Don’t Be Too Wedded To What You Think The Shot Should Be

The New Haven, CT St. Patrick’s Day Parade is the third largest parade in the country. And as my 12-year-old says, “I met the Grand Marshal at the St Pat’s Parade today.” “Really?” I ask….”No…O’Reilly!” he answers.

But covering a parade can be daunting. People have this idealized version of what a photo of a parade should be…and I think it involves The Rockettes, fireworks, a giant Snoopy, the Grambling Marching Band and a fly-over by the Blue Angels.

Now, all that stuff isn’t going to happen…but I still go out there with the idea that it’s the feeling I want. By the time you mix-in the crowd, the bad light, the crying kids, the trying to figure-out what group of marchers is from where, the writing down of I.D.’s for everyone you shoot, the patience expended ignoring the drunks bellowing, “Hey photogogra…furrrr…take a picture of  THIS!!!”… it loses some of it’s magic.

Today I was in the middle of photographing politicians who were managing to march and wave at the same time, when I heard cheers and shrieks about a half block away. At first I thought a celebrity had shown-up, then someone in the crowd said, “Oh my God…he’s proposing!” Actually, I didn’t care what is was…it sounded like the Rockettes were doing a fly-over on Snoopy and that’s the feeling I wanted.  I timed one shot to get a marcher in the frame to connect things to the parade…then kept shooting from across the street. It was over very quickly.

It was my best pic of the day, and it was something that I couldn’t have expected or planned for. And that is often the case…that the best shot is something you don’t expect. The best shot isn’t what you have in your head when you head-out in the morning. The best shot is just going to happen at some point, somewhere during the shoot…regardless of what the assignment may be. The trick is being fortunate enough to be in the vicinity, and not so engaged in what you’re doing half-a-block away that you don’t respond.

Most people don’t go to cover a parade with the idea of photographing a marriage proposal, but you can’t be too wedded to the idea of what a parade photo should be.

Otherwise…the real parade may pass you by.

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Contractually Inane…

My cell phone service isn’t what it should be. Dropped calls, dead zones, slow slow slow…no need to explain. But there’s a little thing about cell phone contracts, the little thing that’ll cost you if you decide that the service you have stinks and you want to switch providers. So you’re leaving the company because they aren’t coming through for you, but you have to pay them two or three or four hundred dollars for the privilege. This is brilliant. I think everyone should do this. “How was your dinner, sir?” You throw your napkin on the plate in disgust and reply, “It was awful…cold, tasteless and a huge disappointment.” And the waiter replies, “So sorry to hear that sir, afraid I must add $48 to the bill because we suck.” Or you get your car fixed, “Hey, my car runs just as badly now as it did before I brought it in!” Bingo….bill goes up by $37. Doctor says, “So, how are you feeling after the surgery?” You say, “I feel worse….that surgery didn’t accomplish anything!” Doctor says, “Really? I’ll have to tell the billing department to add $350 to your bill.” What the hell?! My service stinks so you have to pay a penalty…you have to pay ME to….hey….wait a minute. “How did the images turn out for that cellular provider’s annual report? What? You didn’t like the lighting? You think I rushed? You didn’t like the fact that I shot the CEO’s portrait with a fisheye? Sorry to hear that…really…let’s just add $3,000.00 to my bill and call it even.

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Not To Be Negative, But….

"Anybody have a spare roll of Ektachrome?"

