February 19, 2017 – Painted Brick

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Midtown Tucson is slathered with foot traffic, dotted with some reasonably questionable neighborhoods, and absolutely covered in the shittiest graffiti you’ll ever see. There’s no real artistry to it, just a level of “this is the mark I’ll be making” level of hooliganism.

About a decade ago, when I last lived in the neighborhood, I remember there were several efforts for graffiti abatement; billboards and hotline numbers to report graffiti, paint donation programs through local hardware stores, and private homeowners who opted to foot the bill on their own. I used to walk the mile and a half to work at Jones Photo, Inc – it wasn’t uncommon to see a fresh coat of paint on an adobe wall on my walk home, only to see fresh spray-paint scribbles on my walk to work the next day. Folks quickly stopped even trying to match paint and they’d take whatever the hardware store was handing out, or they’d buy the cheapest primer; the walls and garage doors, businesses and restaurants, were slowly covered in sloppy bands of mismatched color, rolled despairingly over the tagged scribbles.

It’s frustrating, to be sure, but my photographer’s eye also found some interest in these textures. And it seems like the plague of artless graffiti has largely subsided – at least, compared to years ago. Most of what you’ll find today are grease-pen scribbles on light posts or at bus stops, or markings on defunct businesses, in back alleys, and on abandoned buildings like the one pictures above.

Naturally, if I have my camera with me, I’ll be taking pictures.
Until tomorrow, my friends, I hope you enjoyed today’s photograph.

“To me, photography is an art of observation. It’s about finding something interesting an ordinary place… I’ve found it has little to do with the things you see and everything to do with the way you see them.”
Elliott Erwitt

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February 18, 2017 – Saguaro Cactus Landscape

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Sometimes black-and-white is the only way to go. There’s a timelessness to black-and-white landscapes that is almost universally appealing. This was taken while hiking through the mountain run-off in Sabino Canyon last week. My feet were wet and squishy from tromping through knee-deep water, tromping up to the Seven Falls area.

A thunderstorm rolled through and cut the hike short, but it was an exquisite several hours in the canyon.

Getting out into the world, walking the downtown streets or the canyons are going on my ‘urban hikes’ are terribly important to me. There’s so much to discover out there, even just walking around the block, if one takes a moment to concentrate, train themselves to really keep their eyes open all the time.

I hope you like today’s photograph. Cheers.

“If you want to be a better photographer, stand in front of more interesting stuff.”
Jim Richardson

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February 17, 2017 – Vintage Photos

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What I love about photography is that it captures a moment never to be reproduced. Photographs are the mosquito in amber of human memory, imprinted with our own projected thoughts and emotions. Snapshots, if they survive long enough, become aesthetic curios. A casual photograph of a street scene in Manhattan taken in 1915 becomes more than a snapshot, but a historical document that captures, with accuracy, what life looked like in that particular place at that particular time.

One of my history professors once told me that the best way to have my work remembered would be to regularly go to the supermarket and photograph the merchandise on the shelves. Print, save, and catalogue them, and wait for time to do the rest. His thinking is that future generations will be thirsty for ideas about how we lived in the past, that the photographer of the present has only a vague concept of how radically a society can change in the short span of a generation or two.

My great grandfather was able to tell me the story of seeing his first automobile as a child and how dazzling it was. He could tell me how, years later as a young man, that the hand-crank engine starters were frustrating as he. He and his wife – my great-grandmother – operated a single-screen silent theater; he ran the projector and she played the piano. I say all of this to point to the last years of his life, with the internet revolutionizing instant electronic mail, cable television that allowed him to watch every Minnesota Vikings football game, and even a wireless headset so he could listen to the game without the noise of the game disrupting everybody else in the house.

Things change faster than they seem. And an old snapshot of a daughter or a girlfriend at cheer-leading practice somehow becomes a nostalgic conversation piece, a document of a by-gone era that makes the viewer think about their experiences in high school, wonder where the people in the photograph are today, or even if they’re still alive. It’s a faded piece of paper that reminds us how little time we have, and how precious these small moments might actually be.

“Today everything exists to end in a photograph.”
Susan Sontag

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February 11, 2017 – Birds on a Wire

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On a little urban walkabout in Tucson, I found myself standing underneath these perched little characters. Looking up and looking down, there are fun little things to observe all around. It’s easy to ignore the details of our daily routine, and I find that putting a camera in between myself and the rest of the world makes it easier to notice all these details. What is simple and boring and banal becomes, magically, interesting and majestic and beautiful.

