A memory of a time immersed in photography.

It was 1998 and the American century was blazing bright as we strode, puff chested, toward the odometer flip of time.  The internet was blossoming into thousands of fragrant start-up companies, each more audacious and absurd than the one before it. Two, in particular, I remember laughing about.  One would search for stuff for you, all over the internet, for free! and the other start up would let you search for and buy books.  Then they'd stuff the books onto Fedex vehicles and get them to you.  Both seemed pretty silly since Barnes and Noble was just down the street and there were so few websites out there that you could just type in the addresses to find them... And I was booked to go to Lisbon to shoot.

I was booked on a shoot just before this one in Lisbon.  Another company, at the time famous for their cellphones and tactical radios, had booked me for a week to cover their conference in Orlando.  I rushed home from Florida and dropped my film at the lab and my clothes at the dry cleaner.  I read some bed time stories to my small child and kissed my wife and then picked up the needed dry cleaning on the way to the Austin airport two days later.

This would be my last corporate shoot done entirely with film.  I packed three cameras.  A Nikon F5, a Nikon F100 and a Leica M6 ttl 0.85.  For the Nikon I brought along the 80-200mm 2.8, the 24-85mm zoom and the 85mm 1.4AF.  For the Leica I brought along the same lenses I always packed, the 35mm Summicron, the 50mm Summilux and the 75mm Summilux.  I brought an ample supply of color negative film for the trade show and a special cache of 50 rolls of color transparency film for my person shooting (with the Leica).  Of course I packed a Gitzo tripod and two Nikon SB flashes.

The show had originally been scheduled to take place in Istanbul that year but a few terrorist bombings threw a wrench into those plans.  It was deemed to be a bit of bad planning to place several thousand of your best clients close to potential mortality....  Lisbon was the city with enough vacant hotels and a mothballed convention center that the omniscient planners were sure could be put back in service in time.  I was being hired by the client company but my check would come from the production company that designed and built the stages, signage, pedestals for hundreds of demo products and more.

When I arrived, exhausted from the time changes and time spent in a metal tube at 40,000 feet, I had the immediate and disquieting realization that Portuguese and Spanish were actually.......quite different.  Not that my Spanish skills are incredible....  But I was able to make it to the 300 room, 1960's era business hotel on my own steam.  I'd booked in two days before the show in order to head into the city to take images for myself.  Texas disconnection.  In our land we air condition the crap out of every room.  Kinda feel like it's our divine right to live well chilled in the face of any heat wave.  But we've been spoiled by cheap (to the consumer) energy.  In Lisbon, I swear, there's a functionary whose sole duty is to slip into each American's hotel room, minutes after the American leaves it to go out, to find and disable the air conditioner with urgent dispatch.  Every day I would leave the tiny unit on, praying to the Texas gods that the room would be under 80 (f) degrees upon my return.  But every time I was foiled.  Gone down the hall for three minutes?  Off.  Into the bathroom for a shower?  Off.  I finally gave up.

One the first day I walked down every street in downtown.  On the second day I took the train that runs along the coast and headed in the direction of Porto.  I made it as far as Nazare before I turned back in the late evening.  By the end of my second day in Lisbon I'd walked probably twenty miles and shot all of my little cache of chrome.  And then the show started in earnest.

On the first day most of the Americans in the hotel took taxis or car services to the convention center.  Wanting to conserve my per diem I figured out the subway and bus routes and lunged out of the lobby with a big, black canvas Domke bag over one shoulder and a tripod in the opposite hand.  I found the subway station two blocks away and even figured out how to pay at one of the machines for a ticket.  The final mile was on a city bus.  I understand the security of taking a cab or car service but you sure see a lot more of a city and its people when you go on public transportation.....

The first thing a smart corporate photographer should do is to make friends with all the people at the main production company.  This includes the people who run the image magnification cameras that record the show and also put up big video feed on giant screens on either side of the stage.  They also design, build and rig the lighting for the stages, which can be quite impressive and complex.  They do the sound and they direct, speaker by speaker and demo by demo, the unfolding of the show.  My desire is more pragmatic:  They are a source of free coffee and donuts in the morning and, they have a tasty crew lunch at noon.  No lines, no waiting and a chance to eat out of range of the company's show staff who could use you 24/7 for "a PR opportunity".

