make something of this situation that is primarily photographic, and not merely sensational?
One tactic I used today was to see where the photographers were aiming at, and go elsewhere. They, of course, were ringing the staging area for the naked bicyclists—all guys, with long lenses, behind a yellow tape. Once upon a time I could wander among the cyclists, make a connection, and I could feel like we made a photograph together of something other than about a voyeuristic gaze. Now, it's almost staged to be only that. I turned my back on that scene, and looked elsewhere.
People in colorful costumes, tall pointy hats, on stilts—well, it's hard for that not to be about a photograph of people in tall pointy hats, colorfully dressed, some of them on stilts. What I did was, I stood in one spot and watched how the components of a frame could come together. It's like street photography anywhere. Set the frame, wait for the moment to enter. I'm trying to make a photograph here, not just exploit the strangeness.
The strangeness, of course, can't help but be my subject. It's where I am, a strange place. But I try and organize my response to the strangeness from a photographic point of view, and from a desire to obtain a connection from my subject, when I can. I'm chasing photographs here, not trophies.
A good test of the power of such photographs is to consider: if the subject of the image were not some exotic native of a strange land, but someone or something ordinary, would it still make a good photograph? Would there be a compelling narrative, or organization of the frame, or some treatment that kept the intrigue? Does the subject matter add to those elements, or merely replace them?
My photos of the naked bicyclists—they mostly fail that test. That subject matter swamps my ability to respond. I guess I was looking at mostly one thing. The rest now—they have some potential.
See more on my Flickr Photostream: http://www.flickr.com/photos/dougplummer/ (You may need to be logged in and have your settings set to Moderate to see the naughty ones.)
What was most notable were the birds. As the peak of the eclipse came to an end and the sky began to brighten, the birds started to sing. As though it were morning.
An eclipse is the world as we know it turned utterly wrong. The sun is not supposed to disappear midday. It excites something core in us when we witness it, like an elemental, limbic fear. Everything about an eclipse feels very strange.
I arrived at the overlook 5 hours before and staked out a good spot next to the first pioneers, Brent and Kathy, from Florida. We were on the Everett Memorial Highway out of Mt Shasta City, on a high perch looking over the valley and the Siskyous beyond.
Just before the eclipse began there were hundreds more, cars lining the road as far as you could see. People crowded the slope opposite the road and they clustered at the overlook pullout. There were old people and young couples and families, a boy wearing a Superman cape, middle-aged new-agers playing a tape of a hindu chant, repeating and repeating and repeating, we feared it would become the soundtrack of the eclipse, until I gently suggested that they might want to turn it down a little. There was the clutch of astronomy geeks with the Celestrons. There was a gathering of fiddlers across the road and under the trees, giving a concert of reels and jigs. There was a group of white robed Spanish speakers. There was a long white haired, full bearded, roly-poly drunk wandering through. There was the expert, pontificating on what was going to happen, completely clueless as to the actual facts. There were loose dogs, labradors to chihuahuas, wandering underfoot. There were coyotes calling in the distance.
At first contact the crowd began to quiet. People took pictures, through eclipse goggles, with their cellphones. The world slowly began to dim. The patches of sunlight through the trees began to take on crescent shapes. The shadows sharpened. The coyotes called. The world dimmed more quickly now, more than half of the sun was gone. I noted a 2 stop drop, ¼ the light than when we started, then half again and then another drop. The world felt very queer. The scimitared sun thinned, the horns grew and wrapped around the black orb and the disk was now wrapped in a ring. The crowd cheered.
I've been through five previous total eclipses. I expected an annular eclipse, where the sun is not completely covered and the corona doesn't glow in a starry night sky, to be a big step down. I'd been likening it to being on a date and only getting to third base. Nice, but no big payoff.
I was wrong. It's more like a real eclipse than I thought. The anticipation felt the same. The same, limbic system shudder. The physical phenomenon were the same, the quickening dimness, the sharpened shadows, the birds going to roost. There was a climax of sorts, a soft plateau of one, just less intense. Then came the return of the light, just like a total eclipse, the sense that the parabola had been crested and the arc had reversed, and the world was being set right again.
In preparation for the workshop I'm presenting this summer, "How to Take Dance Photos that Don't Suck," I've begun practicing with lo-fi camera capture. Most people don't have pro cameras and fast lenses. I want to do a workshop for the casual shooter who wants to boost their success rate. I thought it a good idea to see what that looks like personally.
