Friday, October 9, 2009

Lessons From Chinese Breezes

 I have two sides to my working personality, and I think most people do too. One side rational, the other side emotional. Organized and disorganized. Hard working and lazy.

Two photographs that I've taken in China illustrate my different sides and have taught me two lessons about capturing great photos while traveling. First, work really hard, do your homework and be persistent. Secondly, don't worry about outside forces and be flexible.

Shanghai is an amazing city to say the least, a perfect example of China's new "Capitalism with Chinese Characteristics", and nothing exemplifies that better than along The Bund, the promenade above the western bank of the Huangpu River facing the towering skyscrapers of the Pudong District.

The Bund is within the former Shanghai International Settlement and is fronted with colonial era buildings that before 1948 housed Western Banks, trading offices and foreign consulates, embracing centuries of Chinese history. Today, thousands every morning keep Chinese traditions alive by performing tai chi, exercising and strolling. The skyscrapers, some the tallest in the world, across the river represent the booming economy of China.

Planning before my trip dictated the obvious photo opportunity, and I returned to The Bund early every morning for four days running. I noticed older men flying elaborate kites each day, their dancing toys way to high to make a picture. Finally, on the last day, just as the sun was rising, I made the image I felt captured both the traditional and booming China.

On the same trip, my friend Nancy Brown and I were invited by the Huaguang Photography Art College in Fujian Province to share our photography and be liaisons with the Art Institute of Ft. Lauderdale. 

The college is located in the city of Quanzhou, a city of over seven million, and is not exactly a hot tourism destination. The one place we found in a guide book with picture potential was a puppet making industry, so we asked our hosts to set up a visit. They promised for four days that it would be no problem.

On our last day, we were told we were finally off to the puppets, but first a few stops that the city fathers and school officials, who were financing our trip within China, wanted to show off. First, the electrical cord factory. Second, a rusty ship yard. Third, a mosque that consisted of mounds of rubble. Then, a decorative paper cutting workshop. Don't worry, the reassured us, the puppets are awaiting.

Then, off to see a monument. At that point Nancy and I protested and complained, as politely as we could that we were tired of the dog and pony show. No, the monument we must see !

When we approach the monument, reportedly the largest in China, of Zheng Chenggong, a 17th century Chinese national hero, we were amazed by the scene. And this complainer caught the perfect moment of a woman flying a tiny kite under the giant horseman.

As for the puppets, the factory was closed when we finally arrived, but by then it didn't matter as I had already let go of my agenda and captured the unplanned.

Here's a link to see more editorial photography from China.

Garbage Dump Challenge and an Old Promise

Last week I was tasked with creating interesting environmental portraits and progress photographs at a garbage dump for new client Brenda Westhorp, owner of Westhorp & Associates , a firm of civil and environmental engineers and scientists.

My challenge was to place Brenda in the context of the landfill, make it graphically pleasing, avoid
any messy details entailing garbage, and have her look great and in charge. We picked a quiet spot on
the far Eastern edge up against a filtering wetland near Biscayne Bay, she climbed up on a manhole covering a leaching water sump, leaving in the weeds and wildflowers to say the facility is "green".

I then cued the turkey buzzards, asking them to fly around in the background as local color.

Letting the existing sunlight back light her and popping in flash from the front to balance, I laid on my back in the dirt while Brenda posed patiently in the 95 degree sun. Many thanks to the Department of Solid Waste garbage truck drivers who patiently maneuvered around us on the narrow access dike.

Her company is completing a complex multimillion dollar project to cap off a section of the Miami-Dade County Land Fill that is full to the brim with our garbage, and to keep all the leaching water and escaping gasses away from us for eternity. They are laying plastic liner, then sand and a permeable fabric to hold topsoil, and a new grassy field will crown the 150 foot structure.

Around South Florida the land fill near Homestead has been called" Mount Trashmore ",
and folk lore designates it as the the tallest point in Florida south of Tallahassee.

Creative people such as photographers hope they are chosen for their jobs because of some special insight they may impart, good people skills or specialized training. Like possibly I was hired for this shoot by an engineering firm because I have a Bachelor of Science degree in Electrical Engineering ?

Sorry, but no, that degree is my secret and the promises I made to earn it I keep to this day. I was in my Senior year at Gonzaga University back in the 1970s, and was failing a required mechanical engineering course called Dynamics. Fulcrums and levers, forces and counter forces. So I went to my professor, told him how I did not want to be an engineer but a photographer, though I still needed
to earn my degree. What could he do ?

He thought a minute, opened his desk drawer and pulled out a Bible ( it being a Catholic school ), and told me that if I swore on that Bible that I would never practice as an engineer, he would give me a barely passing grade.

So there I was 30 years later, standing on top of the tallest mountain south of Tallahassee, practicing as a photographer and not as an engineer.

Here's a link to more Miami corporate photography and portraits.