Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Alicia + Brian: Wedding

Here are my favorite images from Alicia and Brian's beautiful wedding. Enjoy!

Ceremony Venue: Scarritt Bennett Center
Reception Venue: Musician's Hall of Fame
Bridal Gown: Arzelle's

(If you are a vendor from this wedding and would like to be added to the list, please contact me!)

Monday, April 27, 2009

Alicia's Bridal Portraits

I had the privilege of shooting Alicia & Brian's wedding on Saturday... I'm hard at work on the wedding day images, but here are a few of Alicia's bridal portraits! The location shots were at the Scarritt Bennett Center, and the other was done at my studio on Cannery Row.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

An Unlikely Weapon, Part II, with "Lovely Assistant" Amanda

Eddie Adams, AP Photo

Hi, everyone: Amanda Baines here. Evan asked that I “guest blog” for Part II of his coverage of “An Unlikely Weapon: The Eddie Adams Story” to get an alternate perspective. The layman’s terms of it, perhaps? I said, “Fine. Cheeseburger first, then blogging.” So, after a lovely nosh of cheeseburger and fries at Five Guys, here I am.

I came to this film out of a desire to find something over which Evan and I could bond. I’m really into highbrow stuff (grammar jokes, esoteric subtitled films, etc.) and Evan is, of course, a photographer’s photographer...a student of the world of it who can’t get enough of it. He’s tried to teach me things and I’ve learned a little. Trouble is, my head is already so full of other technical information that I don’t know what to do with F-Stops and ISO’s and what have you.

When I shoot, which is rare (I’m a ham, what can I say? I prefer to be the focus of the picture, not the one focusing), I usually bring along a Holga. Point, Shoot, Pray: that’s a good enough MO for me. Leave the real photography to the professional in the family.

Anyway, I heard that this film was playing and got really excited. A few months back, Evan and I had attended a photography exhibition at the Frist Center here in Nashville, where we’d seen some of Eddie Adams’ prints, in person. I remember being instantly familiar with the shot when I saw it in person. I remember thinking to myself how horrible it was...and how lucky. Not lucky for Eddie in the sense that it granted him any wishes or fulfilled any dreams, and certainly it was bad luck for the shooter and victim in many ways afterwards, but lucky in a timing sense.

Working with Evan and other photographers, I’ve learned that timing is absolutely vital to all that they do. Understanding this, how purely lucky it is that the photo even exists. How many factors had to have merged to allow that shot to be captured at all.

In the film we meet Eddie as an older man, gruff, funny, and a bit of a rascal. I liked him immediately, much like most people who met him probably did. He seemed to have a affable sense of humor, an approachable vibe, and a self-deprecating manner that resulted in true honesty, made you want to know him, made you want him to want to know you, too, in a way.

Eddie Adams is best known for his combat photography, specifically during Vietnam. While there, Adams was placing himself in harm’s way along with the Soldiers, going on runs with them in helicopters, through the jungles of Vietnam. He knew, having been a soldier himself once, that this was the only way to win their respect.

He saw six friends die in the war, all photojournalists. After a particularly unfortunate incident (four photographers he knew were killed in a single helicopter crash) he called the president of the AP and asked to be sent home. He had already been in country for perhaps years by that time, photographing the day to day monotony and weariness of the Soldiers and citizens along with the drama and agony of the war. It was too much: he was spent. But when he got back home to New York City, he couldn’t relate to anyone who hadn’t experienced what he had. He felt detached, annoyed that no one seemed to care that there were people dying in Vietnam. He realized he had to go back the day he saw a disabled Vet on crutches nearly run down by a New York City cab. He called the president of the AP and asked to be sent back again.

