Go Find a Mockingbird

Would you recognize the sound of a mockingbird if you heard one? I’m not sure I would. It’s the state bird of Tennessee and Mississippi so I’ve seen and heard a lot of them, it’s just I’ve never paid them too much attention. Their gray feathers don’t call out to me the way the brightly colored feathers of a cardinal or blue jay do.

All that changed the other day when walking back to my car after a family photo shoot. When entering the parking lot, I noticed a young mockingbird standing intently on the roof of my car. With camera still in hand, I stopped to photograph it. I liked its soft fluffy feathers and reflection.

Well, soon its mom flew in bringing lunch.

It was fun seeing this play out in front of my camera except I sensed the little fluffy bird was still hungry.

The mom seemed to have gotten the hint and flew away. I then photographed the young bird waiting for its next incoming meal.

At one point it turned and gave me a concerned “Are You My Mother?” look …

Eventually the young bird also flew away and I got in my car and drove home. Today, when editing the family’s photos, I saw the mockingbird images and started thinking.

Initially I thought about To Kill A Mockingbird. Harper Lee’s character Miss Maudie says this about the birds: “Mockingbirds don’t do one thing but make music for us to enjoy. They don’t eat up people’s gardens. don’t nest in corncribs. They don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.”

Next I turned to Youtube to watch and hear some mockingbirds. I was soon reminded that mockingbirds actually sing with many voices because they can mimic or “mock” sounds they hear. I heard one mockingbird sound a lot like mourning doves, which was lovely, but that same mockingbird also sounded off like a car alarm, which was, for lack of a better word, alarming. Still, pretty cool.

Well, guess what? May is National Photography Month. To celebrate, I ask you to take some time in the coming weeks to find and photograph your own “mockingbird,” that is, a common subject you often encounter but fail to really notice. In doing so, I think you’ll find a beauty and wonder in your world which you never knew existed or appreciated. That beauty and wonder comes not only from your subject but from deep inside of you. I think, perhaps, it’s what many call the joy of photography.

Thanks for following my blog. Now go find a mockingbird, find lots of them, and celebrate photography this month!

To Spring

Well despite the Nor’easter, today is the first day of spring!  In Nashville, we had some snow on March 12th and snow is possible again tonight, but in the interim, we’ve had several nice days, enough to share some images of Nashville’s early spring blooms. Photos were taken at Nashville’s Cheekwood Botanical Gardens.

tulips and hyacinths
tulips and hyacinths

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stand-outs from the crowd

the lone daffodil
the lone daffodil

ladybug
the climb of the ladybug

reflection
reflections of a dad taking his family’s photographs

We’re due spring showers for most of the next ten days, but after that? I think more spring flowers.

“We loiter in winter while it is already spring.” — Henry David Thoreau

Happy spring!

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some thoughts on cell phone photography (Part 2 – more cameras = greater transparency)

 

iPhone capture of La Spezia, Italy train station
a big wide world with people coming and going and sharing different viewpoints and perspectives as captured on my cell phone

We all see life and life’s events unfold through a lens that’s unique to our own lives. It’s a lens that’s based on where we’ve lived, our past experiences, those with whom we interact, books we read, jobs we hold, faiths we practice, places we have traveled, etc.   It’s a big wide world out there with many different angles, viewpoints and perspectives.

So maybe it’s not such a stretch to suggest that media organizations also see through a filtered lens or subscribe to particular viewpoints. I know traditionally trained journalists pride themselves on unbiased, objective reporting, yet it seems more and more the daily news (or at least the news that’s emphasized) varies significantly from one media source to another. 

In the early days of cell phone cameras, I remember reading FB posts from some photojournalists saying how disappointing it would be if the major news organizations started relying on amateur photos and video from cell phone cameras instead of their own  professional equipment and training. I’m not sure what these photojournalists would say today, but I do think American journalism is struggling, and cameras on cell phones have little to do with it. I think many Americans today first learn of news from questionable or unreliable sources.

But recently during this period of evolving journalism came one very loud and clear news story: a troubled teen armed with semi-automatic weapons killed 17 and injured many more at a Parkland, Florida high school. And how did this news first break? Through student cell phones, which included still and video camera footage. You know what? That camera footage didn’t present the situation with a slanted, biased, or unvetted viewpoint; it presented the situation just as it played out.

