Category Archives: Blog

Competitions

It was bound to happen. I was in pretty deep—skipping work, trolling through all manner of neighborhoods, wandering down alleys, trying to score the perfect shot.

Then Jodi told me about the HOT Fair photography competition. They had categories and stuff. Just what I needed—an incentive to escalate my monomania.

Not that I’m competitive. No more so than the next man. Assuming the next man is Homer Simpson. Let’s put it this way. You know how some dads let their kids win at games?

I remember the day I beat my dad at chess. You think I would remember that moment almost 50 years later if he was in the habit of letting me win? No, he made that moment special with the knowledge that if I beat him, it was because I had earned it.

That’s part of the job of being a dad—to prepare your kids for the real world. Nobody’s going to hand it to them on a platter.

[note to self, find the fisher waiting for the firetruck photo]

One day I showed The Wiz a photo of my penultimate grandkid sitting on the curb. “He heard a firetruck. He’s waiting for it pass by.”

“You’re the granddad. It’s your job to go find that truck and make it pass by his house.”

“Nope. It’s my job to make sure he knows that you don’t see firetrucks by sitting on the sidelines waiting for them to come to to you. You have to go out and find them.”

[note to self, look at notebooks and albums for competition details]

 

But we’re talking about the HOT Fair photography competition. The deadline was only a few days away. I pored over my existing prints and then roamed the town and surrounding environs to fill in the gaps, burning through 24- and 36-exposure rolls like a pyromaniac. I submitted an entry for every category except flowers, but everyone knew that category was only for pansies. (I know it’s not a PC joke, but really the pun was just hanging there and I couldn’t resist.)

When the fair opened, I rushed to the photography tent. Jodi was there, not especially pleased to see me or my photos. She would have won a few categories if she hadn’t told me about the competition.

I was walking along, seeking out my entries, when I came upon a clutch of girls clustered around a photo.

“That’s him, Brenda.”
“Not it’s not.”
“Really. Tell her, Stacy.”
“Tell her what?”
“That’s David Koresh.”

I looked where she pointed. It was the self-portrait I had entered into the competition, decorated with a second-place ribbon. I was particularly proud of this shot because of what I had set out to do.

I set up the camera on a tripod in front of the house in bright sunlight, had SpyMan sit on the steps and shade his eyes. I then metered the shadow and set the f-stop wide for a shallow field of depth and a fast shutter speed to correctly expose the eyes. Then we traded places and he snapped the picture. As I anticipated, most of the detail was washed out, and the background faded into white.

http://www.wrs.vcu.edu/Pics/BranchDavidians1.pnghttp://bradwhittington.com/wunderfool/images/w3.jpg

I released a silent cheer and backed away quietly before the girls noticed me. Koresh had come to a fiery end six months earlier, and I was afraid if they turned around and saw me standing there, they would freak.

A few years later I was doing computer work for a camera/photography store when I noticed they had a  competition with a deadline in two weeks. All entries had to be shot on Fuji color or Ilford black-and-white. I bought several rolls of each and spent the next ten days scouring the town for photos.

I told Nelson, a co-worker, about the contest. I’d been beating him at the HOT Fair competition for the last few years and he was out for revenge.

[nelson eyeball photo?]

Two weeks later, Nelson won in the flower category. I took first or second in the rest and won the $500 grand prize with what is likely the best photo I’ve taken.

[photos of the competition]

Which meant that after the cost of film, processing, enlarging, and matting, I basically broke even. I don’t think Nelson wanted it bad enough. Maybe he had the wrong grandpa.

The firetruck isn’t going to come to you unless you’re on fire.

 

 

Wandering Near

When the photography bug bites, you go wandering. How far you go depends on the length of your leash.

The truth is, if you have the right vision and the right lens, you can find a wealth of images without leaving your house. But rare is the man who has the vision to limit his scope. To find the profound in the prosaic.

Common wisdom tells us that to capture grand images, one must have a grand subject. Ansel Adams and Yellowstone. Any National Geographic magazine you’ve ever seen. How can you capture the captivating story in a pedestrian setting?

