Sunday, August 17, 2008
Half Way Through
At Track & Field (cr: Thorsten Baering) with the Speed Graphic
If you don't think that snags happen along the way, you just haven't spent quality time covering big-ass organized events. The Olympics is one of the biggest, if not the biggest that I have had the pleasure to be swept away by. The Chinese have added their own organizational flavor to the mix, like each host country does. The fear of horrible air pollution which preceded this week has largely been a non issue. Well, unless you breath for ten minutes through a Kleenex and see whats going in and out. But it has been far less odious than feared: I still have a pack of masks in my camera bag, one of the legion of goodies brought along to help us Westerners cope (pocket packs of Kleenex are worth carrying.) Trying to actually get good pictures remains a challenge. You are surrounded by a bunch of really good competitive people, most of whom you' d be happy to have a beer with (not that you have the time for a beer) but who at the same time would be pleased to just shoot your ass off, picture wise. I have been trying to continue shooting in the manner I started in 2004 in Athens.. slanting my lens focus to create a somewhat mildly surreal looking effect, to which it is my intention to help the reader to look at those elements in the picture which I think or wish my viewer to see. It began using the Speed Graphic (my old press camera) and has evolved into using some Canon lenses on a digital camera. My heart is really with the Speed.. you can't imagine how it has become the poster child of all long lost former film shooters. Like a comfy old B-17 (can that be said of a bomber?) which crew pass and slap on the nose for good luck, my Speed Graphic, nearly as old as I am, is the object of much affection here in Beijing. Much like any relic from a previous age (or the favorite uncle we all adored) it gets nods of approval from those who realize that the sudden and relentless move to digital photography has a price, and unsettling question of the finality of the images.
We shoot gigabyte after gigabyte, and every 6 months search for a new and final solution to the question of archival storage. At the Library of Congress, you can still see the Abe Lincoln at Antietam photograph by Alexander Gardner which has become part of our national history. Two years ago I photographed the original glass plate for a story on Lincoln. It is amazing to ponder: a 140 year old piece of 8x10" glass, showing the President and his aides, and still it is with us. Some digital pictures taken yesterday have already been accidently deleted.
Nixon in New York, 1968
Nixon announces his cabinet, 1968
I have pictures dating back forty years (John Kennedy 1963, RFK, 1968, Nixon 1968) and my negatives, while stored in a shoe box for all those years, still have all the information on them which went through my lens at the time. True I wish I'd been better at guiding the light of those images, but that is what growth, progress, and the ability to improve is all about. Yet, if I'm not careful. some of this morning's gigabytes of Michael Phelps winning another Gold medal could easily become toast, if the hard drives on which they are stored have even the slightest hiccup. We search as a group for proper archiving solutions to the digital wave, and so far none really works with the ease of a shoe box. The only thing we now about hard drives is that eventually everyone of them has, or will die. That is a certainty. But there is something about a shoebox which gives you a little confidence that, barring a flooded basement, those pictures will continue to be around for a while.
One of the things which plagues us, those of the cross over generation, is how to bring the old ways of working into the world of new equipment. I schlep the Speed around to the Olympic venues, trying to fake the use of my tripod as a slightly overdone monopod. Tripods are frowned upon, but try and shoot a 4x5 from a monopod: Can't do it. Now and then I am actually able to score an image which just wouldn't look the same, even in digital. There is something about the physics of the big camera that make things just have a different look and a different Bokeh (the "look" of the out of focus elements of the picture... we adore soft and sweet!) Frankly the hardest thing this year is to try and get beyond 2004, and not just mimic it, and it has been a real challenge. Working both systems means you are carrying way too much gear, and that wear-down element starts to slow you down after a while. Last night at the Mens 100m final, I shot with the 4x5 unaware that I hadn't loaded the frickin' film pack. I use 5 Grafmatics, ingenious 1940s design packs which hold six shots, but here is the key news: they only hold six shots IF YOU LOAD THE DAMN FILM! Trusting my lousy intuition is no longer good enough. When in doubt, open up the changing bag and make sure the film is where it's supposed to be. It's the only way to be sure, do it yourself.
On other notes, the logistics are not bad here. The buses run on time and that's the rub. They ONLY run on time. So if there are additional needs (after Track lets out at 11pm) there are still only the same one bus per half hour, instead of a dozen or so to take care of the extra rampaging pressies. As one wag (dont you love that term?) put it.. "The Chinese are pretty good at hitting a fast ball, but if you throw them a curve or a change up.. they have no idea what to do..." I keep thinking, all the 20 something volunteers are doing a pretty fair job: Imagine working this gig in New York, and being able to tell Chinese visitors that the bus will leave in ten minutes, please have a seat while you wait. Wouldn't happen, would it. So cut em a break, and keep on moving. As long as you remain a moving target, you have a chance. I keep looking at the good work done by my colleagues, and it seems like youre in a casino here in the giant Kodak workroom. Dozens of great photographers, all gunning to get THE image. There is always someone winning, somewhere. You hear the noise of the winners slot machine (here, the sounds of cell fones take that role) and you can't imagine not being a part of it. In the end, you feel like everyone around you is a winner, and you are a slacker. That's when you head to the cafe stand, grab a latte, and chill long enough to realize that most of the folks in the room missed that picture, too.
Gymnast Shawn Johnson
I have been growing a beard the last two weeks. It's always an Olympic beard for me since it is the only time I'm gone over two weeks and the beard has a chance to get really scratchy. Iris hates the beard, so its usually shorn within minutes of getting home. But it's almost like little memory of the Olympics, this scratching salt and pepper thing I wear. Mostly salt now. So I make a few pictures with my Ricoh R8 (great little point n shoot camera) just to see how I'm morphing in the three weeks Im here. There are moments I'm happy, some where I'm a bit blue and the little camera is a perfect way to self document oneself without having to actually expose your navel. I have become the master of the one-handed self portrait. It has lead to a frightening self-appraisal: that the shorts I brought (typical, I forgot the others, and have subsisted on one pair for ten days) with great pockets, have that mid calf look which is absolutely appalling. Yet, comfort wins the day since we know that no one really cares, but it can throw you for a loop if you're not careful.
The fashion cops will definately nominate you for a turn on Fashion 911. In fact if any talent scouts are reading this, I think I'm ready for my cameo. We're just sayin...
Ricoh R8, on the bus...
as always, click on a picture to see it full size