There’s a lot of talk about the harmful effects of too much cell phone usage and with much of that I agree; it’s just that at the same time, I think it’s possible that that “transparency” so often promised but unfulfilled by politicians, is also lacking in many of the current media outlets. You know where you can find transparency?  In the stills and video on your phone.

I’ve thought about posting some of the Parkland students’ videos here but have decided they might be too disturbing for my audience so I’m now turning to discuss another form of camera phone transparency.  Please keep reading – I’m building to a point here.

A couple months ago a friend invited me to join her at a http://www.Photovoice.org workshop in London. Rather than paraphrasing what Photovoice is all about, here are some quotes from its website:

Photovoice’s vision is for a world in which everybody has the opportunity to represent themselves and tell their own story. We work across the world to build skills in underrepresented communities, using participatory photography and digital storytelling methods. We have worked in partnership in over thirty five countries in seventy-three different projects. Photography for social change.

A caveat at this point – Photovoice projects sometimes use DSLRs or point and shoot cameras, but nevertheless often rely on the simplest and most available cameras, which often are cell phone cameras.

In trying to gain a better understanding of Photovoice, I began reading some of the  posts from those who have already put cameras in the hands of the marginalized. The posts which can be found on the website are powerful.

In one titled “Look Beyond – using Photovoice to break down barriers in mental health,” Dr. Maria Quinlan, a sociologist at the University College Dublin, asked a small group of students facing mental health challenges to tell their story – how they experienced life – by photographing their world. One student photographed an electrical socket with a cord plugged in on one side with the other side empty.  His caption read: “Two sockets. One is connected, one disconnected. I have days when I’m connected to society and others where I’m totally detached. Lost, alone. I fight to stay connected, I want to, now stay connected. That is why the connected plug is first. This was not always the way.”  

So what’s the point in all this? The point is that in an age when almost everyone carries a camera with them at all times, there is a greater transparency of what goes on in our world. So while politicians and perhaps the media often fall short on transparency, the news is there, often on our camera rolls. This constantly growing population of cell phone photographers supply us with the footage from school shootings, other people’s thought processes, and worlds we have never seen or experienced before.  

Do I miss the days of the Walter Cronkite type journalism I felt I could trust? Yes. Do I miss mornings where I would search through The Tennessean newspaper for amazing photographs from veteran photojournalists? Absolutely. But am I also glad we now have an opportunity to see a broader, more transparent, more immediate view of the world as captured by a larger group of photographers? Yes.

I am glad both to have lived during the days when people read newspapers and watched the evening news, and to live today where so many have a camera in hand and capture a reality we otherwise might never have seen or understood. Cameras in the hands of just about everyone, not just a privileged few, provide an educational opportunity for us to discover worlds not previously seen or understood, and to act when we discover those in need or suffering injustice.

Thanks, as always, for following my blog.  I won’t be attending a Photovoice workshop this spring, but I will be making an exciting announcement in the near future.  I hope you’ll plug in.

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a little cloud therapy

Oh, America. We’re living in some challenging times.

Last night, Las Vegas experienced the deadliest mass shooting in American history. Puerto Rico, hit by two hurricanes in 10 days, is in critical need. East Texas and Florida are still recovering from devastation wrought by Hurricane Irma. Unpredictable and inexperienced world leaders control nuclear weapons. Cyber security has become an oxymoron. Tempers are flaring, divisions are widening, racial tensions are rising, and statements seem to have replaced respect when it comes to observing the national anthem and receiving a gift of Dr. Seuss books.

So what’s a fitting blog post from a photographer?  I’m not really sure, but I think we — all of us — need to pause, take a few deep breaths and begin the process of healing. Look for those things that unite instead of divide or incite us.

Perhaps today’s topic should simply be clouds. Innocent, fleeting, ethereal clouds.  Clouds which force us to look up and be hopeful. Clouds which rekindle our childlike curiosity and wonder. Clouds which have inspired artists for centuries and recently me when attending “Thin Air,” Catherine Erb’s exhibit of clouds at the David Lusk Gallery in Nashville.

So here we go, with a little cloud therapy.

Remember as a child looking up at the sky and imagining the various white puffy cumulus clouds to be a whale or a duck or something else familiar to you?  And as you grew a little older, you started discovering the rich colorful palettes of a sunrise or sunset?  What about all those other times in between when you just happened to look up and notice a quiet or bold beautiful patch of clouds in the sky?  How did that make you feel?