Special wisdom tells us that grandness can be found in small things, but who among us can attain this level of awareness without effort? The memory of Eden fades as we claw our living out of the unforgiving soil. How long did it take for the children of Israel to forget the oppression of their Egyptian taskmasters and yearn for the fleshpots of their captivity? Humans are incredibly dense. It is the way of our people.

I had learned the lesson of finding the profound in the prosaic back in Fred, but I am of the denser sort of my race. It had only been a decade or so since I had wielded a camera with a solid purpose, but it seems that I had to learn my lessons over and over until they were ground into my consciousness.

It came down to the length of my leash. First and most important, I had lassoed a star—The Woman. Only a fool would stray from such a luminary, and though I was, and remain, a fool, I was not such a fool as to forsake my pole star. And there was the matter of the kids. I was well and truly anchored and with no regrets. I might be a fool, but I was no fool.

So I turned my attention to the radius of my delimited world. The longing of a domesticated canine contemplating the length of his leash. The tension between three squares a day and the great unknown that beckoned from the other side of the screen door.

[Inside looking out dog]

The sacred  geometrical rite of loading the dishwasher.

[ditto]

The mystical mist of a sprinkler in summer.

[ditto]

The convergence of a freshly plowed field.

[ditto]

The weathered shake shingles over a  window.

[ditto]

The primary palette of a robotic fire hydrant.

[ditto]

The chance sighting of Marty Feldman’s spiritual grandson at the t-ball game.

[ditto]

The ascendant motion of a vent pipe in an alley.

[ditto]

The Fibonacci curve of a spiral staircase.

[x]

The evanescent fluff of a weed in summer.

[x]

Of course. to capture such images I had to dip into the realm of the technical, the domain of my father. But I must confess that I learned only as much as required to tell the static story of a moment frozen in time. Depth of field through the proper selection of an f-stop, frozen motion by virtue of a fast shutter, blurred motion via the slow shutter, the delicate balance of aperture versus time. I was never a technician. I would never be an Ansel Adams or an Ernst Haas.

But sometimes life conspired to widen my palette.

 

 

The Next Camera

Fifteen years after my first tentative steps into photography, The Woman did what she does. Out of the blue, she bought me a camera for my birthday.

I hadn’t asked for a camera, hadn’t even talked about photography. She just bought the dang thing and who knows why.

Here’s a life tip for you. If you’re in the market for a wife, forget the Hollywood glam-mag fantasy images of some impossible vision of physical perfection. Look for The Woman of your generation. Selfless. Generous. Ebullient. Full of life and as giving as life itself. Look for someone who is better than you could ever think of being, and then spend a lifetime trying to be worthy of that transcendent vision. Count yourself lucky if you have the good fortune to capture lightining in a bottle. Live with her day-by-day, sharing a breath of the same air, walking side-by-side with true grace of the spirit. Do your best to avoid snuffing out that flame of eternity. Rinse and repeat.

But, as I was saying, she bought me a camera. A Canon AE-1. I was mystified, but I didn’t let that hold me back. In fact, I went crazy.

She might have had occasion to regret the gift. After a few rolls and a decade-and-a-half beyond my initiation with the Argus C3, I rediscovered the seduction of life from behind the viewfinder.  I can’t count the times I threw myself prostrate on the floor or the street, or hung out over empty space, to acquire the right angle.

For the perfect shot of the Peeping Tom

[Peeping Tom]

Or The Good Daughter

[F-16]

Or The Number One Son

[Goggles]

A photograph is the antithetical symbiosis of jazz. Photography is skill and inspiration frozen in time. Jazz is skill and inspiration experienced in the evanescent moment, best if absorbed, diminished by the attempt to capture it. Both are an exercise in simultaneously embracing and letting go.

And that is the lesson of life.  A balance of owning and releasing.

As a wise man once said, you have to hold it loosely.

