Getting Back to My Photographic Roots

I come from a long line of shutterbugs. If you have ever checked out my memoir blog, The King of Isabelle Avenue you may have noticed a treasure trove of family snapshots.

It all started with my great-great-grandparents. Their Daguerrotype portraits hang on the wall of my living room in heavy carved frames. They are formal poses, each in their Sunday best. It must have been a special occasion to sit for a photograph. They likely could not imagine owning a camera of their own.

This would all change a generation later. My great-grandmother Rilla was a Cherokee Indian born in the 19th century who seemed driven to document her family’s daily life with a simple Kodak Brownie – maybe a Six – it was basically a simple box with a vertical and a horizontal viewfinder, a crank and a shutter release. The camera is long gone, but thankfully the photos remain.

20130125-201402.jpgMy Grandmother took after her mother and went through a series of Brownies when she was first married. This one was one of hers, I love that she sprung for the flash version. I love that she was confident enough to go for it. I still struggle with flash photography.

20130125-201419.jpgMy brother has another of her Brownies, a Bullet and it looks just like this one, he shot with it until film was no longer readily available. It was so simple, look through the viewfinder, frame it, click the shutter, advance the film, repeat. The functionality was basically unchanged from the box made a couple of decades earlier. Anyone could do it. These cameras made photography available to the masses and changed the way families recorded their personal histories.

20130125-202012.jpgBy the late 40’s it was time to upgrade to a Kodak Tourist, a bellows camera. This camera gave Grandma the ability to move the lens away from the film allowing for focusing and some modest zooming. It also allowed for the changing of the aperture, the fastest stop was a dismal 12.5, no wonder they pushed an enormous flash kit on her. Many wonderful shots of my father’s childhood were shot with this Tourist.

20130125-201515.jpgThe Tourist featured a T.B.I. Shutter – Time, Bulb, and Instant – so much more sophisticated than the simple Brownies, but so many more possibilities. I use the Bulb setting on my DSLR when I shoot the moon. The operating principles remain unchanged.

20130125-201527.jpgBy now Grandpa was becoming more and more interested in photography, and he was a man who would save up to buy a more expensive item if there was a difference in quality. The Agfa was definitely a step up. All the features of the Tourist with a distance ring for accurate focusing.

20130125-201540.jpgThis baby featured a more sophisticated bellows and the ability to stop all the way down to 6.3. Interior shots would be possible with decent light. You could play with the depth of field with this baby.

20130125-201552.jpgThe surface of the Agfa was like a tightly woven fabric, even after 65 years it still feels right in your hands.

20130125-201606.jpgThe mechanisms are sturdy and still operate smoothly today. This is a camera that I would love to shoot if I could find the film. I would love to see what this glass could do.

20130125-201613.jpgBy the mid 50s Grandpa was drawn by the lure of instant photography. His Polaroid Land Camera came with all the bells and whistles. He would shoot thousands of images with this beast. It was simpler that the Tourist or the Agfa – fewer shutter options, no specific aperture settings, tons of accessories. Basically you set the camera for indoors or outdoors, focus using the bellows mechanism, and click – then the magic happens. You time the developing time and peel apart the negative and the photographic paper to see a photo in under a minute.

20130125-201637.jpgI remember the wonder of it all when Grandpa would count down the seconds and peel the layers – he would let me squeegee the surface with the swab that stopped the process and sealed the photos surface. Polaroids were not just black and whites, they were wonderful vivid saturated color images.

20130125-201648.jpgMy father didn’t have a great interest in photography, but while he was stationed in Okinawa, he bought the family’s first Japanese-made camera – a Minolta Model P pocket camera. It’s very small, but unlike the 110s from the 1970s it has lots of controls. You can select the aperture and it opens up to 3.5, pretty fast for a little camera. It’s shutter is crisp even after all these years. Pops told me it was a spy camera when I was still young enough to believe those things.

My mother had a real interest in photography, she was blind in one eye, but her good eye was a really good eye. She started with an instamatic, but soon discovered manual photography. She came across an old Rolleiflex. This one isn’t hers but the Rollei changed very little in function over the years. The format is called a TLR – twin lens reflex. The top lens is the one you look through from above, the lower lens is the “taking” lens.

20130125-201658.jpgOne year we all pitched in and bought mom a 35mm for her birthday and she moved on, but she taught me to use the Rollei when I was about 15 years old. I loved the prismatic viewfinder. The controls were simple – aperture, shutter, focus – click and shoot. The crank was so elegant. The feel of shooting felt so natural, odd for a huge rectangular cube.

