On a couple of occasions before, I have described how much fun I have covering Ada’s Independence Day celebrations in historic Wintersmith Park. Our community goes all-out, starting with the Fireball Classic half-marathon, 10k, and 5k races (this year was the 50th), followed by kids games, then grown-up games, then fireworks at dark over Wintersmith Lake.
Having shot this event year after year has been more than a pleasure, it’s been a privilege to offer my view of this historic family-friendly piece of Americana.
My young friend Mackenzee Crosby was just accepted to Oklahoma University and intends to go to journalism school. These events left me reminiscing about my own experiences at OU in the early 1980s.
My educational experiences as an instructor have reenforced what I have always believed, that education is very learner-defined, meaning that it depends very much on how motivated the student is to absorb what the instructor is offering.
College, by extension, isn’t as valuable as it could be because many people get through it just to get through it. On the occasions when I taught college, students were all over the place: lazy, excited, cynical, fun, bored, motivated, selfish, ambitious.
I will add that as the years have passed, a college degree is worth less. For a while the mantra was “you need a master’s degree,” and now it is, “you need a doctorate.”
In any case, I learned very little of my actual tradecraft from classes I took. The overwhelming majority of my skills came from my motivation to be a journalist: shooting, working in the darkroom, getting published in the yearbook and the student newspaper, and getting work from various media. I couldn’t wait until a journalism class was over so I could go do some journalism.
I had in mind during my college years that yearbook and magazine represented better quality than newspaper, so much of the time, I tried to get the sharpest and finest quality from my work, and preferred to sell it to glossy publications instead of dailies. Having been a newspaper intern in the summers of 1982 and 1983, I knew that newspaper photography was, as a fellow photographer said to me at the time, “meatball photography.”
I got to know several of my fellow student photographers well, but none more than Scott AndersEn and Robert Stinson, who remain close friends and respected fellow photographers to this day.
My film of choice was usually Kodak Tri-X rated at about ISO 250, souped in Kodak Microdol-X, using the 1:3 dilution, 75 degrees for 13 minutes, thought at the time to produce better grain and sharpness. I experimented with all kinds of products, but came back to those again and again.
I had three camera bodies, a Nikon FM, which I bought in January 1982, a Nikon FM2, which I got in 1983, and a Nikon FE2, bought in 1984 when a friend suggested it instead of another FM2. All of them had the MD-12 motor drive.
I had four lenses in my basic bag through college, a 28mm f/2.8 Nikkor, a 50mm f/1.2 Nikkor, a 105mm f/2.5 Nikkor, and a 200mm f/4 Nikkor. The 105mm was my go-to favorite, since it was sharp, light, bright, and easy to use. Near the end of my college life I got a 55mm f/2.8 Micro-Nikkor.
I used the darkroom in Copeland Hall, which was shared by newspaper and yearbook students, and which was often quite a mess. Most photographers and dilettantes never understood that the chemicals – developer, fixer, stop bath, wetting agent – were anything other than water, and tended to spill them, contaminate them, use them up and not replace them. I became the de facto manager of the darkroom, and cleaned it all the time.
I had a crush on at least four of our Sooner Yearbook staffers, but no one on the Oklahoma Daily staff. I never dated any of them, though I certainly tried, and was mostly alone for my time in college.
I used all my own darkroom gear, including tanks, reels, and chemicals, since I could almost guarantee the other photographers would compromise the supplies in the darkroom. During finals week in an art class in 1983, I souped some slide film in the chemistry they provided, which had been contaminated, and which ruined my film, forcing an urgent reshoot.
Once, when I was walking home with my backpack stuffed with photo gear, I heard some frat turds yelling at me, “Hey, nurd!” Yeah, frat guys in college: a topic for another day.
At one point I dropped by The Tulsa World and showed some of my stuff to the managing editor, who kept asking, “You’re a student?”
In the fall of 1985, I got a call from The Shawnee News-Star, and started my career as a news photographer.
Many people seem amazed and delighted when I tell them, or show them pictures, of our wedding at Delicate Arch in Arches National Park near Moab, Utah. It is an amazing, beautiful spot, and the morning we got married there we had beautiful blue skies, abundant sunshine, and few visitors. But it’s not always like that.