I shot still photos of the dance last night with my iPhone 4. I've done video in this hall with this iPhone, and it's a surprisingly good video camera. Stills? Not so much. Even with my Canon 5D Mark II's, this is a challenging hall to take a good photo in. With the iPhone, I found the best I could do was "interesting", impressionistic images. This is what I will have to hold as the best option for the typical, badly lit dance hall.
One thing I'm learning is that it's a lot harder to previsualize your shot with an unconventional camera. I've never been fond of compose-on-the-back-of-the camera cameras anyway, as I seem to need to envelope my entire eyesight, closed off as it were, in a through-the-lens point of view, to feel like I know where I am. Camera smashed against face style. With the phone I lose that. The decisive moment is a lot harder to discern and anticipate. It may be a reason why everyone's Instagram shots are mostly of things that don't move.
Another thing to expect with iPhone dance photography is a really high failure rate. No matter how intentional you are with choosing your shot, mostly it's not going to work. A big issue is shutter lag--you have to learn to fire ahead of the shot. Which is going to limit your ability to compose it. With the show shutter speed in a dark hall, the best approach is to pan with the action and hope something looks sharp. Accept that you will suck, most of the time. I shot well above 200 photos. I threw a hundred of them out in the first edit. Maybe 10 merit further attention. You can see those here.
I have several camera apps on the phone--Mattebox and CameraPrime, among others. I can't tell if the shots look better, but the interfaces made shooting with them more difficult than the vanilla OS camera app. In camera processing is a non-issue for me, as I'm loading them into Photoshop, but I'm going to have to address this issue in my workshop.
Can you tell I'm at the bottom end of a steep learning curve? I'm taking suggestions for where I can get educated.
I have a long history of panoramic images as my go-to format for my personal work. I composed an entire book once, on my travels through Ireland, with largely black and white panoramics shot with an Xpan. Since shooting in digital, I have casually played with stitched pans, and sometimes post one on my Daily Photo blog.
Last week I took delivery of a panoramic kit from Really Right Stuff that allows multiple rows of shooting to make a stitched pan. The way to do stitch pan shots right is to be on a leveled tripod, and with an apparatus that permits the camera to rotate around the nodal point of the lens. That way, when you rotate the camera, there is no parallax issue. Objects at varying distances from the lens stay aligned no matter how you move the camera. I've used a panoramic base for years that allows me to shoot a single row of images that are easily stitched together. With this 3 way gimbal setup, I can shoot up, down, and sideways, and the camera is centered around a parallax-free point in 3 dimensions. I can shoot 360° if I want.
Although there is a Photoshop option to merge images into a panoramic format, I use a stand alone app called PTGui, which allows very fine control of all parts of the stitch process. It analyzes the component images, finds the overlapping points, and warps the images to whatever panoramic projection you choose.
The image from 2 days ago was with a Mercator projection. In today's photo, I shot in all directions from a point under my madrona tree. Every direction was covered. I chose a 360x360 circular projection, and this is what I got. I'm just at the beginning of learning how to previsualize this format, and how to control the software to achieve something beyond a novelty shot.
They say they've been dancing in Nelson for 200 years. It feels completely true, regardless of the actual historical facts of the matter. If the heart and soul of traditional contra dance lives anywhere, it is in Nelson, New Hampshire.
This little town hall, in a flyspeck of a village on the top of a mountain, is the Mecca of contra dance that every good dancer needs to visit one in his or her lifetime. Do it in the winter, when the students and the summer people are gone. Go in on a deep, below-zero night, change out of your winter layers (though not all of them, the hall is still chilly), bang the snow off your boots. If you're early, Lisa will be concluding the musicians slow tunes class. The dancers will drift in, singly, a couple, a family (there are always kids at the dance). Someone puts out the fiddle case for the $2 admission. Whoever volunteered the previous week to make the brownies or cookies is laying them out on the table. Harvey shows up with his fiddle, sits on the fold-up chair on the stage. Bob sits at the piano. "Line up for a contra," barks Don, in a clipped, Yankee accent. "First dance is Moneymusk."
Anytime I'm in New England I try to stay over on a Monday and catch the Nelson dance. My first time was in 2003, and I felt like I had entered a slower paced, locavore mode of dancing. Eight years and a half dozen visits later, and it hasn't changed much.
