Sunday, November 29, 2020

Men in Hats, Part Three

Most of the images in the series, Men in Hats, are candids of friends, acquaintances, and passersby on the winding road of life. You may have noticed that most are of old people for obvious reasons. That’s my social set. But I have also done the occasional formal portrait session either on location or in the studio. Yes, I do have a professional set-up in Peggy’s studio, but it needs to be dusted off, re-assembled and relearned for the rare formal occasion. Come to think of it, my Profoto lights, soft boxes, Pocket Wizard transceivers and the rest of the gear were all acquired after taking a portrait lighting class with Alan Thornton at the Santa Fe Workshops a decade ago. I am an unapologetic gear slut. Thankfully, I bought the pricey Profoto strobes on Ebay so my cost per use is down to $500. There's an interesting sidebar about Thornton. After stints as a commercial photographer in Boston and Portland, OR he became a wilderness firefighter and shoots from the field for Getty Images. The man craves action. 

In Alan’s class, Lighting on Location, we used reflectors and Profoto units with an array of modifiers, most notably 4-foot soft boxes of which I have two. While we also dabbled with beauty dishes and grids in various combinations, I gravitate to the diffuse and forgiving softbox. I even use a small LumiQuest for my Speedlight. It's an easy to use, portable tool when I can't find open shade.

Beyond the bounty of gear afforded by the Santa Fe Workshops were a bevy of professional models. Donald Blake shown here is the most exemplary of them. Famed location photographer Joe Nally calls Donald his favorite model ever and he's photographed hundreds maybe thousands.

Upon Donald’s death a couple of years back Reid Callanan, the founder and owner of the Santa Fe Workshops, wrote that Blake had modeled for his organization for twenty years and that the school published a retrospective to commemorate his passing. In his commentary Callanan extoled Donald’s amazing grasp of the portrait-making craft and not just from the model’s perspective. Callanan suggested that Donald. “offered more insights and advice than many of our instructors.” I can attest to this. While I was making his portrait, he told me where to place the lights, what angle would work best, even the f-stop. He was unfailingly right.

Donald was recovering from a life-threatening illness at the time. He appeared frail but was 100% engaged. Since we were shooting in a recently abandoned hospital, we had ghoulish props aplenty. In fact, was sitting in a wheelchair between green walls when these were taken.

It's fitting that the first two photographs in the book, Donald, are by Joe McNally. It’s available from

This post was going to feature two professional models but I've changed my mind. Donald Blake must have his own post. JT, the self-proclaimed former street tough from Chicago can wait his turn. Whippersnapper.

Sunday, November 22, 2020

Men in Hats - Part Two

Joe Graves joins Juma Archuletta in this week’s edition of Men in Hats. Each of these special men left a gaping void in our little burg. By burg I mean Taos, NM.

Joe was a real mountain man, a self-reliant man of the earth. He was born in Carson, NM on what we Taoseños call the West Rim. It’s said that his father was born in Abiquiu, Georgia Keefe’s New Mexico home. There’s damn near nothing in Carson; a post office, an on again off again convenience store and the stone one room schoolhouse where Joe must have gone to grammar school. He was part cowboy, part miner, part craftsmen and a renowned water witch. He was also a born again Christian and a gentle soul. And at the same time Joe was a tough son of a bitch. According to his friend Lindsey Enderby, himself an epic Taos character, on one occasion Joe pulled his own abscessed tooth, carved a facsimile out of wood, and tied it in with fishing line. It’s safe to say there were no anesthetics involved. I was relieved to hear that when he had the money Joe replaced the temporary with a real chopper he bought in Puerto Palomas, Mexico. Dental tourism is the life blood of Palomas as I learned a year ago on a visit to Columbus, NM on the US side of the border. Columbus is best known as the site of a 1916 raid by Pancho Villa. And in 2011 the town made national news when federal helicopters swooped down to arrest Mayor Eddie Espinoza, the police chief and nine others for smuggling guns to drug cartels in Mexico.

