Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The last roll of Kodachrome

Award-winning National Geographic photographer Steve McCurry shot this photo of an Afghan girl for the magazines cover in 1984. The photograph is one of the magazine's most recognized pictures. What isn't as widely known is that the medium the photograph was shot with is perhaps more iconic than the photograph itself: Kodachrome slide film.

Immortalized in a Paul Simon song, Kodachrome has been used by professional photographers for decades for its color saturation and archival qualities, until now. Last year Kodak discontinued the film in favor of concentrating on its digital offerings. There is only one photo lab in the world processing the last rolls of Kodacrome in circulation, Dwayne's Photo Service in Parsons, Kan.

McCurry was given the last roll of Kodachrome ever to come off of the production line. The roll was recently processed at Dwayne's, but it's contents are a closely guarded secret until next year, when it will be the subject of a National Geographic documentary.

National Public Radio did an interview with McCurry last week after completing his shoot. Take a few minutes to read or listen to it. It provides some great insights into McCurry's thought process. What got my attention was how nervous he was shooting assignment. I guess it's good to know that even very accomplished and successful photographers like McCurry still get nervous once in a while.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010


While we're on vacation my wife often asks me if what we're doing is really vacation if I'm taking pictures all the time. I usually tell her it is, and try to tone down my tendency to wander off with the camera, at least for a little while. It can be difficult to separate work from play sometimes when your vocation and your favorite hobby are one in the same. While I've taken "photo vacations" where I specifically go somewhere to take pictures, I do my best to not spend an entire vacation behind the viewfinder.

This weekend, while camping in Lake City, I didn't shoot a frame. Not one. Not with our point and shoot. Not with my professional-level cameras. Not even with someone else's camera. A very rare thing indeed, but sometimes a welcome one. The long Memorial Day weekend came at a perfect time for me to recharge before the spring high school sports tournaments start. In this case, recharging meant putting the camera down and walking away slowly.

Most of the time, I'm pretty good at keeping my work-style shooting separate from my recreational-style shooting. I can usually take time here or there as we do things to pull out the camera and explore something I find interesting, but not let shooting dominate our precious vacation time. Of course, there are times when I can't resist. Let's face it, a lot of the places my wife and I like to go are very photogenic. But I work pretty hard to not follow around someone else's family on vacation because I really need a person in a photo.

(Ok, there was that one time at Gooseberry Falls with the dad and his daughter on his shoulders walking through the water, but it was just that one time!)

Monday, May 10, 2010

In Praise of Life magazine

One of my favorite things to do is to page through a vintage Life magazine.
The magazine may be unfamiliar to anyone younger than a baby-boomer but in it's day, it was the weekly magazine to subscribe to.
The whole basis for the magazine which first was published in 1936 was as photo-journalistic endeavor where words and photographs, especially photographs, brought the news of the week, of lifestyles, features, to the American citizenry.
It was a fixture in millions of other households during the 40s, 50s and 60s.
The list of staff photographers found in the masthead over the years read like a who's who of famed image makers: W. Eugene Smith, Alfred Eisensteadt, Larry Burrows, Gordon Parks, Margaret Bourke-White, just to name a few.
And it's a fair bet that if you conjure up some vintage iconic image, odds are good it first appeared in Life.
At its peak in the 1960s, the weekly magazine had a circulation of more than 8 million.
In its day, Life was a gold mine from the ad revenue it earned for its parent company, Time, Inc.
An ad in Life was considered the gold standard of advertising. Nowadays, you'll see an item hanging in a store aisle touting "As seen on TV!" but back in the 50s and even into the 60s, the mantra was "As seen in Life!"
As a photojournalist I enjoy the editorial content of a vintage Life magazine, but even more entertaining is the advertising that was replete in its pages.
The advertising provides a revealing peek into the way things were. Or in some cases, the way people wished things were.
How about pink appliances? No doubt there were a few folks who wound up regretting their early 50s purchase of the pink refrigerator and matching stove they saw advertised in Life by the time avocado-green and copper-toned appliances became stylish in the early 60s.
And the shine of a '58 Packard automobile that was glowingly spread across two pages of the Sept. 22, 1958 issue of Life may have dimmed a bit for anyone who purchased one and just a year later, the Studebaker-Packard Company then decided to drop the Packard name plate.
Life magazine folded in December, 1972.
I was a photojournalism student at the University of Minnesota when the announcement was made that the magazine was ceasing publication due to rising postal rates and declining ad revenue.
I and several of my classmates indulged in numerous libations that evening as we discussed the significance of the magazine's demise. Life magazine was, after all, the photo-journalistic summit to which we all aspired.
From 1978 to 2000, Life was revived as a monthly publication and arguably, it still published some memorable images by talented photographers.
But I think some of the luster of Life, a grandly formatted weekly magazine that arrived without fail in millions of American households was lost in the transition to a smaller, monthly version.
And today when I find one of those old copies of Life, whether it's in pristine condition or moldy and mouse-nibbled like the one I carefully paged through the other evening, it's always like finding a treasure.

