Thursday, November 29, 2007

big bend

I love Big Bend - such a beautiful, harsh place. So many extremes and different landscapes in one location. Thanksgiving is the busiest time of year, so we tried to get in early. Left from Austin at 5am on the Wednesday and arrived at the ranger station around 1pm to find that almost all the campsites were already reserved. Luckily enough, we'd rented a 4 wheel drive Jeep so could access some of the more out of the way back country sites. We picked Gravel Pit 4, on the West end of the River Road. Not that inspiring of a name but we were told this was one of the better sites. It was down a long, rutted, gravelly and sandy road in a small copse of trees. The roads are fun in the right equipment but I wouldn't like to take a 2 wheel drive car down there - though some manage. On the first day it was over 80F. Hot. Dry. We set up our tents and went for a wander around. We were about 50 yards from the Mexican border - the Rio Grande river was just down a path from our camp site. The sun was setting as we started to make dinner, a clear blue sky overhead with the moon rising, close to full. Lovely.
That first night was windy, with gusts up to 41MPH and about a pound of dust dumped in each tent. I didn't get a lot of sleep as the tent was flapping around so much in the wind. Woke up with a light layer of the desert on top of us all. The temperature had really dropped over night but at least the wind died down. Another beautiful sunrise over the desert.
in big bend
We had breakfast, broke camp and moved on. That morning we hiked in to Boquillas canyon and listened to Victor, the singing Mexican, serenading us from just over the border on the other side of the Rio Grande river. His tip jar is in the US and he sings from Mexico, sneaking across every now and then to pick up what might have been left for him.
singing across the border
After that we drove the fun and rutted Old Ore road to Ernst Tinaja. This is one of my favourite parts of the park - a narrow canyon with beautiful light and some really tortured rock formations. Saw a couple of rather furry tarantula spiders on the way into the canyon. We had lunch in there then moved on to the hot springs. Along the way, I talked to the guy behind the counter at the Rio Grande campsite store and found out that many tents had broken in the wind, the previous night. Somehow we all got lucky - though four of our group decided enough was enough and headed back home.
That night we camped beneath Nugent Mountain (site NM1)- beautiful sunset, amazing clouds, freezing winds and temps in the 20F range. Did I mention it was 80F the day before ?! Nugent mountain is a really interesting photo op - a dramatic silhouette. It was frigid the next morning. Cups of tea and coffee helped but eventually the sun rose over the Sierra del Carmen range and warmed us up.
We broke camp and drove into the Chisos mountains basin for the big hike of the trip. We'd packed as lightly as possible for an overnight hike. We climbed up the Laguna Meadows trail from the basin ranger station, up onto the south rim of the Chisos range (at around 7,500 feet). Carrying about 2 gallons (16 pounds) of water each on our backs, along with food, tents and lots of warm clothes. We had ended up in the furthest backcountry camp site (NE4) from the starting point and there had been a mountain lion sighting at the camp site just the day before (the ranger was really excited for us all!) The hike out up Laguna Meadows is beautiful - not too step and some great views. Once we were at the top, about 3 miles in, we stopped for a break and took in the view. I produced a red nose and used it to get a set of pictures of all the hardy souls we were hiking with that day.
Up on the rim, the hiking got a lot easier - a 4 mile stroll around the edge to the camp site. The views are breathtaking, over the edge to Mexico and the desert far, far below. We set up camp and were confused by a warm inversion that meant it was about 40F and calm/ comfortable up there at 7000+ feet. Spent probably the most comfortable night of the trip up there, watched an amazing sunset and woke up for an even more breathtaking sunrise. The site is a bit back from the edge and quite sheltered from the wind, but stunning vistas are only a few steps away. Happy and relaxed we broke camp and started our hike down.
Our group split at Emery point - about half of them went for the 2 mile round trip to the summit, while the rest of us headed down. My ankle is still bothering me a bit so I decided to go for the easier option. Sam and I talked about cameras and photography most of the way down - he'd been more crazy and brought a Canon 10D with him so I'd used it a bit through the day. My Panosonic DMC-LX1 proved a much lighter option and did quite well for a point and shoot camera (all the pictures in this post were taken with it). I do like the widescreen aspect ratio that it defaults to. Always wanted a digital panoramic camera and this the closest I can get to an X-pan. On the way down the Pinnacles Trail, about 500 feet from the basin and car park, we entered a cloud bank - a short while later it started raining. Half an hour earlier we were toasting in warm sunlight - not a cloud in the sky. We had watched the cloud pour in to the basin through the Window. Just as we reached the basin valley trail, the rain turned to freezing rain and the temperatures plummeted. About 10 minutes later I had a hard time opening my car door because it was frozen shut. Jumped in the car, turned the heating on and waited for everyone else to get down off the mountain - luckily enough we all eventually did!
Everyone got down from the hillside before it got too serious - we also made it out of the basin, down into the desert, before the road down was closed (I heard later that it was shut for over a day - so we were quite fortunate to get out). After that fun, we decided to head on home. Nobody felt like pitching a tent in the snow for the night! We drove along the road to Marathon in an increasingly fun blizzard, slipping and sliding around on the road. We managed to struggle in to Marathon and snagged the last two hotel rooms in the place. Settled down for the night in front of a roaring fire at the Gage hotel (well worth a visit if you can) and had some great steaks for dinner. Woke up the next morning and the sun was splitting the pavement - warm, beautiful clear skies, no wind. A perfect day in the desert, yet with everything covered in snow!
More snow was forecast but we high-tailed it out on the 'low road' back to Austin. Highway 90 follows the border to Del Rio then cuts back up to San Antonio and the snow disappeared really quickly on that route. Tim was thrilled to get to take us all through the border check-point and thankfully didn't say anything to get us deported. We made good time and got back to Austin in the early evening - exhausted from our crazy trip. I can't wait to go back the next time. Big Bend is a place of such dramatic contrasts. Each of the three times I've been has been really special yet wildly different. Get there if you can.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Big Bend