Juma was my barber and good friend. He was the unofficial mayor of Taos whose barber shop was the place to catch up on the latest gossip. He was a bon vivant, a raconteur, a patron of the arts and an astute observer of the political world. At opening time (7am by the way) you'd see him ensconced in a barber chair with the New York Times spread before him. His shop was a bastion of manly men, irreverent commentary and of neatly stacked magazines of, ahem, educational value. Whenever I was away from Taos for more than a couple of weeks my ritual was an early morning visit to Juma’s for a cut and, more importantly, the latest on the murky world of Taos politics. Juma always knew who did what to whom and why they did it weeks before made the Taos News. I swear he could predict the future.

Juma, full name Emiliano Juma Archuleta also known as Raoul, chose to be a barber right out of high school in Animas, Colorado and pursued that dream in Denver in the early sixties.  He told me he had to get the hell out of Animas. He declared several times that he'd fold his tent when he had completed fifty years of barbering. He wanted to retire on his own terms, but the cancer didn't accommodate the dream. I had wanted to document the waning days of Juma’s shop aka Raoul’s Brotherhood of Love and floated the idea several times. Because he had been given a terminal cancer diagnosis, he worried that the story would really be about his decline and imminent demise, so he demurred, and I didn't press. 

And, credit where credit is due, he was one heck of a barber. He recounts that right out of barber school he went to work for a barber in a Denver hotel, maybe The Ambassador, and that he “was lucky” because his boss was “ a good cutter.” Gotta love the lingo. Juma was a really good cutter and a better friend.

Come to think of it I never saw Joe or Juma without a hat. Male pattern baldness may have been a factor.

Sunday, November 15, 2020

Men in Hats - Part One

How things have changed since I started this blog in 2006. Back then my posts were simple confections with an image or two and 75 word paragraphs. The nascent blog was about photographs. Those early efforts featured a photograph or two with a short description of the image(s). That's it. Then sometime in our adventure together I began telling stories and the images took on a supporting role. In 2018 while scouting the location of my one and only wedding shoot I started to call myself a writer, at least in my fertile imagination. I remember the very moment I made that leap. And about the same time I inaugurated my byline Telling Stories in the online photography magazine, Shadow and Light. In fact, editor and publisher Tim Anderson reached out to me because I could tell a story in few words. That's a virtue I guess.

In this week’s post I’m straddling photography and storytelling with the first of a series of posts dedicated to portraits of men wearing headgear. Welcome to Men in Hats, Part One. Actually the series is of portraits and the hat thing gave me a handle.

George Hurley and Peter Lev met at the University of Colorado in Boulder in the late fifties. Both became skilled rock climbers whose careers were built on that heady pursuit. Both self-possessed men have lived their lives their way. Other than his time teaching school in Africa with his wife Jean after almost getting his Masters in English, George made his living as a climbing guide and climbing school director until his retirement a decade ago.

Peter Lev

Peter walked a similar path as a climbing guide, mountaineer, and an avalanche forecaster. In 1979 he became part owner on Exum Mountain Guides in the Grand Tetons and the chief avalanche guru at Alta Ski Resort in the Wasatch Mountains of Utah. Peter calls avalanche forecasting a “dark art” and would be the first to say it’s part science and part Kentucky windage. Lick your forefinger, stick it in the air and guess which way the wind is blowing. Not much more than sorcery in his view.

George met Peter in the Needles in South Dakota’s Custer State Park in 2008 for what turned out to be his 50th Anniversary climb and Peter’s 48th. George was already putting up first ascents throughout the Southwest in the late fifties, often with Layton Kor with whom he had a charged relationship. George always referred to Layton as “Kor” in a tone chilled with ice.

George, now retired, continues to climb the granite faces of the White Mountains of New Hampshire where he lives with his wife Jean whom he rescued from a rocky face in Boulder’s Flatirons in 1959. One imagines Jean’s breathless “My hero” when he saved her comely self.

