Two photographers sit behind a camera and tripod at Zabriskie Point, Death Valley National Park
In the midst of sharing many photographs from my most recent Death Valley visit near the end of March and the start of April this year, I happened to be looking at website logs when I saw a link to this photograph from way back in 2007. I hadn’t thought about it for a while, so it was fun to get the reminder — and to have an excuse to rework it just a little bit and share it once again.
I had ended up at Zabriskie on this early April morning, and it turned out to be a morning of lovely light, though nothing far out of the ordinary, as I recall. My recollection is that as I waited to see if something more interesting would happen I thought about switching my focus to the other people who were there, and I ended up photographing quite a few of them — solitary figures silhouetted on the ridge above me, rows of photographers lined up at the edge of the drop-off, and a few individuals and small groups here and there. These two people were part of a slightly larger group, and they also seemed to be awaiting the hoped-for special light. I was intrigued by their patience and by the way they leaned in towards one another, and by the visual contrast between her light-colored jacket and his much darker clothing. In order to let the focus be on them rather than on the landscape, I exposed to let the distant subjects become quite light and then decided to render the image in black and white.
The Getty Center, much like similar places where a lot of people collect and do interesting things, it a great place for shoot-from-the-hip photography. You keep your eyes open and keep the camera ready, and when you least expect it something worth photographing pops up, often for only a brief moment.
I don’t know if others will see it, but for me there is something intriguing and perhaps every so slightly “off” about elements of this little scene. The glowing white walls seems like something from the future. The woman against the wall seems to have one eye covered and the fellow at the far, who is only half seen, is standing and facing that bright white wall. The colors of the shirts on the two children relate in an interesting way, and one of them tilts off-kilter. There is something a bit odd about the two guys conversing at the right — something about their stances, the distance between them, and the body language.
Symphony Silicon Valley violist Janet Sims at a June, 2014 rehearsal
This weekend I am sharing two more photographs from my ongoing project photographing professional classical musicians, a three-year project during which I have the opportunity to attend many rehearsals and concerts and generally spend a lot of time learning to see and understand this world. (I already understood more than most since I’ve been part of it in several ways for many years.) Both of these photographs are casual shots made during rehearsals. Such photos remind us of several things, I think. First, it is possible to get some odd ideas about who the musicians are if your only experience is seeing them in formal concert situations — but backstage and during rehearsals… they are “regular people” just like all of us. Second, and from the same perspective, it is easy to overlook that fact that the vast majority of the work necessary for a live performance is actually done outside of the performance, with often intense and lengthy periods of individual practice and preparation and significant time spent on group rehearsal. And, finally, in both of these photographs I think you will see the intense focus of these musicians. Janet Sims is a first-stand violist in the Symphony Silicon Valley.
Symphony Silicon Valley principal French hornist Meredith Brown
This weekend I am sharing two more photographs from my ongoing project photographing professional classical musicians, a three-year project during which I have the opportunity to attend many rehearsals and concerts and generally spend a lot of time learning to see and understand this world. (I already understood more than most since I’ve been part of it in several ways for many years.) Both of these photographs are casual shots made during rehearsals. Such photos remind us of several things, I think. First, it is possible to get some odd ideas about who the musicians are if your only experience is seeing them in formal concert situations — but backstage and during rehearsals… they are “regular people” just like all of us. Second, and from the same perspective, it is easy to overlook that fact that the vast majority of the work necessary for a live performance is actually done outside of the performance, with often intense and lengthy periods of individual practice and preparation and significant time spent on group rehearsal. And, finally, in both of these photographs I think you will see the intense focus of these musicians. Meredith Brown is the principal French hornist of the Symphony Silicon Valley.
A man at a crosswalk extends his arms as a bus passes
On Friday the 13th I spent part of my morning walking around and photographing in San Francisco, starting very early at about 7:00 AM, and making a large loop that eventually took me back to the Caltrain station and out of the city before noon. This photograph was a quick shot at a corner along Market Street.
I do this kind of shooting for may reasons, among them being simply that I’m interested in more than just “nature” photography and I am fascinated by the urban landscape, too. (There’s also a deeper philosophical question about just where boundaries between “natural” and “not natural” actually do and do not lie.) When it comes to the process of how I photograph, this work also provides a sometimes-welcome contrast. Most of the work shared here is created by going out with some amount of equipment that typically includes lenses, camera, tripod, and more and then finding more or less static locations from which to shoot. On the other hand, photography like that which I did on this day is more dynamic and fluid. I work with a small handheld camera, carrying only a rather small messenger bag with two more small lenses, and keeping the camera out and ready to shoot in an instant. Sometimes I may work a subject more slowly, but I also sometimes simply raise the camera quickly and almost without conscious thought and make an exposure. In fact, in some situations like this one, that is the only option. There was almost no time to think at all in this case. Without warning I found myself standing behind this fellow who spontaneously put his arms out, in a gesture that is open to many interpretations. The camera was in my hand, I quickly raised it and shot without looking through the viewfinder, making perhaps three quick exposures, one of which included the blurred shape of the bus beyond him, without which this would have been a very different photograph.
