The Non-Metaphorical Journey. The nuts and bolts of traveling back and forth from Austin to San Antonio.

In the last twenty years I imagine the population in central Texas, from San Antonio to Waco, with Austin in the middle, has doubled. The main highway (IH-35) between the central United States and Mexico (as well as huge swaths of south Texas agricultural centers) has not doubled in size, not doubled in lanes; mostly not kept pace at all with the endless, relentless flow of traffic. This makes commuting back and forth, or visiting regularly, between Austin and San Antonio, an unpredictable nightmare.

What used to be a one hour and five minute journey is now, typically an hour and forty minutes. Each stalled car on the roadside adds an additional five minutes. Every wreck requiring police or ambulance attention can add 20 or 30 minutes of white knuckle driving to the tally. It's a modern sort of torture that reminds those of us who remember the wide, almost car-less expanse of highway back in the 1970's and 1980's that, where infrastructure is concerned, our country may have been comfortably first world then but we have, through neglect and lack of planning, demoted our public road resources to a decidedly third world standard that is neither safe nor convenient. Sadly, it's still the quickest way to get between the two cities for everyone without access to their own plane or helicopter. 

So, yesterday, we added over an hour to the journey. There were three major wrecks along the route. Mostly caused, I would bet, by inattentive drivers trying to multi-task via text or phone, which is always bad when combined with another subset of drivers who believe it is their manifest destiny to drive their pick-up trucks at 90 MPH, five feet from the bumper of the person in front of them.

After many roundtrips this year, taken at all different times of the day and night, I've resigned myself to this painful process and my intent is not speed but my own personal safety. 

After a nice visit with my father yesterday I headed home but instead of tossing the dice and taking another ride up IH-35 I took the longer and slower route home, heading up HWY 281 north. It's the back way. 

Is it dangerous to take photos out of the windshield of one's car?
Not when the car has been immobile in stopped traffic for at least 
five minutes or more....

HWY 281 is not yet subject to full stop traffic jams. Parts of that highway offer beautiful views of an undeveloped portion of the Texas Hill Country. There are a series of mini-mountains (maxi-hills?) that are referred to as, "The Devil's Backbone." Named because the early Texans with horse drawn wagons found the topology nearly impossible to transit. 

Because I had no pressing engagements I went further off the main grid by turning right at Blanco, Texas and taking the Henley Loop over to HWY 290. I don't know the real name of this two lane blacktop but I call it the Henley Loop because Henley, Texas is on the route to HWY 290. Whatever it's called it was largely deserted at 3:30pm in the afternoon and made for a much different, much happier journey home. From time to time I was so enchanted with the big sky of central Texas that I would pull of the road to click a frame or two of the landscape meshing with a dramatic skyscape. 

I had only my "car" camera. It's a Nikon D700 bought expressly to keep handy in the car and it generally rides along with a battered and crusty Nikon 35-70mm f3.5 manual focus lens that I've come to trust for sharpness and an almost Technicolor rendering of reality. I kept it close by, on the passenger's seat, set at ISO 200, with the aperture at f8, and left it to the camera to calculate a good exposure. With the distance scale set between 30 feet and infinity I didn't bother with focusing. 

At the time I wished I'd brought along a polarizing filter but when I went to post process the raw files today I realized that adding polarization to the mix would have been over the top. Too much.

I would never suggest anyone shoot from a moving car.....if they are the active driver. But I break the rules when I am at a stop sign and there's no other car for miles around. It's wonderful to see that there are still parts of Texas not completely ruined by the pervasive car culture. I'm pulling out the maps to try and discover new routes to San Antonio --- trading speed for calmness and appreciation of our remaining wide open spaces.

Happy Father's Day. A long journey of unconditional love and support.

C.W. Tuck

I've spent a lot of time with my dad in the last six months. When my mom passed away he lost his best friend and his #1 care provider. He was diagnosed with vascular dementia a few years back but he continued to function adequately with my mother's constant help. At the beginning of the year the responsibility fell to me. Yesterday I marked my 38th round trip this year to San Antonio. I went down to see how he was doing with his re-entry into his memory care facility after our stay in the hospital the week before. 

