Cat Nip

March 27, 2013

Zen photography thought for the day: Inside the vertical there may be a better horizontal. When it comes to photographic composition, I prefer the “arty” method — that is, I carefully arrange the image in the view finder of the camera before the shutter is tripped, then exhibit the result full-frame. But I’m no stickler. I know that sometimes a well planned composition is simply not possible, and a crop or two may save the day.

My idea of a good photograph is one that elicits an emotion in the viewer, either positive or negative. The crop above was selected with the idea of pure “joy” in mind; and to intensify that feeling I “zoomed” in on the original (see below) to eliminate unnecessary details and emphasize the dynamic lateral movement2 of the woman’s head out of the top left side of the frame. Whenever possible I like to have important elements “bleed” off the edges, which adds to the drama.The extreme crop keeps the eye of the viewer where it needs to be, focused on the expressions of both the young lady and the cat; it prevents the eye from wandering up or down, right or left, forces it to remain close on the interesting blur of the woman’s head and the sharper head and body of the animal.

The original image was one of those “just shoot and hope for the best” deals that happen so fast you’re happy if you get anything at all. With animals and kids you can forget about careful composition or re-staging an action, so the crop becomes a useful salvage tool. This image makes me smile each time I see it — and the way I decided to crop it, I think, enhances the playful feeling. The idea is simple: Make it easier for the viewer to share the joy that I felt the first time I saw the image come to life in the developing fluid.

This is an edited re-post from 7/23/08

Copyright © 2013 Jim Sizemore.

Dramadoodle

July 19, 2010

“Ideas emerge from plays—not the other way around.”

Sam Shepard, born November 5, 1943

The above quote is from the introduction by Ross Wetzsteon to the paperback edition of “Sam Shepard: Fool For Love and Other Plays,” published in 1984 by Bantam Books. In the essay, Wetzsteon sets up the Shepard line above by first quoting thus: “I would have . . . a picture, and just start from there.” This impulse to visualize, Shepard went on, “is mistakenly called an idea by those who have never experienced it . . . . I can’t even count how many times I’ve heard the line, ‘where did the idea for the play come from?’ I never can answer it because it seems totally ass backwards.” Then Wetzsteon goes on to expand the idea by using more comments from Shepard and others. He begins with the playwright himself.  “. . . once it goes off into the so-called meaning of it, then it’s lost, it’s gone away.” Asked to “explain” one of his plays, he says simply, “I think explanation destroys it and makes it less than it is.” Or, in the words of Jacques Levy, who directed several of Shepard’s early plays: “Sam is more interested in doing something to audiences than in saying something to them.”

Next Wetzsteon asks what is this “something” he’s trying to “do”? He again quotes Levy who describes what Shepard is not trying to do: he says it, “has no relationship to the purging of emotions through identification or total involvement”; he then calls metaphor to the rescue: ” . . . it is more like the way changing a room’s temperature does something to the people in it.” Others say that Shepard’s genius lies not so much in helping us understand what we don’t know as it is in making us feel what we know all too well. “Symptoms,” Shepard has said, are “things that show on the outside what the inside might be up to. “It’s probably more to the point to say that he provides us not with the symptoms but with the disease itself, not with the outside but with the inside, not with ideas but with the feelings that are their source.

According to Wetzsteon, there’s a quality in Shepard’s work that can only be conveyed by referring to dreams, the feeling that we have entered a world at once beyond rational comprehension and yet utterly familiar. “I feel something here that’s going on that’s deeply mysterious,” Shepard has said of the way he approaches a play. I know that it’s true, but I can’t put my finger on it.” “The fantastic thing about theater,” he has said elsewhere, “is that it can make something be seen that’s invisible, and that’s where my interest in theater is—that you can be watching the thing happening with actors and costumes and light and set and language, and even plot, and something emerges from beyond that, and that’s the image part that I’m looking for, that sort of added dimension.”

