Sunday, December 23, 2007

In search of the perfect shot

Hell, I might as well go look for Bigfoot or something ... because frankly, the perfect shot only occurs when you DON'T have a camera!

Case in point ... back in 2004, my then-girlfriend (now wife) and I drove out to the little rural community of Mesopotamia, Ohio, which is about 45 minutes due east of Cleveland, in a heavily-Amish area. Out there is a delightful little general store, called the End of the Commons General Store, because it's at the end of a long rectangular town commons area (hence the name). The store's really neat, selling all sorts of bulk foods, snacks, etc. My wife likes to stock up on baking supplies there for her Christmas baking. So we always go in the beginning of December. It's a nice little trip, and I enjoy going to the store.

The first time we were there, I stepped outside the store, and looked over at the Commons area. There was a neat little gazebo, lit up with Christmas lights, and it had a Christmas tree on it, also lit up with lights. Tied up nearby were several Amish buggies. It had snowed, and evening was beginning to fall, but it was still clear outside, so the sky still had a little blue in it. And it was the most PERFECT image I had seen ... it would have made Norman Rockwell cry out in envy, it was so perfect!!

And I had no camera. Naturally.

So every year, we go back, because we enjoy the trip, stopping at a variety of local attractions (cheese shops, Amish craft places, etc.), and now I bring a camera each trip.

And it's never been perfect. Ever.

In 2005, there was snow, there was Amish buggies, but the gazebo wasn't lit up.

In 2006, there wasn't much snow, we were there too early, it was a little too sunny, and the gazebo wasn't lit up.

And this year ... no snow, no Amish buggies. No lights on the gazebo.

So I'm not entirely ready to give up. Because ONE of these years, everything's gotta align for me, right?? And the thing is I'm not one of those ultra-anal photographers, who go back to the same spot day after day, at all different times, in all weather and different lighting, trying to get that perfect shot. But I'm just trying to recapture some magic. Though I wonder if I'll be able to do so at all. Maybe not. But there is some fun in trying, I think.

Friday, December 07, 2007

A little more Plowden

Sorry, haven't taken many photos lately, but hopefully soon ...

In the meantime, here's another article about David Plowden's new book from

Capturing lost Americana (with slide show)

Jacob Stockinger
December 5, 2007

To hear photographer David Plowden tell it, the 75-year-old author of more than 20 books stopped taking pictures not because he left the subject matter, but because the subject matter left him.

Over the past 50 years, Plowden has traveled hundreds of thousands of miles, probably more like millions, by car around the United States as he took some 15 miles of film, 2 1/2 inches at a time, that document the exterior landscape and the interiors of homes and businesses and other dwellings, often framed by textured skies. An impressive retrospective sampling, with some new images, of his work, "Vanishing Point: 50 Years of Photography," has just been published by W.W. Norton.

Plowden, who has received Guggenheim grants and whose works sit in many prestigious museums and collections, will be in Madison to promote his new book. His appearances will start Thursday with an appearance at 5 p.m. on "Live at Five" on WISC-TV, Channel 3. Then he will talk and sign books at the University Book Store at Hilldale on Friday from 7 to 8:30 p.m. On Friday afternoon and Saturday morning, he will teach a workshop at the Center for Photography at Madison.

Plowden's work, which will go to Yale University's rare book library on his death, reminds one of Walker Evans. His exquisitely crafted and beautifully composed images exude the same kind of understated elegance and documentary lyricism. The land and its infrastructure, from houses and farms, roads and bridges, speak of something much larger than themselves.

Plowden works simply, always in black-and-white, never using flash and always using the same medium-format Hasselblad camera with a tripod and just a few lenses.

An articulate and ebullient Plowden recently spoke via telephone from his home in Winnetka, Ill., to The Capital Times about his work:

How has the American landscape changed over the past 50 years you've been photographing it?

It has changed drastically, unbelievably. All you need to do is drive down an interstate highway and take an exit until you come to an interchange for a town. You drive downtown now and there's nothing there. In almost every case, Main Street has dried up.

I came from a little town in Vermont, and there's nothing from back then that you would find there today. It's totally changed.

The reason I started all this goes back to when I was young and how much I loved steam locomotives and knew that they were going to be replaced by diesels. But train engines are not the only thing that was replaced. Everything has been replaced.

And how did you react to that?

It started me on a lifelong mission on photographing things that were going to disappear.

Yale says the reason it's taking my collection is that they want people to know what America was like 50 or 100 or 150 years ago. It has changed, and not for the better, I think. We have lost a tremendous amount.

As I traveled around the prairie and the countryside and looked at small family farms and small towns, I realized that all the traditional tenets of American culture were going to disappear. And they have. You go to a country church and you see they've been replaced by giant churches the same way that general stores have been replaced by Costcos and Wal-Marts.

All of the small neighborly things have been replaced. It's all becoming unraveled. I can't find a tremendous number of things I photographed even just 20 or 30 years ago.

How do those physical changes translate into human terms?

I also find a loss of skills. Steel mill workers and train engineers and ferry boat captains had tremendous pride in their work. They knew what they were doing. You don't have that kind of pride today. Today, we push money around. You go to town after town after town, and you see these abandoned places.

Why have you stopped taking photographs?

The things I loved and that captured my attention are gone.

It's not just being tired from 50 years of working and traveling and then saying I want to retire, because I have no intention of doing nothing. But on my last trip to North Dakota and Minnesota, I could only find one or two things to photograph in two weeks. That's slim pickin's. I traveled 300 miles to take my last picture of two grain elevators that were empty and abandoned.

I thought to myself I just can't continue to roam the countryside looking for things that were already photographed when they were still in use.

What first attracted you and still keeps you attracted to still photography, which can seem old-fashioned given today's video cams and camera phones?

I used to travel by train and would look through the window, which acted like a viewfinder, especially when we pulled into a station. It taught me to slow down and look closely.

I prefer to talk with pictures. I've chosen to be a photographer so my voice is through the camera. My still photographs are meant to be looked at very carefully, as carefully as when I made them.

In this busy world today, we tend not to stop and look. But a still photograph makes you look at every single detail. It trains the eyes to look carefully, and I think we've lost that skill.

Are you familiar with Madison?

Madison is a wonderful town. I can't imagine a more beautiful town. I live near Chicago, and I wouldn't live anywhere else except Madison. It's a wonderful city. It's a really beautiful town with all those lakes. I've had some really wonderful experiences there. Madison has treated me very nicely.

My first girlfriend in high school came from Madison. I first visited the city in 1946 by train. Madison has always been close to my heart.

It's a thinking town, what with the university, and a good town for photography.