“That was a memorable day to me, for it made great changes in me. But it is the same with any life. Imagine one selected day struck out of it, and think how different its course would have been. Pause you who read this, and think for a moment of the long chain of iron or gold, of thorns or flowers, that would never have bound you, but for the formation of the first link on one memorable day.”
-Charles Dickens (Great Expectations)
If I’ve learned anything over the last 51 years is that I haven’t learned enough. I’ve found an inexhaustible source of creative energy in photography and I even when I’ve gotten to the point where I don’t think I can find another shot, I somehow manage to feed that energy with something. This Focus Trek is trekking back to the last 12 months as I review one shot from each month that I am personally proud of and I will share some of my thoughts on each one. Picking these was not easy. There were close to 1700 photos last year that I had some affinity for, from “that’s pretty good” to “nailed it”. Honestly, whether you like them or not is not my concern. I hope you do, though. Please note, the photos were made public in these months, not necessarily taken in these months. 😉
January has always been a good time to start something new. Although the only real difference between 12/31 and 1/1 is the numbers we assign to them (and maybe the weather). Why don’t we strive for change on 12/1 or 8/15 or 2/28 (2/29 on leap years)? January 2018 was unique because it came with sub-sub zero temperatures in Central Illinois. I had seen some Instragram photographers showing their frozen bubble photography and vowed to try it myself when the weather was agreeable (-5F or colder). Or… tolerable… well… survivable. I mixed up my aqueous solution of corn syrup, bubble liquid and water, donned my -21F Arctic snow jacket and used one of the the bubble containers as a large straw to precisely place the bubbles. I liked the photos I took and even made a How-To video of the experience. You can see that here: https://youtu.be/qvPHpPlnchg
I liked the photos, but didn’t love them. I took better photos that month, but this was special because it was a new experience. That alone can turn a disappointing photographic day into one of the most memorable.
I’m sometimes amazed at home many photos can be wringed out of one location that you spend day in and day out at, specifically home. It’s a challenge sometimes, but things come together sometimes to create something magical. Sometimes it’s a sunrise reflected in the lake. Sometimes it’s the shape of the ornamental grass blooms, even long after Winter has dried them to lifeless husks. A garden, although the same in shape and size with the same flowers, never is quite the same from year to year. This garden at my neighbor’s house is small, but being experienced in horticulture, she always made sure she tended it so it would bloom quietly and magically.
I was close when taking this shot, so a wide aperture would only give me focus on a small sliver of the scene. I could have used a tight aperture like F22 to bring everything sharp front to back, but that would have made the background sharp as well, which I wanted to keep out of focus and soft to set apart the plant. To compensate, I used a technique of focus stacking to make sure only the focus was on the Lillies from front to back and not the background, which stayed relatively blurry. I took six frames, focusing first on the front part of the plant and with each frame changed the focus to move farther and farther back until the farthest point on the plant was in focus. Finally, I brought them all together on the computer which blended all the exposures together.
I dedicated this photo and the quote to a friend who lost her daughter last year to addiction. That, above all else, makes this special to me.
Downtown Peoria is an interesting menagerie of old buildings dating back from the mid to late 1800’s through the Prohibition era. Peoria was on the vaudeville circuit (“Will it play in Peoria?”) and supplied whiskey to the nation up until prohibition wiped out the industry, leaving shells of once venerable factories decaying in the forest. Many older buildings are being restored and repurposed in a small area know as the “Warehouse District”. A revitalization of the riverfront is underway, despite Caterpillar abondoning Peoria as their headquarters. When the weather cooperates (not this winter, unfortunately) I like to use my short lunch time to walk with my camera though the riverfront area, looking for interesting patterns and scenes. The noon sun is never forgiving, but occasionally I can find something.
This scene was not hard to spot. When I saw the clouds in this configuration, I simply walked around until I found something to put in front of them. It was only a matter of time before this building (currently housing a pawn shop alongside the Bob Michel Bridge) appeared in beautifully incongruous splendor. This is a lesson in patterns and shapes and minimalism. Eliminating superfluous items and simplifying.
Anthropomorphism, identifying human elements in inanimate objects or animals, comes in varying degrees. Sometimes people see human shapes in clouds and concrete and even toast. Do you remember Jesus toast? How about the chicken nugget that looked like the state of Michigan? There was probably a chicken nugget at some point in time that looked like Jesus, but I think Buddah would be more likely. I found this tree trunk on the trail in Everet Dirkson Park in Pekin, IL of all places. It had been repurposed as a ramp for bike jumping. It’s both funny and a little painful. In any case, I am coming back out with my bike in the Spring.
As an ethical photographer, I try to avoid going in areas where I do not have permission, but some places are simply too good to pass up and permission would never be possible, period. Finding places like this is an adrenaline rush and as there was no breaking anything to enter here, I feel as long as I do not publicize the location and leave no trace, I feel better about it. It’s grit and grime in it’s most pristine, yet unpolished form. Wrecked by vandals, tagged with mystifying symbols, it sits quietly sulking in the forest, never to be used again. How can you avoid something like that? I think it appreciated my interest, if only for an hour.