 

In For A Penny

There’s a thing about a real camera. It’s seductive. One minute you’re ripping off snapshots, the next you’re trolling the neighborhood for real shots.

The snowstorm offered obvious opportunity and I took advantage.

[snow pics]

But such photos are child’s play. Anybody can capture a compelling scene if it’s been airbrushed by nature for the purpose. Snowstorms are rare in Fred, Texas, and when the photogenic layer melted away, the easy targets evaporated.

Without the softening layer of snow to provide the glam-photo landscape shot, I was at a loss. In my view, my environment didn’t offer the best subjects for dramatic portraits. As a student of National Geographic, I envisioned grand vistas, exotic locales. How could I take great photos without great subjects?

Some have said that familiarity breeds contempt. I say that familiarity engenders blindness. For the creative mind, familiarity is the curse of existence. We live with a thing to the point that we can no longer see it for what it is.

For the prosaic, an ear is an ear. But but when properly considered, the whorls and caverns of an ear embody a wealth of nuance and design. Given time and opportunity, a thoughtful mind can get lost in its intricacies.

Thus it comes as no surprise that my omnivorous mind sought out less predictable targets, and suddenly the small world of Fred opened up to me.

A few shots from my nascent photographic explorations survive.

[Other Fred shots]

It took me a few decades to translate that experience from image to words in the form of the Fred books, but it was a lesson that would serve me well.  And I commend such thoughtful cross-discipline considerations to the general populace.

Forget thinking outside the box. There is no box. Dare to think. Dare to do.

 

The Wheelbarrow

The Red Wheelbarrow
William Carlos Williams

 so much depends
upon

a red wheel
barrow

glazed with rain
water

beside the white
chickens

In 1974, winter hit Fred, Texas, morphing the landscape into an alien world, an ice planet that mocked the wardrobe of the average citizen.

But I was not an average citizen. I had survived the Yankee Exile, served my time at the pleasure of the American Gulag in the land that was high in the middle and round on both ends. I had the wardrobe. And I had a camera.

Actually, it was Dad’s Argus C3, but who was counting?

It had been a year that had rocked the nation. In the heat of summer, Nixon had become the first (and only) president to resign from office. The long national nightmare was over. A month later, Ford pardoned Nixon, prolonging the delirium tremens for the more rabid of his enemies, but as a teenager informed by the satiric stylings of The National Lampoon Radio Show, I saw the whole melodrama as more of a comic farce.

The sturm und drang of the Passion of the President seemed as relevant to my everyday existence as a lover’s quarrel between the captain of the football team and the head cheerleader. I was as likely to stumble into a fairy tale cast as the knight in shining armor as to peer into the machinery of such exalted proceedings.

With one exception. The  lottery held every winter—the day you discovered your odds of being drafted—was controlled by the President.

Like every other America teenage male, I watched the televised proceedings, tracking the likelihood that James Taylor and I would be pressed into service. It was a roller coaster ride. (Although I was pretty sure JT was safe. He had a history that rendered him an unlikely candidate. I, on the other hand, lacked access to the Class A pharmaceuticals that might grant me a similar immunity.)

The first year of the lottery I drew 24, a sure thing for being drafted if I were not four years away from being eligible. Still, it was sobering. The second year I got 254 and breathed a sigh of relief. The third year I got 44. I was still a year away from being eligible, with a whole new drawing a year away to give me a new number, but the threat was becoming more real by the moment.

The next drawing would be for keeps.

Then the unthinkable happened. The next winter, the draft, which had been in place since WWII, was abolished. What else could Nixon do to me? Not much as it turned out. Seven months later he resigned.

By then I was in my first semester of college, enjoying a second level of liberation. There’s a thing thing about being a preacher’s kid. You live in a fishbowl, every aspect of your life under the scrutiny of the general populace. When I went off to college, I left that behind. I was just another citizen.

It’s hard for the average citizen to understand how liberating it is to suddenly find yourself an average citizen. Or how daunting the challenge of redefining yourself. There are so many options. So many potential landmines.  And I stepped on a few.