Big Bend

Just got back from a great trip out to West Texas for the Thanksgiving holiday. We camped in Big Bend National Park and had a great time, high mountains, nights freezing in the desert, snow storms, sand storms. Survived it all and got home this evening. This is a picture of the crew we climbed the Chisos mountains with. Took this about half way up the Laguna Meadows trail, as we hiked up to our campsite on the rim. I'll post more about the trip after some sleep!

Sunday, November 18, 2007

heading back E.A.S.T.

heading back E.A.S.T.

As I mentioned, on Saturday I went around a few studios in East Austin as part of the East Austin Studio Tour. I decided to take my camera along to do some portraiture. I've got an opportunity coming up to shoot some artists for a non-profit organization and wanted to explore doing environmental images, of artists with their work, but without the pressure of expectation on the results. I gave myself the assignment to shoot 5 portraits that I was happy with. I think I mostly got there!
I really enjoyed seeing around the various studios that I went to and I got to meet and talk to some very generous and interesting artists. There was such an inspiring variety of great work on display, too. I deliberately didn't pay any attention to which studio I was going to next - just picked an area on the map, then walked around, following the numbers. This meant I had no idea what sort of work I was going to be seeing - I wasn't bringing any preconceived notions of what I liked or didn't like, didn't skip artists that did work I wasn't interested in. So I saw a lot of new ways of seeing and expressing. A great way to spend the day. From full frontal male nude photography, to Hispanic religiously-inspired art, I saw it all. Caroline Wright (left) paints gorgeous abstract images, capturing beautiful light and scenes that I could just get lost in for hours. Lovely use of colour and space. It was intriguing to hear how sound inspires some of her work and you could really see the dynamic tempo in those pieces. Ava Sharifian (above) paints what seem to be organically inspired, colourful canvases, full of movement and life. Her work was so dynamic and lively. Spirals of brush strokes blending in to planes of colour, huge canvases that seemed just perfect. I wouldn't know how to even start creating something like that - the huge empty canvas would haunt me. Perhaps I'd have even more trouble knowing when to stop. Piercarlo Abate's studio was the first place that I stopped on the tour - he also happened to be number one on the list. He really set the tone for the whole day - warm, friendly and inviting, with some great photography of Venice and also some lovely portraiture work. We talked for a while and he made me feel very welcome. He was also shooting a project, using the people visiting his studio as part of his art - seemed like a great idea! You can see a video of the project he shot last year as part of EAST, on his web site. Jennifer Balkan (below) had a wide variety of nude studies in her studio - but a piece that she had done of a rabbit, in a Alice in Wonderland theme, really caught my eye. Deep purple drapes set off an almost blue, white rabbit. I think it was the use of colour that really caught my eye about that piece. She also does a lot of work mixing in maps with figures, combining the sense of anatomy and networks of veins in a body with the similar feeling that can be found in a map - waterways, arterial roads and the like. Really interesting work and my friend Erin was really excited to see I'd taken her picture! The final portrait I took was the one I posted yesterday, of April Bederman, who makes dramatically colourful hats. She was showing in a part of a studio that was shared with Barry George who is a sculptor, working mostly in metals. April's hats were on display on some of that sculpture and the mix of hard iron and her bright, soft fabrics was quite unusual. I visited a few other studios and artists - but these were the people who I felt I managed to make some small connection with and were kind enough to work with me on a portrait. What they didn't know was that I printed out my favourite shot of each of them and then went back around this morning to give them a print. I got quite the range of reactions to that. Everyone was very kind and positive, but most of us have a hard time when faced with ourselves in a picture. I think that's why so many photographers create self-portraits that are so abstract or hide the face. We all have our issues to deal with. It was a lot of fun to be able to turn up unexpectedly and hand over the print. I spent quite a bit of time talking to April again today and she turned the tables on me and took my picture. I suppose that's fair game! EAST was a great experience - I'm really glad that I went. Also setting myself this small assignment meant that I made more of an effort to connect with these people and find out about their art and motivations. I got a lot out of that experience that I don't think would have happened if I just went in and looked quickly, then moved on.