Peter guided in South Dakota for Sylvan Rocks, his own guiding company, after leaving Exum in 2009. Last time we spoke he was living in Ouray, Colorado with a den of retired guides in what he calls “a tarpit of old climbers.” I love that description.

When we were talking about his Ouray tarpit, I told him about Kim Reynolds, a climber and guide a generation his junior who happens to live just up the road in Ridgeway. I extoled Kim’s considerably virtues and Peter exclaimed, “I should meet her.” The lanky dude’s not dead yet.

When I first posted this image back in 2008, Peter made it clear that he thought the photograph made him look old. Taut, sinewy and sharp as a cut glass, perhaps. And old or not he used it on his website. And it’s still the headshot on his Facebook page. You’re welcome.

Sunday, November 08, 2020

Under a Big Sky

A dozen years ago I took an advanced Photoshop workshops from John Paul Caponigro at the Santa Fe Workshop. To say it was “advanced” is an understatement. John Paul, the son of legendary photographer Paul Caponigro, was already a master of Photoshop and led us through a labyrinth of techniques for which most of us were ill prepared. How I stayed above water is a mystery to me. I had basic PS skills gained from an adult education class at the high school in Conway NH but barely kept up. But all in all it was a great course that has held me in good stead ever since.

JP had asked us to bring examples of our work. I suppose that was to show the kind of photography we favored and our level as printers. Having come from a darkroom background I had a grasp of the basic digital darkroom. The only manipulations I performed back them were the ones I had done in the wet darkroom for fifty years; exposure, contrast and the occasional dodging and burning. I also toned my prints to warm them up. In the wet darkroom I used selenium toner and in the digital studio I learned to accomplish a similar result with Hue and Saturation. That little trick I learned from an LA art director while on a horsepacking trip to Canyon de Chelly a couple of years before. At the time of the Caponigro workshop I was specializing in still lifes, architecturals and the occasional portrait. There were a handful of landscapes in the package but nothing I emphasized at the time. That fact did not escape John Paul’s scrutiny as he declared, “Your landscapes are your weak point.” Duly chastened, I had to admit that was the case.

In the annals of 20th century photography landscapes loom large. We immediately think of Ansel Adams and the other mid-century masters from the f.64 school. And even if landscapes aren’t foremost in my mind even today, they do play a role. That’s especially true when terrestrial subject is enveloped by a monumental sky. An epic sky dwarfs even the most imposing cliff face. And it puts a dwelling, a pasture, a corral, or a human figure into perspective. We and what we have wrought are but specks in immensity of the cosmos.

I was approaching Grand Junction, CO as I drove west toward California’s Wine Country; an annual trek during the vendage or grape harvest. Two miles east of Grand Junction an imposing rock formation came into view. I got off at the next exit and wove my way through a middle-class neighborhood looking for the butte. At the height of land near the freeway I found a grassy hillock with a perfect view of Book Cliffs, so named for their appearance as bookshelves. The sun was descending so that every striation was revealed in glorious detail. The billowing sky above the imposing cliffs illustrated the partnership of earth and sky in creating the monumental landscape.

Darkness fell over Cow Springs, AZ on the Navajo Nation midway between Tuba City and Kayenta. The falling sun washed the row of trailers with a silver glow. It was oddly welcoming. The dusk turning black made the desert seem endless; a yawning empty with 27,413 tribal members strewn across 173,667 square miles of arid scrub. That calculates to 6.3 people per square mile. Manhattan has 67,000 people per square mile which lends some hard to grasp relativity. The Navajo reservation is the size of the state of West Virginia and has the population of Carlsbad, NM.

Driving back through Navajo Country and nearing the New Mexico border past Mexican Water a mesa north of US 160 glowed with the waning sun. Shafts of walking rain dropped a veil before the mountains in the distance.

