Havana: Caged Bouquet

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Trocadero y Paseo de Marti

The Old Man was dead.

"We should go to Cuba before it changes too much," See See told me that evening.

"Definitely," I agreed with her, "before they finish putting in a Bubba Gump and TGIFriday's on the Malecón."

So I set aside my winter holidays and started looking at options, logistically and legally. Try to find something we could do together. Maybe an art workshop? Almost immediately, I found: Santa Fe Workshops, Open Door Havana with David Alan Harvey. Holy cow!

"That’s a great trip for you," See See said when I told her about it and tried to explain who DAH was, his relationship to Cuba, his books and Burn Magazine, and... without missing a beat she simply said "Go, and if you like it we’ll go together later." I am constantly in awe of her calm sweetness. Her timely sweetness, because the final day for registration was: tomorrow. So I registered. And I went.

I’ve never gone to a photo workshop before. I learned all my craft aspects of still photography by shooting yearbook and school newspaper photos, by working at ciné and darkroom rental houses, and after that my formal training was all cinematography. Harvey’s workshops are (deservedly) legendary for their intensity and his insight into the processes of many different kinds of photographers.

"Who Should Attend: Advanced Amateurs, Professionals." In other words, people with accomplished records and five times my chops when it comes to still photography. But frankly that’s what I enjoy most: being the class dunce gives me the most opportunity to learn something from everyone else. I started studying.

First, bust out all the Harvey books: not just Cuba and Divided Soul but everything else I could find, or that could be tracked down from a statewide library search. I picked through my old Geographics. I started scouring the web for more insight into his work, for tales of his workshops, and youtube for samples of his talks and working methods -- not to attempt at being a junior copy of DAH, but to save time, to guess at where he’s coming from via close reading of the pictures. A goal for me was to find some way to move beyond the kinds of work I’d been making in recent months, without abandoning it.

I read José Marti’s Cultivo Una Rosa Blanca. Binge-watched The Cuba Libre Story and the spectacular (and infrared) Yo Soy Cuba; scrubbed Google Maps for stories about things I imagined making projects about: internet censorship avoidance via la paquete semenal and how to find bicycle parts in the alleys around Cristina train station. I loaded my backpack with school supplies and bug repellent as gifts to people who might help me find pictures or just to make their lives better.

I started drumming my fingers over gear -- should I bring an audio recorder? Will the new Fuji 50mmWR come out, can I get an X100F in time (answer: they came out during the trip, so it was a moot concern)? In the end I opted for just two lenses, the 23 and 35 (35 & 50 equivalents), mounted on the X-Pro2 and X-T1 respectively so that I needn’t swap lenses on the fly. I did bring the little Instax SP-2 printer and lots of film; it was an excellent door-opener in some situations. Some days I just took the X-Pro with the 23. No tripod, no crazy Russian ultra-wide lens or infrared film. The 18-55 kit lens I left in my case as emergency backup, it was never used save for one shot of my American companions during lunch. I brought a tiny strobe that was nearly unused until the last day, and only for one shot.

Since I figured I was likely to be the most-junior, least-published photographer on the trip, I spent an evening just blasting out 8x10 prints, figuring everyone would probably have an image portfolio to use as introduction.

But… Esta complicado.

Complication #1: In the papers sent from the workshop after I’d registered, this description of what to expect: "people-to-people cultural exchanges that use the photographic experience… these are not photography workshops and there are few formal lectures, group critiques, or assignments during the week." Their bold-facing. Uh, que? Because of legal restrictions on the nature of our visas and tour permits, the workshop would be largely scheduled group visits to specific presentations and locations and walks through picture-rich locations & set-up situations. Which would be terrific, as I was really coming to love Cuba as a result of my research -- but not what I’d initially expected, and I was concerned that the experience might be a little too "on rails."