My sister was down for the entire week in between and helped him get back into the swing of things. The two of them had always played Scrabble together and they had many matches this past week. My sister (who, among other talents, has a degree in English from UT Austin) was soundly beaten by dad in several of the games. While my father has lost some of his memory, and had other parts of it scrambled, he is still verbally eloquent and an avid reader and writer.

At 90 years old my father scorns things like walkers and wheel chairs and insists on getting places under his own steam, with the use of a cane I bought him many years ago. When I visit him these days I bring him the Sunday New York Times and a small bag of his favorite candy; Hershey's Milk Chocolate Kisses. When I pick up and recycle the previous week's NYT I'm always impressed to see that he has worked diligently and well to finish the Sunday crossword puzzle.

We have lunch together at his favorite table, along with several of his regular friends. They are all 90 or older. Sometimes, in private, my father will remark, "I don't know how I ended up here...some of these people are really quite old."  After lunch I brief him on the activities of the week and of his current financial condition. He craves the news. His father was a banker and he can't help his need to keep track of his money and comment on the performance of his "staff" (meaning me of course).  

My dad has always been there for me and my brother and sister. My parents were more or less model parents. They never could rationalize the cost of buying a color television or getting cable but were more than happy to put three kids through college and graduate schools without thinking twice. My dad never missed an early morning of getting up and driving me to swim practice before school, and at every family crisis my parents showed up, check book in hand, ready and able to beat back hysteria and desperation (which thankfully for all involved were very rare occurrences). 

I went down to San Antonio yesterday not out of a sense of duty but because I wanted to stay our course and maintain a recent routine which seems to have made him satisfied with his new home and mostly happy. His face lights up when I walk in his door. My heart swells a bit when we hug. We are so frank and honest with each other now. There's so much less in the way.

My dad made a good recovery from his recent cardiac scare. His private apartment is beautifully appointed and filled with portraits of family and friends. The staff has given up trying to introduce my father to some of the mindless activities of the facility and we've agreed to let him do the things he has always done; sit in a comfortable chair in his room, listen to classical music on his sound system and read books about world history. Even with the handicap of dementia he probably knows more about American history than 99.9 percent of this country's population. He's always been a person who cherishes his privacy and solitude. He's always been an academic. It's fun to see him continue on his own terms. He's a great role model for me and my siblings. 

Happy Fathers Day to all of you fathers out there who have done your work, raised great kids and dealt, for better or worse, with all the curve balls that come along with the joy and responsibility of moving people from potential to success. 



Experimenting with variable neutral density on a very fast lens. Shooting wide open. In broad daylight.

The obligatory self-portrait.

Since I shoot a fair amount of video with the lenses I have for my Panasonic GH5 I've bought a good number of variable neutral density (VND) filters. One's options for shutter speed settings outdoors in full sun are limited if you are shooting video. Especially if you are hopeful about using faster apertures...

I'm cheap when it comes to some parts of the photographic buying frenzy. I could never bring myself to spring for +$250 for a 62mm B+W VND is I can buy one that works well from Zomei for less than $40. If there are color inconsistencies that result from using the bargain filter I haven't found them yet...

So we use the VNDs all the time in video production but I rarely read about people using them in still photography. Especially for non-technical stuff like street photography. Come to think of it I haven't used them very often for that either. This morning I decided I'd see what I was missing (if anything).

Of course, if you are using a camera that offers electronic shutter capability you may already have the ability to set very high shutter speeds in order to shoot wide or nearly wide open with fast lenses in the sun. But you might find that the freeziness of those fast shutter speeds has a different look --- and you may not like it. I wanted to work with a solution that would give me: A. Low ISO. B. f1.2 or 1.4. And shutter speeds in the range from 1/125th to 1/1,000th. 

I took along a GH5 and the Rokinon 50mm f1.2, as well as a Zomei 62mm VND. I was able to stay at f1.2, where I remained throughout the morning - with only one or two exceptions solely to get more depth of field... I would comp a subject, look at the exposure numbers in the finder and then twist the VND front ring until the shutter speed numbers dropped right into my preferred range. What I found is that the Rokinon 50mm f1.2 is better than I thought. Previous test were done as such low light levels that it was hard to separate out which weakness in technique was giving me crappy results; bad focusing, subject movement or camera shake. With daylight, faster shutter speeds and ample light with which to focus it turns out that the actual performance of the lens is quite good. 

