Archive for the ‘Thoughts’ Category
I’ve been corresponding with a young photog, currently in the military, and about to take steps in civilian life. He’s been writing me articulate letters, filled with questions, trying his best to sort out the ongoing mystery of why we do something we continue to suck at most of the time. Not just do it, but love it. He’s had a couple tours in Iraq, and is currently stationed in Asia. A new life is looming, and he’s trying to make a sensible plan for a future in photography, which of course is a future that will defy logic and any measure of common sense. He’s passionate and talented, and wondering which way to go.
I said I’ve been corresponding. That’s quite generous. I’ve been a lousy letter writer. So many times I’ve wanted to respond, and events, an airplane or just plain sleep overtook me. I finally made a stab at a mildly complete answer to his archive of letters, and below is a piece of it. His persistent, thoughtful questions brought me back to a day when I might have made my first successful picture.
You made the choice to follow a photographic path sometime ago, and have followed that path with zeal and passion. That pursuit is something we share, to be sure. When I “found” photography, it drew me like nothing I had ever experienced. Up to that time, I was completely non-committal in all aspects of my life. Indifferent in school, a so-so athlete, just another beer drinking college kid, out there on Marshall St. Never thought about logging the 10,000 hours with anything and certainly hadn’t encountered one thing at that time that seemed to warrant that kind of effort.
But photography! Now this was something that involved the head, heart and hands in equal measure. This was balance. This needed no explanation or defense. It needed to be done. It required work. It became the focus of my life. And, a bit like a big rock blocking the way of the stream and roiling the waters, it has stayed there, in my consciousness, day and night, mocking me, taunting my relentlessly puny efforts. Day after day, year after year, I have gone after that rock, methodically, but sometimes with a vengeance, using the camera in my hands as one would wield a sledge, hoping to break it to bits, crack it open, find the gleaming secret within and thus finally obtain smooth portage.
You know what? After all my blood, sweat and tears, it still sits there, smiling at me. My encounters with it now are more conversational than rage filled and intense. We’ve come to an understanding, I think. I will pass from this earth and it will still be there, ready to taunt the next young pup with a camera in his hands and some big ideas. But there’s an unspoken agreement between the two of us that there were days I hit it hard enough to break off a couple of decent size pieces. I gave it a decent go, in other words. It’s all we can do.
Part of the pull of course is that photography involves an all out effort. You have to be at the top of the ladder for the best angle, not the middle. You don’t do it from the side of the road. You leave the car behind, climb the guardrail, and go out there to get in the middle of whatever you’re looking at. You walk into the village or the farm or the life of those in question. You get off the interstate, and, as Jay Maisel says, you walk—slowly. It’s a credential to life’s events you put around your neck that gets you past the barriers that hem in and corral the others. In return, it demands that you risk things—life, limb, emotions, embarrassment, failure, sometimes all at once. It seeks only the most ardent, passionate of suitors, and even then this fickle art and craft turns veiled eyes and offers the barest wisps of approval and acceptance, and those, only occasionally.
And I accepted that slim invitation, long ago, sometimes to my regret or comeuppance. I have failed, been broke down and wept for my own ineptitude. I have given up and given in. I have railed against the apparent injustice (to me) of others, be they editors, subjects, readers, friends or family that they seemingly don’t take this as seriously as I do. I have tired of explaining myself. I’m exhausted from imploring for just a bit more of an open door, just a bit more time. I mean, don’t they see? Don’t they know this is important? If you let me just do this, together we then create something that will outlast us, and isn’t that the fucking point?
Strangely enough, lots of folks out there have found my insistence and persistence odd, or even irritating. Put smiley face here.
You asked me once what photo started it all for me. For you it was your Auschwitz photo, the reflection on the floor. You also noted other high moments. The giraffe in Tanzania, and the soldier by the sunlit doorway. Those are all far more eloquent than anything I shot in my early years. My canvas was small as a photo student. Syracuse, NY, not the savannas of Africa. I turned, as a spectator at a football game, and saw an acquaintance about to go full throttle with a yell. I took my Nikkormat, loaded with Tri-x and a 135mm f2.8 lens and put it to my eye, and swung the focus to critical and hit the shutter at the absolute crescendo of whatever verbal abuse he was hurling at the opposition. It was the first time my camera felt like an extension of my hands. My fingers had flown (for once) to the right places, and moved the infernal dials and buttons in exquisite concert. It was one frame. I sat down and stared at the camera. And I don’t remember a single thing about the rest of that day.