“What I like about photographs is that they capture a moment that’s gone forever, impossible to reproduce.”
Karl Lagerfeld

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January 26, 2017 – Black and White

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One of my friends – more of an activist, politically motivated, and extreme personality – once commented that my work specifically seeks to “mean nothing at all.” This was over a decade ago, but I remember the comment; it made me think a lot about the kinds of images I was making at the time. I didn’t feel insulted, but I did feel compelled, initially, to try and defend myself.

My natural instinct was to disagree (and I did disagree), but it was the first time I really sat down and tried to apply meaning to the photographs and paintings I was making. And it made me think about the utility of abstract imagery in a broad and general sense, too.

I don’t think all artwork needs to be a didactic teaching tool, or direct the thoughts and emotions of the viewer. In fact, in many circumstances, I have a contrary opinion. I am seduced by abstract compositions specifically because they can mean any number of things to any number of people. The possibilities aren’t infinite. Color, movement, composition, film grain, delicate or light brush strokes – these all guide our interpretation and emotional response. But abstract compositions allow us to think broadly about how an image impacts us, and the experience of viewing abstract art becomes very personal. An abstraction can remind us of a specific event, a movie we watched, an experience we had – and in an almost slight-of-hand kind of way, through some peculiar magic, an image made by a complete stranger can ascend to significance in the hearts and minds of the individuals looking at it.

I am compelled to make pictures like this for reasons that still evade me, but I make them because they affect me, they move me, they touch a part of my subconscious and tickle a part of my mind. I can’t expect images like this to be universally adored, but I have to have faith, as an artist, that there are other people out there, like me, who find this kind of composition interesting.

The hardest thing for an artist to do is follow their instincts. If I listened to all of the criticism, all I would do is try to mimic the landscapes of Ansel Adams or take endless ‘desert sunset’ pictures. There are plenty of those images in the world, and I just need to make images of my very own.

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How Long Was ‘Batman v Superman’ In The Works?

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From the ‘Wilhelm Scream’ to things like Hitchcock’s cameos – often little inside jokes between Hollywood director friends and family – so-called “Easter Eggs” have always been a part of cinematic storytelling. In the age of the internet and the renaissance of the film trailer, super-fans and comic-conventioneers now fill YouTube with theories, frame-by-frame analyses, and share the fun details they’ve uncovered in highly anticipated IP’s. In many ways, fandom has exploded, and audiences are enjoying greater inclusivity in the cinematic worlds they love.

Before this practice really took off, though, audiences really had to look. Sometimes clues were right out in the open, and sometimes they were menacingly hard to identify. But you can rest assured that the comic book fan – not unlike science fiction fanatics – are the ones who search the longest and the hardest. Consider “I Am Legend,” a film that was released in 2007, almost ten years before “Batman V Superman” hit the silver screen. It’s in an establishing shot in the early minutes of the film, as Robert Neville (portrayed by Will Smith) walks through the post-apocalyptic ruins of Times Square.

As clear as day, what do we see at the top of the frame? A “Batman V Superman” billboard.

I discovered that a few people, obviously, have already noticed this and it’s been making the rounds on social media, but this sure was news to me. According to the sources that I trust (namely comicbook.com and collider.com), ‘I Am Legend” screenwriter Akiva Goldsman wrote an early draft “Batman V Superman,” although that draft was later rejected. This Easter Egg was an early concept of what Goldsman and director Francis Lawrence thought a “Batman V Superman” promo piece ought to look like.

It’s always fun to be a fan.

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Better Call Saul – Expert Camera Work

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One of the better things I’ve heard somebody say recently was that “storytelling is telepathy.” I was listening to this interview with a young screenwriter and he summoned those [likely not too famous] words from author Stephen King. I enjoy the odd logic of the statement, though – somebody writes the words down, and then we absorb them when we read them and create the story in our minds. We don’t just absorb them; we become a part of the story. The inert symbols on the page, black ink on white paper, become images in our imaginations. We assign voices and details, interpretations and emotions, to the tune of elegant simplicity – black ink on white paper.

We’ve been doing it since the birth of civilization.

Cinema, a decidedly modern method of storytelling, is a little different. It’s all more specific. The images, the look of the characters and the sound of their voices – these things have all been chosen for us, by a director. In many ways, we can describe reading as more of a ‘participatory’ form of storytelling – we have to use our imaginations and help co-author the story being told – and watching film & television as more of a ‘passive’ form of storytelling. This is why we associate books with intellect and television with laziness.

This is a false dichotomy.

