A story from the archives. Elton John, Andy Roddick and Rick Perry walk into a hotel....

I thought I'd break with our little tradition of mixing gear reviews and photo-philosophy by telling a little story from the archives. It was back in 2005 that I got a call from Andy Roddick's people. Andy's foundation was going to hold a fundraiser for the new Children's Hospital and they wondered if I would be available to photograph the event. The people asking were good friends and always well intentioned and so, of course, I said, "Yes." Then, having secured my engagement they let the other shoe drop; the guest of honor and entertainer would be Sir Elton John. I've always been a big fan to so I was incredibly excited to be on the team. 

Now, by way of a little back story, our Governor at the time in Texas was the redoubtable Rick Perry. The same guy who more or less stumbled his way through the primaries an ill-fated campaign for president this year. Back in 2005, in an attempt to curry favor with the more conservative factions in Texas (and just two weeks before Sir Elton John's visit) Perry decided to push an amendment to the state constitution basically banning gay marriage. The legislation was called "Proposition 2" and it was passed by Texas voters in November of that year. Now, I don't know if it was a coincidence or not but just one week before coming to Austin, Texas to do his part raising money for the kids, Sir Elton John very publicly announced his official marriage to his long time, same sex partner. Around Austin people were pretty sure that this was his way of answering Perry's Prop 2 (later struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court...). 

The day of the shoot finally arrived and I was excited (I was a fairly big Andy Roddick fan and a Yuuuuge Sir Elton John fan ---- a side fact, E.J. is a well known collector of photography and had, last I read, a world class collection of work. An eclectic collection...  but all top quality work...) to see them both in person. 

I packed the gear I was using at the time. It was a bit of a weird mix. I was getting into the Olympus system and brought along a couple of E-1 cameras (5 megapixels) with two zooms, and also a Nikon D-70 to use as my flash camera.

The venue for everything was the Four Seasons Hotel in the downtown area. We started out with a "press only" news conference with Andy Roddick. Later in the afternoon Elton John arrived and he met with Andy in one of the downstairs conference rooms. I was the only photographer in the private meeting and was called upon to take shots of Andy and Elton together as well as shots of them both arranged in various groups with members of Andy's family. It was very casual and laid back. I introduced myself to Elton John and he and I bantered back and forth for a bit about photography, Austin and Texas. 

A few hours later we headed next door to a larger conference room for a press event with people from various print news outlets and three TV stations. It was typical of social news event coverage. Lots of innocuous questions and an emphasis on continually mentioning the charity that would be supported.

We had a break after that and I wandered around with my cameras and talked to some of the other shooters in the foyer. 

Around 6pm the reception space outside the grand ballroom started filling up with people in fancy clothes, throw back suits, and well to do people clutching albums and CDs to get signed. Sir Elton John would be the guest of honor for a formal dinner and then would play a solo concert for a very lucky room of about 300 people. The doors to the dining room opened at 6:30 and people streamed in. Sir Elton John entered from a side door, shadowed by two of the most proficient looking body guards I have ever seen, and was quickly embraced by the crowd. He was gracious, signed autographs, stood for photographs from all comers (thankfully, this was before the selfie craze....) and was generally the magnetic attraction in the room. 

At some point before dinner Gov. Rick Perry entered via a side door followed by his Texas Ranger bodyguard. The Texas Ranger was wearing his gray, felt cowboy hat. Perry was dressed totally out of character in a black turtle neck pullover, no glasses. He started to make a beeline in the direction of Sir Elton John. After all, what politician would not want to stand next to the center of gravity? But he was intercepted by one of E.J.'s enormous body guards who leaned over to the Gov. and said something, quietly, that I couldn't quite catch. Whatever it was Perry stopped in his tracks and found someone else to talk to. A short time later he vanished out the door he'd come in through and did not return. The scenario with Perry and  EJ's bodyguard flew under most people's radar. But I was there to observe and document everything and it was from my overwatch position on the stage side of the tables that I had the vantage point to observe that instant.

