A Shift in Perspective

San Francisco National Cemetery in the Presidio

Yesterday, I had the pleasure of finally meeting Ed Batista, someone whose work I’ve been following and whose writing I’ve been admiring for many, many years. Ed suggested we walk through the Presidio, a lush, expansive park and former Army base overlooking the ocean and the Bay on the northwest side of San Francisco.

I live close to the Presidio, and I’ve walked through it many times, but I haven’t really explored it. I have a few set walks that I do there, and I’ve mostly left it at that.

Ed took me on a different, wandering route that took us all around the park. At various points, I found myself in familiar places, only at slightly different vantage points, often a bit higher and further back. I found it remarkable how a small shift in perspective completely changed my experience of a place that I know pretty well.

I’ve been sitting with this experience since that beautiful walk, wondering how I might shift my habits in small ways and what I might discover as a result.

White House Year in Photography

Pete Souza, the official White House photographer (who also served a similar role under Reagan) posted his Year in Photos on the White House website this week. I loved poring over these! As you might expect, Souza’s photos tell a powerful, insider’s story of President Obama’s 2014. They also serve as a primer on masterful photojournalism.

The photo above offered a brief look at Obama’s propensity to be present. Souza’s caption:

Surrounded by Secret Service agents, the President views the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. Rather than immediately board the Marine One helicopter at Crissy Field, the President instead walked right past the helicopter to see a better view of the bridge on a clear summer day.

Here are some other nice examples of this.

Masterful photography and storytelling is nothing new. What I especially love is how the White House uses the Internet and social media to share these pictures. All of the pictures above (and many more) are shared more or less in real-time on Flickr. If you click through on any of the photos, you’ll notice that all of the camera metadata is there. (Souza uses a Canon 5D Mark III, often with a 24-70mm f/2.8 zoom.) Lots of professional photographers hide their metadata, a ridiculous, misguided attempt to maintain some kind of competitive edge.

You’ll also notice the licensing: U.S. Government Works. By law, federal work is not protected by copyright. However, that does not mean the work is in the public domain, as federal work is protected by other government statutes. For example, you cannot use government work to imply endorsement by a government official. No such luck with public domain or even Creative Commons.

I had never seen the U.S. Government Works statement before. It has very nice language around publicity versus privacy rights, an issue that has flummoxed me.

Souza also maintains an excellent Instagram account, where he shares iPhone photos and insider stories, including his thought process behind how he curated his 2014 photo essay. He also recently gave an excellent interview about his process.

This is what working openly looks like. This is what getting it looks like.

Happy New Year, everyone!

The Power of Constraints and Practice

I love the Golden Gate Bridge. I’m lucky enough to be able to see it from where I live. I never get sick of gazing at it, visiting it, or taking pictures of it. For me, it never gets old.

Still, I know that the hundreds of stock photos I’ve taken of this iconic bridge aren’t very interesting. While I somehow can’t resist taking these shots anyhow, my goal is to grow as a photographer and as a storyteller, to capture unique, emotional moments. I want to take pictures that are meaningful to me, but that are layered, not just literal. I also want to take these pictures largely spontaneously, although I’m not opposed to a little bit of direction here and there.

I’ve been taking lots of pictures with my zoom lens these past few months. It’s a great lens — fast and sharp — and I’ve wanted the flexibility for the situations I knew I’d be in. But I also realize I haven’t had as much fun taking pictures the past few months as I usually do. There are lots of reasons for this, but I felt like the zoom lens was playing a role.

So this past week, I started carrying only one lens with my camera — my 50mm equivalent, which is my favorite by far. It’s a tighter lens, which can make it challenging for landscapes and tight spaces, where you have limited room to maneuver. You have to let go of what it can’t do, or you’ll just get frustrated. When I manage to do this, I find it liberating. I’m forced to eliminate options, to choose and focus. It opens up all sorts of creative possibilities through the power of constraint. I don’t know the exact role carrying only one lens played this past week, but somehow, photography started feeling fun again.

Yesterday afternoon, I went for an afternoon walk on the bridge with my Mom and younger sister. I noticed them holding hands as they walked, and I asked them to pause when we got to the bridge so that I could snap the photo above.

