Author Archive for Clay Stalter

23
Mar
11

Angela da Silva: Making History Personal

Her is the preliminary version of my character profile, mainly just to hit the deadline. I’m still shooting on the project so this will be replaced with a finished piece in the coming weeks.

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15
Mar
11

Reading reflection: Lamott – False Start, et. al.

Lamott starts off the “False Starts” chapter with a story about a painter that I really like. “He keeps covering his work over with white paint each time that he discovers what it isn’t, and each time this brings him closer to discovering what it is.”

I think this is the essence of a photo story. I begin by photographing what someone does. Then that gets stripped away in the edit. Eventually, and hopefully, I photograph who a person is. This is a tough thing to do and I won’t pretend that I have ever done it completely. But that is the goal.

This is re-enforced in the chapter when she talks about her visits with the elderly. “[E]ven though these people are no longer useful in any traditional meaning of the word, they are there to be loved unconditionally, like trees in winter. [Trees in winter – that is a beautiful turn of phrase].”

Lamott continues, “When you write [photograph] about your characters, we want to know all about their leaves and colors and growth. But we also want to know who they are when stripped of the surface show. So if you want to get to know your characters, you have to hang out with them long enough to see beyond all the things they aren’t.”

These two passages are so right on so many levels. I subscribe to the Bryan Moss/Will Durant/MPW school of thought that ordinary people’s lives are worth recording and worth exploring even though they may not be the great historical events of the time. I know this dooms me to a life of poverty, but so be it.

Quality photojournalism comes from stripping away the excess baggage and helping people relate to one another on a human level. Hanging out with characters/subjects will get you to that level of intimacy were they will reveal themselves and show you who they are instead of showing you who they aren’t. Granted, I need to be accessible and reveal myself to subjects as well, that is only fair. Time seems to be in short supply at many newspapers these days and therefore the coverage seems superficial. But enough of my cynicism!

“You can see the underlying essence only when you strip away the busyness, and then some surprising connections appear.” ’nuff said.

On “Plot Treatment”:

“… you write [photograph] toward this scene [storyline], but when you get there, or close, you see that because of all you’ve learned about your characters along the way, it no longer works.”

To me this speaks of a change in direction. Observing what I have photographed and realizing that the “story” is not what I originally thought it would be. This is a tough thing to notice and something I am not good at doing. This is where an editor/mentor/someone outside of direct contact with the subject comes in to play. The trick is finding, and trusting, that “someone’s” guidance to visually communicate the true story of the subject and ultimately be willing to change direction during coverage.

I liked what Lamott had to say about laying a foundation. This is fundamental. I have to have those transition pictures and scene setters to move the story along. This is my Achilles heel in photographing picture stories. I get too wrapped up in capturing every moment with a face and framed tightly that I forget to photograph the scene setters and transitions.

I also liked her revelation about laying things out and seeing how they work together. I see the benefits of doing this in the work-in-progress sessions during class. (I will add that I’m frustrated when we do this and no one makes a peep. Then all of a sudden when the final prints are on the wall, all the suggestions come pouring out. That doesn’t seem equitable.)

On “How do you know when you’re done”:

“… perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor.”

I can’t help it, but I immediately think of the film adaption of Frank Herbert’s “Dune” where one of the main characters says something like “do not fear, for fear is the mind killer.” NOT being perfect in my storytelling is my fear and that kills my mind which is exactly what I need to be creative! I have been a perfectionist all my life. That is something I struggle with but rationally I know that no story will be photographed/told perfectly.

The bit about “getting all of one’s addictions under control is a little like putting an octopus to bed.” H-I-L-A-R-I-O-U-S and true. There is always something sticking out.

“… even though you  know that your manuscript [photo story] is not perfect and you’d hoped for so much more, but if you also know that there is simply no more steam in the pressure cooker and that it’s the very best you can do for now – well? I think this means that you are done.”

