Up on the Rooftop

Lynn and I were at the Olympic Sculpture Park on Saturday during a rare weekend date when the kids were at her parents overnight, and we happened upon Heather Hart's remarkable The Western Oracle: We Will Tear the Roof off the Mother. It's a temporary exhibit in which the artist and a team built the roof and attic of a house as if it were sunk into one of the hills that makes up the park.

Visitors are invited to climb the roof, all the way to the top. There are some warnings and a volunteer stationed to monitor: no children under 10, no flip-flops or sandals (widely abused), and one climbs at one's own risk. Still many people were at the apex, with an unbelievable view of the water. One could also crouch down and walk into the "attic" and look through a window at the Puget Sound.

This is one of the reasons to love the park, which is part of the Seattle Art Museum. Its setting is unique; design remarkable; art and installations fantastic. But the willingness to take this kind of risk? Beyond compare. It's temporary, too. It will be torn down in October.

While we were there, we noticed something being set up under the Calder sculpture, Eagle, opposite the house. The Calder is treated as something precious, and isn't supposed to be touched or climbed on. Which is funny for me, a Yalie, given that we had a Calder out in the middle of a quadrangle, and nobody ever worried about it. This was true when Eagle was in its old location up on Capitol Hill outside the Seattle Asian Art Museum (SAM's original home).

It was apparently some sort of outdoor production of Romeo & Juliet. I looked back at the house and saw a young woman standing near the chimney on Western Oracle, and someone down below photographing her. I asked another woman with a camera watching if these were publicity stills.  

No, she said, they were shooting her daughter's senior-class photo for high school, and the photographer was a world-renowned professional and a friend of the family! They had no idea Western Oracle was there. They had come for the site, not the installation. 

Top of the world, ma. 

 I coudn't see the photographer's face, so I asked the mother, is it Natalie Fobes? Natalie is extremely well known, though more for her wildlife photography, and I'd met her years before. The photographer heard me say that, turned around, and said, no, but I worked for Natalie 20 years ago! I said, Natalie took my picture back then for 24 Hours in Cyberspace! She remembered. I didn't catch her name.

The photo Natalie took around 1996 wound up as the cover of a French novel. The publisher asked my permission, because a) there was no model release and b) moral rights in European countries give those who create and participate in art the ability to nix use of work in some contexts (usually if it's derogatory to the original work). I said, yes, of course, but please send me a copy of the book.


Focus, Bless You: Advice on Smartphone Photography

 The wonderful Kirsten McKee, a physician and photographer in the UK who happens to be married to my friend Tom (and thus I get to also enjoy her photos on Facebook), wrote this straightforward and highly useful guide to taking reliably decent photos on a smartphone, such as the iPhone.  

Kirsten shoots film (instant and developed, small and large), DSLR, and smartphone, so when she offers advice, it's across the breadth of shooting, not just one aspect or technology.

I wrote an essay called "Focus, Damn It!" aimed at freelance writers, trying to explain why a smartphone isn't typically a good choice for documentary or profile photography, because it's difficult to get the right circumstances in which an iPhone, Android, or other device truly shines. You can take great photos with a smartphone, but not all the time. The consistency is the problem.

Kirsten provides the directly complementary view about how to make the right choices and set up shots whenever possible to achieve the best possible results — and how to get inspiration, too. We are yin and yang on this and I agree with all of her advice.

For instance: 

There is nothing as distracting as a wonky picture, particularly when you’re looking at pictures arranged in grids or streams on rectangular slabs of glass. If you shoot the image straight in the first place, you won’t have to straighten it later. And the discipline of checking the horizon lines will also make you more aware of composition and symmetry.  

Read the whole wonderful bit at Mortal Muses, a site in which 10 female photographers from around the globe offer advice for all comers (not just professionals) about taking great pictures.


When I suggested a few weeks ago that journalists who write need to get decent photographic equipment as part of the process of becoming journalists who write, record audio, and shoot video, I never expected that a newspaper would lay off its entire photography staff. The Chicago Sun-Times, which has a checkered ownership history and, like most papers, dire financials after drinking cream for most of its existence, laid off 20 full-time staff photographers plus part-timers and others in the department on May 30.

The managers told the photographic staff that it would be relying more on video in the future, which is one of the weirdest arguments one could make. What they really mean is that word-based reporters will be expected to shoot pictures and video. They'll go through training in "iPhone photography basics."

In my essay, I discussed the necessity for freelance writers to become more versatile. It's not trivial to shoot a good picture or video, but it's also possible to learn to shoot competently, and it's more likely that a freelancer with varied skills will get assignments and make more money from nearly the same investment of time. And shooting with an iPhone doesn't provide the technical underpinnings to get a good photo in a broad range of conditions, especially indoors.

The Chicago Sun-Times is using the same thinking in laying off photographers that newspapers used previously in reducing the number of comics they ran. They are taking one of the few reasons that people subscribe to a paper or buy a single issue and getting rid of it.

Boys and Beaches

Had a great weekend with some buddies a few weeks ago, and the weather was spectacular for photography at the beach and around.

Focus, Damn It!

The iPhone and similar smartphones with decent built-in cameras aren’t as good as a real camera when you’re taking photos to accompany reporting. There are times when it is the best camera — because, as Chase Jarvis’s book notes, The Best Camera Is the One That’s with You. But don’t confuse utility with quality or a stylistic statement.

I spoke not long ago with photojournalist John D. McHugh, who a few years ago received a bullet wound in Afghanistan on assignment, recovered, and still travels to war zones all over. He created Marksta, a tool for watermarking pictures taken on or loaded onto mobile phones and tablets. Despite having an array of DSLRs to choose from, McHugh says he often shoots with an iPhone because it doesn’t cause subjects to pose for him or get suspicious. It’s also been an easy phone for him to use when he smuggles himself into a country or region, and doesn’t want to appear like a photographer. (He’s perverse, though, once bringing a 4-by-5 film camera into Afghanistan, which required developing chemicals that are, in raw form, bags of white powder.)

I originally published this at Medium.

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