Given my default operating position as an observer and my father’s lifelong interest in photography, it’s not surprising that I found the appeal of a life behind the viewfinder.

I had escaped the horror of war. I had been afforded the luxury of redefining myself. The future was a blank canvas awaiting my first brush strokes. And the uncharacteristic ice storm in Fred, Texas, offered me a spartan palette for the purpose.

I was born during an equally singular ice storm in Fort Worth. Now, eighteen years later, I spied the wheelbarrow abandoned behind the pump house. Somebody, probably me, had left it out.

Countless times I had hauled dirt and sod in that wheelbarrow while helping Dad implement his perpetual mission to leave both the physical and spiritual world better than he found it.

The clean lines of shed and shadow, of wheel and handle against a pristine layer of snow called to me. I donned a coat, grabbed the Argus C3 and light meter, and stepped into the cold.

Wheelbarrow

Evidently Dad had felt the same urge two decades earlier during an ice storm in Fort Worth while attending the seminary.

IceTree

He obviously had the advantage of years of expertise in technique, but I’ve heard it’s better to be lucky than to be good. I had the advantage of a better subject.

But I can’t help but think that we shared a propensity toward life behind the viewfinder, searching for beauty and purpose in this fallen world.

 

Photomicrography Low-Tech Style

My first exposure to photography was prompted by the need to have something to present at a science fair. Three guesses who came up with photomicrography. Obviously not me, since I had never heard of it.

Of course, we had a microscope. I mean, who doesn’t? Here we were in Fred, Texas in 1972 and we didn’t have a shotgun or a fishing pole or a football, but we had a microscope. We also had an International Harvester tractor, but that was an aberration.

Dad had his Argus C3, a cable for triggering time exposures, and a tripod. Everything a growing boy needs for his science project. The drama that ensued was one of many of Dad’s lessons in creativity and perseverance.

Warning: We now venture into the realm of technical detail.

We set up the microscope on the kitchen table, pointed it at a human hair (mine), and positioned the camera above it. There was the matter of focusing, but Dad was all over it like a tick on a June bug.

Step 1: Focus the image in the microscope.

Step 2: Set the focus on the camera at infinity.

Step 3: Track the light coming out of the eyepiece of the microscope by raising and lowering a sheet of paper until you find the point where the circle is smallest.

Step 4: Position the lens of the camera at that point.

Step 5: Take a half-dozen or so time-exposure shots of varying duration, from one to ten seconds. Repeat for the next subject.

Step 6: Take the film to Silsbee (the nearest town sixteen miles away) to be processed.

We got back 24 photos of a white rabbit in a snowstorm. I was mystified. Not surprising since everything about the process was as foreign to me as a date with the head cheerleader.

Dad deduced that the culprit was the ambient light in the room. He fashioned a tube from a toilet paper roll, taped a flat piece of cardboard at the bottom with a hole just big enough to fit over the eyepiece of the microscope, and stuffed black cloth around the top.

Twenty-four hours later we had a set of prints featuring a blurry human hair in a circle of light on a black field. It became obvious that if we were to rely on a trial-and-error approach, we required a shorter time between the T and the E.

No problem. All we needed was our own personal darkroom. However, we ran into a scheduling problem. To be precise, outfitting a darkroom wasn’t going to happen on a preacher’s salary in a million years, and the science fair was just a week away.

As I pictured my academic career disintegrating before my eyes, Dad announced that we might be able to pull it off with a Polaroid. I pointed out that we had Polaroids and darkrooms in equal quantity, but Dad was too busy explaining that while such a camera lacked everything that the true photographer desired, it delivered the one feature that we required: instant feedback.

The next day he walked in with a borrowed Polaroid and two packs of film. We were in business. That is, until the first few attempts produced a reasonable representation of a black bunny on a moonless night. It turned out that the Polaroid was fully automatic. Holding down the button didn’t hold the aperture open like it did on the Argus C3.