That is ultimately where my satisfaction lies. When everything is exhausted and I know I’ve put my best effort forward then I can rest. I was never pushed to get “A’s” in school or win awards, I was only pushed to do my best. And for that I’m grateful. Now if I can just stop being my own worst critic.

28
Feb
11

One-Day Story: Bar-to-Bar Golf Classic

So Jacksonville’s annual “Bar-to-Bar Golf Classic” isn’t really about the golfing. It is more about the socializing and drinking than about showing off one’s miniature golf skills. Plus the money all goes to a charity, which changes annually as well. Here is my take on the event.

Sarah Frye follows her shot up the ramp while friend Christine Yates waits her turn to tee off at the West Morgan Depot during the Bar-to-Bar Golf Classic in Jacksonville, Ill. Each February nine downtown bars in Jacksonville each host a miniature golf hole and patrons make their way through the course as part of a charity fundraiser. Costumes are optional but Frye, Yates and about 12 other friends decided on a cowboy western theme for 2011.

Golfing patrons move from the Irish Toad to their next hole on the course. The golfing starts at the hole after the bar where a foursome registered for the event and proceeds through nine holes until the golfers finish the day at the bar where they originally registered – if they make it through all nine holes/bars.

Golfers wait their turn to take on an especially difficult hole at the Bowl Inn while other patrons use the lanes for their intended purpose.

Tyna Klopfer celebrates a hole-in-one at Bahan’s Tavern.

Golfing is secondary to the event but successful putts are greeted with cheers from teammates. Several bar owners claim this to be one of the two biggest days of the year for alcohol sales, often trailing only New Year’s Day in revenue. Jill Whitmore (right) gets a high five from her teammate Carolyn Eilering after sinking a putt. The team that turns in the best scorecard after their nine holes gets $100 – the cost of their initial team registration.

An unidentified man (who declined to give his name) relieves himself in an alleyway after a long afternoon of miniature golf (and drinking) while his teammates hurry on to the next hole on the course.

28
Feb
11

POYi reaction

I watched the newspaper feature picture story category. There was a host of good work and things I wish had been discussed more. Some of this judging is quite confusing until the final rounds when the judges are hashing out the places. I would have liked to hear was was wrong with a few of the stories that were thrown out. (A story on migrant farm workers comes to mind, as does a quirky piece on Santa Clause School) I guess that is just the way judging goes.

One thing I noticed was that redundancy in the edit is not tolerated. Those seem to be the first to go. This redundancy hurt what eventually became the third place winner. Had there been one less sleeping soldier picture I think it would have placed first instead of third. One of the judges said as much aloud.

One complaint that the judges voiced about two stories that made it to the final round (one on Amish in Southern Colorado & another on Haiti) was the lack of intimacy. With the Amish story there was no intimacy in the photos, no exploration of the relationships between the subjects. There were no photos inside any of the Amish houses. Granted this would be tough to do given the subject matter, but the judges felt the story was all about process – what the Amish community did instead of who they were.

Contrasting this was the eventual third place winner “A Grunt’s Life” by Damon Winter of the New York Times. One judged remarked that it looked like the photos had been taken by a fellow soldier because they were so intimate and access so complete. This project is the one that has created some controversy since they were shot with an iPhone using the Hipstamatic App. This in turn led to a response from Winter and eventually a chat discussion on Poynter.

I won’t rehash it all, but I think what it comes down to is the iPhone & Hipstamatic App is only a tool that Winter decided to use. When I saw them on screen during the judging I knew there was something up with them. The vignetting and desaturated colors. I just figured he shot them on a Holga or Diana or some other “toy” camera and then did a bunch of post processing work. The imagery behind the technique is solid and that is what counts. Winter claims he wouldn’t be able to make those photos with his pro camera because the soldiers would scatter as soon as he lifted it. The iPhone kept them at ease and produced the results he was after. I don’t think much noise would have been made had he done this with an above mentioned “toy” camera. Why does it matter that it’s an iPhone?