After dinner Sir Elton John walked up to the stage, sat behind the grand piano and mesmerized the entire room with an hour long concert of our favorite hits from an arc of forty-some years. No one was allowed to photograph near the stage. I remember being the only photographer in the room.  I captured the concert on the Nikon D70 because I happened to have the old 80-200mm f2.8 lens in my bag and it was the longest lens I owned. I was positioned at the back corner of the room, near a door to the kitchens.  

Looking back at the files from the time leaves me with some mixed feelings. The images remind me of just how much fun it was to meet and hang out with someone whose music I had always enjoyed. A true celebrity in every sense of the word. It felt good to realize that my work allowed me to occasionally meet people who have changed the world. At the same time I look at the images and realize how primitive (relatively speaking) the cameras I was using at the time were, compared to current models.

How different the image quality might have been if I'd have had a longer lens, a bigger sensor, some in-camera stabilization, lower ISO noise, etc. But that's a silly way to feel. Looking back at the actual images I see that we got our part of the job done and that the content (as nearly always is the case) trumped the constraints of the technology of the time. 

I packed up and headed home as the concert wound down. I edited my photographs and sent along my selections to the Andy Roddick Foundation and then got back to work with my regular clients. But for a week or so I was a bit star struck and every other job seemed a bit mundane. In the end Elton John and Andy Roddick raised well over a million dollars for the charity. A job well done.

And two from the actual concert:


Walking around with the 18-105mm on an APS-C camera, just having fun.

Garlic in black and white.

Being clear about what you like.

Taking even a short vacation seems to be good for coming to some understanding about what it is you really, really like to photograph. To be clear, even though I took the routine landscape shots and the colorful shots of food at farmer's markets, there was really nothing I was excited to photograph on my trip. I thought I might make a few thoughtful portraits but since portrait work is collaborative everyone has to be in the mood, or at least unhurried enough to consider sharing some time. 

Family vacations are like punishment for photographers. You reflexively bring your camera and a nice lens but the opportunities to use them for the kinds of work you might enjoy making are neutralized by the scheduling and proclivities of the group. 

Ben is a fine portrait subject when he is here in Austin, between semesters. He's been working with me on projects when he's not in school and he seems to really enjoy the unhurried pace of an unstructured hiatus between the dual grinds of school and assisting. When he is engaged in the middle of a semester he is all business. He's on a schedule, burning the candle at both ends and keeping his grades up. But it precludes the kind of padded time intervals that would make slowing down and sitting in just the right spot difficult. 

But there is another reason that vacations are not an optimum time for me to practice my own portrait work. I've come to depend on being able to shape light to match the moods and context that I want to portray in a finished image. I want control over how soft the roll off of light is into the shadows and I want to control the direction of the light in relation not only to the subject but also in relation to the background elements. 

When I roll out to locations locally with the priority of making portraits for me I generally travel heavy. I drag along the Elinchrom Ranger flash system, a big soft box or umbrella, a C-stand or two. Some sand bags and a few extra diffusers. These are a godsend and a logistical encumbrance. And there was not way I wanted to drag them along on a weekend end vacation and even less of a chance that the other members of the family would be comfortable going along with this rather extreme program of creating family snapshots. 

I know myself well enough to know that I needed to defer my usual bent of work in order to fulfill the goals of the trip at hand: to see the boy, to see his new living quarters, to sample his academic life, to meet; and have dinner with, the parents of one of his new roommates, to make sure Belinda enjoyed the weekend and to see the sights and sounds of my kid's chosen environment. 

This was obviously not the time to drop into the role of producer/director. And knowing that is good. Not trying to interweave two diverse and conflicting agendas serves to mitigate or eliminate the frustration that would flow from presuming that one is always on. 

My favorite work comes at events where I am supposed to be photographing. Where I have license and access to photograph. I love this image of a young girl who had just finished her event at a swim meet. I was at the swim meet as the volunteer team photographer and it was my job, obligation and delight to be charged with getting great images of the swimmers to share on the club's website and with the kids and parents. I largely ignored my family (except when it was Ben's turn to swim) and the run of the meet and concentrated on making impromptu portraits and group shots of the kids. I was able to bring a focus to doing so that made the work seem like play. 

