AKA Abraham Bacoln

September 30, 2009, 11:13 pm
Filed under: photography

I feel very accomplished after my quick vacation to Tennessee because I got a picture finalized that had been in my head for well over a year. It even turned out somewhere near 90% of how I had envisioned it so long ago. I’m very pleased. Oh, yes, which picture?


That picture. I guess it goes without saying that I had to construct the rabbit, since you can’t just go buy a rabbit that has human teeth in it already. Part of the delay was finding the teeth, which proved difficult in Cookeville. Turns out that you can find just about anything you need down here in the Humid City – if you know where to look.

So that was one bit of satisfaction – taking a picture that had plagued me for nearly a year and a half. Seriously, I have had this image in my head for so long and now that it’s finally taken I feel relieved. Also, I absolutely hated having that rabbit in the same room as where I was sleeping … until the picture was taken. Afterward it was as if I had exorcised whatever demon was plaguing me. I thought our muses were supposed to bring comfort and not cause distress. If making the pictures chases them off and lets me sleep better then I’ll do whatever it takes.

Another bit of satisfaction came from taking these panoramic images: Tennessee Tech campus and south Cookeville. About a year ago (almost exactly the same time as the toothed stuffed animal started plaguing me) I took a self-portrait in an elevator which prompted one of my friends to ask, “Where … did you find an elevator in Cookeville?” That has stuck with me since then, and it makes me think about this ground-based culture in my hometown. There’s nowhere in Cookeville to go up, to get above it all and look down and get some perspective. Okay, yes, that statement has more than a literal interpretation but I’m going to avoid that road. Anyway, turns out that if you know the right people you can get to the right places. It’s silly, but I don’t feel at liberty to come right out and say from where I took those panos, but if you’re a Cookeville native it shouldn’t be too hard to figure out. Regardless, I hope you enjoy seeing that sleepy little town from a different perspective.

And finally, as I was looking through my photostream for various images that reminded me of my personal timeline, reminded me when I started fixating on the denturebeast and also the comment about elevators in Cookeville, I found the following quote. From me.

During last semester I’d get a little stressed and anxious and the best way I found to relieve that (no off-color jokes, please) was to go out and take pictures.

Now that semester’s done, I spend the day at work, and when I get home I have nothing pressing to do. So now where is my inspiration? Where’s my anxiety and desire to create? I can’t find it. I’m feeling kind of tapped out here.

And that is indeed a relief, to know that this isn’t the first time I’ve been through this. Part of the reason I write (and photograph) is to get things out of my head. The problem with this is that often once they’re out, well, they’re all the way out. Forgotten. Because of this I put myself through the same tortures over and over, apparently.

But yeah, anyway, this isn’t the first time I’ve felt a little creatively challenged, and now I’m sure it won’t be the last. We’ll see what comes of this.

Plateaued, but on the path
September 21, 2009, 12:19 pm
Filed under: photography

Why do I feel like I’m in a creative slump when I’m still producing good photographic work at a fairly constant rate?

There’s a small critique group with whom I meet here in New Orleans, and sitting for hours discussing the works of artists of all mediums, styles, and calibers has helped me understand better the imagery I’m producing with my camera. More importantly being forced to discuss my photography with others who won’t let me bullshit my way out of the conversation, who encourage (or force, actually) me to truly look at what I’m creating – that’s been very helpful for me. Because of these meetings I have been able to better clarify my thoughts on why I feel like I’m at a creative low point and why I’m disappointed with my rate of production.

When I was fifteen I started playing bass guitar on a whim. I could hardly differentiate the bass line from the guitars in the music I was listening to but that didn’t matter, I liked the way it felt and sounded when I played it. I never took any lessons but I spent most of my spare time playing. When I was sixteen someone said, “Wow, you’re pretty good – how long have you been playing?” I was proud to be able to reply, “Oh, only about a year. I haven’t had any lessons or anything, I just kind of picked it up.” That was a good feeling, to think that I was naturally talented.

Of course time shortly showed me that whatever’s considered good for a kid that’s been playing for one year without lessons is pretty mediocre – or even a little bit sad – when it’s been two years, or three. I didn’t have any drive to improve my playing and I was still treating the bass as a part-time distraction, not even a proper hobby.

With regards to the creative learning curve I shot up rapidly at the beginning, quickly reached a low plateau, and stayed there. With the bass I was content to remain where I was as a beginner. I could clearly see the path ahead of me, and where I could have gone had I taken lessons, or learned to read music, or even figured out a way to practice (as opposed to just screwing around) but I didn’t care to go down that road.

