Clothes make the Man/Women

Friday, August 28, 2009

Recently at dinner a friend regaled me with stories about his vacation to Europe. He & his wife had a good time but complained about rude treatment in some of the restaurants. Later during the meal he revealed that he always wore his baggy short pants everywhere. “They’re comfortable,” he exclaimed.

In my book travel+PHOTOGRAPHY: Off the Charts, I include a chapter on clothing. What you wear is a very important component of travel. Not only does it declare your nationality but it also reveals your economic class, political viewpoint & sense of humor. Often travelers feel the ability to voyage gives them license to wear the most outrageous garb. Pith helmets, fishing vests, Hawaiian shirts, cruise wear & white belts are just a few of the fashion faux pas tourists have foisted upon the world.

"It is long accepted by the missionaries that morality is inversely proportional to the amount of clothing people wore.
- Alex Carey"

But the issue is more subtle than that. We all have our personal style & we need to be comfortable. But at what expense? If our apparel insults another’s sensibilities, it not only gets in the way of our picture taking but it can be an impediment to all kinds of social exchanges. Some societies insist that women cover their heads or, at least, not expose their arms or legs. To be a feminist in those situations is your prerogative but you risk offending customs at your own peril. You may have very little recourse if you are insulted.

Years ago in West Africa I ventured tentatively into a cemetery. It was very picturesque. I made sure that people saw me & acknowledged my intentions of taking pictures. A friend happened by & saw me & strode boldly into the graveyard. The reactions to her presence were incendiary. Women, at least, inappropriately attired, were not allowed but she stood her ground & protested. We both were summarily escorted out.

"A hat is a flag, a shield, a bit of armor, and the badge of feminity. A hat is the difference between wearing clothes and wearing a costume; it's the difference between being dressed and being dressed up; it's the difference between looking adequate and looking your best. A hat is to be stylish in, to glow under, to flirt beneath, to make all others seem jealous over, and to make all men feel masculine about. A piece of magic is a hat.
- Martha Sliter"

To wear clothing that is nationalistic can incite individuals who may hold a grudge. I leave all my clothing that has logos or insignias at home: no New York Yankees baseball caps, Gucci bags, military surplus gear, college/fraternity decals or Nike sneakers. I shop for things that match my tastes but are more generic.

Covering a heated political rally in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, I was physically lifted up onto the podium by the crowd surrounding me. It was against my will. I spoke no patois but I finally gleaned that my tee shirt read Washington Post. It was a present from my sister who worked for the newspaper. They thought the publication was covering the event. This time it worked in my favor because I got front row access to the action. It could just as easily gone the other way. I never put a logo in my suitcase again.

"I've got my fishing rod, compass, bum bag and walking shoes - the lot. How geeky is that?
- Hannah Sandling"

Besides the uncooperative treatment from your photographic subjects, you may encounter cold treatment from shopkeepers, restaurant staff or average citizens & you invite being targeted by thieves &/or terrorists.

Stay away from new or hip stuff. Anything that is fashionable in your local neighborhood will be foreign outside it. Even colors are important. I leave my
international orange jumpsuit & fire engine red golf pants at home. I find neutral colors work best. We used to advocate earth tones but that is too easy. You have to learn to recognize the local palette. In some countries the citizenry are famous for colorful costumes.

When I first started to travel a Frenchman educated me by revealing they could tell
where you were from by looking at your shoes. Try it. Look down. It does not take long to categorize strangers by their feet. This piece of advice initiated my eternal quest for the Perfect Travel Shoe. It is probably as futile as the Quest for the Holy Grail.

Let me be clear. You cannot hide. Natives will always detect you are different. When you enter a large public space, something resembling a shock-wave precedes your movement. Everyone is aware of you presence several meters before you “arrive”. No disguise can prevent it. You can only ameliorate it a little by not drawing additional attention to yourself. It would be difficult enough to take pictures even if we were invisible. We carry so much expensive equipment that further broadcasting is just exacerbating the unobtrusive demeanor we wish to sustain.

"I thought I would dress in baggy pants, big shoes, a cane and a derby hat. Everything a contradiction: the pants baggy, the coat tight, the hat small and the shoes large.
- Charlie Chaplin"

Now do not get me wrong. You should be proud of you nationality. Your dress may be a part of your ethnic identity. You may want to advertise a new piece of clothing. Or you may look good in fuchsia. Just do not be naïve. And be prepared to accept the consequences. Otherwise if you get off the plane & notice no adult males wearing shorts, you are probably not in Bermuda.

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Music and Photography

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Do you ever use a clock radio to wake up in the morning? Music comes on--good or
bad--& you have that tune in your head for the rest of the day? Despite the abrupt awakenings I have rediscovered several songs years after their initial popularity that way. Just as often a ridiculous jiggle jangles every raw nerve.

Music has permeated my life forever. I cannot remember a moment without it. My mother woke me humming every morning. Church choirs introduced me to my own voice. I watched Elvis Presley wriggle on the Ed Sullivan Show & the Beatles perform on that same stage years later. In an act of love my father bought me tickets to see Van Cliburn right after he won the Moscow Tchaikovsky Piano Competition.

I played jugband music, rock/roll in college &, after school, we formed a blues band. Like so many of us very significant milestone in my life has been accompanied by an appropriate song.

When I first started in this business I wanted nothing more than my lifestyle to closely resemble that of a musician.

My colleagues & I dreamed of chasing after bands & performers to document their escapades. But soon enough I
discovered so did everybody else. There was lots of competition & I was last in line.

So instead of continuing to follow all my friends I followed my passion. Jazz was my real muse. I chased every well known jazz artist for years. Still do. Dizzy, Bags, Miles, the Baron…. I befriended club workers so they would put my name on the guest lists. I snuck in stagedoors. I called radio stations just to get access.

In the early days musicians said, “take all the pictures you want.” But I was not interested in the low key, high contrast, black/white silhouettes of shiny horns sticking out of the faces of African American performers. I stalked each one & convinced them to let me make portraits backstage, in their hotel rooms, on the street & even in my studio. I made a fool of myself more than once.

Even as the collection grew & I showed the work to dozens of clients & editors, nobody cared. At first I could not give the pictures away. After years the gallery world discovered the ample body of work & I have been exhibiting it ever since.

Recently this quest took me to the Top of the Hub, a club/restaurant which hosts jazz concerts. Friends told me a quartet would be playing there. Between sets I asked the leader if I could take some pictures while he was in town. The next day my assistants set up lights in different parts of my studio. The photographs came out so well Brian McCree, an amazing bassist, used them on his new CD changes in the wind.

My career in music was short lived. But I have surrounded myself with all forms of it by using my art to channel the sounds. Consequently I have had tunes remain in my brain for years like those early morning top ten memories. A few years ago because they haunted me for so long I started to crudely peck them out on my studio piano. Brian wanted to use the images & being a true artist he paid cash for the privilege. But eventually the exchange between us became a trade. He agreed to record my music with his band & I gave him extended rights. So like Walter Mitty I have come full circle & authored my first original opus. I named the first one after my mother who recently died. Mommy Suite. A singer with Gil Scott Heron once told me music is the closest thing to heaven.

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About This Blog

blog (blŏg, bläg) n. 1. short for Weblog 2. online personal journal with reflections, comments, and often hyperlinks provided by the writer 3. diary that is posted on the Internet 4. an experiment to verbalize my observations about the status of photography. It will be eclectic & deal with philosophy & practice of this universal art form. It will strive for periodic commentary about issues many photographers face, like ownership and the economy. It will also talk about pictures and what makes good ones and how to get them. No hardware. No software. No recycled clichés. No whining.