The trouble is that Arches has, like so many once-wild places, been “discovered.” By that I mean that a combination of the internet and digital photography, huge numbers of people have decided to make sites like Delicate Arch their destination. They see gorgeous images of scenes like that and want a piece of it themselves.
The flaw in that kind of thinking is that at this point in digital history, places like Delicate Arch don’t have as much to offer because of the very discovery that made them popular. We’ve all seen these images too many times. I’ll grant you that there is some photographic potential yet to be cultivated there, but you have to take more steps toward the unusual to do it. Sunrise. In the snow. With the Milky Way behind it. And so on.
But we still see droves of self-important-looking photographers gathered on the approaches to Delicate Arch or in The Windows Section, with their $6000 cameras on their $1200 tripods, squinting joylessly at the target, making the same picture I made the first time, and every time, I go there.
It’s played out. It has become one of the “windshield tourism” National Parks. Even though my wife Abby and I have something of a special claim to the place, when we go there, we don’t take very much equipment, and we don’t take very many pictures.
But there is hope. Canyonlands.
There are parts of Canyonlands National Park that see only a handful of visitors every year. In The Maze District, for example, the rangers will warn you when you check in at the Hans Flat Ranger Station that, “You must be capable of self-sustenance and self-rescue.” Presumably this means they can’t come rescue you if you have a flat tire or a heart attack, or that it will cost thousands of dollars and will disturb the other visitors. When Dennis Udink and I visited The Maze in 2012, though, we only saw five other people during our three-day stay.
Even in the easier-to-access sections of Canyonlands, there are only a handful of roadside turnouts. The rest of the park is scattered trail heads and many miles of trails, most of which I have hiked, but many of which, unlike the trails in Arches, remain on my to-do list. Some of the Canyonlands trails are long enough and difficult enough to require multi-day backpacking trips to make it from one end to the other.
Canyonlands is four and a half times larger than Arches, but receives about two and a half times fewer visitors. The most difficult marked trail at Arches is the Primitive Loop trail, so named, I expect, to at least somewhat discourage non-hikers from attempting the hike, which is 7.2 miles long and crosses varied terrain. Still, nearly every trail at Canyonlands is more difficult and primitive than the Primitive Loop.
Land of Lakes?
In November 2007, a park ranger told me that in the early 1960s, the director of the Park Service and the director of the Bureau of Reclamations each wanted to use the area that is now Canyonlands. It’s discouraging to imagine anyone ever considering covering this amazing area in water behind a dam, and I am glad and grateful the Park Service director got his way.
By the time you get more than a few hundred yards down the trails at Canyonlands, the only people you will see are fit, well-equipped, determined hikers. Not only are the trails more challenging at Canyonlands, they’re more fun, pass through more varied and beautiful terrain, and make better pictures.
At the most fundamental level of my outdoorism is, I believe, my desire to get as far away from civilization as I can, and the farther I get, the smaller and more humble I feel, and the more I feel like I am really accomplishing something amazing and unique. Canyonlands is one place where I can do that.
The public might not realize that news photographers live a life of feast or famine. At the first of March, we spend twelve hour days darting between basketball playoffs, car crashes, assignments for special sections, and baseball team photo days.
Then when school’s out, editors impatiently tap their feet as we can only give them a photo of a kid in the splash park or somebody running a weed eater.
Then, July 4 happens. In Ada, it’s a huge deal. It starts in Wintersmith Park at 7 am with the Fireball Classic 10k/5k race, Oklahoma’s oldest such event. That’s followed by kid’s games in the park in the morning, then grow-up’s games in the afternoon. Finally, Wintersmith Lake is surrounded by spectators for the traditional Independence Day fireworks display.
For me, it is one of the busiest days of the year, and one of the funnest. It always makes great photos, everyone is always glad to see me, and I always have a great time.
As photographers, we have a tendency to get a bit on the self-important side. For example, we often scoff at soccer moms with cell phones. We also tend to classify cameras as “amateur” or “professional” while losing sight of the fact that it is we who are amateurs or professionals.
One of the most significant aspects of professional photography is having our audience in mind at all times, whether the audience is readers in a publication, attendees at an art expo, visitors to our home, viewers of web sites, or just us trying to explore ourselves through imagery.
With our audience in mind, the purpose of our photography is almost always to illicit an emotional response. Maybe, as is sometimes the case in my work, our goal is to bring the feelings of triumph or tragedy to the reader. Maybe, as in the case of a wedding photographer, our goal is to bring joyful and intimate moments of the event to the viewer.
