AKA Abraham Bacoln

Anatomy of a Photo III
July 29, 2009, 11:17 am
Filed under: photography

Today’s Anatomy of a Photo is about the frustration of failure. Bear with me here as I ramble over, under, and around the point. Hopefully I’ll get there eventually.

The other day when I was at the craft store looking for spray adhesive to mount my most recent photo poster I found a set of fifteen glow stick bracelets for one dollar – assorted colors even. I love glow stick bracelets except obviously I never wear them nor do I know anyone that would, and they’re too small for cat collars, so … I bought them anyway. They seem like a good kind of emergency prop, you know?

Fast-forward a week or so and we arrive at yesterday. This is the part I can never explain, the part that revolves around the stupid things that happen inside my head without me asking them to. While cooking bratwurst I suddenly had a vision of a regular hot dog with a red glow stick poking through both ends (having been inserted through the dog longways). It was one of those moments I enjoy wherein I find the weird juxtaposition I’m always longing for. When I was a kid I was afraid to cut open a glow stick because whatever was inside was obviously not for eating and would probably kill you in horrible ways instead of turning you into a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle or something*. So what better thing to put a glow stick into but something you are supposed to eat? Or the other way around – what better to put into something you’re supposed to eat than a radioactive pink glow stick?

This is the other part I can’t explain – why that idea derailed and I never bought the hot dogs. I got fascinated with the idea of an atomic apple instead, using the green glow sticks. Why? I don’t really know. I think it has to do with the fact that glow sticks put off light (duh). To make them obvious and glowy, well, you have to photograph them in dim lighting. A hot dog is a complex beast with multiple toppings, all of which have their own colors, and all of which would be lost in murky light. So … better to go with an apple, a fairly recognizable shape (as long as you turn it so that the stem is in profile). A banana was also briefly considered but I feared it would turn brown around the entrance points while I was shooting, and who wants their fruit puncture wounds made so blatantly obvious? Not me. Not me.

With that great green apple in mind I went to the grocery store with an expired glow stick. We shop at a small neighborhood market where we know all the cashiers, which explains why eventually Pinky came up to me and said, “Kevin, what in the world are you doing?” I told her I was looking for the perfect apple for a photography project, and while saying so I bent the glow stick around the apple I had in my hand, pantomiming the awesome forces that were to be unleashed from this humble fruit. She shook her head and walked away. A different cashier completed my transaction.

Originally I had planned to use this apple as a test apple but I have a history of trying “test” photographs that end up taking forever and turning into the real thing because I have no patience nor willpower when it comes to waiting until the light is better tomorrow. In this case, well, it kind of ruined my photo. By the time I got home all my natural light was gone daddy gone and I resorted to using lamps, which never ever works for me and you’d think that with a few years’ of experience under my belt I’d have learned by now, but no. I haven’t.

I used a disposable chopstick (you keep those in your kitchen, right? They’re insanely handy. Ask them for extras next time you pick up your Chinese carry-out) to push holes in the apple because it (the chopstick) was the same diameter as the glow sticks. I originally wanted the glow sticks curved around the apple kind of like the atomic symbol, you know, an atomic apple, but the sticks were too short and wouldn’t make graceful curves but instead big bunny lump ears. I settled on straight through, then, like some kind of horrid landmine. A little spiky luminescent abomination.

I needed a base for this glowapple to sit on, of course, and I couldn’t think of anything interesting. Books? No. Wine bottle? No. Cat? Maybe, but no. Eventually I realized that one thing I rarely use in my photography is ice. Ice! I envisioned this glowing apple atop a hill of ice, shining like some tribute to radioactivity, the prize awarded annually to the grower of the best frankenfruit.

Just in case you were ever thinking of piling ice cubes into a mound, well, let me save you the trouble and state the obvious: ice is slippery and does not mound well.

So there I was, ice mound slipping into ice flats, the lighting also flat and lifeless since I was trying to use various combinations of lamps. The background was uninspiring and I couldn’t get the apple piled high enough to get it out of view of the baking tray I was using to collect the water from melting ice. I couldn’t make a far off telephoto shot work, and I couldn’t make a close-up wide-angle shot work, and oh did you know that cold will slow down the reaction inside a glow stick and make it last longer? This is cool if you need to keep one overnight, but in my situation the ends of the glow sticks that were resting on the ice were hardly glowing, while the other ends (in the air) were blazing away, so it just looked cheap and unbalanced.