I didn’t want to mess too much with the moment. I wanted to take the picture quickly, and move on. But I couldn’t help making two changes to the scene. First, I noticed that my sister was wearing a bracelet that our 10-year old nephew had made her recently. It was on the wrist that she was using to hold my Mom’s hand, so I pulled up her sleeve so that it was fully visible, giving the photo yet another layer of meaning.

Second, their hands were partially enshrouded in shadow. I couldn’t eliminate it by repositioning myself, so I moved their arms slightly. This is something I never would have done two years ago, not because I was shy about directing people, but because I wouldn’t have even noticed the shadow.

Much of my growth as a photographer over the past two years has simply been a result of paying more attention to light. In the past, I was so focused on the subject, I’d often ignore light and other compositional elements, such as the background. However, simply knowing that I should pay more attention to light wasn’t what ultimately helped me do so.

My growth has been a result both of intentionality and of practice. Taking pictures like these…

… has helped me develop a sensitivity toward light, so that it’s become more instinctual rather than something I have to consciously pay attention to. This, in turn, helps me recognize situations like the one above with my Mom and sister, resulting in better pictures.

I don’t know if the payoff is noticeable to others who look at my photos. But I notice it in the photos I’m seeing and taking. Here’s one I took of my nephews and brother-in-law after church in Cincinnati:

I saw my older nephew, Elliott, offering food to his little brother, Benjamin, and thought it was a cute moment, so moved to capture it. At the same time, I noticed how beautiful the light looked along the wall, so I positioned myself to try to get that too. A split second later, I noticed my brother-in-law in the distance, and included him in the photo.

It’s not a perfect photo. I was shooting in aperture priority mode, and I forgot that I was at f/8 ISO200, so the shutter speed was slow, and it came out a bit fuzzy. By choosing to compose the photo this way, I also missed out on capturing Benjamin’s face and the details of the boys interacting. It’s all good. I like the photo, and I see the progress I’m making as a photographer in it.

I’m also loving what I’m learning about perceived imperfections and how they sometimes result in stronger pictures. I took this photo of my friend, Oz, and his dog in front of the Painted Ladies while on a walk a few months ago:

I was paying attention to light — it was the middle of the day, but the clouds had come in, dispersing the bright light beautifully — but I missed the shadow on Oz’s face as a result of his hat. I still miss details like this, despite the progress I’ve been making, and when I catch it, I’m always annoyed. I could have asked him to take off his cap, and the picture would have been technically stronger as a result.

But upon further reflection, I’m glad that I didn’t. I like that he was wearing a Pixar hat, and I like that both he and his dog are wearing hats of sorts.

I’ve barely started to understand photography, but I am loving the journey. I love having an archive of memorable moments, especially with people I care about, and I absolutely love the learning process.

Walking and Learning in Chicago

The first time I met Howard Rheingold, he suggested we go on a walk. A few weeks later, I met Howard at his house, which lies at the foot of Mount Tamalpais in Mill Valley, and we walked and talked. It was wonderful.    (MND)

Ever since I moved to San Francisco a few years ago, I’ve suggested to many a colleague that we go on a walk. I live a few blocks away from Lands End, a beautiful trail along the ocean on the northwest side of San Francisco, with gorgeous views of the coast, the Presidio, and the Golden Gate Bridge. I still do the coffee thing, but when opportunity knocks, I tell people to meet me at my apartment, and we walk and talk.    (MNE)

There’s something about the act of walking that stimulates the brain. It brings a natural rhythm to conversation, giving you space both to talk and to listen. The Peripatetics knew this. So did Martin Heidegger. Heidegger’s magnum opus was entitled, Sein und Dasein. Dasein loosely translates to “existence,” or “being alive.” Heidegger likened it to walking in the forest and suddenly coming to a clearing, an Open Space, a place to breathe. It’s in these places, at the end of a journey, where we become most aware of ourselves and our surroundings.    (MNF)

I’m in the Midwest this week — South Bend, Indiana visiting my younger sister, then Cincinnati to visit my older sister, my brother-in-law, and my three year old nephew. It’s not vacation. Things are crazy at work (in a good way), and so I’m still chugging along, with breaks here and there to spend time with my family.    (MNG)

My original plan was to work from my sister’s place in South Bend. Then I decided that it would be wrong to be this close to Chicago and not visit some of my colleagues and friends in the area, and that it would be just as easy to work in Chicago as it would be in South Bend. So I made some last minute calls and spent yesterday in Chicago.    (MNH)

