When I scope out an abandoned building, I always run the risk of it being gone by the time I’m ready to photograph it.
It’s happened plenty of times. Luckily, this past winter, I had a chance to document an abandoned building before it was leveled just weeks later. Other times, I have not been so lucky. There are plenty of places that disappeared before I had a chance to photograph them.
So it is with people, too.
If you love someone, or are fond of someone, take the time to get a good photo in before they’re gone. Even if it’s uncomfortable or awkward.
A few recent passings are good reminders that I need to grab portraits of people I care about. You should do the same. You’ll be glad you did.
Everyone talks about 50mm being the focal length for 35mm photography. And I mostly agree.
But lately, my 40mm pancake lens is getting a lot of use – for good reason.
Five millimeters north of a 35mm lens, and just a hair wider than 50mm, 40mm sits in a sweet spot. It’s wide enough to get landscapes and cityscapes, and yet short enough to do people well, and get details.
No, I took a chance because I thought, “I so love 50mm, why do I bother with 40mm?” It turns out that because of the lens’s size, weight, and utility, it’s now my most-used lens. It’s almost permanently strapped to my 5D. I just pick it up and go.
The 40mm doesn’t stick out from the camera, making it great for close-up shots of the kids at home, or of people out in the city. It’s a great front-seat lens that goes with me to and from work every day for the random landscape shot. It’s flexible for the kind of shooting I do, and I appreciate it more and more every day.
And now that I’ve had it for about a year, I’m getting to see the world in 40mm – just as I did with 50mm (both are natural, of course, being “normal” lenses). My Canonet probably helped warm me up to 40mm before that, as did my Fuji X-E1 with the 27mm (40mm equivalent) pancake lens.
While the 50mm gets all the creative credit in the photo world, it’s good to know there’s a handy, slightly-wider alternative in the 40mm lens.
Because there are fewer and fewer places selling honest to goodness film these days, trying to snag a roll was random and difficult. If I didn’t want Kodak instant cameras or Fuji Superia, I was stuck using Amazon or B&H – especially for my favorites, Agfa Vista and Ilford HP5.
But CameraMall had those and more. Medium format film! Kodak Ektar! Weird Ilford film I had never heard of! My beloved Agfa! It was like a candy store. As a bonus, they also develop 35mm film.
It felt really, really good to plunk down the $10 for two rolls of film, knowing that I had a local place to shop from. They benefit (yay, camera stores!), I benefit, and somewhere down the line the photography industry benefits.
And really, the film costs the same in store as it does online, I get to geek out with the guy behind the counter, and it’s an excuse to get out of the office and go for a walk.
Find your local place, if you have one, and shop from their film selection (or memory cards, or tripods, or whatever). Order some prints. Check out their used gear section. I know ordering online is super handy, but the benefits of shopping local are numerous.
I’ll bet that after you do, like me, you’ll feel better about doing it.
The show was notable because Gord Downie, the Hip’s lead singer, was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer earlier this year. Saturday night’s show, broadcast on the CBC to a third of Canada’s citizens, could be the Hip’s last ever – capping a 30-year career.
Imagine that in America. What U.S.-based band would garner a national broadcast on its last show ever? Bruce Springsteen, maybe? What modern music act can unite a country on what night in the way the Hip did this weekend? It’s amazing when you think about it.
I have a great history with the band. My friend Chris took me to a Hip show in the summer of 2000 at DTE Energy Music Theater (Pine Knob to those who remember the good ol’ days), north of Detroit. Since then, I’ve seen the Hip more than a dozen times: in Detroit, in Grand Rapids, in Sarnia, in Toronto, in Windsor (photo above). Their country and my own, I’ve seen them on almost every tour since 2000, sometimes catching them on several dates on a given tour.
Saturday night was emotional for me. It was especially difficult watching Gord, obviously frail and tired, giving it his all. He was spent emotionally, physically, and perhaps even creatively. But he went out with a bang. Here was a guy who has dealt with terminal cancer, on the last night of a country-spanning tour, deliver a three-hour performance in front of his hometown crowd and his nation. That’s grit.
Not that I think about death a lot, but watching my musical heroes pass away over the years makes me think about mortality, and the limited time we have.
It’s hard not to dive into the live-like-you-were-dying cliché here, but hear me out.
What would you do, artistically, if you knew you were on borrowed time?
