Nicaragua Notes: Love Thy Bus

There is something so fascinating and fantastic about the Latin American bus. ANYONE who has ever spent ANY time in Latin America has surely, at one point or another, spent time on some type of bus. In my experience, the lower level the better they are. Not to say safer, or more comfortable, just more interesting. I’ve spent considerable time on these babies, but Nicaragua was another story, one that involved lack of time and great distances, so our required mode of transportation was the Land Cruiser.
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During a workshop shoot in El Cua I was loitering around a small recreation center where the kids were assigned to photograph group activities. From a great distance I heard the roar of a metallic beast, one that was ALL TOO familiar. My heart began to race in anticipation. Would it be a “normal” bus, standard yellow, maybe a roof rack, or would it be the heart and soul of a risk-taking nomad? What turned up was something in the middle. The overall look was standard yellow, but the owner had spent considerable funds on better suspension, heavyweight tires, and luckily for all us, chrome grill work. But people, there is so much more. So much. The sound. You HAVE to know the SOUND.

The one thing you can’t know is the smell. These babies are ALL diesel and pollution control isn’t a top priority. I grew up on a ranch, surrounded by a bevy of diesel things. Heck, I even drive a diesel now, but theses buses are an entirely new level. I also wanted to include another view of these buses, one that you will surely experience if you find yourself on the roads of Latin America. When you add the smell, dust and crawling speed it adds up to a memorable, extended moment. Trust me.
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Finally, I want you to notice, in the color photograph, the guy standing near the door with his head down, leaning against the great beast. This is a common look when surrounding these beasts because they do more with these machines than you can possible imagine. This photo doesn’t look particularly scary or risky but that bus is at a nice angle and the rear end is backup against the Earth itself. The bus is also twisted, and with each millimeter the beast groaned and strained. A serious “pop” would impact a significant number of people.

In the background the kids worked the scene like pros. Ducking and dodging in and out, working on their backlighting skills, panning skills and just the interaction and dialogue required by entering an unknown situation with the goal of emerging with top level imagery. Also remember that many of these kids hadn’t touched a camera until the day before they were standing here.

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And just to show you what “left of camera” was offering up. There was much going on.

A Spring Day

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Ink, glue, water and guilt on my hands. It’s been way, way too long, but I have an excuse. Teacher, yes, me, I have an excuse and it’s a real humdinger.

I’ve been busy. Just kidding. That old broken down altered universe just ain’t what it used to be.

I need to share a little secret with you. Not often I get nervous around the heavyweights, but I was. I will be honest because I’m always honest, even when it hurts and everyone knows it’s coming. I got to hang with an idol. I never even knew he was an idol until I was standing on the street watching him walk by. I was early, really early, tragically early. The intention was exploration, but what happened was I got shit on by a bird. I have a history with this little experience.

Austin, 1990. An assignment. The first time it happened. Black shirt, camera strap. By the time the bird and I had finished our “collaboration” I looked like modern art. Keith Herring maybe, but worth far, far less. Walking that damn park looking for the spacing I didn’t understand at the time. I could feel it but not grasp it. I can now, but I understand how rare it is, and I’m okay with that.

Cigarette pack upside down, smacking it into the open hand. They burn slower that way.

“Hey,” I say and it begins.

“It’s beautiful,” he says. “You need another just like it.”

I’m lucky because I know this might not ever happen again, and my job is to slow down and concentrate. Look, remember the details and listen. Ya, listen. A tough thing to do when there is too much going on. Now, then, and tomorrow it will get worse. Am I fatigued because of illness or the fact I’ve been in four times zones in four weeks?

You want to know what keeps me going? You want to know how I can do this? It’s very simple. Imagination and visualization.

Have I ever told you about the dream? No? Okay, maybe I’ll wait a bit longer. A hint? Okay. Here today, gone tomorrow. Chew on that for a while.

He is the real deal. So far above and beyond the call of duty. You enter a kingdom and realize you haven’t even been invited to the party yet. The little dream you have been living is happening in the lobby but above you are eighty floors of visual penthouse. Keys don’t work. You need the correct thumbprint. Odds are I’ll never have it, probably too late, but nobody to blame but the guy punching these keys.

There is method. There is meaning. There is an impact where you defend yourself or not. This is so far beyond X’s and O’s. Testament. Evidence. Witness. History. There is no time for ANYTHING else.

“You need to do __________,” he says.

I could do that, but it would blow apart my life and I can’t have that at the moment.

The prints. The goddamn prints. Oh man, I almost wish I hadn’t seen them. Now what? He wants me, and you, to know. A sly smile because he is holding all the cards and has a 12-gauge under the table. Once you see these things you can’t trump or get out of the way. Something strange happens. I start to burn inside, just a little bit. Then I mentally go somewhere else where I can see having the time and focus to accomplish something similar. At least the dream lives. Spoiled and selfish but maybe that is who I really am?

