Saturday, March 10, 2007

Bend it like Jimmy

Via the dashing Dave Malkoff, a pedestrian-level shot that says so much about the biz. Note the unfettered access, the casual attire, the blue-collar posture - all key ingredients of the photog life. If this looks like the way you'd like to spend your every working day, chances are you're under 25. Otherwise, you might think twice before committing to a life of cargo shorts and mutually assured contortion. Kinda wish I had (though I'd still rather be hunched over an upturned viewfinder than lounging in some flouresent cubicle). As for the above shooter, I'm not sure how old Jim Robinson is - or what kind of border crossing he's so closely covering. But I do know the low-slung shot he's going for and the way it makes you feel when you get it right. Get the sensation, and pass the Ben-Gay..

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Aiming at Fate

Days after an Indonesian plane crash killed at least 22 passengers, people are still asking what prompted Wayan Sukardo to film the wreckage - even as he stumbled away from the burning aircraft with a broken leg. I think I know: He's a professional cameraman - a freelancer working for Australia's Seven News. He and other journalists were on board the 737 when it overshot the runway at the Yogyakarta airport and grinded to a fiery halt in a rice field. That Sukardo managed to crawl out of the crippled airliner with videocamera in hand IS amazing. That he promptly began using it to document the unfathomable isn't.

The resulting footage is disturbing: dazed survivors, screaming jet engines, flames licking the fuselage. It is as close to being there as any student of disaster could ever hope for. It is also valuable. Investigators now have a visual record of the scene just moments after impact. As painful as it may be to watch, survivors can now get an objective view of an event that will no doubt scar their lives forever. And though the taped images will do little to soothe those who lost loved ones in the crash, I'm guessing it's already helped the man who hobbled around on a broken leg to shoot it. Not in a monetary fashion, mind you - but in a way that's almost spiritual. See, those of us who shoulder a lens for a living do so because it's etched in our DNA. It damn sure ain't the money.

Instead, it's an abiding urge to capture the world as it happens. Be it the smoldering metal of a distant jet or the mere flash of giant scissors as they slice through a shopping strip's yellow ribbon, image-gathering is everything to a guy like me. That's why I'm sure Sukardo was glad to have his camera with him as he panned a most unbelievable scene - as it no doubt provided him a familiar way to mentally process the near-impossible. It may not be as noble as a doctor stumbling from the carnage to adminster CPR - but by no means is it something to be ashamed of. Wayan Sukardo should be commended for his quick thinking and innate lenslinging. Hopefully authorities can use the evidence he created to prevent future tragedies.

For now though, remember the victims...

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

And the Winner Ain't...

There's a simply delicious brouhaha currently swirling in some newspaper circles and frankly, it's none of my business. But doggone it, it's an issue that I plan to address during my ConvergeSouth session in the Fall. Since that's still a good seven or so months away, I hereby offer the following heartfelt retort. First though, let me break it all down for those of you not playing at home...

For some time now forward-thinking newspapers have sought to include video in the ever important on-line presentations. Some of those encapsulated efforts have been downright groundbreaking, but much of it remains abysmal. Why shouldn't it? Advanced video skills aren't as easy to score as that discount handycam down at Best Buy. Just ask your local TV news photog - the one who's worked for years to master a craft most folk wisely take for granted. They'll tell you it takes time to hone the many disciplines required; from shot selection to microphone placement to the art of harboring found light. Grasp those fundamentals and the palette is yours. Eschew these principals and you'll find yourself scribbling on-screen.