Complication #2: Just a day after completing my registration I decided to be a responsible adult and clean the rain gutters at the front of the house. An object lesson about correctly counting ladder rungs ensued, leaving me on crutches with multiple soft-tissue injuries and a fracture (and: fully cleaned rain gutters). The doctors weren’t entirely sure I could get around at home, much less overseas, and the workshop-participant papers warned repeatedly that Havana’s streets and sidewalks were full of dangerous holes, and that I’d be walking for hours each day on hazardous and slippery terrain. But when I worked through the chain of medical specialists up to the surgeon, he was resolute: delay your surgery, we will get you to Havana. Oh, and he knew Antonio Castro personally. I doubled-down on my physical therapy, on my gym visits, and also on babying my leg for six weeks. I bought some better waterproof boots and hid a cane in my luggage, just in case. While I dreaded the possibility of getting hurt at every step (those amazing holes in the streets are real!), I got through (until after the trip - another story). Never used the cane, just stayed slow and prudent.

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You can't make a bad picture in a situation like this. But is it the right picture? Maybe.

Complications… to heck with them. If anything they just solidified my resolve, and clarified my thinking about what I wanted to experience and learn. I tweaked my sleep schedule to match Havana time. I changed my diet from salads and vegan protein shakes to ropa vieja. The doc cleared me. I got on the airplane. Missed my connection. Made the second one (last-minute standby!), got to the hotel with twenty minutes to spare, met everyone briefly, and it was a go.

As it turned out, I wasn’t the least accomplished photographer in the group, just somewhere in the middle. I learned a tremendous amount just from watching the other students in the workshop while they were shooting, especially practiced hands like Maria Daniel Balcazar and Chris Michel, who were both inspiring while very different in their temperaments and approaches. And also learned from students more like myself, just trying to figure it out as someone who loves photography.

I’ll write later posts in more detail, but it was just a day or so into our week when I started to feel more confident about just doing what I normally do and not worrying about the specific requirements of the trip, or the workshop’s format, or even the location; and that if I wanted photos that were mine, I needed to have my own plan (just like... CalArts! Amazing instructor, lots of cheap rum, and it's up to you to sink or swim to your own island). There was some revolution in the air, a few people (ahem) talking about going off on unscheduled tangents, but it wasn’t that. Someone asked me, after a walk, if I’d gotten some good pictures that day, and I said that I couldn’t know, since I had no opinions about what I was seeing yet. It felt odd to say that, but also felt true.

The next day or two gave me a chance to show DAH some of my previous photos (I had those prints! To my surprise, no one else brought any, heh). Besides sagely telling me which prints to immediately eject from the set, he warmed to some portraits from the Liquidity series and even told other students about it: at a class lecture he reminded me to "get weird, Kevin!" a phrase most everyone in workshop repeated to me during the rest of the week.

By day four I was feeling that something like an opinion was forming: that Havana was like a derelict bouquet, still beautiful but collapsing and very, very fragile. Time passes, and winds from the north are inevitable.

Early that morning, just at dawn, I was ruminating on this when I looked down and at my feet in the rubble-strewn street was a crushed lost rose. I carried it to the hotel, snapping shots along the way (I brought it home too, though it’s dust now).

By 4AM the next morning I awoke from having done a dreaming edit of pictures (editing in your head is better than a laptop: the laptop's too slow) and realized that I might be able to use the idea of a caged bouquet as a way to rationalize some of my photos as a group, to make some sort of narrative out of them rather than a travelogue. I scribbled a list of pictures I already thought I had, a list of pictures I wanted, and went back to sleep. From that point forward I had a completely different way of thinking about the pictures yet to be made: I knew I wanted certain colors and feelings, but didn’t actually care about the specifics of location. Once I had that set of unifying ideas, the pictures almost took themselves. It also meant that when I sat down at at the light box that I could avoid confusing myself by just grabbing pictures that were "good" or "likeable" -- first, they had a job to do.

The Santa Fe Workshop goal was an eight-picture slideshow of favorites. I gave them that, and also made a twenty-picture slideshow of my own as a personal exercise. After the first draft I showed it to Harvey, and (after he counseled me to discard some of the shots) we chatted about how a similar process of getting at themes can drive a project, as they did for his long-term work on Divided Soul. He pointed out that once there’s a connecting idea, in a sequence a picture can be more than a picture, just as in a poem a word is not just a word. It has a broader function.