Finally I got frustrated with the whole damn thing and just threw the pan, ice, glowapple and all into the kitchen sink and went to clean up the front room and put the lamps back in place. I reviewed one of my test shots on the computer and it was just as miserable as I feared. All this “work” lost put me in a foul mood – not to mention I had used the only three green glow sticks from the assortment pack, which meant I couldn’t do the apple shot again even if I figured out how to make it look good. I spent some time reading, some time goofing off on the computer, and by then I’d forgotten all about my miserable failure. I went into the kitchen to put my water glass in the sink and there it was.

There was something pleasant about the glowapple sitting in the sink in the dark, with the light from the street coming in. We’ve all gone to the kitchen in the middle of the night and seen the dishes in the sink. It’s the very picture of American domesticity. Okay, maybe you are perfect and wash your dishes every night, but some of us occasionally let it slide. Anyway, the apple set so innocently in the mix seemed to fit perfectly, while at the same time obviously it was something completely out of place. Likewise to me personally the moment seemed perfect – this monument to earlier failure tossed casually aside suddenly became the very thing it wasn’t: an opportunity for a decent photograph.

I went and got my camera, ramped up the ISO so that I didn’t have to dig out my tripod, underexposed the shot by two stops so that the room would remain dark and the exposure time would be short enough that I could do it hand-held, and … there you have it. Nothing at all like I originally envisioned, certainly coming across as a hand-held snapshot, but still containing a little bit of something interesting.

Anatomy of a Photo II
July 10, 2009, 12:48 pm
Filed under: photography

NOTE: I was planning on writing this before this image got submitted to reddit and got thousands of views and now I can’t decide if its popularity is incentive or disincentive to write. Good thing I already have some inertia – now it’s too late regardless. PLEASE WATCH OUT EVERYONE I HAVE BEGUN TO WRITE.

You’ll remember back in May I wrote the first Anatomy of a Photo about the picture of me in the top hat. I had fun writing and it created a bit of conversation (though oddly enough everywhere but on the blog entry itself). And hell, if you know me you know I’ll go on just to hear myself talk, so I’m bound to write for the same reason, right? Right.

So here’s how “Good Lord! That was unexpected!” came to be. The other day, maybe … maybe Tuesday, let’s say … I was sitting at the computer running my hands through my hair. This is the longest my hair has been since 1995, if you can believe it. I turned to say something to Casey and she stopped me and said, “Your hair looks AMAZING. Go see.” So I did.

I think I’ve proven enough times before that I’m more than willing to make myself look like a goofball if it’ll mean a good picture, and so of course when I got to the mirror and saw just how stupid I looked, well, I knew it was time to begin plotting. The conversation was something like this: “What does it look like? A crazy professor? Egon Spengler? Where could I find a lab coat? Oooh, I look startled. What would startle me? A beaker of acid exploding, something got set on fire? Wait, where am I going to find a laboratory that’ll let me shoot there?” and so on. As I practiced making frightened faces (trying to channel the spirit of Doctor Emmett Brown) I decided against the science experiment aspect of the picture. Too hard to find a location, too hard to find the props.

The inspiration came in the form of a question: what would it be most silly for a grown man to be frightened of?

And thus the idea was born.

I didn’t have much hope for a jack-in-the-box picture, though, because seriously, who has a jack-in-the-box? Not me, that’s who. However, the other day I was working at the store out in the ‘burbs and after work we went out to dinner, and right down the street from where we ate is a Toys R Us. I went there and actually had to ask someone where the jacks-in-the-boxes were. I bought one. Just for you, just for this picture.

I couldn’t shoot that night, though, for two reasons: one, I didn’t know yet where I was going to do this, and two, the sun was going down and I knew I wasn’t going to waste a good idea on harsh flat incandescent light. While on the porch I realized I could just set up in the middle of the street, why not, and there most of the details were finalized.

