Monday, January 11, 2010

news clips: death goes click

Viewed on the scale of a map, or from a great altitude, roads and highways often appear almost as straights lines, linking them ever so neatly between given way points, but that is hardly ever actually the case.

Except for the unusually featureless expanses of a desert or flat grid of Midwestern farmland, they each will invariably possess any number of unique curves, swoops and corners, and that applies to almost every road leading to anywhere.

Our very own lives suffer this same illusion, and particularly so when observed by strangers.

As horrible as it sounds now (which it does, and should) I once spent sunny weekends stalking motor vehicle accidents, the kind of which some newspaper photographers seem to specialize in, and along a certain road. I would agree that aspects of a pursuit such as this are, by its very nature, somewhat despicable, and in writing this I will mention that I neither seek forgiveness or expect it, except to say it was not done out of blood lust. It was all about pursuing the meager local offerings of journalism's sacred Three Ds: Death, Destruction and Drama. Such as they were.

Chuckanut Drive, a Washington byway often cited as one of America's most beloved and scenic drives on the Pacific Coast, was a such a place for me, and specifically for the above stated purpose. I do not pretend that I did it solely because "it's my job" (or was at that time), or that it was the most distateful aspect of my then profession (it wasn't). This is not to say I am a completely heartless bastard, only that where there are accidents there is drama, and where there is drama there is always the opportunity for a dramatic - perhaps stunning - news photograph to be made. Heartless bastards not withstanding.

And there were plenty. Of both.

A biker who cut the one last swooping corner into the oncoming lane - into the grill work of a 3/4 ton van filled with vacationers. Another who took his girlfriend out for a fast ride but lost control in the gravel of a sharp curve, then slid into a guardrail, rocketing them both down the cliff (he lived, she did not). A young woman who left a late-night party too late and was found the next day, 100 feet below, twisted into in a pile of dead leaves. They are not photographs of events that were ever published, except in a place I would choose to forget them, but won't.

Now, it must be pointed out that motor vehicle accidents, and especially fatalities, share a certain morbid irony. The more terrifically horrible they are, the greater - and lesser - chances are they will rate a photograph in the local rag. It's a tricky business for newsrooms, because while technically being real news ("spot news", to photogs) they will generally stand a slim chance of ever seeing ink, at least in the photographic rough. Editors avoid them like dog shit (not an undo comparison, in some cases), mommies don't like them, and a whole lot of other people don't either (not to mention the grief-stricken friends or relatives of the injured or deceased). Wise photographers learn to shoot around the ugliness, thus sparing their editors the dilemma of deciding whether or not to publish, and their readers the unvarnished reality as it honestly appears, year after year, tragedy after tragedy.

But again, death or heinous injury still holds the eager promise of high drama, and that is the magnetic force that attracts news photographers like flies, myself included. In this instance it meant cruising a lovely but occasionally perilous 10-mile strip of two lane blacktop winding north along the coastline cliffs into Bellingham.

There's one more thing I should mention about Chuckanut Drive - it was where I witnessed my first fatality, so in this sense we shared a sort of personal history, albeit a regretful one. That same accident (a motorcyclist hit broadside when a sedan ran a stop sign doing 40 mph) was also my first glimpse of a dead human being, or very soon-to-be. So I was a sort of a double-virgin at the scene, all eyes and with very little to say.

Such events stamp deep impressions in one's mind, if not their souls, and that's no matter their professional intentions. As paramedics and police went quietly about their grim business, so did I. Even when there is no decently publishable photo to be made (and with such happenings, more often than not, that is the case), there is still always a story, though it may not always make ink, for one reason or another.

This time is was about 16-year old girl who took a chance at a familiar intersection and lost badly, though not as badly as the teenager whose life she had just ended. By the time I arrived the motorcyclist was already dead - or very soon would be - sprawled across the road a few feet from the twisted hulk of his motorbike. There was very little blood (as was not unusual, I would learn). He wore no helmet, this fact explained as a horrible fluke by his parents when they were briefly interviewed in following days edition. He was simply unlucky, and only for a split-second.

The girl, the motorist, had already assumed a stunned pose of shrunken grief, and was kneeling, entirely alone, beneath a large fir tree not far from the intersection.

