Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Sic Transit Gloria Mundi

"For over a thousand years Roman conquerors returning from the wars enjoyed the honor of triumph, a tumultuous parade. In the procession came trumpeteers, musicians and strange animals from conquered territories, together with carts laden with treasure and captured armaments. The conquerors rode in a triumphal chariot, the dazed prisoners walking in chains before him. Sometimes his children robed in white stood with him in the chariot or rode the trace horses. A slave stood behind the conqueror holding a golden crown and whispering in his ear a warning: that all glory is fleeting."                                              
Gen. George C. Patton

I've had in mind several posts on fame.  Well, I guess not fame, per se, but the idea of work and remembrance.  There are several ways to go about this, like asking someone to name the ten most influential people in the public eye in 1900, or 1950, or 1970, for that matter.  Say the names Joseph Alsop or Walter Winchell to your average 30-year-old and see what you get.  These men made and broke people not that long ago.

Yet we all act as if our era was the most important, the most crisis ridden, the most critical turning point of all time.  Think of the late 19th Century, say 1880.  Now name a US President.  Name a major political cause or crisis from the time.  Were the economics good or bad?  For the average person, this is all that boring time in between the Civil War and Theodore Roosevelt (and frankly they don't have that tight a grip of Roosevelt).  We learned the Presidents in high school for some stupid quiz, and then shoved Grover Cleveland and the rest down the memory hole.

So what are we working so hard for?  My father, who I've written about here before, was by every measure a success.  Raised in poverty, he used the GI Bill money earned for his service in World War II to get both a Masters and PhD from Stanford.  He never had to apply for a job, but was recruited from position to position in academics, eventually becoming a college president and then the executive director of a number of educational associations.  He edited a book that to my knowledge remains the only authoritative work on postsecondary accreditation.

He retired, by my count, three times, an expert on as many areas of higher education, but as his contemporaries retired with him, he was consulted less and less. By the time we moved from Washington, DC, to Southwest Virginia, the only calls were polite exchanges with former colleagues.  All that accumulated knowledge, like the list of late 19th Century Presidents, faded from sight.

At 91, he now lives in a full-time care facility.  Though healthy and coherent, he is in what I call a 15-minute reset.  Your typical conversation with him will start off normally enough, exchanging polite interest in each others' day, reviewing the weather, and then it will all start again, as if the previous 15 minutes had not occurred, reviewing the same questions and interests.  He remembers little to nothing of his career; questioning him about his past generally brings a lost look, as if struggling to find his way in a fog.

He was important, in his circle, if not famous in the traditional sense, and I feel a resentment on his behalf that he has never received the accolades and tributes I feel that work and success deserved.  (He used to joke that all his friends had become buildings, as various halls on college campuses were named for his past coworkers.)  In darker moments, it can lead one to ask: What's the point?

What of those cut down too soon?  A news photographer, covering the biggest story out there -- a civil war upon which all the world's attention is focused.  He's been sent as The Guy to get the pictures, celebrated in the field as being at the top of his game.  Then, with the burst of a rocket, he dies.  All the most powerful people in journalism attend his funeral, his young wife in tears over the casket.  At the risk of being crass: Is this the worst possible way to go?

Let's remove the rocket from the scene.  He lives, and succeeds with the war.  Perhaps there are more triumphs, but as time passes, the stories become less important.  New bright stars rise in the field, and he fades into the background, eventually lecturing to bored journalism majors who fail to appreciate the accumulated knowledge before them.  His book sits on the remainder table at Barnes & Noble, a bargain at $5.

Perhaps there's another short burst of attention when he dies, as with some of the old LIFE photographers these days, through glowing tributes in lavishly illustrated obits.  And then he's gone with all the rest.  What did the Second Act bring to the play?

My, how dark.

That's not really where I meant to go with this, though I was hardly heading for bright lights and rainbows.  Partly, I had wondered whether our reflexive tragic reaction to a death a the acme of a career wasn't something that should be moderated by questioning if that isn't the perfect moment to leave the stage.  And partly, I've been coming to grips that, while we may each be the hero of our own story, that story is probably not the immortal tale of greatness.  Even if everyone says it is.

I guess mainly, I search for a more complete understanding of what we do as we shuffle through our tiny role on the grand stage. Perhaps, like all men since the first savage stared upward at the awesome vision of a starry sky, I wonder what I am here to do.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Further Addendum ...

I finally found that quote I referenced about being the hero of your own story.

From Patrick O'Brian's The Surgeon's Mate:

"Every man is a hero of his own tale ... Every man must look on himself as wiser and more intelligent and more virtuous than the rest, so how could he see himself as the villain, or even as a minor character?"