The revised version of that slideshow is here, you can play it small or use the fullscreen (button on the lower right when playing). The music is a fragment from an Isaac Albéniz piece, beautifully played by Rosa Antonelli. The titles were in the first draft too. They might feel a bit overwrought but they did me right at 4AM at the end of a very inspiring and satisfying week.

An hour back to Miami, and within another hour I was parked across from the Trump International Resort, having an almond-milk latté and listening to the chatter around me: a mix of English, Spanish, and Russian. But that's another post entirely.

We will go, See See. Before the Bubba Gump.

Havana: Caged Bouquet: posted March 12, 2017 | 0 Comments

P1000160, Sparx Blue

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A lot of old entries lurking in the blog backlog... especially this batch from March 2009.

P1000160, Sparx Blue: posted November 19, 2014 | 0 Comments

Reversals

This morning I decided to go for a bike ride. Dragged out a map, looked at some of my favorite recent destinations for riding that were at about what I felt was an appropriate distance for the amount of time I had; then drew a circle roughly around my location to fit their range. I noticed that they all tended to cluster to the north and west, to Palo Alto, Los Altos, and the hills near them.

There's an old photographer's maxim: if the view is interesting in a particular direction, there's a good chance that the view will be interesting in the opposite direction, too. This is one of those little guidelines that encourage the thing I most like about the process of photography, and that I like most about cycling: it demands that you pay attention.

So I chose a different route, and a path less traveled, which has made all the difference.

The photograph at right was made along a path that I hesitated before -- gravel, long, no easy turning back. Little sign of popularity, not even a guarantee that I'd not get to the far side and reach some impasse that would send me back the way I'd come.

Five minutes along, and the path was now just a dry berm, rising from water on both sides. No one about, no sound but the roll of tires on dry mud. To my left, a gull came alongside, and another, and then more to the right, and all around, at eye level and skimming the still, sky-colored water below, criss-crossing alongside of me before taking a group arc off towards better fishing.

I'd never felt more like a cycle ride is a kind of flying.

Five minutes on, I was startled by a flight of swifts that whooshed perpendicularly across my front wheel, the beat of their wings the only sound followed quickly by my own amazed intake of breath as they shot off to the east.

Five minutes more and I was pacing alongside a great egret for nearly a block, able to study the strokes of his wings, to hear his call and watch how he seemed to gently communicate his presence to the other birds along the path, before he accelerated ahead, then landed on the trail, watching me until I had caught up, at which point he departed back the way he'd come.

During this I'd seen only three other people, though I was within sight of the homes and offices of tens of thousands. I passed one more, an older lady gently cranking along on a mountain bike, and as I started to loop back to shore I was following another bird, a crow I thought -- after a while he pinioned 180 degrres and shot past me, again at eye level -- a red-tailed hawk.

Five minutes more and I was in traffic, negotiating my way over highway 237, dodging pickup trucks and VTA trains. It was all good riding, but only one part of it touched the sky.

Reversals: posted April 07, 2012 | 0 Comments

A Momentary Stay

See See Lo @ Jenner, CaliforniaWhen you're busy, your peripheral senses dim; it might be weeks before you notice that the house-guest sleeping on your sofa has installed himself as a permanent resident - still asleep in the morning as you rush out to the office, mostly out of sight when you return late. And so it has been as the weeks and more have slipped by without an entry here on Botzilla, as the digital cruft starts to collect around the DNS entries and the CSS stylings begin to look a little bit too 2009.

I could make a host of plausible excuses: that we were busy launching Rift; that there was another new baby in the extended family; that much of my time has been consumed by my rediscovered love of cycling; all possible, all overlapping, but ultimately I think that the real culprit is the great mass ADHD of our era, Facebook.

And it's Facebook that's brought me back here, in an attempt to carve out something more coherent than a string of redirected tweets or ideas limited to a half-dozen lines of narrow text, swept away into the great churn of daily gossip.

