I got an assignment on late Friday to head to Houston, Texas to photograph on monday some equipment and the space in which it is used. A very straightforward sort of assignment. Photograph a reception area, a waiting area, a consumer interface, some new scanning equipment in use, some corporate lifestyle shots in which a fake interview is conducted, etc. Nothing breakthrough but after the lean years of the recession I am always happy to have the work.
Once the assignment was confirmed I turned my mind to packing. It was the kind of job that's tailor made for portable strobes and I'd just solved a rudimentary Sony flash+sync with radio slave conundrum so I figured I'd give the Sonys a whirl. Packing is one of those things many people take for granted but I agonize over every piece of inventory. I hate to carry too much but I can't stand leaving behind the one piece of gear that I'll desperately need. I always pack with an eye toward redundant back up so I can complete the job with a number of lens, camera and light variations. This job would be no different.
I packed, in my Airport Security roller case, the Sony a99 camera and the Sony a58 camera. They take the same batteries and that's a blessing. I packed the 10-20mm Sigma lens for wide room shots and I packed the 16-50mm Sony lens to make that camera an all around working system.
I rounded up five extra batteries for the two cameras and put them all on chargers. I packed a Minolta 20mm lens, the Tamrom 28-75mm 2.8 lens, and both the Rokinon 35mm 1.5 and the 85mm 1.5 lenses for the a99. Just for good measure I tossed in the Samsung NX 300 and its extra battery. Then I turned my attention to portable flashes.
Even though I am less than happy with certain interface parameters of the Sony HVL 60 I took it and the HVL 58 as my main lighting units. I brought two sets of Eneloop rechargeable batteries and a handful of double "A" alkalines along just in case (all unnecessary). I started to pack the Flash Waves radio triggers that have been flawless for me but as always I ran a test and when working with the "sender" realized that I had no more back-up batteries for the unit. I put everything down and headed out the door to get four more back-ups. I've used the unit for at least a year with the current A23S battery and I could have made due with one extra but I feel better knowing that there are now four already aging batteries in my micro Pelican case which is dedicated to radio slaves and interface couplings for such.
When I assembled my "work around" connections for the Sony flashes and the triggers I was a bit unsettled by the ungainly and less than mil spec structural integrity of my constructions. They were a bit wobbly in action. This led me to also pack two Sunpack 383 (non-dedicated) speedlights....just in case. Ah, the case grows heavier as the paranoia grows more pervasive...
I also brought along three light stands with hot shoe flash adapters on top, along with three different photographic umbrellas which would mollify and modify the light in three different ways. It is vital to be prepared for any size environment and any sort of light modification task. I know that I've read that somewhere in a book.
Finally I worked on selecting a tripod from the ungainly pile. I rejected my Gitzo Studex 5 series as being comically too heavy. The wooden tripods stayed home because I didn't need to shoot outside and I knew it would be humid everywhere. Why add unneeded moisture to the whole situation? I settled on a cheap as dirt Leitz Tiltall tripod because it uses a traditional two control pan head which is easier to deal with than a ballhead when leveling the camera to the scene. I added my iPad to the load because I have an app on it that makes me truly paperless. It's called Easy Release. It's a highly configurable model release program that allows subjects to enter their data and then sign with a finger on the screen. It prompts me to take a photo of them which it sticks into the file. Finally, if you have connection you can immediately send your release into your Apple Cloud storage and send an e-mail copy to your subject. Nice. Cheap. Handy.
I packed one set of "doing business in corporate America" clothing as well as a razor, toothbrush and two books to read. I'm currently re-reading Vladimir Nabokov's book, Strong Opinions, which is an edited compilation of interviews with the writer. It's a fascinating book for any artist. And should be required reading for any writer or lover of lyrical, languorous, language. I am also reading, with great diligence and focus, How to Train a Wild Elephant, which is a comfortable and accessible books about mindfulness and day to day awareness. No book in the camera bag? Shame.
The most important part of the preproduction is sitting down with Google Maps and mapping out a route to the destination and back again. I generally print out two different routes to, and two different routes from, wherever I'm going. For example, on Sunday I felt the need for some scenery and a less frantic driving experience so I went down HWY 71 through Bastrop and enjoyed the big hills and leisurely tempo of the traffic. But today I knew I might want to return via Luling and then Lockhart where I might have wanted to stop at Smitty's for some BBQ. (Which I did). Having the alternate route maps works well for me and the printed sheets are more accessible than the menus on my iPad when I'm going 110 mph.