20130125-201705.jpgIn college I shot the Rollei – black and whites that I developed myself. Grandpa let me set up the closet in his den to transfer the film into the developing cannisters, then he let me develop the negatives in his kitchen. I would use the exposure units on campus to make prints.

20130125-201722.jpgI also picked up an Olympus OM along the way. I fell in love with the Oly and still shoot them today. My digital Olympus OMD is easily adapted to use all of my OM lenses from the 70s and 80s. I like the challenge and the control of using vintage glass.

20130125-201747.jpgI’ve decided that I want to get back to basics. I recently picked up this pristine 1953 Retina on eBay. It shoots 35mm and is the final stage between the bellows style cameras and the SLR. It has a small bellows and the lens stops all the way down to 2 – pretty fast for it’s era. The controls are all in German, so learning to use it will be a challenge. A challenge is what I’m looking for.

20130125-201756.jpgEvery month I plan to shoot a roll of film and have it developed. I have already shot a roll through the Rollei and should be able to pick it up next week. Shooting a TLR again was so much fun. My Rollei dated from 1936 and I’m dying to see how they came out. The camera hadn’t been tested – mechanically everything worked so I am optimistic.

20130125-201951.jpgMy hope is that by shooting film I will slow down a bit and put more thought into what I am shooting, that the limitation of 12 shots will make me focus, that relying on a mechanical camera will make me get more out of my digital bells and whistles. I will still be shooting my digital every day. But I will take the time to slow down, even if it is for just 12 shots. Living in a rural area, I will likely have to wait as long as my Great-grandma Rilla did to see the results, and I think that’s a good thing. Right now I feel like a kid waiting for Santa. I think I’ll like getting back to my roots.

Max the Second

I’m only here because of a Fruity Chicken.

The esteemed author of the Fruity Chicken

The esteemed author of the Fruity Chicken

My brother Max started a blog about raising chickens and fruit trees in the arid desert of our native Las Vegas about a year ago. It’s a sweet, funny, and sometimes technical look at what it takes to make things grow in that hostile environment. I followed him via email until he migrated to WordPress and opened an account to make commenting here easier. Of course I was clueless about WordPress and accidentally started a blog and didn’t write anything. Max started leaving me snide remarks about the amazing content of my empty blog that sound startlingly like the stuff the spam bots send us with great regularity. After enough pushing I finally started a blog aimed squarely at sharing my photos with one person on the planet – Max.

Me and Max

Me and my “little” brother Max

I’m the oldest of my three siblings – Max came second. Max was named after our beloved Grandfather – Max the first. He has always worn the “II” in his name like a badge of honor.

I was thrilled at the idea of having a little brother, but Max has never been content in the role of the younger sibling. At about 14 he passed me by in stature, and his demeanor became that of an older brother. Sometimes teasing, sometimes bossing, sometimes protecting.

Snickering Siblings

Snickering Siblings

Max and I had lots of adventures growing up. He was my first playmate. We explored every inch of Isabelle Avenue on our bikes, we played cowboys and indians, and he and our neighbor Paul did their best to blow a few things up. When I was in high school I started working for the Stagehand’s Union – Max was right behind me.

Stylin' in the 80's

Stylin’ in the 80’s – backstage at the MGM

When our Union was locked out in 1984 he and I manned a food bank for union members and cruised the picket lines making sure everyone was OK – he had a hopped-up Ford Bronco that we zipped up and down the strip in checking on our brothers and sisters.

This is a drawing I did of Max using the stamps at the Stagehand's Union offices.

This is a drawing I did of Max using the stamps at the Stagehand’s Union offices.

As he grew into a man I saw in him the best parts of my mom and my Grandpa – loyalty, responsibility, wisdom, compassion, humor – he worked to make a stable home and family that was very different that the one we grew up in. My grandfather used to marvel at how hard he worked and what a good father he had become. I have always admired his earnestness and commitment to make a good life for his wife and his boys. They have all grown to be the kind of men any father could be proud of.