On the adoption of the Chinese albino boys, the judges only complaint was that there was no interaction with the public. I’m not sure the photographer can be held responsible for the family deciding to home school these boys. Plus there was one photo at summer camp. Perhaps that didn’t show enough public.

The story that won, the aftermath of a stray bullet that hit a child, wasn’t really discussed much. Either positively or negatively. It was just kind of nominated for first and then voted on. It is Barbara Davidson’s work for The Los Angeles Times, I believe (names still haven’t been posted for all the categories). Her work was solid, and highly awarded, throughout the contest.

21
Feb
11

Reading Reflection: Lamott – Character, Plot, Dialogue, Set Design

Character – The obvious answer for this section as it can be applied to documentary photography is get to know your subjects! This entails them getting to know me as well. People are more apt to open up their lives to someone they trust. Concealing my life does not lead to trust.

This getting to know the subject will lead to greater understanding and help the photographer anticipate their actions in any given situation. This will lead to better storytelling pictures I believe. This knowledge will help me anticipate their reactions.

I also like was Lamott has to say about showing everything about the subjects – their faults as well as their good points. This leads to better story and that ultimately is what will connect with the viewer. I’ve worked with print reporters who have struggled with this battle of “writing for the subject.” I have also questioned my photo edits asking myself if I was just choosing pictures that subjects would like or whether they were truly the most storytelling images for whatever I was covering.

Plot – “Plot grows out of character.” While this may be true in the fiction world I’m not sure it is true of documentary photography. I need to have an inkling of what the plot will be before I start a project. This takes shape in the initial interview (either formally or informally) when I’m deciding to cover something.

However, “… something must be at stake or you will have no tension and your readers [viewers] will not turn the pages.” This is the “complication” that Rita speaks of. It is the payoff for why I am spending my time and energy and why the viewer should spend theirs.

I like what she says about having a disinterested party look at the work. Having an objective, and respected, voice in the editing process. Someone who can metaphorically “kill the cats” that I have become too attached to.

“Drama is the way of holding the reader’s attention.” “setup, buildup, payoff.” – Keys to great storytelling whether in words or visuals.

I found the ornaments-with-no-Christmas-tree analogy to re-enforce the five-cents-of-string concept for holding photo essays together.

Dialogue – This one I had the most trouble relating to documentary photography. I think it comes back to getting to know your subjects. Not asking about process or what they do but rather who they are and why they do it. I suppose it can also refer to recognizing and writing good quotes when I hear them.

In the multimedia landscape, I think it refers to audio. In this way subjects can tell their own story and their voice can add power to the visuals. Again this depends on interviewing techniques to get subjects past the “process” of what they do and into the “why.” Subjects describing what visuals show is extremely boring.

Set Design – On the most basic level this is about scene setters/overall photos – where the action is taking place.

But beyond that, environments in photographs can be extremely revealing about the subjects and their motivations and character. Details can speak volumes. I’ve always believed in the axiom that five minutes in someone’s house tells more about them than hours of conversation.

09
Feb
11

Readings reflection for Feb. 9

At first glance these reading seem to contradict each other. Hurn & Jay are suggesting a very narrow focus for photographic subject matter and really zeroing in on a subject. While Lamott introduces the idea in the Polaroids chapter of going to cover something and letting the story emerge as one is immersed in the environment – going through the actions of reporting/taking notes on what one is witnessing while not fully knowing what the final product will be. This is a central theme of Lamott – in commercial foot ware parlance “Just Do It.”

However, Lamott is advocating “doing” in a very organized fashion. She has confined her subject matter just as Hurn & Jay advocate. Lamott is covering the Special Olympics or in the chapter School Lunches confining herself only to what she remembers about her own school lunches. And from that “shitty first draft” she is then editing and refining what she really wants to write about. Granted she is from a creative writing/fiction background but I think much of what she says still applies. Narrow focus, write (shoot), get it down. Then edit and refine. But narrow your subject matter and idea to the smallest, most direct storyline. Once there, explore it and learn more and it will expand.

