Nine-O-Nine

I’m sure you’ve heard “Where the Past Comes Alive”, an expression used by historical theme parks, museums and roadside attractions. The opposite happened last week with the loss of the Collings Foundation’s flagship aircraft the “Nine-O-Nine” at their air show in Windsor, CT at Bradley Airport. It was in the news but may have been a passing story with all the current events but to me it’s a story of significance. Not only did the B-17 go down not ten minutes from my brother and sister-in-laws home; I flew on the “Nine-O-Nine” when it came barnstorming to Greenville six years ago along with other World War II area planes that are part of Collings’ traveling “Living HIstory” exhibition.

Photographers are also historians. There’s a lot I could say about this loss. There was the loss of those that perished; I grieve and pray for their families. I had a lengthy conversation with the pilots before our flight in 2013. They were professional, enthusiastic and passionate about providing us with just a glimpse of what it was like to fly in battle. They were as quietly aware of their responsibility as they guided a bunch of giddy passengers through the air.

The “Nine-O-Nine” at Greenville’s downtown airport as part of the Collings Foundation’s “Living History” tour, OCtober 2013.

The “Nine-O-Nine” at Greenville’s downtown airport as part of the Collings Foundation’s “Living History” tour, OCtober 2013.

There isn’t much comfort in a B-17. Really no seats except what resembles stadium cushions on the floor. For a “fortress” it is spartan. No flight attendants to show you emergency exits, no padding to cushion you from a hard landing. So when the passengers were told to strap in for a hard landing…well. I can imagine. I won’t go into more; I’d rather just mourn for those who were lost and the “Nine-O-NIne.” It never flew in battle but it represented the lives of many a young kid that volunteered for some of the war’s most hazardous missions.

I am haunted by one thing. I know many flew their missions and came home only to hear that another crew went down with their over the European battleground. I never thought I could come close to imagining what that felt like. I do now.

Collings’ P51 Fighter was part of their traveling history display.

Collings’ P51 Fighter was part of their traveling history display.

In the background the P51. In the foreground one of the “Nine-O-Nine”’s blades. The piston engine blades had to be manually rotated nine time prior to take off to properly distribute the engine fluids.You’ve seen it on television or film I’m sure. It was a honor to turn the blades.

In the background the P51. In the foreground one of the “Nine-O-Nine”’s blades. The piston engine blades had to be manually rotated nine time prior to take off to properly distribute the engine fluids.You’ve seen it on television or film I’m sure. It was a honor to turn the blades.

Another honor. Buffing the “Betty Jane.”

Another honor. Buffing the “Betty Jane.”

The “Witchcraft,” the Consolidated B-24 Liberator. If you look closely you’ll see rivets more than bombs. All were inserted by hand.

The “Witchcraft,” the Consolidated B-24 Liberator. If you look closely you’ll see rivets more than bombs. All were inserted by hand.

Myself at the tail gunner position of the “Nine-O-Nine.”

Myself at the tail gunner position of the “Nine-O-Nine.”

Takeoff from the Greenville Downtown Airport, October 2013.

Takeoff from the Greenville Downtown Airport, October 2013.

In flight over the Upstate of South Carolina as the sun lowers for the evening.

In flight over the Upstate of South Carolina as the sun lowers for the evening.

Godspeed and fair tailwinds.

Godspeed and fair tailwinds.

Autumnal Leanings

Here on this day we are now into Fall. The transition is cloudy now as schools have longed geared up for glasses by mid-August. In my time behind the school desk, Labor Day was the kickoff. So be it. The origins of when glasses commenced is steeped in folklore. The most commonly accepted reason centered around the time when the US population was mostly rural and children were needed to bring in the harvest. THat has past, along with many family farms as a main source of income, but habits die hard. Until they don’t. We live in a “disruptive” society now. Disruptive in that one simple change or another causes a tectonic shift in our daily goings. Think of it this way; there were now smartphones, Facebook, Twitter or Instagram in existence on September 11, 2001. Imagine that horrific event happening now.

Beyond that I offer a small selection of images I call the “Late Summer” series. We are tied to our regional environments. There are scenes, moments, smells that usher in Fall that we can all share, and the South has its own. Be mindful of the seasonal changes around you. Photograph them when you can. Memories are made of still images more than you know.

The Latest

Here are the latest Instagram reloads. Though these images are legacy, new images are coming. Sometimes you have to look at what you’ve photographed to propel you towards new ventures. It’s a calling, not a rocking chair.

The Anatomy of a Photo

The short and skinny of this medium is photographs are either scripted or they are not. Sure if the shooter has time for a series of frames they can move around a bit to control the background and foreground. But in a short moment it’s the reactive eye that composes the image, usually with perfect exposure left in tow.

