May 3rd Notes from the trail. Walking with cameras. Channeling old cameras. Going shopping.

I've been running and walking on the Butler Hike and Bike Trail that surrounds Lady Bird Lake, just south of downtown Austin, daily since the middle of March but in the past weeks I never experienced the amazing congregation of people that I saw yesterday. It was as if someone flipped a light switch in Austin and begged the millennials to rush outside and play in the sun. In every cove, nook and byway of the estuary that leads from Barton Springs to the lake proper people were floating, kayaking, paddle-boarding and even (in disregard of city ordinances) swimming. On one of the smaller pedestrian bridges a group of nearly thirty young men stood shoulder to shoulder, dripping wet, to wait their turn to jump over the edge of the bridge into the murky water below. 

Having been a life guard at a pool and an instructor in water safety when I was younger I cringed. They were essentially jumping down 25 feet, blind to the traffic coming from under the bridge on canoes and paddle boards, and it's just a matter of time until there is a tragic collision of a jumper and a person floating down in the water. Also, the rowdy young men on the bridge were jumping into water where one could not see the bottom. A recipe for injury or death if they hit a submerged rock. Or a big turtle.

From a pandemic point of view I was equally shocked to see them all standing in clusters, laughing and potentially spewing virus everywhere. I looked around for park rangers or cops to enforce the "no jumping from bridge" "no swimming in the lake" "social distancing" "stay home except for exercise" orders but apparently the city of Austin, beaten down by a very dimwitted and very partisan governor, has just developed a "what the fuck can we do with morons if the state won't back us up?" attitude and stopped policing the busiest park in our county. 

I tightened my face mask and moved on with my walk until I came to the scene above. I only had a normal lens with me so I couldn't capture the vast panorama of society splayed out on boards and kayaks all through the lake but the volume of noise from the conversations out on the water would have triggered the hearing loss alert on the latest Apple Watch. It seemed as though every young adult in central Austin had come to the lake to band together with strangers and party. Amazing. Just amazing.
As I moved further on the trail from downtown the traffic fell off quickly. Seems people are less apt to run or walk when the temperatures start spiking above 90 and the humidity hangs on the air like a hot, wet shirt. I was using one of the face masks I did a video about back at the beginning of this mess and, when I saw the traffic in the park, I went ahead and added the coffee filter into the folds of the mask. 

Austin is a quirky place. We did a good job abiding by the rules and ordinances up till now but our governor announced that we were opening for business and that pretty much put an end to willing compliance. In the absence of a vaccine though I guess we've collectively decided to try the Swedish Model and go for "herd immunity." Inevitable, I guess, but I'm pretty sure we'll go from our reported 50 dead to some multiple of that pretty quickly. Of course, I won't be disappointed if I'm wrong...

A half-hearted attempt at social distancing?

The stores opened here, by proclamation, on Friday. Most merchants ignored the invitation to rush back but a fair number did open and have done a decent job following the health department rules. Limiting the number of customers in stores at any one time to 25% of the pre-Covid-19 number, having employees and customers wear face masks and having designated zones to stand in for check out. All while enforcing social distancing.

I decided to take a chance and go to a clothing store called, Steinmart. It's a mile from my house and it's where I get shirts, khaki shorts and sometimes shoes. I needed a couple more pairs of short pants. That's all I've worn since February and I wanted extras in rotation since I'm hiking and running more and not swimming at all. Clothes get sweaty quicker...

So, I approached the store and noted very, very few cars in the parking lot. I pulled on the face mask and put my sprayable hand sanitizer in my pocket. I left behind my phone, keys, sunglasses, etc. I tentatively walked into the front door and looked around the store. Warmly greeted by familiar faces ---behind surgical masks---I looked to see how densely packed with customers the store might be... 

On Saturday at 5:30 p.m. I was the ONLY customer in a 15,000 square foot store!!! I'd forgotten how much fun shopping for shoes and shorts could be!!!!!!! Once I relaxed into the experience I felt about 15 minutes of real happiness having experienced at least one brief moment of a return to normal. I left with new Asics running shoes, two pairs of nice, cotton fabric, khaki shorts and a Columbia SPF short sleeve, casual shirt. Just doing my part to keep the economy from flatlining. The employees seemed genuinely happy to see a customer and to get some use out of the credit card terminal (I sprayed my card with alcohol then sprayed my hands before putting the card back in my wallet...). 