The shot Eddie Adams became so famous for, the Shot That Turned The Tide In Vietnam, as it was dubbed by some interviewees in the film, was taken during this second tour. Things in Vietnam had gone from really bad to a lot worse since he’d been away. When that shot was taken, it was during of a Vietcong raid on Saigon where the US Embassy had been nearly destroyed and thousands Vietnamese citizens and US Troops alike dead or injured. On day two of the attacks, during the cleanup, Eddie Adams explained that he saw someone shackled: a prisoner, and saw more people with guns moving him down a street. As a photographer, his instinct was to follow, to see what happened, expecting to see the Soldiers cart him off to a paddy wagon and away.

Instead, the General simply stood the Vietcong up in the street and shot him, minimal fanfare, minimal fuss. The accompanying video footage, interspersed with the three photos Eddie Adams took, was very graphic, a “water fountain” of blood issuing from the wound in the grainy color film. Strangely, I was less shocked by the footage than I was by the photos. The footage was taken at the exact same time as the photographs and yet, it was somehow too surreal for me to grasp, to follow. The director, Susan Morgan Cooper, said later in the Q&A that for her, photographs are something that we can stare at, can be made to live with.

Eddie Adams had to live with it, too. When he finally left Vietnam, the photograph was everywhere, haunting him. He barely seemed to want anything to do with it. Later in the movie, he commented in his self-deprecating way that, “It’s not even a good photograph. For one thing, it’s the wrong time of day...composition is awful...”

He would go on to cover nearly a dozen wars and through all of them, the press began to look to him to “take the one shot,” the shot that would serve as the touchstone for the conflict, encapsulating it and representing it to the rest of the world.

The thing that struck me so much about him, beyond the comments about how “everyone is...we’re all dying, so what does it matter what you do?” was that he really wanted to understand his subjects. He wanted to understand and empathize with the General in the photo he took, seeming to understand on some level that he was doing what he had to do. Later, he wanted to understand Fidel Castro (after he bossed him around a little bit), trying to put him into a situation where he was Fidel, not Fidel Castro Menace of the Caribbean. All of his subjects, from tyrants to philanthropists to actors, he seemed to empathize with all of them, treating them and photographing them with a true sense of sensitivity and class.

Hilariously, his attitude toward the media was one of amusement and disdain. He only published one book of his work in his lifetime in partnership with Kerry Kennedy. Adams had some strong words for their collaboration, “Speak Truth to Power,” saying: “What the f*** does that even mean? I think it’s a stupid title. I wanted to call it ‘Soldiers Without Guns.' People could understand that, not this s***.”

He was honest, he was raw, and for all the trash-talk, it seemed obvious he did respect the work and people in it. His comments about the photos therein were dry and deadpan, “They’re in focus.” Like many photographers I know, he never seemed satisfied with any shot, getting tired of them over and over again. He also bemoaned his contemporaries: other photographers. He grumbles, walking through the streets of New York with the director, “You know what I really hate? Other photographers. They’re too f***ing good. It pisses me off.”

After the film, I was full of questions that I wanted to ask about this guy. The one I got to ask the director was, “How did you prepare for your first meeting with him?”

She said, more or less, “I was a little nervous, but he was very kind and we had a beer together and we looked at photos he had taken of this little boy with Progeria meeting another little boy with the same disease, both of them never before having seen someone who looked like they did. We looked at those photos and drank beer and cried and bonded.”

I have still more questions about this man, and find myself mourning his passing. I wanted to ask “What was he like with his family? How did he work? Was he patient behind the camera, was he demanding?” The film gave us a beautiful picture window to look through and yet, I still want more.

Eddie Adams’ sense of duty to his subjects and his empathy stay with me, even though I feel I have some unanswered questions. I really liked the film. If it’s going to be at a film festival near you, please try to see it. If not, we’ll likely have a screening party soon with the festival copy we were able to purchase soon. Come on over.

An Unlikely Weapon, Part 1

Image by Eddie Adams

Tonight Amanda and I will attend a screening of An Unlikely Weapon, a documentary on the great photojournalist Eddie Adams. The film will apparently focus on the circumstances and ramifications of his Pulitzer-Prize winning photograph depicting the execution of Vietcong prisoner Nguyễn Văn Lém by police chief general Nguyễn Ngọc Loan during the 1968 Tet offensive.