The recent D4 project was a terrific project for the studio, made more so by the company I shared shooting it. Bill Frakes did his usual wonderful sports stills, but also filmed a beautifully evocative video of Istanbul. Take a look at his site, Straw Hat Visuals. Corey Rich once again defies gravity in his adventure sports video work, seen here. Matthias Hangst shot amazing action, and Vincent Munier once again took on difficult and daunting landscapes. Humbled and honored to be in their company. Bill Frakes and I, especially, go back a long ways. He is one of the truly significant standard bearers in the history of sports photojournalism.
Charlie Gabriel, Preservation Hall Band. Nikon D4, 200mm, f2, 1/160th, ISO 12,800, Tungsten AWB.
Technology marches on. We now have cameras that perform well in the realm of ISO numbers previously only associated with highly complicated math problems. I took the prototype D4 into Preservation Hall, and made some portraits during the day, then lingered for the evening show, and shot available light. Below is Charlie that afternoon, under flash conditions. D4, ISO 200, 1/80th, f5.6, cloudy WB, lens at 26mm.
The Hall is tough to work. Wonderful ambiance, and almost zero usable light. I found this out years ago when I shot there for Sports Illustrated prior to a Super Bowl. I squeezed a few pictures because that night because they gave me a pass to put up a flash–a Norman 200B–in the ceiling. It amped up the light just enough for Kodachrome 200. But the stuff I tried with existing light was pretty much DOA.
So shooting the picture up top at 12,800 ISO was definitely a revelation. The quality of the light in that venerable music hall is still super warm and soupy, but…I could work. That’s the bottom line with new gear. Does it help? Does it make the job easier? Does it open the door to a picture?
Technology and me have always had a love/hate thing. I love that fact that it can help create pictures I want to make. I hate the fact that even relatively simple items come with a manual the size of War and Peace. I’m still pretty much a Neanderthal on the computer, and of the fancy gadgets I own, like an Iphone, I probably use about 20% of its capacity. (I’m definitely not one of those folks who pitch a tent outside an Apple Store for days and days when a new gizmo is announced.) The younger guys at my studio either chuckle or turn away when I attempt post production, or the loading of new software on my computer. And certainly, my blog is not where you would come for a highly evolved technical discussion of the shape of the pixels. There will certainly be sites out there which will, eventually, take this camera apart, like a car in a body shop, and look at every gear, bell and whistle. Not here. I work at the technology stuff a bit, but, you know, life is short, and I’d rather shoot. Or dream up a picture I want to shoot. Or write. Or, best of all, be at home with Annie.
But I have to admit, despite my stumbling gait, my path as a shooter has fortuitously crossed over with new camera tech at some crucial times. When I made climbs up the mast on the Empire State Building, I was fretting as to what single lens to bring up with me. Didn’t want to do the fisheye. I was working for Geographic, and many editors there are not wildly enthusiastic about distortion. The available older versions of super wide rectilinear glass were problematic. I was chagrined. But–presto! Right about then the 14mm f2.8 rectilinear came out. Fast, sharp, and not flare prone like its predecessors. I immediately went in to rent it for my last climb. The guys at the counter, who knew me pretty well, casually asked me what I was shooting, and, excitedly, I told them I was climbing the antenna on ESB. They took the lens off the counter and said, “You know, dude, you really should just buy it.” Which is what I did. Later that week, on my fourth climb up there, I got lucky with the light, and the lens.
The above version is not the select Geographic ran. It’s later in the morning, as the sun got stronger. Here’s what I was worried about up there. It wasn’t falling. It was repeatedly loading new film cassettes into the camera. I was levered backwards at about a 45 degree angle, pushing off the mast with my feet, hanging onto the aerial with my left hand, and shooting with my right. Because even back then I couldn’t see anything up close, I also had a pair of granny reading glasses taped and tethered to my neck. Juggling a bunch of stuff, in a word. My panic time was those moments I reloaded. A dropped film canister from that height, if it finds the street, could kill someone. I would have loved a 32 gig card, but those were many moons in the future.
