“Danny Lyon: Message to the Future”

IMG_0839

Self-Portrait

I have to believe that for every serious photographer, there comes a time where a desire for artistic growth kicks in. That desire may develop as slowly as a moving glacier or it could come as a swift kick in the butt, but many of us will confront this desire at some point in our photographic endeavors. The direction that growth takes, of course, depends on the genre and the person, but it usually points down a path that extends beyond your current comfort zone. For me, a devoted street photographer, that path leads to the world of documentary photography.

My method of street photography is tantamount to non-invasive surgery – get in, capture the moment, get out, leave nary a trace. If not totally invisible, I try to be nothing more to my subject than a fleeting presence in their peripheral vision that was hardly worth notice. The Rule of Engagement is no engagement. Delving into documentary photography, however, will turn that street methodology right on its head. I regard documentary photography as all about engagement, telling a story by becoming intimately involved with the subject. This is totally out of my comfort zone of complete anonymity, but if I am to grow, I need to try it. The way I see it, it can only help my street photography in the end. I just need to get started down that path.

I’ve always admired the work of some of the famous documentary photographers, Diane Arbus, Robert Capa and Dorthea Lange just to name a few. But recently I discovered another one that might have provided the impetus for me to finally start down that path. His name is Danny Lyon.

”You put a camera in my hand, I want to get close to people. Not just physically close, but emotionally close, all of it.” 

-Danny Lyon

I recentlyIMG_0832 discovered the work of Danny Lyon at an exhibition of his work at the de Young Museum in San Francisco. He was a disciple of the New Journalism movement of the ‘60s and the ‘70s, where the photographer is totally immersed in the documented subject. The de Young exhibition, “Danny Lyon: Message to the Future”, is a fascinating study of his role in that movement. It explores facets of his most important documentary projects, demonstrating how his active participation with his subject matter produced such insightful bodies of work.

 

Highschoolgirlsinprison

High school girls being held in prison with no charges against them, Americus, GA

Lyon began his journey along the path to documentary photography while a student at the University of Chicago. He traveled to the southern United States in the early ‘60s to participate in and photograph key figures and events in the American civil rights movement. He became the first official photographer of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), one of the most important organizations behind the movement at the time. From his position within the SNCC, Lyon documented sit-ins, marches, funerals and violent clashes with the police.

04_crossing_ohio_river_louisville_800

Crossing the Ohio River, Louisville (1966)

His documentary series on Chicago area bikeriders was the epitome of photographer immersion and intimacy with the subject. After his association with the SNCC, Lyon returned to Chicago and joined the Chicago Outlaws Motorcycle Club. From the inside of this biker subculture, he documented the violent and extreme lifestyle of the club with his camera. He also used a tape recorder to document the bikers’ stories in their own words. His efforts resulted in the now-classic book, The Bikeriders (1968), which included the images and the edited transcriptions of the taped interviews.

IMG_0834

Shakedown at Ellis Unit, Texas (1968)

In 1968, Lyon applied to the Texas Department of Corrections for access to the state prisons. Over the next 14 months, he photographed and filmed life in the Texas penal system, following prisoners out into the work fields and visiting with convicts in the mental facility. His effort documented the brutal truths of prison life and, as he put it “make a picture of imprisonment as distressing as I knew it to be in reality”.

“The use of the camera has always been for me a tool of investigation, a reason to travel, to not mind my own business, and often get into trouble.”

Danny Lyon

Lyon’s body of work covers a multitude of subjects and continents. His immersive style representative of the New Journalism movement is an effective way to bring out the story behind the subjects. It could be worth your while to examine his work, even if you aren’t contemplating diving into documentary photography yourself. It’s all about the story and how effectively you convey it, whether you do it in hundreds of frames over the course of a year or in a single frame in the flash of a moment.

Advertisements

Shadows, Light and Angles: Film Noir and Street Photography

xjbw_8042p

The scene is deserted and dark, lit only by the faint glare of the occasional streetlight. The dim silhouette of a lone figure strides towards the camera, his hurried footsteps emitting the only sounds in an otherwise deafeningly silent cityscape. Without pausing, he lights a cigarette, briefly illuminating eyes darting back and forth with anxiety. He quickly exhales and slips the cigarette back between his slightly trembling lips before turning up his collar against the damp night air. Suddenly, a loud bang pierces the night. He spins around in a crouch to face the direction of the sound. Nervously he rises, chuckling to himself as he realizes it was only the backfire of a car somewhere off in the nearly complete darkness. He turns back to the direction of his apartment, just in time to catch a glimpse of the glint of the steel blade hurtling straight towards his heart…

As you can tell from this over-the-top lede, I’m a huge fan of the film noir genre in cinema. I grew up watching those old, dark murder mysteries made back in the ‘40s and ‘50s, spending hours being drawn into a world of shadow and light. Many years later, I’ve come to realize how profound an impact movies have had on my street photography. I’ve been influenced by the directors and cinematographers of the time, their use of shadow and light and Dutch angles (tilted camera angles) to heighten the tension, set the mood and engage the viewer. I’m fascinated by those film techniques and try to find ways to use them effectively in my street work.