Now I stare at these photographs. They are memory, history and motivation. I take a few hours here on a Saturday to drift. Paste, glue, print, edit and make. The DNA of what all of us are wanting to do. F^%$ it’s what we are SUPPOSED to do, but yet often times we never get the chance. No reason to complain, just motivation to do more. Oh ya. That’s it.

The calendar holds a date, a flight, a location on the map. A new pin. Never been. The key will be to learn again, anew and not waste a moment.

It’s All Jeff’s Fault

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It’s all Jeff’s fault.

Why am I sitting here pondering my fate, future and fortune? Why are my friends doing the same? “That was all I needed, just Duane last night and Eileen this morning,” a friend said. “I’m changing things, I’m getting my life out of a box.” Why? Because Jeff put all these people together. It’s his fault.

The Palm Springs Photo Festival 2014 is over. It is. Over, done, final, complete and we have all moved on. Or have we? You see this isn’t a “photography event.” Don’t think trade show or geek fest. Think image. Think ACTUAL photography and the meaning behind why people do it and what it means to us as record, history or simply entertainment. These “little” gatherings are rare indeed, especially in an era of technology and over-interaction where nobody can seem to put their phone down long enough to actually find real purpose and real meaning, but during the festival they do, and they did.

Everyone was there. There was Duane, Frank, Greg and even a Gregory. There was Ian and Brian and Elena. There was a Tim and a Todd. There was Fletcher and Stanley was there too, and these were just the ones who came to share what they knew. You wonder why they did this? Because of Jeff. It’s his fault. He’s a strange bird this Dunas character. I sat in the audience, night after night, as the words and pictures flooded out, personal things, and private things and astounding things, things that branded even the longest running of those of us who have looked at life through little squares and rectangles, and I wondered “Do people really know what this is?” “Do they know how special this is?”
I wanted to blurt out my feelings and castigate anyone who even thought of leaving early. Like looking out over open prairie while the songbirds sing, knowing that the land has been sold to developers. You better pay attention now because you just never know if you will ever see or experience this again.

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I was there to work, to give information, to listen and to respond. Things I normally do, regardless of where I am, but more focused perhaps. Intense. Creatives are needy. They need time, critical thought and sounding boards. That’s just the way it is. The energy comes and goes, gets sucked out of you and then replaced by the words or images searing through your retinas or gently floating through your ears. “Your life is THE event,” we are told. Clearly, but thank you for reminding me.

“Who did you talk to?” she asked. How dare you even ask? Everyone. How can I even begin to remember. But here goes. Kelly, Michael, Tony, Brendan, Justin, Kari, Dan, Laura, Anthony, Douglass, Alexa, Randy, Michelle, Chris, Leah, Matt, another Chris, Greg, Valentino, Ray, Jesse, Sean, Dan, Tara, Susan, Matt, Cain, another Jeff, Mac, Peter, Andrew, Casey, Mike, Michael, Teru, Daniel, Ken, Sherri, Sue, Anna, Christa, David, Sonja, Holly, Jennifer, Miriam, Norman, Dina, Carolyn, Allegra, and Mary, and I’m not even social. I went to sleep early. Jeff’s fault.

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There was also the soul thing. Ya, that. That thing you think is just babble until you are staring at it and no matter which way you look you can’t see around. Ya, that. I learned, after twenty-five years that cameras have souls too. Mine does, or doesn’t in some cases. A switch. A spotlight shined at me. “Hey, dipshit, what are you doing?” “Stop doing it and get back to doing what you do.” Ya, I had that moment too, because of Jeff. And it wasn’t just me. What’s even better than having these moments is watching others have them. They do things like climb over four rows of seats in a really nice theatre just to tell you about something they figured out. They leave untold numbers of messages on your phone, or they lurk in the shadows near your hotel room and when you walk by they hiss and whisper, “Hey, wanna know what happened to me?” Creative breakthroughs needs to be shared, to be taken off the chest and released. It happens. It really does.

You want to know the truth? What came from all this? The consistent thread? Do your work. NOTHING else. You simply don’t have time to screw around. Want to be the one on that stage? Quit pretending, a photographic life isn’t a masquerade ball, it’s a police lineup but the only police lineup where you want to be the one picked out, and to do that you gotta find your particular visual crime. “Have you seen good work?” I asked. “Yes, but I often times have to wade through the work they think I want to see before we get to who they really are,” he answered. There, I just saved you months of work and therapy sessions. Just go figure it out and put it on paper. Then bring it back and show it to us. Tick, tock, tick, tock.