Now, I have a certain respect for gossip, as a driving force for culture and civilization as far back as either could be meaningfully describe. Robert Frost called it one of the three great things mankind have wrought in the world (the other, slightly-lesser great things were science and religion).

Yet Frost isn't known as a gossip, but as the author of something both more solid and more ephemeral : his poems. He said that to write -- to complete a new bundle of ideas -- is a momentary stay against confusion.

I hope he was right.

A Momentary Stay: posted April 06, 2012 | 0 Comments

Junkpiles

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What a difference a day makes as I start assembling all the real components and trying to sort them out -- even doubling the size of the chassis the whole thing seems... smaller. And it's definitely slower. And I still haven't added the USB router or the second power supply for the linux portion. Or the lasers.

But really, I don't want to make Wall-E or Huey/Dewey/Louie or K-9 or Johnny-5. All those designs have a similar feel, I think, because they are dominated by components. This seems like a dead-end for the physical design, I'm moving back to my "expressive tentacle-like eyestalk" plan.

Imagine if animals were designed this way. Ugh. They all have similar components, but how different are even the various vertebrates and chordates, much less the wide variety of other creatures...

Did some computer vision tests this evening and it was taking eight seconds a pop to analyze images. Realtime, yay.

Junkpiles: posted June 03, 2009 | 0 Comments

Child Portraitists

While this post has been lingering half-written for months, I was reminded of it this morning, as I came across this post from Suzanne Revy, and prodded with the notion that in fact this little rant has been curdling in my mind for my, much longer.

Suzanne is one of an undeclared informal group, the APUG B&W Child Portrait Society, a club that includes photographers like Cheryl Jacobs in the U.S., Nicole Boenig-McGrade in Australia, & Heli Huhtala in Finland.

In all these cases we see similar sorts of classic iconography being used to similar means: to reveal, or seem to reveal, a private world in which children are fully involved and which adults can only glimpse. Even then, the contents of that private world remains hidden -- only its existence is shown, and the rest is hidden through deep shadows and restrictive or soft focus (or even, as in Cheryl's current title-webpage image, both shadows and soft focus combined with a wire mesh screen between the child and the photographer).

As Jeff Curto describes well in his Podcast Lecture on Women in Photographic History (you can find his associated presentation slides here), these veins have been serving-up images of value almost since the dawn of photography. As Curto also mentions, they have been especially well-represented by women photographers, with few men making such leaps -- a bit like his parallel observation that there are almost no woman landscape photographers of note. The iconic photographers with similar visual flavor are certainly women: Sally Mann, Chansonetta Stanely Emmons, Nancy Rexroth, and of course Gertrude Kasebier, whom I've often felt was the first prominent photographer of this sort whose work was acclaimed to a degree because she delivered what was expected, following in the far larger footsteps of Julia Margaret Cameron (caveat: both made images approriate for their time, and I acknowledge that my reading is based on a potentially ignorance-inducing gap of over a century).

There are a handful of exceptions, particularly moderns like Keith Carter (is Ralph Gibson an adult alternative?), or stray iconic images like Elliot Erwitt's nursing mother or W. Eugene Smith's postcard perennial Walk Through Paradise Garden, pictures that are notable for not being the work for which those photographers are acclaimed, regardless of whatever commercial success those individual pictures have found (Erwitt has commented that his snap, made of his wife & baby daughter, essentially paid for that daughter's college education).

There are a few men approaching but skirting past this dream landscape. An obvious example and another APUG wanderer might be Napa's Michael McBlane, whose black and whites similarly revel in the beauty of children's clear faces in soft light but like most male portraitists seems a bit more formal, more distanced, more willing to work in the studio... dare I say a more results-oriented approach?

It's not hard to think similarly of Nicholas Nixon's family photography, which reveals its emotional core only through a formal approach and his relentlessly demanding mastery of large-format technique.

