Photography, Preservation

You can experience life more deeply through the lens of a camera

So we went to see the Brooklyn Bridge. As a giant bridgefan, what I have to say first is squeeeeeeeeee!!

Brooklyn Bridge

I took a ton of photographs, and I got some good ones. I’ll share my favorite with you on Wednesday in a post all its own.

Brooklyn Bridge

We walked halfway to Brooklyn on the bridge before turning back. The pedestrian deck was packed and slow-moving, giving us plenty of time to take in the gorgeous bridge and the stunning views.

Brooklyn Bridge

I came away from our visit feeling like I’d spent quality time getting to know the Brooklyn Bridge — and my camera was a key part of that. I don’t completely get the people who say that we should leave our cameras at home, that photography robs us of experiences. I think I see better, enjoy the experience more, when I use my camera. And you can, too.

Brooklyn Bridge

Photographer Dorothea Lange said, “A camera is a tool for learning to see without a camera.” Framing a pleasing shot helps us look at things in ways we might not have otherwise. And the more we do that, the more we naturally see those things. I know my years of photographing things has taught me to notice details I otherwise would have missed. Like this lamp. I know I would have never noticed it before.

Brooklyn Bridge

Don’t just glue a camera to your face and snap away at whatever. Don’t be so focused on photography that you fail to enjoy your people and the event. But do take a photo when it clarifies what you’re seeing.  In this way, using your camera can enhance your experience.

Start by being there, as fully present as you can manage. We walked across smelling the air, taking in the view and the bridge itself, and dodging the others crossing. We talked to each other about the experience and what we were seeing. All of these things kept us in the present moment.

Brooklyn Bridge

Take a camera that feels natural to you. I love my Canon PowerShot S95 so much. It fits into my jeans pocket, it’s got a fast and capable lens, it handles easily, and I’ve shot it for years and know it well. I also love my 35mm SLRs and all the wonderful lenses that go with them — but they are heavy and challenging to carry. And futzing with settings and lenses would have taken my time and attention away from the experience. But maybe an SLR works for you.

Brooklyn Bridge

Shoot thoughtfully. This is really the crux of it all. I love Ken Rockwell’s surprising mnemonic that helps you create stronger photographs: FART. Go read his article about it to learn what the letters mean. But basically, when you get the feeling to shoot something, first ask yourself what about the subject makes you want to photograph it. “It’s never about the obvious subject,” Rockwell says. “It’s always something more basic and subconscious that draws us to want to make a picture of something.” When you know what that is, you can compose your shots to bring that out. And then you truly see it.

Brooklyn Bridge

Most of my Brooklyn Bridge shots focused on geometric shapes — the famous gothic arches in its two towers, the rectangles and triangles created by the steel girders of its vehicle deck, and the many shapes created by the thick wires that hold the deck up. And through exploring those shapes, I easily came upon all the symmetry inherent in the bridge. The OCD part of me just loves symmetry!

Through that deliberate focus, I saw these shapes and that symmetry more clearly, more deeply, than I would have if I had walked the bridge without my camera. For me now, the bridge is about geometric shapes and symmetry.

And as I keep practicing my photography, one day I hope to fulfill Dorothea Lange’s quote: I won’t need my camera to see things that well.

Canon PowerShot S95, shot raw, processed in Photoshop.

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Essay, Photography, Travel

How to deal with difficult feelings about a photographic subject

I suppose every American has some baggage around 9/11, even those of us hundreds or thousands of miles away.

While we were in New York I couldn’t figure out how I felt about visiting the new World Trade Center and the neighboring memorial. Ambivalence gave way to curiosity, which yielded to revulsion. Then ambivalence returned and stayed. But visiting the site was on the must-do list for Margaret’s teenagers, who accompanied us. So off we went.

World Trade Center

I took just a few photos, and only these two are worth a darn. Above is the new World Trade Center, and below is the waterfall in the north pool of the memorial site directly to the south.

9/11 memorial

These photos offer no connection to the place. This could be any tall building; this could be any man-made waterfall. I think it’s because I didn’t want to be connected to this place. And the memorial felt sterile to me.

We walked from there a couple blocks to St. Paul’s Chapel. Margaret knew only that it was a 1766 church among the lower Manhattan skyscrapers, and that therefore she wanted to see it. We didn’t know its special, critical connection to the aftermath of 9/11.

