4.26.2020

Heading downtown to document an onslaught of ART in progress. Fascinated by pure creative energy in the midst of crisis.


Told as an action/adventure story...

I'd heard vague rumors that artists had descended on Austin's post apocalyptic, Sixth Street bar district to create artwork on the ugly and repressive looking plywood and particle boards that were nailed across the doors and windows of Austin's favorite watering holes. Throwing all caution to the wind I striped my face with camo stick, put on my rugged 5.11 outer wear, put all kinds of PPE (knives, pepper spray, credit cards, fake NRA membership card, hand sanitizer, and even some sunscreen, into my cargo pockets. I didn't want to be identified by any of the 160,000 surveillance cameras that festoon the downtown sectors so I used not one but two face masks (both camo patterned), my most anonymous sunglasses and my favorite "Courtland Gentry" low profile ball cap. I tried to always cover my face with the bill of the cap when walking by any live cameras.... always trying to maintain cover.

I waited for that moment in the neighborhood when the folks around my H.Q. were distracted, otherwise occupied trying to keep their kids separated from all the random kids from lesser families, or authoratively instructing their yard men and gardeners on the correct length of cut for St. Augustine grass. I exited our house and crawled on my belly through our compound to the passenger side of my car. It was by far the less open and exposed entry point into the vehicle. I had one camera and one trusty lens by my side as well as a complete set of topographical maps of downtown on the seat next to me. I needed to travel light and fast if I was to be successful...

When the time was right, and the nosiest neighbor was instructing his yard man in exactly how many RPMs are optimum for a gas powered mower, I pulled the car out of our driveway and pretended to head toward Trader Joe's. Should a nosy neighbor ask I already had my story well sorted --- I was just running out for more toilet paper and lots more cheap wine. 

I felt the excitement build as I exited my zip code and sensed in my gut the rythmic beat of my car's powerful four cylinder engine, growling around under the hood like a caged tiger. At one point I was certain that the art censors were following me so I performed a seven hour SDR (surveillance detection route) to shake anyone tailing. I was pretty sure I lost them so I headed into downtown and parked, being very careful to back into the parking space in case I needed to exfil at speed. A temporary spasm of anxiety had me clutching the hand sanitizer and planning/visualizing exactly how I'd use it if I got into a rough spot. After all, I was heading into a full-on art infested area and I couldn't count on the group protection of my fellow suburbanites for safety. I'd have to spray aloe and alcohol with precise aim and then run and hope that my evasion skills were enough. It's tough being a photographer these days.

Before leaving the car I reminded myself to keep my head on a swivel and to be ready for anything. To paraphrase some famous secret agent: Go into every situation figuring out your exit strategy and then figure out how to kill I mean photograph, everyone in the room. In a bit of last minute prep I made sure my camera was unlocked and loaded and that I had extra "ammo" by way of my lucky second battery.  How many times had that additional battery saved the day? I can't even count the times that little bit of prep saved the day...

Part of my tactical plan was to approach the live A.O. on foot to take advantage of the natural cover. It was hot and humid and within minutes of entering the concrete jungle which is downtown I was nearly lost and exhausted. But I knew in my heart I had to keep on, had to make that critical documentation, had to satisfy my curiosity about this hive of "artist action." Was it the next wave of resistance? And who was the mastermind behind this rapid fire artwork ?

Standing on the corner of Congress Ave. and Sixth St. I clutched my camera in my sweaty right hand and then peered carefully around the corner of the Bank of America building; looking east down Sixth. I could see action up ahead but I'd forgotten to bring along my up-armored binoculars with the thermal imaging feature and knew I needed to get up close if I was to have any chance of getting the right aim and the right angle to SHOOT the art. Could I get close enough to be in range? Would the windage be an additional problem? 

With my camera clutched in my hand and my head on a swivel I made myself as low profile as I could. I alternately skipped, pivoted or spun around in circles from time to time to disguise the seriousness of my effort --- the real intensity of my mission. Sometimes I whistled or hummed show tunes to myself to seem more...normal. And as I got three or four blocks into the danger zone I could see that all my planning and tactical prowess was going to pay off. People were painting. The artists were on ladders and boxes, brushing and spraying to their heart's content. I blended in like the "Gray Man" of photography...