In this main photo Don Primrose is calling. He tells me the dancers are Jaime Contois and Kirk Dale (if you're wondering, I tried to get hold of everyone who was going to appear prominently in a big photo to get their permission). The small photo in the middle shows Harvey Tolman holding his fiddle in his inimical way, and Bob McQuillen in the background on piano. These musicians are national treasures--click on the links to learn more.
Here is a video from Nelson that I made in 2008
The Fiddling Frog video is the most ambitious contra video I've made to date, and I couldn't have done this by myself. I'm learning the obvious, that in film production, solo is a harder path.
Michael Baird approached me at Dancing Fool in Seattle last month, with an idea to saturate a dance at the upcoming Fiddling Frog weekend in Pasadena with cameras and specialized gear. He was hoping to really ramp up the production values from the typical contra dance video.
I subsequently decided to attend the dance, and to help manage the production. He had a crew ready to go, and I added my suggestions on how to proceed. I had my 2 Canon 5Ds, one of which I handed off, and a GoPro, which went on a dancer. Michael's colleague Tony had his 2 Canon tape cameras with one on a floor dolly. We gathered footage from several dances on Saturday morning at the Frog, Michael managing one crew, me working alone.
I downloaded all the footage on my MacBook Pro, organized it into folders, and set it to work overnight to convert everything to ProRes (using MPEG Streamclip). I threw everything into a Final Cut 7 sequence, pointed PluralEyes at it, and had a (mostly) synced 2 hour timeline by the time I left. I copied everything (200gb) onto a hard drive for Michael to play with as he saw fit. I was going to see what I could come up with on my own.
I captured sound separately on a Zoom H4N recorder set to 4 channel—2 for a line out from the board, 2 from the onboard microphones. The mix sounded great to my ears, with enough hall ambience to feel the space, and clean capture from the stage. I tossed all the camera sound—it's only used to sync the tracks.
I started with a single timeline with the entire morning's soundtrack. I chopped away all the parts that didn't have video, and the dances that had only one or two cameras on them. Remaining were three dances that had potential. I ended up making a medley of all three.
A contra dance repeats about fifteen times. I only need one or two of those cycles, but I have all the other cycles to draw footage from. Very little of what you see in the final piece is actually in sync with the original music track. What you see in the final is a 3 minute condensation of three and a half hours of footage.
The first task is to cut the music track. I highlight the sequence, turn the volume up, and on every 8th beat I tap the “M” key to leave a marker. A full dance sequence is 8 of those 8 beat marks, and I blade them apart. Then I piece together a music track from those parts, in this case, from six different pieces to make the final track. I'm disregarding the video at this point. At the transitions I tweak down to the single frame level to try and hide the discontinuities.
From there it's a matter of building a believable sequence of dance and music edits in a new Timeline. I edit the footage and throw out everything I know I'm not going to use. I stack the good bits on top of each other in sync and start trimming away Every move in this piece is in the proper sequence in the dance, but none of them happened together. I'm looking for the right rhythm of slow and fast cuts, tight and wide shots, movement that flows from one cut to the next. This is the kind of work where I lose track of time and space, I forget to eat or pee, and I'm about as deeply engaged as it is possible to be. It's my favorite part of the process.
After about four hours I emerge from the cloud with a very rough cut. The next day I refine everything to a final cut, apply color correction, compress, and post.
This is a repost of an interview that appeared on the Country Dance and Song Society blog.
Doug Plummer has taken some of the greatest photos and videos of contra dance out there. This year, in conjunction with CDSS, he’s put out the 2012 Contradance Calendar, which collects some of his photography into a beautiful wall calendar.
I’ve been using mine and every month makes me smile. It’s a truly wonderful holiday gift for dance family and friends. Order it at the CDSS store. (Order by December 20 and get a free upgrade to expedited shipping.)
I love both Doug’s photos and this calendar, so I asked Doug a few questions about how it both came about.
- Max Newman
What inspired you to start taking photos at dances?
DP: I’ve been photographing contra dance as long as I have been a dancer, which is to say, decades. As a newly single 30-something, I I fell into the Seattle contra dance scene in the mid 1980′s, and it came to be my primary social life. I was starting my professional photography career then too. I was moving out of being an assistant to commercial photographers and starting to get my own clients. I’d always shot personal work, and dancing was the most compelling event in my personal life. It was inevitable that it would be a major subject for me. By now there are probably 60,000 dance images in the archive.