After spending the morning working, I had the pleasure of meeting Eric Sinclair in the flesh for the first time. He asked me where I wanted to eat lunch. I responded, “Somewhere distinctly Chicago.” He delivered.    (MNI)

Afterwards, I hopped on the El and headed north to visit Michael Herman. Michael’s still doing lots of Open Space, but he’s also got a new project that’s been keeping him very busy: Restoring an 80 year old home, which he and his wife, Jill, recently purchased. After assessing the state of the house and seeing the most magnificent radiator I’ve ever seen, Michael suggested that we go for a walk.    (MNJ)

And so we walked. We walked through his neighborhood and along the Chicago River. In between catching up on life and work, Michael talked about the city’s architecture and history. We discovered new streets and old bungalows. We saw kids playing in parks with their parents, and houses decorated for Halloween.    (MNK)

We walked, and we talked, and we ended up at the local elementary school, which also serves as the home for a community garden, “community” in every sense of the word. Only the students have plots; the rest of the space is community owned. Anyone in the community is free to garden any spot, weed any plot, pick vegetables and herbs from any plant. In the middle of this beautiful, old, urban neighborhood, amidst the hustle and bustle of the city, was this clearing, this beautiful, Wiki-like, community garden where the city seemed to disappear. Dasein.    (MNL)

I began the day with my nose to the grindstone, working on my various projects. I ended it walking, breathing, talking, learning. As I rode the train back to South Bend, reflecting on the day’s events and conversations, I couldn’t help but feel thankful.    (MNM)

My life and my work is ultimately about people, about maximizing our collective potential. As I’ve pursued this passion, I’ve found myself surrounded by incredible people with similar values and passions. I take great pride in the number of groups I’ve helped, the movements I’ve helped catalyze, and the knowledge I’ve shared, but all of this pales in comparison to what I’ve learned from others. What motivates me is the opportunity to share these same experiences and learnings with as many people as possible.    (MNN)

I’ve got a clear vision for how to do this more effectively, and while the mechanisms that make it work are complex, the actual actions required are relatively straightforward. Walking and talking are excellent ways to start.    (MNO)

Officially A City Guy

After nine wonderful years in the Silicon Valley, I recently moved 40 miles north to San Francisco. It’s a move I’ve thought about for many years, but a combination of circumstances finally made it reality.    (JII)

Some initial impressions:    (JIJ)

  • It’s foggy all the time. I’m enough of a Bay Area veteran to know to bring a jacket when visiting San Francisco in the summer, but I had seen enough glorious sunny summer days in the city — even in the Richmond District, where I now live — to decide that reports on the fog were greatly exaggerated. I was wrong. If two weeks is a valid sample size, then yes, it does get mighty foggy here. Makes days like today when the sky clears all the more wonderful.    (JIK)
  • Muni does not constitute legitimate public transportation. It takes an hour for me to get from my apartment in the Outer Richmond across town to SBC Park via Muni. CalTrain from Menlo Park to the ballpark also takes an hour, so there’s literally no gain there. San Francisco badly needs some form of public transportation with more comprehensive coverage than BART, but that doesn’t stop at every freakin’ block like Muni.    (JIL)
  • Of course, part of the city’s charm is sharing a bus ride with its scintillating characters. The other night, a crazy fellow sat across from me and started talking to himself. Usually, this is a sign to keep your eyes averted, which is what I did. Nevertheless, he somehow managed to engage me in a one-sided conversation where he explained that everything he had feared in life had come true, and it didn’t turn out as badly as he thought it would. You go, crazy guy!    (JIM)
  • I can see Sutro Tower from my apartment and thus get great television reception. Well, except for KNTV, the local NBC affiliate, which is based in San Jose. I don’t even get a flicker. I won’t recount the politics that led to KNTV acquiring the NBC affiliation, but I think it’s an absolute travesty that I can’t get a signal in San Francisco. The only way to get this broadcast station is via a paid service — cable or satellite.    (JIN)
  • My neighborhood is replete with tiny delis and markets of every ethnicity imaginable. Makes for great ambling and outstanding eating. I am going to have to befriend a Russian local to help me navigate some of these places.    (JIO)

It’ll take a few months before I fully acclimate to my surroundings, but sitting on my balcony on a day like this, gazing at the Golden Gate Bridge and the city skyline, I can’t help but be giddy about the move.    (JIP)