In December, I had the good fortune of seeing the Punch Brothers‘ show at the Fineline music cafe in downtown Minneapolis. If you have not yet heard this group, headed by mandolinist extraordinaire, Chris Thile, formerly of Nickel Creek, you are in for a treat. They do things with Bluegrass that I never knew were possible; and they do them well.
I was first introduced to the Punch Brothers three years ago, when they played a show at the Cedar Cultural Center, in Minneapolis’ Cedar-Riverside neighborhood. Paul Kowert (an old friend of my partner, Tom’s, as well as the Punch Brothers’ bassist) had recently joined the group, and invited us to come see their show. That show surpassed all my expectations, and as Thile introduced one of four movements of his latest 40 minute composition, I immediately became a fan.
Perhaps not surprisingly, then, it was quite a treat for me to have a chance to photograph them. So many thanks to the band, as well as their manager, Stu, for letting me shoot their show, and posting the photos on their site! Enjoy some of the shots from the evening, below. To see the whole gallery, visit my Punch Brothers Photoshelter gallery.
As the holidays approach, I look forward to lots of picture-taking fodder. For anyone interested in documenting things that are taking place around them, holidays can be wonderful opportunities. Most people lose their self-consciousness to the flow of activities, people, and preparatory work, and it’s easy to quietly slip in and capture images that are natural and organic. The hardest part of photographing people, for me, is enticing them out of their self-consciousness long enough for a good shot, so this is no small thing. Here are my top ten tips this holiday season for shooting documentary-style pictures of your festivities; let me know if you have other good methods to share!
- Keep your camera out and in use throughout the day(s). Most things that are happening are completely photographical, whether it is washing dishes or a rousing game of Catch the Greased Watermelon. Sometimes I get striking, beautiful shots from the most easily-forgotten moments. Another benefit of taking photos throughout the day, is that the people around you become acclimated to being photographed, and will start to forget the camera’s presence. This is a great place to be if you are interested in a documentary approach.
- Keep talking while you photograph. It’s not so easy to keep a semi-natural conversation going when you are wrestling apertures and shutter speeds and ISO’s in your head, but I find that my subjects relax much more quickly if I can keep them distracted, talking or listening. This approach has the added benefit of urging you as a photographer to place more trust in your compositional and technical instincts.
- Be tactful and respectful, but assertive. I became a photographer in part, because I preferred being behind the viewfinder, to being in front of it. I don’t like to make an ordeal when I’m shooting photos, and try to remain as unobtrusive when possible. The line between being respectful and being overly self-conscious, though, can be very grey; in fear of coming across as paparazzi, I have missed many a lovely shot. On the flipside, I feel quite strongly that there are moments that simply shouldn’t be subject to my lens. Sometimes, it’s shooting in the dark (no pun intended) determining what is most appropriate, but as a general rule, I recommend erring on the side of caution. In the spirit of a pursuance of beauty, balance, and art, it is not worth injecting discomfort into a sacred moment for the sake of a photograph; photographs always reflect the tone in which they are taken.
- Re-train your family and friends NOT to “Smile!”. In this age of rampant imagery and cameras, we are all trained from a very young age to say-“Cheese”-and-smile when a camera is pointed at us. The newest cameras now have smile reactors in them, so that the picture will be automatically shot when the subject displays a smile. I have worked long and hard to re-train my friends and family NOT to do this! As fun as cheese-and-smile pictures are, when I shoot, I always hope to get beyond these traditional posed images. My family now knows that they are to completely ignore me when I am photographing them, continuing on with whatever they are involved in.
