Saturday, December 31, 2011

Wanted: Travel Scribe with Markers

At the end of the year, I spend a lot of time thinking and reflecting on the unexpected that happened in the previous year - the “markers” as my friend Lynn calls them. Incidents in your life that imprint you, not like a calendar or a clock marks time, but an activity or maybe even just a thought that impacts you in such a way that your life is changed from that point forward. This discussion came up over the topic of certifications and awards. The physical certificate or trophy being the marker of recognition and no matter how recently you were proclaimed the winner, or how far removed you are from that time and place, or whatever you did to achieve the recognition... its existence is a “marker” of excellence.

I slyly scoot by the unpleasant markers of 2011, trying only to ponder those episodes as learning experiences, and move by the pleasant markers with equal speed, knowing that I've already basked in the glory for an extended period of time. My primary focus on is hope. I always hope the next year brings wonderful eye-opening experiences and I hope I’ve learned enough from the rough times behind me to confront those ahead. I have no doubt that there will be lots of surprises in 2012.
Something I always consider is my personal growth in the work aspect of my life. In high school I wanted to own a motel or work on a train. In college I started out as a journalism major, but saw that the cool students hung in the art department. In adult life I owned a handmade clothing store, a public relations firm, and then settled into special events, my natural niche. I never had a job with an easy one word description where the profession indicates what you do - like a lawyer, teacher, doctor, or chef. Even when I told people I was an artist, they said, “You’re a what?” in a tone as if asking if it was contagious, or sometimes they’d say, “An arborist - do you know my uncle, he works in Golden Gate Park.”
At gatherings where I am a stranger, another stranger often asks that fatal question, “What do you do?”

“I’m a professional event designer and producer,” I respond.

“Oh, I see,” they’d reply and then ask, “So what do you do?”

“I design and produce events.” I’d repeat.

Usually their face remains blank and thinking I might snap them into the moment and catch their attention, I’d add, “I win international awards.”  You’d think I would know better, but no    they didn’t get it the first or second time, and no variety of changes or additions to the words will cause them to understand how a person could be in the business of special events. I might then try the shortest resume, "President,” a position I have held on several occasions, but really, who cares about a title.

So where’s this all going – to jobs and titles... during my public relations years, my office was in a building with a law firm. I often found myself perusing the newspaper classified ads for interesting sounding jobs. One that caught my attention was “Skip Tracer.” I liked the sound of the words as they played off each other. I liked the mystery of recognizing each word independently, but not together. One day the private investigator looked over my shoulder and asked, “Why are you reading the classified ads for jobs?”

“Just dreaming,” I said. “I don’t know what they are, I just like how they sound."

“How what sounds?” he asked.

“The names of the jobs,” I said. “Like skip tracer. I’ve seen a lot of jobs for a skip tracer.”

The PI was quiet and then asked, “Do you know what a skip tracer is?”

“No,” I replied, “I just like the sound of it. Skip-tracer," I whispered. "And it says high pay, no experience necessary.”
(At this point in the story we’ll leave out the part about me eventually dating him, him carrying a pistol in his boot, and always sitting with his back to a wall and face to a door, and we’ll move on to the current job titles that fascinate me.)

Spending time in Italy continues to reveal lots of new job possibilities. There are cobblers, window dressers, pasta makers, book binders, fish merchants, bakers, and craftsmen. I could get a job as a chalk artist, or street musician... or maybe a human statue by the Uffizi, a paparazzi, or a bell ringer in a really high tower.  A movie director might discover me leaning against a lamp post and give me a role as a street walker in a Felini-esque film, or I could pose nude for a sculptor as he chiseled a marble bust, or maybe I could climb up on the scaffold to polish the cathedral doors.