When digital dawned, I had no idea. I stuck with film as long as I felt I could, and then made a jump for survival to this fancy camera known as a D1X. First thing I shot with it was a Kentucky Derby, and my brothers Mike Corrado and Skip Dickstein had to show me what do with my cards after the race. I was hopeless, but I didn’t care. The digital camera felt like a film camera. There was a shutter, and a lens. I frankly didn’t care what was happening inside of it. Plunging on, and resolutely placing faith in the old adage that the Lord looks after a fool, I ended up shooting the first all digital coverage in history of National Geographic some months after this first outing.
Fast forward to a camera I was just tickled with, the D3. Thought, as I have mentioned, I would go to my grave with that camera. It simply suited all the needs I had in the field. Then, the D3S came out. I thought, nah, don’t need it. I’m cool with what I have. But then, Geographic assigned me to a story on the electrical grid of the United States, and I realized I was about to spend a ton of time in helicopters at night, observing the illuminated grids of various cities. The D3S promised better chip performance, and improved results at high ISO. So, I re-upped. Sold my D3 cameras and bought D3S models.
It was good that I did, I think, as the lead to the story was a night view from a chopper, with long glass. The technology I employed, at this point unthinkingly and reflexively–excellent high ISO, VR in the lens, bright viewfinder, accurate AF–the myriad of camera advances I often now just take for granted, helped me come back with pictures that night from that very expensive chopper ride.
So I guess that’s one big question that drives all this. Our eternal responsibility as photographers is to deliver the best possible quality image we can manage back to the client. And that’s become a part of the digital equation every shooter has to work out as a personal and professional decision. What’s the best gear for me, relative to my work flow and my mission? Shooting night sports for the wires back in the day, when everybody on the sideline was pushing the hell out of tri-x, it didn’t really matter too much if you were still shooting an F2, and the guy next to you was shooting an F3. But now, shooting ones and zeroes, the machinery used to shoot that same game has an impact on the quality of the pictures produced, for sure.
That night in Preservation Hall, I got to test high ISO response at 12,800, which is an ISO territory that is completely alien to me. And the results, relative to that speed, were terrific. Now, if you’re always shooting in that realm, you’re probably working a tough gig, photographically. Being at that ISO a lot might mean you’ve got a badge and a gun, and you’re up very late at night. And you might be sitting in a non-descript car that’s filled with candy wrappers and crumpled fast food bags, sipping bad coffee, and trying to sight a lens through a rain pocked windshield as Tommy Two Toes passes yesterday’s New York Post with an envelope in it to Mikey Gaga on a street corner somewhere in the Bronx. I mean, maybe.
Or you could be shooting sports at night under bad light. Or you might be a music shooter, or perhaps theater and dance is a specialty. Or, you’re a news shooter whose job it is to observe and record, despite the adversity of the conditions. The mission at hand is, at least partially, the driver for the choice of gear.
For me, I’m looking down the pipe of a six week job, starting pretty soon, and, given the parameters of that job, this tech evolution known as D4, is, I feel, another one of those fortuitous bends on this long road, and it arrives just in time for a task at hand. High ISO capability is yet another one of gifts placed on our doorstep as shooters. I honestly hope to not have to use it too much, but it sure is nice to know it’s there.
Have always enjoyed this picture. Made it years ago, during the Persian Gulf War. This kid’s mom was deployed, and she befriended a neighbor’s draft horse. A sweet picture for this weekend. A better shot, even sweeter, is over at my bud RC Concepcion’s blog. It’s one of the most beautiful pics of a kid with Santa, ever. Definitely go here.
Enjoy the weekend everybody, and many, many heartfelt thanks to all who occasionally stop by the blog…..best for 2012! More, as they say, tk…..
First thing he said was, “It’s a good day, pal.”
Louie is an extraordinary guy, and an average one at the same time. Average in that he immigrated here from Italy as a youngster, and made a life, as many have done. Extraordinary in his decency, humanity and good will. On 911 all those years ago, he took extraordinary to another level.
Trapped in a smoky stairwell, he slipped and slid down railings, past hundreds of terrified people, to reach a door leading to the lobby of the still standing tower. It was jammed. The lobby was filled with debris from the already collapsed tower. He called for some big guys to help him wedge the door open, and told people to follow his light. There’s no way to tell how many people he saved that day.
