Friday, December 3, 2010

Canon's New 70-300mm "L" Lens

When I started this blog, I deliberately decided not to write anything about gear, especially cameras and lenses.  As a Canon "Explorer of Light," I think my judgments can be looked at with a certain amount of skepticism.  More importantly, all of the online pixel peeping and blogging about gear has created an obsession with perfection.  Many of the greatest images ever made were taken with manually focused lenses, well before the age of auto focus or  auto aperture, let alone image stabilization.

Occasionally, a piece of gear comes along which is quietly revolutionary, and in that regard, Canon's new 70-300mm "L" lens is, to say the least, extraordinary.  Yesterday I went into New York with the intention of shooting some test shots to show just what this lens is capable of producing.  

A few caveats: all these images were made on a 7D body, which is not full frame.  Is the lens equally as sharp corner to corner on FF ?  Honestly, I haven't tested it yet on the 5D2.  On the 7D, at the 300mm end, it has an effective focal length of 480mm.

Though I shot some images wide open, I deliberately chose apertures of anywhere from f/8 to f/22 for many of the shots as I wanted depth of field when I wasn't shooting parallel to a building.  The first image here, was shot at f/13 and 1/45th of a second.  You read that right.  1/45th second, 480mm focal length.  Hand held.

Besides being the sharpest zoom I have ever used—whether from Canon or Nikon—there is no visible barrel or pincushion distortion at any focal length, nor is there any chromatic aberration.  And yes, shooting at f/13 should be way beyond the "diffraction limit" of the 7D's 1.6X sensor.  So much for theory.  

This lens is a tank.  Relatively short, thick, and somewhat heavy.  Yet compared to, say, the 70-200mm f/2.8, it's a "baby."  

There is one thing, though, that sets this lens apart—I can hand hold it, CONSISTENTLY, at 1/30th second and get sharp images.  The image stabilization of this lens, combined with its balance, shortness and heft, put it beyond the Twilight Zone of reason.  There are some lenses that are examples of the best art and science of optical design.  The Zeiss 21mm f/2.8 Distagon is one, as is the Nikon 14-24mm zoom.

Obviously, I feel that the Canon 70-300mm "L" is in that league.  For the first time ever, I can shoot at an effective focal length of 480mm, at 1/45th or 1/30th of a second, and get extremely sharp, distortion-free images.

Yes, I know, you want to know about "bokeh," or how it does wide open, or full frame, or...well, like I said, this is not supposed to be an analytical examination about "line pairs" of resolution.  This is one sharp lens that makes it easy for me to make images that I could never make before.  That's more than good enough for me: Canon 70-300mm L.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

"TR" and the First 79

On Monday, August 9th, former Syracuse University professor Tom Richards ("TR") turns 79.  Mentor to a generation of photographers who have made their mark on modern photography, Richards taught and befriended such photographers as Stephen Wilkes, Seth Resnick, Bob Sacha, Clint Clemens, Ed Kashi, Nancie Battaglia, Walter P. Calahan, Nancy Leigh, and myself, as well as Sean Callahan, the founder of American Photographer magazine, which, for the ten years he edited it, was a substantially different magazine than its successor, American Photo.  

Among us, we've published more than a dozen books, on subjects ranging from a biography of Margaret Bourke-White, to a book on Ellis Island, and one on India; photographed luminaries such as Bill Gates and Bruce Springsteen; and worked for magazines ranging from Life to Time.  Seth Resnick's workshops on digital imaging, Bob Sacha's numerous photo essays for National Geographic, and Clint Clemens' groundbreaking use of computers in his photography—all of them have in common the influence, the teaching, and the drive of the man behind those two initials, "TR."
I took a course in color printing and color theory from Tom, in the late Sixties, but my own recollections of that time remain myopic—blurred with the passage of time, much like the Vaseline filters that were the rage in those days, along with fisheye lenses and LSD.   Yes, "TR" had me pegged.  'Timothy Leary?   Doctor Timothy Leary?  What kind of doctor is he?' he would ask sarcastically as he dashed up the back stairwells of Newhouse  1  between his third floor office and the lab, his white lab coat flapping in his wake. recall working for the student newspaper, photographing the FBI photographing the Berrigan brothers (renegade priests and anti-war activists), and being pinned against a wall by TR almost every day, in a jovial bout of questioning about some arcane corner of photographic technology.  One time he started rattling off Wratten filter numbers and asking me to describe their color--#12, 15, 21, 23, 25, 32, 47, 58...we kept going for 5 minutes, when he got all the way up to #102 and flashed his schoolboy grin at me, his eyes sparkling, and his eyebrows arched as if to say "Gotcha Meola !"   Until I simply looked at him with no emotion and said "lime green."