Friday, May 24, 2013

There he is!

Turns out, after some more searching, I found that there is indeed some appreciation for my third man on the left, at least in the closed world of Star Trek fandom.

The most in depth is here, an actual podcast interview with Doug Grindstaff on his work doing the sound for the original Star Trek.  And it has a picture of him with his array of Emmys.  Also found this very short bio.

I've never been happier to be proven wrong.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

The Devil's Bargain

The other day, a diabolical question occurred to me.  If someone came up to me and said, "I will give you a digital Leica M(240), but you must then give me all of your old, film Leicas," what would I do?

Well, the first answer was that I should demand two M(240)s, partly because one always wants a backup, and partly because I like to have a camera with a second lens ready in a quickly developing situation.  (The best quote on this came from TIME magazine photographer Terry Ashe, who said: "If you're changing lenses, you're just watching.")  That, however, is more of an aside than an answer.  And let us take as given that this is not some tricky genie figure; there is no dark underside to the bargain.  Straight up trade: digital M for film.  What do you do?

I'm surprised at how difficult it is.  The practical me screams to take the deal and run before he figures out what he's done.  I've often wondered how long film can hold out.  Part of me says forever -- after all, you can still arrange to shoot Daguerreotypes if you want -- and part of me says it's time is limited in any sort of practical way.  Film, after all, requires factories to make it, and factories require film corporations, and those companies ain't looking to healthy these days.

But the other part of me clings to old equipment and techniques like a monk in the Dark Ages, holding on to the last copies of Aristotle and Plato while the peasants outside demand the paper for kindling.  Besides the old Leicas, I have a Rolleiflex and a Speed Graphic, and I use them when I can.  In the days when it appeared film would last forever, old gear was an exercise in technique.  I bought the Speed Graphic, for example, when it occurred to me that every great news photo I had ever seen that was made before, say, 1950 was shot with one.  How did they do it?

This leads to a secondary question: Why the Leica M?  You can get into one of those pseudo-philosophical debates about this -- you know, the kind you used to sit up all night arguing about in college?  Depending on your social class and cool factor, it could be about whether the Beatles or Stones were better, or whether Superman would beat Batman, but in the end you usually come down passionately on the side of something.

Leica users are notoriously obsessive about our cameras, and there are even crazier subsets, like those who will only use film, or think the best were the old screw-mount lenses, and so on.  And there is a collector market, which buys only pristine Leicas, preferably in the original box, only to keep them on the shelf. 

And Leica fanatics are willing to pay.  Recently, an M3 custom modified for LIFE photographer David Douglas Duncan (one of only four like it in the world) became the most expensive non-prototype camera ever auctioned, at a little over $2 million.  And it was pretty beat up, having been to Vietnam and back.  (There's a great story about that, the short version of which is when Duncan returned from covering the siege at Khe San, he went straight to the LIFE offices, still in his camouflage fatigues.  He had stored his Nikons safely in Da Nang as he left Vietnam, anticipating his return, but brought the Leicas with him.  The Nikons were stolen.)

By the way, The most expensive camera, period?  Yep, it's also a Leica.

I, for one, am a lover of the Leica M series, and I actually have given some -- okay, probably far too much -- thought into why.

Generally, my first reaction was like that of Rikard Landberg, who wrote about it on Steve Huff's blog.  When I look through the rangefinder, I see differently.  I see pictures I don't perceive when blasting away with an SLR.  I know what a 50mm lens -- normally a focal length that bores me -- I know what it is for when I put one on a Leica.  Like this guy.

Henri Cartier-Bresson described the camera as an extension of himself.  And this was driven home to me when -- remarkably late in my use of the M -- I learned that the viewfinder for the M3 (set to show a "normal" 50 mm view) can be put in front of the right eye while the left is kept open.  Then you perceive the world as you would with normal, binocular vision ... but with frame lines added.

But let's get back to the point, because the M fascination gets directly to it: the new M(240) is a direct descendant of the M3.  It has the same mechanical rangefinder for framing, the same bayonet lens mount that takes lenses from the 1950s as easily as the newest 35mm aspherical f/1.4 just released from the factory in Solms, Germany.  Aside from my pretentious ability to hold up an M3 and proclaim that it has no batteries at all, the photographic experience is, as near as I can tell before handling the new M, exactly the same.  Just digital.

So why cling to yesterday's technology?  Because there's something about film.  For one thing, it sticks around.  I can still locate 20 or 30-year old negatives and use those pictures.  The ones on last year's crashed hard drive?  Gone forever.