I run into a lot of younger photographers, and I’m starting to run into some who have never shot film. Now, I know that shouldn’t be surprising, in 1999 the sales of 35 mm film exceeded  800 million rolls. In 2010 it was down to 20 million.  But what comes to mind isn’t the sales numbers for Kodak and Fuji, it’s the loss of the learning experience using film. We used to shoot a lot of E-6 (color transparency film) and the tolerances were very low. If your exposures weren’t close to right-on you had a problem…with digital, not so much. If we shot black and white we had to answer in the darkroom…a lousy exposure meant an eternity at the enlarger, the expense of going through paper and chemistry, and taunts from co-workers (“what’s that, a picture of a black cat in a coal mine?”) It was a more tactile experience, and there were more consequences. At the risk of sounding like a grumpy old man, hearing “I can fix it in Photoshop” makes me dang crazy. The idea is to get it right in the beginning.  But taking-care is sometimes replaced now with sheer volume…the idea that frames, or “digital captures” are cheap and limitless. I think we had to be more conscious when shooting film, when you had 4 frames left on a 36 exposure roll and you had a feeling something big was about to happen at a sports or news event, you had to decide, “Do I stick it out with this roll? Or change rolls now.”  You start to change and the candidate falls on his butt and you missed it. Pulling the trigger on each individual frame means less when you have 1,500 frames ready to go right behind it. I think there’s subconsciously less value placed on making each shot when it’s so disposable, and I’ve always thought that it’s almost as important to know when not to shoot as when to pull the trigger. Lastly, there’s the idea of seeing what you shot a second after you shot it. Shooting film meant you had to believe in yourself. You had to be confident enough to set-up and make the pics without seeing exactly what you were getting in real time. (unless to you did a Polaroid or two…which helped.) You had to actually be able to visualize in your head what you were getting on film…and you had to be right. If you were wrong, there could be surprises when the film came out of the dryer, from bad exposures to an over-flowing garbage can stealing the show in the background of every image.

But none of this has much to do with whether a photographer has an “eye” or not. In the end, it’s about how any photographer sees, not what he or she is looking through or recording the image on. And what ultimately makes a great image are the intangibles, not the kind of film you once used, or the make of media card or editing software. When you line-up a shot in the viewfinder, all things are equal. Whether it’s 1920 or 2020, it’s comes down to vision, to composition, to a feeling…not to the technical. So maybe never having shot film is no big deal. I never shot with a Speed Graphic (“speed”…that’s funny), and I thought all the old timers who told me I’d missed something were dinosaurs.

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Had A Blast!

I haven’t been to a huge fireworks extravaganza in a long time…we usually visit friends in Vermont and send-up our own. And now that I write that, I wonder if there is such a thing as only a “vaganza” and if it’s a really good one…or if it goes on for a long time…you have an “extra” “vaganza”.

Anyway…there are always people trying to take pictures of the fireworks, and with digital it should be easier than ever. But the biggest difference when shooting fireworks digitally is that you get to see how bad they are immediately, instead of waiting to get the film developed to find out.

I don’t have a system for shooting fireworks…I know that a longer shutter speed gives me better trails, auto-focus isn’t much help so I focus on infinity, getting the moon in the shot adds a little something extra, I feel like a dork if I use a tripod so I don’t, and a glance at the screen let’s me know how my exposure is.

It’s a trial and error thing….I go by feel.

In fact, often I won’t take any pictures at all at the fireworks…it’s more fun to sit back and enjoy. Hope you enjoyed your Fourth.

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Ghosts In The Fridge…

“Knock…knock.”

“Who’s there?”

“Sensia.”

“Sensia who?”

“What’s the Sensia in keepin’ all that old film in your fridge?

I have a bunch…it all expired about ten years ago but I keep it anyway…why I don’t know, but I keep it in the fridge in the kitchen. Sometimes it’s in the door, sometimes it works it’s way to the back of the bottom shelf.

I have other film, in the basement in a cardboard box. Old Tri-X, some Ektachrome (daylight and tungsten), Plus-X, something in an Ilford box, Fujicolor, Vericolor 120, some Portra Fuji gave me to test.

I keep them too, but they don’t mean as much. The Sensia is in the fridge…chilled…ready to go as if it’s still 1998 and those expensive film cameras sitting in my closet are worth more than the $129 I might be able to get for them now on ebay.

I should just throw it all out. I can’t sell it because it’s so old. I know I won’t use it even though I think it would be nice…in a walking around town with a cane, silk handkerchief in my pocket, flower in my lapel, tipping my hat as I hold doors open for people kind of way.

But I keep moving it around the refrigerator instead, as if it’s a dying language only a few of us still speak and when I throw those little boxes away that dialect will be one step closer to being lost forever.

I liked working with film.

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Machine Gun Or Sniper?

