Saturday, May 21, 2005

Image Bin Blow-Out

Having recently slogged through an intense period of met deadlines and steady posts, I find myself running a little low on grand, sweeping themes. But this is a blog after all, so I have to keep the drivel flowing. Thus, I bring you the first ever Viewfinder BLUES Image Bin Blowout, a single post in which I share the random photos I’ve uploaded but not yet shared. Hey, I know it’s lame, but its Saturday night for crying out loud! I should be watching ‘Revenge of the Sith’ or working on that long neglected novel premise. Instead, I’m back in my upstairs lair, tap-dancing over my keyboard in an effort to relieve an irritating case of blogger‘s-guilt. So just settle down and we’ll both get through this…

Our first image comes from the recent furniture factory fire in High Point. This officer was nice enough in person, but he looks fairly menacing in this snapshot - kind of like he wants to arrest my camera or something. I can hear him now...“Yeah, base - run the plates on an unmanned fancy-cam at the corner of College and Main. I’m writing it up for unauthorized logos and flagrant loitering -- aided and abetted by a tripod from the Civil War. There’s also a guy with hairy forearms and a thousand yard stare taking pictures of me. I‘m gonna run a strip-search...”

If I look a little non-plussed in this photo from five years back, there’s a good reason: I had just jogged up Hanging Rock when Bob Buckley snapped this inherently unflattering shot of your friendly neighborhood lenslinger. Following a group of excited furniture executives on an early morning motivational hike up a mountain seemed like a cool gig when I signed up for it, but halfway up the craggy trail I wanted to cough up a lung. Maybe it was the frenzied pace, the antique camera bouncing on my shoulder or the sixteen dying batteries stashed around my waist. Either way, I remember looking over a glorious sunset and thinking, ‘I’m too old for this shit.”

“Then he said, I bet that WON’T fit up your nose.” Okay, so that’s NOT what the nice gentlemen in the hospital bed was telling camera crews moments before his surgery. Fact is, I don’t remember what he said to me and my camera-swinging cronies, only that he was a likeable old chap from Alamance County. Fifteen minutes after the interview, my esteemed colleagues and I popped each other with rubber gloves as the anesthesiologists gave Mr. Nose the sleepy juice. What followed was a breakthrough nasal procedure that made for a pretty decent health piece - not to mention another weird episode to embellish the next time me and my buddies are babysitting the crime tape.

Speaking of idling at the edge of drama, there’s plenty of that in my line of work. Whether it be the protracted train wreck, the tardy Governor stop or the city council stalemate, the waiting truly is the hardest part. Here, veteran photog George Harrison and ever-happy Eric White while away the hours debating the finer points of company logo wear - namely the merits of late-breaking blue versus the look-here allure of action news red. After that scintillating topic, they moved on to Rock-Paper-Scissors. I’d tell you their final score but I was too busy trying to open a vein.

Of course sometimes the monotony erupts into moments of sheer terror- like the time the good ole boys at the Barrier One test site tried to send Eric Liljegren and me to that great press conference in the sky. Twice. Trust me, until you’ve run for your life from an out-of-control truck, you haven’t truly contemplated a second career. The one minute video of our impromptu mad dash is downright guffaw-inducing and will hopefully soon make an appearance here on Viewfinder BLUES. Right, Weaver?

Aside from all the excitement, I get to hang out with and compete against many talented and interesting people. There’s no finer example of this phenomenon than the legendary Leonard Simpson. I like Leonard alot and not just because he originally hails from Downeast like myself. I dig him because he’s a class act - an old school news warrior who has worn off more scars than I’ve yet to collect. Here the wily veteran thumbs through a copy of the Rhino Times from the comfort of a dry news unit - while his trusty partner Bill Welch shoots video out in the pouring rain. No Sir, they don’t teach that kind of cleverness in J-School.

Lastly, I must veer off the straight and narrow news path to observe an occasion I’m most proud of. Back in 1990, I brought a series of bad decisions to a screeching halt by asking the most incredible woman in the world to marry my sorry ass. Back then she was a promising student at the University of South Carolina and I was a budding derelict trying to erase all visible signs of my recent naval service. After a whirlwind courtship, a tortured seperation and a most unlikely reunion, I weaseled my way into her life and exploited her momentary lapse of sound judgement. Together we made an unlikely couple, but the chemistry between us was undeniable and in the end I came out the winner. Thanks for an incredible fifteen years, Shelly. I swear I’ll make you proud yet.