Dad explained the problem. “With a real camera, you pick an f-stop and then use a light meter to set the length of the exposure. Somehow the Polaroid figures all that out for you. But how do it know?”***

He examined the front of the camera and noticed a small lens next to the main lens. “Ah, a built-in light meter.” He then used tape and cardboard to fashion a cover for the light meter that could be pulled away without disturbing the set up.

A few minutes later we had our first successful image. In a few hours I had everything I needed to build a display for the science fair.

[Photos from microscope.]

Even so, the experience failed to endear me to photography as a pastime. That came later.


*** A mechanic, a sales guy, and a redneck are discussing the greatest invention ever.

The mechanic says, “It’s the automobile. It gave us mobility and changed society forever.”

The sales guy says, “No, it was the telephone. It revolutionized communications, made anyone accessible to anyone else, anywhere in the world.”

The redneck says, “It’s the thermos.”

The other two say, “How is that?”

The redneck says, “Well when you put something hot in there it stays hot right?”

The mechanic says, “Yeah.”

“And when you put something cold in there it stays cold right?”

The sales guy says, “Of course, it’s a thermos.”

The redneck says, “But how do it know?”

 

The Camera

[Image Argus C3]

Dad was 10 when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and when his brother died at Guadalcanal. He was 14 when the US bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the Japanese surrendered. He was 21 when a WWII hero beat out an intellectual liberal to break the 20-year hold the Democrats had on the presidency.

He’d married my mother the year before. A few years later the kids showed up, two years apart in stair-step fashion. It  was the Fifties, the golden age of the slide projector.

[perhaps a video of vacation slide shows?]

Somewhere along the way he bought an Argus C3, The Brick, a solid little workhorse that was one of the most popular cameras ever produced.

Of course he started off with film, but a guy in the Fifties with a new family and a fascination with technology isn’t going to be satisfied stuffing scallop-edged prints into the little stick-on photo corners mashed onto the coarse black pages of a photo album.

A real man planted the tripod opposite the couch in front of the picture window (drapes drawn), extended the vertical bar, raised the silver screen, and looped the triangular handle over the hook. Then he positioned the slide projector on the coffee table, adjusting the front leg to target the center of the screen, loaded a tray of slides, and signaled a kid to kill the lights. Popcorn optional.

And boy did we have slides. Baby pics. First step pics. Birthday photos with the party hat and the candles. And then came the vacation slideshows.The Henry Ford Museum. The Statue of Liberty. The Smithsonian. The Grand Canyon. The Petrified Forest. The Arizona Meteor Crater (which could contain the entire town of Fred, Texas). Redwood National Park. Disneyland. We managed to hit the park on July 4, 1972, so the fireworks and the Parade of Lights were particularly impressive, and by then Dad was quite accomplished in managing exposures. Unfortunately, all those photos were lost in a multitude of moves.

A few years later I caught the bug and burned a few rolls of film myself. But that’s another story.

Life, Jazz, and Cameras

“Life is a lot like jazz. It’s best when you improvise.” – George Gershwin

And jazz is best experienced live in a small club packed with true believers.

Then amazing, astounding things happen. Feats of prodigious skill and imagination. Allusions that make you laugh.  Soulful passages that pull a sigh out of you. Whispered melodies that move you to tears. All magnified by the energy of live music, the voyeuristic intimacy  of artists engaged in musical conversation, the realization that this thing unfolding before you in this sanctuary has never happened before and will never happen again.

For a brief moment you wonder how you can capture the lightining and immediately realize it’s like trapping a firefly in a jar. To try to own it is to kill it.

Instead, if you’re wise, you let it own you. You ride the roller coaster, face turned to the sky, hands raised to the heavens. And afterward, when you unbuckle the seat belt and climb out onto the platform, simultaneously exhilarated and enervated, you smile with gratitude.