         If you are blessed with decent eyesight, the camera, whether a DSLR, bridge digital or the ever-present camera phone is never as receptive to detail as God’s given optics. Learning to see what the camera sees and then manipulating it to see as you see is a career in itself. Lest that we are left to “postproduction” augmentation to create the feel we try to capture. In film, we often used contact sheets, the collection of a roll of film placed in a transparent sleeve and placed directly in “contact” with a photographic sheet of paper for exposure and development. With that in hand we could begin to study the anatomy of the photographs.

         In the controlled environment, like the David Bowie “Heroes” album cover session, once the selection was made there might be minor adjustments to cropping and a touch or two of change in exposure. Compared to the unscripted, or “environmental” shot of actor James Dean walking the streets of a rainy and dank New York City, the adjustments are minor.

         As exquisite as the final Dean print is, the challenges of getting there on film are evidenced by the marked up image printed full frame from the contact print. These nuisances were a mainstay with film, requiring several attempts to get the feel of the final image through a series of “dodges” and “burns.” Unlike painting with brushes, there is only one spot where you can quit.  Today it’s different. Event the simplest camera phone offers rudimentary image adjustments. But tinker at your peril. Otherwise you might never reach that final image.

         The anatomy of a photo consists of light, composition and angle. Pay attention to these up front; learn how to see like your camera does and make it an extension of yourself. In spite of all that postproduction software offers, the cleanest images are unaltered. At for that it takes time and practice. Most don’t think of practicing photography, but it doing your analytics will be taken over by intuition. And you’ll be a better, more natural shooter.

Famous David Bowie session contact sheet by Masauoshi Sukita’s for “Heroes” cover along with Time’s rendition shortly after David' Bowie’s death.

Magnum photographer Dennis Stock’s iconic shot of James Dean in New York, 1955, including markup and final print.

Magnum photographer Dennis Stock’s iconic shot of James Dean in New York, 1955, including markup and final print.

Singles

By the early 1980s the songwriter Don McClean clearly tired of explaining why he wouldn’t explain the meaning behind his iconic 1971 song “American Pie.” According to legend when asked again and again he said , “It means I don’t have to write another song.” That may be urban but I’m going with it.

Brian May, legendary guitarist for Queen, and if you don’t already know a celebrated astrophysicist, still refuses to delve into the meanings of Queen’s esoteric but celebrated works. In short he said, “To do so would take away what the listener drew from the song.” The songs we hear, especially in our youth, take on a meaning of their own with reflections of where we were, who we were with and what we were doing at the time of their release.

In the same vane, of all of the social media platforms I’ve frequented, Instagram at it’s inception serves images the best. At first it was clunky with their square format and the basic ability to upload from only mobile devices, Instagram now has a better happy medium by allowing for cropping outside square and better loading access. Now, the filters; not so much.

What Instagram allows for, if you discipline yourself, is the opportunity to highlight a single image from an event or situation and let that single image tell the story. In doing so, just like songs lacking a direct meaning, the willing viewer can add their own perspective to the image. Think of it this way, da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa” would be far less interesting, even diluted, if it were one in a series.

As an experiment the last 12 images I posted on Instagram have single-worded titles. There are no hashtags. Why? I don’t want to over describe the image, or get in the way of it. I’ll post the 12 images here but you’ll have to go to Instagram for the titling. More about the Single Image in my next post and word on our upcoming companion Podcasts. Cheers!

Ounces

Skilled backpackers have an expression. “Pay attention to the ounces and the pounds will take care of themselves.” I witnessed this visiting a friend preparing for his trip on the Appalachian Trail. Taking a jigsaw to his toothbrush he cut the handle in half saving maybe an ounce. When you’re packing, it’s all about weight.

In photography it’s often the little things, the simple observations where stories arise. Most photographers who took home coveted prizes in National Press Photographers Association (NPPA) covered hometown events. Few do it as well now as Andy Sharp, who after a sterling career with the Atlanta Constitution returned to rural Texas and started anew creating a formidable collecting of work documenting small town life; mostly events we would simply overlook yet identify with when seeing his work.

Telling images occur just as much within five miles of where you live as they do in the Middle East, South America, or any exotic locale. You just have to pay attention to the little things, the ounces if you will, and you’ll see life in front of you.  

I was invited to a community pool party last weekend and was pleased to see the number of families with kids that had moved into our otherwise mostly retired neighborhood. Nothing like kids to keep you young, especially when you’ve never had your own. I watched as two brothers kept piling floats higher and higher in a dare to jump over them. Their dares got too high but they kept reaching, each attempting to better the other.  Just another pool game, true; but also competition.