Those encounters have stayed with me to this day. Friend and former magazine editor (now retired, but currently Adjunct Professor at SU) Sean Callahan, had these thoughts about this particular side of TR: "His exercise with you with the Wratten filters is a good example of the level he would go to challenge the individual. I doubt that he would do that to any other student, even a grad student, because it is pretty arcane stuff. Tom didn't mind taking on the challenge you were as a student, and actually relished it because he had made his mark in the profession, so he was comfortable as a practitioner. I believe this gave him the foundation to be a creative teacher."

Yet, to be honest, in those days I was far more concerned with being drafted. I only had one eye on photography; my real focus was what was going on in Vietnam.  I was a full blown child of the Sixties.  Again, Sean, who somehow has maintained more brain cells than I from those heady times, recalls the following about my introduction to TR:

"An English major with thoughts about being a writer (NOT a photographer), you were a live-at-home townie with little interest in campus activity until you responded to my call for help at the 'Daily Orange' (S.U.'s student newspaper) and you presented yourself with a list of hardware that was more modern and extensive than anything in the newspaper’s darkroom. ('What the *#@^*%#@??? is a Macbeth Quantalog Densitometer used for?')

I kept prodding you to take a course with TR at the J-school and you only agreed to meet with him when I made the argument that you could easily boost your grade point average with a photo course.  I had sung your praises to TR prior to the meeting, and don’t recall what transpired between you, other than he had to get department head Fred Demarest’s OK since you obviously were going to have to come in at an advanced level and work in color (Fred’s domain.)"
One of my photo heroes at the time was Ernst Haas, and when he was invited to talk at S.U., I was front and center.  Haas was renowned for introducing color to magazine photography, notably in Life, in the early 1950s with his sometimes lyrical imagery.  Of particular note was an essay he shot on bullfighting in Spain using the original Kodachrome (ASA 10) and slow shutter speeds to create some remarkable (for the time) impressionistic images. Haas' appearance obviously had the effect on his students that TR hoped for.Shortly thereafter, I got an assignment from the the yearbook editor to show the university's diversity. With refrains in my ears of TR's mantra to always look for a new way of seeing something that might be tried and true, I took a young Nigerian exchange student out to the newly constructed terminal at Syracuse's airport, and panned the camera as he ran against a bright red, enameled brick wall, his native robes unfurling in the wind.  It was the first time I knew I had caught TR's attention, and that I felt I had made a leap in the way I saw.

TR's edgy irreverence with students always came with a demanding playfulness. He constantly challenged you to make better pictures—sometimes even in competition with himself. Just to keep his edge, TR would be the AP stringer for SU football games. (This was the Floyd Little/LarryCzonka era when SU was always in newsworthy contention for NCAA glory.) TR would help qualified students get sideline credentials. Sean sometimes got a credential for UPI, thereby putting him elbow-to-elbow with TR during the game. TR would heckle him all during the game but never offered any guidance.  This was, after all, the real world, and the student needed to learn to survive in it.  Later he would ask to see the student's take and offer helpful criticism, albeit sardonically delivered.

As Sean recalls, "Perhaps the biggest event of my sophomore year was the week I beat TR to the Sunday NYTimes sports page. That was the only time UPI edged AP in Syracuse that season but it was enough for me. TR grudgingly mentioned it in class the next week, claiming it was an example of egregious photo editing. I beamed and it was obvious that he was proud, too—but not too obvious about it such that I would get cocky."

Photographer Ed Kashi, got a taste of another side of TR:
“I have many memories of TR, and not all of them are easy or pleasant. He never made me feel a part of the group and was, I felt, quite tough on me. But what he did was prepare me for a life in photography.  When I was a senior and about to graduate, I asked him to write me a letter of recommendation. What I got back was unusable. He basically ripped me apart in that letter. It was a sobering lesson for what was about to come as I entered the 'real world' of professional photography.
TR was also a very kind man, generous and strong. If he liked you, there was no end to what he would do for you. My sense is that he expected people to give it their all and learn what it meant to be mature and professional. His judgment of me, way back then, was probably good for me. He kept me honest and humbled; and forced me to conjure up my inner strength and resolve, which prepared me for the future. His tough expectations were a good thing for an undisciplined, but eager, kid.”
Here are recollections of other former students who stand in TR's debt: 