At the end of a swim meet I look back and realize that being in a certain zone made the day seem to pass in five minutes and that distraction is what happens when you aren't having fun.

I enjoyed spending time away from Austin but I also enjoyed letting go of the photographer label for the duration and enjoying the time away as a civilian. In that capacity the images I took were ones that just presented themselves, didn't require art direction or posing, could be made without revving up a light and could be walked away from in order to conform to the vagaries of the schedule. 

I realized in the moment that I sometimes take my role as an image maker far too seriously. That the camera isn't the centerpiece of every social gathering. That fussing with dials and menus is not an appropriate task while sitting in the dining room of a nice restaurant having conversations with new (or old) friends. 

So, what do I like? I find myself re-enlisted in pursuit of a few things that have been leitmotifs throughout my life with cameras. I love the look of wide ranging tones of luxurious black and white photographs. We can argue all day long about whether or not it has to do with suppressing extraneous and confusing color cues or if it's really just about nostalgia but, to my mind, done right, black and white images focus my seeing of the final print more acutely. I'm less and less interested in landscapes and even street images than I have been in the past. I want to work with one person in my frame and I want to have the whole experience be confined to a two person collaboration with no outside intervention or suggestions. And, more and more, I want to control the lighting. 

I don't always have a specific lighting design in mind when I get ready to engage with subjects but I am always aware that there is a style and a consistency of qualities that I like more than others. I'm not a fan of light that's spectacular or trendy. I don't often light hard light (unless I intend to create the final image using the equivalent of diffusion or soft focus) or highly angular light. But I know as I work through a session, or even just an encounter, that I want more and more control over how the light works with the face in front of my medium-to-long telephoto lens.

In social situations this just isn't in the cards. Nor should it be. But it's a life long lesson to re-learn and re-learn. 

I am constantly reminded that I like scenes that are rich with texture and even decay or disorder.

I labor with the idea that the work I like and finish all the way out is destined to be matted and framed and shared with a small circle of people. At times all the lights, stands and cameras in the studio are put away and the matt cutter comes out to play. It's been years since I hung a show but my re-entry into my regular routine this time has convinced me that I'm overdue and need to start thinking in terms of a small show of black and white portraits. 

Finally, I spend time thinking about things outside photography that I like. Family goes without saying. And the same with my noble Studio Dog (currently just a bit conflicted; she is pissed that she had to spend three long nights alone but happy that we hired her absolute favorite dog sitter to come over four times a day while we were gone). But I also cherish my routines. I think we all do. My Sunday walk through downtown. Coffee with friends. The way an afternoon nap feels on my couch with the sun pouring through the French doors to the back garden. Early morning swim practice. Noon swim practice when I am either too lazy to get up in time for the early one, or motivated enough to do two in one day. I like the conceit of control that I've tried to construct in my Austin existence but lately have come to understand that comfort and control are also part of the nefarious impediments of resistance that keep me from focusing on doing my work. 

With that said I think I'll wrap this up and convince Studio Dog to head back into the studio for some pre-production on an approaching job. Being part terrier she revels in keeping me focused on the task at hand so I can spend more down time tossing the tennis ball decorated as a mouse....

No matter what business you are in it makes good sense to step away and think, and to try and remember exactly what is was about the business that put you on your current path. More importantly, have you been true to your own satisfaction in executing on those delightful details that make what we do fun? 

 The camera is so much less important that what your real intentions for your photography might be. Being clear on the mission usually uncovers the reality that any camera will do, but not every approach will satisfy.

Another early morning. Another milestone. VSL hits 22,000,000 direct page views.

From "Priscilla" at Zach Theatre.

While Google tells me that 87,000,000 page views have occurred that's a cumulative measure of all links and blinks and RSSs and stuff. The total number of "I went to the actual site and took a look..." numbers is, this morning, 22,000,000. It's fun to think about the sheer number of eyeballs that have read what I've splashed out over the last eight years. 

If you've enjoyed the ride consider dropping a comment into the queue to help celebrate another milestone. The "quick hello" is one of the fun things I get from filling this site with content and images (lots of images. thousands of images.)