Monday, April 26, 2010

The tougher side of photojournalism

It was a very tragic weekend across Minnesota for traffic fatalities.

Chasing sirens has always been a part of a photojournalist's work day. Word of a possible 10-54 (a fatal car crash) crackling over the scanner will send us rushing out the door. It's never pleasant duty and has grown less so as I have grown older.

Nevertheless, those tragedies are grist for the news of the day so we dutifully head out to the scene to record the roadway mayhem, like it or not.

In such instances, as in so many news events, I try to be the fly on the wall when photographing them. I don't want to interfere at all with the rescue people whose duties are of far more importance than mine. And I'd just as soon not be noticed.

We depend on the cooperation of the law enforcement officials on the scene to gain access and frankly, sometime it is just a lot easier to deny access to everyone, media included, in the confusion and activity around a crash or other spot news event like a fire. If I'm working unnoticed, I'm less likely to be asked to move along.

Believe it or not, there was a time long ago when law enforcement actually would call a reporter or photographer, even late at night or on a weekend, to tip us off about a new event. In my hometown of Worthington, Minn., the reporter or photographer on weekend duty would leave his number with the dispatcher in the event something happened.

And Bill Altnow, who was a longtime photographer for the Free Press from the late 1950s through the early 1990s would make a habit in the early days of his career of riding with local police or the sheriff's department on evening and weekend patrols. (And by the way, Bill still resides in North Mankato.) It is a different time now.

After having worked in the area for 35 years, many law enforcement personnel recognize me when I show up at a crash scene. Most of them have come to know that I will respect the boundaries of sensitivity and professionalism and they allow me to do my job without interference.

Probably the biggest hassles have come from the part-timers _ volunteer firefighters in particular _ who believe they are the arbiters of good taste and what is news. The best complement ever paid to me was a time at a fatal crash on Highway 14 several years ago when a part-time fire fighter was yelling for me to clear the scene. A trooper took a break from his investigation to tell the fellow to let me do my job. "He's a professional and he knows what he is doing," he told the firefighter.

The big challenge now is getting to know all the new, younger faces on the forces and earning their trust as the old line of officers have retired in recent years.

Friday, April 2, 2010

New feature at Blink of an Eye

We've started a new feature this week here at Blink of an Eye. Each week, John and I will update the slideshow on the left side of the blog with photos we like from our own shoots during the week and various wire sources we have access to at the Free Press. Some, of course, will be of big news events and other weighty things. Others will be photos that simply give us a unique view of the commonplace, or those slice of life moments that make us smile (like John Cross' photo at left).

Enjoy, and let us know if you see a picture somewhere (whether it's ours or not) that you like!

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Deja vu

Last week I got to spend a little time shooting in a place where I first learned how to shoot basketball, St. Cloud State University's Halenbeck Hall. Sibley East's boys basketball team was playing Foley at my alma mater for the section championship. Little has changed in Halenbeck since my college days sitting at the corner of the court with my trusty Nikon F3, motor drive and 85mm f/1.8 manual focus lens (that's right, DIY at its finest!). The light's still limited (or as I like to call it, "available darkness"), everything still has this dingy, yellow cast to it and the stands are still small. But, like most people say when they're trying to be polite, the place has some character.