A thirty-minute stroll from our house in the picture book village of Baudinard sur Verdon was a furrowed field glowing in the twilight. A painter’s sky whipped with wind brushed the scene with a late summer shimmer. The magic hour kissed the stone outbuilding. I photographed the timeless tableau then we ambled home for a local rosé under the grape arbor at our kitchen door.

We drove to nearby Villecroze for a recital at the Chapel of Saint Victoire. Featured was a symphony with all the parts written for and played by the bassoon. Wrap your mind around that unlikely evening; a bassoon symphony in a 15th century church with 80 of your closest friends. 

Before the performance we darted into a small shop and noticed a poster for an exhibition of English photographer, Michael Kenna. 

The next day we drove to Bargeme, 45 miles east to see it. The exhibition at Le Soufflé des Arts was excellent as expected. The surprise was Bargeme which we’d never have seen but for the McKenna show. That he’d even have an exhibit in a tiny, remote town was a puzzle. I later learned that the gallerist was a close friend of the artist. Bargeme at 1,097 meters the highest point in the Var; France’s richest department.  At the height of land or “belvedere” stood the ruins of a 12th century castle, Sabran du Ponteves. The storm swept sky amplified the power of the stone relic which had been left to decay after the religious wars from 1562 and 1598. The war between the Catholics and the Calvinist Huguenots cost three million lives.

From the house we shared with ten painters in the hamlet of Keremma, Brittany, Jacques Rousseau led us on a short walk to the Eglise Guévroc, a medieval chapel nestled in the sand dunes above the sea. Rousseau, the de facto mayor of the family owned village and the son of the military attaché to Algeria during the brutal Battle of Algiers, carried the only key to the gloriously situated church. Pierre told us the macabre history within its walls. They were built with enough space to bury the town's male decedents close to Saint Guévroc. It's a creepy backstory for such an idyllic setting.

Heading south on US 285 toward Cline’s Corners, I was on the hunt for dirt tracks leading into the prairie. As I photographed, I imagined that the deep ruts fading into the shallow hills to the east had been made by wooden wheeled wagons a century before. It wasn’t until I was processing the image that I recognized the contrails pointing into the frame. They made the photograph. Sometimes you only see what’s in front of you and the dawning comes later.

We had just left Wanblee, the headquarters of the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. The vast reservation encompasses Oglala Lakota County, the poorest in the country with 90% unemployment and 89% of its citizens living below the poverty line. There are no jobs and Pine Ridge has no natural resources or industry. It does have rampant alcoholism and drug addiction and little hope that it will improve. Its life expectancy is 66.8 years. Pine Ridge vies with Trona, California as the bleakest place I’ve visited in America. Both places exude a forbidding vibe, an ominous resentment I either felt or projected. There was palpable fear like I felt in Trona, a drug mecca in sprawling San Bernardino County. In Wanblee it was the simmering anger of despair. Wanblee and Trona feel like the Siberian steppes with a gulag loomed around the bend. Yet there’s a tragic beauty to Pine Ridge’s bleached emptiness.

In the high Moreno Valley 25 miles and 2,000 feet above Taos I came across a tumbledown corral in a high meadow. The Moreno Valley, Angel Fire and Eagle Nest are cattle country and is as close to Texas as you can get and still be in New Mexico. That I admit is a stretch. A lot of New Mexico could be part of Texas. In High Lonesome the sky is once again the difference maker. The swirling clouds complement the collapsing fence and soft grassy hillside. The elements in the image collaborate for the feeling of a day’s end on the eastern slope of the Sangre de Cristos.

This is the winter trailer or campo of The Last Shepherd, Victor Hernandez. It’s the 29th of January and the next day he’ll begin trailing his herd of 350 sheep back to the ranch in Mogote, Colorado. It will take two days and I’ll walk with him. Victor’s campsite sits on the Taos Plateau between the Pinabetoso Peaks. Look closely and you’ll see Victor’s bent figure next to his trailer. The sheep chomp on white sage along the hillside beyond him on the right. How small they all seem beneath the towering winter sky.