Ya, I still blame Dunas. This post, the thoughts in my head and the direction I will take with my first step on this Sunday morning. The residue is there, like SPF 80 sunscreen. You KNOW it won’t come off easy.

Books I Love: Beyond the Fall

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The latest installment “Books I Love.” The concept is very simple. Find a book in my collection, photograph it, then share it with you. The idea being to share what I love about the book or why I have it. The books will range from traditionally published, POD and handmade. The only stipulation is that I love the book. Most of them have a backstory, which I will also share. Books and photography are forever linked, so why not explore the relationship through my bookshelf. Hope you enjoy.

In short, I don’t think you can find a better book of reportage. “Beyond the Fall” by American photojournalist Anthony Suau is a ten-year look at the former Soviet Bloc in transition. TEN YEARS for those of you who came of age in the “modern” photography world of weekend essays, isn’t an exaggeration or typo. He spent TEN YEARS working on this book, and one look at the images living on those pages and you will very clearly see what that kind of time does when it comes to the quality of reporting. Suau covers it all, politics, family, war, high-society and everyday life. When I think of documentary photography books, it’s publications like this that set the bar. You have to remember something very, very important. This is a book of moments. The vast majority of these images are one frame moments. Just think about that. Just think about how much time and focus that requires. Now think about doing that over a ten-year period. So many of the documentary books I see today are the “abstract urban landscape book” void of people(So no need for interaction or model release) or the “portrait series” documentary book which can be done VERY quickly(There are a few stellar books in this category however). Forget it, this book was like an ultra-marathon.

Now, books like this rarely get the credit they deserve because for whatever reason work like this is considered too reality based and the art world doesn’t seem to know what to do with it(Something that has been written about by a fair number of art-world folks), but for me this work is SO DIFFICULT, so RARE and so TIME CONSUMING it deserves it’s own wing in the museum world. Forget the gallery world, this work it more important than MOST of those spaces(There are worthy galleries.)

I KNOW there are so many of you out there living under the ultra-romantic notion of photographer. The loner walking the back streets of a crumbling empire, Leica in hand, pouring their life into their contact sheets. Well, in this case, that is in some ways what you had, but I will remind you of the DATE these images were taken, and the reality that this lifestyle is EXTREMELY rare today because the industry that supported photographers at this time is basically gone. Even during the time this book was made it was a supreme struggle to do this work. Today, nearly impossible. The time isn’t being spent, the work is made digitally now and it just doesn’t have the same cache or impact, nor do folks want to slow down and actually appreciate the work. The reason I’m telling you this is to slow YOU down when you consider a book like this. This is a treasure. A gem. Give yourself, and the photographer, some respect and sit down alone, sans mobile phone umbilical cord, TV, laptop, iPad, etc., and just look at the work, start to finish, front to back. Trust me, it’s worth it.

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I simply can’t tell you the range of what this book offers. I’m not even going start with design or materials, which are both very good, because I still can’t get over the quality of the photographs. The alarming thing is that each photograph represents what has to be an archive of other work. You see an image of a destroyed downtown Grozny during the height of the Chechen War and you think “What ELSE does he have?” You realize to get that one image there had to be MONTHS of preparation and sacrifice. This work is “classic” in all the right ways, and could or should be used in photojournalism schools to illustrate the kind of work being done by one motivated individual with time and resources. Perhaps not as much as he would have liked, actually don’t know, but I’m guessing. This book gets better with age.

Don’t walk, RUN, and go by this thing.

I Like Old

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(The number of views for Sebastiao Salgado’s TED Talk.) I’m just going to say this, Salgado is the best documentary photographer alive. You could argue actual composition and style, and there are others that are good, but when you boil down longevity, impact, scale and influence there is nobody even in the same range. Now, I’m lumping guys like Edward Burtynsky in another category of work, but that is my own personal preference. And I don’t put Salgado in the “conflict photographer” group either. Perhaps I should define Salgado as a “classic documentary photographer,” but that would be confining because he transcends the traditional outlets and the art world, but ultimately that is not what this post is about.

Can you guess what these numbers correspond to?

305,482
363,366
402,343
652,118

Yep, you guessed it. Camera reviews.

