Friday, December 30, 2011

Photographs from 2011 that mattered (mostly to me)

I'm rather certain that photojournalists, i.e. those who use their minds, hearts and tools in harmony, enjoy looking at their work during the past year. I do. We are basically hunters/gatherers at heart and reviewing what we saw and photographed gives us reassurance that our efforts were productive. The downside is that acknowledgement from other sources, friends, editors, contests is ephemeral. So, the best one can really hang on to is the feeling of accomplishment without conditions.

2011 was a fine year for photojournalists, visually, but probably not financially. The Arab Spring uprisings, the Occupy (various) movement, the economic downturn, the 1%ers and the rest of us and the regular diet of sports, politics and daily life made for many great photo situations. Sadly a few died or were badly injured doing their work. Others were imprisoned and beaten or arrested in spite of their First Amendment rights.

I, like many other photographers, never got close to any of those marquee events; that's just the way it is. My biggest opportunity was spending a week in the University of Louisville Hospital documenting the staff and patients in the Burn and Stroke units and the Trauma One Care Center (the ER).

My grandkids celebrated their first birthday and my youngest son married the woman he met during the Obama inauguration. There was the beauty of central Oregon in fall, Butchart Gardens in Vancouver, B.C. and the spirited Cascade Cycling Classic criterium.

The Sisters Folk Festival provided some great moments. Sunday, September 11th. The performance that morning is always free to the public and this years' theme was a "community celebration" centered around the 10th anniversary of the 911 tragedy. Three musicians, Anais Mitchell, Tony Furtado and Willy Porter decided spontaneously to perform "Time After Time." They rehearsed it for ten minutes just before the venue was opened. It put a lump in my throat while they practiced (guess you had to be there). Martyn Joseph rocked the house and Johnsmith found inner peace during the final group song of festival.

And it was a great year for moons.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Day 1646

The admonitions are constant: "Live every day to the fullest." "Make every day count." "You'll always remember the special things you did." On and on. However, they're all true. Problem is though, how to make all the days of your life meaningful. The other truth: not all days will be special.

I've had many good days in the nearly five years since departing California for Oregon. This particular day that I determined was 1646-post Sacramento Bee was unique. I don't know the probability of all the factors coming together on a single day that made the total lunar eclipse possible: clear skies in the west and east, the moon setting over the Cascades as the sunrise began, finding the right location to photograph the scene, windless conditions that helped even though the temperature was 13 degrees.

This scene may never happen again in my lifetime. If it does, great, but I'll always be happy I was out there at 5 a.m. on 1646.

Monday, December 05, 2011

Nutcracker Memories

A former dancer with the Sacramento Ballet, Jenny Gilmore, remarked recently about how many dancers she had known had moved on to other creative endeavors or retired from the stage to pursue other important parts of their lives.  She was also reflecting on the memories they all shared from performing in the annual Nutcracker.  I was fortunate to photograph ten years of those productions from 1997 to 2006.  My work with the company began when my daughter was given a small role as a "cherub" in 1997.  Wanting to photograph her I offered to shoot the whole performance for the Sacramento Bee.  I got the assignment.  During the next few years my daughter had other roles as a "Mother Ginger child" and a "soldier" battling the Mouse King.  I continued in my volunteer role photographing the Nutcracker for the Sacramento Ballet and virtually every other ballet the company performed including their first international tour to Shanghai and Beijing, China in 2007.  I too have memories of those Nutcrackers, the incredible athletes/artists that the dancers were, the incomparable artistic directors Ron Cunningham and Carinne Binda, and Lt. Col. (Ret) Fred Shadle, the true heart and soul of the company.   I dug into my film archives and digital files and put this show together.  Video celebrates the dance, still photography celebrates the dancer.  The Nutcracker will always be part of my holiday season and I hope yours as well.

Sunday, October 09, 2011


"The moon is an object illuminated by the sun. Expose accordingly." - Ansel Adams

Well, that's a good starting point. The reality is that the human eye and mind is far more discerning in terms of contrast range than any camera/film/CF card will ever be. When photographing the moon under conditions like the scene I saw a few nights ago the paradox was clear. While I saw a beautiful crescent moon setting over the Three Sisters peaks near where I live I realized that the only way to capture the scene was to make several exposures of the scene and then combine them into a single image. One shot exposed for the highlighted crescent, a second for the overall scene then matched in Photoshop. I made a variety of moon and scene exposures and actually chose two frames shot only a few seconds apart. I don't recall ever using this technique before as I really prefer to not alter images however in the situation of photographing this scene, I didn't have much of a choice. There is another technique, HDR or High Dynamic Range imaging that likewise combines two or more exposures into a single image. I tried that in Photoshop but the result was still a moon with blown out highlights.

I eventually took the double exposure route, copying the small section of one image with the moon and pasting it into the overall scene, moving the crescent to align perfectly with the darker part of the moon. After a bit of smoothing out the tones around the combo moon, noise reduction and contrast improvement, I had an image of exactly what I saw in the sky.