what's it for?

Was out again shooting in Austin, last night. Sixth street seemed pretty quiet at first, but things perked up later on. Craig challenged me to go and take some portraits. I think I started working on a pizza theme - people were happy enough getting their picture taken but happier still when I didn't stop them eating. Everyone wants to know 'what's it for?'. Most seemed happy with just about any answer though. Particularly fun is just to go straight for their fears, so if they think it is going to be used for some wild and wacky reason, I just go along with it and say yes, it's going to be on a porn site. That seems to relax them, gets a laugh, breaks down the barriers. I got a few people saying no, one was concerned that he was a professional model and didn't want his agent seeing them, a few others just weren't interested. I handle that better now - it isn't a rejection, they don't hate me, they just didn't want their picture taken. I'm getting more comfortable just shrugging that off and finding the next willing subject. I also got plenty of people willing to do a whole lot more than just stand there - the pair at the top where a highlight for me.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

april bederman

april bederman

April makes these amazing hats, forming them over balloons, layering the wool to build up the colours and textures. We talked about it while I was walking around EAST - the East Austin Studio Tour. 120 artists open up their studios to the public. I went for a walk and took some portraits along the way. This blue hat was April's favourite.

Friday, November 16, 2007

more keith carter

I finished watching the AnthropyArts documentary on Keith Carter last night. I really enjoyed the whole thing and if you are interested in his work or process I'd highly recommend it. There is a 1 hour documentary and then another hour with Keith describing his favourite images and the back story to them. You can tell that he really loves photography and is really taken with the people and stories that he captures.
At one point he talks about getting out of slumps in his photography. Firstly, acknowledging that they always happen but that you just have to work through them. Inspiration doesn't come if you are sitting around waiting on it, you have to just keep on working and then eventually you'll find it. Productivity as a means to being creative.
The second thing that struck me was how he finds his project ideas - it'll just be a phrase or a comment or something that catches his attention - but then he'll work on it for years. Just simple ideas taken further than most people do. A song with the word mojo in it spawns a 2 year project. A casual comment about a blue man creates a trek across Texas, little triggers changing the direction of his life, because he's open to them. He mentions Joseph Campbell and the idea that small chance events can become major stories and he seems to live by that.
The documentary also gives good insight into his shooting techniques and equipment choices - he describes landing on one camera body and one lens and just sticking with it for almost all his photography. There's details on how he achieves the style and look to a lot of his images. A really well made documentary all round. Recommended if you like his work.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