Take the image at the end of this article. I use a shaft of light streaming between two skyscrapers in downtown San Francisco to frame the subject. Although she remains largely shaded, her form is accentuated by the rim light along the right side of the figure and the contrast between the lower body and the light. Barely hidden in the shadowy background looms a series of imposing columns and a large sculpture of ambiguous human forms. These ethereal figures surrounding her in the composition provide an element of tension, much like the silent threats lurking in the shadows of the film noir genre. Also, serving up a bit of tension is the incomplete shadow at the bottom of the frame. In film noir, you would see a partial figure – usually a villain – lurking at the edge of a frame. A disembodied shadow is another example of this. The human brain likes to see things in completion; if not, it subconsciously carries out the process itself (the Gestalt principles). These things brought together tends to engage the viewer.

Dutch angles were also used in film noir. This is where the camera was tilted slightly to denote unease, tension in the scene. Think about it the next time you capture two people in a standoff, or somebody feeling uncomfortable about a situation. A tilted composition would indicate that something isn’t right; it throws everything off, outwardly projecting some of that discomfort beyond the two-dimensional plane. Again, you have an engaged viewer.

Director Carol Reed’s 1949 film, “The Third Man”, is a prime example of how these techniques collaborate to convey the story. In the last act, Joseph Cotton and Trevor Howard pursue Orson Welles through the darkened streets and sewers of post-war Vienna. This absolute masterpiece of cinema used shadow and light and the Dutch angles so effectively, you get a strong sense that you, too, are chasing Orson Welles. I would enthusiastically encourage you to watch this film if you want to see brilliant cinematography, particularly as it can be applied to street photography. Robert Krasker, the film’s cinematographer, won the only Oscar awarded the film. I could recommend others in the film noir genre as well.

The key to any photographic genre is to have the viewer fully engaged in your work. One of the most disheartening things for a photographer is to have his displayed work quickly passed by, clicked though or the page flipped. I should know – it’s happened to me far too many times. Fully engaging the viewer slows the pass-through time considerably. In essence, you’ve added another physical dimension to your work, one that extends beyond the two dimensions inside the frame (or the page or screen). Creative tension does that, and the application of the film noir techniques I discussed above are examples of the many ways to achieve it.

In later posts, I’ll discuss how other art forms have influenced my street photography. Stay tuned.

 

Christmastime is here…

Christmastime is here…when I first saw this image and captured it, I saw it as a contrast between the crass commercialism of Christmas displayed in the department store window and the reality of what actually exists for many people on the streets everywhere. However, after stepping back from the image for a while, I came to realize that it was less an image of contrast and more of one of connection. When I was growing up in the mid-1960s and into the 70s, the Christmas season for me didn’t begin until Charles Schultz’s wonderful program, “A Charlie Brown Christmas”, had aired on CBS. I recall the feeling of watching the Peanuts gang ice skating and dancing to the music of Vince Guaraldi, Snoopy decorating his doghouse, and Charlie Brown’s quixotic quest for the perfect Christmas tree. But the highlight of the show was Linus’ eloquent discourse on the true meaning of Christmas. He confronted that crass commercialization of the season by pointing out that its real meaning lies with the celebration of the birth of a man who ultimately sacrificed his life in the helping of others in need. This image – the homeless military vet sitting next to the cheerily decorated Peanuts-themed department store window – had transformed in meaning to represent the connection between a powerful message of hope and charity and the very people for whom that message was meant to service. (From the “Chicago, December 2015” series)yJBW_6300p

San Francisco’s Other Vintage Rides: From Castro to the Wharf

San-Francisco-Historic-Streetcars.jpg

Pacific Electric (Southern California) Historic Streetcar No. 1061

Aside from its world famous fleet of cable cars, San Francisco operates another fleet of historic transportation vehicles – streetcars from all over the world. These vintage streetcars make the round trip primarily from the Castro District along Market Street to The Embarcadero and up to Fisherman’s Wharf and back. I have even seen some run south past AT&T Ballpark into China Basin, along the same line of trackage where the MUNI’s T Line (Sunnydale) runs.

