Friday, March 12, 2010

Ask for Forgiveness Later

She looked to be about 70 years old. She could have been much younger than that, but when you spend your days and nights as a homeless person, age tends to weather you a little faster than it does most people who have a mortgage or a monthly rent to pay. I'd seen her several times during the course of our almost-three-year stay in the Illinois suburbs of St. Louis. She generally traveled in a long gray coat, and she transported her possessions in a grocery cart. When the sultry St. Louis summers would hit, I would occasionally see her in a worn yellow sun-dress. She wore it the day she stopped at the Citgo station, as I was filling up the Xterra. She checked all her belongings, tied a knot in the large plastic Hefty bag that sat atop her cart, and went into the store. I replaced the nozzle and walked up to the door to pay. I looked through the glass and saw her way over in the corner, getting something from one of the coolers. I reached into my pocket, grabbed a five-dollar bill, and stuffed it inside the Hefty bag. A guy walking behind me must have known of her, too. He brushed past me and said, "If she knew you did that, she'd be pissed".

In the time I spent there, I've always wanted to take her picture. For some reason, though, I never had a camera with me. (my Blackberry at the time wasn't camera-equipped) I like photography, although I've never considered myself very good at it. In the three months that we've been home, I've been trying to get involved in something other than staying hunkered down in my studio all day or unloading boxes. I've managed to take out my acoustic guitar every once in awhile. My friend Tim Sheehan has been actually playing acoustic songs live in coffee-houses and such, and he's been an inspiration. Still, aside from considering entering a Masters program again, I've tried to find an outlet to both ward off the crushing winter blues and to, quite simply, just get out there and do something. While perusing a University of Akron Continuing Education catalog, I spotted an "Introduction to Digital Photography" class, so I decided to sign up for it.

This class is being taught by David Shoenfelt, a local Akron photographer who has, from what I understand, amassed quite a portfolio of work in the 37 years that he's been a professional photographer, as one would expect. We spent the first class looking inside the DNA of the camera, what the digital realm has done to the world of photography, and, in a sense, how to familiarize ourselves with our individual cameras. By the looks of some of the cameras that these people brought, you would have thought that they have 37 years of experience! My little Canon Powershot A630 was seemingly no match for these gargantuan Nikons. But, as David pointed out, digital technology gives everyone a somewhat level playing-field. Then, during the second class, we discussed "shutter-speed" and "aperture settings". Finally, our assignment: go take a picture of something important to you.

This assignment turned out to be a bit more difficult than I had envisioned. That weekend, I announced to Donna that the Canon Powershot A630 and I were taking that Sunday afternoon to go scout for pictures. It was a typical gray, overcast day with dry roads but with at least 8 to 10 inches of snow on the ground. First, I drove to the park and tried to frame several ducks that wandered near the side of the road. I came across a babbling brook that seemed to invoke a sense of calm and tranquility. I also tried to take pictures of objects that were encased in snow or ice, in order to generate a winter motif-aura. But as I looked at them, nothing really jumped out at me. The question was asked in class, "How do you know you're taking the right picture"? David's response, to these kinds of questions on several occasions, was, "Beauty is in the eye of the buyer!" As a working photographer, he's made his nut on satisfying the whims of the client. Would it be the picture he would take for himself? Nope. Whomever is paying decides who's taking the right picture.

I had trouble using that as a barometer, however. I was trying to utilize my eye for creativity, but I was amazed at how challenging it was to take a photo of something that was both important to me and would make the class go "ooh" and "ahh". Since my initial jump into digitally capturing the natural world proved to be unenlightening, I decided to move on to structures. I drove past St. Haralambos Greek Orthodox Church and thought I had made some progress. But the overcast monotony of the day proved to be un-inspiring. I went over to the ballfield and the tennis courts, thinking I could find a representative winter shot, but the angles weren't right, and, to be honest, a back-stop covered in snow just wasn't that enthralling.

The next weekend I decided to move indoors. I've been going to Mass on Saturdays and I thought it might be a good time to see if anything inside the Church proved to be good lens fodder. I felt a bit guilty. During Mass, I kept looking around to see if there were relevant shots that might prove interesting in the following Tuesday's class. I liked the way the light was coming through one of the stained-glass windows, and I made a mental note to do something about it. But by the end of Mass, the lighting had changed. I tried some shots of several of the altars, and a few actually turned out to be quite nice. I even asked the woman who played the piano if she wouldn't mind posing for a few shots, and she gladly complied. I then went home and toyed around with them in Photoshop. But none of them elicited that satori moment I was looking for. And as David reminded us, Photoshop can be heavy-handed. The real work gets done when the shutter snaps. I suppose you can't plan these things. Maybe I'm looking too hard to get an easy picture. Sometimes things just happen, and you have to be ready. Maybe when the light was perfect during the homily at Mass, I should have just jumped up and took the picture. David says that it's easier to ask for forgiveness than ask for permission. He's right.

This is harder than I thought, but I like it. Ever since I saw exhibits of the work of Helen Levitt and Eugene Smith, I've been very interested in photography. Next week we're talking about lighting. And after that, choosing the proper subject. Had I been with my camera at the Citgo station that day, I think I would have been able to capture something pretty poignant. Of course, if she would have been upset about the money, I'm sure she wouldn't have been pleased about some stranger taking her picture. It's easier to ask for forgiveness, though, right? I don't care if she was pissed, though. I hope she found the five dollars.


* Why not grab your favorite beverage, cop a squat, and groove to some DEMOS at

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