And there's the experience, the feeling, the old timey craftsmanship of using it.  I touched on it at the end of an earlier posting, with a reference to a blog by Vincent LaForet, who went into more detail as it was a longer leap back for him.  And there's the look, but frankly one can reproduce that in Photoshop (where my pictures pretty automatically go after the negative is scanned anyway.)

So why cling to the old cameras?  Why, when I envision the moment of the deal, do I see my hands clinging to those worn bodies of their own accord, refusing to let go?

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Pay the Photographer ... sometimes?

Okay, as I've aged and become more experienced as a professional photographer, my colleagues and friends have become used to my ever increasingly rigid attitudes about working for free or little pay and demanding copyright respect.

I'll admit, I did my share of jobs for little or no money, gigs where they'll "take care of you next time," or they'll make sure this all adds up to a good, long-term contract.  And there are two that I remember in particular that ended up not paying at all ... not because I agreed to work for free, but because they just didn't pay.  I've done jobs for friends, who hoped it would become something, and I've even cheated myself, trying to put together deals I hoped to become something.

While all these experiences have taught me lessons, and while I think being rigid about payment is as foolish about being rigid on anything else (for example, why not do something gratis for a cause you believe in?) I wish, wish, wish that the world would understand that photography is a skill and a talent that requires a lot of experience and training to perfect.  You should be paid for quality work.  Period.

Now, this may seem to be an odd continuation of an earlier post, even a contradiction to my apparent love of the Vivian Maier Test, but it's not ... and worse yet, that's not where I'm going here.  Rather, I want to talk about Facebook.

Often, my profile pic is someone else's picture.  I recently lifted the one above from the Banksy FB Revolution page, where it was posted (note the passive voice, signaling my uncaring ignorance) and I thought it amusing and symbolic.  I didn't ask, didn't pay, and don't plan to.   Another was lifted from The Times magazine's cover, a picture of the stars of "Doctor Who."  Didn't ask about that either.  This isn't the first time I've wantonly lifted someone's image for my profile, and it probably won't be the last.  Am I a hypocrite?

Well, aside from Banksy's anarchistic free-source attitude, I like to think not, but I'll also admit mine is a modulated response.  These people have made some fine pictures -- as shown by the fact that I wanted to be associated with them -- and I'm sure it cost them time and effort as well as money to make them.  As above, they deserve to be paid.  So am I ripping them off?  Are the thousands, millions of people who lift images and repost them on Facebook casually undermining not just the incomes of artists, but the whole concept of copyright?

Let me invert this: What if I found one of my pictures posted as a profile pic, or shared widely on Facebook.  What if I made a meme, seen around the world, but not a cent to me.  Well, the latter might frustrate me a little, but until some profit-making publication "printed" it (yes, quotes, as "printed" is the only available, if antiquated, term I think for distribution in something like the now internet-only Newsweek) I wouldn't expect anything from it.

Why?  Well, I chose the profile pic example with intent.  That is something I can feel rather confident about.  Finding a picture of mine as someone's profile picture (a pretty bunny, say, though that's hardly my specialty) would strike me as amusing and complimentary.  That individual doesn't expect to profit from the image, aside from the "Likes" of her friends, and has shown her admiration of the picture in the same way she might by cutting it out of a magazine and hanging it on her wall.

Ah, you might say, but you would have been paid by that magazine.  Well, yeah.  And, as I think about it, perhaps this is where the rigidity breaks down.  The error here is in thinking about this in purely financial terms ... and coincidentally this is where I become consistent. 

A magazine buys my picture with the intent of making yet more money from yet, usually in the form of fees from advertisers.  The advertisers, in turn, are paying in anticipation of income because the magazine brings them the eyeballs of potential customers.  My great claim to income in this equation is that my picture is more likely to cause people to look at the magazine than anyone else's.  In this model, everyone makes money ... and the end user is more likely to pay with his attention than his hard-earned lucre.  (For, even in the days when printed media were king, subscription fees didn't even begin to cover the costs of productions; advertising was the real income-producers, first, last and always.)

So where do the pictures in this blog fall?  I'm always the first to admit that this is primarily a business venture, intended to raise my profile as a professional.  However, it's also an exercise in personal expression, and though I wouldn't refuse income if it came my way, this costs me more (in terms of time and effort) than it makes (which is ... well, nothing).  However, I have been careful for some time to use either my own pictures (primarily) or those that I know are in the public domain.  Otherwise, I just link.  This seemed like a good chance to run a test.