- Educate your family and friends to appreciate the beauty in documentary photography. As we are all conditioned to see cheese-and-smile pictures of ourselves, let’s be honest, we have all perfected our picture smiles/faces, through long, tedious hours in front of a mirror. This leads many to feel a little discomfited and shocked by seeing natural pictures of themselves. Be prepared for a lukewarm reception to your work at first; but if you feel it’s strong work, stand behind it! This might mean doing a little image-counseling for some, assuring them of their beauty, though it be non-traditional beauty; it might mean deleting certain offensive images (hard though this may be, going through with this is critical to building trust with your subjects [see below]); and it might mean needing to do some explaining about your editing rationalizations. Do it, if you appreciate this style of photography; it’s worth it. They will come around.
- Build trust with your subjects. Just like in any relationship, if you don’t maintain and build up trust with your subjects, you won’t get very far. Cameras inherently possess dominating and colonizing tendencies; the more aware you are of these unspoken dynamics that are present in any photographic relationship, the better you can diffuse them and be sensitive to the subject’s needs. Ultimately, you will get the image that you create; do you want an image that speaks of discomfort and distance (maybe you do, in which case, excellent!) or one that speaks of trust and openness?
- Photograph the food. Every family has food traditions, and holidays tend to be a smorgasbord of heavenly foodscapes. Don’t miss this opportunity to document these feasts! Food is interesting, ever-changing, and is constantly being interacted with (cooked, eaten, presented, prepared), all of which make it an ideal subject. Posting these pictures later to share is also a nice nod to the chef(s) for the hard work they put forth for these ephemeral works of art. A dear friend of mine recently defined an artist as someone who has found their life’s work, and does it with intent and passion. I consider photography an exciting medium through which I can acknowledge the unacknowledged artists in my life.
- Focus on interactions. I find the most compelling documentary images to be those that capture an interaction of some sort. This isn’t always the most obvious interaction happening; keep surveying your surroundings to see the big picture, so you know which details you want to capture.
- Know when to put your camera down. I sometimes fall prey to a feeling of responsibility to capture everything that happens while I am holding a camera; this is detrimental to my own enjoyment and natural engagement with the event in which I am partaking. It is as important to know when to put your camera down as it is to feel assertive and confident in taking pictures. I don’t want to look back at my life and only remember things through the photographs I have captured. I interact differently in a space when I am with camera than I do without; it is good to acknowledge this and make proper accommodations for this.
- Be aware of zoom and angles. Depending on the space, many people in an un-posed situation can be hard to compose nicely in your viewfinder. Move around the space; try new angles; and work different levels of zoom. Keeping yourself active and mobile will also help you to catch smaller moments you otherwise might have missed.
Tom, my darling partner-in-crime-and-life, has been playing with Andrew Ranallo, aka “Nallo” this fall. I first met Andrew when we were young (at least several years ago), playing with my brother, Dez, at the 400 Bar in Cedar-Riverside. Andrew’s sweetness and passion for poetry and music had me at hello; Tom has begun joining Andrew for a few select songs, adding harmonic, melodious overlays and insertions. They played this fall at the Hexagon, followed by Bethany Larson and the Bees Knees, who played a lovely set after Nallo and Tom.
Looking out my window today at the glowing orange, red, and golden yellow Minnesota fall vista, in the park across the street from our house, my thoughts wander back through this fleeting summer we just came through… Tom and I were fortunate enough to have many precious family visits over the summer, spending long weekends and an occasional week with loved ones around Minnesota and Wisconsin. Our families stretch across the globe, all over the United States, to England and Russia, and when you are lucky enough to have family visiting from such distant regions, a four hour car drive doesn’t seem so bad.
In the spirit of the dwindling (or already gone?) summer, I share with you a few snapshots from a couple of memorable visits: a trip to Madison to meet our Russian in-laws, with family coming in from Iowa, Illinois, and Minnesota (us!); and a family reunion in Perham, Minnesota, where my family gathered from all over Minnesota, Virginia, Utah, and Florida. I feel so privileged to have been able to share all of this time with people so dear to me, and hope for many more summers so full of reunions, laughter, frustration, sleepiness, excitement, memories, late nights and early mornings, and all the other experiences and emotions that we go through when we love others so dearly. Love going out to our many family members, wherever you are.