This post which includes images you've seen before is a draft of my November-December article in Shadow and Light Magazine.

Sunday, November 01, 2020

A little street music

Walk on by, Madrid

When I sat down to write my November- December article for Shadow and Light my heart was set on an examination of Street Photography. In fact, I had written a couple of hundred words when I realized that a full throated exploration of that broad topic would fill the entire magazine. Further, illustrating the piece with my own street photographs lunges toward hubris. But I do love capturing a slice of life, memorializing a moment worth remembering and recording a thread of history.

Trabajadores, Antigua, Guatemala

Choreography, Los Angeles

From the Hotel Medio Dia, Madrid

I was pivoting toward the monumental landscape and the epic sky as I typed the last sentence. Then it dawned that a big part of my heart belongs to street photography and I’m sticking to my guns. Street Photography it shall be.

Out of the shadows, Las Vegas, NM

The tin man, Antigua, Guatemala

First Communion, Antigua, Guatemala

The first photograph, apropos to the subject, was a street photograph in 1816 by Joseph Nicéphore Niépce. It was a Paris street scene without a human subject. I say “made” because the cameras of the day were clumsy and slow, and the processes were wet, sloppy, unforgiving. Those folks could time the exposure with a calendar. I exaggerate just slightly. So, while street photography and “Candid” Photography have been used somewhat interchangeably those early efforts were far from candid. Photographs of actual breathing humans were posed, static and still. Stopping motion would have been quite impossible. Though in 1838 Louis Daguerre captured a standing man at a doorway at the distance. The first mechanism definable as a “shutter” appeared in 1845. It was invented by two French, you are shocked, physicists Messrs. Fizeau and Foucault. The shutter was based on yet another laudable French invention, the guillotine. The device was a board with a hole in the center. When the shot was made, the board dropped into a slot in front of the lens. We know that Matthew Brady used a Guillotine shutter starting in 1850 and through the Civil War. And by 1870 a shutter was developed that would allow a 1/50th of a second shutter speed which with enough ambient light would produce an image with only half the humans blurred.

Slumber, Madrid

Ticket please, Avignon

We have made a mighty leap since those tedious days. We’ve leapt to high resolution digital cameras which deliver nighttime photographs shot at an ISO of 12,800 with little apparent noise. We have no excuses.

Street Photography takes in a lot of territory and, certainly if it infers spontaneity and the capture of discrete moment in time, photojournalism must be included within it. And it’s from photojournalism that come the most important photographs in history. Some of them rise to the level of high art and are far more than a record.

Memorable street photographs have important content and strong composition. Most photographs have content important or worth memorializing to the photographer. Good design is harder to come be. Cartier-Bresson suggested that the composition of a photograph should be subject to the same rigors of a painting. This from a man who began as a painter only to discover he was a better photographer. Juxtapositions within an image create tension between the elements in the frame. There can be two elements competing for the viewer’s attention or several.

Since the mid-19th century, we’ve had a fascination with verité in photography. Grit and pathos undergird the pantheon of street photography and of photojournalism. Street Photography documents the arch of social change like nothing else. The transitional moments in our history for 200 years have been saved for posterity by street photographers and photojournalists who are there when the event occurs. You have to be there to get the shot.

Legendary photographer Joel Meyerowitz has said. “I think that as long as there’s photography, there’ll always be people trying to make street pictures….” Meyerowitz called the good ones “tough” pictures. “Tough” was a term we used a lot. Stark.” he added. Tough meant it was unflinching, hard to see and yet unforgettable. Tough meant hard to do. If it were easy everybody would do it. Make a photograph so profound that the viewer feels what your subject was feeling. Make a photograph that tells a story or that demands that one to be written by the viewer for the image before them.