One of my favorite things to do with Max is to go out into the desert in a Jeep – there is no one I trust more behind the wheel. We have made a couple of trips to the northern Nevada site of a mining claim my grandparents worked in the 60s and 70s. The “Diggins” is located about 60 miles from the nearest paved road. I made this video for him after a trip we took with my nephew Brian summer before last. We both had a tough time after my father passed away, but this trip brought us back together in a very healing way. We listened to this song about a hundred times on the trip so it seemed the natural background for our experiences. I only wish I had been brave enough to record during the really deep water crossings. I loved the adventure, but I loved my camera just a little too much to risk it.

I call this “The best tank of gas ever” and it was. It was a blast to just be together in the wilds of the land we grew up in. We never got to the Diggins – the late spring snows in that year made it impossible, but we had an amazing trip. The song makes me laugh because we are only “southern” in the sense that we grew up in southern Nevada.

Me and Max

Me and Max

All this reminiscing to say that today is Max’s birthday. No one’s known me longer or better.

Thanks for pushing me into this blogging thing, thanks for always being there for me. You’re the best man I know – I love you.

Happy Birthday!

And a Partridge in a Pear Tree

I was going through some old photos recently when I came across some of my earliest original artwork.

I was that kid who loved to draw. I even had some kids ask me for drawings that I later learned that they signed and turned in as their own work. Even as a youngster I should have been more cognizant of my rights under copyright law.

I loved to make drawings for my Grandmother. She would actually frame some of my doodles for display in the living room of her home. Forget the fridge and a magnet, she believed my work belonged on walls presented properly. Grandma always got my sense of humor so I had the idea to draw her a pretty complex, over-the-top Christmas Card.

The actual card is long gone, but what I found was my original sketch. I did this when I was about 8-9 years old. It’s not very detailed, and it has part of my math homework off on one side. The whole thing started when I asked Grandma what all of those things in that crazy song looked like – she said she didn’t know, so I decided to make something up.

The 12 Days of Christmas through my 4th grade eyes…

Days 12 through 7. Hand illustrated on the finest college ruled velum.

Days 12 through 7. Hand illustrated on the finest college ruled velum. The extended cow is my favorite part of this section.

A card so grand it took two whole sides of a sheet of paper to plan out…

Days 6-1 - I believe "4 Calling Birds" is some of my best work

Days 6-1 – I believe “Four Calling Birds” is some of my best work – I think the one on the lower right speaks “Woodstock”

Over the years I have reproduced this concept in pen and ink with lots of flourishes and details – but the concept itself is unchanged. The Maids-a-milking would all be in French maid uniforms, the Lords would be jumping hurdles, the Swans would wear swimming goggles – all style with the substance unchanged. The last time I drew it was the Christmas after I graduated from college.

When I showed this drawing to one of my co-workers, she remarked that the Calling Birds and the Turtle Doves would make fun T-shirts – pretty cool since I make up T-shirt slogans for a living. I guess I’m kinda doing what I was made to do.

I hope your Holiday Season is bright and wonderful and just a little bit silly.

These are a Few of My Favorite Things

You know the song.

Since Thanksgiving you’ve heard it a hundred times. Listening to the lyrics it’s not explicitly about Christmas, but it is from a movie we watch during the holidays. The list in the song is not my list. I’m not big on whiskers – I prefer the rest of the kitten. I don’t think I need mittens when using a kettle – it’s all a bit disjointed. Lyrically it’s genius – in practical use it’s not my cup of tea.

So what would my list be? I decided for my 100th post to share the list of things that inspire me behind the lens.

Raindrops on…

Anything.

Naked Lady in the rain

Naked Lady in the rain.

You can see my house inverted in this raindrop

You can see my house inverted in this raindrop.

A newly opened dogwood drenched in the rain

A newly opened dogwood drenched in the rain.

Lilac buds shining after a shower

Lilac buds shining after a shower.

I love redbuds - the first color of spring

I love redbuds – the first color of spring.

I’m not so much into bright copper kettles, but I am fascinated with…

Rust.

This is the rust and patina on my copper fire pit.

This is the rust and patina on my copper fire pit.

This hay rake was in my woods when I bought the house - every surface is beautifully rusted.

This hay rake was in my woods when I bought the house – every surface is beautifully rusted.

This padlock was on the jail in Midas Nevada. The lock spoke to me more than the shack it was attached to.

This padlock was on the jail in Midas Nevada. The lock spoke to me more than the shack it was attached to.

I don’t even know what schnitzel is – it sounds odd to me. I know it’s odd to love…

Dandelions.

I like the delicate structure and I like to find a way to look at them in new ways

I like the delicate structure and I like to find a way to look at them in new ways.