If the rules are meant to be broken, then I confess. I broke a couple.

Sunday, May 01, 2011

I had a unique opportunity recently to return to Louisville, Kentucky to work with the nurses and physicians in the University of Louisville Hospital, formerly Louisville General Hospital. Twenty-five years ago I did a documentary photo project on the only Burn Intensive Care Unit in the region at that time. A woman in the Marketing department saw the old photos on my website and contacted me. Our discussion led to a plan for me to come back and revisit the Burn Unit and also the Stroke I.C.U. and the region's only Trauma 1 emergency room.

After completing the edit I thought about comparing the old photos with the new. I found several that pair together and realized that although the treatment protocols are much different now than before, the level of caring hasn't changed at all.

University of Louisville Burn Unit: 25 Years - Images by Jay Mather

Saturday, January 08, 2011

The last Kodachrome day

Kodachrome, the iconic color slide film, is history.  The last rolls were processed December 30, 2010 at Dwayne’s Photo in Parsons, Kansas, the only remaining processing facility in the world.  The news of its demise is not new or unexpected.  The IBM Selectric typewriter, dial phones, lace-up ski boots went before.  Life changes, stuff changes, people adapt, probably all for the better.

Anyone who made photographs with the film that has been around since 1935 knows of its color characteristics that were like no other film. Bright, vibrant, saturated images.  

My use of the film over the years was not as extensive as those in the magazine business, National Geographic, Geo, and the like.  During my newspaper career the dominant film was Kodak Tri-X, a black and white film that could be tweaked during the development process using various developing concoctions.  Edwal, Rodinal, Kodak, often with an added 9% sodium sulfite solution that helped control the contrast range.  Printing a black and white negative with both shadow and highlight detail was a rewarding process.  The drawback, of course, was trying to replicate a perfect print. 

Kodachrome was the film of choice for me during my Peace Corps tour in Malaysia in 1969-1971 and learning to use it correctly helped my enthusiasm for photojournalism in the first years of my career.  The most important factor was to control highlight exposure.  In the digital world of today that is still the case.

Kodak Tri-X, was just about opposite.  Expose for the shadows without overexposing the highlights and a lot of that could be controlled during film development.  Kodachrome was unforgiving.  Get it right in the camera.

Throughout the remainder of the last century, I always took Kodachrome along on vacations, pictures of my children.  Those images still look great, stored away in archival sleeves.  There are two memories now:  the subjects and the medium.

I found five rolls of Kodachrome 64, 24 exposures on eBay from a seller who promised the film had been refrigerated and that the 2007 date on the box was not an issue.  The film came in the mail and I put it in the back of my fridge while I thought about how I was going to use it. 

The weather around central Oregon in November was spotty, and mostly one gray day after another.  I needed sparkling, crisp days.  Time was becoming an issue. I didn’t want to use the film for a set of pictures of scenics.  I needed more of a challenge.  Could I still make credible photographs with a 35mm camera, no motor drive and manual settings in an active setting?

The USA Cyclocross Championships in Bend provided that opportunity.  Sunday, December 12th was the day.  I began the day with stops at two of my favorite locations, the Metolius Wild and Scenic River, and a viewpoint of the Three Sisters peaks.  One roll gone.

On to Bend for the cyclocross races in Bend.  I chose to shoot the Elite women’s final using three of the remaining rolls, saving one roll for another scene at dusk.  The race is on a loop course so I could move around to several locations to get a sense of what the event is about.  I also tried to concentrate on the best rider, Katie Compton, who was defending her championship title.  During the race that lasted about an hour I thought I was doing o.k. with exposure.   Timing, light and composition were on my mind as well.  One frame after another.   I had about 12 frames left on the third roll and wedged my way into a spot along the barricade near the finish line with the hope of getting a decent frame of Compton as she was about to win the race.  Serendipity was on my side.  She cruised in front of me and raised her arms in perfect form.  Did I get the frame?  Was it sharp? 

After the women’s race I switched my Nikon FE for the Canon digital cameras and went back to shoot the Elite men’s race.  It was more apparent than I’d ever realized how digital has changed my shooting style.  More latitude to take visual chances, no film canisters to change, mechanical freedom.

The last roll was used to photograph an old World War II Army ambulance that is parked outside the VFW Hall 4108 in Redmond, a few miles north of Bend.  The rig is lit up for the holidays with strings of lights, Santa as the driver.  It’s a melancholy scene and a fitting conclusion to my last day with Kodachrome.

The film was shipped to Dwayne’s.  The lab was inundated with rolls of film coming in from all over the world so I wasn’t expecting a quick turnaround.  There wasn’t.  Twenty-six days later I got my five developed rolls back.  I still have a small light table and a viewing loupe and I examined the individual slides slowly looking for the frames that had some merit. 

The scenics looked good, the Army ambulance was nice.  What I wanted to see was Katie Compton finishing the race.  I found the single frame and was relieved to see exactly what I’d hoped for.  Timing, light, composition.  She won the championship again I had felt like I’d paid a tribute to a championship film.