It was reminiscent of a scene from the 1960s novel “An Only Child” by Irish writer Frank O’Connor. President John F. Kennedy often referenced it when speaking on the need for a US space program. He told about how two boys were running through the Irish country side one afternoon and upon coming to a stone wall too high to see over one boy would grab the others hat and throw it over. They would them shimmy up the wall, retrieve the hat and keep going.  

Just like the ounces that add up to pounds, it’s mixture of small events, the ones you find only through frequent reflection, that add make up the story of life. What I saw was that even at play; the kids were pushing the outside of their envelope, competing to get and to be better. It’s the little things that affirm the kids are all right.

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The Real Primary Colors


It is an excepted axiom if your introduction to photography was prior to the Year 2000 the primary colors of the profession were Black, White and shades to Gray. Though the romance of the darkroom and developing your film was beginning to fade, photographers who were serious about the craft reveled in the process. Why so?

It’s tempting to get caught up in the minutiae when coming of age immersed in the mysteries of processing your own film. The intricacies of exposing film using Ansel Adams’ Zone System to near chef like darkroom disciplines, along with artistic licenses already fill vast pages, most still beyond my understanding. Adobe Photoshop terms such as highlights and shadows, gradation, levels with their black point and white point settings, all are a product of the black and white age. So are the “dodge” and “burn” tools.

Street preachers in Hendersonville, NC. 2016

Street preachers in Hendersonville, NC. 2016

These are, tools, obviously. It’s what you see when shooting BW that trains the eye. Black and White puts a veneer between you and your subject; the departure of color clears the composition, distilling it to its essence. You are looking at the capturing of an image, not colors.

Up until the last half dozen years Black and White images were the mainstay in newspaper photography. If deadlines were tight and you were transmitting on location you could cheat (speed up) the developing process but that was just a learned technique. Knowing how to expose for highlights and shadows was one thing, but telling the story, understanding how colors fade to gray, had to be a natural process. Photography today doesn’t benefit from the honed simplicity of BW. Shooters convert their images to grayscale because they think it makes them “arty.”

To do defining work you have to understand your subject, let composition lead, and learn not to be part of the scene while never leaving it. That’s primary. That’s Black and White.

So take this challenge and do as I do once a week. Set your digital camera to shoot black and white and leave it. The first image you see on your view screen will astonish you as it still does me. Then pay attention to the real primary colors. It will make you better.

Patience, Research, Timing and again Patience

Thirty-Six frames on a roll of 35mm film was the SLR camera standard. Sure, if you were crafty you could squeeze in an extra frame or two, making it 38, but there were chances in that; chances the last and usually most important image would half frame. So as a newspaper shooter in a tight situation, when you got to frame 32, you watched and waited for “the moment,’ hoping it was decisive.

As one of the the digital beta testers for Nikon, as we all were who shot Nikon in photojournalism, it came was both amazement and relief when Nikon started loaning out it’s Nikon D1 in the Summer of 1999; an early DSLR with removable flashcard storage. Nikon went through many versions before this camera. In reverse order your can visit the Nikon line at Ken Rockwell’s site here. The Nikon D1 could record an astonishing 89 jpeg images on a 128mb flash drive before “reloading.” The images were recorded at 2.71 megapixels which could be and was stretched to full page images when needed. A 128mb card cost $300 in 1999. Today a 128gb card is about $40.

The skinny of this is with advancements bringing lower costs for storage, a photographer can “get good” by making mistake cheaply. In the life of a film camera, let’s say the $400 Nikon FM2, more than ten times it’s cost will ratchet through it before someone “gets good.” These are new the times. Ye the outstanding at this craft still need the ingredients listed in this post’s header. Documentaries and movies love running timelines using sequential 35mm frames from a roll of film as if every click was a keeper.

Filmstrip.jpg

It was never that way, of course. One shot, one frame, each perfectly exposed, composed, and timed just right. Or was it, maybe just once. Unheard of in the disposable imagery the digital now affords us, one shot for each setting would require what is demanded of every photographer who wants their work to be outstanding. It would be the great learning tool if shooters today took on every frame as canvas to paint. And before you think that’s too much to ask, consider the following work of famed National Geographic photographer Jim Brandenburg whose work was published in November 1997, days of film.

The North Woods Journal, photographs from the Upper East Minnesota are just that. Bradenburg’s goal in his words, “In autumn I set out to make one photograph - one single exposure - each day for 90 days. I hoped with patience to renew my vision of the natural world.” That’s three rolls of film, for 90 days.

I’m fortunate to have that issue.

Note the day and time on each of Brandenburg’s photos. He scouted days before, got there early, and waited. It’s what you do. Don’t let the quick and easy of digital take away from “doing the work.”

Brandenburg’s work is available here.