This “something”—this added dimension—is what Sam Shepard gives me in his early plays like Buried Child, Curse of the Starving Class, and especially his one-act play, Action. The following blurb is from the October, 2004, University of Maryland at Baltimore County production of Action as staged by the UBMC Theatre Department (as are the two production photographs). “Action takes the audience right into the living room of a post-apocalyptic holiday. Liza, Lupe, Jeep and Shooter are trapped in a cold, isolated cabin after a mysterious “crisis.” Time has passed since the days of mass-media and indoor plumbing and they are struggling to pull off a holiday meal. Limited food, an uncertain future and overwhelming boredom begin to take their toll with disturbing and absurd results. In this hilarious marriage between the realistic and bizarre, Shepard offers a stirring look at the unplugged American mind.”

Action, which is included in this collection of Shepard plays by Ross Welzsteon, sure did something to me when I first saw it 25 or 30 years ago. It is a perfect example of his approach to play writing as stated in his introductory quotes. Back then, I attended a local production of the play and was powerfully moved by the experience. But I came away with no idea what it was that triggered my strong emotional reaction. I couldn’t even figure out what the play was about, and certainly had no idea how he had pulled those feelings out of me. That intrigued me and I spent many days after the performance thinking about the play and talking to people about it. Even to this day, when I find someone willing to listen, I do that. At some point along the way, though, I finally realized that what the play is “about” isn’t important, aside from the fact that it exists to somehow involve me in the playwright’s creative process, which is manifest in how, after all these years, the work continues to intrigue and mystify me—as do the best so-called “classic” plays such as Death of a Salesman and Our Town which have the same effect on me, albeit in less intensive doses.

What I take away from this is that it’s a huge mistake to try to figure out what Shepard’s best work is “about.” Try to dissect a Shepard play and you drain away its life force—you kill the power of it, in the same way you destroy the effect of a perfect joke if you have to explain the punchline.

Copyright © 2010 Jim Sizemore.


Wild Child

February 26, 2009

On a bright early-spring day in March 1973, I was scouting the streets and parks of South Baltimore—something I often did in those days—looking for things to photograph. dickens-21Everything in that part of the city had (still has) an emotional pull for me. I love it all—area ways (covered passages between the row homes, aka “sallie ports”), alleys, damaged garbage cans, old and new buildings, and the tiny fenced-in concrete back yards. I also love the urban animals—pigeons lined up military style on telephone wires or strolling the side walks as if they owned them, packs of free running dogs that seemed to lope along at an angle, like John Wayne looking for action (these days you only see dogs on leashes), and curious cats, always alone, exploring their neighborhood. The people, too, of course, I love seeing them—vegetable and fruit vendors working door-to-door from horse-drawn wagons (still to be seen, though rarer every year), neighborhood characters on the streets of the shopping district of Charles and Light Streets, shoppers and stall operators in and around Cross Street Market, and, of course, street kids everywhere. (They often run in packs, too.)

On that particular day in 1973 I happened upon a group of four kids, one boy and three girls, playing what appeared to be a game of “King of the Hill” on a large mound of raw dirt.16wildboy_1 This was in Federal Hill Park, a massive mound of grass covered dirt itself, rising in two tiers above the Southern rim of Baltimore Harbor. Federal Hill, the highest natural location in downtown Baltimore, provides a spot from which many photographers—pros and snap shooters alike—frame our favorite city skyline. The girls were a cute stair-step trio (sisters or cousins of the boy, or his neighbors?). But the boy, striking in looks, clothing and behavior, was the one that caught my eye. He was a character straight out of a novel by Charles Dickens, what with his shaggy hair, snaggle teeth, his tattered second- or third-hand coat, dirty horizontal stripped shirt, and equally filthy pants tucked into too-large engineer boots. But it was his behavior that truly impressed me. He was sprite-like, a free spirit, a dirt-mound dancer of total abandon—absolutely zero inhibitions in front of my camera—the incarnation of joyful Id. It was easy to see that all four kids loved the attention I gave them, loved being photographed, but the boy especially so. dickensHe pranced and strutted and at one point even began to sing for me. When I discovered those kids, I was very near the end of a long day of shooting and was down to the last few frames of my last 36-exposure roll. After grabbing the three shots you see here, I pretended I had more unexposed film in the camera. I kept clicking away, changing my position, setting up different “angles,” moving around the dirt mound in my own little dance, responding to and in perfect time with the boy’s movements. Never mind that I was out of film—I couldn’t stop, wouldn’t dare stop—we were both having too much fun.