St. Paul's Chapel

We learned that for eight months St. Paul’s Chapel was an aid and comfort station for everyone working the recovery. The building was open around the clock; volunteers fed and prayed with the workers and various doctors came to tend to their medical needs. Musicians even came to play for everyone.

Despite being so close to the collapsed towers, St. Paul’s survived without even a broken window.

St. Paul's Chapel

Even though this is still a functioning church with services every Sunday, memorial panels full of photographs line the north wall inside. I wasn’t prepared for that. I had hoped to get away from my feelings about 9/11 by just enjoying and photographing the architecture here. The only photos I took of the memorials are two photos of patches from police and fire forces around the world. They were sent here in a show of solidarity and mourning for their injured and dead comrades.

St. Paul's Chapel

The rest of my photographs were typical-of-me architecture shots, trying to record a solid sense of this building. Back in Indiana there are no buildings from 1766. It was a great joy to experience this one.

St. Paul's Chapel

It is a lovely church, perfectly maintained in every detail.

St. Paul's Chapel

We stepped out back and found a graveyard. In New York as in Indiana, churches used to bury their dead out back. It was surreal to see these very old gravestones amid the towering buildings all around. It was even more surreal to learn that in 1766, St. Paul’s Chapel was the tallest building in the city. I loved imagining a time when that would have been true. Apparently, the church was surrounded by orchards!

St. Paul's Chapel

St. Paul’s Chapel is a stunning building. But I recognized that because I couldn’t escape 9/11 here, I wasn’t connecting to it in the ways I normally would. And then I came upon the bell.

St. Paul's Chapel

It was a gift from the city of London to the city of New York after the attack, a symbol of friendship and solidarity across the oceans. This is where it all connected for me: this tragedy had worldwide reach, and it affected everyone who heard of it. There’s no shame that my feelings about 9/11 remain unsettled, uncertain. I cried here for a minute, quietly.

I shot my Canon S95 raw, which meant a lot of post-processing in Photoshop when I got home. It takes a little time to tweak each photograph for its best look. It gave me time to process not only my feelings about our visit to these sites but also more of my feelings about 9/11 itself. While processing photos, I slowly reviewed the day and thought about each scene, including those I didn’t photograph. That time and space to think, alone in my quiet home office, let me find a little more peace.

One photograph I didn’t take was of one of the pews. A few years ago St. Paul’s removed most of its pews, replacing them with individual chairs arranged in a U. But a couple pews remained in the back. In this church so perfectly maintained, the pews were gashed and gouged and chewed up — by the heavy shoes and gear of the recovery workers who rested on them. These pews remain as a memorial.

It was emotionally difficult to follow the news stories of the recovery work in the months following the attack. I dealt with it by dissociating from it. But seeing those gouged pews made those people and their experiences real. And so I don’t need a photograph of those pews; I’ll never forget them.

Canon PowerShot S95, shot raw, processed in Photoshop.

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Radio City Music Hall

Radio City Music Hall
Canon PowerShot S95
2016

Photography, Travel
Image
Photography, Preservation

Drop-dead gorgeous terra cotta at Alwyn Court

Our jaws dropped when we came upon this building.

Alwyn Court

This is Alwyn Court, at 58th St. and 7th Ave. in New York City. It was completed in 1909 as an apartment building for the wealthy. Through about the turn of the 20th century, apartment living had a low-class stigma, but then builders started working to overcome that to attract wealthy tenants. This 12-story building contained 24 giant apartments, each with a living room, a library, a music room, a wine cellar, several bedrooms, and five bathrooms. The interior details are said to have been fine, with carved marble fireplaces and ornate fixtures.

Alwyn Court

But just check out that terra cotta. Wow! It’s not often a building stops me in my tracks, but Alwyn Court sure did.

Alwyn Court

I suppose that when you’re wealthy, where you live can be a fashion statement. By the mid 1930s, a 7th Avenue address had fallen out of fashion and the building stood mostly empty. A renovation divided the apartments into smaller ones, 75 in all. It worked; soon the whole building was rented again.

Alwyn Court

The first floor of Alwyn Court is currently home to Petrossian, a restaurant that specializes in caviar, smoked fish, and foie gras. This was originally the building’s main entrance, but in the 1930s renovation the apartment entrance was relocated to 7th Avenue.