With shaking hands I set the camera for a color balance that would match "open shade." We'd practiced this scenario so many times in our intensive training that it was almost second nature. All that training and class time paid off. I was able to match the color balance setting to the actual situation while in the field, under extreme duress. It reminded me of those hot afternoons at the "swamp" when we'd practice shifting color balance settings during what we would call a "live fire" training scenario. The gruff and tough old soldier who trained us would fire off bursts of Kodachrome film frames from a battered old Nikon F that had a motor drive so loud that it scared the bejeezus out of us. But the training worked. Now, even confronted by placid and accepting artists, I had no problem finding the right button and making a critical choice. You can only be as good as your training --- and I found that out today. Go color balance!

As I crept along the street, dual masks strapped on so tight I'll have permanent facial creases, and wielding a six foot ruler so I could always measure and maintain an appropriate distance, I made my way warily along the street. Stopping every so often to survey the battlefield city street to search for "hard targets" --- mural art worthy of documentation. Camera in one hand and my six foot ruler shoved through my belt like a broadsword.

After making it up and down both sides of the main street I felt as though I'd taken enough chances for one day so I retreated from the "live zone," the A.O., and made my way back to the relative safety of my vehicle. As I rolled out onto the ground from the passenger's side of my tactical vehicle, now relatively safe in the  driveway, I crawled, in agonizing pain, over sharp gravel and into the safety of my office with no one around me the wiser. 

Mission complete: I was able to get a number of fun images of the art that local artists are creating to bring some life and color to the #post apocalyptic ruins of the Austin bar scene. A section of town destined to become, in perhaps a hundred or a thousand years from now, our Colesium, our Pantheon, our city's Forum. Once lively and active and now shut down possibly forever. A place for busloads of future tourists. See Images below. 

It's wonderful to calm down after a dangerous self-assignment such as this. But another two or three martinis (poured, not spilled) should be enough to both calm my jittery hands and also get me on the other side of writing this silly nonsense. 

Have a camera? Life changing minute by minute? I guess we could document stuff, right? Now if only I could remember which camera I took on this kinetic mission. Might come in handy during the top secret debriefing...




























Is now the time to be upgrading gear?

Photo from 1978 taken with an old light fixture, a cheap, used SLR and an ancient
135mm lens. One of my favorites. And I didn't know what the hell I was doing...

thank goodness. 


There are interesting things still happening in video and photography equipment right now. In the middle of the crisis. Canon has just dribbled out more details about their newest semi-pro stills(?) camera, the R5. Right now we only know the video specs but if they don't come with an encyclopedia
of disclaimers we can expect to see a consumer camera that has amazing data throughput. Canon says the new camera will shoot raw, 8K video using the full frame and offers the same performance in 4K. Given that their latest, top end sports camera, the 1DX3 can shoot raw video and generates (a 4K) files that are over 3000 megabytes per second we can assume that the raw data rate for the R5 will be about the same. This is a giant leap over anything from Sony, Panasonic, Nikon or Olympus.

It means that not only is their processor set a generation faster than anything from the competition but that their newest sensors can off load information to the processing engines at equally amazing speeds. With processor performance like this it would also stand to reason that the camera's autofocusing performance won't be limited by processor performance either. Pretty amazing stuff.

I guess this means we should all head over to our favorite Canon dealer's site in put in our pre-orders right now. We wouldn't want to get left behind...

But, putting on the brakes for just a minute, does this really have relevance to photographers who have no interest in video? I'd say yes, no or maybe. If you are making beautiful still images with your current 24 or 46+ megapixel camera it's likely that you'll see no real effect by moving to a new camera like this one; other than the hit to your cash flow (which I'm guessing is taking a bit of a hit right now as it is).

If you have a Canon 5DIV, a Nikon Z6, a Lumix S1 and you can't make good pix this sure isn't going to help. If you don't currently own a camera and have the cash then this may be (maybe) a camera to consider.

You probably know that I love to buy gear and I'm often hypnotized by cutting edge technology but this time feels different to me. Being confined to my home base now for well over a month has given me ample time to make some painful discoveries. To wit: I like some of the images I shot 40 years ago with a point and shoot Canonet camera and Tri-X film better than, well, anything I've shot in the past ten years...at least. I like prints and slides made with 35mm cameras twenty five years ago better than anything I've shot during the following years of my career as a professional.

What it boils down to, I think, is that the art of photography has morphed from something centered around capturing great images into something that's more about acquiring and mastering ever newer digital technology. A big ass dose of FOMO (fear or missing out).