During the day I dived into a serious bout of fine-tuning my current favorite camera, the Sigma fp. When I carried it around with the new finder and the huge 24-105mm lens it seemed all out of proportion and gangly. Not fun. But yesterday I stood and looked for a good, long time through the drawer full of lenses trying to figure out the right combination of focal length, size and operational lack of friction. I finally hit on the right combination. I'm still using the finder and it's still a bit big but it's much better offset by a smaller lens. While I like the Sigma 45mm f2.8 well enough I wanted something more primitive and ultimately utilitarian. I put the Zeiss Contax 50mm f1.7 on the front via an adapter and it felt just right. 

I walked around and shot all these images with the combo but it wasn't until later in the afternoon, just kicking around at home that I had a mini-epiphany; the missing link for total system happiness was in the setting for the camera's aspect ratio. I switched from 3:2 to 1:1 and looked through the finder. Bliss. It's the perfect combination and reminds me so much of working with a classic, film Hasselblad, complete with a normal focal length Zeiss Planar. It's slower to operate, must be manually focused, etc. but it feels so good. And it matches the way I like to shoot. Now, if I only had some people to photograph in the studio I'd have it all...

I tend to resist staying still. I like to be moving as much as possible. My trip with Belinda out to the Pedernales State Park a week ago was a nice reprieve from sheltering at home but it left me with a desire for more adventures outside the zip code. So, I went online and made a reservation to go to Enchanted Rock State Park this coming Wednesday. I signed up for the earliest arrival slot and hope to be climbing the rock by 9 a.m. Since I wanted to climb the rock and then hike the primitive trails, and since the weather report predicts: HOT, Belinda declined my invitation to spend the day straining, sweating and putting 12 or so miles on the ole hiking shoes. Her loss. 

The park is out in the middle of nowhere, about an hour and a half west of Austin. The parks are limiting the number of people admitted so I'm not at all worried about the logistics of social distancing. I am more concerned about packing fun stuff to eat and lots of water to drink. Unlike the majestic, tree shaded parks in other parts of the country this is brush land and the only trees are short, scrawny cedars and live oaks that are parsimonious with shade. You have to come equipped for relentless sun, high temperatures and naked nature. Rattlesnakes included. The perfect kind of place to walk with ONLY a small backpack containing food and water (and my first aid kit!!!) and only one camera slung over one's shoulder. Not the kind of physical adventure that invites carrying a full inventory of cameras and lenses in a big, puffy camera bag.

Back to the pandemic for a moment.  I keep hearing that once we abandon the lockdowns in an attempt to keep the economy from ending up like a bug on my windshield that we can pretty much count on a resurgence of infections and deaths in the Fall and Winter. Any big event that might have been rescheduled to the Fall is probably going to get re-re-scheduled for the indeterminate future. I'm just about at the point of deciding that, from a business point of view, 2020 is a pure write off. While we may see some bright spots the big stuff that sustains a creative business is going to continue to be on hold for a long time. Until a vaccine is widely implemented or such a time as we've achieved, inadvertently or not, a herd immunity. 

With that in mind I'm trying to rearrange my perspective about work and photography/video. I find myself looking at a pile of monolight flash equipment and wondering just what to do with what is quickly becoming a remnant of the past. We might, realistically, never need or want to use them ever again. Whatever value they had in the past is greatly diminished and I find myself being somewhat a resentful caretaker since I know the flashes need to be plugged in and turned on if the electronics/capacitors/batteries are to stay in good shape. Dusting museum pieces is not how I envision using my time for the foreseeable future but who would even want them now? 

It's the same for heavy C-Stands, bags of microphones and a desktop filled with hard drives. Makes sense when you are consumed with projects but as room decorations during downtime they have less and less charm. It's the same with cameras. I'd love to experiment with something new but the venues for visual exploration that would merit a rationalization for new toys have largely vanished and so has my desire for things I would have easily talked myself into just a few months ago. The Leica SL, for instance, seems to be falling off my radar now, as have various esoteric optics that have no real place in my actual work.

It's almost like the death of a hobby and a business by a thousand little blows. And while I'm certain that someone out there, out of sheer necessity, will find some amazing way to be creative and productive I don't have the same feelings of urgency and damn the sails, full speed ahead persistence that I used to have. Too many weird barriers to the kind of work I love. 

So, what to do now? Maybe I'll have some metaphorical lightning bolt of inspiration while hiking up the side of Enchanted Rock. Maybe it will come to me as I commune with the scorpions crossing the dirt path in the primitive areas of the park. But I'm hopeful I'll find some way to savor and enjoy the creative process in photography again soon. 

