I read a post “Lessons from Childhood” by Judy Herrmann this week on ASMP’s Strictly Business Blog that really hit home. She was talking about a children’s book that she was reading to her daughter that touched upon one of the universal themes of life – facing your fears. The story talks about a young turtle with a cracked shell being reluctant to get an x-ray because it would show how scared he was inside. Dr. Bear assures him that bravery isn’t about fearlessness, but rather “doing what you have to do, no matter how scared you feel.”
I remember reading those same childhood tales to my own daughter when she was young. And it reminded me of when she was in her sophomore year of college and headed to Santiago, Chile to study for 6 months. I sensed she was anxious and afraid of the unknown – a perfectly natural response, and she was holding it inside. I asked her if she was afraid and she hesitated a bit, perhaps not wanting to show me her vulnerable side and she finally replied – yes, a little. I told her that just about everything I’ve ever done that’s been most rewarding in my life – were the things that I was most afraid of doing.
I’ve spent a lifetime facing my fears and if I really break it down, I realize that what I fear most is the possibility of rejection. That if I put myself out there, reaching down into my deepest self and presenting that to others and it wasn’t embraced, how devastated I would be. I wish I could say that whenever I have faced my fears and put myself out there through my work or in my personal life that it always had a happy ending. Quite honestly, for every step forward, there have been at least two steps back. And like the turtle, I have taken solace and crawled into my shell at times.
Ultimately, though someone or something comes along that pierces that armor and I reach out – facing my fears once again. And every so often I get rewarded in a million different ways. That’s what keeps me going, what I keep my eye on – that even though the setbacks and rejections far outnumber the successes – they all play into making the triumphs that much sweeter and meaningful.
And so I face my fears and push myself over and over – seeking, exploring and never really feeling comfortable, even after all these years. But I know no other way, nor would I choose another way because it’s far scarier to live a life inside a shell.
How often are we really moved in our lives by something we see or hear? Whether it be a printed photograph, a film, a song or a book, I’m sure there are times we all recall seeing or hearing something that has really moved us. Sometimes we’ve been moved to take action on something that’s been stirring inside us because those lyrics or visuals just won’t leave our heads.
These days we are so bombarded by “content” from every direction we turn that it’s hard to let anything sink in. The message gets lost amongst the clutter of mediocrity. We get blinded by all the packaging and fizz and just don’t see or hear what people are trying to say – if they are saying anything at all. The human connections don’t seem to be made.
Last night I went to see Jackson Browne in concert. I knew it would be an intimate experience because it was just Jackson playing an acoustic set – no band – just Jackson and the audience. As I took my seat in the theater I saw the simple set on stage – one chair – one small table with a cup of tea on it – one amplifier, a keyboard and his guitars. Granted there were 16 guitars for Jackson to choose from throughout the night – but ultimately it was about as simple and as basic as it gets.
I have been following Jackson Browne since his early days when I was living in California. I grew up with his music and lyrics over the years as it changed with the times and his own life’s experiences. I fell in love with his music and to his music. I’ve been amazed and inspired by his incredible gift to connect with people on a very intimate and personal level.
As I looked around at the faces in the theater last night as he played in such a pure and simple way, I could see that I wasn’t the only one that had been taken to another place. The women in the audience were in love with him and the men were in awe. We were with him the entire evening listening to every word and note.
As his music lingers in my head today, I can’t help but think about all the stories that are in my head that are dying to get out. I remind myself to pay attention to those stirrings because in my heart I know that those are the very thoughts that I need to listen to. The one thing that I’ve learned over the years is that the ideas that are closest to my heart are the very ones I need to act on because ultimately they will rise above the clutter and resonate with others.
Thanks Jackson for your inspiration.
There’s a story that I love to tell because it explains why I followed the path I did – in my career and my life.
It was 1976 and I had just graduated from Brooks Institute in Santa Barbara, California. I had my technically perfect portfolio and I was ready to set the world on fire. My plan was to move back East, and pursue my dream of becoming a photojournalist. That was where my heart was – “telling the story” through my images and I wanted to share those images through the pages of magazines. But even back then photo essays and the magazines that printed them were threatened by a bad economy and changing times. Look had just folded and Life was seeing its demise – the first time around.