So, 40 and 25 years ago we mastered black and white film and color slide film. While camera models got replaced every five to ten years there was absolutely nothing new that we were required to master. The aperture, shutter speed and ISO dials were all that really mattered. No function buttons to screw around with (and memorize) and no need to make endless choices when what we should be doing is concentrating on getting the picture in front of us.

We spend so much time now trying to get everything perfect that we've lost the ability to be spontaneous, careless, experimental, or to embrace the possibility of failure. We're trying to metaphorically swim a race with life jackets and floaties on. And it sucks and it's stupid.

Early on in digital I tried to master every aspect of the camera's menu only to find myself with one arm down a rabbit hole, both feet in a tar pit and the other hand holding a camera whose battery was rapidly failing. And cameras have only gotten worse and worse.

Oh yeah. The sensors (might) be better. And you can customize the camera anyway you want to but it shouldn't take a half an hour to set up a camera for the way you like to shoot. Turning on and off factory defaults left and right just to get your camera to the point that it's a tenth as usable as a Nikon FM or an Olympus OM1 from decades ago. Cameras that were ready to go as soon as you put a battery and some film in them. And the battery was OPTIONAL.

In our enforced STAY HOME segment I've been watching a lot of movies from the 1950's and 1960's. Great ones like Roman Holiday and La Dolce Vita, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, and even older ones like, Casablanca. The images are riveting and wonderful. Emotional and nuanced. Detailed and pristinely lit. Story telling that's head and shoulders above, visually, just about anything we see now.

But those movie productions were all done quickly, on tight budgets and with gear so primitive that directors of photography working for Netflix and Amazon now couldn't figure out how to make it work even if a producer held a gun to their heads (and it would be one of those guns that never runs out of bullets, like most modern thriller gun play). But the lack of options, the lack of extraneous and seemingly beguiling choices, and the resulting ability to ignore what they couldn't change meant that there was intellectual momentum and hard won craft in the movie making that's disappeared, mostly, from today's fare.

And it's the same in photography. We're so dependent on the special effects provided by post processing and the need, almost like a pacifier, to have every possible (mental) labor saving device on one's camera. Talk about the "nanny state" think about cameras that basically make it impossible to fail on most parameters except the ability to point said camera at the right subject at just the right time.

Photography while wearing a life jacket, a bicycle helmet, a dental guard and the rest covereded in bubble wrap.

So, should we be busy upgrading our gear? No, it's time to admit that if your gear isn't good enough now (presuming you own current stuff from any of the big companies) then the fault is solely with your technique, your laziness or your impossible expectations. I'd say we'd all be better off shedding everything for a while and going into hibernation until the economy restarts and then buying the cast offs from the bleeding edge heroes as they rush to do their own upgrading. 

Me? I just don't care anymore. If someone gave me an extra $10,000 and said "this is extra. go buy anything your heart desires." I'd probably toss it into my brokerage account and go out looking for better coffee. Without access to anything, with no clients anywhere, and with no travel allowed, why do we even bother to try and make images?

I laugh and then cry when I see stupid articles on "ways to make your photography fun during a lockdown." My number one suggestion would be to make sure you are locked in with a bevy of incredibly beautiful models who are highly motivated to work on their portfolios with you. At that point would the camera model matter at all? And would an article about shooting through frilly drapes to get fun landscapes of the parking lot behind your apartment really have any relevance? I thought not.

I can only practice shooting an egg on a white backdrop so many times before it becomes a recipe for a mental health crisis.

So, will we all run to buy the latest cameras? We will even get to use the cameras we already have?

The market bets NO. Sales are down 80% (Y o Y) for interchangeable lens cameras in the US. And that didn't happen all of a sudden. It's been happening for several years. The virus just accelerated the trend.

The underlying reason for the collapse? All the friction and joy and challenge of making great photos left the room to be replaced by the rote learning of post production masturbation. More time in Luminar and Portrait Professional and Capture One and Photoshop. Less time in bars, coffee shops and fabulous locations filled with people and things to really get excited about photographing.

The rest is just an meaningless exercise. And I already get that for free every time I put on my running shoes...

A sad time for art. A very sad time for art. You might have a different opinion - maybe I should hear it.

So, upgrade gear? Not unless you are rich, bored and have too much time on your hands...