"TR" and the First 79 (continued)

My career path didn’t lead me to being a photographer but a magazine editor, albeit one with a great appreciation of the use of photography. That came from TR. I recall getting into an upper level class where the class would descend on an upstate daily one afternoon, attend a story meeting, get a local assignment and then report, write and layout a feature for the next day’s issue. Next week, another strange town.  Tom convinced the graduate faculty running the class that I could do the work and take pictures too. I did and that’s where I learned about the interplay of words and images that, a few short years later, led to a position at the weekly Life as a reporter/editor and eventually picture editor. Wouldn’t have happened but for the enthusiasm and encouragement of TR.
Tom Richards was refreshingly outgoing and friendly compared to other faculty, behaving more like a big brother than a college professor. In reading Seth Resnick's posting here I was surprised to learn that in later years some students had been invited out to his home in rural Tully, about six miles from campus, where he had carved a landing strip for his vintage tow plane and glider that were always being "modified."
From watching him work in the lab equipment room, it was obvious that he was gifted mechanically. I can only imagine what he had accomplished at home. Yet, as gregarious and charming as he was—to me at least—he always maintained a certain distance.  He dodged intimacy. The fact that there was this "Waldo Pepper" side of his character intimated that there was much more to TR than what he showed on campus.  I was not surprised to learn that for many years he was an active Navy Reserve Commander—in Intelligence.
What I also recall TR doing was to give me the freedom to be myself. A former newspaperman, he was firm with deadlines, but as a professor, he didn’t let the 'academy' get in the way of creativity. As Jann Wenner once told me about why he fired Annie Leibovitz, 'She kept getting further and further out on a limb. I couldn’t stop her, so I sawed it off.'  Unlike Wenner, Richards wasn’t running a business, so he could afford to let us go out on a limb and be ourselves, knowing that, if we fell, the truly talented ones would always land on their feet.

TR got me the job of maintaining the chemicals which meant that I had the keys to the lab and studio with 24/7 access. One Sunday night I was working on a personal project and had the stereo/PA system on full blast (probably Procol Harum) throughout the labs and studio. Unfortunately, Dean Clark had come into the office that night and traced the racket down to the lab. Using his pass key, he let himself in. Now I’m not sure if the set up was the same in later years but just opposite the front door was an area with matte cutters and dry mount presses used for the preparation of portfolios. There was a sign above the countertop that said 'Mounting Area.' And that, along with my bare buttocks, is what  greeted Dean Clark as he caught me in flagrante delicto.
The Dean closed the door as suddenly as he opened it and disappeared without saying a word.  I should have been fired, let alone expelled, but somehow Tom saved my cheeky ass. The next day he condemned me for it but through it all his face was beet red from a combination of embarrassment (he possesses a Puritan streak) and the strain of suppressed laughter.
His gift to me was confidence, knowing that at some point I would fall, but land on my feet.  Eventually, in my case.
It was the Fall of 1978 and I was in London for a semester abroad along with Bob Sacha, Stephen Wilkes and Nancy Leigh. Bob, Stephen and I bonded and we became the "three amigos." The whole class took a photographic trip to Scotland but very early in the trip the three amigos were a little disenchanted. We did not want to stop at locations with 20 other photo students all photographing the same thing so we privately expressed our concern to TR. His reaction was classic TR... He essentially said that we all need to stay together as a class and that he was responsible for u,s but that if we rented a car and suddenly took a wrong turn...well...we might have to all hook up in Loch Ness.
Bob and Stephen and I looked at each other, and then smiled at TR. The class turned left at the corner.  We turned right.  We got a map, talked to a few locals over a few beers, and then headed straight to the Scottish Highlands. The three of us had an amazing time, and it was a life-changing experience. All three of us photograph things very differently, but we all love light, and love adventure. The highlands have breathtakingly lush scenery. We headed to Aviemore, which is a ski area in the Cairngorms National Park . Stephen was so amazed at the light and the enormous valley below that he nearly fell off a cliff.  While the class "group" was photographing sheep, we were off on a "real" photographic expedition. We shot non-stop—no group dinner, and our only self-imposed rule was "just make great pictures." We eventually met up with the class at Loch Ness and I still recall the sheepish grin on TR's face as he said, "well, well, well...what happened to you boys, you take a wrong turn or something?"