Copyright © 2009 Jim Sizemore.


Cat Nip

July 23, 2008

Zen photography thought for the day: Inside the vertical there may be a better horizontal. (And vice-versa.) When it comes to photographic composition, whenever possible, I prefer what some might call the “arty” method—that is, I like to carefully arrange the image in the view finder of the camera before the shutter is tripped, then exhibit the result full-frame. But I’m no stickler. I know from experience that sometimes a well planned composition is simply not possible (for instance, when grabbing a shot of a child or other small animal on the move), and in such cases a well planned crop may save the day. My idea of a good photograph is one that elicits an emotion in the viewer, either positive or negative. The crop above was selected with the idea of pure “joy” in mind; to intensify that feeling I “zoomed” in on the original (see below) to eliminate unnecessary details and emphasize the dynamic lateral movement of the woman’s head out of the left side and top of the frame. (Whenever possible I like to have important elements “bleed” off the edges, which adds to the drama.) This extreme crop keeps the eye of the viewer where it needs to be, focused on the expressions of both the young lady and the cat; it prevents the eye from wandering up or down, right or left, forces it to remain close on the interesting blur of the woman’s head and the sharper head and body of the animal. The full frame image is one of those “shoot and hope for the best” deals that happen so fast you’re happy if you get anything at all. (With animals and kids you can forget about re-staging an action, so the crop becomes a useful salvage tool.) This image makes me smile each time I see it—and the way I decided to crop it, I think, enhances the playful feeling. My idea was simple: Make it easier for the viewer to share the joy I felt the first time I saw the image come to life in the developing fluid. (If you have a different idea, or like it better un-cropped, take a moment to post a comment and tell me about it.)

Copyright © 2008 Jim Sizemore.


Today’s Pic

June 2, 2008

January 30, 1977

It’s not what you think. The guy flat on his back on the small stage of Baltimore’s Spotlighter’s Theater is Tom Karras, director of the play “Zorba.” On top is Joe Cimino, playing the title character. They’re rehearsing for a community theater production of the Broadway musical. Tom is choreographing a fight scene, demonstrating how he wants part of it done. They’re working in the tiny space the director and actors call their “postage-stamp playpen.” To avoid injury, theatrical action that requires violent movement must be carefully planned in the best of circumstances, but it’s even more important when the stage is “in the round.” In that situation the audience is seated on all sides and within in easy reach of a thrown punch or a sword thrust. There’s no sword play in “Zorba,” but in the background here you see the waiting actors observing from front row seats. During the performance that’s how close some of the paying customers will be to the action. (Although it’s discouraged, at Spotlighter’s it’s not unusual to see audience members with their feet resting on the apron of the stage.) On the other hand, the limited space makes the job of the production photographer somewhat easier, with great opportunities for closeup shooting from more angles. When covering action scenes like this one I discovered that the trick was to wait until there is a pause in the movement at the apex of the action. This is the moment that suggests what went on before, and what might happen next. I composed this image so that the drama takes place in a pool of light off to one side of the frame, with less important elements fading into darkness at the edges. The light—or lack thereof—becomes the device that frames—spotlight’s—the action. Below is another “pool of light” shot, this one of Audrey Herman, theater founder and actress, script in hand, awaiting her cue. (Click on the image for a larger view. Product placement alert: The can of Coke.) Until her death in 1999, Audrey was the driving force that kept one of Baltimore’s oldest community theaters alive and producing interesting plays twelve months a year, year after year. And even today at Audrey Herman’s “Spot’s” everybody knows there is one theater season and it never ends.

Copyright © 2008 Jim Sizemore.