Alwyn Court

I did know of this building. Preservationist blogger Raina Regan wrote of it a few months ago. I wondered if we’d have time on our trip to find this building; little did I know our hotel would be two blocks away and we’d encounter Alwyn Court more than once.

Alwyn Court

Canon PowerShot S95, shot raw, processed in Photoshop.

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The Late Show

The Late Show
Canon PowerShot S95
2016

Photography, Preservation
Image
Essay, Photography, Travel

Three ways to take better photographs when you’re tired and stressed

We knew it would be crowded and loud and bright. We expected to be overwhelmed. Yet when we arrived there, we were disappointed. It was just giant televisions. And it was exhausting.

You’ve seen vintage photos of Times Square, I’m sure: neon and incandescent signs lining Broadway, lighting the street as if it were daytime. Coca-Cola! Gordon’s gin! Camel cigarettes! Admiral televisions! Canadian Club! I don’t know why I expected it to still be that way in this age of giant screens.

Times Square

We reached Times Square after a full day in the city. After a cruise on the Hudson River, we had walked from Chelsea Pier all the way to to the World Trade Center, and from there to the Brooklyn Bridge. We took a crowded, jostling subway back to Midtown. And then as night fell in Times Square, we couldn’t tune out the screens’ always-in-motion subjects. They kept tweaking our peripheral vision, making us turn to look. It kept us disoriented, and sapped what little energy we had left.

Times Square

It shows in my confused photography. The noise, both visual and aural, was too much for me, and I couldn’t clearly think about my shots. So I just vaguely aimed the camera and hoped for the best.

Times Square

And then, there was this guy. The fellow in the bright green jacket, sitting. Looking serene. As if none of this were happening around him.

Times Square

I didn’t actually notice him until I processed these shots at home. (If I had, I might have put him in a more interesting place in the frame.) But then I remembered: I know how to do this. But I couldn’t practice it because I went in too tired after a highly stimulating day walking around Manhattan. I was carried away in the excitement of an otherwise great day and had pushed too far. I couldn’t focus internally, so it was no wonder I couldn’t focus my shots.

So here, then, is how to stay fresh and able to focus when surrounded by chaos — whether with your camera or just in your own head as you do anything.

Learn your limits — and how to work with them. What happens in your body when you are about to cross into overtired and overstressed? For me, one tell is pressure at my temples. Another is an empty, blank feeling. A third is that I talk less and less with people around me, as if I’m conserving energy. When you recognize your warnings, pause to refresh.

Also, learn to recognize situations when you tend to tap out. Early in my career I went to a lot of conferences. At first, the high stimulation wore me out each day by late afternoon, and I had nothing left for the evening, when the important networking happened. So I started not signing up for anything during the last afternoon session. I went back to my quiet hotel room and read and napped. This refilled my tank enough that I could network the evening away.

Check in with yourself from time to time. Under normal circumstances it’s easier to read yourself and know when you’ve had enough. But in an unfamiliar setting or on a very exciting day, it’s easy lose touch with yourself. So pause from time to time to scan your thoughts and your body to learn how you’re feeling.

It had been a very long day with a lot more walking than we are used to — at least five miles! We had stopped for a rest a couple times, once at a little historic church near the WTC (photos in a blog post to come!) and once at a Starbucks. Those would have been great times to take a minute to scan my mind and body and see how I was doing.

Dip into your energy reserve with easy mindfulness techniques. Even when you’re tired and stressed, you can do some quick, simple things to find a little internal calm and a little extra energy that can carry you through.

Many mindfulness techniques take a lot of practice to do well. Fortunately, there are a few you can do anywhere you are with little or no practice. My favorite is to stand still where I am, take a few deep breaths, and raise the corners of my mouth into a thin half-smile. This lifts your mood a little. At the same time, I use a technique called “willing hands” — I let my arms hang straight down at my sides while deliberately turning my unclenched hands so the palms face forward. This helps you accept the reality you’re in and be calm in it, even when it’s overwhelming. This might sound silly to you — it did to me when I first learned it — but when I tried it, I found it worked immediately. I stand there like that for just a couple minutes, which is usually enough to let me focus and think again.

And then I get on with taking more photographs!

Canon PowerShot S95, shot raw, processed in Photoshop.

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