The structure of the actual flower is pretty amazing even before it goes to seed.

The structure of the actual flower is pretty amazing even before it goes to seed.

The substructure is so intricate. I shot this with a manual macro lens from the 70s.

The substructure is so intricate. I shot this with a manual macro lens from the 70s.

I grew up in the desert so the idea of sleigh bells is foreign to me, but door bells make me think of home. I have a strong bent towards…

Sentiment and Kitsch.

I love kitsch and I love it unusual places. I have had lawn flamingoes in the front lawn of every home I have ever owned.

I love kitsch and I love it unusual places. I have had lawn flamingoes in the front lawn of every home I have ever owned.

Keys

These are my Grandpa’s keys. I love shooting things that belonged to someone special.

Purple Glass

My Grandma taught me about purple glass, I love to shoot things that are transparent and have color.

Apricot Pit

My great-grandfather carved this out of a peach pit. I love the surfaces of handmade things like this.

Snowflakes that stay on my nose and eyelashes. I like snow, but not so much for its photographic opportunities. I prefer…

Spring Flowers

First color on the ground often before the grass starts to green up.

Crocus – the first color on the ground, often before the grass starts to green up.

Cherry Blossoms open skyward

Cherry Blossoms opening skyward captivate me.

Daffodils have amazing color before we even notice them

Daffodils have amazing color before we even notice them.

Lilacs open as the sun hits them - here for too brief a time.

Lilacs open as the sun hits them – here for too brief a time.

My garden fairy planted a few of these a couple of years ago in a spot were there was once a cistern. I love them.

Hyacinths – My garden fairy planted a few of these a couple of years ago in a spot were there was once a cistern. I love them.

Cream colored ponies and dogs biting. I’m not too far off here.  I love the company of…

Dogs.

Sunshine is my Goldendoodle. He’s a lovely goofball and is a bit camera-shy, I like to catch him when he is unaware of me.

These are my brother’s pointers – I shot this one Christmas when Vegas had a rare snow. I loved the sheer joy the pups exuded as they ran in the frosted desert.

These are my two female terriers. They hate each other’s guts unless they are sleeping – they are precious when they sleep.

This is a pup I met on a trip – I love that he was interested in my camera. Curiosity is a favorite thing to capture in an animal.

Zipper was my first Kayak dog – he was so relaxed on the water.

Brown paper packages, blue satin sashes, silver white winters – there’s a lot of color in this song. I love color and am drawn to vivid colors. One color draws me more than all the others.

I shoot anything that is…

Orange.

The color of this car drew me to it - hundreds of cars and this was my favorite.

The color of this car drew me to it – hundreds of cars and this was my favorite.

I'm pretty sure I chose this hard drive for that orange bumper.

I’m pretty sure I chose this hard drive for that orange bumper.

In the shop where I work I see lots of color, but this set of mixers caused me to go get my camera.

In the shop where I work I see lots of color, but this set of mixers caused me to go get my camera.

These Tiger Lilies grow wild around the Ozarks. I have them pretty thick in the springs right at the edge of the woods

These Tiger Lilies grow wild around the Ozarks. I have them pretty thick in the spring – right at the edge of the woods.

This sunset was so vivid that I missed an appointment when I stopped to shoot it.

This sunset was so vivid that I missed an appointment when I stopped to shoot it.

Now that winter is here and it’s a grey day, I simply remember my favorite things and then I don’t feel so … bad.

My First Time at the Polls – and my Grandma’s Last

Granny circa 1962 – a midterm election year

My Nana was my hero. She was a strong woman who never looked at a mans job and assumed she couldn’t do it. She was my first mentor and my constant companion as a child. I lived right down the street and her living room was my happy place.

She shared all kinds of secrets with me. She told me about her childhood friends, the secret compartment in her dresser, and that she had once gone to charm school. She told me of her plan to especially spoil my brother Max because she had been a middle child and knew how invisible they felt – but that once she became a grandmother she knew she could never ever let any of us feel that invisibility or distance from her. She told me about her pentecostal mother and her fears that I might become a “holy roller” like her. She told me about trusting Jesus in the middle of an Ozark river on a hot summer day when she was 11, she encouraged me to do the same. She told me stories about her amazing grandpa and I knew that her love for me reflected his devotion to her. She told me that my Grandpa had secretly taken evening Bible classes to be able to hold his own when talking to her mother. She told me about her first marriage and how she had just left. She told me why and I’ll keep that to myself. She shared almost everything with me.

