Monday, November 23, 2009

Photographing Details and Grasshopper Buzz

Earlier this month I had fun searching for detail photographs, those very selective views extracted with a telephoto lens, while visiting Chengdu in China’s Sichuan province, a bustling and visually chaotic city of 11 million. From past experience I knew that discovering details often reveals small insightful stories about the country I'm traveling in, which I feel is one of the best rewards of travel.

While walking through the park-like Kuanzhai Xiangzi shopping area in the central Chengdu, I heard the melodic sounds of metal tuning forks. Men and women dressed in medical style white coats were sounding them to solicit business from shoppers and tea house customers.

They were the city’s unique ear-cleaners, who carried pockets full of what looked like miniature chimney sweep tools, long wooden and wire handles with knives, scoops and brushes on the end, some tipped with tiny delicate feathers.

I didn’t really want my ears cleaned, especially not in full view of the public, but there was no shortage of others getting comfortable in chairs under shade trees, closing their eyes and slowing displaying the most relaxed expressions on their faces.

I was told the procedure is less a hygienic exercise and more a massage-like experience, with the tools and feathers stimulating acupuncture points within the ear. When the vibrating tuning fork is placed against a brush, the gentle sound deep within the ear has been described as the soft relaxing buzz of a grasshopper.

I encountered another visual detail while visiting the Wenshu Buddhist Temple where visitors were touching, patting and caressing two large brass lions guarding the main hall’s entrance. These mythical male and female lions symbolize defense and protection and guard many building and gateway entrances throughout China.

I knew touching the lions is thought to bring good luck, but these worshipers were also touching the corresponding spot on themselves. A pat on the lion’s worn head, a pat on their head. A brush down the lion’s back, a touch to their own.

A visitor explained to me that it is believed their own physical ailments at those locations would be healed or at least improved with the tactile help of these lions.

Just outside the Wenshu Temple were incense and candle shops and rows of outdoor souvenir stands lining the busy commercial street, a perfect example of the new China. One tiny detail caught my eye, a rack of plastic medallions with bright red braided cord.  In the USA they could pass for either Christmas ornaments or decorations to hang from your car’s rear view mirror.

I loved the juxtaposition - and irony - of  Mao Zedong’s familiar and reassuring portrait being sold next to Buddhist religious icons. China certainly has come a long way since the chaotic Cultural Revolution of the 1960s where no religion or independent thought was tolerated, nor were entrepreneurs allowed to flourish selling anything.

Such a small detail I might have overlooked in the past

When earlier in my career I was shooting news for daily newspapers and later United Press International, I was always looking for that one moment in time that would tell the reader the journalistic touch points of who, what, where and why. Often the best way to do that was with an all encompassing wide angle lens, placing the action in the foreground while maintaining the context of the surroundings. The optics of a wide angle emphasizes what is closest to it, yet it can fit in a lot of real estate left to right, especially if your in tight quarters. A photographer can also create a wonderful three dimensional feeling with a wide angle with graphic lines leading your eye within the image.

I still have that news photographer point of view, a wide angle is my “normal” lens, 24 mm or so, rather than what text books describe as the preferred angle of view, a 50 mm..

But as my client base and photographic interests have broadened, so has my need to capture detail views to be published in print complementing the scene setter, or utilized in multimedia shows depicting movement and time.

And I’m learning more about the world around me ... maybe when I next visit Chengdu I’ll understand the wisdom of  having my ears cleaned.

Here's a link to more editorial photography from Sichuan.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Personalizing A Small Business With Multimedia

When Jana Armstrong came to me in September she had a definite goal for her title insurance company, Miami based Continental Title Services; grow her business and thrive in spite of our current world wide economic slump that has hammered the real estate industry.

She had thought through and articulately put on paper what her small business was all about and why her services were unique, and had distilled the information onto her redesigned web site.

She challenged me to help her differentiate her company's site from the crowd of title insurance company sites competing for attention in South Florida.

I suggested that a multimedia slide show - combining still photographs with recorded interviews - would present her as a real person, warm and approachable, professional and knowledgeable. By utilizing journalistic interview techniques and photographic styles we would place a unique voice and face to all the written material.

We all know from when we were kids with noses buried in the National Geographic that everybody looks at the photos first, then maybe, reads the story. And with the YouTube generation well reasoned sales copy may be skipped over, but two minutes of multimedia may just make the connection.

Here is the finished show, live this week, and link to a larger version.

To create the multimedia slide show we first discussed what handful of key points she wanted to make in a brief 2 minutes 46 seconds, and I interviewed her from a list of questions prepared from those points.

Next was recording ambient sound of their document scanner, keyboards and conversations, and then street traffic and the ocean, to lay a bed of colorful sound under her voice.