I'm back at work but wishing I was still on vacation. I bet the same is true for you...


Fascinated by tourist icons.

I marvel at how intact and untagged so many things are in the northeast. I think I am drawn to photograph images like the one above because things like this really don't survive long in our locale. Outside of the wealthy and secure neighborhoods people need to chain their stuff up in order to keep it and anything that is quaint or curious or just generally available is stolen, vandalized, smashed or covered with painted gang signs.  The two towns I visited on this trip, Lake George and Saratoga Springs, were largely devoid of a kind of human driven entropy that seems more or less rampant in bigger cities.

It's interesting to think about why people photograph certain objects. I can't recall seeing one of these coin operated, binocular telescopes anywhere in my travels across Texas, although I have to assume they exist in some nook or cranny. So they are, to me, an oddity. I remember in my youth seeing these near most big natural attractions but they seem only to have been preserved in unique spots and in unique slots of time.

The implicit intent of our visit to Prospect Mountain, near Lake George in New York, was to see the scenery. The glorious, technicolor trees and the blue waters of the lake. But when I got there I was most interested in the telescopes. I shot lots of angles and lots of different magnifications of the units as I found them. To me, they represent a time in our national past --- the 1950's and 1960's --- when car travel for vacations swelled and families became captive to a national movement: "To see the USA in a Chevrolet." 

While getting anywhere in Texas is a feat of travel endurance and rewards speed and persistence, travel in the middle of New York state seems to have been a different sort of experience. One combining frequent scenic overlooks followed by Howard Johnson's restaurants and Holiday Inns. Until recently Texas had always been a poor state and travel meant one rest stop with chancy toilets every 250 miles or so (with a view of flat, hot land and blowing tumbleweeds) bookmarked by a dusty, independent version of a Motel 6, with a tired and shopworn Denny's diner next door. The Texas Whataburger chain was a sign that a town located off I-10 had made it.

But I am assuming that to a person who grew up in the northeastern part of the United States the experiences might be flipped. The desolation of Texas' open spaces might seem fantastic and unreal while the rawness of the food and accommodations might seem adventurous.

When I think of travel I think of the book, On The Road, by Jack Kerouac. The descriptions of various regions always served to remind the reader that wealth and middle class opportunity in the 1950's flowed from New York City and trickled into the south diminished by an evaporation that left the furthest points south in the deepest poverty.

When I see a coin operated telescope I am reminded of the saying among cultural anthropologists who say that there are only two places that have no trash and litter. At one end of the spectrum are areas of extreme poverty where every paper scrap or piece of trash is collected and used for something. Even if it is just gum wrappers to keep open fires going for boiling water. At the other end of the spectrum there is no trash or litter because people are wealthy enough to pay others to perform constant and strict maintenance. It is only the places in the middle that deal with litter. And the area around Saratoga Springs and Lake George was more or less pristine...

A poor family from a different region might see the unattended, coin operated telescope as something that could be wrenched from its moors and sold as scrap metal while a family from a wealthier cohort ignores the object completely because it is part of a constant landscape in which public objects are immune from a certain cultural entropy, one driven by the idea of deprivation.

As a Texan for most of my life I can only say that I love it that objects like this continue to exist, undamaged, as a marker of a time and space that is removed for most of us now. It's a reminder of an age of innocence. It is visual time travel. Like the old American sedans in Cuba.

It's so different to travel on a family vacation to a wealthy, established town in a community with history. I become like every other proud father visiting his kid's college town. Carrying a camera to record all the things that are novel and different with little regard for making art or presenting the visual material in some personal style. Just recording the things that stick out and make this newly discovered locale unique in my catalog of places. And in a year and a half I'll have finished paying for an undergraduate adventure at a private college and we'll collectively move on to the next stage.

I'm back home and trying hard to settle back into this different culture. Everything here is both new and worn at the same time. Pre-fab, tilt wall America. Young people in a hurry. Pretensions of hipness mired in a culture of discount ethos. I guess that's the thing I photograph when I'm seriously working on my own photographs. Every place is still as different as it is the same.