Racing against what everyone knew was about to happen, they headed towards West. St. The tower came down. Louie was engulfed in suffocating ash. He had no oxygen tank. As many firefighters did that day, he’d ditched his to get lighter. In the blinding soot and smoke, he stumbled and his hands found, as he put it, “a miracle thing.” Another oxygen tank, abandoned by a firefighter. He clapped it to his face. He estimates he had a couple minutes left.
The news wires are buzzing, of course. Reactions range from flag waiving happiness, to cautionary reminders about the future and the complex world we live in. A murdering, soulless bastard is gone, but time and history have proved there may be more in the wings. Certainly, for the armed forces, who routinely stare down the most harrowing situations, there’s a sense of a job done, and done well.
I guess I’m thinking about all this, a lot, partly because of the news, and partly because I’ve reconnected lately with many folks I photographed right after 911. There’s a wonderful sense of the positive with all concerned. There’s the healing of time, and the staying power of life ongoing, of watching kids grow, of having another dinner at the firehouse, another run, another day. I was with Danny Foley this past weekend, who continues to fight fires from the Rescue 3 company in the Bronx. His brother Tommy was also with Rescue 3 and was lost on 911. Every day on the job, he straps Tommy’s mass card to his helmet, and walks into another burning building.
Just doing some thinking this morning. Happy’s not the right word. Nor is elated, to be sure. Satisfaction? Hmmm…don’t think so. The new buildings down there are going up, but all those people are still gone. No undoing it.
Guess I’ll go with Louie. He said it, simple and direct. It was a good day. More tk….
We are goofing our way across the country, in our last week of life on a bus. It’s been a fun ride, mostly because of the people we have met, the passion we have encountered, and the incredibly warm welcome we have received from Seattle to NY to Grand Rapids to Atlanta to Albuquerque. We have taught, laughed, screwed up, thrown flashes in the air, logged over 11,000 miles (so far), and just in general, made light (ouch!) of everything. Just a bunch of bucketheads on a bus. Then, in the midst of a laugh, you get a note that’s like a quick snort of smelling salts. It clears the head, and removes the fog that sometimes descends after a bumpy night’s sleep in a rolling, two foot wide bed. It snaps you back to the wonderful reality of just how being involved in picture making on any level gets into the very marrow of your bones. If life is a patchwork quilt, photography can be the stitching.
From one of our attendees……
True Story about the day…
4 weeks ago the light of my life, business partner, and ongoing source of… umm… determination; was diagnosed with terminal, incurable, ultra rare, neuro-endocrine cancer. 2 weeks ago when we were meeting with the oncologist to discuss treatment, Eric informed his doctor that he refused to start any kind of treatment until after April 12th because he didn’t want to be ill for the date. I have been a follower of Strobist since I stumbled accross it a couple months after Strobist began. Eric has worshiped Joe McNally for years and we now own all his books. Off camera Nikon strobes is what brought us together. Between the 2 of us; the event of Joe and David finally coming to the Midwest to speak was a nearly religious experience.
So to Joe, thank you. I was the one with the snarky comment that you gave the disks to, it made me happy and it overjoyed Eric. We had already decided that we couldn’t afford the DVD’s. That was a gift with a double whammy that will make the trip to Indy so special for us for the time we have left together. I really can’t thank you enough or tell you how happy we were to be there. Neither of us are the kind to gush over celebrities and I NEVER write to them; but, thank you, thank you, thank you.
To David….. OMG I got to stand near DAVID HOBBY, the man made of light! And shake is hand! Seriously, it was funny sitting there listening to you and to have Eric lean over to me and say, “I understand why you think he’s so cool, he’s been hugely influential on every aspect of your photographic philosophy”.
Thank you all so much for a great day of laughter and light!
You get a note like that, and it is humbling, overwhelming, and motivating all at the same time. It makes you want to shoot better, teach better, and just be better. It makes you want to call your wife or husband. It makes you want to take more pictures of your kids. It reassures you that this lark we’re on has a good reverb. It reaffirms that as a shooter, it’s about being in the trenches, keeping your eye in the camera, pushing through the mistakes and the misgivings and the slumps. It’s about sharing knowledge, and pushing each other. Giving back is so much more important than pixels.
Kat and Eric…sending light your way…..more tk….