George Cleve conducts the Symphony Silicon Valley in rehearsal
Bear with me. This may be a long story. I’ll start with some basic facts concerning this photograph. As some of you may know, I have been working on a long-term project to photograph classical musicians. This is related to a sabbatical project at my college, and one goal is to document aspects of the lives and works of classical musicians that might not typically be seen by those who only get to come to see performances. For this purpose, I have been “embedded” with a couple of groups for over a year. It has been a great opportunity, and I’m grateful to the musicians and others who work with them for allowing me a kind of access to their lives and work that they might not afford to just anyone. It helps that I know many of them, that I’m married to one of these musicians, that my academic training is in music, and that I used to perform with people like these. All of that also helps me be sensitive to things that other photographers might not as easily see. (This is a long story in and of itself, and I’ll save that for later.)
The conductor of this concert “set” is George Cleve. His name is not exactly a household word, but his experience and skill and musical sensitivity is of the highest level. My experience with George goes back many years, to a time when he conducted orchestras in which I occasionally played (San Jose Symphony and the Midsummer Mozart Festival Orchestra) and one for which I served as orchestra stage director for a few years. In a surprising coincidence I even took a conducting class from him when I was an under-graduate music major “back in the day.”
Conductors are not always patient people, and there are many reasons that this can be the case. The work they do is unlike almost any other work that I can imagine. Even though I’ve been around music for many years, I still find it difficult to offer a really good description of the complexity of the role—which includes elements of ring-master, leader, coordinator, passionate interpreter, analytical listener and teacher, and much more. Truly watching a skillful conductor—and preferably not while performing, but instead while your full attention can be on the watching—is an illuminating experience. From the visual perspective of a photographer, the appearance of the conductor is in a continuous state of flux. His or her facial expressions change faster than you can follow, and subtle movements—a quick glance, a hint of a smile, a momentary intensity, a curving motion of the hand—convey things in a fluid way.
But I have one more story about George, and it involves that conducting class. His was an intimidating presence for young music students. I recall him at one of the first classes asking, “You do all have the nine symphonies of Beethoven committed to memory, right?” Wrong! Though we quickly set about trying. (That task takes far longer than a college term!) I recall a day when we were to individually conduct the second movement of the 6th symphony for him. As I remember it, we entered the room alone to face him and conduct as a pianist played a reduction of the score. One after another nervous students entered and soon emerged from the room, often seemingly crushed by the realization of how little they understood what they had to do. It was my turn. I entered and faced him and began to conduct. In my recollection, which is probably no longer completely accurate, he quickly stopped me and said something along the lines of, “No, no, no!” But then, for reasons I never quite understood, he gave me a musical gift that I did not expect and which has remained with me since then. Instead of telling me I was done, he said, “Watch me.” Standing a few feet in front of me and conducting as if the full symphony was where I stood, he put on the full show for me, intensity of expression, cues to all, the perfect physical expression of what did and could happen in the music, and I saw what it actually might mean to understand and lead such a performance of such a piece… even if I never learned to do so even close to his level.
This week, at the rehearsals that included a different Beethoven symphony, I finally had the opportunity, decades later, to thank him for that gift.
From my ongoing project photographing classical musicians that their world, this photograph of conductor Karen Kamensek comes from a recent performance of the Symphony Silicon Valley, one of the groups I have been working with. (One reason for this project is my hope to expose people who are not familiar with this world to a bit more of its reality, ranging from the sometimes mundane aspects of the work to the aspects that reflect the intensity, dedication, and incredible work that isn’t so easy to see directly.)
All performers in this world distill their technical skills and emotional/aesthetic focus to levels not often experienced by those in more prosaic lines of work. If you have the opportunity to watch closely—as I have, both as a former performing musician myself and now as a photographer—you begin to see subtleties that are difficult if not impossible to see from the audience during a performance. Or, people might see them, but only small parts of them and only for brief moments. The conductor provides a more visible example of what can be seen among all of the performers. A huge number of factors are simultaneously at work—tempo, expression, technical issues of timing and balance and intonation—and all of this unfolds rapidly and inexorably as the music moves forward in time. And the conductor must express (or, often, over-express) all of these things visually, often simultaneously signaling things about to happen, being in the moment of things happening now, and even responding to things that have just occurred.