Halenbeck Hall, home to the St. Cloud State University Huskies men's and women's basketball teams, and where I learned what "available darkness" means.

Sibley East's Ian Berg dribbling the ball near the center court logo during the section championship.

It does have character, and I do have a soft spot in my heart for that gym. I first learned how to deal with challenging lighting conditions in there. I learned how to push process Tri-X 400 up to 1600 so I could get a passable shutter speed in there. I learned how to get up into the balcony once in a while to get a different view of the action in there.

These days I would much rather shoot in the well lit, shiny, spacious, newer Bresnan Arena than Halenbeck Hall. It's just a little easier. Every once in a while, though, it's fun to go back to one's roots, so to speak.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

The real beauty of the flood walls

Ever since 1975 when I moved to the Mankato area, the community's relationship with the Minnesota River has been cut off by the flood walls which at the time were still under construction.

Over the years, longtime residents have shared appealing photographs of Mankato/North Mankato during the pre-flood wall days when the riverbanks of the Minnesota River were shrouded with woods as it flowed between the towns.

Back in those days, residents had a closer connection with the river _ both good and bad. Of course, there were the floods, most notably in 1951 and 1965 when Mankato and North Mankato valiantly battled the flooding Minnesota to varying degrees of success.

But on the more positive side, during the river's more gentle moments, residents found the tree-shrouded banks a source of recreation.

The existing flood walls have largely severed that connection and undeniably are aesthetically unappealing.

We spent a lot of time trying to find some drama during this year's flooding but the protection afforded by the flood walls really made the rising water in Mankato proper something of a non-event.

Likewise, in the 35 years I have been at the Free Press, the Minnesota River has been kept at bay several times, especially in 1993 and 1997.

Photographs of a human chain of residents urgently passing sandbags to protect West High School or floating boats along Range Street in North Mankato certainly would have provided some drama but it would have been at such a high cost.

Now that the river is receding and this year's threat of flooding diminishes with minimal damage, ugly as they are, the real beauty of the flood walls once again came through.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

A wider view of things

My college photojournalism instructor told me to always take a wide angle lens to a sporting event. It sounded contradictory at first. "Don't you want a tighter shot than that," I asked myself. As my skills improved I started to take the advice to heart, and was rarely disappointed by the end result. Still, even though I would occasionally pull out my 17-35mm for sports action, most times I felt more comfortable with my longer lenses.

Of course, I realize that my bag full of cameras, lenses, flashes and other gadgets are tools to be used in the creative process. But like most people, I gravitate toward the familiar and comfortable sometimes. While that feeling can sometimes lend itself to good photographs, it can also contribute to a creative rut.

Denver University's Matt Glasser hits Minnesota State University, Mankato's Andrew Sackrison in a photo I took with my wide angle lens in 2008, probably the last time I committed to shooting wide at a sporting event.

These days I rarely shoot game action with my wide angle lens, though I often have it with me for celebration photos at the end of big games. I shoot most sports with two cameras, but they are usually a 70-200mm on one camera and a 300mm on the other, tight and tighter. Last night, while shooting the St. Peter girls basketball team's State Class AA quarterfinal game at Target Center,  I decided to break out of the rut and shot the game with my trusty 17-35mm wide angle instead of the 300mm. Once again, I unconsciously proved my instructor right by coming up with this photo.

St. Peter's Katy Kuiper saves the ball from going out of bounds, but is pinned in the corner by Rochester Lourdes' Aubrey Neumann (23) and Stephanie Helt (5) during the second half of their Class AA state quarterfinal game Thursday at Target Center.

When shooting sports, I tend to gravitate toward the close in, intimate, in your face-type shots that bring a viewer into the action, shots that I typically get with a longer lens. I wonder how many times I'll have to prove to myself that I can get that same feeling out of my wide angle lens too?

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Working for the National Enquirer

Perhaps it is a sign of an impending journalistic apocalypse, maybe not, but the National Enquirer is being considered for a Pulitzer Prize for its investigative and national news reporting for its coverage of Sen. John Edwards and his carrying on with Rielle Hunter.