I kissed the dog on the nose and waved goodbye to the rest of the family around four in the afternoon and headed out into the modern world. Things were fine until I hit Sealy, which is a little oil spot of a town about 50 miles from Houston proper. I was on the industrial ribbon of road referred to as Highway IH-10 trying to dodge great wedges and chunks of rubber and wires that were the last remnants of giant truck tires when break lights started blinking like paparazzi flashes at a Beyoncé Knowles half time show. Since Texans generally drive 80 mph and about six feet from each other's bumpers it's always fun to be part of the kinetic show in which BMW and Audi owners proudly and quickly decelerate and show off the prowess of their Brembo brakes until they realize that the 1970's era Econoliner, nine passenger van with vintage, balding tires tucked in right behind them won't be matching their teutonic skid pad performance. There's a lot of veering, to the left or right, onto the broad shoulders in order to either miss the little cars in front of the bigger vans or to give the behemoths behind the trophy carriages a bit more run room to roam and gently slow down.
Traffic immediately went from fast to crawl and we continued to crawl at one gear bicycle speed for the next 20 miles. No accident in evidence. Perhaps it was a sadistic experiment in group think while driving.
My destination was NOT the trendy Montrose area or the elite, effete and wholly pretentious River Oaks oasis of Houston. Not even the fine area around Rice University. No, I was headed for the intersection of IH-10 and IH 610 South over by the ship yards, railroad intersections and other industrial entertainment. Resolutely the blue collar corner of the vast and pulsing metropolis. Houston traffic in the rush hours would give nightmares nightmares and my strategy was to plant myself close by my final destination and make a frantic rush over in the morning, giving myself plenty of time for overturned and burning eighteen wheelers strewn around the tight curves of the negatively banked overpasses, as well as for all the people whose tires were on their last lasts and ready to fly apart as the temperature of the asphalt crested 90 degrees (f) in the juicy gulf coast sun.
To that end I found a reasonably close Comfort Inn surrounded by reassuring (?) concertina wire fencing, festooned with arc lights at either end of the enclosed parking lot which seemed to be home to two police cars, idling, driver's window to driver's window, in that classic cop, motorized huddle. The implication being that they were just marking time until something happened. And they seemed to think it was a real possibility that something would...
The young and round woman at the motor lodge desk had a vicious scar across her forehead and all the snap of wet laundry and when she asked me what kind of business I was in I can't really say why but I answered, in a somewhat vague tone: "Law enforcement." I know I probably should have stayed at one of the squeaky clean and hyper officious hotels like the Westin or the Four Seasons and just braved the traffic but I seemed drawn to something different and vaguely foreign yesterday. The room had the smell of every cheap, non-smoking hotel/motel room I've ever been in; musky masking air spray. But the bed was clean, there were no bugs of any kind in the room and the lamps all worked.
I ventured out to find a restaurant so I could play the part one of the those vaguely middle-aged guys with gray hair that have dinner alone while on some vague business on the road. You see them at the one step up restaurants. You know, the Outback Steakhouses, Chili's, Logan's Roadhouse, Cracker Barrel kind of places. The ones just next to, or down the road from, the part of the highway that has all the cheap, chain motels. The one's like Holiday Inn Express, Motel 6, La Quinta and, of course, my own Comfort Inn.
I passed on Chili's, couldn't find an Outback (fake Australian food) Steakhouse so I tried a place called Saltgrass Steakhouse. I knew when I entered that I'd be leaving again quickly. The customers were as if from a Brueghel or Heironymus Bosch apocalyptic plague painting...and not in a good way. The hostess, her ample bulk offset by a stretched black t-shirt and a bevy of tattoos that could only be described as "prison-esque" pretty much insisted that I sit at the bar. I "would be most comfortable there.." After six or seven minutes of being willfully ignored by the sweating bartender and having to listen to the most plaintive and affected country and western music (as is now playing in all nine circles of hell...). I walked out unnoticed.
I ended up at Luby's Cafeteria which happened to be fifty yards from my start point at the motel. I was joined in cozy proximity by circus freaks, tattoo'd grandmothers and small quiet family of Hispanic people who prayed anxiously and for many moments before tucking into their trayed selections. I played out the archetype of the over the hill drifter and had the Luanne Platter. The mashed potatoes were delicious, the half portion of fried fish acceptable but the spinach was saltier than a 55 gallon barrel of movie popcorn. All told the food and atmosphere was still several notches above the Saltgrass circle of Hell.