What then might be a typical male approach? Surely father love their children as dearly as mothers do. Is there a "typical" stance? And if so, what role does the gender of the photographer play, where are its strengths, its soft spots? I ask myself this while looking at pictures like the above, pictures I made when my children were small and when, as a newly-single dad, perhaps (perhaps) I had no choice but to me Mr Mom in practice and in spirit. Have my pictures changed since then, in a way that reflects more than just the greater age (and diminished patience) of these two beautiful subjects?

One of the more interesting dad photographers is one I actually know: Todd Deutsch, who manages to find his own view with a lightweight fluid camera in photos like this one.

Conclusions? None. Then again, I prefer photos that are questions.


Child Portraitists: posted August 17, 2007 | 0 Comments

Crunch Mope

This is one of those never-quite-finished entries that's been long-lingering due to lack of time and attention — in this case it's been months (there are some that are older... what can I say?) — the original save date was early 2005, and it's lingered in "draft mode" ever since.

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I was digging around on del.icio.us one afternoon and saw that after a lot of web traffic and game-industry furor back in November 2004, ea_spouse was still drawing hits from across the del.icio.us spectrum.

Now, I know a lot of folks at EA, I deal with them and know that a lot of them are happy, that they keep moving on from one project to the next, from group to group, production to production, and they're doing fine. If the general picture were really as bleak as ea_spouse paints, then I doubt very much that anyone would work there for more than a few months. And that's not the case — plenty of people at EA have been there, happy, for years.

Just the same, there can be problems in the industry. I regularly see people griping on message boards, usually about pay, hours, and credits. I read the recent article on IGDA purporting to be lessons for EA managers (and game managers in general), & I felt that the authors had gotten a few things wrong.

I don't think this is really an EA issue at its core — maybe "ea_spouse" hails from there, but EA is just a big, easy target for journalists. Rather, it's an industry-wide issue. There are many other companies, better and worse alike...

(Cartoon aside: VG Cats)

The games industry, spawned from the general computer graphics and animation industries, is by its nature dynamic and changeable. More than that — at least in its earlier days, it was mutable. It was really possible for a very small number of people — sometimes just one dedicated and brilliant person — to create things that would radically change the industry or create whole new genres. When Carmack & co made the Doom engine, that small group changed everything. When Blinn simplified the Cooke-Torrance illumination model, it changed everything. Toy Story? Photoshop? GeForce 256? Jurassic Park? Every one a work created by some small group of smart dynamos that blew-open the prevailing notions about what was possible.

(Folks like Clayton Christensen & Tom Peters might argue that it still is mutable — we just don't see how yet)

When you're hot on the trail of a Big Idea, time is immaterial. You do it out of love for craft, love of what you're doing, love of the idea that you're out to change the world. It's not a job, it's What You Do, it's a part of who you are and who you're becoming, what you're discovering and dreaming. That's true either at the office or out, depending on the person. For the people spending 50 hours a week after work carefully airbrushing the side of their van, for someone carefully tweaking their website scripts every other day, or someone sure that they can just get the rig on that character just so because it's never been done that way before.

The beauty of Big Ideas is that no one complains about them — those hundred-hour weeks spent on finding a way to get cool reflections aren't a waste, they're a part of life's flow. The nasty part is, sometimes those Big Ideas make money. Sometimes they make a lot of money. And then the trouble starts.

The business-statistics sources IGDA quotes aren't inherently bad, they're good sources. A lot of the same sources can be found in books like Ed Yourdon's Death March or even systems books like Deitrich Dorner's The Logic of Failure. Probably my favorite of all such resources is on the web: The Software Program Manager's Network is a great source on project management, risk assessment and management (and most of it has been already paid-for by our US tax dollars, so its resources are free to all).

The problem is that such sources don't see the surrounding business environment as highly dynamic — rather, they see business as stable, as a broad zero-sum or low-growth background. If your business is expanding at a rate of 50% per year and bad management is costing you 12% productivity per year, well, guess what? You made money anyway. And what's more, human nature being human nature, there's more than a slight chance that those bad managers will be convinced that the reason they made money was because of their own sage and masterful leadership.

