Sounds of future past

As an electric guitarist, I’m going for what I think of as a “futuristic” sound. But by “futuristic”, I mean reminiscent of the Golden Age of the Future, rather than the actual future.  To me, that means the sounds of the 1970s, when rock music freely played on science fiction imagery, and the music of popular science fiction movies was bound by the limits of technology then.  Essentially, it’s an analog sound, a sound of fuzz pedals, tape echoes, and wah-wah pedals.  And more and more, I find myself turning to “vintage” gear in order to capture that “futuristic” sound – tube amps, fuzz pedals, and analog delay.  Curious, that.



As you may have noticed, indoor lighting (especially industrial/corporate lighting) rarely makes things look good.  For a long time, I believed the marketing hype of the light bulb makers that this was due to the light’s color temperature – that if I used (more expensive) bulbs designed to simulate the Sun’s spectrum, I’d get better photos, and things would look better in general.

But now, I don’t see light temperature as the problem.  Instead, I think the problems with indoor lighting and photography mostly stem from a lack of shadows and contrast.  Lights designed to make sure everything is well lit prevent anything from being hidden or masked.  This makes photos inherently less interesting, because everything looks more bland.  Using a cooler light bulb won’t solve the fundamental problem!


gearhead and anti-gearhead

As I brace myself for shooting Fringe again (last year, I shot thousands of photos), I find myself surprisingly un-anxious about gear. I’ll be using the same Nikon D40 body I used last year. My primary lens this year will be a plain 50mm f/1.8 Nikon, which doesn’t autofocus on the D40 body. I don’t know if I’ll even use any other lenses. Since last year, I’ve invested in a split-prism focus screen, which makes using a manual lens much easer. I’ll also be bringing along a monopod for stability this time around. No flash, of course.

I’ve considered getting the new Nikon 55-200mm VR (although it’s awfully slow), but if I want some zoom it might make more sense to rent a pro lens. And I’ll bring along the stock kit lens for wider angles (it’s actually very nice). I feel slightly disadvantaged in that I won’t be able to use a long lens on a tripod like a “pro”, but getting in close is part of my technique. Go with your strengths, man.

I don’t really need more gear, or even much want it.  I’ve built my photography style around a sort of modernized Cartier-Bresson approach… small camera, “normal” lens, no flash, get in close and be unobtrusive.  As I’ve written before, I find long lenses for photos of humans make me uncomfortable, socially and politically.  I get good photos of people, especially non-portrait photos, but it requires me being close enough to the subject to get a feel for what they’re feeling.

Let the pros have their pro approach, I guess.  But it doesn’t work for me.


authority, meet responsibility

Last year, I took photos of many shows in the Minnesota Fringe Festival.  I planned to do the same this year, but was concerned about potentially tightening photography restrictions, or “helpful” volunteers interfering.  So I asked if I should get a press pass this year, and sent along a link to the photos.  Instead, they asked me to be a floating staff photographer this year!  They already have staff photographers covering most of the venues/shows, but it would be my job to fill any gaps, to make sure there are official Fringe photos taken for every show. 

It’s frankly an honor to be asked to do this, but.  It’s a bit disconcerting as well.  My photos are no longer just for my amusement, and that of whomever might look at them.  They’ll be OFFICIAL.  I’ll have some actual responsibility to the subjects.

This shouldn’t be a Bad Thing.  I know I’m capable of quality work, and I was invited to do this based on the strength of my previous work.  I think my concern isn’t about the quality of my photos so much as whether this newfound sense of responsibility will lead to unnecessary caution or second-guessing.  I don’t want to try to be perfect. Photography, at least performance photography, is a hard realtime process.  A moment happens, and then it’s gone, never to return or be perfectly restaged.  It’s risky, and photographing performances well requires accepting the risks.  I don’t want to be cautious.

edit: I’m even second-guessing my decision to discuss my feelings about this on a public blog. That’s not good. It’s a variation on what Burroughs called “the Policeman Inside”, I think. Well, I’m determined to leave this up, just to thumb my nose at myself. Or something.


simple is hard!

I recently got my first bicycle in many years.  I started out looking for a road bike, but discovered single speed and fell in lust, then tried fixed gear and fell in love.  This isn’t terribly surprising, given my predilections in other areas.  Fixed gear has great immediacy.  You can’t just coast and stop thinking about what you’re doing – if the bike is moving, the pedals are moving.  And because of this, you need to plan ahead some – slowing for lights so you don’t need to stop completely, building up momentum for hills, etc.

Last night, I told one of my bandmates about my new bike, and the joys of fixed gear riding.  I said “Isn’t it just the kind of bike I’d get?”  And she said, “Yes – as hard as possible!”  To this, I replied “Simple is hard!”  And fixed gear is the simplest kind of bike there is.



Some instruments (or other tools) have “mojo”… there’s something magical about them that makes them play or feel or work better, compared to equivalent instruments.   Sometimes it’s general mojo that works for everyone; sometimes it’s mojo with just one individual.

Many people would argue that there’s nothing magic, that there’s no such thing as mojo, that there’s a scientific explanation for everything unique about an instrument.  Maybe there is.  But who cares?  “Mojo” makes a nice explanation for a real phenomenon – or at least as real as our flawed perceptions.  Those who argue vehemently against “mojo” aren’t arguing against the qualities of a given instrument… they’re arguing against a worldview that they feel is animistic, primitive, and otherwise wrong. 

And I suppose that’s important to them, too.  But once again, it gets back to fear… fear of being ruled by the irrational.


recordings, and Flatland

Lately, I’ve been recording an album for a friend.  This has me thinking about the recording process, and how it’s similar to photography… namely, that both are very limited representations of the event they are trying to capture.  Obsessing over “accuracy” when making recordings of any sort is somewhat irrational, because recording itself is so relativistic.  What, exactly, constitutes “accurate”?  Put two different microphones in front of a guitar, get two different sounds… and neither sounds the same as listening to the guitar in the room.  Likewise, what the guitarist hears is different than what a listener hears!

In photography, the distortions and misrepresentation are more obvious, so I think they’re a little more tolerated.  But audio recording?  Why does anyone think this sounds “real”?

The residents of Flatland had no idea that they lived on a two-dimensional plane in three-dimensional space.  But we do, sort of.