San-Francisco-Historic-Streetcars.jpg

Dallas, Texas Historical Streetcar No. 1009

San-Francisco-Historic-Streetcars.jpg

Birmingham, Alabama Historical Streetcar No. 1077

The “F” Line, as the streetcar route is known, was born from the San Francisco Historic Trolley Festivals that ran from 1983 to 1987. This festival offered an alternative to the cable car fleet, shut down for two years beginning in 1982 for renovation. In September 1995, the permanent “F” Line route was opened. The vintage streetcars that ran the route were painted to represent some of the streetcars that once served several North American cities. Other streetcars from different countries were added later. The “F” Line proved to be very popular.

San-Francisco-Historic-Streetcars.jpg

San Francisco Municipal Railway Historical Streetcar No. 1050 (Interior)

Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minnesota Historic Streetcar  No. 1071

Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minnesota Historic Streetcar No. 1071

Brooklyn, New York Historic Streetcar No. 1053

Brooklyn, New York Historic Streetcar No. 1053

While not having the same panache and popularity of the cable cars, it is a very nice way to get to the wharf and back. The streetcars don’t tackle San Francisco’s hills like the cable cars, but you do get a good look at downtown activity and the wharves north of the Ferry Building. And end the end, the streetcars get you to Fisherman’s Wharf like the cable cars do – with a much shorter waiting time and for a lot cheaper. You just can’t hang onto the sides, though.

San Francisco Municipal Railway Historic Streetcar No. 130

San Francisco Municipal Railway Historic Streetcar No. 130

Philadelphia Suburban Transportation Co. Historic Streetcar No. 1007

Philadelphia Suburban Transportation Co. Historic Streetcar No. 1007

Check out my more comprehensive images of streetcars and cable cars on my website at http://www.jimwatkinsphoto.com/San-Francisco-Cable-Cars-and-t/.

I have a streetcar set on my Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.603367749773568.1073741924.246777948765885&type=1

You can find page with great information on individual historic streetcars at http://www.streetcar.org/streetcars/.

Lake Tahoe: Capturing the Beauty at the End of Summer

Emerald Bay with Rock

There is beauty in this world, and then there is breathtaking beauty. Many people have experienced many places that qualify in the latter description, even myself. Few, however, in my opinion, can compare with the stunning landscapes I saw in Lake Tahoe.

Emerald Bay (8)

Emerald Bay, Lake Tahoe, California

Fannette Island, Emerald Bay, Lake Tahoe, California

Fannette Island, Emerald Bay, Lake Tahoe, California

View North from Logan Shoals Vista Point, Nevada

View North from Logan Shoals Vista Point, Nevada

View Towards Lake Tahoe's Western Shore, Logan Shoals Vista Point, Nevada

View Towards Lake Tahoe’s Western Shore, Logan Shoals Vista Point, Nevada

Lake Tahoe, one of the deepest lakes in North America, is located high in the Sierra Nevada mountain range, straddling the California/Nevada state line. Practically the entire area is a paradise for landscape photographers like me! I had the opportunity to go there the week after the Labor Day holiday. The pristine blue of the water is a sight to behold. Clear blue skies offer a magnificent backdrop for towering gray granite peaks and soaring green ponderosa pines. Beaches ringed by majestic mountains are dotted with the bright colors of beach umbrellas and kayaks for rent. It’s hard to put down your camera with all this visual stimuli around.

Along the Vikingsholm Trail, California

Along the Vikingsholm Trail, California

View of Fannette Island, Emerald Bay, from the Vikingsholm Beach

View of Fannette Island, Emerald Bay, from the Vikingsholm Beach

Baldwin Beach, Lake Tahoe, California

Baldwin Beach, Lake Tahoe, California

Baldwin Beach Kayaks, Lake Tahoe, California

Baldwin Beach Kayaks, Lake Tahoe, California

Nevada Beach, Lake Tahoe, Nevada

Nevada Beach, Lake Tahoe, Nevada

After nearly a full week of clear skies, the rain came; with that rain came the most dramatic skies of my short visit to Lake Tahoe. I was fortunate enough to capture a few of those cloud formations.