In the autumn of 1980 I was a freshman in college. I was going to get my first chance to vote. I got up before class and headed to my polling place, my elementary school. As I finished up I saw Grandma and Grandpa in the parking lot. Grandma had been very ill for several years and by this time she could barely walk. I helped Grandpa get her inside.

If I recall correctly it was only about the third time that year that she had left the house except to go to the doctor. She had not even been able to attend my high school graduation. If she went through all this it was crystal clear to me that this was important to her – doing her civic duty was a priority. This image has stayed with me my whole life.

Grandma’s hands had shaken as long as I could remember, but by now she could no longer write. She went into that booth and I stayed outside the curtain in case she needed help while Grandpa voted. It took her forever with to get the correct hole punched – and she would accept no help. When she was finished Grandpa and I helped her make the long slow walk back to the car.

As we got her into the car I bent over to kiss her cheek. I asked her who she voted for. She said, “I love you honey, but that’s none of your business.”

Sometimes I wonder if we would be a kinder and gentler society if we remembered the privilege of a “secret ballot”. I know that there has been a lack of civility with people putting an all-or-nothing spin on their political leanings. I’ll be glad to go back to hearing about everyone’s grandkids on Facebook tomorrow.

Don’t get me wrong – I have strong opinions, I may not have posted a play-by-play on the presidential debates on my Facebook page. I didn’t put up any yard signs or plaster my Jeep with bumper stickers. I didn’t attend any fundraisers. I did my research and  I did my talking at the ballot box.

This is my first day’s work for NaNoWriMo – Writing more than captions and comments on photos is totally outside my comfort area.

The King of Isabelle Avenue

“Quick! Lorri – I need an earring!” shouted TJ as he burst into the house, I asked a stupid question, “Why?” “Your dad’s gonna pierce my ear!” , he excitedly answered back.

Oddly, this request did not surprise me in the least. On this particular Saturday TJ, one of Pops’ many shooting buddies, had shown up promptly at 10 o’clock to fix a broken car. At our house we didn’t call a mechanic or go to the dealership. If a car wasn’t running Pop called a friend, had Mom pick up a case of Bud and some rib eyes, and sent me or one of my brothers to the neighborhood auto parts store on our bicycle. Next came the hunt for tools – always a phillips screwdriver and a 5/8 inch wrench. If my experience is typical, I think you could repair everything from a toaster to the space shuttle…

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The King of Isabelle Avenue

I decided to take the NaNoWriMo challenge this year. When I told some friends at work the first thing they said was – “You’re finally gonna write that book about your dad – right?”

This is my pop as a clean-cut marine – with really big ears.

My father was the only son of one of the best story-tellers who ever lived on Isabelle Avenue in downtown Las Vegas. My Grandmother could tell you the story of her trip to the supermarket and it would be enthralling. She had a sense of exactly what details would captivate her audience. She loved the attention and we loved the stories. I always imagined Pop growing up in her shadow and wanting to have the biggest story.

The oddest thing about this photo is that we never saw things like this as even slightly odd.

I was in about 4th grade when I discovered that most of the stories Pop told lacked the ring of truth. He exaggerated details and added “facts” of his own choosing to make things seem both more fantastic and more believable. What Pop never understood was that his life was really the big story. The man pulled off some crazy things. Absurd, irreverent, silly, bizarre – he was all of these things – almost all the time.

I’m sure your dad could be found fighting a goat in buckskins on any given Saturday.

In truth, my pop was a complex person. He never grew up, he never wanted to – Peter Pan in all his glory. His escapades were fueled with Budweiser and a group of strange and wonderful friends who were all to willing to follow him on his journey like a modern-day pied piper.

I’m sure your dad drank moonshine from a crockery jug while wearing a bear claw necklace on your family vacations – don’t all dads?

What I want this project to be is fun and ironic – this is not an examination of the difficulties of living with Pop’s idiosyncrasies. I want this to be an exploration of the irony, the wonder, even the tenderness of a man who marched to the beat of his own drum (or maybe his own tuba).

If you would like to follow my progress, I’ll be posting excerpts and chronicling my experiences trying to pump out those 50,000 words on my new blog The King of Isabelle Avenue – I’d love to hear your comments. As of today there is nothing there but the About page that this post is based upon. I plan to start posting in earnest tomorrow!

Come along with me – there’s a good story in it. I should know, I come from a long line of story tellers.