So, in the end, even in the gray area of this blog, I think I am consistent, even if my guide is like Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart's infamous definition of pornography: "I know it when I see it."

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Third Victim on Left ...

For a while, I've been giving some thought to the anonymous.

Boy, that sounds a lot more meaningful than it really is, because the anonymous I initially started wondering about were the ones in movies.  You know, in those epic films, when the aliens land or the volcano erupts or whatever, and the shock wave blasts through, followed by the rolling cloud of flame ... all those people you see running in front of it, or sitting in the cars that are thrown about like toys, the people put there by the filmmaker to give scale to the event.  We're all watching the main protagonist, the hero who will dodge into a convenient doorway at the last minute and escape.  But those figures in the background -- we might be given a short glimpse of a pleading face to add pathos to the scene, but little else -- what about them?

Well, naturally, a movie can't be populated entirely by heroes.  That would be ridiculous, not to mention really hard to follow.  Imagine all the plot lines.  However, I often think of a great line by the brilliant novelist Patrick O'Brian.  I can't find it exactly now (I'll add it later, as I have actually copied it into a notebook, the wording is so excellent), but a young character announces he is totally unafraid of death, because he is the hero of his story, and everyone knows the hero never dies.

The quote, I think, is ingenious  in a number of ways (as O'Brian's writing often is), partly because the author would often kill off major characters in his books without so much as a preamble.  Some were simply obliterated offscreen, as it were, in between chapters.  ("After the death of --"  WHAT?!)  However, I think it is more interesting as to what it says to real life, because we all trundle through our own stories, knowing we are at the center of them and everyone else are merely supporting players.  While we can't possibly wrap our heads around the idea of infinite heroes living infinite stories, that's really going on around us all the time.  "The universe," said Muriel Rukeyser, "is made up of stories, not atoms."  It's an interesting thought.

I guess I've been playing around the edges of this concept for some time.  For example, we've been trying to get a project on White House news pictures funded for some 20 years.  The idea is to get some of the old photojournalists that covered the place to tell their stories, and use that to show how a president's image can be permanently shaped by a single photograph, or perhaps a series of images reenforcing each other.

Similar ideas have been done, but usually with either the official photographer, or some big-name photographer like Annie Lebovitz or Harry Benson, who parachuted in to Washington from New York to take a grand tour at covering the presidency.  I was always much more interested in the guys who had been there day in and day out.  You probably know the pictures, but not the photographer.  And I suspect you most likely never will.

Or, for another example, take Star Trek.  After nearly 50 years, it has seen many incarnations, the newest being the second reboot for theater release by J.J. Abrams.

So, you hear that?  At the very end, the noise they cut to, that peeping, sort of sonar like sound.  If you're old enough to have watched the original series in the 60s, you recognize the bridge viewer screen noise.

So let's pause a moment here: that's just one of a spectrum of sounds designed from, well, nothing by a professional to build a realistic bed to make the idea that we're watching guys actually traveling through space.  There's that peep, there's the tones made when they throw switches, there's the iconic whoosh of the doors -- all that stuff was added post production.  Somebody had to come up with it and mix it in.

Have you ever seen outtakes without all that?

The video's terrible, and the audio's pretty muddy, but I think you see what I'm getting at.  It's just flat, like a high school play, without all the rich depth of the additional sound.  The bridge is just another room on a soundstage.

So who did all this?  What genius is celebrated for his work?  It took three Google searches and a great deal of plowing through IMDB to find the name Doug Grindstaff, listed as the Sound Effects Editor.  No personal details, aside from a birthdate of 1935.  Nothing on Wikipedia.  Further searching finds he won five primetime Emmys from 12 nominations.  The last win was in 1987 for "Max Headroom," but none of the nominations was for Star Trek.  All the same, you could only call that a successful and rewarding career, with credits on successful primetime television shows for a solid three decades.

Is he still alive?  As his last credits seem  to be in the late 80s ("Dallas" and "Knots Landing"), I'm guessing he retired.  It would be fun to find him and talk to him, that third guy in the production team on the left, because that ping instantly puts me (and apparently J.J. Abrams) back on the bridge of the old Enterprise.  And that's quite a trick, isn't it?

But in the end, and I guess this is my point, unless someone hunts him down and celebrates what he did, no one save some family and friends, and maybe a few audio obsessives, will remember who Doug Grindstaff was, even as science fiction movies for decades to come draw on the work he did.  He's just become another guy in the crowd, obliterated not by a fireball but by the rolling tide of time.

Maybe we need to take a minute to think about the guys in the crowd.