Emerald Bay, Lake Tahoe, California

Emerald Bay, Lake Tahoe, California

Emerald Bay, Lake Tahoe, California

Emerald Bay, Lake Tahoe, California

Emerald Bay with Rock, Lake Tahoe, California

Emerald Bay with Rock, Lake Tahoe, California

Beach Rocks (9)

Approaching Storm, Elk Point, Lake Tahoe, Nevada

Elk Point, Lake Tahoe, Nevada

Elk Point, Lake Tahoe, Nevada

Elk Point, Lake Tahoe, Nevada

Elk Point, Lake Tahoe, Nevada

My only regret was that I was there too late in the year to capture the waterfalls in the area. The only one whose feed hadn’t dried up – Horsetail Falls, a tall waterfall about 20 miles south of Lake Tahoe near Highway 50 – was 1 1/2 miles up the Pyramid Creek Trail. This city boy lost that trail less than a half mile in. When you lose a trail and know you have to cross into an area known as Desolation Wilderness, you turn around! I’ll try it again the next time I’m in Lake Tahoe, perhaps in the spring when all the waterfalls are flowing.

My camera and I cannot wait! Stay tuned for my next Lake Tahoe installment.

You can see my full portfolio of Lake Tahoe images at http://www.jimwatkinsphoto.com/Lake-Tahoe-California-Nevada/

Wings of Freedom

Nose Art B-17G

Nose Art B-17G

I had the privilege of visiting the 2014 Wings of Freedom Tour when it stopped by Moffett Field in Mountain View, California. The tour stopped here over the Memorial Day weekend with five vintage World War II aircraft. What a thrill to see these planes up close.

Three bombers were on display, including the B25J Mitchell, the B-17G Flying Fortress and the B-24J Liberator. It was interesting boarding these craft and getting through the tight squeezes when traversing from one end of the aircraft to the other. The skin of the planes seemed razor thin, and they had to be to conserve fuel. No protection from 20mm rounds from an enemy aircraft. You really get an appreciation for what these men went through.

B25J Mitchell

B25J Mitchell

B-17G Flying Fortress

B-17G Flying Fortress

Bombardier and Navigator Positions, B-17G

Bombardier and Navigator Positions, B-17G

Waist Gunner Position, B-17G

Waist Gunner Position, B-17G

B-24J Liberator

B-24J Liberator

View to the Cockpit, B24J Liberator

View to the Cockpit, B24J Liberator

Bomb Bay, B-24J Liberator

Bomb Bay, B-24J Liberator

There also was a P-51 Mustang on display, as well as an AT-6C Texan.

P-51C Mustang

P-51C Mustang

AT-6C Texan

AT-6C Texan

Several World War II veterans were on hand to answer any questions about the aircraft. They all had experience in flying or maintaining these craft. It was great to hear their stories.

WWII Vet on hand

WWII Vet on hand

All in all, it was a fascinating day, and a fitting tribute to the very brave men that served in these aircraft. Try and catch the tour if it comes to your area. If your shell out the big bucks, you can reserve a flight tour on a few of these planes. Check out the tour schedule at http://www.collingsfoundation.org/cf_schedule-wof.htm.

Check out the full complement of images from the day at my Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.535830213193989.1073741912.246777948765885&type=3

Also, check out my website at http://www.jimwatkinsphoto.com

Coastal Explorations for the Intrepid Photographer (Part II): San Gregorio State Beach – The Primordial Landscape

San Gregorio State Beach approach from the north

San Gregorio State Beach approach from the north

What the hell?

How could the State of California let this happen?

Look at this mess!

These were the thoughts that initially barreled through my mind as I approached the beach at San Gregorio for the first time. From the parking lot, the place looked like the aftermath of a wild party, like 6am on Bourbon Street the morning after Fat Tuesday. It seemed unbelievable. As I got closer, however, I realized that it wasn’t garbage strewn over the beach. It was actually piles of driftwood, lots of it all over the place. Some of the wood was stacked neatly to construct temporary shelters here and there. There was even a small stream that emanated from an inland river and cut a swath across the beach before it flowed into the Pacific. My righteous indignation turned into profound curiosity as I eagerly navigated the small dirt path leading down from the parking lot to beach level.

Beach flow from San Gregorio Creek to the ocean

Beach flow from San Gregorio Creek to the ocean

Of all the beaches I have explored along the California coast thus far, this one intrigues me the most. San Gregorio State Beach hugs the coastline near the tiny town of San Gregorio, about 11 miles south of Half Moon Bay. Photographically, this beach offers great opportunities to work with strong leading elements, interesting foreground/background juxtapositions and a landscape constantly in transition. There are also challenges: precariously shifting sands in a stream that often cuts off a good part of the beach; narrow avenues of escape in extreme high water situations; and the bogeys of all beaches, changing weather conditions and the ever-dangerous “rogue” waves. Remember: Never turn your back to the sea!

