Thursday, March 22, 2012

Memories We Never Had

What do you do with old photos? I have quite a few in all kinds of condition; stuck in paper bags, plastic bins, stuck between the pages of books in the hope of flattening them out. I've been meaning to get all the "really good ones" scanned in and digitally cleaned up or repaired. Somehow other things always become more important.

Those old pictures are more than just pieces of paper. They are memories; in many cases they are memories we never had. What I mean is that some of them are portals into a world I never knew or to people I knew but as an older, more world-weary version than the one in the picture. With digital cameras everywhere now and the ability to share them instantaneously it's easy to forget that those pixels represent a moment in time we want to remember - at least in that moment we think we do. But the old photos are not backed up anywhere they are as prone to disappearing as a real memory until they are scanned.

So there are a couple of old family treasures that I've scanned in or asked relatives to scan and send to me. Then I take the time to open them in Photoshop Elements and do my best to clean them up, enhance them a little and back them up. Just in case. These are not my pictures, in most cases I wasn't even born when they were taken. But they are every bit as special to me as the absolute best photos I've ever taken: more so.

Antonio and Margarita Perez
The picture with this post is of my grandparents on my dad's side. I'm not sure of the date but I would guess it was sometime in the late 1940s or very early 1950s. My dad would have been around 10 years old or so. My grandfather, Antonio, looks very much like I remember him in the late 1960s and until he died in 1972. He spoke mostly Spanish at home although his English was passable. Margarita, my grandmother, looks familiar but by the time I remember her hair was mostly grey and she was much more "weathered." Her face was one of the kindest I have ever seen. She lived into her 90s and died in the late 1990s. Between them they had twelve children, eight boys and four girls. I had so many cousins I literally couldn't remember all of their names. I think at last count, for first and second cousins only we were over 100.

The memories that this one picture brings back to me are amazing. A picture that was taken more than a decade before I was born has the power to evoke memories of people, places and events that aren't even a part of the picture. The stories that I heard as a child about my grandparents are etched into their faces and all of my stories and the stories of a hundred cousins are all continuations of those same stories.

Look around you for those old treasured pictures. Take the time to scan them in, fix them up just a little (unless they are really damaged), look closely at them and remember. Then pass on the pictures, the memories and your stories.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

See With Your Heart

Have you ever looked at a scene, whether first-hand or in a photograph, that evoked an emotional response? There was just something that made you happy or sad or unsettled; you may not have even known why or been able to say just what it was in the picture that made you feel that way.But you knew it was there.

Unless the camera was wielded by someone looking strictly to document a moment - which can yield beautiful pictures, no doubt - those that evoke emotion are special. Even when they are not technically perfect the emotion comes through to the viewer.

Several years ago I decided to take the short drive up to the shore of Lake Ontario to the little town of Pultneyville. There's a beautiful park there called Foreman Park right on the shore. It had been a warm early spring day with a few clouds in the sky and I knew that sunset would be beautiful along the water. I walked along the paths and among the trees and swings and picnicking families looking for the perfect spot to catch some of the golden light as sunset got closer. At the far western end of the park the trail swings around a small curve in the shoreline and there are benches along it, probably put there just so you could stop and watch the sunsets.

Lonely View
Despite all the people in the park, probably because it was getting darker and they were mostly interested in picking up their gear and gathering up their children, the trails were empty. I left the trail and moved away from the water even though I didn't think I would find a good vantage point for the sunset. But as I looked back at the trail, towards the last bit of warm light, there was a bench - empty - looking out over the water. Maybe it was the fading light, or perhaps the still leafless trees looming over the bench; but the whole scene seemed kind of sad and lonely.

I moved around to get the best combination of sky, trees and bench. The little cloud in the upper right corner caught some great colors that I wanted to make sure I captured. But no matter where I moved I couldn't get rid of the distracting little branches and bushes in front of the bench and it was way too fussy trying to remove them in post. In the end, thankfully, they seemed not to matter too much to the emotional impact of the final picture.

I'm sure thousands of people had sat on that bench to watch sunsets over the years. Some young, some old; all of them with a story. In the last light of a spring day it seemed that all of those stories were hanging over that bench. The only witnesses to the beautiful end of another in the endless march of days.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Clowns of The Bird World!

We spend a lot of money on bird seed. Or at least it seems that way sometimes. But my wife and I love to watch the birds around our feeders, especially in the winter when their color may be the only thing to break the monotony of winter grey. But even during the summer, they are a constant source of wonder and even humor.

No bird captures all of that more than Chickadees. I never saw these funny little birds growing up in Florida but they are now my favorite, hands down. They are fearless, often sitting just above my head while filling the feeders, chirping down at me as if telling me to hurry up so they can get back to eating. There is a park not far from where we live where the Chickadees are so used to humans they will eat out of your hands. I haven't quite gotten our birds to do the same, but I'll keep trying! They will hang upside down on branches or feeders it seems just for the fun of it. They flit around from feeder to branch, from tree to tree and like all small animals they move quickly.

All of that makes them very hard to photograph well. I would estimate that for every ten or fifteen photos I take of them only one is worth keeping. But even that makes me laugh as I patiently sit outside in the heat and the cold or - more often in the winter - as I wait at our kitchen window which looks out at several feeders.

This picture was taken about four weeks ago in mid-February. And in this case it was too cold to be outside shooting, so I caught this little guy in the maple outside of our kitchen in between flits to the feeder. There was still light, fluffy snow on the branches that had fallen overnight and you can see the red leaf buds at the ends of the branches as well. It was bright out through a solid overcast so the light is wonderfully even without harsh shadows. As usual, I was laughing at the Chickadees, with all the snow on the ground there were at least ten of them in this one tree and they put on a show of their complete comedy routine for me. I cropped this for composition, made some slight adjustments to color and temperature and I dodged his eye to make the catchlights in it stand out a little better.