So as the grocery store tabloid basks in a new-found legitimacy of being considered for what in this business is the Holy Grail of journalistic recognition, let me share a secret: Over the decades, I have accepted a few freelance assignments for the grocery store tabloid.

No, it didn't involve hiding in the bushes, hoping to catch some politician or celebrity in some misdeed or illicit tryst.

Instead, the assignments were to photograph mundane, odd, little slices of life _ the day-brightening photographs the publication frequently printed on the inside pages to supplement their cover stories about sightings of Elvis or JFK.

One assignment that comes to mind was one I completed while working for a paper in Lawrence, Kansas, shortly after I graduated from the University of Minnesota. The photo assignment was passed down to me from our chief photographer who took the call and felt such an assignment was beneath his dignity. For a fresh-out-of-college journalist, however, there is not much that is below one's dignity when money is involved.

And say what you will about the Enquirer, but at least in those days, they paid handsomely. In this case, it was more than twice what I was making in a week for what essentially was a few hours work.

The assignment was to shoot photographs of a duck who had adopted a family's Labrador retriever. I expected a little reluctance on the family's part when I called to arrange a time to make photographs, particularly when I mentioned as briefly as I could, that all of this was for the Enquirer. That they were so delighted at this suggested that the address they gave me would lead me to the rougher part of Kansas City.

Instead, I was amazed to find myself outside an iron gate in a wealthy part of the city, talking into an speaker, announcing myself as John Cross, the fellow here to take photographs for the, uh, National Enquirer. The gates slowly swung open and I followed the winding drive through a hundred yards of manicured gardens and lawn to a sprawling mansion.

To make a long story short, the family was absolutely delighted to have the Enquirer at their home. I spent an hour or two making photographs or the duck and Labrador cavorting, thanked them for their time (thought not nearly as much as they thanked me), and headed back to Lawrence.

I developed the film, made a half-dozen prints and sent them off to their offices down in Florida. Several weeks later, a nice check arrived in the mail. I'm assuming they eventually ran the photographs, though I never actually saw them.

Not that it mattered. Back in those days, photographs weren't routinely credited to the photographer anyway.

For those of us working for "legitimate" papers, that was just fine. The only place we really wanted to see our name associated with the National Enquirer was on one of their checks.

Friday, February 26, 2010

The cost of doing business

I just approved a repair order for one of the Nikon digital cameras I use.
Now I'm old enough to remember nickel candy bars, when a dollar bought four gallons of gasoline, and a meal of a hamburger, fries, and a drink at the Golden Arches was 46 cents.
So maybe I can be excused for once in a while thinking "Wow, but that's expensive."
The camera failure was nothing cataclysmic. It wasn't dropped, drenched, or otherwise destroyed.
In the middle of a shoot, it simply quit working.
Without getting too technical, the camera display registered "FEE" meaning that for whatever reason, the lens was not communicated with the camera body.
I cleaned the contacts, switched out lenses, etc., to no avail. Whatever gremlin was at work, it wasn't one that I was going to track down.
So I packed the camera up and shipped it off to California.
I got the estimate back the other day: $224. With shipping and handling, the total came to $253 and change.
I'm suspecting that there was nothing real serious wrong with the body, that $224 is the minimum charge for merely unpacking the camera and taking a quick look at it.
And I'd bet that since the shutter and most everything else still functioned, the "fix" will be a simple one, albeit one that I wasn't going to figure out.
While the repairman is at it, he'll clean the camera up, make any other adjustments, as well.
The camera originally cost $2,000 so all in all, the repair/refurbish fee is reasonable. For some people, a couple hundred bucks is just walkin'-around money anyway.
I only work for a newspaper, I don't own it so I'm one of those guys who feels pretty flush if I'm carrying an unbroken twenty in my back pocket.
I approved the estimate and am impatiently awaiting the return of the camera body.
Oh, just more thing: The factory warranty on it ran out six weeks ago.
Imagine that!

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Great video on the making of a great picture

It's a moment most sports photographers dream of. A big game (in this case, THE big game), close score, time running out. The team's driving down the field. Then, there it is. The pass to win the game comes YOUR way. The crowd goes bananas. But the question remains: Did you get it?