"The general killed the Viet Cong; I killed the general with my camera. Still photographs are the most powerful weapon in the world. People believe them; but photographs do lie, even without manipulation. They are only half-truths. ... What the photograph didn't say was, 'What would you do if you were the general at that time and place on that hot day, and you caught the so-called bad guy after he blew away one, two or three American people?"

-Eddie Adams

I will make sure to report back on what I think of the documentary, and any philosophical or ethical questions that it raises.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Susan Sontag

For those of you who have been complaining that my posts here aren't nearly verbose or esoteric enough, I'd heartily encourage you to check out Susan Sontag's collection of essays: On Photography. If you're a fan of intense ruminations on the nature of this art, peppered with obscure references and replete with a greater density of poly-syllabic words than the ingredients list on a Twinkie wrapper, this is the book for you.

A passage that I find particularly interesting follows:

"The camera can be lenient; it is also expert at being cruel. But its cruelty only produces another kind of beauty, according to the surrealist preferences which rule photographic taste Thus, while fashion photography is based on the fact that something can be more beautiful in a photograph than in real life, it is not surprising that some photographers who serve fashion are also drawn to the non-photogenic. There is a perfect complementarity between Avedon's fashion photography, which flatters, and the work in which he comes on as The One Who Refuses to Flatter-- for example, the elegant, ruthless portraits Avedon did in 1972 of his dying father. The traditional function of portrait painting, to embellish or idealize the subject, remains the aim of everyday and of commercial photography, but it has a much more limited career in photography considered as an art. Generally speaking, the honors have gone to the Cordelias."

Saturday, April 11, 2009

"Chance Favors the Prepared Mind"

Throughout my life I’ve been an active participant in various competitive sports: soccer, hockey, baseball, water polo, and lacrosse among others. In all of these sports, I was a goaltender (or catcher). In all of these sports, both conscious and unconscious decision-making took crucial roles in determining my performance. On the conscious side, my team would practice plays, scout the other teams, and consider various strategies in advance of the game. Once the game began, I maintained a conscious awareness of the locations of the various players on the field, and attempted to anticipate certain eventualities. However, when the shot came and it was time for me to execute, carefully tuned instincts and muscle memory took over the performance of my duties and conscious thought took a back seat.

Over the years, I learned that my ability to cultivate particular states of mind was absolutely vital to my performance in the instinctual phases of play. Athletes frequently develop rituals or superstitions that help them to evoke a certain mindset that has facilitated high performance in the past. In many ways, I believe that photojournalism requires a similar blend of conscious and unconscious decision-making. Awareness of the impact of our mindset on the instinctive portions of timing and composition may enable a photographer to improve overall performance.

By my estimation, there are three discrete phases in the creation of a photojournalistic image: strategic planning, tactical planning, and execution. Each of these phases of creation are progressively shorter, less controlled, and more dependent upon a combination of intuition and “muscle-memory.”

The strategic planning phase includes all of the basic things that a photographer does to prepare to take photographs: the shooter decides what type of photos he is going to take, purchases the gear that he feels will best enable him to achieve his photographic objectives (within budgetary limitations), and learns what he can about his subjects, the location, and the situation. Strategic planning, therefore, is a period that extends from years in advance of the actual shot, right up until the shooter sets foot on the objective location. Strategic planning controls what techniques and tools the photographer must utilize within a given situation, and provides the framework for understanding and anticipating the events as they unfold. The strategic phase is made up almost entirely of conscious decision-making.

Tactical planning begins once the photographer sets foot onto the actual objective. Tactical planning begins with an awareness of events as they unfold around him. Once the photographer identifies the subject matter of his shot, he will assess the lighting situation and compositional elements to ascertain the best shooting position given the circumstances. He will consider using flash or other lighting devices, and determine camera settings that control depth of field and motion-stopping. The tactical phase ends when the camera is actually lifted to the photographer’s eye. The tactical phase is significantly shorter than the strategic phase, and begins to mix in unconscious decision making with the conscious choices. The photographer may consciously consider the lighting and composition of the scene or consciously anticipate the actions of the subjects, but an element of instinct and intuition begins to come into play here: not all of these factors may be consciously considered.