In a slower, more-stable business environment with 5% or 10% growth (or less), that 12% drop will get a manager fired. In a boom market, it won't even be noticed. It may seem counter-intuitive, but successful innovation is an excellent breeding ground for bad managers. Good managers can exist there too — a good manager in a boom market will do better than a bad one, but the bad one has a good chance of survival — even encouragment — simply from the dumb luck of being in the right place at the right time. Anywhere else, they'd be dead.

Second, honey and money attract flies. When you look at the growth of many industries and niches, you'll see that once money appears, the companies will swell — not only with the core creators and producers of products, but with layers of bureacrats who really had little or no knowledge of the XYZ business before they realized that Forbes had identified it as growing. I've heard animation producers say they saw no difference between making films and making cardboard boxes. They were only there for the money, and had no interest in anything like Core Values or purpose.

So now imagine, the stage is set: the innovation of XYZ, based on a Big Idea that its creators were pursuing out of the love of doing it, has suddenly produced great results, and the money is flowing in. The structural layers of the companies are swelling with people who weren't really part of the XYZ innovation in the first place. The XYZ business is slow and project-oriented — you work for years and you either win big or you lose big (large projects are common in many innovation businesses: cel phones, gaming, biotech...). The people who lose big go away, while the people who win big — well, it must have been the great accounting and production liason lunches that made everything so successful, right? Because the cycle of the entire enterprise is such that, by the time a game or film is released and the money is being counted to determine whether the project was successful or a failure, the creators are no longer part of the process. Bean-counting, yes. But animation? Design? Modelling? Research? That was done months ago, maybe years. Those people are working on a completely different project, potentially at some completely different company (back in November 2004 it was claimed EA had something like a 50% turnover annually). In the meantime, the bean counters are patting each other's backs for work well-done.

(Illustration in point: some years ago I was working on a TV commercial and needed to check some client paperwork. I couldn't find my producer or his assistant. After a while I discovered that they were at an afternoon party, because another commercial I'd done some months earlier — modeled, textured, animated, lit, rendered, and delivered — had won an animation award. Despite my name on the award, the agency and producers were busy having a party without even bothering to tell me — eventually one of the agency guys thought it would be fun to come back to the production office and visit, which was the moment at which I discovered that the award even existed and had been won: when someone I'd never seen or heard of before came by to say thanks for all the great work "we'd done together." Two years later, I won the same annual award, and found out about it because a colleague had attended the ceremony the previous evening, where they saw an exec I'd never heard of accept the award in my name — even though I was working only a few blocks away, no one had bothered to tell me. I would attribute these sorts of stories (and I have plenty) to individual people, rather than a broad pattern — if it weren't for the fact that they happened with completely separate companies at opposite ends of the country)

So there is a confluence of forces, between two groups with very different expectations:

  • Producers who have seen the sales figures for Half Life or and plan to replicate them. They see that the people working on those innovative, personal projects were burning 80 and 100 hour weeks. The idea of doing this for love never enters a producer's head. What does enter their head is that a crew of 20 took two years of overtime without overtime pay... hmmm... 20peoplex80hoursx100weeks... and the crew's motivation isn't taken into account. They just think that this sort of work requires 80 hour weeks without considering what inspires an 80 hour week.
  • New artists/TDs/employees coming into the business have a completely different idea of what they're going into, compared to their counterparts of previous projects. They are expecting a "job" in the classic corporate sense — health and dental, ESPP, retirement plan, two weeks of vacation. They went to school and got trained in Maya and Softimage and C# and paid for the privelge of that education, but in the end those schools are training people for "jobs in the industry" which is usually a far cry from what the people who started the industry thought they were after.

(To be continued when I'm less cranky, heh)

Crunch Mope: posted April 27, 2006 | 0 Comments

Should Have Ripped This Off Long Ago

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Yes, I should have ripped this off,... but it wasn't there to be ripped.

They say that creativity is the subtle theft of others' ideas.

Should Have Ripped This Off Long Ago: posted April 27, 2006 | 0 Comments

 

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