TR is the kind of teacher you find once in a blue moon. Sure he taught, and sure he gave us Kodachrome from the Navy refrigerator (The Navy had a journalism program at SU and was very well equipped).  More importantly, TR taught us to feel photography from within, and helped each of us build confidence and find our own styles. He inspired each of us by  managing to help us discover our own strengths and taught us to challenge those strengths.  When the semester in London was over, the "three amigos" became college roommates and we are still close friends.  TR continued to challenge us, and to push each of us. One day after our return from London, he said, 'Seth why don't you march down to the Syracuse newspapers and get yourself a job?'  When I mentioned just how I was going to go about it he said something profound like,  'Well Seth you will find a way...just show 'em your stuff!'  He had many funny little expressions, but they all had a bigger meaning. I did show 'em my stuff, and was given an internship, which led to a staff position which was  excellent training for a young photojournalist.
Nancy Leigh
Photography remained my personal passion rather than a profession, and TR has been a tremendous supporter of mine through the years.  We have remained in close contact since I graduated from S.U. 30 years ago.  It’s a tribute to TR that all these years later, he is still teaching, critiquing, and inspiring me to reach higher levels in my work. Is a professor’s work ever done?  Not for someone whose work is his passion.  Not for TR.

After taking the necessary black-and-white introductory courses at Syracuse, my photographic world changed when I met TR. It was like entering Oz, The Land of Color, and TR the Wizard was there to greet us.  If you had the enthusiasm, made the effort and had talent, TR would guide you along the yellow brick road.

After my summer photo internship at Rolling Stone magazine, TR offered me a job in the darkroom which gave me 24/7 access (remember the “cage girl” who gave out darkroom equipment?  No, it wasn’t exotic dancing).  Then TR led a program abroad in London; portfolio required for acceptance. I swear, I must have been the last one accepted; after all, the class included accomplished photographers Stephen Wilkes, Bob Sacha and Seth Resnick.  Then TR gave me an opportunity as a stringer photographer for UPI—I remember my last assignment was to photograph the Carrier Dome as it was being inflated.  I think I spent more time jumping up and down on top of the dome like a trampoline than I did photographing it.  No wonder my photos had, let’s just say, excessive camera movement.

TR lives in Tully, NY with his loving wife, Norma, surrounded by his children, grandchildren, cats, golf and card buddies.  He is a Methodist, and sings in the choir. TR’s pride and joy is "the cabin"—a large house on magnificent land—he built with his bare hands.  As he once told me, "There’s a dab of tar under every one of those shingles."  On any given day, you can call TR at the cabin, and when his answering machine picks up, a recording reports the local weather in his singsong voice, along with his chores for the day and any wildlife he has spotted.TR dredged the pond with his backhoe and built this own airstrip for what was perhaps his greatest love of all—his love for flying. He mounted his camera on the wing of his glider and took beautiful photographs of the fall foliage.  Just ask TR to tell you the story of the airplane he bought out west and flew back to’s a classic!
TR is playfully mischievous, patient and kind, yet brutally honest in his critiques which make you a better photographer.   All roads lead back to TR.  I had the incredible good fortune to work side-by-side with my talented classmate Stephen Wilkes, who always helped me, encouraged me and became a mentor as well.   Bob Sacha, as photo editor for the Philadelphia Enquirer, gave me a boost of confidence when he picked my photo off the UPI wire. Seth Resnick is now brilliantly teaching us everything we need to know about anything and everything "digital." Whenever any of us are together, we reminisce about TR and the impact he had on us—as photographers and as people.

Perhaps my first lesson from TR came during our class semester abroad, when he told me to look to the right before crossing the street in London, since that's where the oncoming traffic will be before smacking you down (which had happened to TR a few years before.)  But I realized that was also a metaphor that TR passed along to me. If you look in the usual places, you certainly won't find unusual things. Unusual things often make more compelling photos.
Other great memories from London had to do with the pros that TR pulled into class—real working photographers; rough characters like Terence Donovan, who had an amazing eye, spoke in fits of profanity and told us: 'It doesn't matter what kind of camera you have, it's all about your eye. I could use the cheapest camera and still get work. Maybe you couldn't, but I could.'  That was something that lit a fire in me—telling stories with different types of cameras, and now in different visual mediums.
Finally, I remember the chance to help some photographer move his London studio, and doing the backbreaking work alongside TR—moving boxes, and books, and studio equipment. Only later did I learn it was the studio of the great Sam Haskins, who gave me  a signed book as my reward. Hey—I learned that great photographers can be nice guys!
I don't know if TR ever imagined that these simple things would stick to me, or would ignite my curiosity to make me the visual person that I am today. His teaching was effortless, but it was deep.  Now that I'm teaching, I only hope that I inspire students the way he inspired me.