And now I’m transferring that understanding of natural creative talent and the inevitable plateau to my photography. A while back I went through my photos to determine when I personally felt I took the step from “a guy who likes to take interesting snapshots” to “someone determined to create proper photographs” and I mark that time as January 2006. That means that before I know it I will have been doing photography seriously for four years. In some ways that’s depressing to me.

Okay, so honestly if I showed the me of four years ago the photos I’m producing now, he (I) would be astounded. But me of today, me-right-now, is not content. I think my natural talent has taken me as far as it can. In terms of the creative learning curve, I’ve had my rocket upwards and now I’m on my plateau. This is where my overall frustration with my photos is coming in to play. When I was just starting out I learned something new every week, and for a while it was every day. I figured out how better to compose images, how better to edit (both in terms of post-production and also how much to show to other people), how better to visualize in advance where the capabilities of my equipment and brain could take me.

Now I’m missing that feeling, that “Eureka!” of finding or understanding something new, and I don’t know how to spark it. I’m certainly not saying I’ve mastered photography and have nothing left to learn – far from it! – but as the slope of the learning curve levels off the tidbits of learning become smaller in scale. There’s a difference between the huge pure joy of discovering how to manipulate depth of field to good effect and the tiny, almost insignificant, self-congratulation when I think, “Oh, in this situation I should just go ahead and under-expose by a half-stop before I even start shooting” because of learning from past experiences. It used to be that I could see where I needed to go when I would look at photos and say, “Wow! How did they DO that?” Finding that out was my goal. Now I know how they did it. Now I don’t have clear milestones ahead and I feel like I’m trying to track my predecessors on rocky ground. I’ve gone from having huge road signs to sifting tiny pebbles.

When I look through the photographs of others to find the ones that I envy, the ones that are so good that I grit my teeth and can’t think of anything other than just how much I wish that I had been the one to take it, they usually fall into one of three categories:

1.) A photo taken at a location that is foreign to me or to which I do not have access.
2.) A photo taken using huge props, great studio, paid model, or any other indication of someone having poured money into the shoot.
3.) A photo taken with a kind of creativity that originates from a higher plane than mine, something I can only hope to be able to tap into eventually.

The first two I can rationalize away if I spend long enough trying to convince myself that I should. For example the vast majority of the viewers of my photos do not live here in New Orleans so the locations that I think are mundane are indeed foreign or exotic setups to them. Just because I see them every day does not negate their potential usefulness or beauty. Likewise I have been able to come up with some pretty good photos with found props, hastily-rigged home lighting, and so forth. Most of my visions can be created on my budget, even when I get extravagant.

That leaves the creativity, something I can’t force, cajole, plead, or otherwise magic into existence. I am left in despair when viewing the work of Chema Madoz for example. Every single one of his images sends me into a whirlwind of emotions – “I love it for its incredible stark simplicity. I love it for its tone. I want to have been the one who took this image. I need to have been the one who took this image. I can never recreate it because he’s already done it better than I ever could. I’ll never be able to take pictures like this.” For every. single. image.

The upside to all of this rambling discussion is that when you understand where you are, you can hopefully see how you got there and – if you’re lucky – where you’re going. I know I’m frustrated with what I’m creating, and how I feel I’m never making anything new. I know that I rail against the idea of repeating anything in my photography – I don’t like to use the same prop or theme or idea more than once if possible. I know that this artificial and unnecessary restriction is part of what’s keeping me stuck here in this trough.

But meeting with other people, people that don’t know me and don’t know where my photography has come from or is going … that helps. Their opinions (at times blunt or loving or both) help me see that I’m not repeating myself too much, that I am indeed on the right path. To these people that don’t live inside my head my work is indeed fresh, and welcoming, and enjoyable. It’s giving me a little bit of space to stop worrying and just go back to creating.

I just have to accept that the honeymoon is over and I don’t get that adrenaline rush every time I learn or find something new, and that my discoveries will be smaller, but they’re still discoveries. I’m still on the right path.

Astounding and intense
September 20, 2009, 6:17 pm
Filed under: tidbit

Let me quote some things from Wikipedia:

The Portsmouth Sinfonia was a real orchestra founded by a group of students at Portsmouth School of Art in Portsmouth, England, in 1970 — however, the Sinfonia had an unusual entrance requirement. Players had to be either non-musicians, or if a musician, play an instrument that was entirely new to them.