Back then everyone told me that to make a living in photography you needed to get a studio and shoot commercially. I bought into that, geared my first portfolio toward that and got a job assisting a commercial still life photographer. But it didn’t feel right -it wasn’t the right fit for me. I had wanted to become a photographer to capture people and their cultures and what was going on in the world – not to shoot static objects in a New York City studio.
I had admired Jay Maisel’s work at the time, his eye for the detail and the streets of New York. I decided to give him a call and ask if he had time to look at my portfolio and maybe give me a critique or some advice. He agreed so we set up a time at his studio down in the Bowery. The late ’70’s was not a great time for NYC – economically speaking it was broke and Mayor Beame had just been turned down by the Feds for a bailout. Just taking the trek down to that part of Manhattan at that time, was an adventure in itself. Jay was a true pioneer in buying that old bank building back then. I’ll never forget the contrast between the graffiti covered exterior and amazing space inside.
Jay looked at every perfectly mounted print of technically perfect photographs and tossed them aside. He looked at me and asked me if this was what I really wanted to do. I started to go into a lengthy explanation of how I really wanted to be a photojournalist and proceeded to tell him all the reasons that I had given myself when I talked myself out of pursuing that dream. And then I took out some snapshots of things I had shot on my travels before I even went to Brooks. He looked at the images and told me that he could tell that this was what I should be doing. And then he asked me how old I was. I replied that I was 25. He looked me straight in the eye and said “You’re 25 years old and you’re already making compromises?”.
It was a turning point in my life. Every time I’m tempted to go off course, I remind myself of Jay’s words and I get back on track.
When I was a little girl my mom used to take my sister and I to Walgreens to get an ice cream sundae. Back then, like other drug stores and five and dimes, you could get a bite to eat at the counter. I had a game that I’d play every time we’d go. I’d sit on the stool and spin myself around. I would assign exotic destinations to various landing spots that the stool would stop spinning – and determine that those were the places that I would travel to in my life. I somehow knew back then that “the road” would become a huge part of my life.
Over the years people have asked me “Where is your favorite place that you’ve ever been?”. To be honest, I hated that question because I never had an answer. There were too many places, all different in their own way that attracted me to them. And then about 10 years ago I had an assignment for Islands Magazine to cover the Isle of Man.
The island pulled me in from the start. I felt a strange sense of belonging, a connection that I couldn’t explain. The air was cool and pure with a constant wind that blew across the island from one sea to the other. It’s a small island located in the Irish Sea somewhere between Ireland and Scotland. An island that’s reminiscent of Ireland 50 years ago – an island where time seems to have stopped.
Because the island is small, I didn’t feel the usual rapid pace that I have felt on previous assignments where I was given too much to cover and too little time. I could linger and catch the moods of the island and the vibe of the people. It was a magical place with open, cinematic vistas of a patchwork of every shade of green you can imagine, stretching from the barren upland’s to the blue of the sea. The sea was always present.
There were secret glens with waterfalls and I thought that fairies must surely live there, somewhere beneath the ferns. The island was enchanting on every level. One day I came upon a crowd of people in a field. I asked someone what was going on and they replied that it was a turnip weeding contest. How wonderful I thought, a contest to weed a field. I spent the morning caught up in the event, taking a few images, but mostly just talking with people and storing those conversations in my head.
And then like every other time I’ve taken to the road – my journey came to an end and it was time for me to leave. There’s a legend on the island that every time the Queen of England comes to the Isle of Man (the island is an independent nation), the great god Mananan covers the island in a mist, so that she won’t find her way there and take the isle back. The night before I left, a dense fog enveloped the isle and I thought the gods didn’t want me to leave – and I didn’t want to leave. But the fog lifted and it was my time to go, but I knew that I finally had an answer to the question “Where is your favorite place you’ve been?”