In either case, and many more, the central idea is use our cameras to translate moments into images, which then bring those moments to the audience.
What about beauty? Flowers. Sunsets. Canyons. Forests. Essentially, beautiful photographs work because they elicit an emotional response in the viewer. A snowboarder flying off a cliff edge elicits excitement. Sunlight filtering through a tree elicits memories of childhood. Grey-black clouds of a thunderstorm illicit feelings of foreboding.
I thought about these ideas recently as my intermediate/advanced class went on our walk to the pond at the Pontotoc Technology Center. Ostensibly intended to guide them from the nuts-and-bolts in the beginner classes to putting those tools to work, invariably we discover much more to photograph, often in the beauty of nature. When we do, it has a way of feeding itself, such that I can stand back and act as advisor, and let my students grow and explore their imaging potential.
“…I see the world And I’m looking from a high place Way above it all Standing on higher ground…” ~Alan Parsons Project
At this point in my career, the firefighters in my community know that I will ask if I can stand on their fire trucks, or if they have it deployed, their ladder truck, to make pictures. Just a few days ago, at the scene of a water rescue, I asked the owner of a flatbed trash truck if I could climb on it, and he obliged.
There are very few things I won’t climb on or ride in that are high up or flying. Not only is this an excellent strategy for getting a clearer view of everything in my photos, and a smart play for making images that are out of the ordinary, I love climbing on stuff.
This shouldn’t come as any kind of surprise for those who have read the pages of our travel blog or my photo blog and seen the extremes I’ll explore for an image. Even when I can’t get on something high or in something flying, I tend to try to get my camera as high or low as I am able to reach, for the same reason: seeing things and photographing them from a different perspective.
One of my assignments today was to photograph the venerable four-stage rocket ship playground piece in Ada’s Glenwood Park. It’s been around for decades. I remembered at least one previous occasions on which I squoze through the holes and ladders to reach the top to photograph a child who was playing up there, and today I decided to climb it again, just to be climbing. I vaguely remembered that it swayed back and forth with my movements the last time I was up there, and sure enough, I was right. I have to admit that as it was swaying, I thought it would be hysterically funny (in a tragic way) if it fell over and the headline in my own newspaper would say I was killed in a rocket crash.
I hope my teaching points have not gotten redundant. I try to reinvent myself, like I try to reinvent my photography, every day. But I know it’s easy to fall into ruts, ruts we sometimes don’t even see.
I say that because four years ago I wrote a piece called “Intimacy,” about the value of using our images to explore intimacy in the moments of our lives. Then last night, working at the annual Relay for Life cancer fundraising event, I ran into long-time friend and cancer survivor Tresa Euper. We talked for a while, then both went in different directions when the opening ceremonies started. As I waited for the start of the “survivor lap,” that marks the start of the all-night walk, we were all set upon by smartphone photographers who were all making essentially the same photo over and over: the hold-away selfie. Grip, grin, snap. Grip, grin, snap.
Then I looked over and, with my 80-200mm f/2.8, shot about three frames of this…
I shared the image with her on Facebook (her only web presence), and she replied, “Oh Richard, you captured a special moment – one where I was thinking of just how much my ‘caregiver’ went through right alongside me in my fight. All survivors owe so much to all of our caregivers. Thank you so much for this. It’s a picture I’ll treasure forever. And it’s always so good to see you too!”
One of the web’s fastest growing sectors is social media that allows users to take advantage of the very sophisticated, growingly excellent cameras built into their smart phones. These applications (“apps”) include Apple’s iPhoto and its successor Photos, Tumblr, Pinterest, Hipstamatic, SmugMug, Twitter, Posterous, Flickr, and Facebook, which owns the subject of this review, Instagram.
Instagram isn’t for everyone. It takes rectangular photos from your phone’s camera and makes them square, which is a little odd, and resizes them to 640×640. (It does leave the original image in your photo library.) Odder still are the filters, which go by pretentious and not-very-explainatory names like Lark, Slumber, or Perpetua. The filters are all subtle variations of about four or five motifs, like vignetting, fading, contrast enhancement, and grayscaling.
For reasons that are still little nebulous to me, Instagram’s square format and faded-print-look filters tend to encourage the use, and overuse, of negative space. I also find that with me, at least, Instagram is not my first choice for “everyday” photos like snapshots, but is my go-to app when I am trying to appear artistic to my audience.