Well now you’ve made me get all mushy. How am I supposed to foster a veneer of cool indifference when you let me show snapshots from the Great American Romance? Next time, I’ll up the macho news quotient with a riveting post from the edge of danger! I’d tell you more but I want to keep you in suspense. Okay - here’s a one-word clue:

Thursday, May 19, 2005

Rise of the One Man Band

Much has been said and even more written about KRON’s recent embrace of the One Man Band. Perhaps all the talk is justified, as the San Fransisco affiliate is the first major market TV station to adopt the solo newsgathering idiom. Some on-line pundits are calling KRON bold innovators while supposed insiders say it’s just the latest dying gasp of a once great station. Whatever the case, it really doesn’t matter. Smaller cameras, shrinking budgets and a surge of citizen journalism are bringing the One-Man-Band from the far flung reaches of local news to the teeming skylines of Big City TV. KRON may be the first major go OMB - but it damn sure won’t be the last.

And then we have Michael Rosenblum. According to this former CBS producer, cameras are pencils and two person news crews are hopelessly outdated. Instead, Rosenblum wants to fill newsrooms far and wide with ‘digital journalists‘. These loners with lenses and laptops will soon be covering beats sans partner, forging a new kind of stripped-down coverage that triggers fits of joy in the corner offices of corporate chiseler’s everywhere. To hear Rosenblum explain it, we TV news photographers are over-geared dinosaurs clogging up the scenery and wasting our company's money.

To which I say, "What the fudge does Michael Rosenblum know about being a TV news photog? His credentials may outshine mine, but having now heard his best sales pitch, I ain't buyin' - though I'm sure many station executives soon will.

In all honesty, I wanted Rosenblum to have a better argument. I work solo every chance I get, shooting writing and editing daily news packages. I started as a one-man-band 15 years ago, because my skinflint small-market bosses demanded it of me. I continue to collect news unaccompanied because I prefer it that way. Never one to enjoy toiling at another person's pace, I enjoy total ownership of my daily news product.

But it comes at a price. As much as I love stretching small visual moments into stand-alone reports, I'm careful to stay within the bounds of sensible solo news pursuit. When it comes to fluffy show-enders, b-block lead features and various franchise pieces, I'll put my work up against any two person crew and bring shame to their families in the process. But send me to a triple homicide, a contentious board meeting or Presidential stop, and I'll most likely call for back-up. That's not because I doubt my own abilities to cover top-tier news alone (I do so far more often than I wish) but because I understand the limitations of the solo-news gatherer. Most days my bosses do too.

To most TV news photogs, the idea of a big market shop full of one-man-bands is nothing short of heresy. Their commitment to proper image gathering, affinity for teamwork and aversion to writing bolsters their disdain of a dumbed-down approach to E.N.G., a world where white-balance, composition and pacing are occasional luxuries instead of bedrock principles. But it appears their dedication to higher-end production values and overall increased aesthetics is not shared by those in the power suits and the corner offices.

I'd like to think our kind will win this latest battle, but history has not been kind to the camera-jockey. We are often underpayed, overworked and only occasionally appreciated. Now we're being told we're no longer needed at all - that any bonehead working in the frozen food department of your local grocer can make equally viable TV news. How are we SUPPOSED to react this assertion? With rose petals and palm fronds?

As much fun as it is to vilify Mr. Rosenblum, I fully expect his solo approach to sweep across newsrooms, displacing photogs, hindering reporters and increasing the ever-downward spiral our business seems intent on pursuing. I spent enough time behind GM's doors during my Promotion stint to know the average affiliate executive's true opinion of the newsroom. If there is a cheaper way to fill the newscasts the chiselers will embrace it and the evening newscast will sink further into mediocrity.

So what can we as photogs do about it? I wish I knew. My advice (for what little it's worth) is different for the veteran than it is for the beginner.

First to all the journeyman shooters out there who have honed specialized skills far surpassing my own, I say keep it up. Your ability to make cameras do magic things will keep you around far longer than those just punching a clock behind a lens. Sure, the suits will thin the herd, but if you're truly a lenslinging bad-ass, stick with what you know. There's alot more cannon-fodder between you and the streets - like that guy who can't find his tripod but who now sports a necktie and a cheesy smile.

However, if you're fairly new to this insipid business, the time to diversify is now. No longer can you rely on your burgeoning camera-handling skills. You must learn to edit, write, field produce and, yes, even voice and front your own work. You may get lucky and work in a shop that doesn't require such multi-tasking, but to totally ignore new skills is a shortcut to obsolescence. Like it or not, the era of the shoot-only TV news photog is coming to a close. It may take a while for it to get to your neck of the broadcast world, but it is most definitely on the way.

Now if you'll excuse me, there's a dog in a funny hat waiting for his close-up...