The execution phase entails all of the actions taken once the photographer is looking through the viewfinder. Here, there is frequently far less conscious thought. An experienced photographer will make minor exposure adjustments and achieve focus primarily through “muscle memory,” and the finer points of composition will often be handled in a subconscious “it just feels right” fashion.

I’m highly skeptical of any photojournalist who claims to consciously control every aspect of composition. First off, there simply aren’t enough rules or guidelines for composition to mentally articulate a justification for the placement of every object in a frame. Second, there is seldom time to internally verbalize every aspect of the framing decision, even if the language exists. This is not to say that these decisions are random or haphazard! Rather, the more subtle compositional choices are made with a combination of the photographer’s innate sensibilities and the visual compositional catalog that he has developed through exposure to other artwork. At most, a photojournalist might consciously decide to place the subject on a third or at the end of a leading line, but the real grunt work of making the composition “just feel right” occurs beneath the surface.

This is why composition is so difficult to teach and learn. Many of the other choices we make as photographers are controlled in the strategic or tactical phases and rely heavily on conscious decision-making. However, even in photographic disciplines, such as landscape or static portraiture where there is plenty of time to consider every compositional option “above board,” as often as not, the complex analytical language is applied later to justify an instantaneous intuitive recognition of the most graceful arrangements of the object in frame.

Louis Pasteur once said, “Chance favors the prepared mind.” One might say the same for creative composition. As it is difficult or impossible to think our way to better reactions, the challenge becomes cultivating a sense of preparedness, which makes our minds attuned to greater possibilities and possesses us of a repertoire of building blocks to make the most of our opportunities. The most obvious course of action suggested by this theory is that a study of patterns will render us more likely to recognize organizations of content through our viewfinder. However, a more tantalizing possibility exists that careful circumspection might reveal a certain mental state in each of us, in which we possess the greatest capacity to see. Rigorous mental discipline and conditioning may grant us the tools to invoke this state more frequently and for longer periods.

Trying to document one’s state of mind at the moment inspiration strikes is like trying to capture lightning in a bottle--but that doesn’t stop me from trying to find just the right jar…

Monday, April 6, 2009

Engaged: Courtney and Geoge

Mother nature was throwing curveballs on Sunday: alternately beautiful and blustery. Courtney, George and I went back and forth a few times on whether we were going to postpone the shoot, but ultimately decided that Tennessee weather in the spring is going to be unpredictable no matter what. Got a bit of a late start, but we made the most of some patches of beautiful light before the storms started rolling in. An hour into the session, the serious weather showed up and we snapped a few dramatic sky shots before calling it a day. You guys still owe me a game of mini-golf! ;)

These 8 photos are my favorites of a brief but action-packed set.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Documents of Family History

Edward Nigel Morris Baines
photographer unknown

On a black shelf overlooking the maelstrom of clutter that is my office rests a small reproduction of an aged photograph of my grandfather: Edward Nigel Morris Baines. The photo is a drug-store reprint made from the scan of this old image, sitting in an embellished silver frame likely purchased from the same drug-store. The original photograph is a hand-colored black & white, and either due to the ravages of time, the deletorious effects of reproduction, or the lack of brilliance on the part of the original artist, the colors aren't exactly spot-on.

My grandfather is depicted as a young man in his British paratrooper's uniform during World War II, posing for a formal portrait. His jump wings are barely visible on his right shoulder, and the emblem of the airborne engineers is present on his dark beret. He looks young in a way that is hard to connect with my memories of him: the classicly reserved elderly British gentleman. Seeing this picture forces a paridigm shift in the way I think of him not totally dissimilar from when I discovered that the long-buried geneology of his nickname "Claude" derived from his not-so-endearing term for other drivers.

