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.