Author Archive for: jgates

Anatomy of a Photograph

08 Feb 2009
February 8, 2009
Portraits taken at Obama's Inauguration

Details from some of my Inaugural portraits

As I began to look at the photographs I shot during the Inauguration I realized how many portraits of people I had taken that day: from soldiers and police who were doing traffic control (and other more subtle national security tasks) to the many different citizens who came to celebrate and sell their souvenirs. As I said initially, this was a very different Inauguration than the last two I attended. Few protesters, it was more celebratory than either of the last two Bush events.

Over the years I have spent a lot of time thinking about the best camera to take on these urban photo safaris. In 2001 I dusted off my Pentax 6×7 to shoot medium format “real” film at Bush’s first Inaugural. This had been my go-to camera during the 1990s. Medium format gave me great detail for large prints and I loved the quality. But that January 20th I realized this would be the last time I would ever used this camera –too few shots per roll and, weighing in at almost four pounds, it was heavy as hell. This was not well-suited for the type of urban documentary photography I was interested in and my back was no longer willing to carry it around. It became a burden to take pictures. I needed to make an adjustment just as digital cameras were coming into their own.

In 2005 I brought my first digicam, the tiny Pentax Optio S5. Oooh, it was light and its featherweight brought the fun back for me. But the measly optical zoom (3X) didn’t allow me to get close to some of the action at Bush’s second Inauguration. So I began looking for something closer to my dream combo: a lightweight camera with a massive zoom. The winner was the Panasonic TZ3 (and now its successor the TZ5). It was a bit heavier than my S5 but not by much and it had a 10X optical zoom (the longest zoom on the lightest camera around). It didn’t have processional settings like the Nikon P5000 or the Canon G9 so I wouldn’t have the most control over the images I took but I figured I could do what I needed in post-production using Photoshop.

So this year it was me and my TZ3 welcoming our new President on the National Mall. When you’re taking impromptu street portraits you don’t have a lot of time to contemplate your camera settings. You point and you shoot. I asked people if I could take their photograph. Sometimes I’d just be able to get one shot off before my subject moved on. That’s street photography: Henri Cartier-Bresson’s decisive moment. I was in a maelstrom of people moving in all directions. Getting someone to stand still for a minute wasn’t easy.

As I looked at my images on the computer later that evening I started to form opinions about what I had taken. Going in without a strict notion of what I wanted to take (how could I, not knowing what to expect), I relied on my internal photographic senses on the street. However, now I had the time to make decisions about the final images. And I realized that some would require a shallow depth-of-field to separate the subjects of my photos from their background. Unlike my formative photographic years when I could do that by as I was taking the photography using a wide aperture, I was going to have to recreate this via Photoshop. And to do it right was going to entail a multi-stepped process.

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Vulnerable Below Street Level

25 Jan 2009
January 25, 2009

Caffeine, you were my friend. I started my day with you and recently began seeing you on an ongoing basis in the late afternoon. When I realized you had no effect on my regular bedtime I relied on you to give me that extra push from my day job to my evening job as a dad and husband. Suddenly I had energy to do the dishes without being asked and to cheerfully help my girls with their homework. But no more. From now on I will do my evening work without your help. I’ve learned my lesson.

Last Wednesday, as I sat in the train commuting home I suddenly realized I was a bit queasy. This wasn’t anything new. A late-day coffee sometimes upset my stomach just a bit. Forgoing any subway reading usually calmed it down. I had control over it. But Wednesday was different. The coffee in concert with an overheated subway car did me in. It came on suddenly and wouldn’t let go. I closed my eyes as I broke out in a cold sweat. I shed first my winter coat and eventually my shirt. I wasn’t sure I could make it to my stop. By the time I got there I was sitting in a drenched t-shirt. It was all I could do to get out of the car and sit on the platform bench nearby.

As I sat on there with my head down I knew I was dehydrated. I couldn’t lift my head without becoming lightheaded and I knew I’d need help getting out of the subway. When a janitor passed me by I asked him for some water and to use his cell to call my wife. It’s hard to ask a stranger for help. As I waited I laid down with my eyes closed. I relished the quiet of the abandoned platform, only to hear the oncoming trains. The wind that preceded their arrival felt good on my face. But with their appearance came homeward bound commuters: a constant reminder of my vulnerability.

I was sick and unable to take care of myself in such a public place. I closed my eyes to hide the looks of people passing me by. Suddenly, a man’s voice asked if I needed help. “I’ve called my wife. Thanks,” I said, just barely opening my eyes to see his shadow in the subdued light of the platform. I simultaneously wanted his help and wanted to be left alone. “I’ll stay with you until your wife arrives,” he said. When she came he quietly left. I wanted to get his name but he was already gone.