Clint Clemens
If you are lucky, really lucky, you will have the good fortune in your life to be taught by a steady hand. A number of my lifelong friends and peers were lucky, and grew into our own under Tom Richards, professor of photography at Newhouse (S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications).  In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell helps us figure out why some people are successful and others not. It turns out that your birth date, and therefore the timing of  your professional coming of age, is a major factor. For a very fortunate group of us at Newhouse in the late 60’s and 70’s, there was a dedicated, straight forward, wryly funny, hard-driving, handball-playing, take-no-excuses teacher that hit the right balance of respect and approachability that resonates with young minds. He was the friend who commanded respect.
Tom Richards, or TR, as he always signed his images and will forever be known, was the real deal. As a college student, you are not really conscious of age. There are just other students, and the rest of the world. I did the math recently and TR must have been in his late 30’s when I was at Newhouse. A kid himself—but with the Right Stuff for a tough time on college campuses.  1967-1971. Vietnam, long hair and rebellion, culture clash, Hendrix and sexuality all bubbled into a potent mix during that period.
The epicenter of all photographic activity at Newhouse was "the Lab," the air thick with the smell of Acufine, Microdol-X, Dektol, and "Indicator" Stop Bath.  Picture this: each year the Navy would send 20 of its top photographers for training at Newhouse. TR was the motivation and, I suspect, the reason. They would come in, crew cut and lean, and for the first time come in contact with the long haired students on campus. TR had his hands full. In the tight space of the lab, we all got to know each other. TR was part of many conversations. Each year, we would gain respect for each others' positions on all things social and political. One of my good friends from that era is Chip Maury, who won the Nikon International Photo Competition by photographing the first 18-man "star" while in free fall. I think his knees gave out after 40,000 career parachute jumps with cameras strapped everywhere. These were the kind of people you met, quality people, thanks to TR.
I remember the first military draft lottery. TR was in the group of us as we watched our birth dates and our draft numbers come off the AP ticker in Newhouse. There was mine— number 27.
As a kid, I was always fascinated by the shape of cars. Those were the days when you could recite the engine stats on a blue Chavelle SS 396 from two blocks away. After I measured several successive sets of doors and eyeballed a sketchy ramp that might—just might—have enough turning room, TR gave me the thumbs up to roll the first car into the Newhouse portrait studio. Lighting that first car shot lit my imagination, and my career. When a teacher says "yes," the possibilities are endless.
TR also guided me through the two lengthy submissions for the Hearst Photojournalism Competition. I made it, thanks to him. He knew what appealed to people who judged your work. Me?  I had no clue.
TR taught me deadlines. Photography class came easy to me. I was engaged creatively, and couldn’t get enough of it. I was on an A-streak for all my classes. Then, I handed in an assignment late, and TR knocked me down a grade for the whole semester. A line in the sand. Never hand in your work late. Deadlines rule. I will never forget the feeling of self-disappointment I had when I saw the look in his eye. That lesson stuck, and will never be forgotten.
In the early days, before SU had its London program, TR led a group of 20 students from around the country to study photography at Agfa "Photoshule" in Munich. I was broke, on scholarship, working for $1 per published photo as Photography Editor of the Daily Orange, the student newspaper. TR somehow had sway over who got a scholarship from the Frankfurter "Allgemeine Zeitung." I remember sitting in his office. He thought I might benefit from the experience. Soon, I was on my way out of the country for the first time.  Thank you TR.  You rock.  You made a huge difference in my life.
The TR stories are endless for those who had the good fortune to be there, in his time, and under his guidance. His is the one of the prime influences in my professional life, and I owe much of my career success to his teaching. I had the good fortune of the timing of my birth. TR taught me.