If you’ve never held a ticket for this roller coaster, come down to Austin on a Tuesday and I’ll sponsor you into this select fraternity. Festivities begin at 10 p.m. Prepare to hang for a few hours in the swirling maelstrom of the mystery of humanity and discover a different plane of spirituality wrapped up in the mathematics of chaos. Or just dig the amazing skill of three musicians at the top of their game.

I’m talking about Ephraim Owens, high priest of soulful jazz, Red Young, the Einstein of the Hammond B3, and Brannen Temple, percussive genius, all mixing it up in a way that will confound anything you may have experienced up to now.

If you want to take a different trip into life, come a few hours earlier to encounter James McMurtry. Not jazz, but an equally captivating and transcendent journey.

The point is that live jazz is a microcosm of life—best lived moment by moment and somehow diminished when encased in vinyl or cellophane or silicon.

The best of life is lived in the moment and savored in memory.

So what is it about a camera, because that is what we’re talking about, as you will discover, that calls to a man, urging him to forgo living the experience for the process of documenting the experience?

I can’t speak for my father, who emmersed himself in the discipline, but I know that life conspired to mold me into an observer rather than a participant. In addition to my nature, my peripatetic existence as a preacher’s kid (much like that of a military kid in this regard) aborted my feeble attempts at bonding with my peers. And when I finally achieved geographical stasis in my teen years, my academic leanings and lack of interest in hunting, fishing, or sports created a vast gulf between me and the denizens of the small East Texas town where I landed. And the preacher’s kid thing didn’t help either.

Playing the role of the observer. It is my besetting sin and the role I have spent a lifetime both embracing and attempting to surmount.

When you walk into a room, do you immediately gravitate to the center of the action or drift to the periphery and watch? If you embrace the latter, then I welcome you as a fellow citizen of that high desert. I have learned to play the court jester, but nature and nurture have formed me for an observer and chronicler of life as she is lived. Long before I sat down to write novels, I set out to capture the world from the back side of a lens.

Perhaps Dad had similar motivations. Or maybe he just liked cameras.

There’s this thing about my dad. He was born in Port Arthur, in the same town as Janis Joplin but twelve years before and a whole world away.

Space doesn’t permit me to establish the Southern Gothic setting of his derivation, but as the youngest in a family of two girls and four boys, he emerged as a polymath, six semester hours short of a doctorate, one of six people in North America who could read Sumerian cuneiform. His voracious curiosity couldn’t be constrained. It ranged from astronomy and cosmology to  theology, metallurgy, mechanical engineering, agronomy, and who knows what else,

So it is no surprise that he was captivated by the potential of the camera and embraced it and all its technical accouterments. I wish I could ask him what drew him to the back side of the lens, but I squandered that chance, living life and making my own way in the world.

Late in life I have come to the realization that of the many things we shared, photography looms large, even though we never discussed it. Perhaps if we had also shared a love of jazz, we might have found ourselves one night marinating in the primeval soup of that expression of life and could have ventured into a discussion of photography, and then I could tell you what drew him to the practice of recording life as an observer.

All I can say for sure is that it is something we shared separately. As was his nature, he embraced the technical side of it. As is my nature, I embraced the story of it.

And therein lies the story.

*If you want a sense of the man, check out the foreword to Living with Fred, and then click on the Richard Whittington link to see who showed up for his funeral. The most telling anecdote is the one from  my cousin Beau Vincent. Over a decade later I cannot read it without misting up. I may be a crusty old reptile, but even crocodiles shed tears.

The Camera Index

1. Life, Cameras, and Jazz
2. The camera (camera, slides)
3. Photomicrography Low-Tech Style (microscope shots)
4. The Wheelbarrow (Snow shots)
5. In for a Penny (Fred shots)
6. The Next Camera (Peeping Tom, The Good Daughter (F19), The #1 Son (Googles))
7. Wandering Near
8. Wandering Far (Colorado, Mexico)
9. Getting Serious, Art photos (Rocky and Bullwinkle)
10. Competitions
11. Exhibitions
12. Darkroom
13. Shooting on Spec
14. Cold Turkey
15. Paradise
16. Cell Phone