Bryars was interested more in experimenting with the nature of music than forming a traditional orchestra. Instead of picking the most competent musicians he could find, he encouraged anyone to join, regardless of talent, ability and experience. The only rules were that everyone had to come for rehearsals and that people should try their best to get it right and not intentionally try to play badly.

and then link to what is now my absolute favorite rendition of In the Hall of the Mountain King. Delicious.

More Miller’s Crossing
September 12, 2009, 10:15 pm
Filed under: photography | Tags: ,

I got some info from the internets (aka blog commenter droudy) on two more of the Miller’s Crossing filming locations, so I have updated the original blog entry. Go check it out, if that’s what you’re into.

Miller’s Crossing, twenty years later

My favorite movie of all time is the Coen Brothers’ Miller’s Crossing [IMDb, Wikipedia]. I have no idea how many times I’ve watched it, but I love it more every time and that’s no exaggeration. The first time I watched it was in 1994 at Walter Biffle’s place on 8th St. in Cookeville, and I don’t know if it was the size or volume of the television or everyone else there watching it, but I missed so much. My eyeballs were pointed at the screen the whole time but there were so many lines and situations that I didn’t really grasp. I think that’s part of why I like it so much – every time I watch it I see something new. Those things are getting less significant each time, with as many times as I’ve watched it, but it still holds true. I would love to have seen it in the theater on the big screen.

The first time I watched it I had never even been to New Orleans. Some time after I moved down here I watched it again and I’m ashamed to say I missed it. Then I was reading an article about Miller’s Crossing and it said, “filmed in New Orleans” and I heard that record needle sound effect and had to go watch the movie immediately and there it all was! New Orleans is all over this movie! It’s set not in NOLA but in some nameless city, yet it was filmed here and it shows.

Later while searching for information about the movie I found Mike McKiernan’s Miller’s Crossing production notes page wherein he lists several of the filming locations. I can’t thank Mr. McKiernan enough for this information, for it made this whole writeup possible.

Miller’s Crossing was filmed in 1989. Before Katrina I always meant to walk around and photograph some of the locations to show what they look like now, but at that time I wasn’t into photography and just never had much motivation. After the storm I swore I was never coming back here (shows what I know, right?). Now I’m here and I realized I need to take the pictures because A.) I know what I’m doing with a camera now, and B.) it’s been TWENTY YEARS since they filmed here. That’s astounding to me – I can’t believe it’s been so long.

I tried to prepare as best I could – I took screenshots from the movie and printed them out and put them in a binder which I left in my car so that whenever I was out and around shooting I could try to match the angle and lens as best possible. I shoot almost exclusively with prime (fixed focal length) lenses and let me tell you I’ve never wanted a quality zoom lens more than when I took the bulk of these shots. Changing lenses while standing in the middle of the street in the sweltering New Orleans summer heat while holding the reference printout in the other hand trying to match the perfect angle … that’s for the birds, man.

But now it’s done, and I can show you the results. They’re mostly exteriors. If you read McKiernan’s site you’ll find that most of the interiors (aside from the International House) were either sets or heavily modified rooms, so I didn’t go searching for them. Everything else I’m going to present chronologically.

[I know the image quality on the thumbnails is low, but I have a lot to show and wanted to save bandwidth. You can click any image for a larger high-quality version.]

One: street scene

This is where we find Tom talking to the guy who takes the bets to the bookie. It was filmed in the 2000 block of Magazine Street right in front of what is now Aidan Gill and Juan’s Flying Burrito. The woodwork detail you can see above Tom’s head in the first screenshot is still there:

Two: knocking over Caspar’s joint

This was filmed in the 800 block of S. Peters Street in the warehouse district. The concert venue Republic is one of the businesses in that block now.

Three: “The old man’s still an artist with the Thompson”

The Coens got permission to film on Northline Street in the Old Metairie neighborhood, a posh residential area. Many of the houses on the street look like Leo’s house (though his was built on a stage, of course, so that they could burn it down). It took me a bit of cruising until I found the shot at the intersection of Northline and Hector. I was mainly looking for the brick fence with the lamps that is visible on the right side of the screen in the car explosion scene. I also used the shapes of the trees to confirm that I was in the right place.

I’ve talked to someone who lived two blocks away on Hector and he said he remembers clearly the night of the filming and the loud explosion, though he hadn’t realized that it was for Miller’s Crossing.