If you have these little guys where you live, you know what I mean about them being the clowns of the birds, if not, enjoy the picture!

Let me know what your favorite backyard bird is!

Thursday, March 8, 2012

The Best Camera

It's a photographers' truism: "The best camera is the one you have with you."

If you've left your brand new DSLR or medium format at home and all you have is your cell phone, the best camera is the one on the back of your phone. With companies packing in ever more sophisticated cameras into their phones the awkward terms "iPhoneography" or "phoneography" have come to designate art forms all their own. The pictures you can take with these devices are getting better and better. Apps with the capability of editing them range from the simple and sometimes gimmicky to the powerful and elegant.

Now that smart phones are always connected and becoming relatively ubiquitous, these photos make their way onto social networking and photo sharing sites just moments after they are taken. I've posted hundreds of pictures to Facebook and Twitter and I've seen some really good pictures on both of them. The ability to let friends and family see these instant memories almost as they happen is magical.

Kim's Footprint
A few years ago, my wife and I spent a week on the beaches of Bradenton, Florida. This is my hometown, but we were there to be a part of the wedding of two wonderful friends. I took literally hundreds of pictures as the couple asked me to capture the wedding. I got some great shots and our friends seemed truly happy with them. But this simple picture means something different to me.

One morning I walked down the short, wooden walk to the beach with only my iPhone. I was going to go for a swim and didn't really want my "good" camera sitting on the beach and getting full of sand. Kim was ahead of me on the walk back to the house, her feet still damp from the surf and when I looked down I saw her sandy footprints on the boards. I knew I wanted that picture! But I also knew that if I went into the house to get my camera somebody else could come along and erase that perfect print. So I walked along, looking for that perfect print on the perfect spot on the boards.

This picture is really special to me; it's Kim's footprint (nobody else has arches so high), it's from a wonderful trip to one of my favorite places on the planet. Every time I look at it I remember how warm the sun was, I remember the smell of the salt air off of the Gulf, I remember sitting in the sand with my best friend. It makes me happy. I hope you enjoy it, too. In the comments, tell me about a picture you just had to get with your phone and why it was so special.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Dreaming of Summer

We were lucky here in the Northeast, winter was not so harsh this year. We didn't get our usual 100 inches or more of snow for which I am very grateful. But with the arrival of March I am ready to put away my flannel lined jeans (they should be in any list of mankind's best inventions) and put on shorts. As ready as I may be, that is not likely to be practicable for at least another six weeks.

But longing for summer attire made me think of a summer afternoon several years ago when my wife and I made the forty minute ride from our house to Canandaigua, NY. It's a wonderful small town on the northern point of Canandaigua lake; one of New York's famous Finger Lakes. Being from Florida, I feel most at home and relaxed on or near the water so I love being down on the lake during our too-short summers.

Canandaigua Boat Houses
Alongside the city pier there are rows of boat houses. What's interesting about them is that the owners have enlarged and "improved" them to the point that they are rather nice apartments or cottages that just happen to have a covered boat slip instead of a garage. Many of them are brightly painted and decked out in nautical decorations.  I think they are amazing and I took quite a few pictures that day.

This one is one of my favorites.  The colors are vibrant in the bright sun light, the water is not so smooth as to lose all visual interest and the sky... That sky! Puffy white summer clouds in a deep blue sky; when you live in upstate New York a sky like that is something to treasure. I think that all the elements of the picture work really well even though this was one of my earlier attempts. There are several interesting things in the picture besides the boat houses; the two ducks in the foreground, the wonderful reflections rippled by the water, some great leading lines, and the sky. Did I mention the sky?

I did some minor adjustments in Photoshop Elements to brightness, contrast and sharpness. I adjusted the color of the sky to match what it looked like to me that day and I cropped for composition and to move the horizon a little more off the center line. This was one of those times when all the elements came together and the picture I wanted to capture actually showed up on my computer screen when I uploaded them from the camera.

Maybe where you are the temperature has already started to inch its way upwards. You may already be wearing shorts, a t-shirt and flip-flops (my favorite summer wardrobe). But up here, winter is still fighting off spring; yesterday we had 4 inches of snow. But the temperature tomorrow is supposed to be near 60. Which gives me some hope that I might soon dig out my flip-flops from the closet, grab my camera and head for the water.

Monday, March 5, 2012

The One That Got Away

There's a picture I can see in my mind as clearly as if it were right in front of me. It was the shot of a lifetime. But I'll never have a print; it will never be on this blog; nobody will ever "ooh and ahh" over it. I think about this picture every time I pick up my camera.

It was a late summer evening, when the sun still sets late in the day so it may have been about 8:30 pm. The moon was just about full and had risen huge and orange in a clear sky. I was driving home from an afternoon of golf and had marveled at the size and color of the moon hanging on the horizon. As I approached a certain corner about half way home I thought about how I could frame the moon from a certain angle that I knew would place an old dead tree in front of it. There are times when I don't take a camera with me, but as I pulled up to the stop sign I realized this time it was a big mistake.

Sitting in that spiky snag was a huge Red Tail Hawk, regal and deadly, looking out over a wide expanse of mouse-filled grass surrounding his perch. From my vantage he was front lit by the warm glow of the setting sun and backed by the pale, gibbous moon in a blue sky tinted to orange at the horizon. The grassy field spilled up and over a hill in the background.

It was a perfect picture.

I can still see it as clearly as if it were right in front of me.