In terms of imagery, it was a scene neither fantastic nor even remarkable, except for its obvious tragedy. Looking back now, with the memory of having photographed literally dozens of accidents, fires, rescues, drownings, shootings and what-have-you, on the whole I'd say it was just about average, as fatalities go. Quiet, cold, sad.

For the most part, the others present were all professionals, or seasoned volunteers, who went about their work in a well-trained fashion. Their apparent lack of surprise or shock spoke to a presumption that there was probably little here that each had not witnessed too many times previously, and likely far worse. They undertook their role with the same steady cadence and precision as might a highway work crew, each man or woman silently at their own specialized task, secure in their own mind as to where their job fit into the team effort. The same could not be said for myself.

State patrolmen coolly measured and mapped the distances of tire marks and positions of the wrecks themselves, estimating speeds and angles of impact. As paramedics and fire personnel attended the motorcyclist as best they could, others set to sweeping up or gathering the assorted pieces of catastrophe - a shattered headlight, an empty shoe, a brown leather wallet, this in addition to a scattered bag of groceries that the motorcyclist has carried on his last, short errand from a local roadside market. Three hours later you'd have driven past and never guessed what had happened, if it occurred to you that anything had happened there at all.

In every sense, it was long ways off from the way you tend to picture such things in your head when you read about them, and definitely a far cry from the sirens, screams and body fluid-drenched dioramas that you see depicted on TV and in the movies.

If you had been there earlier, in the minutes soon after, I would guess that only three individuals might have stood out from the rest, if only subtly.

One was alone in the middle of the intersection, covered with a yellow cotton blanket, and one other was sinking slowly under the first waves of everlasting regret, alone, under a tree.

I had not captured a "moment". At the same time I received some friendly advice from an inner demon I thought of as being strangely benevolent, under the circumstances. The message was as clear as if it had been whispered into my ear:

Watch, carefully. Do not feel.

It was a good tip, and intended to help keep me alive.

On the inside.

Friday, January 8, 2010

news clips: a first pop

The first photograph of mine ever published in a daily paper was of a firecracker exploding in the hand of a kid standing in a Mount Vernon parking lot. It wasn't a "great" shot, but it did "capture the moment" (see glossary) and it was taken on a slow news day, which was also the Fourth of July, two lessons in successful photojournalism which are worth noting because they amply demonstrate how and why certain images reach the public, often in lieu of much better ones.

It was 1/4 incentive and 2/4 "newsworthy", chiefly, once again because it was a certain event happening on a certain day when a certain need arose. The other 1/4 came from my motor drive (at 1/1000th of a second), which captured an image that I honestly never even actually saw happen at that moment, at least with my own two eyes.

If I'd kept a copy of it (which I never bothered to do) I'd show it off to you now, but again, I didn't, and because of that you will likely imagine that it was far better than it really was. That's one more important thing: the facts surrounding a particular photo are often less interesting than the actual image itself. Your imagination will serve to fill in the blanks (the fragments of paper bursting in all directions, the look on the kids face), applying your own standards and imagination in the process, and I will gladly take the credit. I'd be crazy not to. That's the gig. When you win, you're a whiz, and when you screw up, the readers don't even know about it. Magic. Illusion, really. But that's the nature of the gig, as I said.

Not much later, after I'd signed on with that first daily paper (the Skagit Valley Herald) back in 1984, a favorite newsroom joke was repeated to me, which was: if you got more than two photographers in a room together, the first thing they'd do is appoint an awards committee. Funny, and also not entirely inaccurate.

Now, I'm sure no stranger to photo contests, nor to the large helping of foolish pride frequently attached to pursuing them. They can be heart breakers, but also career makers. And especially for the unknown photographer, they can provide a crucial means by which their best work, and their name, can be seen outside the small town where they may feel professionally marooned. In some cases this will mean it is shared with top editors and photographers from across the entire U.S., or even around the world. The effect of that kind of exposure (pardon the expression) can be nothing short of miraculous. My own career might have stalled right where it began were it not for a handful of winning photos that caught the eye of just the right folks, at just the right time. More on that later.