I spent the rest of the evening trying to conquer the rheumy and energetic window style air conditioner which was noisy and cold or off and hot. My final compromise was to take a pharmaceutical sedative, crank the air conditioner as cold and gusty as machine-ly possible and, when the room started to show signs of frost and condensation on both sides of the windows, I shut it off and then let the previously imbibed chemicals work their somnolent magic on my overly active amygdala or hippocampus. When I woke up to the blaring submarine alarm ring tone of my iPhone the room was still stippled with ersatz hoarfrost.
I partook of the free breakfast and still wonder how coffee could be made to be so bad. So painfully and willfully bad. While the hotels I usually frequent are generally filled, at breakfast time, with corpulent business men in ill fitting suits which all appear to be from the same men's suit discount store this motel featured people who were proud to wear Dickie's work clothes, complete with cellphone in carved leather case on one side of their tooled belts and a Leatherman omni-knife tool in a leather case on the other side for balance. Where the first group tends to affect a pose at table with a copy of the Wall Street Journal or (horrors!!!!!) USA Today, my cohort this bright morning made due watching people get "punked" on Entertainment TV. I did not know any of the "celebrities" involved in the TV programs so I've either totally lost touch with my own culture or the market has become so stretched that the reality TV shows are now harvesting the "D" list people. But I actually thought they'd done that years ago...
Not to make out Austin as some sort of preppy/hipster clean nirvana but I was immediately struck by the mountains of consumer refuse strewn all along the edges of the highway in my temporarily adopted section of Houston. Bright red Big Gulp cups waved with contrast from their grassy green perches while parts of couches and other upholstered furniture heaved up in waves just near the bottom of the drainage ditches. I'm sure you could have reconstructed some months of inventory for Phillip Morris just from the discarded butts that covered the near sides of the road like bad, white, shag carpet (is there good white shag carpet?).
I made it to the job site and loaded up a small dolly. A two wheeled affair of gleaming metal that promises to be all you'd ever need until you take it on your first job. It was a portent of something or other when I reached the front of the multistoried office building only to find that it might be the only non-ADA compliant building in America. No ramp. No architectural nod to the differently abled. Just a hoist and drag exercise routine for previously spoiled photographers. I made it up several flights of concrete steps and into the building and walked into a hallway lined on either side with large, heavy, sweaty people waiting for the eight o'clock opening of an office. The same office to which I was headed. As I walked down the hall several people who seemed to have been waiting there since the early hours of the morning, told me sternly (almost threateningly), "NO CUTS!" Which, of course I ignored. After all, I am a glamorous and successful photographer....
I got into the office and did the job I was sent to do. Every one I worked with was nice and cooperative and congenial. I even remembered to shoot a few shots of the exterior on my way out. And before lunch time I was heading back in the opposite direction toward Austin. I was just about in the middle of downtown, well out of the implied range of "rush hour", when the traffic again mysteriously stopped. It was almost like an old Star Trek episode when a bell rings and all the natives on some semi-utopian planet stop in their tracks (that's usually the point at which James T. Kirk picks out his intended amore from the planetary herd). Eventually we all started moving again and as the bigger trucks turned off onto the octopus of connected highways; about at the outskirts of the town of Katy, Texas we all started to speed up again.
I drove until I got to Smitty's BBQ in Lockhart. The place is a legend but it's charm was lost on me. The "fatty" or "wet" brisket I requested was as overcooked and as dry as the worst I've had and the ribs weren't much better. Call me a reverse snob but for my money none of these "legendary" Texas cookery shops is any better (and usually worse) than the BBQ store in the middle of the downtown branch of Whole Foods. I drove 84 mph on the road coming from Lockhart to Austin and still felt like I was getting away with something.
When I came into Austin around 3:30 pm there was the usual 18 wheeler capsized and on fire on IH-35 (the main highway through downtown) which stuck me in traffic for an extra forty minutes and then it was home to unload all the little pieces of work luggage from the car on the exciting first day of 100+ degree heat of this Summer. I am writing this all in detail because I am waiting for my files to load into Lightroom and for the previews to render. I've got four or five hours of file prep left and then I'll nurse an FTP upload after which I'll gab on the phone with the client and then send a bill. A very typical and as you can see very glamorous lifestyle, the likes of which are, of course, legendary. Dubai? Why fly so far when we've got the wonderful fragrances of the ship channel and the insouciant charms of the oil refineries only a few hundred miles away? How was your day?