I got into the hall and got my bearings.  Found the production center and figured out where my bag and extra gear would be safe and then I got a camera and a short zoom, a pocket full of color neg film and I went off to do the ritualistic vacuuming of details....  What does that mean?  Well, you show up on the main floor of the venue and record stuff that the market team might want to look at and think about later.  Signage, especially three story tall signage, is always a popular item.  The look of the hall empty and then, full.  The stage look with a few different lighting variations and, of course, the exterior signage.  I'm there two hours before the show begins because I want the donuts while they're fresh and the freshest of the coffee but I also want to spend a few minutes listening to the show director brief his staff.  That way I'll know the show agenda. I'll be ready for "impromptu" demos, "surprise" appearances of tech celebrities and stuff like that.  And the donuts.  The people in Lisbon do good donuts.

When the "main tent" session kicks off I'm usually in the second or third row, on the aisle.  That way I have some freedom of movement and I'm close enough to the stage to get good use out of the 200mm end of the zoom.  I shoot each speaker and presenter as tight as I can and then in various compositions as they move about the stage.  I'm estimating exposure on the fly.  You had enormous amounts of breathing room with color negative film....

As the show progresses I go up into the "nose bleed" seats to catch some overall shots and I shoot from each side of the stage for the "looks-like-you-were-there" point of view.  When the session breaks we usually head to lunch and then, in the afternoon, a never ending set of "break out" sessions.  This is always intermixed by frantic requests for PR photos of handshakes, contract signing and letter of overwhelming intention by upper level attendees.  We go strong until 5:00pm and then, like magic, everyone but the production crew heads back to their hotels to get ready for the "special event / social interaction" part of the program.

Tonight it's at a historic convent on the edge of Lisbon.  The big silver buses (dozens and dozens of them) are disgorging attendees in long streams as one of the officers of Cisco Systems shows off his rock climbing skills on the rock wall of the four hundred year convent....  The talk among techies is the hurtling pace of new technologies that will make the web accessible to all comers.  The talk among the sales people in the crowd, and the marketers and money people is about what car they will buy when their company IPO's.  The attendees with the special glow are the ones who've been on the receiving end of the first round of IPO's.....and they're talking about cars they already have and houses in Napa that they are either in the process of buying or renovating.

I am on the parapet of the convent listening to the tenth wife say, "Make me look thin!!!" when I look at the horizon and see the most beautiful light I've ever seen. Warm oranges and gold layered with purple painted in broad strokes across the sky, all topped with an azure blue.  I'm desperate to have a beautiful person to put into the light so I can "own"  a tiny fraction of its magnificence.  And I find the hot, young marketing vixen with the long, dark hair and wonderfully engaging eyes and convince her to stand in a certain way and to not smile and, for a few minutes I'm thrilled to see how beautiful the light can be as it pours, in liquid, languid slow motion, over another beauty.  And thrilled that I can still recognize it.

The dinner is in the central courtyard of the convent and the environment is magnificent and weathered and filled with stories.  The table settings are wonderful and regal. Candles and oil lamps blaze as an amiable ensemble coaxed Mozart melodies out of their violins and cellos.  And the crowd is still chattering away about what's happening on the TV show, 90210, and whether Tori Spelling will be back the next season... (of course she will be, her father, Aaron Spelling, owns the show).

As the light fades I switch to flash from available light and I watch my batteries like a hawk.  In the medieval times of the late 1990's we used nicads and they were nothing like the miracle metal nickel hydride batteries we have today.  50 or 60 big flashes and we're ready for another set.  Believe it or not but flash worked much, much better with film.  The cameras measured auto exposures right off the film.  And the films had remarkably consistent tones.  The sensor would monitor the film and then shut off the light at just the right time.  Nikon owned flash. And the Nikon F5 was the Jupiter in the pantheon of flash cameras.  I could point and shoot with ease.  And the lab would gracefully hide any of my own craft shortcomings.

These were the days before "Strobiosity"(tm, sm) and we made our own modifiers.  My favorite was the large size white index card and rubber band combination.  We called it, "large white index card and rubber band."  I'd bend the top edge a bit into the path of the light.  It worked well.

Back in the days of the "dot com boom" the liquor flowed freely, all the wine was good and all was right in the halls of corporate America.  Even when it was playing "out of town."  We lurched back to town at witching hour on silver bus after silver bus and then the lobby bars of every hotel in town filled up with fun loving young tech people from across Europe and North America who were anxious to have a few drinks and make a few.... connections.

The show photographers who lasted in the business always knew when to beat a hasty retreat.  Once ten pm and fifth round of cheer came into view we pretty much knew that nothing good or picturesque would be happening from that point on and we'd get lost.  Nothing keeps you from being rehired quicker than a sober marketing director who's pretty sure you might have taken images of her sitting in the wrong lap in the wrong venue from the last go around.

The show went on like this for days.  And then the after glow show of the people who stayed on for "meetings" and what not.  I packaged up the color negative film and sent it along with a friend in production who needed to head back to Austin early.  My assistant picked it up and sent it along to the lab.  I stocked up on $15 per roll Fujichrome 100 and headed back to walk the streets for a few more days to investigate the city.