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Furniture Inferno

By three p.m., it had already been a long day. Having traversed the Piedmont from Lexington to Summerfield, all I wanted to do as I plopped down at my desk was process the footage I’d recorded and go home to cut the lawn. But before I could grab my mouse, a familiar shadow fell over my desk.

“Before you log in, I need you to go check out a fire on South College…”

From the sound of the assignment editor’s voice, I knew it was useless to argue. I grabbed my keys and with only a minimum of grumbling handed my discs to a producer. Hopefully, I’d be right back, I told her and for the next few minutes I really believed it.

Until I saw the heavy black plume of smoke hovering over South High Point. Through the windshield of my news unit I watched the billowing beacon in the distance as I zigzagged through mid-afternoon traffic. A few short minutes later I was at the base of all that smoke, powering up my camera and wondering just what in the hell was on fire. Whatever it was, the smoke emanating from the blaze roiled thick, black and choking. Through my viewfinder I could make out firefighter silhouettes, pulling hoses ,donning masks and yelling into walkie-talkies. Sirens blared around me as more fire engines pulled up. High Point cops blocked streets and waved off traffic as the black haze grew thicker and thicker. Suddenly my workday clock had reset to zero.

So I did what any good photog would do: I popped off a few shots of the confusion and dialed the station. Once I told the suits back at the shop they may want to re-think their lead story, I stashed my gear inside my news unit, jumped in the driver’s seat and cranked the engine. Three minutes, a couple of curses and one jumped-curb later, I found a much better vantage point. As people poured out of cars and buildings to stop and gawk, I set up shop on the sidewalk. Zooming in to the squat brick building at the base of all the smoke, I hit ‘Record’ just in time to capture a tower of flames shoot up through the building’s roof. A chorus of oohs and ahs rang throughout the crowd gathered around me as the heat from the blast washed over us. Whatever the building in the distance housed, it was fueling new flames like an off-shore oil derrick fire.

After quizzing a few curious locals, I learned more about the business at the base of the conflagration. A man in a stained wife-beater t-shirt told me the building was ’Happy Living Incorporated’ - a small furniture factory that had been the victim of some vandalism as of late. Seems someone had set a dumpster on fire out behind the business the day before. Now, those gathered around the blaze were already using the ‘A‘ word. It was less than definitive proof of foul play, but as the flames found the stash of wicker, wood and foam inside, the inferno doubled in strength. Squinting through my lens, I realized, arson or not, I had me another new story.

Much happened over the next ninety minutes. The crowd of onlookers grew in size, turning the my sidewalk post into an impromptu amphitheater. Other news photographers showed up as well, dusty figures on the horizon schlepping cameras and tripods in my direction. Eventually the firefighters contained the blaze, but not before it dazzled the crowd with a display of pyrotechnics usually seen only on old A-Team episodes. Before long, my own back-up arrived, a trusty live truck piloted by one Bob Buckley. Together Bob and I interviewed the owner, who confirmed the possible arson angle. For someone who had just lost his business, Bill Verouden was remarkably composed. I dare say I was grumpier, but the again, we’ve come to expect that, haven’t we?

By the time five o clock hit, I’d cut the footage, set up the live truck and rigged cameras and lights. When the news open ended, Neill McNeill threw it to Bob, who ran down the events like only Bob can. As Bob spoke, the director back at the shop rolled the footage I’d sent them: the plume of smoke, the clouds of fire, and the curious crowd. After a few de facto questions, Neill moved on to other news and our signal was cleared. Sequestering myself in the back of the truck, I began re-editing the footage for our upcoming six o clock report. Bystanders poked their heads into the truck and provided running commentary as I chopped and sliced images from just an hour before. As other news crews set up the gear around us, I chatted with viewers and voyeurs alike. Looking out over the gutted building and exhausted firefighters, it occurred to me I’d probably return to this scene in twelve hours.

Meanwhile my lawn still needs cutting.

Monday, May 16, 2005

Day of the Balcony Jackals

It’s an assignment I’ve successfully dodged for a couple of weeks, but today it was once again my turn to baby-sit the April Greer murder trial. I’ve covered the ugly facts before: Ten weeks after the eight month pregnant woman disappeared, a farmer found her dismembered body stuffed in a trashcan in an Alamance County creek. Almost immediately, police arrested Greer’s boyfriend, Jerry Stuart, and charged him with the murder. That was two years ago. Today, Stuart sat motionless in a Graham courtroom as his lawyer launched into closing arguments. One flight up I huddled with other journalists in a crowded balcony, staring at an empty laptop screen and only half listening to the Defense Attorney through my ever-present headphones. All in all, a typical Monday.