My fondest memories of Tom Richards are from 1976 when, as part of Syracuse’s semester abroad program, I got to spend that fall in England under his tutelage. The culture I was leaving behind for the first time was undergoing a refreshing change although I may not have been fully aware of it. The Nixon-Ford era was coming to an end; there was new hope with Jimmy Carter going to the White House. Disco was the rage at home but I was heading to London where the Sex Pistols were inventing Punk.
The university chartered a DC-8 for the group — a six-across cattle car where I drew a middle seat. Being 6’ 7,” the moment the seat belt light went off I headed for the galley to stand around chatting up the stewardesses and anybody else who wandered by. I ate my meal there standing up. I stood up the entire flight only returning to my seat for the landing. Later, TR would always playfully introduce me to people as the only person he knew who flew standing up.
Besides being my teacher and mentor in London, TR had a way of making you feel that you were close friends even though I didn’t hang out with him a lot. He was always bustling from one place to another; you never knew where he was going or what he was up to. But when you had his attention you felt you were his sole focus.
For our first class in London he handed out a shot list but soon pulled me aside and said, “You don’t need this list. Just go out and shoot.” I’m not sure that he didn’t say that to a number of students but it sure made me feel special and gave me some much needed confidence. Still, being  given this privilege was intimidating as I then had to live up to his expectations and work extra hard. In reflection, I guess TR knew I needed this prodding and the special treatment was just another of his devices to pull a professional photographer out of a gangly kid from the New Jersey suburbs.

This image of the little girl with her doll on the swings in Gunnersbury Park, down the street from where I lived in the Acton area, was typical of the kinds of pictures I gravitated to. Instead of the bright lights and historic buildings in the city I would take solo walks throughout the suburbs looking for moments like these. I had watched her for a while as she placed the doll in the swing, attached the safety chain and then pushed off in time with the the doll’s swinging. Most of my time that fall was spent wandering through the intimate neighborhoods of the city patiently observing the small things in life like these. This is where I found myself as a photographer too.

Once a week, TR would meet each student one-on-one to review contact sheets. After a few weeks of pictures like the girl on the swing, TR told me that I should photograph people from my 6’7” vantage point. "None of us know what the world looks like to you, Walt. Why not go to Speakers Corner and not bend your knees?"  So that’s what I did. Each weekend I’d shoot looking down on the speakers and tourists with a 28 mm wide-angle lens. TR thought the vantage point was fun, and suggested including a few images for my portfolio. I was pumped by his positive spirit. When I got back to New York I took the portfolio around, and to my surprise, picture editors didn’t share TR’s enthusiasm for my point of view. “Kid, you’ve got to bend your knees.”
Years later, looking back over my London images, I realize that size doesn’t matter. Some of the founding fathers of photojournalism in this country— Life legends Alfred Eisenstaedt and Carl Mydans—were (maybe) 5'4". What does matter is following your own instincts and having the confidence to do so. His guidance may have been indirect, and his devices unorthodox, but TR knew how to instill that in his students.
If you’ve been truly blessed — or just plain lucky — there has been a teacher in your life who not only inspired you, but instilled in you a child-like passion. Tom Richards, whom we all know as TR, is that kind of a person. He is the reason I shoot in color. I remember the day it happened; it was during our semester abroad in London. I had shot a few rolls of color film for the first time and shared the work with TR.  He looked at my film and turned to me and said, “Steve, you just stop shooting that black and white…You’ve got something going on here with color.” So that’s exactly what I did, and that was the turning point.
I’ve never forgotten that moment .  TR had, what seemed to me, an uncanny ability to see and say what other professors couldn’t or wouldn’t.  Tom’s  instincts as a teacher were absolute and he wasn’t afraid to push his students into an entirely new area.  If you had enthusiasm, a passion to photograph and a great work ethic, then you spoke TR’s language. His ability to recognize those qualities in people, to challenge them to work harder, allowed many students to rise to the top of their profession.
Over the years there are so many memorable moments and stories… here are a few of my favorites that capture TR’s magic.
I remember shooting my first SU football game for the Daily Orange newspaper.  I was worried that I didn’t have a long enough lens, and I was trying to see if I could get my hands on something like a 300mm. As I saw him streaking past me, his white lab coat trailing behind him, I caught his attention for a second to ask where I might get a longer lens for the upcoming game.  He looked at me with that boyish grin on his face and a twinkle in his eyes and said, “Steve, I believe we’ve got a 300mm in the ‘cage’ (the equipment locker), but I tell you what…I’ll shoot the pants off you with a 200!”
I got the 300 and—yes—TR shot the pants off me with his 200.  There was a certain competitive swagger to TR, forged by his years as a successful newspaper photographer. It was the perfect mix of confidence born from years of experience. TR taught me what the word "professional" means. That time I learned that having the best gear did not guarantee the best pictures.
One of my favorite TR memories was one of the most dramatic entrances to a party of all time.  It was our senior year, and TR was having what became his regular year end barbeque.  Held at his home on a stunning hilltop in Tully, the house, based on the design of a windmill, was built by TR himself. The BBQ was called at 1:00 pm and our class arrived right on time.  But there was one problem—TR was nowhere to be found.  No one had a clue where TR was.  At 1:15 somebody looked up in the sky, exclaiming “Look! It’s TR in his glider!”   TR sailed in for a picture perfect landing.  As the class gathered around him he jumped out of the cockpit with a grin on his face like he'd just won the lottery. Taking off his helmut he said, "Everybody hungry?"  For a moment we were speechless, but TR savored every second as we looked on in awe.
One of my fondest memories was the excitement I felt when I finally made a photograph that TR really liked.  I loved when he would get quiet during a review… and say. “Oh Steve…I like that….that’s just fine… really fine.”  I lived for those moments.
There are many others who came under TR’s wing who have risen to the top of their profession as artists, photojournalists, portraitists, and more. Their “TR stories” are waiting to be told.


Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Nine Below Zero (and 3 O'Clock in the Afternoon)

Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Waters, Sonny Boy Williamson II...what better reason to take a road trip from Memphis to New Orleans along Highway 61?

And then, there's Ernest C. Withers.

On Christmas Day, 1954, an inebriated young singer named John Marshall Alexander Jr. took a break between sets at the City Auditorium in Houston, Texas, and played a game of Russian roulette, pulling the trigger on a revolver—first on his girlfriend, Olivia Gibbs, then on her friend, Mary Carter. The gun failed to go off. The third time, when he pointed the gun at himself, the hammer finally fell on a bullet in the chamber, killing Alexander—a.k.a. "Johnny Ace"—instantly.

"Big Mama" Thornton was a witness to Ace's death, but the name of the witness on his death certificate when Ace was buried on Jan. 2, 1955 was Ernest C. Withers. It would be almost a year before Rosa Parks would disobey bus driver James Blake on Dec. 1, 1955, and refuse to make room for a white passenger. Those were different times than our own, but not less violent.

In the late spring of 2004, I was wandering down Beale Street in Memphis when I happened to look above a door and notice a faded, torn piece of paper that had the words "Ernest C. Withers, photographer," scrawled on it. I had just purchased a postcard in a curio store with a photo of B.B. King's first touring band, taken in 1955, and something made me pull it from my back pocket and turn it over. When I saw the credit to "Ernest C. Withers," the hair stood up on the back of my neck. An hour later, my life changed forever.

I walked back to my room at the Peabody Hotel and dialed the almost illegible phone number on the scrap of paper, and a crusty old voice answered. Half an hour later, a big old sedan pulled up on Beale Street and Ernest slid out and unlocked the front door to the building. As we shuffled down a dark corridor to his studio, I could just make out above the door a large print of a black man standing in front of a 1950 Ford "Woodie," holding a Speed Graphic at his side. It was Ernest. Stacks of his old prints were everywhere, and as I stood looking at them I had a sense for the first time of the importance of history. The photographs of that time have a different "look," and an immediacy that is forever—the images almost literally burn themselves into our consciousness. Joe Rosenthal used a Speed Graphic at Iwo Jima and the last Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph taken with a Speed Graphic was Yasushi Nagao's 1961 image of Otoya Yamaguchi assassinating Inejiro Asanuma on stage.

Looking at print after print of Martin Luther King Jr., Tina Turner, black baseball players, civil rights riots, Isaac Hayes, Elvis, and a few whose faces I didn't recognize, I knew I was in the presence of a genius, of someone who understood the "big picture" of life, and who had recorded it day by day as a journeyman. If there was nothing else, no writing, no first person accounts, there was this—thousands and thousands of images that chronicled the life and times of a city in the Deep South that was at the epicenter of blues music and of the civil rights struggle.

As we left Ernest's studio, he offered to drive me back and I hesitated. He had a new title, "octogenarian," and I didn't want to trouble him, but the twinkle in his eye told me he would have none of it. A few minutes later, we were lumbering down Beale Street, with Ernest calling out the names and significance of each and every "landmark." "Well, now over there's where I first photographed Dr. King in the Greyhound bus station…" An hour earlier, I hadn't given any thought to Memphis' history, and now I was getting a private, guided tour from someone who knew the name of each and every person in each and every photograph he had ever taken.