I spent that night thinking through the shot, which is something I almost never do. Normally by the time I’m thinking about the shot I’ve already edited it and posted it to Flickr, and only then do I realize all the things I should have done differently. I know how anxious I can get while in the middle of shooting something that’s not spontaneous, especially when I plan to put my dining room table in the middle of a public street (a one-way street, but a public street nonetheless) and so I made a point to make a list of everything I would need so that the next day I could pack it all up and not have to keep running back to the house for one last thing. The list reads as follows: spray bottle with water, comb, mirror, hand towel, tripod, camera with 15-35mm lens, jack-in-the-box, table, glasses, tablecloth, white tape.

Yesterday came, and I got off work, and I waited for the sun to go down some so that the shadows would be pretty even, and finally the time had arrived to go shoot. My beautiful assistant Casey and I dragged everything out there and set it up. The tape was to mark the exact placement of the table and tripod in the off chance that we got one picture shot and a huge truck came and we had to move it all – I wanted to be able to get everything back in place perfectly. It also came in handy in keeping the tablecloth down, as it was a bit breezy.

At this point I have to compliment Casey – I couldn’t ask for a better assistant. It’s obvious that she’s done work in the theater with prop wrangling, marking places, and directing people on how to move. Everything went twice as fast with her there, and kept me from going overboard into panic about the light fading between shots because I was taking too long setting everything up, etc.

We took the dry-hair picture first, of course, with about 20 takes on the same theme: me being startled and looking like a muppet. I concentrated on being Beaker with maybe 10% Animal thrown in. Once we were satisfied we had the right shot it was time to wet my hair and comb everything down, a point from which there was no going back. If something was screwed up with the first image I could have dried my hair again, but by then the light would have changed too much. The wet hair pics were taken (an out-take of which will be published on my Flickr eventually because I like it as a stand-alone) and then we were done. That’s right about when some disgruntled guy in a mini-van drove by and glared at us for being in the road, even as we were moving the table out of his way.

So, as for the technical aspects:

I took this with the wide-angle lens because, well, pictures shot really wide look goofy, and the last thing I wanted was to shoot telephoto with shallow depth of field making a serious image out of a guy being frightened by a child’s toy. Ultra-wide puts everything on the same plane, more or less. Because it was so wide the camera and tripod were literally pressed against the edge of the table, maybe two feet from my face. If they had been any farther back I would have just been a small speck in the middle of a neighborhood panorama.

Originally the shot was envisioned facing the other direction. However, after the first two test shots it was obvious that a big tree in the background was throwing everything out of balance. We looked at an angle shot, but that destroyed the lines of the road, table, and buildings. However, we found a place that worked just fine facing the other way, so we tore up all the tape and set everything up all over again.

One reason I wanted it in the middle of the road – and facing straight down the road – is that the wide-angle makes this great group of lines converge right in the middle. The side edges of the table, the street, the sidewalks, the roof lines of the buildings, even the power lines – they all point right to the middle, forcing the viewer’s eye and saying that even though the image may be shot in ultra-wide the only thing you need to look at is right here. To emphasize that effect I did some moderate vignetting on each of the images (something I’ve avoided lately as super-vignetted faux-Lomo images are already looking dated) to darken the edges and make the middle look brighter by comparison.

I went with a pretty high-contrast edit, pumping up the vibrance of the colors. Bright colors make for good silly, and I think they came across well. Still, the houses and grass and so forth were subdued and flat enough that the jack-in-the-box takes the front of the image in terms of attraction via color. That’s also why I wore a white t-shirt and used a white tablecloth – to make sure nothing in the center detracted from the toy.

The glasses were just to help me look extra dorky.

So there you have it – the analysis behind the conception, planning, setup, and execution of one of my favorite images of recent history. If I took this much time to think through all of my shots I’d be a hell of a lot better photographer.

July 2, 2009, 7:44 pm
Filed under: tidbit

The old deli kitchen

Originally uploaded by Brother O’Mara

Pardon this bit of self-indulgent rambling.

