Sunday, November 29, 2009

Holiday in New York

Solomon Guggenheim Museum, NYC, November 2009.

Rockefeller Center, NYC, November 2009.

On the taxi ride to JFK Airport for our flight home to San Francisco, our Chinese driver was listening to Luis Miguel sing Bésame Mucho as we drove through Harlem, and at that moment, I started to miss New York before I even left it.

Spending Thanksgiving week in New York was my daughter's idea. She wanted to see the steps of the Met (the Gossip Girl hangout) and the many landmarks she has seen only in movies. As for me, I wanted to be a tourist in the city that was my home for five years.

Soak it up like tourists we did: the illuminated red steps of Times Square; the giant balloons of Macy's Thanksgiving parade; Jude Law, riveting in Hamlet; the prodigious dancer David Alvarez in Billy Elliot; a West Side Story restaged for a politically correct generation; Robert Frank's The Americans at the Met; autumn foliage in Central Park; bargain shopping on Canal Street.

In Central Park Zoo, the eerie green glow of a tropical rain forest pavilion served as the perfect backdrop for portrait-taking. It reminded me of the mismatched dreamscape of the Mona Lisa, but in the actual portraits appeared more akin to the Sleepy Hollow of Tim Burton, whose work was being exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art (which we sadly missed).

Above all, the trip was about spending an entire week in a city I love with the people I love most. I can't wait to return next year in time for Christmas, under the Star of 57th Street!

Monday, November 16, 2009


Aubine, San Francisco, November 2009.

During the last few weeks, I've had the greatest pleasure photographing actors at work on a new production of Jonathan Larsen's musical Rent, which will open in San Francisco in January 2010.

The experience has been fun so far. The actors are as photogenic as they are talented. But it has also been very frustrating for someone like me who is accustomed to working with natural light to take pictures under the glare of fluorescent bulbs. The actors' schedules preclude rehearsing during the day; photographs are taken at night inside a dance studio. Which is all well and good for a studio photographer, which I am sadly not.

This shortcoming had me reaching for my Nikon SB-600 Flash, a perplexing instrument, and making panicked visits to To my technically-addled brain, strobe lighting is akin to rocket science: it is beyond my ken.

These rehearsal pictures and portraits were all taken with the aperture wide open, without a flash, at night. The ratio of blurry throwaway to usable image was naturally very high. But the ones that did work, I loved. Not for any technical merit, of which there is none, but for the actors themselves.

Reportorial photographers like Henri Cartier-Bresson and Antonin Kratochvil were not fond of photographing actors, but were compelled to do so on assignment. Kratochvil hated the trappings and entourage of actors; Cartier-Bresson felt they were incapable of honest gestures. I love actors. I love the way they use their bodies and faces as instruments for performance. Time and again, I have said on this blog that the street is a stage awaiting actors to appear. Now that I'm finally working with real actors, the pressure to do good work unnerves me. And as much as my mind resists the inscrutable science of strobe lighting, I am determined to conquer it before this assignment is done.

Consider Aubine Wise, a Bay Area actress and singer. She has the demeanor of a true performer: mercurial, chameleon-like, as changeable as her many hair styles. She plays Joanna in Rent, a stuck-up, primly suited lesbian, who is as different a character as one can get from this vivacious vixen of an actress. She is a photographer's dream subject.

I am keeping a photo diary for this assignment. It's the kind of blog used for marketing, but I've tried to slip in a few honest observations about the process of creating something good out of limited resources. Fortunately, the show has gifted actors and singers in abundance. The pleasure of working with these actors outweighs the frustration of not being able to make images the way I know best. If I could only set these talents loose on the street, in real light, it would get my juices flowing. In the meantime, I am stuck with ugly fluorescent light and strobes, if I can figure out how to use them in time, to capture the fine hewn faces of these wonderfully gifted actors.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

People crossing

From series Crossing, San Francisco, August 2007.

Can anything be more painfully mundane than crossing the street? It's not even an event or a moment worth recalling (unless you get hit by a bus). Still I find myself crouched in corners of pavements maniacally snapping picture after picture of people crossing the street. They eyeball me with baffled curiosity - what is he doing? - and I take their picture in mid-step.

I like to photograph my pedestrians right before twilight, when the late afternoon light is harsh. The light blinds their eyes like a spotlight and illuminates their faces like actors on an asphalt stage. I like the split second between waiting and crossing, right after the green light signals them to move. Inertia and action. At rest, their faces look to the sun; the signal turns green, and they all bow to watch their step.

Sometimes I squeeze myself into a passing crowd to take pictures upclose. I cross the street back and forth with the camera against my chest, and press the shutter blind. Seldom do I foresee the result; usually I get throwaways. But once in a while serendipity smiles and out comes a picture I like, a group portrait of city dwellers in a rush. The subjects' brows are furrowed, their hands are clutched securely around their purses. They are harried, annoyed, their hair swept up by speed. They look real.

Back at the curb, a solitary man waits for the light to change. Another person joins him, then another, then yet another. Soon there is a row of people on the curb, a chorus line, a group shot. Stitched together in a series, a pedestrian Christmas tree. Photographs take the ordinariness out of the mundane for a very simple reason: people are interesting.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Frozen: A cemetery in Colma

Tombstone medallions, Colma, August 2007.

The city of Colma is the only city in the Bay Area that has more dead people than alive. So goes the joke. In an overcast day in August, we find ourselves alone in this city of the dead, save for a large flock of pigeons that circle us with military precision. Immediately I am reminded of Graciela Iturbide's birds (left); in Iturbide's world, the companions of mortality. All around us, the winged, crowned and dolorous icons of Catholicism keep vigil over the stillness, forever frozen in mournful repose.

This is where it all ends, I say to myself, not with regret or irony. Everywhere, signs of life. More precisely, signs of lives lived. As mother, father, husband, wife, lover, sibling, child. On the grass, a wayward tombstone reads "Mother". Whose mother, it does not say; perhaps mothers everywhere, mother eternal.

A magnificently winged Archangel Michael stands on high like a decorated general, one finger pointing at the heavens. Has he come to chastise the dead or shepherd his minions for one last battle for the ages? On one headstone we stage a tableau of the left-behind, a portrait of a lover's grief, disbelief and recrimination.

Everywhere, portraits from many lifetimes ago frozen in shiny medallions. For the most part, Italian faces of all ages, rendered beautifully in studio duotones that have outlived their sitters. The repeated gazing at portrait after portrait unnerves me. These staring eyes from centuries past, now dead eyes, recall the hair-raising scene from Alejandro Amenábar's movie, The Others, when the housekeeper reveals the truth to Nicole Kidman about a sheaf of photographs of people who are ostensibly asleep: "They're all dead, mum."

Graciela Iturbide, The Bird Man, Nayarit, Mexico, 1984.