Archive for the 'trust' Category


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.



Keep It Simple, Stupid.

Obviously, limitations are one of my favorite themes.  But I don’t see “limitations” in a necessarily negative light.  In fact, I see limitations as positives much (most?) of the time.  But here, I’d like to talk about a particular kind of limitation – choices.

It’s easy to become paralyzed by choices, for a number of reasons. First, it can be hard to choose between equal-but-different versions of the same thing. Second, choice can become a distraction, a path for fear of completion to take over our creativity. Third, it can just be added complexity when dealing with already-complex problems, pushing them beyond our ability to handle the big-picture problem. This is often made worse by computer-mediated creative processes like writing, photography, and music recording (to name three of my favorites) – computers provide us with a dazzling array of choices – the ability to undo/redo our work, create alternate versions, process in different ways, etc.

I find it valuable to take away choices when working, unless the choices are really necessary.  If I can work without a computer, I like to do that.  If I must use a computer, I try to do so in a limiting way.  For example, if I’m writing, I like to do at least pre-work with a pen and paper (erasers give us choices, too).  But pen and paper are slow going, and the work often needs to be retyped on a computer later – bad limitations in many cases.  I type far faster than I write, and often want to move my writing to a more complex form.  So I’ll start writing using a simple, formatting-free editor like Notepad or vi.  This takes away unnecessary “choices” like bold or italic.  It helps keep me focused on the words, not how the words are presented.

Choices can also be reduced by improving the raw input so we don’t have to “fix” so much.  I try to be a good technical photographer so I don’t feel an urge to Photoshop the heck out of everything afterward.  I could go farther and stick to b/w film (which does give a lot of choices, but also forces commitment to them once they’re made). If I’m recording music, I like to pre-produce as much as possible so I know well what the finished product should sound like.

This isn’t to say choice is always bad, or computers are bad.  They’re wonderful tools that have opened up new worlds for artists – the fact that you’re reading this on the WWW thanks to WordPress is proof of that.  But it pays to be aware of them, and be conscious of when choice becomes a substitute for creativity, or an impediment.  Don’t be afraid to take away choices from yourself.


share and enjoy, aka two great tastes that taste great together

guitar'n'bass abstract

(Edwin Scherr and me onstage at the Acadia Cafe, 4 Sept 2007)

Last night, the nameless improv trio I’m in (with drummer Ryan Lovan and bassist Edwin Scherr) played a gig at the Acadia Cafe in Minneapolis, as part of the ongoing improvisation series there.  I brought my camera along and photographed the other two groups that were playing, but couldn’t photograph while WE were playing, of course.  A friend of Ryan’s who knew his way around a camera agreed to shoot the show for us.  Although the camera itself was unfamiliar to him, he understood aperture priority and manual focus from using 35mm, so I handed him the camera in aperture priority mode (Nikon D40, 50mm f/1.8 manual-only lens) and hoped for the best.

Being unfamiliar with stage photography, he soon learned the pain joys of trying to focus correctly and limit blur with low stage lighting.  But this inspired him to experiments that I wouldn’t conduct myself, using very slow shutter speeds and panning the camera.  I really liked the results, as you can see here.  I wish I could remember his name to give him proper credit!


warts and all

Last weekend, I participated in a recording session with my friend Eric Coleman, who is recording a new album. Four of us were involved – Eric, his producer Isaac Norman, and Andy Anda on fiddle and mandolin. We also recorded a couple of tracks for Isaac’s next album.  Rehearsal was saturday, and recording was sunday.  Everything was tracked live, and we managed to record six songs in just four hours.

What really stood out was how relaxed and comfortable the session was.  Recording can be very stressful, pushing very hard on musicians’ insecurities.  We hear mistakes, think “one more take” will make things better, wonder if we’re committing something to posterity that we’ll be ashamed of later.  In this case, though, a number of factors overcame our fears.  First, there was the comfortable environment – a beautifully decorated basement belonging to another of Eric’s friends.  Second, we were recording live with an audience (there was always at least one person sitting out).  Praise and encouragement, not to mention honest and critical ears, gave each of us more confidence in our takes. It’s a lot easier to live with imperfections when listeners you trust are telling you how good the take was.

And ultimately, the positive, comfortable environment snowballed into a can-do atmosphere as the session wore on.  The last tracks went well in part because the first tracks went well. Success built on success.

 I’m SO looking forward to hearing it!