To be honest, I enjoyed the Hurn & Jay reading immensely. There were several nuggets that I gleaned from it, things I had heard before, from different people, but that really sunk in while going through that reading.

“You are not a photographer because you are interested in photography.” – David Hurn

This is huge. I got into photography because I liked the act. I liked the mix of science (optics/physics) and art. I of course also romanticized the lifestyle. I wanted to be a National Geographic photographer – travel, experience exotic locales, have great stories to tell the grandkids of my adventures. I went to photojournalism because it was the training ground for the Geographic as far as I could tell.

These illusions have since been wiped away. The life is only glamorous in the public myth. The pay is poor comparative to other professions. But the experience can not be matched!

But they have been replaced by new heroes. People like Jim Richardson (granted he is now a National Geographic photographer, but he made his name covering rural Kansas and other “simple” stories long before he got to the Geographic), Brian Plonka, Jaime Francis, Torsten Kjelstrand (sp? – I can’t recall from memory). People who have “styles” and “visions” (more on this later) but who got where they are by immersing themselves in their subjects.

I have come to realize what Hurn says: “… [P]hotography is only a tool, a vehicle for expressing or transmitting a passion in something else. Not the end result.”

It is not the act of photography I enjoy. It is the communication.

Curiosity is key.

This affects subject selection. If I am not interested in the subject matter, I will not make compelling images and they will not communicate to others – the whole point!

The two go through all kinds of steps to find subject matter but I won’t rehash all that right now. I do like some quotes in particular:

“… just wandering around looking for pictures, hoping that something will pop up and announce itself, does not work.”

“The narrower and more clearly defined the subject matter at the start, the more quickly identified is the ‘direction in which to aim the camera’ … and more pictures are taken. The more the shooting, the greater the enthusiasm and knowledge for the subject. The greater your knowledge, the more you want to do it justice and this increases the scope and depth of the pictures. So the process feeds on itself.” – both David Hurn

The final point that really resonated with me was this one of “style” or “vision” of a photographer. The authors seem to advocate for diminishing one’s own self in their work and being rooted in the subject.

Photographers who use the medium as psychotherapy, about the way “they” feel or interpret the world, often end up with work that appeals to an audience of one (themselves). Rarely will their images resonate with a wider audience.

For me, this defeats the whole purpose – I want to communicate! I don’t want the work to be about me, other than the subject selection – what I think is important. After that it is the subject’s expression, their story. I want to be the medium through visual storytelling.

“If the images are not rooted in ‘the thing itself,’ to use Edward Weston’s term, then the photographer has not learned anything about the real world. He/she can only justify the images by reference to self: ‘This is how I felt.’ Before long, this leads to incredibly convoluted psychoanalysis in a futile effort to justify the most banal, superficial work.” – David Hurn

This striving for “style” or “vision” is futile.

“A unique style, which is what we are talking about, it the by-product of visual exploration, not its goal. Personal vision comes only from not aiming at it … By starting with self, it is missed; ignore it, and it becomes evident.” – David Hurn

Taping into universal, visual communication is easier said than done and I think Bill Jay put it best with:

“The best pictures, for me, are those which go straight into the heart and the blood, and take some time to reach the brain.”

07
Feb
11

Editing Exercise & Layout

So here’s my selections on the race-car-dad-turned-pageant-father story.

I focused the story around the fact that most pageant enthusiasts are the mothers and he is obviously different. The photos I chose reflect masculinity. I did put in the tickling picture because it seems like the only unscripted moment in the take and clues the viewer in to their relationship. I also liked the closer because it does show that the mother is present in these endeavors even if she isn’t taking the lead role. Plus the closer shows the outcome of their efforts.

I had a real problem with playing up the “race car driver” aspect in the headline (although I did put it in the sub-head) because this other life is nowhere in the visuals. Granted he has long since given up his race-car life but he is a truck driver. There is nothing visually to show his current vocation. I wish there was since that would make “trucker-turned-pageant-dad” story more complete. Alas. I worked with what was provided.

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