Why did you decide to do a dance calendar?
DP: The calendar project came about because of my friend Joanne Lauterjung Kelly, a designer and a dancer. Back in 2010 she asked about using my work in her annual calendar that she sends out to her clients and friends. It was a small, modest project, but I ended up declining the offer (she really likes cropping photos, and I wouldn’t let her crop mine). Nonetheless, we talked about producing something I could live with for the next year, and that’s how it began.
We posted hundreds of photos on a wall in her office, and we winnowed the possibilities down to what seemed like the ones that could survive scrutiny for a month. I kept the semi-finalists posted in my office and, over a couple months, found the ones that survived my scrutiny. And then I looked for the small photographs that supported the large image. I tried to have each month be a theme, often about the location of the dance. So there’s a Nelson month, a Concord month, and an Asheville month. Unavoidably, there are several Pacific Northwest months, but I tried to have them look different from each other. There’s a close-up-of-hands-on-musical-instruments month.
There's a gazillion details about calendars that you never think about until you design one. How big a date box do you want? What about previous-subsequent months on the same page? Which holidays? And when do they start? My mother-in-law has a rant about how calendars never get the Jewish holidays right (I punted—Passover “Begins at sundown” on 4/6/12, but Yom Kippur is on 9/26/12. There's a logic there, really.). I like knowing the moon phases, but decided full moon and new moon were sufficient. They're subtle, white and black dots, except for August. Figure out what's special about August.
Why do this project in conjunction with CDSS?
DP: I’ve been talking with CDSS for years about some sort of joint project with my photographs. I’ve wanted for a long time to do a book of my dance work, and I’ve been approaching publishers about this (no takers yet, and I have not been willing to self-publish.) A calendar, however, seemed like a lower risk venture that I could fund myself and that would have a well defined audience. CDSS seemed like the obvious gateway to that audience, and I wanted to structure the finances so that it would benefit them and their local affiliates. We discussed the project early in the year, jointly arrived at a price point that they thought would work, and what the potential audience might be for it. I wanted the imprimatur of CDSS as a way to say, this is more than about me and my photographs. This is about the community of dance, and a way to share and support that.
What’s your approach to taking dance photos?
DP: There’s a kind of bifurcated quality to my approach to dance photography. On the surface, it’s obvious that I’m making a document of a particular kind of social event. But the real drive for me were the photographic challenges to find and make a compelling, coherent image in a complex, dynamic environment. This, now, was back in the days of slow transparency film. It was a big technical challenge, and I figured out a style that included combining ambient and strobe lighting, movement, and a visceral attentiveness to the compelling moment. I remember seeing one similar body of work in an issue of Aperture Magazine on swing dancers, but I don’t think anyone else was mining this particular landscape for photographs the way I was.
Now, of course, you can’t go to a dance without seeing a whole lot of people taking photos or making videos. I was at the Peterborough Fall Ball a couple months ago, and the number of people wielding high end DSLR’s, with strobes, was startling. Every dance has multiple Facebook albums of it posted the next day. Photographs are part of the social currency of the dance scene now.
DP: The subject of how to take better dance photographs and video is a long one, and I have a lot of suggestions and opinions. Let’s save that for another blog post.
What are your hopes for future projects like this?
DP: What I hope for the calendar is that this becomes a regular fixture in the community, that I will produce it every year and it can help support the community and support my travels to document it. This year’s calendar I have to view as the initial steep slope of the learning curve and as an investment in a longer term project—which is another way of saying that it’s going to lose money. Next year I’ll probably launch it as a Kickstarter project and fund it in advance.
One ancillary benefit that I hadn’t anticipated is that I discovered there is a demand for high quality photos and video to promote events. I went to the BACDS American Week and posted photos and video on Facebook every day while I was there. I’m the ePublicity person for next year’s camp now. I’ve gotten invitations to come to other dance camps and do the same thing, and they’re putting me on staff to do it. This is how I’m going to get the content for the 2013 calendar.
And what else are you working on?
DP: I’m doing a lot of video work these days. At the moment I’m working on a series of 8 short documentaries for Northwest Folklife Festival documenting various music and dance communities in the Northwest. They’ve ranged from Scandinavian to Hindu to Hawaiian to Gospel to Old Time to Shape Note Singing. They’re about to launch a new site just for these, but for now you can go to Northwest Stories.