I walked by Zach Theatre yesterday on my way to the trail. I can't believe the depth of nostalgia and the pain of loss I felt in the moment. I've spent over thirty years on the campus and photographed hundreds and hundreds of productions, collaborating with some of the most creative people in the city/country. The almost instantaneous shut down of the theater was like cutting off an addict from their drug cold turkey. No winnowing off, no gradual reduction --- just a hard stop. 

But I hear rumors that we'll have the lights back on by July. Fans of our theater and its artist have deep pockets. It looks like it will survive. I hope all artists everywhere will be so lucky. I would say they are most vulnerable in all of this but not really. At least artists have their art; their reason to continue going forward. My real sympathies are for the people who work only because they have to and have now lost their jobs. The sting is harder without the salve of creativity. And the fellowship of other artists.

Zach Theatre. Through the trees.

dialing it in. 


Unknown said...

Where I live,last Saturday everyone was wearing a mask. Today it seems as if I am the only one. Home Depot and Lowes parking lots are full. It is as if in one week everyone decided they are now safe. Maybe we over did it at first ,but I can tell you it is not over.

Anonymous said...

Yes, what part of the horrendous end stages of COVID don't people understand - or exponential spread - or water transmission - or sudden lack of ventilators in critical care wards?

pixtorial said...

It is going to be interesting to see how the inequality of each state's, and in some cases, city's, "re-opening" progresses. It will be a balancing act of overly optimistic dreams of returning to "normal" (which no longer exists as it did pre-COVID-19) and the pessimistic reality of climbing infection rates and death tolls.

I'm fortunate in that my chosen career of information technology is allowing me to economically weather this relatively well so far. I have no illusions: we are still in for a long and bumpy road. We're already in a recession, and it will likely continue for some time as the reality of a continuing pandemic sets in around October or November. We're flirting with the fundamentals of an economic depression, but the rush to return to commerce might allow us to just miss that (sadly at the cost of human life). Reality: a divided representative democratic society mixed with corporate capitalism is not the best cocktail for emerging from a pandemic. In fact, we're in danger of more authoritarian countries emerging, even if temporarily, as economic leaders throughout the arc of this.

For you, Kirk, it has to be tough. You were already approaching a time where you were rethinking your business, and now that has been put in the business-planning equivalent of a paint shaker. I do hope you keep making photographs, whatever the premise behind them, but I suspect it will be represented through just doing work you're truly inspired by (such as Zach Theatre) and skipping the old corporate slog that made your career. The timing is artificially informed, but all the same you were already at a crossroads so I hope that at least softens the landing.

Thanks for sharing the photos and your thoughts, as always.

Kirk Tuck, Photographer/Writer said...

But the flip side is that there is no cure. There are no widely available, proven treatments and the most hospitals can do is keep patients hydrated and prevent secondary bacterial infections. The lockdown was never meant to prevent death or defeat the disease, only to slow down the rapid, exponential spread so that healthcare facilities would not be overwhelmed by everyone coming in at once. The experts always ALWAYS presumed that eventually 60 to 70 % of ALL populations would get the virus and either recover or die and (unless a vaccine is found and mass produced) at that point a herd immunity would deprive virus of additional hosts.

No one ever promised that social distancing would or could eradicate the disease, only slow down the curve of patients. Sweden has a different strategy than most other nations. The death rate overall will probably be the same. They just are gambling on reaching H.I. far, far quicker than the rest of the world which means that they will have less disruption on their economy and lives. We, it seems, are destined to be in an out of "lockdown" until we either capitulate or go broke and homeless waiting for a vaccine. It's a tough choice.

If I were 18 I'd obviously choose herd immunity. If I were 75 I'd want everyone to shelter in place till that vaccine gets delivered to my door. At 64 I'm on the fence between wrapping myself up in metaphorical bubble wrap or rolling the dice. Nothing is binary and even less is black and white.

Kirk Tuck, Photographer/Writer said...

Just above written in response to anonymous. Just trying to keep the thread straight.

Markus said...

The problem with herd immunity is the immunity thing: There's still no proof that you will be immune after an infection, and so this h.i. thing looks more like gambling than a scientifically backed strategy. Plus, there is the risk of triage situations like in Italy, where doctors have to decide about access to limited intensive care.

Here in Germany we are monitoring the Swedish approach very closely and learn that their figures are rising in spite of their low population density.