There is always the perfect moment to take a photo of anything, whether it’s a portrait, a sports event, your driver’s licence pic, your dog….anything.
The trick is nailing it. Back when we shot film we had winders and motor drives pulling the film through the camera at speeds between 2.5 and about 6 frames per seconds, the idea was that the faster you can shoot, the better your chances of nailing-it. Today’s digital cameras capture up to 10 frames per second (none of my cameras, mind you). One thing for me however, hasn’t changed – relying on any drive has never meant I’ll get the shot.
Now hold your, “Yeah, but what about this scenario or that scenario when you get the progression of the swing or the hit or the goal?!” I won’t argue…drives are awesome and often make for great images in sequence.
But I’m talking about getting the one shot…the timing…the thing we developed when we didn’t use motors for everything.
Last week I was shooting tennis, holding the shutter button down as the ball came-in. And almost every time I shot for the series…I’d end-up with a shot of the ball coming-in (but NOT in the frame) miss the ball hitting the racquet, and get the next shot just after the ball left the frame. I loathe not having the ball in the frame. So I stopped the multi-frame extravaganza, went to one-shot, and started nailing-it.
I went from toting a machine gun to being a sniper. Now I’m not saying “Only shoot one frame at a time,” but I am saying, “Think about one frame at a time.”
Maybe even go for the one-shot instead of the Rat-a-tat-tat of high speed. It was a little harder….but it was rewarding and I found myself paying a different kind of attention. Somewhere in my head I was doing a better job of counting milliseconds, of watching the player’s eyes, of nailing-it. I’m going to start doing it at most of my assignments, because it isn’t a case of physically switching the camera’s advance from high to single, it’s switching the way I think about a particular shot…a particular 500th or 1000th of a second. Because for all the electronic advances in photography it will always come down the intangibles that make one image better than another.
And those are the eye and the timing of the person pushing the button. And the thing is… we don’t have wait for a new camera, a new digital breakthrough, or a new firmware update for that to get better.

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Hey…Look At That!

Practically every time I meet someone new, at a barbecue or whatever, and they ask me what I do for a living, I say, “I teach high school calculus.” They say “REALLY!” and kind of drift away. This isn’t because I don’t like to talk about myself, I mean I have a blog don’t I? But the conversation after I tell what I really do generally goes something like this. “Oh…what do you shoot….(snear)…weddings?” or “What are you…one of those papparazzi?” (and they put their hands over their face like someone would actually want to take their photo.) Then we move on to, “My nephew takes the most AMAZING pictures of (insert here: Legos, his puppy, his feet on different surfaces, etc.). Then we get to “What camera should I get my daughter…she’s going on vacation blah blah blah…she’s so creative…blah blah blah.”  But the best…the BEST…is when someone happens to be talking with me while looking at one of my pics. And they (let’s call her Iris) look at the pic and say something like, “I just love the way you emphasized the muted colors in the background to reflect the subtleties of the the author’s writing, colorful prose yet a subdued style. And the way his hand is positioned as if he were holding a pen…brilliant…”

And I’m like, “What!?” But rather than say, “Lady I shot against that background because the rest of the walls in the room were covered in stuff, and his hand looks like that because he’s arthritic,” I lean in and say. “You…are very…observant.” And she nods her head knowingly and gives me a tight-lipped smile.

But every once in a while I’ll be editing and come across a pic that will grab my attention. I’ll look a little more closely and think, “Hey…look at THAT!” It’s a little something extra, a little something unexpected, a little something to make Iris say, “I love the way you added that to remind the viewer of the violence and kismet of life.” (“Kismet,” Iris…really?)

Anyway, here’s the latest “Hey…look at that” to come along. I blew past it at least twice before I noticed it, and finally said, “Hey…that guy’s helmet is coming off…whadaya know…?”

It was luck…but it’s kinda cool…whaddaya think Iris? I know it isn’t imbued with subtlety, transience and immutability…but it floats MY boat…

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So Many Images…So Little Time To Toss Them

Tribeca, late 1980's, little things called "transparencies."