I’ve been able to visit Leland, Michigan on a more regular basis in the last year. These are working trips and I use the weekend to go up on my own. Travelling by myself, I am not in a hurry. I can linger, look for photos, stretch. What is normally a 7.5 hour trip (at it’s fastest) turns into 10 or 11 hours. I’ve been able to sit at locations I always wanted to see. As photographers we learn to sit, whether it’s waiting for the light to be just right, or waiting for a customer to buy something at a art show, we learn to be patient and become comfortable waiting.
I timed my trip in June so that I would arrive in Frankfort near sunset. I had been on the road for 8 hours already and had a couple more hours left before I arrived in Leland, but I had never been to the Frankfort lighthouse before. I was hoping the sunset would be nice, but there is never any guarantee. I was lucky as a storm moved South behind the light and the sunset, though only briefly sunny, illuminated the clouds perfectly. I spent over an hour there waiting and watching, and I felt…at peace.
“Love is a fire. But whether it is going to warm your hearth or burn down your house, you can never tell.”
One of the things I like about 4th of July now are the fireworks. But at a certain point they became tedious to watch after all these years. Every 4th the internet explodes with the same images. Short, blurry exposures from people trying to take them with their phones, to nice long exposures from cameras on tripods showing the bloom as the flares arc across the sky in weeping willow fashion. I learned how to do that and quickly became bored with it, as I ended up with an oooh-ahhh photo that was a duplicate in style of every 4th of July firework photo out there. The only firework image and video that captured my attention in the last 10 years was the drone shot flying through the middle of a firework show, in close proximity to the bursts. I stopped trying to make terrestrial firework photos. It just wasn’t interesting. But one day I was at a carnival with the family and I had my camera, but no tripod. There was a firework show coming up, but I decided to just watch and not try to take any photos because I couldn’t secure the camera. Instead, I decided if I couldn’t take a solid long exposure, I was going to do the complete opposite and with the camera set to expose for 3 seconds, move the camera in smooth, random patterns while aiming where I think the burst will happen. What I came back with was a lot of duds, but plenty of beautiful abstracts. You can see many of them here: https://youtu.be/RqJqIWegqBA
Swimming shots are hard, in my opinion. The best are close up and with a fast shutter, catching some sort of active expression in face or body. Most of mine have resulted in a vague figure, mostly underwater, and uninteresting. Few times have I caught an interesting dynamic. This was that moment, my favorite for August. Not just because my baby girl is in it, but it freezes the action but still shows motion and direction. It’s basic and minimal, not having any other swimmers in the shot, but what I like about it most is that it is her and that means the world to me as her Dad.
Weather is a bitch, sometimes. You never know when the right elements are going to come together for a shot. Sometimes you wait endlessly for it, and other times you see it happening in real time and have to high tail it to somewhere interesting to photograph it. When I am up in Leland in the Summer, I like to take morning swims as my shower. After I popped up out of the water and dried off, I put my glasses back on and saw a fog bank moving across the lake to the South, about a mile away. I had a boat at that dock, but no key, and no clothes, and no camera. I ran as fast as I could up to the house a football field away, grabbed the camera and boat key and drove back down to the dock. I took this image from the boat with the camera on a tripod (ironically). In less than 10 minutes, this was gone. The whole amount of time that passed from seeing this developing to getting there to take the photos was roughly 15-20 minutes. So, yes, we photographers are accustomed to waiting, but we also have to be ready to move like hell if we have to. Hopefully, we remember the memory card.
Only rarely do we pre conceptualize a photo to have it happen exactly like we thought. During the Black Hills Photo Shootout this year (not exactly the actual BHPS because that was cancelled, but our version of it) we had the unique opportunity to visit a working ranch near Philip, SD. Mark Nelson and his family hosted around 20 of us as he moved his horses from location to location. Mark rode his stud horse as his dog ran around him. A few of us saw this dynamic and trained our cameras on him. What I was looking for in my concept was some interaction between the horse and the dog and that’s what I got. You can’t direct this kind of thing, you can only keep shooting and hope you catch it at the right moment. Of all my shots that weekend, this is one of my top favorites.
As long as it was a year for trying different things, I thought I would do something weird and have the intervalometer (time-lapse) on my camera take a shot every 5 seconds as I hung it at my side walking through the West Side Market in Cleveland. I didn’t know what I was going to get, but I didn’t care. It was crowded and walking around taking photos of people would be too conspicuous. Out of 30 images, I ended up with 4 very interesting shots that I never would have gotten by just looking. What I like about this image is despite how crowded the building was, there are only three sets of legs, all going the same direction, with opposite strides, as if I took three photos of the same person walking and then turning around.
I always try to find a good spot for a Lake Michigan sunset. Some turn out, some don’t. The clouds have to be a certain altitude and can’t obscure the horizon or you don’t get the nice red uplighting on the underside. When I first got to the beach for this particular sunset, the prognosis was grim. Most of the sky was cloudy, except for a small patch to the South which showed promise. Being close to Winter solstice, the sun sets very far South, so the possibility was there. The only thing that was consistent was the lack of clouds in a small area to the South. I decided to use my long lens and isolate that area and incorporate the shoreline closest to me. That one area of the sky was the only part being lit by the sun, but that’s all I needed. I stayed there until the sun was gone and longer and ended up with a few memorable images.
You can see all these photos and more in my Instagram account @burnhamarts
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