I'm excited about the technique but the very next time I go out to do this I'm bringing along a beautiful and mysterious looking companion/model so we can make better use of the subject distance to out of focus background. It will also give me a much more interesting subject to photograph. I just need to find someone fun and relatively immune to the wretched heat. We will always be looking for open shade. Although a sweating model would be novel.... Happy to try new stuff. Nice respite from the harsh reality of real life.

Subject too far from camera to show off effect well.

The second door from the left side of frame is my target in the image just above.

Nicely sharp wide open. And look at the pavement in the background....

After a dalliance with some full frame Nikons, a joyous return to the Panasonic GH5 and the almost perfect Olympus 12-100mm lens.

Don't get me wrong. I really like all that Nikon stuff. The full frame, at 36+ megapixels makes for lush files and a fairly easy working process. Big, juicy files, laden with detail, make work at the edges of the ISO envelope a bit less of a nail biting experience. But the cameras and lenses are huge. The lenses, even the good ones, aren't perfect and the lack of an EVF means there's more screwing around to get just the right exposure. Shoot. Chimp. Shoot Again. Chimp Again. Repeat.

I was heading to the Blanton Museum on the UT Austin campus yesterday morning and I wanted to bring along a camera with less physical gravitas. I was getting tired of the bundle size, the irrefutable effects of gravity and the extra layer of work involved in using an "old tech" camera so I decided to bring along the smaller Panasonic and one lens. I looked into the m4:3 drawer in the equipment cabinet and passed over the alluring prime lenses; the single focal lengths that always promise I might get one glowing, razor sharp nugget of visual joy. I went straight to the 12-100mm; my interest in it stoked by an hour's use of it for the video project done just the day before. 

I loved the show of art from modern Australian Aboriginal artists. It's a great show and  a celebration of interesting patterns and symbols intertwined with beautiful colors and textures. When I had gone through the galleries twice, with the camera hanging over my left shoulder, I went back and walked the galleries one more time cradling the camera in my hands and shooting images of the gallery itself.

With the Olympus Pro 12-100mm I believe the system defaults to using the image stabilization in the lens. In any event it all works well to deliver a very stable and handholdable package that I can use down to something like a 10th of a second with no discernible artifacts. The lens is supremely sharp and is well corrected at most focal lengths. At 12mm there is some noticeable (but not excessive or complex) barrel distortion but it's easy enough to handle in Lightroom or Photoshop if you need perfect geometry. The thing I like about the lens is it's feeling of confidence. No matter what the subject matter, if it's in the range of 12-100 you can shoot without a neuron wasted wondering if your lens is up to the task.

This lens, in combination with the really tight and capable GH5 body is a great all around system. It's my default and my basis. While the Nikon full frame system ( or Sony or Canon ) is great for those times when you just have to have all the clutter in the background disappear courtesy of the magic of limited depth of field, in many way the smaller format is better. Easier to stabilize. Easier to ensure image quality across the frame. More physically manageable. 

In the end they are all just cameras. The show at the Blanton shows me the real nature of art work. It's the WORK. It's getting up and thinking about the work you want to create and then committing to doing it with all your attention. Making time to work is work. But doing the work is good work.

Doing it with a camera you enjoy using takes a bit more friction out of the process.

So, what's on tap for today? Well, I was the subject of a fun interview yesterday evening by Gary Friedman, I signed lots of paperwork for the sale of a house in San Antonio. I caught up on billing and client correspondence, got a bunch of video files over to the Fedex office for a client in Florida and a bit more. But over the last week I missed my traditional walk through the city of Austin with a camera and I'm afraid this weekend might be similarly tricky so I'm taking the morning off to recover, stroll with mindless (mind free? unmindful?) abandon through the familiar streets of the city and take a (metaphoric) deep breath before stumbling back into the strange world of self-employment I've constructed for myself. Some moments feel as though I am hanging by my fingertips while other moments feel like I've just walked into the most spectacular party on the planet. But I'm never sure which agenda is ascendant and which is on tap for the present.


Lou. A reminder that we all knew how to light a long time ago. The new cameras haven't changed the need for that...

Into every photo a little light must fall. It can fall well or poorly; that's up to you.

Photography is an excuse to look at people in a way which might be uncomfortable without the construct of the camera in between.