A friend has announced plans to edit, categorize, sleeve, and preserve everything he’s ever shot…42-years-worth. Scanning, labeling, captioning tens of thousands of images, hundreds of binders, thousands of hours.  I have a few tens of thousands of pics myself, but I’m less sure about the whole archiving thing. There are a few I like, some news stuff, sports, portraits etc., but I’m having trouble justifying such a big to-do. First off, it assumes that someday the past is going to be more interesting than the present…that I’ll have nothing new to do other than look through my old pics. And if I’m not doing it for me…who am I doing it for? The Stan Godlewski Image Collection? I don’t think so, no temperature controlled underground vault, no Sotheby’s catalogue, no Library of Congress for my images in the future. My children? The ones who ask, “You’re shooting Liam Neeson? You’ll be home in time to drive to the movies, RIGHT?!”

I’ve always kept things too long. I still have my Kindergarten report card (Stanley is a pleasure to have in class), ticket stubs from a James Taylor concert , a rock I picked up along the Colorado River when I drove cross country with a refugee from Beirut, and a guy who years later faked his own death in Las Vegas (don’t bet over your heads kids.)

I have tons of stuff that after you die, your relatives don’t hesitate to rent a dumpster saying, “Oh my God…why was he keeping this crap?”

So what’s the justification for keeping every image I ever made? Will Time Magazine really be calling to get their hands on those photos of the assistant IBM V.P. I shot in 1988? The CT Senate race of 2006? Some soldiers smoking cigarettes and playing cribbage during Operation Desert Storm?  No….they won’t.

Realistically, the photos aren’t marketable anymore, and I haven’t even seen 99% of them myself since I stuffed the negatives or transparencies into binders or file cabinets or burned them to a disc and moved-on. But the file cabinets line the wall…full. The DVD’s pile-up, some not even labeled, and I’m custodian of this “body of work” only because somehow, I believe that someday, someone is going to want one of them.

I have this dream. My office is clean and bright and stark. There are no piles, no distractions. There are no boxes marked “Jets/Giants 1982-1985” or “Random Enterprise Art,” or “Old Portfolio Interneg’s.”

It isn’t an over-crowded morgue dedicated to a body of work no one will ever come to claim, it’s a place for the present with room for the future.

I’m going to start tossing…I’ll let you know how it goes.

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Smitten…

Every now and then you meet someone who is pretty damned-close to what you’d hoped they would be.

Ashley Judd actually is beautiful, intelligent, professional and captivating.

By-George…I do believe I’m smitten!

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wait…wait….wait…..HURRY UP!!!!

A few weeks ago I was photographing Rihanna , and when someone asks how a shoot like this went…I realize that in their head they have this whole “America’s Next Top Model” “Vanity Fair”extravaganza going on. As if I’m going to say, “I found the young lady charming and quite the wit, her eyes aglow and her intellect one of perception and clarity. The police were kind enough to keep the crowds at bay, and we chatted over a nice bordeaux while my crew set everything up, checked the lights and awaited my well manicured index finger to arrive and press the shutter button whilst Rihanna, whom I now refer to as ‘Ri-Ri’, did exactly what I needed her to do…and that was to look fabulous.”

My response is more like, “It went OK”…..because who wants to hear me sound like a whiner if I tell them how we were supposed to shoot at three, and the location would be a small connecting hallway crowded with seemingly discarded make-up/vanity tables. I was told she was running late and thought, “Great…there’ll be time for me to toss these vanities, paint the place, bring in palm trees, 2-tons of sand and a live tiger and I’ll make something out of this yet.” I looked out at the main hall, and it was all TV studio infrastructure…cables, vents, equipment and stuff. Out the other side of the connecting hall was a theater, and John Hamm was rehearsing so I couldn’t very well go out there and say, “Hey…Johnnie, love you in Mad Men babe…mind if flash the crap out of this place and do a shoot while you’re rehearsing? Terrrrrrific…Thanks…MR. DRAPER!” So the connecting hall it would be. Rather than stumble over the vanities, I started plugging them in until I found one that worked. The P.R woman helped me move a few around, and when “Ri-Ri” showed-up at about 4:15,  I did my best to turn a warm bottle of Dasani into a ’62 Chateau Lafite Rothschild. But I can’t say I know her…like we connected…like she’d recognize me if the next day we got on the same elevator. I liked her because for about 15 minutes with me she was patient and cooperative…and that’s pretty much my criteria.

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