karla's party

One evening in Savannah, I was walking to dinner with the rest of the people on the workshop. We passed through Chippewa Square, where a birthday party was happening, with tea lights hanging from the trees. It was obvious that some people had gone to a lot of trouble to put this really cool party on, a big ice sculpture cake, tables, music. All in the middle of the public square - it was beautiful. Hanging moss from the trees, the street lamps, just great ambiance.
For some reason I felt really drawn to that whole thing. I thought it was great what her friends were doing, throwing such a fun party like that and I really wanted to take some pictures. More than that, I noticed her friends were all shooting with point and shoots, firing the flash and just missing the great mood and ambiance of the lighting and the park. I really wanted to capture some of that mood. The rest of my group walked off and I had to run to catch up with them, I spent so much time trying to get one good picture. It was really dark, everyone was moving and I was trying to find somewhere to brace my camera. I finally perched on the edge of a wall at the street corner and got a couple of okay shots. I also talked to some of the people at the party and got an email address. A couple of weeks later, I sent through some of the pictures. The person turned out to be from Round Rock (next town over from Austin) so we chatted a bit by email. Then I got an email from Karla (it was her birthday). I find out that she's also from the McGregor clan - her family left the area I grew up in and moved to Georgia in 1790, but she knew all my family history, the clan battles and so on. So somewhere along the line I guess we are cousins. I've been invited back for a clan gathering in May. Savannah is an odd place. Yet again, just following my intuition and going along for the ride with my photography hooked me in to something fun and made a connection. It would have been so easy just to walk on by but having the camera and an interest in people photography made me spend the time. I sent Karla a large print of the party for her birthday. It just feels good to give the prints away and make people happy with them.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

just ask

I'm currently watching a really enjoyable documentary on Keith Carter, from Anthropy Arts. There's a lot of gems in this documentary, including his search for symbolism when shooting and how he got started, staying in New York, going through to collection at MoMA. He comes across as a genuinely pleasant and interested person, with a deep passion for photography and art.
One quote stood out for me, given my current preoccupations with portraiture. Keith is shown shooting in Mexico, working with some people playing basketball. After, he talks a bit about that process:
When I go up to people, I'm always nervous. That never goes away. I figure they are going to tell me no. I mean, why should they give me their time. So I just go and I just do it and I smile and I ask and I get right there. Sometimes they are so startled, they say 'sure' and sometimes they don't.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

woode wood

woode wood

Went for a walk around the trail in Austin last weekend. I sprained my ankle pretty badly about 2 months ago and I haven't quite managed to get back to running yet. So I've been walking instead, trying to get the flexibility and strength back. I decided to take my camera along with me.

I'd ran past Woode on many occasions over the last couple of years. He'd always be out somewhere on the trail and hearing him play would break up and brighten up my runs, but I'd never done more than wave or breathlessly try to say hello.

This time I stopped - glad I did. We talked for about an hour, listened to him play and saw just how important a part of the trail he's become. Everyone seemed to know him. Everyone smiled and waved and beamed as they ran past. The music is good too, check it out at his site,

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

what would you do...?

red nose
... with a box of 25 2" foam red noses ? I know what I'm planning on doing with them, as my next photo project, but what would you do (photographically...) ? Lighting, subject, backgrounds, location, themes, emotional content, overall concept - I'm interested in hearing it all. If someone gave you a box of these noses and the brief to come up with a photo project around them - how would you design it ? What would your concept be ? How would you approach it ?
Comments really welcome on this one.

Monday, November 05, 2007

confessions of a photographer

confessions of a photographer

The more I photograph people, the more fun photography gets for me. Each and every time I put myself out there with my camera I get to interact with people I'd normally not talk to or get to spend time with. In this case, I met up with some friends and we were shooting on Sixth Street in Austin. We walked past the new Alamo Drafthouse in the Ritz, that had just opened. Outside was superman. Or at least Christopher Dennis, wearing the blue suit, advertising the documentary 'Confessions of a Superhero'. I didn't know much about the film and figured he was just hired locally to promote it. We chatted, I shot some pictures, worked the scene a bit, he was in to it, struck some great poses and we went on our way. I liked the result and sent it to the Drafthouse. They were kind enough to give me credit and a link back on their web site. Then I get another email asking to use the image in an interview with the director of the documentary, Matt Ogens. From that I find out that I'd actually been taking a picture of one of the four people the documentary is about. Christopher Dennis spends his life as superman, getting tips and taking photos with people out in Hollywood. Check out the movie web site here and also the trailer on youtube. If we hadn't started taking pictures on Sixth Street, I wouldn't have ended up finding out about Christopher's story. Each time I spend the time to take someone's picture links me in to something interesting. I'm wanting to go and see the documentary now!