She brought me water and I drank it as quickly as I could. In the end that was a big mistake. “That was too much of a shock to your system,” the paramedics later told me. I tossed it all right on the platform. That’s the “thanks” I left for that nice janitor. While we waited for the ambulance (for a gurney was the only way I’d get out of there) two other commuters asked if they could help. I am thankful for the kindness of these strangers. But then a train operator got out and asked if I was drunk. Vulnerable and misunderstood. I couldn’t wait to get out of there.

When the paramedics finally arrived they took my vitals (all fine) and asked if I wanted to go to the hospital. “Absolutely not,” I replied. I knew an all-night visit to the Emergency Room, waiting hours in a garishly lighted waiting room would not be my best medicine. I’d be fine if I could just get into bed and relax. They carefully lowered the gurney to the bench level and moved me to the elevator while my wife got the car. As we waited for her I asked if they needed my medical insurance. “It’s all free,” she said.

I was thankful, but none of this was free.

Celebrating with a Few Million Friends:
The Inauguration of Barack Obama

22 Jan 2009
January 22, 2009
Greetings from Washington, DC

A “postcard” view of the Inauguration taken from the top of the Washington Monument. The circle marks our spot on the Mall. Click image for larger view. (The original can be found here.)

My twelve year old daughter and I got up early to catch the Metro downtown to Barack Obama’s Inauguration. We didn’t know quite what to expect. No one did. There were numerous unknowns: how many millions would crowd the Mall that day, would the Metro be able to handle the heavy traffic, and where would the best vantage point be to witness the festivites. But I had to go and I wanted to bring my daughter. She’s at the age when she’s aware of cultural and political events and has started forming strong opinions about them. This would be something she would remember.

The Metro platform was full of people but the cars were relatively empty when we got on. As we moved towards downtown they quickly filled. The atmosphere was celebratory, like we were going to a homecoming football game. In the last few months we had all been rooting for the same team and this was our party.

We met friends at a Starbucks close to the Mall and walked the short distance towards the Washington Monument. After scouring all the printed Inaugural primers, this was part of the deployment plan my friend Randall and I devised a few days before. The stream of people moving towards the Monument was fairly light at 8 a.m. and surprisingly, we found no security checks at the perimeter, just a volunteer who welcomed us as we walked in. This was in stark contrast to our expectations (and the warnings of the Secret Service) and the experiences of those closer to the ceremony in the ticketed areas. We staked out our place on the eastern slope to the Monument in close proximity to a Jumbotron, facing the Capitol about a mile away.

With three hours until the kickoff, my daughter and I went exploring and photographing. The landscape was filling with people. And I was beginning to feel wrapped in a sea of left-of-center love. By the time we decided to return to our places we had to go against a human tsunami trying to get as close to the action as possible. Along this path I photographed some of the people, the law enforcement, and the media we encountered.

During huge events like this I like to photograph the periphery. That’s often where all the interesting visuals are happening. But unlike four years ago when I photographed George Bush’s second Inaugural, moving around, let alone finding those edges was impossible. Too large and too crowded. Instead, I focused on those in close proximity.

Different, too, from four years ago was the atmosphere of this event. Very few protests, it was more of a true celebration for change. I could feel that relief as I chatted with those around us. We clapped when various dignitaries were announced. And we began singing Steam’s song “Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye” when Bush arrived on the dais. Joy. After eight long years 01 20 09, Bush’s last day, had finally arrived.

When the moment for Obama’s swearing in came, rather than face forward, I turned around to capture the reaction of those behind me. And then I hugged my daughter.

Additional Images: You can see the rest of the photographs I took at the Inauguration here. I’m still culling my images for a few more gems.

The Bush Years: It’s a Wrap (But Hardly a Pretty Package)

19 Jan 2009
January 19, 2009
Bush's Last Day

I’ve been wearing a baseball cap emblazoned with this date and slogan for over two years. And I can’t believe January 20, 2009 is finally upon us. I feel like a veil is being lifted and like victims of oppression who suddenly become free of their oppressors, I am both filled with hope and anxiety when I consider the future ahead for us. Things will not change right away and some things will be hard for Barack Obama to right. These eight years will not go away that easily.

The actual attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon seem far in the past (although their effects do not). The Iraqi and Afgani Wars, Osama and Al Qaeda –it’s hard to believe George W. Bush has been in power during this whole period. It seems like forever (it has been forever). I am less naïve and see our success as a people much more tied to the rest of the world. George W., you showed me that over the years. Your actions spoke volumes. And I learned the hard way by your mistakes and missteps.

Early on I felt isolated from many Americans, those who saw your policies in very different ways. I’m gratified after eight years I am no longer in the minority. It took awhile but those missteps became onerous to most. But many paid a high price and sacrificed their lives because of your decisions. I don’t take terrorism lightly but I’m hoping there are other ways to fight it. I am looking forward towards a more humble period in our history.