All of which explains the mind-set of a group of television news shooters who recently sat down to judge a new category of NPPA Photojournalism contest: Web Video. Despite the many entries from newspapers far and wide, the judges decided not to name a first prize winner - blaming subpar work that failed to meet their criteria. Yes, they called the newspaper's video baby 'Ug-LEE'. One of the judges, KING-TV's Mark Morache, details why:
We saw some good journalism -- journalism with a big 'J.'But what caught me was that so many of these stories had an emotional disconnect. When you are watching a great story, you see it, you know it, you feel it in your gut. It sticks with you, and when it is over, you say, 'Re-rack it and play it again.'
The reasons they cited seem simple enough: jittery camerawork, poor lighting, endings that were way too oblique. It was all too much for an organization that's not above taking itself too seriously. (Full disclosure: I've been an intinerant critic of NPPA contests for years. Something about posturing for trinkets always left me feeling a little cheap.) Still, I applaud their latest stance - and not just because it hacks off the smuggest of the ink-stained set. No, I support their decision because it seeks to establish a standard of visual storytelling that transcends outlet, medium or format. Today's consumers want their news now, and their getting it on a staggering arrays of new gadgets. But whether they're nodding in front of their living room plasma or leaning over their laptop out by the pool, they don't want to struggle to understand anything - not in a 500 channel, infinite website world.

None of this of course, is what newspaper folk wanted to hear. Leery of merely reproducing what they see as a deeply flawed TV product, the Print Contingent know they're on the precipice of a new video age. By continuing to feed the ambitions of their more than able photography staffs, they'll no doubt forge new methods in visual storytelling. But before they can conquer new frontiers, they must come to grips with the basics. And a little humility wouldn't hurt. Having long held broadcasters in low regard, many inkslingers are now telling us they can do our medium better. To that I issue a hearty 'Up Yours'. Were I to saunter into your Editor's office, slam my midnight prose down on his desk and pronounce it far superior to anything in-house, you'd rightfully laugh me out of the room. Just ask Howard Owens, who simply cannot fathom how the current crop of newspaper video failed to measure up:
It’s hard to believe that all the entries in a national contest were so fatally flawed by basic shooting and editing mistakes that they weren’t worthy of honor. I suspect, more to the point, is that the judges were unwilling or unable to come to terms with the changing face of video news. The flaws were not necessarily in frames of the video, but in the eyes of the judges.
Not so, Howie. Most TV news photogs are rabid fans of all storytelling and are more than ready to be bowled over by something new and different. But like the audience we now share, our standards are too well-placed to endure shoddy work for very long. With fewer time restrictions and a ubiquitous delivery method, the newspaper industry can indeed rewrite the book on video news. No one's demanding your fare be as slick (and vapid) as what we churn out on the evening news, but it must be clear, clean and easy to follow. Otherwise, no number of grand proclamations about new frontiers will make up for garbled audio, distracting backlight and meandering narration. Just ask your news consumer, the one nodding off at the family computer.

Antarctica XD

A camera, a tripod and a horizon - sounds like the perfect gig ... but at the bottom of the world? That's exactly what a photog known on-line as Xcylox did during a recent two months stint on the Antarctic plateau. There to shoot re-enactments for a British production about polar explorer Douglas Mawson, the Australian crew schlepped a High-Def XDCAM through the sastrugi and spindrift of the open tundra. (Beats stalking the milk and bread aisle when the first fat flake begins to fall.) This being 2007, no expedition is complete without a behind-the-scenes blog - in this case a picture-rich testimonial of the Sony's robust performance. While I haven't slogged my XD across any ice floes lately, I have slung it from Hollywood to Hurricanes to Hair-Net Conventions. But this ain't about me (PFFT!), it's about Xcylox and the gang. Who knows what their footage looked like, but if it's anything like the images on their site, I'm setting my Tivo NOW.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Secret Garden Tips

7 Things I Learned (but already knew) at today’s Grow-Room Bust

The effort, energy and technical prowess required to set up an illegal grow room in your basement could easily bring you a fine salary in any number of electrical, botany or engineering fields - with no fear of prison sex.

Though not nearly as jumpy as when taking down meth labs, certain rural deputies will don bunny suit, gas mask and even hip waders before entering a smelly basement full of half-grown weed.

No matter the education, ethnicity or income level - two out of ten motorists cannot physically restrain themselves from yelling “WHOO-HOO!” when passing live truck encampments. Waving is optional.

No amount of incense will mask the smell of 134 reefer trees in your cellar. Try Stick-Ups.

Electrical linemen aren’t as macho as they look and, even while disassembling a dope grower’s elaborate power system, will still stop Fox affiliated news crews to ask about American Idol.

Undercover cops will repeatedly warn news crews not to film them, then saunter, strut and preen through every possible camera shot in a three mile radius.