The Wall


street photography, voyeurism, and walls

While idly surfing about the ‘net, I ran across a conversation about whether to use a Nikon 85mm or a 80-200mm zoom for “street photography”.  Many users argued for the long zoom, a position I find more than a little disturbing.  I have a number of problems with it.

First, I am somewhat of a traditionalist.  To me, “street photography” means something in the style of Henri Cartier-Bresson – not so much the subject matter as the sense of intimacy and immediacy. Cartier-Bresson used a Leica with a 50mm lens (still the classic “street photography” rig), which has implications. First, it meant he had to get in close to his subjects to capture detail and motion. Second, he captured a lot of the surroundings as well as the people – and the surroundings provided context, and often meaning to his photos.

Punk girl at Nicollet Station

Long lenses like the 85mm (127mm equivalent on a modern Nikon DSLR) and the really long zooms have two effects – first, they isolate the subject from its surroundings.  Second, they allow (even require) the photographer to shoot from longer distances.  The first effect is a largely aesthetic problem for me – for “street photography”, I want to see context.  Without context, it’s just portraiture.

The second effect is where I start feeling really uncomfortable. Long lenses give the photographer the opportunity to take photos without the subject being aware, or having a chance to be aware, or even having a chance to interact with the photographer if notice is taken.  This crosses into voyeurism.  It’s an intrusion, and related to theft.  This also ties into the isolation of the subject from the environmental context, and frankly, the subject itself – far too many long-lens “street” photographers are just snapping photos of pretty girls.  The physical beauty alone provides the meaning as well as the subject.

Of course, Cartier-Bresson was a furtive, secretive photographer as well.  If permission and intrusion is the question, we won’t get a good answer from the father of the style.  But I think this leads to another issue I have – the wall.  When taking photographs, the camera acts as a wall between the photographer and the subject.  A small camera such as a Leica is a small wall.  But a big cannon-sized lens like an 80-200mm zoom is a BIG wall.  I think this has psychological relevance for both the subject and the photographer.

Additionally, a really large camera/lens combination starts to dominate the photographer’s senses. It’s heavy and bulky and needy. It gets in the way of involvement with the surroundings, with people and things.  A small camera can hang unobtrusively, or even be pocketed, allowing the photographer to participate fully in the scene being photographed.

It’s hard for me to say where I’m going with all this.  Ultimately, I think long, large lenses contribute to an unhealthy, uninvolved relationship between the photographer and the subject, and between the photographer and the world.  At worst, this can lead to morally questionable photographs. And politically, it also contributes to the sense of surveillance and the lack of privacy in our modern world.

Once again, I need to contemplate this idea more, and maybe revisit the subject in the future.


A trust for Kallisti

Kallisti, leaning on a redwood
One of my favorite possessions is a guitar named Kallisti.  Kallisti was made for me for my 40th birthday by Running Dog Guitars, and is an extraordinary work of art. Part of my goal for Kallisti was to create not just a guitar, but an heirloom, a unique work of art to be cherished long after I am gone.

Life, however, is not always kind to heirloom-quality instruments. Two unpleasant fates often await them. The first is to become a “family heirloom”, valued for who had it before, rather than its intrinsic value as an instrument.  This leads to “Grandpa’s guitar” mouldering away in a closet somewhere, slowly dying from disuse, possibly for decades. The second fate is to wind up in the hands of a collector, who won’t play it for fear of reducing its financial/collectable value – no better than the closet, except that it may get dusted more often.

Kallisti is a fine, beautiful instrument, and deserves to be played. And a high quality, well maintained guitar should be playable for at least a century, perhaps two centuries or more – not only after I’m dead, but after my heirs are dead as well. It could change hands many times over the years. But how can I insure that Kallisti will be played even when I’m dead?

Here’s my solution to this dilemma… we’ll see if it works.  After Kallisti passes from my hands, future owners will be subject to two rules.  First, it cannot be sold – only given away. Second, if the current owner does not play it, then it must be given away, to someone who will.  For as long as those two rules are respected, Kallisti will be safe from the closet, and the collection.  It will always be in the hands of someone who plays it, values it as an instrument, rather than an investment or an heirloom.

I actually spoke to a lawyer about this yesterday, and he said he’d get a researcher looking at how it can be done.  In the meantime, though, I should get a high-quality acid-free notebook to keep in the case, with the rules of the Trust, where future owners can keep records as well.