I think we tend to make big presumptions about why photography is popular and enduring. As a culture we tend to collect objects and creating, printing and collecting images of our food, our fantastic experiences and our unique (ha!) possessions fulfills a bevy of urges constructed by our existence within a mercantile culture. We are also fond of using photographs as symbols of our relative wealth and overall social status. The image of a cruise ship is not about showing your friends or relatives the design and displacement of an ocean going craft it is about a photo becoming a souvenir which, when shared, says, "I had enough money to do this. My social status allowed me this freedom." The same could be said for our images of landscapes taken while on vacation or as the focus of our vacations. I believe that legions of older men feel the need to take their fine cameras somewhere remote from their daily lives in order to give weight and provenance to their artwork by embuing it with a cost of time and travel that is extraneous to the merit of the art itself. 

Our prodigious outpouring of images, spewed across the web, are really two dimensional advertisements for our achievements. We collectively create the understanding that, in order to create a landscape or urbanscape that is of a certain quality, we are  required to travel away from our daily lives in order to see nature/life/monuments in a new and fresh way. 

In effect, the majority of landscapes, cityscapes, and photographs of our stuff  are merely postcards that gather like progressive graffiti to shout, "Kilroy was here. Kilroy had his wallet out. Kilroy traded his time and some of his money in order to position himself to see in real life what you can only see via this small postcard shot I've shared with you"

We've also moved from the idea of sharing being a benevolent act of giving something of value and desire to our fellow travelers. Now sharing has come to mean, in many instances, "I will show you that I am more worldly, more tied in and more able than you are, have more and better friends than you,  and I will do so by making you look at something I have done which does not benefit you and is, almost certainly, of no interest to you. And you will look and act interested in order to preserve the parts of our relationship that you do value. Or you will suffer my need to strut through my catalog of experiences in order to maintain a social equilibrium. 

This is in no way a new thing. People have dreaded for decades the idea of sitting through some horrid evening consisting of uncle Bob's slide show of his trip to the edge of the Grand Canyon, complete with running monologue, "You can't really see it here very well but that spec on the other side of that cluster of trees on the other side of the canyon is actually a bear!!!!!" "You really had to be there to understand it....." And that, of course, is the real message. 

I love Rome and have visited and photographed there perhaps a dozen times. But I can't think of anything more boring that sitting through someone's travel video about the city.

The worst permutation of all this new sharing is the insensitivity of sharing anything visual on the  screen of a cellphone while standing around in bright ambient light. I've given up being nice. I just tell people, "I don't look a pictures on cellphones. It sucks too much."

No, if we are honest, with the exception of commercial work which clients need in order to push their businesses forward, no one really loves anyone else's work. Not wholeheartedly. We do this photography thing because we love our own work. Sure, there are ten or twelve or maybe twenty photographers whose work you admire and wish you could compete with but it's not Joe at the camera club and it's certainly not that guy who has photographed Mount Bonnell in every season and from every angle and with every camera. Robert Frank? Maybe. Richard Avedon? Sure. But that guy who keeps buying those monster zoom lenses and takes shots at the kid's football games? Not on your life. 

So, if I'm such a curmudgeon and so grumpy about photography why do I even bother to practice and share it? Well, my interest is in people and what I've found after working through a lot of life is that there are polite ways of looking at people and then there are interesting ways of looking at people. There's the quick glance and there's the long stare. 

The short answer is that the camera, and the practice of photographing people, gives me a certain permission to really look at and absorb the beauty or presence or energy of the person who stands or sits on the other side of the camera. I photograph (for myself) only the people I find beautiful, interesting, compelling, engaging or scary. Because in this way I can spend time circumventing the polite (and necessary) rules of our culture and stare a little longer, sit a little closer and engage people on a different level than that which is part of our social contract in everyday life. That's why portraits are so captivating. Not necessarily only mine but everyone's. You can stop and look. If you are of a certain generation you might be looking to see if the surface details disclose some evidence of the subject's soul. From another generation you might be admiring aesthetic balance and form. For others it's all about expression and connection. But the bottom line is that the attraction to images of people is our innate curiosity about what makes the person across from us both different and the same. 

My images give you permission to stare. And it's an invitation to see and understand what I find interesting. Fields of blowing cornstalks versus faces directly engaged. No contest.