There was a time (I need also mention that it is a tradition now almost wholly extinct), where most newsroom employees (which includes reporters, photographers, editors, layout folks, advertising people, the entire lot) all began their respective careers at the very bottom and worked their way up, inch by (column) inch. In that distant, semi-non-computer-stone-age era there was still such a thing as a "print-out" (news copy being physically printed out before being passed on the next editor), and subsequently, a need for some poor schmuck to shuttle paper from desk to desk to desk. Copyboy, was the vernacular of the day, but in '85 it was a job description with a short lifespan.

From that lowly post (and a 35mm camera, or ninth-grade grasp of the English language) you could conceivably work your way up to be a part-time "stringer", when you would occasionally be asked to cover a story or two, which very likely would be "breaking news" or a piss-grade local sports event. The same rule applied to any prospective photogs, except their lowest rung would be shooting "real estate" photos (in fact, houses for sale or rent), or used cars for the advertising sections.

With signature aplomb, it was little time before us "shooters" began competing for top honors, which in this case would come for having invested the very least amount of time possible required to shoot the actual picture. Note: When considering this dubious distinction, it is important to consider the extremely hybrid - and insular - environment of the average newsroom. In this particular case, the winner eventually was a photographer who not only didn't leave his car to get his shot, but simply photographed it by rolling down his drivers-side window and firing his motor drive as he (briefly) slowed the car while passing by. 1st Place!

Honors, by necessity, had to be gathered such as they were. On one car lot "assignment" I recall having to wait while a dealer coasted a vehicle out onto the lot by hand, not just because it simply lacked a battery, but also because it would not have started even if it had had one. This so that I could take an unobstructed photo of the vehicle for his weekly half-page ad, which proclaimed "Great Little Commuter - Needs a New Home!". True story, needless to mention.

On another occasion, as I scribbled down the details of a dealers weekly lineup, the sales staff (composed largely of men five to ten years older than me, mind you) took turns shooting me in the ass with paper clips, fired over their desks from across the room.

These were humbling affairs, for reporters and photogs alike, but their sting was always softened with the hopeful prospect of a shot at the real deal, which meant landing a full-time job at real newspaper (any newspaper), and the opportunity to be working on "real" news stories on a daily basis.

Starting out was always a tough gig for news folks, and one fueled far more by fantasy than the desire for overtime pay, an idealistic inclination that most any newspaper was (and still is, I'm guessing) only too happy to oblige. The "big" assignment beckoned.

As it turns out, however, when compared to sleazy car lots and real estate ads, your first so-called breaking news or sporting events often measure only a notch or two up on the scale of mediocrity, and - in grand newspaper tradition - they're frequently garnered standing in the rain, or working late on weeknights and holidays, most often with the verbal arrangement that your work time is officially "off the clock".

But, after all, what is life without the fantasy of fame or fortune? Or at the very least, a photo credit?

Sunday, January 3, 2010

after the fremont thing

My wife, Linda, occasionally reminds me that in a blog, entitled "orange chair pictures", I hardly ever include any "pictures". I agree.

Even though I no longer earn my living by taking photographs, I confess that almost every night I dream that I am still out roaming with my camera bag, making snaps, meeting new faces.

Unlike my old, veteran and behemoth shoulder-lug, in the bag I carry now are nondescript items much closer to means of personal, rather than professional, survival. There is my wallet, a flashlight, extra batteries, Pepto-Bismal, prescription reading glasses and a variety of items that let me lead an orderly life. Lately, this includes a notebook, several pens, a few unnamed meds and two or three unpaid bills, just to help me keep track. Most importantly in there, however, I still pack a camera, although it is not very high-falootin' by today's standards. But it is reliable, and gets the job done in a fashion I find predictable and pleasing.

Today, spending a few hours with Linda at her Fremont flea market thing, I managed to record a good image or two, most notably of Frank, our friend and a premier junker. The two photos you see are my favorites of the day. One is plucked from a pile of abanonded old photos showing a young woman - whose name I shall never know - young, beautiful and sporting a new gown on her front lawn, obviously for a pageant or prom. Love that picture.

The other is our good friend Frank, also a beauty. I adore this photograph as well - far more, really - for the trust it took to take, and that it speaks of everything about my own self that I lack the honesty to tell you.

So here are photographs, just my same my orange pictures really, although somewhat more tightly cropped.

Thanks Frank.