As you can see, these numbers are not even close, and oddly enough the geeks watching these reviews are planning (mostly talking) to hypothetically (Because most don’t actually make photographs.) do the kind of work that Salgado is doing only at an absurdly inferior level. Personally I think this is why people laugh at photography and our “geek” legacy. I also find this wildly depressing, and I think it’s been getting worse over the past decade. I think if the rest of the creative world actually cared they would feel sorry for us. Yes, I said “us” because I was spawned from the photography world. Multiple times per week someone asks me about gear, either what camera to buy or what I think of some new model. I have my standard, canned answers because frankly I detest talking about this stuff. “Whatever is small and whatever you are willing to carry,” is my number one response because I actually think this response is helpful and I truly believe it. When it comes to new cameras I have another canned autoreply, “I don’t know.” I should probably add, “I don’t care,” but that might sound a tad smug, so I’m currently holding back on that little caveat. Even if I wanted to keep up with the new models I’m pretty sure I would not be able to unless I quit my job, rid my life of all things meaningful and holed myself up with a case of Jolt Cola and some cheap hooch. But more importantly, WHY would I even want to do this? The absolute truth is your camera has so little to do with your images it’s almost irrelevant, but don’t tell that blasphemic tale to the masses sitting through unboxing videos. (There should be a minimal jail sentence for anyone caught hatching one of these devilish creations.) Heck, I did a test on my own YouTube page years ago with a “What’s in my Bag?” post and a “New Camera at Smogranch” blast. The “What’s in my Bag” video has almost 5000 views, which for me is massive because my mode of promoting my YouTube page is neglecting to tell people I actually HAVE a YouTube page. And to say the video is low quality is an understatement of supreme proportion.
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But something else dawned on me. I like old stuff. I like stuff that has been in my hands long enough to feel like it is actually mine. I like stuff I have a connection with. I’ve got a friend who buys almost every new point-and-shoot digital camera that comes out. No joke. All brands. Then he calls me and says “Okay, I’m serious this time, THIS IS THE ONE.” Then, two weeks later it’s on Ebay, and I get the follow up call. “Oh man, that piece of crap would’t focus and the skin tone was horrible.” I let him finish talking then I hang up on him. As you can see, I’m in need of new soles. I could buy new shoes, but I don’t need new shoes. I need new soles. These shoes finally feel like they are mine, and if anyone reading this knows me you know I wear these almost everyday. This will be my third set of soles for these particular babies. When I look down I know what I’m going to see, and more importantly I know what I’m going to feel.

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The same can be said for my camera. It’s the same boring model I’ve been using for twelve years. It’s not the only camera I have, but the rest, with the exception of one, have been with me for about the same amount of time and some much, much longer. (I did buy a new system in the last two years, but it was only new to me, and had already been discontinued roughly a decade prior to me acquiring it.) There is no guesswork. There is no awkward moment. There is no learning curve. In fact, the only thought I give toward them is choosing a format. That’s all I need. The burden of choice is lifted and I just going into the field to look and see.
As many of you know, I’ve taught a few classes here and there over the years, both here at home and along some distant shores. Many modern students are defeated by the newness of their equipment before they ever set foot on photographic ground. I look over to see them staring at new everything, their conversation filled with menus, buttons and custom functions, not to mention the software woes on the backend. It just doesn’t work, nor will it ever. Now, if you love the gear more than the actual photographs, yes it will work, and there is no shortage of all things new. I say this not being contrite, but I’m entirely sure that many of those watching these camera reviews have no actual interest in making photographs. This is a reality of the photography world.

My advice to you is two fold. First, get a camera, commit to it and put all the rest away in a locked compartment. Then give the key to a trusted companion under the promise that when you come to them in a sweaty frenzy claiming you REALLY need those other cameras because your Zupperflex 5000 is only good at street photography and your Zupperflex 5001 is the ONLY thing that will work for your softcore “poolside” glamour “work” your friend will, as promised, kick you in the teeth as hard as they possibly can. Second, use your chosen camera until it wears out. NOT until a new model is released, or a new software version flies down from the ether. USE THIS ONE CAMERA UNTIL IT WEARS OUT.

I know a few non photographers who have done this. People who love to shoot for the love of shooting who never went down the equipment rabbit hole. They ask me to look at the mirror in their battered FM2 or their 5D Mark II shutter with 500,000 exposure, the camera in one hand and the shutter in the other. These people know, the have seen the light and know the light comes from what it in front of you, not what is in your hand. Find something and grow old with it.

And people this is the FUN part, and I guarantee your imagery will IMPROVE. Less distracted photographer equals better photographer every damn time. And what’s so great about this is WHEN you imagery improves it illuminates the reality that the rest of the nonsense really doesn’t matter. Slowly your gear will become just a distraction because you will be consumed by your imagery, by the light at 3:43 PM, by a location or by something you haven’t quite put your finger on yet. Your gear will become a reflex used to scratch a creative itch and the thought of taking time to watch a YouTube clip about something new will finally strike you as absurd. It’s a learning process that has nothing to do with technology or screen time. It is about an ongoing conversation with good friends.

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