I created environmental portraits of her overlooking the financial district’s Brickell Avenue and on Biscayne Bay to place her in the midst of Miami, the vibrant crossroads city.

I shot journalistic photos of her conducting a closing with clients, and then detail shots of hands, papers and CDs to vary the show’s timing and pace.

Capturing a time lapse sequence of Miami Beach skyline from daylight to after dark, and photographing a condominium project described in the interview, added additional visual layers to the narrative, emphasizing her stature in her market area.

And lastly, screen shots grabbed from her web site would mark specific points touched in the audio story.

I loved working with Jana on this project, she being an equal partner in planning the interview, sketching out the story board and shaping the program's pace and tone. And I was able to combine my photographic favorites of environmental portraiture and city skylines with the newfound magic of audio.

Ah, then the really hard part began, post production, editing and mixing the audio, selecting and processing the digital photos, placing the ingredients into more software to set and adjust the time line. For every day in the field, several more are required on the computer to complete a multimedia project.

The results, I feel, humanize the rows of type on a screen in telling Jana Armstrong’s story to the world.

Here's a link to more Miami multimedia photography.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Listening For Photographs and Looking For Sounds

I’ve just returned from more than two weeks traveling in the ethnic Tibetan regions of
Western Sichuan province, the mountainous areas abutting the Tibetan Autonomous Region, as the People’s Republic of China describes what we call the country of Tibet.

This fifth trip to China was my first where I started listening for photographs, and looking for sounds.

When we first drove up a steep hill to the Huiyuan Temple in Bamei, looking down onto a temple carved from the earth, dozens of  spinning prayer wheels and hundreds of Tibetan Buddhist pilgrims marching clockwise, I was overwhelmed and unable to pick up a camera. Just too many sensations to absorb at once. Heck, there were even dozens of young monks swarming all over painting the decorative roof.

I put on my headphones, turned on my tape recorder, attached a microphone and started listening. I heard the shuffling feet, and spin of the wheels. I followed a tinkling bell to the far side, recorded the low chants, creak of the prayer wheel. I noticed the steady thump of walking sticks. I started to see photographs and got to work.

Play the 30 second clip under the photo and experience how the ambient sounds inform the photograph, and how the photo amplifies on the recordings.

After dedicating my entire photographic career to photojournalism and commercial photography by capturing a single image distilling an entire story into a single frame, Henri Cartier-Breasson’s famous “Decisive Moment”, I’ve begun working in multimedia production. I’ve become fascinated with the expanded dimensions of story telling that capturing on scene ambient sounds and interviews with photo subjects add to my still photographs.

Ultimately I will combine the sounds and still photos from Sichuan into a multimedia slide show that will tell a story over time, linear story telling, but that will be a topic of a future post.

At a Tibetan cultural dance festival in Danba I loved photographing these men wearing hats made from wild cat skins ( and hoping they were not endangered species ), yet when I recorded their call and answer singing with their female partners, and their skin boots stomping, the entire experience came alive.

Back in Chengdu, a very laid back and friendly city of 10 million, I was walking through the quiet gardens attached to the Wenshu Temple, one of the largest Buddhist temples in China. It was overcast, air yellow with pollution. Bad light, my photographer side said. While listening to the monks chanting during their mid-day meal, I heard a bird at a distance, and followed the sound. Then more birds, playing off each other, rising and flowing through the trees. I did not recognize them as wild, they were so melodic.

Under the low hanging bamboo trees were six song birds in cages, enjoying the “fresh air”, with their six elderly male owners sitting on stools and animatedly discussing the affairs of the day and the relative skills of their birds. Another combination of photographs with sound.

It all started last summer. For years I’ve  spent a lot of time capturing landscapes and photographing the wildlife in Everglades National Park, using the subtleties of sunrise light or catching the glint in an alligator’s eye to tell my stories. Of course I was aware of the sounds around me, buzz of the insects and calls of the birds. But they were just part of the enjoyment of being out doors, not being in an office cubicle to make a living. But this summer when I ventured into the same familiar wetlands with a tape recorder and shotgun mic, suddenly my visual world really came alive with the sounds that surrounded me. A thunder storm, rain drops and running water said “Everglades” in a way none of my photos ever had.

Be warned, it's three minutes long.

I was unable to post to this blog while in China, as the government has blocked practically all access to social media from within the country, including Blogger, Face Book and Twitter. An internet search from within China yielded complicated articles on how to use proxy servers to read and post to overseas blogs, but I decided that was way too complicated while I was working up to 14 hour days and sleeping poorly at 10, 000 feet.

Heck, the PRC has even blocked access to the iTunes store, making it impossible to catch up on the National Public Radio shows such as “Car Talk” that I missed!

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