mike milligan and the altar boyz

mike milligan and the altar boyz

Met up with some friends on Saturday night and went out on Sixth Street in Austin. Took some pictures along the way and were drawn in to B. D. Riley's and listened to some great blues. There's something great about Austin that you can see such amazing music, without any cover, just in any given bar around town. More shots on flickr. I didn't feel particularly self-conscious taking pictures - I think because two of the other people I was with were also shooting the band. I'm less bothered doing it on my own now, but it still helps to have some others around to provide that justification/ validation. I suppose that fades with time. Instead of tipping them for all the pictures I took, I picked up one of their CDs. Check out their music on their myspace page In the comments, Shane asked 'Care to share what lens and ISO you were using?' These were all shot with a Canon 1dMkII, with a 50mm f1.4 lens, all at an aperture of f1.4 and ISO 1600, mostly in aperture priority mode with matrix metering, though a few I switched to manual exposure and spot metered. Focus is the hardest part of shooting like this - the light is low, the auto focus can hunt, the depth of field is very shallow at f1.4, the performers are moving, makes for a fun time. The one below to the left has a bit of motion blur to it - which I like in this case, there's a lot of movement going on, on stage so I don't mind capturing it. There's also a pretty dramatic visual difference between in-focus motion blur and an out of focus shot. I like both styles of blur in different situations. Colour-wise I was shooting in tungsten white balance, for the bar lighting which pushed the lights into the street towards some great blues and green colours from a variety of light sources. Steve asked ' Did you do any noise reduction in processing?' These don't have any noise reduction done to them, other than the default that Lightroom applies. I find I can pretty much get away without using noise reduction, even at ISO 1600 as long as I expose the shot right. If I have to try and boost the exposure I'll always get in to trouble, but when it is exposed correctly, the results are usually pretty good. Resizing for web display helps with that too, but you could easily print these as an 8x10 and not notice any real noise issues. The other thing I like about the 1DII is that the noise that there is, isn't too objectionable - I find it almost like film grain - you can see some of that speckling in the background of the black and white shot below. I do find when I shoot at ISO 3200 that the noise can be a bit more noticeable and there's also more of a colour shift. Often when I shoot at that ISO I'll convert to contrasty black and whites and the noise doesn't seem so out of place. I really hate the soft, plastic look that noise reduction software typically gives so avoid it as much as possible. I'd rather have some grain or texture. The Canon cameras are great for low noise and this style of available light shooting, though I'm getting quite interested in the Nikon D3, because of it's really high ISO performance.

Friday, November 02, 2007

the next step: the movie

When I was in Savannah, about a month ago, I took a lot of photographs. In four days I took somewhere over 3000 frames. Several people commented that I might as well have a video camera, the amount I shot. I think that dropped an idea in my head. From then on, I was thinking that I wanted to collect all the shots together into one sequence. I actually started shooting slightly differently, with continuity in mind. The video starts out very disjoint and jumpy but as I start to think about sequencing, there's a bit more stability to the camera point of view. My motivation with this is to show you everything. The good, the bad, the ugly (and there's a lot of bad and ugly). I found it an interesting way to take a look at how I approach subjects and composition. You can see where I dwell, angles that I favour and subjects I skip quickly over. Perhaps it'll give some insight in to how I take pictures. The sequence is about 5 minutes long. Every shot I took from landing in Savannah to arriving back in Austin. It is about a 17Mb download, which is why I haven't dropped it directly into this blog post. The format is quicktime. Feedback and comments are welcome on this as it is the first time I've tried anything along these lines. Technical issues: I put this together as a surprise for the various people I shared the workshop with. I've sent them all a much higher resolution DVD of this sequence (which should have arrived now, so I can share it here and not spoil the surprise). I tried a variety of video production programs, Adobe Premiere (Pro and Elements), Microsoft Movie Maker and a few others, until I eventually settled on Sony Vegas Video Studio. This had the features I needed and was actually friendly towards stop motion animation, which essentially this is. The price is okay - about $80 and it wasn't too painful to work with. It still isn't ideal, as there was no easy way to re-time a sequence of frames, that I could find. Other than that I was able to do this and two other sequences pretty quickly and painlessly.