Any smartphone app, even the built-in camera app, as well as any live-view cameras that don’t have a viewfinder, make it difficult, sometimes approaching impossible, to shoot in bright sun, since the sun can shine on your viewing surface and overwhelm the image. Yesterday at the Ada Air Expo I ran into that exact problem, and found it slowed me down and gave me a headache. Even when I succeeded in making the shot, I usually walked to a shady spot to edit and post it.
Keep in mind that with any photo sharing service, even your own web site, keeping all your photos in one place, like one album on Facebook, will eventually, even with broadband internet and a modern browser, slow to a crawl if visitors are looking at the whole album. In fact, as I write this, I am seeing this very problem on someone’s Facebook page. And now might be a good time to reiterate what I tell my students again and again: no one will look at 1200 photos of anything. This might not seem important to you, unless you post your photos with the intention of sharing them.
One of the toughest tricks about taking the dive into any new image, blogging, or social media item is not letting yourself neglect all your other good creative outlets. In the same way we saw Facebook extinguish countless excellent blogs, Instagram can lead a photographer by the nose away from far nobler, more creative pursuits. My recommendation to anyone who faces this dilemma is to expand, not replace, your creative efforts.
In 1982, I had my first newspaper internship, in Lawton, Oklahoma. A friend of my mom’s was friends with the publisher, and got me an interview for a news writing position. But I had just spent the entire semester focusing my energy on being a photographer, and spent all my allowance money on a Nikon FM, a 50mm f/1.8 Nikkor, a 28mm Nikon Series E, and the legendary 105mm f/2.5 Nikkor. In my interview, I kept circling back to how much I wanted to be taking pictures, and I guess my mom’s friend had enough clout that I got my way, because the next Monday I reported to long-time news photographer Bill Dixon.
My first assignment was on my first morning: ride with Bill out to the nearby Fort Sill Army base and photograph minor storm damage. That was on a Monday. As I recall, Lawton’s three high schools, Lawton High, Eisenhower High, and MacArthur High, (military town?), all graduated on that Friday night. I lobbied to be allowed to shoot my alma mater, Eisenhower, but was overridden by another photographer, and went to McArthur. I had no experience shooting graduations of any kind, so I made a couple of assumptions… 1) That I needed to shoot direct flash, which we almost always did when I was on yearbook staff in high schoolm (more about this later), and 2) that I needed to shoot pictures of actual graduations, which to me meant kids being handed their diplomas. The second assumption was based on my own graduation a year earlier, the only photo from which was of me being handed my diploma, shot by a commercial photographer who did only that.
Predictably, my images from MacArthur were weak. The other photographer’s stuff was really good, and included a mom straightening her son’s cap and tassel. For me and my bloated ego, him outshooting me was a hard lesson, but one I did learn. To this day, my graduation feature photos (three of which are on the front page of The Ada News as I write this) are influenced by that first experience. (That’s what potential employers mean when they ask about your experience.)
What all my graduation coverage photos now have in common is that my cameras and I remain a distant, even invisible observer. That point of view sets my images apart from the maelstrom of grip-and-grin photos a million parents shoot at graduations. There are moments at every graduation – happy ones, sad ones, funny ones – that are interrupted by someone wanted to make a photo. They stop what’s going on and order the subject to smile or “say cheese.” My goal is to stay in the background enough that I don’t interrupt the moment and don’t make anyone, “say cheese.”
It’s not always easy. Everyone in my community knows who I am and what I am doing, so I sometimes need to play a little hide-and-seek with my cameras and my intentions. But it’s worth it to capture real, telling moments.
One of the most rewarding aspects of my career as a photojournalist is capturing moments in the lives of those around me. It’s also one of the most difficult, because it requires me to be present not only at some of the best moments in people’s lives, but also at some of the worst.
These moments don’t usually sneak up on photographers, so we can be ready: We know that time will run out at the end of a game. We know the Teacher of the Year is about to get her award. We know the police will tape off the crime scene. We know the ball is on the 1-yard line.
I thought about this the other day as I was looking at some images from the 2014-2015 area basketball season. There were many great moments, as there are every season, but a couple stood out. The first happened when Cory Kilby was poised to break Ada High School’s all-time basketball scoring record, and another was when the Stonewall Lady Longhorns lost an area playoff game to Rattan. The two were connected for me because I shot them from almost the exact same spot.