I went to see Robert Frank’s “The Americans” this past week at the Met in New York City. I have always been a fan of Frank, not so much for his fashion photography but his photographic observations of “us” – us Americans, our culture at that time in our history. He was an observer of “all” people not just the beautiful ones captured on the pages of Harper’s Bazaar, and he captured those observations for generations to come.
As I took my time looking at the prints and contact sheets displayed, I was able to get a glimpse of how he shot – what his camera lingered on and where he went from there. I could see his thought process in how he made his selections, looking at the frames circled with his red grease pencil. I read his letters to his colleague Walker Evans, another favorite of mine and I got a much better sense of him as a person and photographer. I watched an early video that he filmed and was amazed by how he pushed his own photographic boundaries into another medium. The exhibition provided a wealth of insight and information on Frank, his project “The Americans” and a time in our country’s history – and I was captivated.
His images linger in my head and remind me of my beginnings in photography and “why” I became a photographer. Like Frank, I’m an observer of all people, of cultures and use my camera as a means to capture my observations and share them with others. My passion is rooted in my own personal road trips; I have taken over the years with my camera. It has triggered in me the desire to explore, to embark on another journey with my camera and see where it takes me.
I’ve spent a career and a lifetime “on the road”, always the traveler, observing and capturing the daily lives of others – not the famous, but the common man. Not the horrific, the outrageous, the exotic for those reasons – but because they’re part of the world I live in. My hope is that I the images I leave behind, will provide others a glimpse of that time, that space, those lives that I stumbled upon during a lifetime spent on the road.
How does one find their passion? How does one even define the word – passion? The dictionary gives a few definitions. I’ll cite two:
– “intense or overpowering emotion such as love, joy, hatred, or anger.”
– “the object of somebody’s intense interest or enthusiasm”
Passion isn’t something you can teach someone – you just have to have it inside of yourself. If you’re passionate about something – you just know. I’m a photographer and a filmmaker . But my passion is “telling the story” and I use my craft as a means to that end. I’m interested in the human story and the cultural context that gives birth to those stories.
My insatiable desire to seek out and explore the human story has led me down many wonderful paths in my life. One of those paths led me to shoot a personal multimedia project on The Delta Blues Musicians. My goal was to shoot environmental still portraits– as well as shoot video interviews of them . I met my goal – at least in terms of creating an exhibition of still images and a short documentary – but I’ve never thought of this project as really being finished. And that’s because I’m so passionate about the subject – “the blues”.
This past Friday, I headed down to Mississippi for Pinetop Perkins homecoming. Pinetop Perkins is a legendary boogie woogie piano player in the blues world. He’s 96 years old and still going strong. He is living proof of a man who is “living his passion. I’ve become friends with Pinetop’s manager over the years and yesterday we got together over lunch to catch up on what was going on in our lives. I hadn’t been to the Delta for a few years and she was giving me the latest news on some of the musicians that I had interviewed for my film. Four have since died – Little Milton, Robert Lockwood Jr., Ike Turner and most recently Sam Carr.
Pinetop’s manager is a very interesting woman who used to be an Anthropology professor at University of California at Berkeley. She taught interview techniques as part of her ethnology classes. When I had originally called her up to request an interview with Pinetop – she turned me down. But not being one to take my first no – I asked her to check out my website and I also sent her a portrait I had taken of Sam Carr. When she saw the photo I had taken of Sam – she changed her mind – she gave me my time with Pinetop. She said that after she saw the portrait I took of Sam – she knew that I understood “cultural context”
Yesterday at lunch she paid me another high compliment. She told me that while she couldn’t quite dissect my “interview technique” (and she kind of rolled her eyes as she said it – because at times my techniques are quite comical) – she said that people just seem to be comfortable with me and because of that they wanted to talk. She also told me that I’ve been the only one to get a smile out of Robert Lockwood Jr. in an interview – but that’s another story. Those comments were rewards in themselves for the efforts I’ve made on this project over the years – but there have been so many more. Many rewards – all because of my passion for “the blues”.