A dear friend of mine, Mandy, was married in the end of August to Ben, her partner. Their wedding was a weekend-long affair, with colorful tents peeking through the woods in the park where their wedding took place, and where a production of Midsummer Nights’ Dream preceded the wedding. (Mandy & Ben are a part of the theater company, Upright Egg, which put on Midsummer as an open-air play this summer.) After this hilarious and rousing reminder of the state into which love can put us, Mandy and Ben were married, barefoot, both in white, (Mandy in her grandmother’s wedding dress and veil), under the gazebo as the sun sank into the western sky.
Mandy and Ben served up the food that they and many family and friends had prepared, on compostable plates, handing out a plate to each guest before sitting and enjoying their own meals. The love and sense of community were inspiring. Many, many thanks to Mandy and Ben’s lovely family and friends, it was wonderful to photograph all of you! Enjoy a few of the shots from the evening…
A few months ago, my partner, Tom, joined a new band. He has been through the rounds of the Minneapolis music scene(s) this past year, playing with a number of bands ranging from R&B and Funk to Jazz to Indy Folk Rock. It’s sort of Reggae this time, he said.
A few short weeks later, Tom and I found ourselves in a van packed with Irie Sol members, tugging along a small U-haul trailer filled with sleeping bags and instruments, headed for Nashville to record an LP at an analogue-only studio called Welcome to 1979. I had been invited to come along to photograph the whole endeavor, and had readily accepted. As our 8:30am planned departure time in reality became 6pm, I wondered if we would ever actually make it to Nashville; but as we drove through state after state, all night long, I began to believe in Irie Sol. We pulled into Nashville around 11am that Friday morning, and through a haze of exhaustion and sleep deprivation, gratefully stepped into the intense heat of a Tennessee morning.
For the next 48 hours, Welcome to 1979 was our home away from home. Chris Mara, owner, engineer, and producer, and his assistant producer, Bridget Guise, made us feel completely at ease in our new surroundings, the vintage-styled studio spaces decorated with ’70’s paraphernalia, cozily frayed furniture, studio magazine features, and an eclectic art collection. After a rejuvenating rest, the band started practicing, gearing up for the recording session the following day. There would be one run-through, the old fashioned way, and the record would be made; hours of practice would garner one 30-minute album, so the pressure was on. As repeated riffs became the ongoing soundtrack of my weekend, I wandered through the studios and practice spaces, gaining a new appreciation for all aspects of effort that go into making music. I spent the two days trying out new photographic angles and notions, battling the studio’s habitual low light, providing peripheral support and encouragement for the band, and observing the workings of this analogue studio. This was why I became a photographer; I couldn’t imagine a happier way to spend my weekend.
Irie is a Rastafarian term, meaning positive vibrations (source: OED online); Sol is the Spanish word for “sun”. This is a fitting name for this group, whose mission is to send out positive, sun-like vibrations wherever they go. I have rarely felt such respect and esteem from a group of self-proclaimed “raggedy” musicians. Many thanks to Irie Sol, for bringing me along on your adventure…
My uncle Kent and aunt Janene requested that I shoot some family portraits this summer, while we were all together at an annual family reunion. As children grow up and begin their own families, I have seen how difficult it can be to get everyone in one place at one time; it was quite something that only one of their children was missing at this event, so they grabbed the opportunity while it presented itself. This beautiful family gathered together after hours of travel from Salt Lake City, Duluth, and Minneapolis, at our grandparents’ farm in Perham, Minnesota. Theo and Jasper, the first grandchildren in this family, (as well as “Blueberry”, pictured here, but as yet still a very small fetus), were particularly excited to see Grandpa Kent and Grandma Janene. Jasper spent most of the week on Grandpa’s lap, impressing us all with the strength of Jasper’s love and trust for Kent, transcending the distance between Utah and Minnesota. Much love going out to all of you in Utah!