And what’s holding you back from doing that, right now?
I try not to be morbid about this stuff. But it’s hard, having kids, not thinking about being taken away suddenly, and what kind of situation I’d leave behind. The unexpected happens all the time. Any of us could get a diagnosis that changes everything.
We can’t think about this stuff every day. That would be paralyzing in a way. Then again, that’s the whole point of the your-life-changes-after-you-get-the-news storyline – hardly anyone young-ish sees death coming. Saturday’s concert was a good reminder.
I mean, if a guy with terminal brain cancer can hit the road with the band one more time, travel the country and give it his all every night in the name of art and performance and duty, surely I can get that undone project completed. Right?
I’m just going to leave this here, as a kind of in-public to-do list.
Musicians In Jackson: This is my ongoing, maybe-soon next project, featuring musicians in my community. Still stewing on this one, but getting closer to getting started.
Artists In Jackson – part two!
Some smaller, more personal portrait shoots with friends and family. Go somewhere interesting, and just make photographs. I have a few offers out there.
Something here on the University of Michigan campus. I thought about setting up a tripod and asking people on the Diag to stop and get their photo, and see what I can get. There’s so many people here – there has to be something fun I could do.
A documentary project highlighting something going on in Jackson. Maybe longer form, maybe one-off, but the idea would be to follow a story from beginning to end.
A zombie/horror movie conceptual photo shoot, with costumes and locations and makeup and all that. I’ve had this one in mind, totally for fun, for a long time. I bet I have some friends who would totally be up for it.
We can never capture everything. But seeing at all times, under any circumstances, is entirely up to us. And for this we don’t need the best camera money can buy or the most expensive lens on the market…we just need awareness.
My brain is full of missed shots.
I remember driving through the upper peninsula of Michigan and passing by an abandoned train sitting next to a pond. It would have made for a great photograph. I hesitated, because to pull over and grab the shot would’ve been something, but I was traveling at a good pace and didn’t feel like stopping. That shot haunts me.
There’s a collection of these shots in my brain, and I add new ones all the time. Maybe it’s as LaRoque says: it’s mostly in the seeing. I’ll remember these scenes in the camera of my mind. The important skill is to recognize new opportunities when they come up.
Or I’ll head back to the spot, and take the shot I missed.
Last week I visited the Detroit Institute of Art to check out The Open Road exhibition, a fantastic collection of photography road trips by some of the great photographers. It was right up my alley (so much so that I bought the accompanying book).
It got me thinking: What if I had been into photography, like I am now, back when I took my country-crossing road trips?
Surely I could have made some sort of project or publication out of my Route 66 trip, or my New England trip, or any of the other big road trips I took in my 20s and early 30s. I went on some pretty great adventures, and I took lots of photos, but I wasn’t into photography. I didn’t have the eye I do today.
A book is an enclosed and encapsulated medium that you can actually come pretty damn close to perfecting. I also tend to think that the book is sometimes more important than the show, as the exhibit is a temporary thing, often hanging for a month or six weeks and then it goes away.
Maybe a couple of thousand people see it?
But a book is something that I always say is on your “permanent record” and it never ever goes away—so you better get it right!
He also highlights the importance of playing around with the physical layout of a photo book:
As far as putting together the books, I spend hundred & hundreds of hours shuffling around my photographs, making dummies, turning pages, and switching them around and all that. To me that is really the only way to do it, to print the pictures out, paste them in a physical blank book dummy, and turn the pages.
For my Artists In Jackson book, I didn’t quite know what the layout was going to look like. So I printed a bunch of horizontal and portrait-shaped squares, taped them to pages, and moved them around to see how the look and flow would go. It was super helpful to see the book take shape, even if only in the abstract.
It also helps to give it to someone you trust, and ask, “What do you think?”
Luckily, my workplace is centrally located at the University, so branching out on my lunch hour is easy to do.
That’s what I do, usually, on my lunch hours now. I wander, and explore, and try to find a spot I haven’t seen before. It’s hard, because I’ve been here so many times, and walked around so much.
For one, it’s a great way to get some exercise on a beautiful summer day. For two, it really is a lovely campus.
And three, as I’ve mentioned, it’s how I explore. Grab a camera, lace up the walking shoes, and hit the road. Chicken out at asking people to take their portrait. Find little slants of light. Remember to look up at the architecture.
Until time runs out, and I head back to the office.