There is also an interesting historical footnote to this beach. In 1769, Captain Gáspar de Portolá and a party of Spanish explorers left San Diego in search of Monterey Bay. Traveling overland, they missed the fog-shrouded Monterey Bay and wound up here. They camped by San Gregorio Creek for three days to rest and treat the sick (California Historical Landmark 26).Afterwards, they journeyed on and became the first documented Europeans to see what is now San Francisco Bay.

View of beach looking to the south

View of beach looking to the south

My last two visits to San Gregorio were under vastly different conditions. The first of those two visits (April 14, depicted above) were under foggy, wet conditions. Although it looks rather innocuous in the image above, the stream is visible cutting across the foreground was wide and fast, with the flow action quickly eroding away the soft, wet sand. I attempted to ford it, but the sand beneath my feet started to give away; it felt like walking in quicksand. I immediately aborted that plan! Beyond the stream in the mid-background, you can see some of the structures built from the beach driftwood. Beyond that, there are the cliffs disappearing into the fog. I wanted to go there, but good sense ruled the day. Besides, I just had to turn around for a good shot.

Shorebirds

Shorebirds

Tidepool rock

Tidepool rock

Oceanside viewing

Oceanside viewing

Even in this lousy weather, the sandstone cliffs of San Gregorio yielded some beautifully haunting images. The sharper foreground rocks in the images above were a perfect offset to the marginally fog-obscured background cliffs and sky. This countered the overall flatness of the light and carried a sense of depth throughout the photographs. A slight enhancement of the colors in the foreground rocks in post-processing also helps to achieve this feeling of depth.

Another way to add punch to your beach image on days like this is to include interesting foreground elements, and San Gregorio has no shortage of this. There is a little of this in the image immediately above, as the black sand tends to form a perceptible pathway leading into the foreground rock. However, the foreground elements are more prominent in the two images above it. In the top image, the thin film of water left by the receding surf allows for a nice reflection of the cliff – this leads your eye directly to the birds looking for food in the mid-frame. In the middle image, the orientation of the rock in the tide pool leads the eye to the cliff in the right of the frame. This again adds to the feeling of depth in the flat light.

Sandstone cliffs

Sandstone cliffs

I made a return trip to San Gregorio State Beach a couple of weeks later. In contrast to my prior visit, it was bright and sunny this morning. This time the estuary had dried up enough to allow easy access to the southern end of the beach. This is the part where the beach derives its “primordial” character. Here you get to pick your way around the piles of driftwood deposited on the beach by the estuary. Some industrious souls have used some of this woody debris to construct primitive beach shelters, pyre-like stacks and other structures. A few of the shelters are actually well appointed; I found one three-stump dwelling (the stumps are substitutes for easy chairs) that was actually quite comfortable. These structures and the loose woody debris strewn about offer a wealth of opportunities for capturing interesting imagery. The beach at San Gregorio is a compositional nirvana, a target-rich environment for leading elements and subjects alike. x017p_filtered x013p_filtered

A peek inside one of the huts

A peek inside one of the huts

Looking out a hut entrance towards the Pacific Coast Highway

Looking out a hut entrance towards the Pacific Coast Highway

Now for an interesting side trip. The town of San Gregorio lies about a mile inland, so I decided to drive down California Route 84 (alternately known as San Gregorio Road and La Honda Road) to check it out. I drove and I drove…and drove some more. I knew I had driven more than a mile, but never saw anything of a town. I turned around and headed back to the coast. A little while later I finally saw it; San Gregorio is tiny to say the least. There is a general store and a few other buildings where 84 intersects with Stage Road. That was pretty much it.

The San Gregorio General Market, Stage Road

The San Gregorio General Market, Stage Road

I decided to go into the store for something to drink, but this place was something more than just a grocery stand. This was a throwback to another era, like walking through a time portal. I wandered around in amazement at this cool stuff filling the store, from lanterns to hats to wine, cast iron cookware to…well, almost anything! They even have live music performances at this place. If you ever visit the beach, the general store is a must-stop. (http://www.sangregoriostore.com)

San Gregorio State Beach is an interesting stop for any traveler, especially for us photographers. This beach provides a different set of opportunities and challenges to create compelling images. Worth the trip!

Visit www.jimwatkinsphoto.com; contact directly at jimwatkins113@gmail.com

Information: Directions: San Gregorio State Beach is located right off of California Highway 101 (Pacific Coast Highway), roughly 10.5 miles south of Half Moon Bay and 38 miles north of Santa Cruz. Further Information: http://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=529