I got my first job in the wine industry in February of 2002 and it was literally as the result of a finger poked at random into the Help Wanted section of the Times-Picayune. They were looking for stockmen and cashiers. The short version of my career is this: I showed up, got the job as a stockman, came to work on time and did what was asked of me, and as a result got several kicks up the ladder. I worked for months at the retail store on Baronne and of course experienced the frustrations of a retail store but overall really enjoyed my time there. I felt like I totally fit in with the company. By the end of 2002 I had been promoted to a position in our Mid-City offices, and I left the store to go sit at a desk and push papers. I worked there from 2002 until the storm.

Okay all of that is a grand oversimplification but you get the point.

What I’m trying to say is this: when I was working at this company before the storm we had two stores – one in Uptown New Orleans and one out in Metairie. I always aligned myself with the Uptown store, because that’s where I started. Most people in the company have a fondness for one store or the other, and for an astoundingly high number of us it is because that’s where we started our careers as stockmen (or stockwomen, or cashiers). The Uptown store is where I learned about wine, where I learned how to pour, and how to taste, and where I was thrown into the driver’s seat of a delivery van and forced to learn the layout of the city. That’s a great job, I might add – whenever you get to a new city, get a job as a delivery person. You’ll learn the bad parts of town right quick. It didn’t take me more than once driving down St. Bernard to realize that the biggest streets on the map might not always be the best way to get somewhere.

Anyway, the Uptown store is where I learned to love wine. I greatly furthered my knowledge during my desk job in Mid-City, and by attending every Thursday night tasting that I could, but the Uptown store is where it all started.

The last time I was there would have been some point in the summer of 2005.

As with so many of my stories, you know that Hurricane Katrina comes next. I left my flooded apartment and flooded possessions and flooded workplace and went out to the Great Northwet to find a new life, then ended up back in Tennessee, and then realized just how damn much I missed this city and this company, and in December of 2008 I came back here. I got a different job with the same folks, and now I sit in a different office in the same building in Mid-City.

During my first trip back here post-Katrina, in March 2008, one of the first places I drove by was the old Uptown store. It was shuttered, closed, the result of flooding and looting and everything else bad that happened during the storm. Since that first post-K view I have driven by many times. I parked there twice during Mardi Gras and that was somehow the most bittersweet – there should have been a lot full of employees’ cars and someone I knew guarding the entrance, but it was just me, my girlfriend, and a big empty lot beside an empty building.

Finally today after having been back at work for six months I had an opportunity to see the gutted insides of the old workplace, a chance upon which I jumped with both feet. My boss knows I do the photography so he encouraged me to bring my camera along. We drove there along with the owner. He and my boss were going to discuss what was left inside that might still be salvageable before they tear down the old building. I went along just to see the place.

And … it was very strange. I didn’t live the post-K New Orleans experience. I did my grieving somewhere else. It’s been three years and ten months now, and I don’t have any pain left associated with the hurricane – not that I really ever did in the first place. So … when I set foot inside the store I was awash in old happy memories. I didn’t feel sad, full of regret, full of remorse. I just felt invigorated.

My boss and I talked about the first time we ever met, the night that all the stockmen (of which I was then a part) moved hundreds of bottles of wine and tons of shelves so that we could replace all the carpet. I saw the signs on the walls declaring the various wine regions. I saw the handwritten chalkboard sign above the old cheese counter. I saw the customer courtesy phone where tens of old ladies had stood and chatted, just far enough out in the aisle to keep me from being able to wheel my hand truck by and stock shelves. I saw the warehouse upstairs, the receiving room in the back, the remnants of the old deli and kitchen and walk-in cooler.

I saw on the floor upstairs the inter-office memo from late summer 2005 saying, “There is a restructuring in the Inventory Department. Kevin O’Mara is now the Inventory Manager of the Wholesale division” – my most recent promotion before the storm worked its magic.

I saw two half-full bottles of Ojen. I saw one ancient bottle of the old style of Ojen. I saw floors and ceilings, walls and windows, and I was filled with every happy memory I had of the place and not a single one of the bad. It was, to say the least, an uplifting and fulfilling experience – something I didn’t expect in the slightest.

So now I’m content. Now I’m ready for them to tear it down and build anew. I got my last visit.

I don’t know about the others, those dozen or two people still with the company that worked there for years before I did – decades before I did – that lived half their lives in that building. I can only hope they feel the same sense of relief and happiness that I do in our decision to move forward and build something even better than that which we used to have.