Law enforcement officials notoriously overestimate the street value of confiscated pot plants, employing the exact same kind of fuzzy math that stoner behind the counter at the local Stop-N-Rob uses to count back change.

No matter how many pot pulls, round-ups and drug busts you’ve collectively covered before, someone in the electronic media will always, always jokingly ask if they can take home a sample...Tee-Hee!

Monday, March 05, 2007

'In It to the Hilt'

It's not so politically correct to admire Ernie Pyle's journalism anymore - his frontline columns from the hedgerows of World War II were brimming with sanitized action and a pervasive pro-American bent. But as a lover of troubled men who live through their words, I can't help but place Pyle high in the pantheon of torn epistlers. Consider his career: An accomplished travel writer before the war, Pyle added his powers of description to the nation's arsenal - first earning distinguishing himself in London where he issued street-level dispatches as the Luftwaffe's bombs pounded down around him. From there he rarely looked back, traveling with little more than a bedroll (and a bottle) as he slogged through the foxholes of North Africa, Normandy and beyond, always choosing the company of dogface grunts over spitshine Generals. Blind to high politics, this bedraggled little figure focused his sniper's eye for deadly detail on the young men dropping like flies around him. The resulting onslaught of newspaper columns held a worried nation spellbound. Long before television took viewers to the frontlines, Ernie Pyle's damaged genius transported his readers half a world away - where their sons and uncles were busy perfecting mechanized slaughter, when not dying in the process. Ernie eventually died too, caught in the temple by a Japanese bullet in a ditch in Okinawa. News of his passing caused Presidents to pause, housewives to collapse and combat veterans to cry, all distraught over the senseless demise of the G.I.'s humble, battle-hardened chronicler. We should all be so conflicted...

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Newsgathering Givens

With the February book mercifully over, it’s strictly general assignment work for your humble lenslinger. That means I’ll be at the mercy of the News Gods, those schizophrenic deities who hurl whim and happenstance my way in the most incovenient order. That’s not to say I don’t know what I‘ll be doing...

Lure of the UpturnedFor I’m fairly certain I’ll soon be in pursuit of the freshly upturned. Not that we chase a lot of bent sheet metal ( as I assured a photog candidate last week), but with a couple of high-speed interstates and a dozen or so police entities around these parts, it’s a safe bet I’ll be schlepping electronics up someone‘s asphalt pretty soon. If the prospect of that won’t get you out of bed every morning, perhaps you should look into selling Amway.

Head Shot ComaOr you could just stick to the press conference beat. There’s never a shortage of those. Whether it’s the Governor chortling through a series of shout-outs or a city councilwoman calling for the head of another, there’s always fun to be had when the podium is manned. Okay, that’s a lie. Most pressers suck. Ninety-nine percent of the sound recorded at them never makes air - a fact that always seem to escape the attention of all those choked-up orators.

Spot News ParkingWhen I’m not asleep on my feet in front of a crowd, I’m usually driving around like a madman without a road-map. But daze spent behind the wheel are just a part of the photog life, for all those news items don’t exactly come to us. Instead we have to go pick it up on a moments notice and get it to the viewers before it crystallizes into tomorrow’s headline. All that last minute delivery doesn’t happen without some truly stupid parking, something I’ve been working years at to perfect.

On and OffBut no matter where the gig takes me, you can damn sure bet I’ll take my sticks. That’s because nothing shores up your shot like a set of artificial shoulders. Trouble is, ‘shouldering’ is about all they’re good for. They don’t walk, stand up by themselves or make for very good conversationalists, but you won’t find a self-respecting photog on the planet who doesn’t cherish his ’pod. Well, there was that one guy, but who needs stability when all you shoot are spiraling footballs and locker room philosophy?

Absolute HorseshitTools aside, there is another element of newsgathering I can be assured of encountering. Label it by-product, excrement or straight up shee-yite, they’ll be more than enough fecal matter to go around, both underfoot and theoretic. How I handle said daily crap-fest is more a matter of my mood than anything else. Sometimes handle it with aplomb, I most often bitch a little as I pick it out of my teeth. You would too, I bet.