McCall Pera was there. The UPN 48 anchor and occasional blogger joined me in the daylong session of scribble, bitch and listen. As the morning dragged out, we chatted about the Greensboro Blogosphere, the merits of the Prosecution’s case and the state of television in the Piedmont. Below us, a photographer from yet another station leaned away from his eyepiece and tried to tweak his audio mixer without attracting too much of the judge’s attention. As he did, the voice in our ears increased in volume, ceasing all the balcony chatter if only for a minute or two. But soon we were back to the idle chatter. It was hard not to, when the Defense Attorney droned on like a fast food drive-thru employee reading back an order.

Things picked up a bit after lunch, as the Prosecution took the floor for rebuttal and unleashed the kind of fire and brimstone regularly seen on old Matlock episodes. But by then the balcony was teeming with conversations and commentary as a steady stream of news folk filtered in for what threatened to be an eventful afternoon. With the judge about to charge the jury, it would be anyone’s guess how long the twelve men and women would spend deciding the case. Some in the balcony said it was a slam dunk, and predicted the dozen deliberators would return with a verdict in half an hour. But the sagest amongst us laughed at that assertion, reminding us all how foolish it is to second-guess a jury.

In truth, few of us in the Fourth Estate wanted the trial to end today - as a late afternoon decision would spark a frenzied foot race to the Courthouse steps below, where attorneys from both sides and probably a few family members would finally face the cameras. It may be exciting to watch on the evening news, but these kind of rushed lens-clusters could be hard on the back and eyeball -especially when there’s only a few scant minutes between interview and five o clock live shot. I’d much rather leisurely cull a few interesting moments from the stack of tapes I’d already recorded, than dash out a cogent report in ten minutes. But we who shovel pixels for a living are rarely in charge. When the judge finally did dismiss the jurors, all we could do upstairs was place bets on the length of their seclusion. Somewhere in the distance, I could hear Don Henley singing a familiar song...

Reading these four paragraphs, it all sounds rather crass. As grief stricken family members from both sides shielded their eyes from the grisly crime scene photographs on display, my cohorts and I played quiet grab-ass and complained about the case’s pace. But I make few apologies about our lack of reverence. Cover enough tragedy and tripe and the crusty outer shell thickens up quite a bit. Everyone gathered over the table of monitors was a veteran of countless trials. While we still counted ourselves as human, we didn’t show up at this out of the way Courthouse to empathize with either side of this senseless crime. Rather, we there to record, to report, to disseminate. The horrid details emanating from below were simply the currency of the day, the unfortunate by-product of a most curious profession. I ain’t sayin’ it’s right, but I’m betting its been that way since journalism consisted of cave wall sketchings and a series of emphatic grunts.

In the end, the jury didn’t render a verdict. Instead the judge sent them home for the night shortly after five, sparking silent whoops and a few high fives from we jackals in the balcony. Before the courtroom gallery could empty, most of us were already outside, tossing gear into open hatchbacks while punching our station’s digits into company cell phones. But, alas, it’s only a temporary reprieve - as deliberations resume tomorrow morning at nine-thirty sharp. I may very well be in attendance - camera on shoulder, microphone unsheathed, thumb poised over the 'Record' trigger. Then again, I stand an equal chance of spending my next shift surrounded by hyped-up second graders on an end-of-year field trip. I'm not sure which one I'd prefer less...

Sunday, May 15, 2005

Rebels Aging Badly

I veer off topic for the following news break: I have officially entered middle age. As proof I submit the above photograph, taken just last night at a summit of former revolutionaries somewhere outside Capital City. They may be the picture of Caucasian Paunch now, but these upstanding taxpayers were once a raucous gang of pseudo-intellectual hoodlums, smoking-area prophets of their mid 80’s high school scene. I know, I was one of them. Fueled by the music of our heroes and all things illicit we skipped class and held court in seedy locales across the southern fried landscapes of our youths. Back then, we thought we’d never grow up.

The best of us didn’t, instead falling victims to abuse and accelerated living. But those of us who did survive somehow flourished, becoming scientists, cops, journalists and such. Today the hazy rendezvous of our past feel like outtakes from ‘Fast Times at Ridgemont High’, an early masterwork that fairly accurately illustrates the environs of our adolescence. But ‘cool buds and tasty waves’ are no longer the order of the day. Instead we find ourselves pre-occupied with mortgages, wives, careers and children. I guess anyone outside our circle could have predicted this familiar story arc, but I for one never saw it coming.

Now if you’ll excuse me I have some old pictures to burn...