Four: Tom calls Mink

When I watched the movie after learning it was filmed in New Orleans this was the moment I wanted to slap my forehead. There’s nowhere else this could be. There’s the green streetcar. There’s the huge Whitney Bank on St. Charles Avenue, arguably NOLA’s second-most famous street. The thing that got me the most was the Whitney Bank lighted clock on the corner. Whitney puts one of those on every single one of their banks, and they’re the bank I use, and I couldn’t believe I hadn’t noticed the clock before. [228 St. Charles Ave]

I’m pretty sure the phone booth was a prop, but I can’t swear that there wasn’t one there 20 years ago.

Five: the cops raid the Shenendoah Club

I got lucky on this one. I was using Google Street View to look for locations downtown, and I was pretty sure I knew that this was right near the Whitney Bank building, and it is. It’s just around the corner in the 600 block of Gravier Street. Funny thing is that the space that the patrons are exiting is not actually from a building, it’s a maintenance alley between two buildings.

Six: shootout at the Sons of Erin club

I think this is the one that got me the hardest. When I first read McKiernan’s page I said, “CHURCH STREET! I was down there just last week on a delivery and I didn’t even recognize it!” Sure enough next time I went back it was staring me in the face. It’s a short street, one block long, between Camp and St. Charles (between which there is usually not another street). As you can see during filming they had to erect a fence behind the police side to hide the parking lot.

I guess it goes without saying that the trees have grown a bit in the last two decades.

Seven: cafe interior

This shot is literally on screen for only a second or two. I never would have thought to include it, but when I was taking my photos on Magazine St. I was discussing the project with someone who mentioned that the cafe interiors had been filmed at what is now Mojo Coffee House [1500 Magazine St.]. Sure enough, while the countertop has been moved, the tin wall paneling is still there.

I included an exterior of Mojo so that you can understand how weird it is that when Tom walks out …

Eight: Verna confronts Tom outside the cafe

… this is where we find Tom when he exits the cafe. In reality this was on Picayune Place, a little alley one block long that sits between Camp and Magazine. The side on which they filmed doesn’t really look all that different now except there are more bars on the windows. The architectural details on the posts and walls are still there though.

I figured I’d throw in this wide-angle shot from the start of the alley to give you some perspective:

Nine: The Barton Arms

This one may well be my favorite. It’s an apartment building called The Fern located at 7904 St. Charles Ave. I was hoping this building was on St. Charles because in the movie you see a streetcar run behind Tom as he looks up to the building at the sound of gunshots. However, I couldn’t tell if it was two separate filming locations (as in the case of the cafe interior and exterior). I drove down St. Charles looking for any apartment building that could possibly fit the bill. Towards the Uptown end of St. Charles the apartment buildings get more modern, and I’d pretty much given up. With only two blocks left before the riverbend I spotted this building. I figured it was just wishful thinking but no, it was the true location. I only wish Tom’s apartment had been real and not on a set – I’d be kicking down doors to try and rent it.

Ten: The Royale

This I found solely thanks to droudy’s comment on this blog entry. Sure enough right there at 913 Magazine Street is the building they used for the exterior of the Royale.

Eleven: “You can’t hijack me, Tic-Tac, we’re on the same side – or didn’t you get that far in school?”

Again thanks to droudy’s comment I now know that this was filmed in the 400 block of Gravier Street. They filmed it with the cars in the movie traveling the wrong way down the real-world one-way street, so I’m going to blame my direction of travel for not finding this one myself. Okay, that’s no excuse but I have it now and that’s all that matters.

I enjoy seeing how much the tree visible behind Frankie and Tic-Tac’s car has grown.

Still Not Found

And now is where my fellow New Orleanians can help me out. I’m down to one last location that I can’t seem to find. A few people have commented that they think this building was where the new WWII expansion building is being constructed and therefore is gone forever. I’m not completely convinced but I sure haven’t been able to find it yet. Regardless, if you know exactly where it is (or was) please let me know!

Eddie Dane follows Verna from the boxing gym:

And so ends our journey through the landscape of Miller’s Crossing, twenty years later. One more time I need to thank Mr. McKiernan for his valuable information on filming locations. I feel I should specify that all screenshots are of course property of Twentieth Century Fox, and all photographs are mine and I really rather wish you wouldn’t steal them.

If you want to send someone a quick link to this article you can use the following pre-shortened URL: http://bit.ly/mc20yr

[EDIT: it occurs to me that nowhere in this blog entry did I use the terms “then and now” or “before and after” but now that’s been rectified]