It Doesn’t Smell Like Christmas

Polaroid from Matt Damon shoot before release of "Good Will Hunting" in 1997. (C) Stan Godlewski

I used to be an event. I know I’m dating myself…screw it.

It used to be a big deal when I showed-up to do a shoot. Didn’t matter who it was, I was coming to take their photo and preparations had to be made. Time had to be set aside. This would probably take a little while.

It would also take several trips. Cameras, film, a case or two of lighting gear, all kinds of stuff. And there was no, “We were going to have Tommy down the hall take the shot…he’s got a camera,” because “Tommy Down the Hall” didn’t have a clue what half the stuff I just dragged in even was. I had stuff no one there had ever seen. I had large format cameras and lenses and Polaroid backs, all in brushed aluminum, combination locked Pelican cases that made me look like freakin’ James Bond for God’s sake.

So time was granted. Patience was extended. There was the acknowledgement that something special, something out of the ordinary was happening.

Fujichrome. Ektachrome, tungsten, fluorescent gels and filters, $500 light meters, two Dynalight packs, four heads…there was no pretense, it was just, “I can do this…and you can’t, so don’t pretend that what you do with your Instamatic is comparable.”

If I did a Polaroid, everyone in the room would lean in to get a view of it, and more often than not nod approvingly, and say, “I love that smell, it reminds me of Christmas.”

Sadly, it’s not a big deal anymore. Chances are someone in the room has my camera or something better. And they’ll want to talk PhotoShop, or for the love of God…Pixel counts!  And they’ll look at the lights and think, “What does he need those for?”  People don’t seem to think it’s work to get a good photo anymore. They’ve seen too many ads of the guy in the top row of a football stadium with his Rebel, who clicks and the next thing you see is flashing on the screen is a photo worthy of a Sports Illustrated cover. It’s easy now, what’s taking so long?

I have to admit, I miss the exclusivity. I miss the magic-act aspect of it all. I miss holding my over-sized light meter to someone’s face, pushing the button and saying, “He’s dead Jim,” and having people get the joke.

Photography is faster now. In many ways it’s easier, too. It’s certainly cheaper. And I suppose it’s more accessible. But although digital photography at first blush seemed like magic, it really isn’t. It’s technical. It lacks mystery. It lacks romance. And it certainly doesn’t smell like Christmas.

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Stick Around

There is something to be said for hanging around, for not giving into, “everyone else is leaving…I will too.”  Recently the famous Stratford Brakettes women’s fastpitch softball team was to take on the Bridgeport Bluefish, a men’s pro baseball team. Half an inning into the game, as an Amtrak train sparked and sped by on an elevated rail just over the right field fence, the sky opened and the rain came. The tarps rolled out, fans sought cover, water started to flood the dugouts, and over the PA came songs like “Yellow Submarine.”

The stadium emptied, but in the Brakettes dugout there was an energy, a gleam in the players’ eyes. Their shoes came off. They were looking around like kids at the start of an Easter egg hunt. It had been well over an hour since the Amtrak train sparked and the sky opened, but there was something the nine-year-olds in them still wanted desperately to do.

Deadline was approaching and the water in the dugout was over my ankles. But sometimes you can feel that even if your assignment is a wash, something else is going to happen if you just stick around. I had given myself a new assignment an hour ago, touched-base with my editors (do it, always), amused myself with rain-out pics…and waited. It’s important to be able to wait, to be patient.  Whether it’s an hour at a ballgame or a decade of a career.

If you really feel something could spark…hang around…something’s going to happen to make it worthwhile.

all images (C) 2014 Stan Godlewski

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Long Time, No See…

It’s been well over a year since I blogged. This makes me aware of three things: 1) A year can go by extraordinarily quickly. 2) A minor impediment can be a hindrance to doing something you really like. 3) Not having the proper info at hand can be a very large impediment. Basically I forgot my password. This generally isn’t a big deal, but to re-set it I was asked to provide “Proof of Ownership” of my blog. This was any one of three codes/receipts that I haven’t seen since I received them. You change computers, you sustain crashes, you delete old emails…there are all kinds of ways to lose info if you’re not the kind of person who backs everything up, writes it down, stores it, copies it, memorizes, it, whatever. That would be me. Finally I decided to put on some music I like, and just work at it until I succeeded. Eventually I found a way in without the documentation, and here we are.

Which makes me aware of two other things: It helps to do something with the idea that there’s no way it isn’t going to happen, and 2) There is always another route to getting where you want to be. And one more…one more thing…luck…luck really is very helpful…I’m a big fan of luck…

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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…


“Who’s there?”


“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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