ODL Designs said...

Never try to predict the future, especially if your prediction is one of massive change.

Experts have been predicting doom for as long as we have had some type of success, and they have always been wrong!!

ODL Designs said...

One quick point on the people out and about... There seems to be this tendency, both showing in your post, and in many of the comments, that these people are unaware of the risks and are somehow less intelligent than those hunkering at home.

This both reeks of nanny-like authoritarianism mixed with the feeling those passing judgement are somehow smarter than these "morons". Maybe they have read the data and are making an informed choice?

Better they get out there and become immune while the vulnerable are shut away than hide at home a potential carrier in the future.

People have the choice to assume a level of risk every day they are alive, this virus is no different... The argument they might infect others is just as valid for driving. Society comes with risk.

Kirk Tuck, Photographer/Writer said...

ODL, You give the general U.S. population too much credit for reading, research and good decision making, even though your underlying logic may be correct. If the vast majority does get something right it will be because the roulette wheel of life spun in their favor, in this instance.

Anonymous said...


Consider that you're hand made mask doesn't give much.

Some test have shown that it let pass 7-10 times the amout of virus like particles and has a fit that's 2 times less good.


The conclusion of the research :

"As a result, we would not recommend the use of homemade face masks as a method of reducing transmission of infection from aerosols."

Kirk Tuck, Photographer/Writer said...

Source me a reliable source of optimum masks and I'll buy them. I've had several vendors flake on Amazon and no one here in Austin is in stock with medical masks. None. But, I'm not depending on the mask to keep me safe I'm using one to limit the spread of my own aerosol emissions and hope everyone else will at least do the same. There is always some expert anxious to explain why X is 5X better than Y but you do what you can with the resources you have on the ground. And you didn't ask for my brand of coffee filter 😄

Have they tested homemade mask+person with optimum BMI+no health risks+no group exposure+ no recirculated air+a city with a low number of infections + no work vectors of infection + a spouse who is also staying home AGAINST a fat guy+who smokes+ has very poor endurance +high blood pressure+ diabetes+ a poor health profile+ lives in an area with high loading doses of the virus+ lives in a high rise with recirculated air+who has a better mask than mine? Yet?

I'd love to see the comparative mortality and infection numbers from that study. Thanks for quoting yet another U.K. factual story. I'll file it with the Oxford study.

Kirk Tuck, Photographer/Writer said...

Expert to drowning man in ocean: "My GPS indicates that you are exactly 32.5 miles from shore and that there is a north wind at 6 knots. I've run the numbers for you. You'll need a rope that's 171,600 feet in order to pull yourself in to shore! Good luck."

Anonymous said...


I thought you had good mask left over from props.

keeping distance does work, but ...

Consider that you have readers that are:

a fat guy+who smokes+ has very poor endurance +high blood pressure+ diabetes+ a poor health profile+ lives in an area with high loading doses of the virus+ lives in a high rise with recirculated air

Which has the option to buy a good face mask, but instead uses a home made. and has less oportunity to keep distance.

Kirk Tuck, Photographer/Writer said...

I have left over masks from propping a medical shoot in the Fall. There are ten. I thought I'd keep them in case we have an in-house emergency.

I made it clear in the video that the homemade mask is a substitute if you CAN'T source a better mask. My readers, for the most part, are well educated and well read. They should already know their risk profile and what steps they need to take to stay safe. I've never promoted this blog as a medical advice outlet and I think I'm very clear in my writing that these steps or DIY etc. are things that I am doing and not broad recommendations for the general public.

If I were to give medical advice is would be along the lines of: Don't smoke, lose weight until you hit your optimum BMI, limit your alcohol use to one glass of good wine per day, exercise vigorously for an hour or more EVERY DAMN DAY, buckle your seat belt when you get in a car, do enough planks to build a solid core, wear ear protection when firing guns, wear eye protection while using power tools, don't use the top two steps on ladders, don't stand on the roof of your two story house to clean your gutters if you suffer from vertigo; or at all. If you live in an active war zone then move. And then I'd start in with financial advice like: save 10% of all profit you make. Don't try to time the stock markets. But I think my readers can figure all this out for themselves....

Kirk Tuck, Photographer/Writer said...

And why would you think that I have readers who fit the profile you describe?

Anonymous said...

Take time to drive to the Home of Bob Wills: Turkey, Texas.

One really good small town to photograph and a nice drive that should not have any real traffic.

Anonymous said...

Mac or PC?