Claude passed away after a long and heroic battle with leukemia in 2001. I had never really noticed this picture, nor given his military service any particular thought. I loved my grandfather and mourned his passing, but my connection to him had always been somewhat abstract. I'd spent my life a continent away, with only periodic visits to bridge the gap of his typically reserved character.

After a series of tumultuous events in my life that year and a catastrophic event for the country, I made the decision to enlist in the military. Never one for half-measures I became a triple-volunteer: I volunteered for the Army, volunteered for Airborne training, and volunteered to join the Special Forces Regiment.

While visiting my father on leave a few years back, I finally noticed these pictures of my grandfather hanging along with a regimental portrait and his old unit patch. Not only did my features resemble his, but I suddenly realized that we both belonged to a fairly elite group of soliders foolish enough to jump out of perfectly good airplanes. Even though Claude was a few years gone, I suddenly felt closer to him than I ever had in life. With his blue eyes and rakish beret, exuding confidence and perhaps a thirst for adventure, my grandfather could have been my comrade, my brother, or myself.

This image is, for me, a priceless document of family history that connects me to my forebear in a way that wouldn't have been possible based purely on the abstract knowledge of his service.

When I photograph portraits or weddings, I constantly remind myself that perhaps the single greatest gift that I can give to my clients' families is the potential that one day in the future, a young person may find in the characteristic expression captured in one of my images a deeper connection to their heritage and a more profound understanding of their roots. I owe a debt to the nameless photographer who gave me the gift of a more profound relationship with my grandfather's memory, and I'm conscious of that every time I lift the camera to my eye.

Friday, April 3, 2009

f/1.2 and be Lazy

Point and shoot cameras don't do shallow depth-of-field very well, so when many of us graduated to fancy DSLR's and faster lenses, we develop an implicit association between shallow depth-of-field and quality. The ability to throw a background radically out of focus becomes a hallmark of professionalism, as it serves remarkably well to isolate a subject and let the viewer know exactly where they are supposed to be looking.

Once upon a time, photojournalists were taught the expression "f/8 and be there," meaning that capturing the decisive moment was more crucial than the minutia of camera settings. F/8 gives a fair bit of depth of field on a 35mm camera, so classical photojournalists were not (especially on manual focus 35mm cameras) trying to play games with extremely shallow depth-of-field.

However, the current generation of young photographers, in many cases, now use this expression as an epithet against "stodgy old-schoolers." F/8 is no longer cool, nor is anything from f/4 to f/11, really. Many seem to want to either be shooting completely wide open, or perhaps at f/16 (with a super-strobe accompanying).

You don't usually need to compose very much when you're shooting at 85mm f/1.2. You've got a subject with perhaps a few eyelashes in focus, and a completely blurred-out background. So long as you don't bullseye the subject, you've pretty much got composition covered. Its easy and you don't have to think about it. When you're shooting with a 35mm lens at f/8 however, you've really got to work with leading lines, negative space, light, contrasting areas of interest, and various other tools because any focus effects are more subtle and don't yank your viewer's eyes right where you want them to go. Composition is almost optional at f/1.2, while its mandatory at f/8.

My point is that if you're looking to improve your compositions, try stopping down a bit! It will force you to consider your compositions all that much more carefully. Sometimes the big apertures are necessary under a given lighting condition, and sometimes extreme depth-of-field is the best way to compose a shot. However, shooting wide open all the time can really cause you to become lazy when it comes to composition.

The image below works because of the contrasting compositional elements: in theory (and title) the photo is of the Yale Commencement ceremony, but the old man in the foreground serves as contrasting subject matter. He is looking in the opposite direction as the other subjects, and is obviously in a very different emotional place (and chronological place in his life). The layered content in this image works because there is more than one thing to look at: at 1/4 this image would not work nearly so well.

Yale Commencement (from "The Americans")
Robert Frank (1955)