One day I carried just my M6 and a 50mm lens with me as I walked.  I came into a large town square.  I think it was Placa Dom Pedro VI.  It was full of commerce and the light was bright and hazy.  I walked around and photographed people shopping and sitting in the cafes that spilled tables out into the walk ways.  I was getting ready to leave and the light was changing from bright sun to the more nuanced and color rich light of late afternoon when I turned and saw one of the most beautiful women I have ever seen in my life.  She couldn't have been more than twenty two or twenty three. She was dressed simply: blue jeans and a white t-shirt.  She had her feet tucked into a conservative pair of cordovan colored loafers and she was perfect.  Her face was like the angel in the Leonardo Da Vinci painting, the Madonna of the Rocks, but with dark hair that streamed down her back.  And bounced when she walked.  Her eyes were alive and penetrating.

I pulled my Leica up halfway to my face and adjusted the shutter speed and f-stop, anticipating; hoping that she would stay on her course and that it would take her into the one shaft of warm, gold, magical light.  And as she stepped in that column of heavenly illumination and turned her head slightly to look over her shoulder I brought the camera to my eye and clicked the shutter.  I don't know what happened to that piece of film.  I never found it.   But it still doesn't matter since not a day has gone by without me remembering how beautiful and fleeting that one gesture was.  The photograph is burned into my memory like a handful of others I've taken in my life that transcend everything else I've done.  A conceptual masterpiece, un-shareable except through my woefully inadequate story-telling, and yet a cornerstone in the building of my aesthetic.

And, for the rest of my life I know I'll be looking for a moment like that again.  And if I capture it that will be my masterpiece,  the sum at the end of this equation that I put together, ultra thin slice by diaphanous layer when I practice my looking each day.

And then I went back to my hotel room to pack up all the spent trappings of a week at work. In the morning I was on the plane for what would turn out to be a very exciting 26 hour flight back to Austin. I knew I should have spent one hundred dollars more and booked through Miami......

I saw an image today I'd shot minutes before shooting the one I lost.  It was in my archives and I glanced at it this evening and it triggered this flow of memories in the same way a bittersweet memory triggers the flow of tears.  I need to wear blinders as I walk through the office....

Hunters and gatherers versus farmers and factory workers.

I'm not a cultural anthropologist but I'd love to play one on TV.  I do have some theories about humanity in aggregate that explain to me the vast differences in the way we think.  The theories also extend to the reason some people hunger for the safety of the group while others prefer the practice of solitude and personal action, divorced from complicit coercion of the hive.  People who study humanity say that for the first 99% of mankind's existence we survived in very small, family tribes and made our way in the world as nomadic hunter/gatherers.  We ranged far and wide, ate mostly vegetables, fish and small animals and we spent time embroiled in adventure.  There were dry spells and disasters but there was also plentiful free time and solitude.  Most decision making was left up to the individual.  You rested when you were tired and ran after game when you were hungry.  And it was the hunters who were the early artists in places like the caves of Lascaux and Chauvet.

At some point our people experienced a split.  Agriculture was discovered and with it the promise of a buffer from future hunger.  Many grain crops could be harvested and stored for long periods of time to offer a hedge against the uncertainties of nature.  Mankind had to choose between adventure and security.  Between the individual and the group.  Between shared sacrifice and autonomy.  Between spirit and subjugation.  Bellies were fully but diseases were more easy spread.  The concentration of populations gave rise to hierarchies of privilege and control. And the world has been spinning out of control ever since.  Our world population growth was turbo charged by the family farm and the community farms of the past 5,000 years.  More offspring meant more hands to till soil and gather in crops. Now the patterns remain but the need recedes. The equation has turned and now the surplus of workers threatens to upset the whole apple cart.

On a global level you can argue that agriculture, geographic stability and the like are what led mankind to make discoveries and inventions and even art and music and I'm not here to argue which state of existence is better but I do strongly believe that, like a tendency to be left or right handed or a proclivity for adventure or conformity, that each human carries inside a genome or DNA for one or the other type of living.  The farmers and stabilizers were, early on, able to concentrate numbers to create overwhelming armies which pushed nomads out of their territories.  The farmers and grain accountants now far outnumber the hunters. But there still exists a part of population that finds it impossible to conform to a lifestyle that many more people find perfectly acceptable.  Even preferable by dint of it's stability and security.  They are farmers and, the modern analogy/permutation, office and factory workers.  They are interdependent.  Not just for food and shelter but also for thought and intention.  

