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.