Later that evening I got a chance to see Pinetop perform again. I was backstage at the main festival stage – it was unusually chilly and I had a blanket with me. Pinetop was sitting in the wings and I gave him my blanket as he waited for his cue. He seemed so small and fragile. When he got up to walk on stage and take his place at his keyboard before the crowd – he came alive. And when he played his first note – I caught “it” in his eyes – a passion for his music and more than that – a passion to play for “his people”. He didn’t want to leave last night – he played another song for “his people” and raised his arms in joy as the crowd embraced him. It was a moment I’ll never forget.
There’s so much angst these days in the “photography” community and not just the photo community but everywhere. People are almost paralyzed from fear – fear of the future.
I don’t think we ever get anywhere if we let “fear” take over our lives. Certainly not if we live and work in a creative field. The fear seems to creep up when what we are “used to” is no longer there. Anyone who works for newspapers can relate to that statement. But we can’t change “what is”. I don’t look “back” often but when I do – I do it to get perspective. And when “fear” of the future manifests itself so strongly – to quote Jackson Browne “it seems it’s easier sometimes to change the past”.
We all know we can’t change the past – so why do we dwell on it? Because it’s really scary to face a future where all the rules have changed. Technology has forever changed the game. We can moan that our clients don’t respect us and that they just want work that is “good enough” and worse yet – coming to terms with the fact that maybe, just maybe “good enough” is good enough for their needs. As we communicate visually over electronic platforms like the “web”, do we need an image file that is 8000 pixels in its longest dimension with 300 res – like we did for those glossy brochures?
On the other side of the table is that nagging notion that we all must learn to shoot “motion” and “video” and we’re intimidated by it because it’s not what we know. I guess I’m an oddball because I’ve never really been too intimidated by what I don’t know – I’m actually drawn to it and excited by it. Sometimes I rush to the unknown almost carelessly without even considering the consequences. And there’s always consequences – many times negative ones – or ones that may seem negative at the time. But every now and then – if you just “let go” of holding on to what may not be working anymore in your life – you’ll find that you’ve opened yourself up to wonderful possibilities. I keep my eye on those possibilities and it’s so much better than holding onto the past.
I love baseball – not sure why. Maybe it’s just the idea of baseball that I love. It’s traditional, American and a nostalgic reminder of summers past – at least for me. I’m also a Cubs fan and I know what it’s like to be the eternal underdog, yet forever hopeful. And that’s me – forever hopeful and optimistic.
I watched the movie “Field of Dreams” recently and I realized that it’s not really about baseball at all. But about a belief in your dreams and following through with what you believe in. And to do that you must be hopeful.
What does that have to do with video? Nothing really, but it’s why I started exploring this medium 10 years ago, when technology was transforming video because it was going from an analog to a digital world. And because of that, it was dramatically changing not only that “industry” but our culture as well. It became “possible” to further your dreams – because of technology. Whether that be shooting a full length “film” from a creator’s stand point or presenting and distributing your “brand” in a new way via a new platform (the web) and one where you can interact with your “target audience”.
Ten years have gone by since I started shooting digital video. It’s been a challenging, yet rewarding time in my life and my career. I have a tremendous sense of hope and see opportunities in this medium because I think it’s just the beginning of how we’ll see, hear and experience video in our lives.
The video world is full of crazy formats and codecs as well as other unknowns and it can be scary for a photographer to jump into an entirely different mind set – let alone skill set. But taking risks can yield great rewards. You just never know unless you take the chance.
I had the pleasure of listening to noted photographer Duane Michals tonight and to see his work. He’s 77 years old, still shooting and loving life.
His attitude was inspiring – a nudge to remind myself on a daily basis of why I became a photographer in the first place. Essentially to explore my own self and my own curiousities of the universe.
In an odd, almost stream of consciousness way – he spoke about thoughts most people don’t talk about – or think about for that matter. But in the end he reminded me to be true to myself – to think and to listen to those thoughts swirling through my mind.
Open yourself up and listen to those innermost thoughts and don’t be afraid to act on these notions. Sometimes when you “do” what it is you have to do – rather than chase the money – the rewards are amazing.