Recently I’ve been reading the poetry of Pulitzer Prize winning poet Mary Oliver.  From her collection of poems titled Evidence (Beacon Press 2009), in a poem titled “To Begin With, the Sweet Grass,” she writes:

… I have become a child of the clouds, and of hope.  I have become the friend of the enemy, whoever that is. I have become older and, cherishing what I have learned, I have become younger …

And from her poem titled “It Was Early:”

Sometimes I need only to stand wherever I am to be blessed.

I love that line.

Now consider this sentiment from Charles M. Schulz, the creator of the Peanuts comic strip, who introduced us to Snoopy and Lucy and Charlie Brown:

Aren’t the clouds beautiful?  I could lie here all day, and watch them drift by.

Me too.

But I can’t, and chances are you can’t, but we can perhaps now, just for a little while.

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Feel a little better?

I think when we look up and see eye-catching or beautiful clouds in the sky, we should make the most of that moment.  After all, the sky will never have looked quite that way in the past nor will it ever look quite that way in the future.  It’s the present — both “the now” and a gift — which we then hold.  And I think wherever we stand (or whatever we stand for), we should consider that moment not only a gift, but as Mary Oliver says, a blessing.

Thanks for blessing me with your presence today.  I’m looking forward to a busy but beautiful month of pleasing fall color.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

when that inner voice might just be a “Godwink”

Let’s be clear.  I am neither a bird watcher nor a bird photographer but …

In December 2015 I went with the American Nature Photography Workshops to Bosque Del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico to photograph the annual winter migration of sandhill cranes, snow geese, and other water fowl.

I got some nice photographs from the workshop

 

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yet my general takeaway was that this kind of bird photography, at least with the equipment I brought, is kind of difficult.  Aside from the technical challenges of shooting flying birds very far away in low light, it’s not like you can say, “hey birds, would you mind separating a bit more in your flight so you don’t overlap with one another?”  You just have to take what you get and hope for the best.

I stayed in the area an extra day after the workshop ended and returned to Bosque the next afternoon to photograph a cool tree we had driven by. That tree just happened to be close to a bird viewing platform.

Our workshop leaders had done an excellent job in scouting the birds’ favorite places and behaviors before we arrived.  It’s just that the birds didn’t always cooperate.  I remember standing in the dark one very early morning waiting to capture the epic lift off and landing at sunrise.  We knew exactly when and where the takeoff should occur and we were ready, but I don’t know … we saw a lot of birds flying far in the distance in front of us, but the whole thing just didn’t really materialize, at least not in my camera.

So on my extra day, I photographed the cool tree and then drove to the viewing platform we had never visited and that’s when everything became a little more memorable.

I could hear the birds in the distance and as they got closer and louder I began seeing their approach. It wasn’t long before I realized OMG – this is the lift off and landing our leaders had wanted us to see – and they are landing – swarms of them – directly in front of me.  It was like nothing I’ve ever seen or likely will ever see again.  Think 1,000+ birds  – many of them 5′ tall and with a 4-6′ wingspan in diameter – all swarming down to the water directly in front of you. It was loud, chaotic, and lasted for maybe 15-20 minutes or so.  I didn’t really feel I was in harm’s way as the viewing platform was pretty well protected, but I did feel a little bit like I had crossed the set of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds into Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park.

With the low light and all the flurry of the backlit birds flying in I decided to take some video – that way I also would be able to record the cacophony of loud bird sounds. I also just stood for minutes at a time and marveled.

As the sun began to set and the birds began to settle in for the evening, I started photographing again.  You can maybe get a sense of the serenity that replaced the previous chaos by looking at the top photo above. Really, the quiet beauty and serenity before me then was just as or maybe more powerful than the chaotic, frenzied landings that had preceded it.  The whole thing was just extraordinary.

So in these past two weeks we’ve seen Harvey flood Houston and eastern Texas, an earthquake destroy parts of Mexico, wildfires spread through the Pacific Northwest, and Hurricane Irma level the Florida Keys, flood many other areas, and leave millions without power. Against this backdrop, we learned that Equifax has been hacked leaving millions of Americans a good bit more vulnerable and, on a personal note, the hard drive on my computer crashed.  In a big way. With unrecoverable data.