You hear the mantra all the time: "Team Work! Team Work! Team Work!"  That means "Think together, sit together, eat together, band together."  Great for building the Great Wall of China, the Pyramids or the Hoover Damn.  Not so great when it comes to re-imagining existence and creatively re-ordering our existence.  Which we are obligated to do with each new generation.....

And, as civilization continues to homogenize, the outliers and hunters seem more and more strange and different to the masses.

So, where am I going with all of this?  I really believe that non studio bound photographers in general, and photojournalists and documentarians in particular represent the expression of the hunter/gatherer gene.  And without them society and civilization, as a whole, would capitulate to their own self-serfitude.  (I'm pretty sure I made that word up...)

Why else would millions sit at home, even on their days off, and watch TV?  Why do the masses throng to the malls to buy the same stuff as everyone else?  Why do they stampede out to the sports arenas to cheer on total strangers who they identify as "my team."?  They do it because they've been trained from birth to depend on the mass, the hive, the extended tribe to provide purpose, organization and relative security.  In exchange they surrender their creative freedom, their individual initiative and their curiosity.

Now, I'm obviously making sweeping generalizations because, of course, the mix of our genes is nothing if not convoluted and mixed up.  We all have the species memory as stored in our DNA to function as hunters and gatherers as well as farmers.  But within the general population their are propensities that are obvious and can be plotted.

We've become so interdependent that it's (nearly) impossible not to have a foot in the "Borg" quicksand.  And it's the relentlessness of the campaign to snuff out dissent and opinion that scares me.  Artists seem to be classified as "unusual" along with serial killers, saints and people who talk to invisible people on the streets.  In American culture you are less likely to know about art history than calculus and, damn few people in our country are up to snuff in calculus.  When we squish out the outliers we make life more emotionally comfortable for people who fear change and challenge because we eliminate scary, aspirational role models.  When we lampoon artists or paint them all with a wide brush we are doing what we do with the monsters in fairy tales.  We are trying to rob them of their power.

But instinctively we know that we need the outliers to push our society into continuous evolution and change.  Without the Steve Jobs hunter gatherers we have only Scully's who measure and horde without moving the game forward.  Without the Picassos we have only the status quo and blue bonnet painters.
Without Ferrari we'd have only Chevy Novas.  Without Jeff Bezos we'd all be lining up under the lime green glow of the Walmart ceiling fixtures looking for the approved products.  Without Henri Cartier Bresson and Robert Frank we might still think our role is the vacuous documentation of cat whiskers and sunsets over suburban backyards.

Cities know they need art to survive.  They need people to metaphorically walk in the desert for years and then come back to tell us what it's like.  Someone needs to climb into rockets and let themselves be flung into space.  And it's the same in the arts.  Normal people flock to cities that nurture artists.  Museum spring up eternal.  Television and movies haven't replaced live theater.  People still play musical instruments and artists still make paintings.

I single out photojounalists and documentarians because it's imperative that they operate outside the system in order to see it clearly and reflect their observations back to their audiences.  They are the outsiders who report on the insiders to the insiders.  They call mass culture on their foibles.  And they do it with images.

But nothing reminds me of the legacy of our ancestors more than the urge to pick up a camera, put on a pair of walking shoes and head out the front door in search of individual adventure.  To track down an image and later share it on the wall of a cave to remind everyone else that adventure is as important to our civilization as air and water.  And you'll find plenty of both out there.  That content is at least as important as the technology used to create it.

Is it any wonder we're fascinated and drawn to the smaller tribes and cultures in our midst?  Like Rappers and Navy Seals and Athletes.  (and by athletes I mean real athletes who challenge the clock or race against others, not a bunch of people who do gladiatorial teams sports for cultural mind control).
Tiger Woods is fascinating because he plays golf really well but also because he only plays golf, does it on his schedule and reaps the rewards for himself and a small tribe.

I think the sudden interest in this century in photography coincides with a breakdown of the consensus culture.  People are resisting becoming part of the "giant team" because it seems to represent a walking death.  The rise of entrepreneurialism really represents a repudiation of the mega corporation model and a harkening, a desire for the autonomy of our ancestors.  The camera, worn on a strap for efficient travel, has become a symbol and artifact of our pent up desire to push away from the cloying crowd and rediscover what it means to make your own decisions about what is good and beautiful.

And even if you work for a big company at a "real" job you understand when you throw the camera over your shoulder and walk outside your front door to find adventure that this single act is helping you achieve a personal voice, a freedom of choice.  To be a good or bad artist isn't the question.  The real question is:  Will you create on your own terms or will you capitulate to what society at large has to say about what's beautiful and what's not?  The hunter gatherer would counsel you to smell the wind, read the signs and find out for yourself....

The more we bring art inside the corral the blander and weaker it gets.