Slowly we cruised the streets, finally ending back at the Peabody. I invited Ernest to dinner, and later that night I struggled to take notes as he gave me a synopsis of his life as a photographer in Memphis. In three hours he went from Howlin' Wolf, to King, to the Negro Baseball League, his job as a photographer stationed in Saipan during World War II, his job as a cop in Memphis (appointed in 1949 by his nemesis, political legend and former Memphis mayor E. H. "Boss" Crump), getting paid $35 a week to cover the Emmett Till trial for theTri-State Defender, Count Basie, the chitlin' circuit, the Little Rock "Nine"…. My notes from that night say, "Ernest is a walking Forrest Gump, who seems to have photographed everything in the Forties, Fifties, Sixties and Seventies, from Little Rock to Chicago, to the Delta…he is a walking encyclopedia, a classic." Occasionally Ernest would interrupt his flow of words to drop a bombshell of a non sequitur. Gazing up from the table in the midst of a sentence filled with names and dates, he looked at the windows of the Peabody and let on that "…my momma made those curtains…sewed them by hand." As he left that evening, I didn't know what to say, and for some reason I asked him, "what kind of film do you shoot?" He reached in his pocket, and pulled out a 35mm cartridge. Printed on the side in bold letters was "Walgreens".

The word "hyperbole" does not apply either to the life or to the life or the work of the photographer Ernest C. Withers, for in a career which staggers the imagination, he amassed more that five million negatives. Picking up a camera discarded by a sister's boyfriend, Withers began one of the most remarkable careers in journalism while still in high school, yet somehow found time to raise a daughter and seven sons.

Withers traveled up and down Highway 61 in the Deep South, photographing everything from the civil rights actions to the Memphis blues scene. Of his civil rights photography, Withers is best known for his iconic "I Am a Man" image, taken during the sanitation workers strike that started in Memphis in February of 1968, which drew national attention including the support of Rev. Martin Luther King who visited Memphis a month later. 

Withers may have been unknown to most of the mainstream media in those days but he was well known to black journalists. Joseph Louw, a black student studying at the Columbia School of Journalism in 1968, was working on a documentary and traveling with the Martin Luther King party staying at Memphis' Lorraine Motel when King was assassinated.  He made the famous photos of people pointing in the direction of the assassin's bullet while Dr. Ralph Abernathy and Jesse Jackson attend to the dying King. If you recall, in those first hours after the shooting, racial tensions roiled, and not just in Memphis. Louw took his film to Withers who processed it in his darkroom. The pictures appeared in Life the next week. 

Withers provided other services to the profession. In the days before photojournalists created "pools" to share photographs Ernest developed his own procedure. White photographers couldn't cover some of the predominantly black civil rights demonstrations so, using several cameras, Ernst would sell them his extra rolls of exposed, but undeveloped, film of the event. The pictures would then appear in publications— probably in some newspapers that would never hire a black photographer—with the credit line of the photographer who got their film from Ernest.

Perhaps the most compelling images Withers made are those of the people of Memphis, his hometown, where he maintained a studio on historic Beale Street until he passed away this October at the age of 85. Like many visionaries, Withers saw something few did, and his portraits of faith healers, tent cities and striking sanitation workers have recently enjoyed a revival. If these images were not enough, what was equally impressive was his attention to detail – every image had a story behind it, many of which Withers told in his occasional lectures to college audiences.

But one of Withers' most telling achievements was to self-publish a booklet of photographs of the Emmett Till trial (which many historians point to as the spark that ignited the civil rights movement) which he sold for $1 each. Ernest was aware of the revolution that was taking place, and he had assigned himself as its historian. Today, only one original of that incredible document remains in existence.  Withers died on October 15, 2007.  Withers disappeared off the map in the Nineties, but his career and images were revived largely through the work of Tony Decaneas, who began organizing and printing Withers' vast archive as well as selling prints at the Panopticon Gallery in Boston. And the writer Daniel Wolff organized Withers' work into two books—Pictures Tell the Story and Memphis Blues Again—writing thoughtful introductions that put Withers' images in the context of the times and that give the images the attention they deserve.

This brings me back to that road trip out on Highway 61.  On March 22, 1965, Bob Dylan's album Bringing It All Back Home, was released.  On the song "Outlaw Blues," Dylan talks about it being "...nine below zero and three o'clock in the afternoon," a reference to the song of that name by harmonica virtuoso Sonny Boy Williamson II, who died just two months later on May 25, 1965.

If you stop at actor Morgan Freeman's small restaurant Madidi in Clarksdale, Mississippi for some wonderful southern cooking, then continue on to the small town of Tutwiler, and then on the outskirts go straight down Prairie Place for about 1/2 mile, and walk into the weeds, you'll come across Sonny Boy's grave, which usually has several harmonicas and flowers placed on it: Sonny Boy Williamson's Grave.