I made the image of Cory Kilby from the west baseline of the court at the Cougar Activity Center, using my AF-S Nikkor 80-200mm f/2.8, a big, heavy zoom lens that excels at low-light sports, feature and news photography. I tried to count the goals he scored, but lost track. I was still ready when the moment happened, and the image it made, of Kilby unable to contain his elation in the moment, is one he, and our readers, will remember and save for a long time.
That image also stands out as an excellent example of the value of photojournalism and the imaging it provides: we make pictures of moments that can’t be repeated or reproduced. You can’t tell Kilby to look that way again after the game for the cameras. The images after the fact are, by their nature, posed and contrived.
Just nine days later, I stood in that same spot as the Stonewall Lady Longhorns battled for a place in the state tournament. The game was close and emotionally engaging, but the Stonewall girls couldn’t hold on for the win. Again, I was on the west baseline, shooting with the same lens, and in the same light, of the same sport, and the emotion the image conveys, of Lauryn Humphers walking dejectedly toward the bench with the Rattan Lady Rams celebrating in the background, is completely opposite from the Kilby image.
My take-away for you and your photography is this: whenever you can, make pictures of real moments as they happen. There is nothing as wonderful as a genuine moment recorded forever, and few things as awkward as trying to pose them after they happen. Have your camera (or, in many instances, phone) ready, and be ready to grab that moment in time.
Since our newspaper started publishing the quarterly Ada Magazine, and I was named its editor, in late 2007, I have included a feature in it called “Something Beautiful.” Its purpose it to feature an inspiring image of something in our area, either by me, my wife Abby, or from submissions from the community.
“Something Beautiful” has proven to be consistently popular, and at least one other newspaper in our chain has borrowed the idea, with similar success.
In fact, if you live in the Ada, Oklahoma area and have an image you think expresses something beautiful, contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org with your image, and I will give it due consideration.
Attached are some of my offerings to Ada Magazine‘s readers.
My intermediate/advanced photography students and I had a grand night last night that included several photographic epiphanies and a spectacular performance from the light. Everyone had fun and learned a lot.
I’m teaching a beginning digital photography class next week, and 12 of the enrollees are high school yearbook students. It’s fun to have enough people in class, because it can energize the room, but I may find it difficult to convey to high schoolers one of my most important messages: storytelling.
I’ve watched high school photographers at ball games and graduations and class plays and so on, and they almost always fall into the same imaging paradigm: stop the action, get the subjects to grin like apes at the camera, blast away with direct flash, and come away with, essentially, nothing.
So as a high school yearbook photographer, who is your audience? In some very significant ways, you are, only 20, 30, 40 years in the future. What can we offer this audience? If we give them 175 “party pics,” we’ll be doing them a serious disservice, because, as I have discussed before, when you stop a moment to get people to pose for a photo, that photo no longer expresses the moment. It expresses people posing for a photograph, usually predictably and boringly.
I appreciate how hard it might be for a high school kid to say no to, “Hey, take my picture,” or to turn down an opportunity when a bunch of kids are “cheesing” for you. In the smart phone camera era, everyone is conditioned to do that. But I am here to testify: these aren’t the images you want.
Also, of course, is this: you and your friends and everyone else already has hundreds or thousands or tens of thousands of these same boring party pics. If you don’t believe me, do a web image search for “group photos,” and look at how similar the photos look, and how they don’t tell us much about the people and the moment.
So if not party pics, Richard, what? Very simply, we are trying to tell a story with our images. Wait for the moment. Watch for it. It’s not before the game when everyone is goofing off. It’s when the three-pointer hits the rim and bounces out at the buzzer. It’s not when the principal and the debate student pose with the plaque. It’s when the debate student is at a tournament, waiting tensely in the lobby to find out if he’ll finish first or second. It’s not when the dignitary hands a check to the student council president and shakes her hand. It’s when she then holds up the check with tears in her eyes and the crowd goes wild for their achievement. It’s not when the football team grudgingly accepts their runner-up trophy. It’s when tears are streaming down their faces with 00:00 on the clock.
Look through the portfolio of any award-winning photographer and you won’t find party pics or group photos. You will find stories. Look at those images, and begin to explore how you can tell your stories.