I started Life Outtacontext in February 2001, just as your first term began. But it wasn’t until 9/11 that I began to write about the “News Outta My Control.” As a reaction to September 11 I created Dichotomy: It Was a Matter of Time and Place as a way for others to tell their stories, pairing missives from those who were affected directly by these attacks with those who experienced them via the media. I just received my most recent contribution just last week.

During the last few days I’ve been taking stock of the last eight years through my writings here. Below is a list with links to my thoughts these last two Bush terms. Some of these stories remind me that some of us have an incredible ability to analyze our situation accurately (unlike the Bush Administration’s WMD assertion), like Seymour Hersh. In a 2003 post he tells us that it’s Pakistan, not Iraqi, that should concern us the most. Or like Steve Mehallo’s 2003 poster for peace that says “Make Jobs Not War. We’re starting to see the light now.

Others remind me that I can be outspoken in quite an idiosyncratic sort of way: here, here, and here. (Oh, and don’t forget here, here and especially here.) Some pieces I am even proud of. Freedom fries be damned!

While just a regular “Joe” citizen, living in Washington has over the years given me access to the centers of power. Like the time I ran into John Ashcroft on the street, or when my wife and I were invited to Vice President Cheney’s house. And sometimes politics got personal. It’s been a hard, but interesting eight years. September 11, the Iraqi War, the 2004 and 2008 Presidential Elections, Katrina, and the economic dive-bomb. It’s all here.

The list below seems so nice and tidy. But life for all of us has been far from it. To better times!

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Inauguration Porta-Potties #2

17 Jan 2009
January 17, 2009
Sign on Porta-Potty

Pierson’s Comfort Group, LLC gets the award for the best slogan in the Porta-Potty business. Click image for detail.

Don’t think me anal but I must continue my porta-potty report from yesterday. This morning the Washington Post is reporting on the details of the massive Inaugural stimulus package on the National Mall (let it be known that this venerable newspaper is just as astute at word play as I am, titling this article “Mall Area Is Flush With Portable Facilities”).

According to the Post, Conrad Harrell, vice president of Chantilly-based Don’s Johns thinks “the total inaugural Toilet Tally could top 7,000. That’s a one-day bathroom capacity of nearly half a million gallons, an epic of septic. ‘There was an event in Germany where they installed 8,000 for a visit by the pope, but there’s never been anything like this in this country,’ said Harrell… ‘We feel like we’re part of history.'” I can’t top that.

But I do have to give the award for the best porta-potty business slogan to one of Harrell’s competitors. Pierson’s Comfort Group states it boldly: “We’re #1 in the #2 business.” I really can’t top that.

Sizing Up the Inauguration

16 Jan 2009
January 16, 2009
Porta-potties next to Washington Monument

Porta-Potties Stand Ready and Waiting for Inaugural Hordes.

Am I ready? Well, to be honest, I am a bit nervous. Will I be standing in a sea of four million out-of-towners or two million –many natives have decided to go skiing. (Follow the rules people and we’ll get along just fine.) Will the Metro actually get me where I’m going? The Metro’s General Manager isn’t so sure. He is sure “something will happen on the 20th.” That’s what I like: confidence.

Am I prepared for the cold and the hours I’ll be standing on the National Mall? I’m working at it. Concerned that I might bring some prohibited item with me I checked out the special Inaugural sections of both the Secret Service’s Web site and the DC Government’s Web site. And I found a discrepancy. The Secret Service says prohibited items are just for the parade and Inaugural Balls. While the DC site says that same list is for all Inaugural events. I put in a call to the Secret Service (their headquarters are right next to my office) and they said they’d get back to me, but never did.

I tweeted the problem and suddenly the Canadian Embassy was following me on Twitter. Located on Pennsylvania Avenue, right on the parade route, the Embassy requested more info. Suddenly, I was at the center of international intrigue. I immediately requested “heat asylum” (to watch the parade from the Embassy’s incredible vantage point all warm and cozy) but was flatly rejected (but some of my best friends are Canadian!). So much for social media’s diplomatic channels.

Bottom line: I’m traveling light. Got my special mittens with “retractable” covers. Underneath are fingerless gloves so I can take photos without fear of frostbite. Layers, layers, and more layers. Bottled water, camera with extra SD cards and batteries, and energy bars. Check. Everything has to fit into my heavy down coat’s pockets. No backpacks allowed. Yep, I’m all set.

Am I worried about taking a pee in this sea of humanity? Nope. I took a lunch hour this week to go down and survey the facilities. The photo above even made the front page of the dcist yesterday.

My biggest concern is whether I’ll be stuck in the middle of the Mall. Unlike four years ago, when the Bush Inaugural crowds were a bit more manageable, it may be hard to move around. I like to photograph the “edges” of the action. That’s where the good stuff usually can be found.

Stay tuned. I’ll be reporting in live from the Inaugural on Twitter from the best, albeit the chilliest vantage point I can find.

Related Post: Inaugural Porta-Potties #2

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