Not the best of times.

You know what though?  Some inner voice or perhaps a “Godwink” (defined by Squire Rushnell as a “a message of reassurance from God” www.whengodwinks.com) kept pulling me back last week to the serene sunset photo of the sandhill cranes above.  So I’d see some heart-wrenching pictures from Harvey and then for some reason, maybe later that day, I’d find myself pulling up the sandhill cranes photograph and feeling a little better. It brought anxious me back down a notch or two.

After viewing the photo from time to time for a few days, I think the larger message of the Bosque sandhill cranes experience finally sunk in.  The sunset photo wasn’t just to calm me, it was to help me understand the bigger picture of these past two weeks, that being:

  • there will always be natural forces much bigger than any of us;
  • despite our best efforts, we cannot control them or even accurately predict what will happen;
  • there are patterns of behavior in nature — sandhill crane migrations and hurricane seasons – that will come and go;
  • accept this fact and stop worrying – God is in control;
  • there is typically a beautiful moment that follows chaos and uncertainty — a gorgeous sunset or people coming together to help others in need; and
  • God is always there to guide and comfort us, maybe even sending a “Godwink” along the way.

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I’m glad I had the opportunity to go to Bosque Del Apache.  Thanks for letting me share this bit of self-reflection with you.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Will Photography Eclipse Your One Time Viewing Experience?

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There’s a great line in the movie The Secret Life of Walter Mitty when Mitty (played by Ben Stiller) has caught up with Sean O’Connell, acting the part of a highly regarded Life Magazine photographer who finally has a clean shot of the elusive leopard he’s been chasing.  Although the “ghost cat” is in full view and O’Connell is “camera ready,” he fails to take its picture. Mitty sees the leopard and O’Connell’s inaction and finally turns to him and asks impatiently, “When are you going to take it?” O’Connell answers calmly, “Sometimes I don’t.  If I like a moment, for me, personally, I don’t like to have the distraction of the camera.”

So Nashville is on the arc of the eclipse and it seems everyone under the sun (no pun intended) is flocking here to view the eclipse on Monday.  Along with that has come inflated prices on airfare and hotel rooms, a healthy supply of eclipse T-shirts, a shrinking supply of the special ISO marked viewing glasses, and hundreds of tutorials on how to safely view and photograph the eclipse.

But just as O’Connell’s character chose not to photograph his prized “ghost cat,” I’m not planning to photograph the eclipse.  I mean – it’s only going to happen once in my lifetime.  Do I want “the distraction of the camera” (and in this case also the tripod, cable release and flashlight) or should I instead “sit back and experience the moment?”  I think the latter.

I learned the “experience the moment” lesson the hard way several years ago when my daughter was taking dance.  When she joined her studio’s competitive dance team, I photographed her performances regularly.  Then one day, her dance teacher met me in the back dressing room after a competition had ended and with tremendous excitement exuding from every part of her being she asked, “did you see her jump, did you see that split jump?”  I looked blankly back at her and couldn’t honestly answer. Apparently I hadn’t, at least not as she had, because I was too busy shooting.  So I looked back through my images to see if I had captured it.  I had, but I also then realized that in getting the photograph, I had missed the much more meaningful proud parent moment – you know, the kind that takes your breath away as you watch it unfold.  And while I could always look back at my photograph, I could never get that moment back again.

I continued to take dance photographs after that competition, but more and more I came to rely on a friend to take the pictures.  Hers were great, there was no need for us both to be shooting the exact same thing at the same time, and it allowed me to enjoy the thrill of my daughter dancing and then share that excitement with her right after the performance, much as her teacher had done with me that day.

This eclipse on Monday … is it more important to you to photograph it and own a version of one of the many duplicative photographs we’ll see posted all over social media in the days following or are you willing to pause and let the moment take your breath away?  

You know, you can make a decent facsimile of the eclipse in Photoshop like I did above in only a couple of minutes … and if the actual eclipse doesn’t look exactly like it does above, I bet I can tweak my facsimile pretty quickly to make it mirror the photographs.

This past week was a little stormy so the thought of a calm day with a wondrous view in the sky will be a refreshing and welcome change. Here’s hoping for clear skies on Monday, for those of us viewing the eclipse and for everyone in the world really.