Of course, today it's a matter of looking at that 2.5-inch screen on the back of your camera to see if your hard work and planning have paid off. Sometimes that little screen can carry a lot of disappointment. We all hope that in those brief moments all of the planning, practice and study of the craft and the game has paid off. Many times Lady Luck (or a stray referee, or the Evil Autofocus Fairy) has a different plan.

With this year's Big Game just around the corner, has this fantastic video about about Getty's Streeter Lecka and Sports Illustrated's Al Tielemans and their experiences trying to capture the defining moment in last year's Super Bowl, Santonio Holmes' catch in the corner of the end zone to win the game for the Pittsburg Steelers (Tielemans' photo made SI's cover above).

The video not only shares the experience of two great photographers and how being separated by just a few feet can make all the difference, but the technology used to make the video itself is absolutely fascinating!

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Haiti and the desire to know

I can only imagine what Haiti must be like right now in the midst of overwhelming devastation. Fortunately, as I sit here comfortably in my office, brave journalists have picked up cameras, computers, pens and notebooks and headed into harm's way in Haiti so we can know what's going on there.

I admire these brave men and women and the work they do. It's not easy to jump into a situation like this, when people's lives have been destroyed in an instant, and take pictures. The images coming from Haiti are extraordinary, not just from a journalistic point of view, but from a technology point of view.

As you can probably imagine, the majority of the country has been leveled. There is no going to the local library to plug in your computer and use the Wi-fi to transmit. Generators and satellite phones are the modern tools of the trade in a situation like this. A video of an Associated Press reporter's impressions on arriving in Haiti is here.

Solving problems isn't new to a photojournalist. For decades, solving the problem of getting news out of inaccessible areas has been one of the hallmarks of a good journalist. Undoubtedly, technology has made solving that problem a little easier (imagine trying to get a roll of film developed in Haiti right now!).

A major discussion in journalism circles right now is the use of "citizen journalists." It's a term I don't like, because in a way we are all citizen journalists, but the concept is accurate: An average person, not trained to be a journalist in any way, sees something happen, records it in some way, and tells as many people as possible. Is information gathered in this way any less valid than what is gathered by a professional journalist?

In the context of the disaster in Haiti, I would say the answer is "no." Some of the first photos from the disaster area were pictures taken by cell phone cameras from people who were there and posted on Twitter before Internet services went down. Of course, the work professional journalists are doing right now to bring accurate information to us is the reason why I choose to seek out the work of those professionals when gathering information.

Check out some of the work Damon Winter of the New York Times (a touching example is here), Chuck Liddy of the Charlotte News and Observer, and the Associated Press' Gerald Herbert (who shot the photo above) have done over the last two weeks. Their work is the reason we all need professional photojournalists seeking images of newsworthy events.

Monday, January 4, 2010

I'm not much of a fan of winter. I don't mind dealing with it when winter conditions are "normal", especially when I'm out there on my own terms, say, hunting or fishing.

But it's another matter entirely when you've got to be out there in sub-zero conditions we're now experiencing, regardless of whether one's working or playing. In any case, mom had good advice: wear a warm hat, gloves, and boots.

Taking photographs outside when it's this cold is a lot of work and takes some special precautions. Naturally, wearing gloves makes it hard to make camera adjustments. I wear glasses so dealing with frost on them can be a pain.

And likewise, condensation from going from a cold car to a warm building is always a possibility so on the coldest days, I bring my gear inside. (And keep it in the bag so that the condensation occurs on that instead of the lenses or cameras).

In the old days of film, the watchword was slow down. Film got brittle in very cold temperatures, requiring that we rewind our film back very carefully. And just like with our cars, batteries lost power. Today's digital cameras don't use film and the lithium batteries remain remarkably functional in cold weather. Still, I noticed that the spec sheets for the lithium batteries we use warn against using them below 32 degrees F and 104 degrees F. I'm guessing who ever designed the batteries never lived in Minnesota during January.

Fortunately, old habits die hard, and I still find myself slipping my camera inside my parka and next to my body when I'm outside shooting photographs for extended periods on days like today to keep the batteries strong.