Crow Happy Hour

May 19, 2010

Photo Doodle

For me, the interesting thing about this picture is what you can’t see—and, perhaps, just as importantly, what you can’t hear. On a trip last fall to visit relatives in my home town, I spent two nights in Lexington, Virginia, which is  40 miles east of my destination. When I’m down that way, I camp in Lexington because it’s a small town situated in a beautiful spot just off I-81, in the gentle foothills where the Shenandoah Valley narrows between the Blue Ridge and Alleghany Mountains. There are lots of things to see and do nearby, in contrast to where I come from, which is also situated in a beautiful area much deeper into the mountains. My birthplace is a depressed (and for me, somewhat depressing) paper mill town very near the West Virginia line. Lexington, being a university town (Washington and Lee, Virginia Military Institute), has all the amenities that come with that, including many good restaurants. It’s a wonderful destination and not just a stopover. On my first evening there this trip, while killing time before dinner, I wandered around town with my new digital point-and-shoot camera and soon found myself in the graveyard in which “Stonewall” Jackson is buried. The historic site is in a residential area on Main Street, just a few blocks south of the business district.

I shot several pictures in the graveyard, but the one above is my favorite. I love the way the late afternoon light comes through the silhouetted trees and creates those long shadows, the darker edges of the image framing some of the gravestones. Of course I was thinking about that when I composed the picture, and that’s also when a sort of eerie-beautiful event took place. As I stood there (and I stayed in that one spot for at least five minutes), a large flock of crows began to swoop in and out between the trees, caw-cawing the whole time as they cavorted. I had seen this sort of “happy hour” bird behavior before during the “golden hour” just before sunset, a favorite time of day, it seems, for birds, photographers and cinematographers. But I had never witnessed it in quite so dramatic a setting and with such loud sound effects. (Imagine being in the middle the gathering-of-the-birds scene in that Hitchcock movie, but experiencing it as pleasant rather than threatening.) This may have been the only time while out and about photographing when I wished that I had video instead of a still camera. Another disappointment: I had hoped to catch a bird perched on the foremost gravestone, but no luck. Not one bird landed while I was there, and even if it had I doubt I would have been quick enough to capture the image. You see, I was still a pretty slow photographer at that point, consulting the instruction book for just about every move I made with my new camera.

Copyright © 2010 Jim Sizemore.

Confessions of a Camera Bug

March 25, 2009

camerabug2Dear Mr. Photo Magazine Editor:

My name is Asher. You don’t know me but it’s about time you got to. Us bugs who live in cameras are at the mercy of your readers—so-called photographers who always talk about “different angles” and such when in fact they can’t see nothing that doesn’t happen in the viewfinder of their camera—I mean about real life. Maybe hearing about my past history will wise them up some.

Right now I’m living in a Nikon but it ain’t always been this soft. In fact, when I was growing up (in a Hasselblad) things got to be downright tragic. See, my dad liked to tinker around up in the shutter release housing—as much to get away from us rowdy kids as anything. Anyway, he was bouncing on some sort of spring one evening when the “arty” type camera owner decided to do a time exposure of a snow scene at twilight. Dad was punched to death by the first plunge of the cable release. The mess that resulted jammed the shutter and it never did work right anymore. Mom said we had to move on to escape the bad memories—and the wrath of the snap shooter.

We relocated in a big old view camera belonging to a certain Mr. “A.” (I can’t write out his name because he was a big deal landscape guy and thought very highly of in ecological circles to boot.) One day while he was setting up a shot of a pile of rocks in Maine, Mom was munching on his diaphragm—the one in his camera. She claimed it was high-quality protein. Mr. A stopped down the lens and Mom got squished at f/64. Which goes to show when it comes to getting the picture they want, photographers have no consideration for anything else. Mom would be alive today if he’d settled for soft focus. We never did get all of Mom scraped off that diaphragm and Mr. A had to buy a whole new camera, which was poetical justice, says I. But I went into a depression after that— didn’t much care about anything. Popped tiny time pills and staggered from one camera to another with no discrimination.

Soon I was in the very depths of degradation, living in the camera of a sensualist! The picture-box this guy used was one of your reasonably priced SLR’s, but the way the dude handled it you couldn’t tell it from the higher-priced gizmos. All he shot was soft-focus-available-light art compositions of naked young stuff, if you get my drift. The guy always had at least two of them young lovelies hanging around his pad—plus his wife! It was a swinging scene, provided you could hack the company of a gaggle of skinny teen-aged girls with little on their bodies or in their minds. No matter—soon enough I had to leave anyway because I threw-up and clogged the mirror-action of the man’s brand new Minolta SRT-202. (For some reason I can’t stand the smell of a new camera.)

The weeks and months that followed was a blur of wandering. Once I even woke up in an Instamatic nestled between a fat lady’s boobs at Disney World—the very pits. I tried to end it all by frying myself on a hot flashcube but all it did was short out the battery circuit. That’s what finally decided me to shape up.

I’m sorta semi-retired now. It’s a much quieter life I lead in this Nikon than I have ever led before. The camera belongs to a former Life photographer who doesn’t get out much—mostly he just sits around and fondles his equipment and daydreams of past big-deal photo-essay assignments. And since he never uses his camera I can nap with no worry of being done-in by the film-advance lever.

Meanwhile, Mr. Editor, I hope you don’t think my only purpose in writing is to knock the guys and gals who expose their film and themselves for a living. No sir. While it’s true that I myself have it plenty good now, the fact remains I still got a bunch of relatives out there trying to survive under hostile conditions. So this missive is mainly to remind camera people to be more careful in the future—live and let live, so to speak. Us camera bugs may screw-up a mechanism from time-to-time, but we don’t go around steppin’ on photojournalists. And thanks for hearing me out. By the way, I’ll understand if you don’t have the guts to print this.

Sincerely, Asher.

P.S. The guy who typed this for me only thinks he’s a photographer. In my book that’s almost as good as not being one.

Confessions of a Camera Bug was originally published in the November 1979 issue of Camera 35 magazine. The professional photographers Asher references in his “letter to the editor” were the real deal back in the 1970s, all very famous pros in the field. If you think you can name any or all of them, please share the information with us via a comment on this post.

Copyright © 2009 Jim Sizemore.

Vanity Doodle

November 18, 2008


Any young man who ever smoked a pipe (including me), and made a picture of himself doing it, was—or at least appeared to be at the time—a pompous ass.

Copyright © 2008 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.

Family, Friends, and Neighbors

June 9, 2008

Jacquie&?September 16, 1982

This is a picture of my friend Jacquie Roland, on the right, in a scene from one of her many community theater acting gigs. (In this case the play was a Baltimore Playwright’s production of “The Gathered Rose,” by Kathleen Barber, another friend.) When I composed the image I was interested in the relationship between the two characters at this particular moment in the play when Nora Meyer, on the left, was dominate—if memory serves she was delivering a monologue—so I went for an angle that would visually represent the fact by foregrounding her in the frame. (Sometimes photos do lie—Jacquie was the star of the show and the two women were actually very nearly the same height.)  Nora Roberts was once a co-worker of mine at the Social Security Administration. Baltimore, it turns out, is a very small town . . .

Copyright © 2008 Jim Sizemore