Good storytelling, either in print or telecast, motivates the reader (or audience member) to make decisions. Good storytelling on the screen is the kind of storytelling that rewards the audience for paying attention – to color palettes, symbolism, narrative structure, foreshadowing, and character development/evolution. Most of us recognize these things, even if we aren’t looking for them or actively thinking about them. Television shows in the last several years, it should also be noted, have achieved a level of quality and substance that rivals most mainstream feature films.

In many ways, the television series allows storytellers to exercise their talents in a way that feature film could never allow. Can a ninety minute film accomplish as much as a sixteen episode season (or an entire series)? Of course not. A television series has more time to introduce an ensemble of characters, establish their unique and individual qualities – their challenges, their strengths, their shortcomings – and bring the circumstance of their lives into clear and cutting focus.

Better Call Saul is a wonderful example of long-form story-telling. It’s one of the reasons that it’s so beloved (and simultaneously so under-appreciated, because of it’s painful rarity) in the television world. It is incredibly ‘literate’ in its approach, each episode a small little piece of a morality play, each episode a small little piece of a bigger puzzle. The most recent episode, to my mind, is one of the greatest examples of cinema-quality film-making applied to a television series, specifically because of how the opening scene is shot, choreographed, and cut.

The entire first sequence follows a refrigerated truck – presumably smuggling narcotics – across the US-Mexico port of entry. Using one camera operator, three different vehicles, and a steady-cam, the establishing shot is achieved in one single, sustained, three-plus minute shot. A ballet of vehicles and extras – law enforcement, truck drivers, perpetrators, and K-9 units – swirl around the scene. The camera glides through and captures this scene without a single cut. The trick of trying to cram non-narrative story into a long, sustained, uncut shot is as old as film itself, but rarely is it accomplished with such extraordinary finesse. The longer the camera can reveal an unfolding narrative, the less the audience is motivated – whether consciously or unconsciously – to question its authenticity. That’s because real life – our true, moment-to-moment lives – aren’t cut from angle-to-angle, perspective-to-perspective, over one shoulder and then <whack> over another shoulder. The longer the scene can go without an edit, the more we are seduced, as audience members, to believe it.

If you haven’t hopped aboard the Better Call Saul bandwagon, I suggest you give it a day in court – pun intended. Following the ‘cartel mule-truck through the port’ scene – an extraordinary achievement in television film-making – I can’t wait to see what other cards the show-runners are hiding up their sleeve.

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Other films with remarkable tracking shots (nope, can’t think of any other television shows):

  1. Boogie Nights – The opening scene starts outside the night club, tracks into the club, snakes through the seating area and onto the dance floor, and winds back out. Every single major character in the film has at least one spoken line of dialogue and the scene lasts roughly ten minutes (a so-called ‘full-film-magazine’). It is insane when you consider how hard it must have been to choreograph this.
  2. Irreversible – This is the film that can’t be un-seen. It’s one of the most grotesque and challenging-to-watch films ever made, with Gaspar Noe at the helm. The film is replete with slight-of-hand cuts (paving the way for Birdman, but taking it’s inspiration from Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope) that give the illusion of long cuts, including the devastating brawl at the gay sex club in the first scene. But it’s the sexual assault scene in the middle of the film, in a dark roadway underpass, that is truly shocking. The camera sits like a fly on the wall. The graphic content of the scene makes it all-the-more uncomfortable for the audience, that the camera never blinks, never looks away, never cuts to something less awful than the brutal violation right in front of it. It’s easy to forget that this is just a movie, watching this scene. It’s hard to remember that it’s not real, that this isn’t in fact a true-to-life snuff film. This is one of the most amazing films ever made, but it comes with an asterisk – not for the weak of heart.
  3. Children Of Men – I’m not even a fan of this film. The premise is outlandish, with little or no real time spent on trying to explain how or why the characters live in a world where women simply can’t get pregnant. The idea itself is compelling, but the details are glossed-over and we’re expected to just accept that, yeah, this is the world of this film. Women ain’t gettin’ pregnant. World’s gonna end. Bummer, dude.
    Nevertheless, there is a moment in an embattled urban area, tanks creaking into the streets, in which the protagonist walks through mortar fire and military vehicles, through throngs of people, to bear witness among a huddled gathering of resistance fighters, to an infant child. The camera follows him through the streets, around tanks, amid explosions and hordes of civilians battling military personnel. The camera never cuts, and the scene is undeniably, tear-inspiringly beautiful. It’s a shame that it’s embedded in what, to me, is a muddled mess of a film. But it’s one brilliant piece of film-making nonetheless.

Can you think of any long-cuts that should be added to the pantheon? Let me know in the comments.

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