As we exit 2011, interesting job titles recently advertised on the internet include: Master Resiliency Trainer, Fit Tester, 100% Chinese Egg Donor, Part-time Sperm Donor, Lego® Engineering Instructor, and Relief Manager. But, the job I really want is Travel Scribe. Hey, I can travel and I can scribe (if those are the credentials needed.)  Moses was a travel scribe; Marc Antony certainly had a scribe recording his trysts with Cleopatra; Lewis and Clark had scribes on the wagon train, but I'm not seeing any current job opportunities for travel scribes, much less travel scribes with markers. Just imagine, how cool would it be to travel and have someone record you trip – ok it wouldn’t be exactly how you remember the experience, but that would make it all the more fun – a travel scribe could transform that “not pasta again meal” to sound new and fresh every time. Or maybe I could be a travel scribe for a company to excite people about visiting a particular country or interest them in taking a particular tour – face it – the folks who write travel brochures are writers… they’re not scribes… they don’t let you feel the stickiness of the damp clay soil underfoot, or see the rising reddened bulge on your ankle from a toxic insect bite, or even smell the springtime air, thick with the lemon perfume of the Femminello Ovale. 

So – Hello 2012 – as I set my sights on the future – what surprises do you have in store for my two one-word answers to the question, “What do you do?”  Depending on the crowd, I might answer “writer” or “photographer” and I'd add freelance just to let them know I was available. Never would I dare say “photojournalist” because even though it’s just one word - I can already hear the response… “Oh, photosynthesis – yes," and then they’d smile that all-knowing smile and add, “Do you like it?” or worse yet, “How long have you been doing it?”  



Saturday, December 24, 2011

Nativity for the Common Man

As a child, I remember a spot light shining on a manger next to life size painted plywood cut-outs of people by the entrance to our church. At home, Mom placed three 12”candles shaped like the wise men on the buffet near the decorated tree. These were indications of the Christmas season. We didn’t have a “crèche,” which now I understand to mean a set (like a stage set) on which the nativity figures were placed, so I didn’t practice telling and retelling the story of the nativity while positioning the miniature dolls and animals into the scene. As an adult, I notice nativity scenes in December when blinking lights outline the rooftops and on front yards, the molded plastic father, mother and baby glow from inside. This year was different as my first nativity sighting occurred on July 6th when I opened the cabinet door under the sink at Aldo, 17 Ricasoli, Florence, IT. Accompanied by a sleeve of unused colored sponges, the crèche (complete with glued down Mary, Joseph, baby Jesus, and some animals) rested peacefully beneath silver drain pipes. I took finding the “Nativity Scene with Sponges” as an omen of good things to come. I did not know at the time that my mission for the 2011 holiday season would turn into a search for the nativity scene representing the common man.
Near my home, at the Church of the Latter Day Saints, there is an annual display of nativity scenes. I had never seen it so this year, with camera in hand, I stopped by to snap some photos. At the entrance, I learned photos were only allowed of the choir and family photos, so my camera went back in the car and I went inside. More than 400 nativity scenes were displayed on draped tables throughout the church. Some were ornate as if made by a master craftsman, others childlike. All had a baby with his parents and beyond that, the scenes grew to contain as many as 60 to 75 figurines and props from animals and palm trees to bridges and ox carts. The largest scenes were life size and the smallest would fit easily in a measuring cup. They were carved from mother of pearl, exotic wood, stone, metal, bone, and drift wood. They were crafted from buttons, wash cloths, cut tin, glass, wire, beads, and one of my favorites was made of tightly rolled paper.    They were sewn of patchwork fabric, hand embroidered, machine stitched, crocheted, and cut of felt. They were painted, molded, glued, formed of modeling clay and assembled with Legos. A tree was covered with nativity ornaments and there was a collector series of porcelain figures, the type you might find in a stationary store. One scene was intricately carved inside a section of a tree branch and next to it, a set of painted egg shapes nestled one egg inside the other. Several crèches were mounted on hinged sides that closed into a storage box. In the corner of one room was a four foot tall 3-D landscape complete with fish swimming in a pond and an electronic star filled sky. Many of the displays had cherubs, people and animals, all with elongated necks representing the artistic style of their country of origin.
In the main hall, local children’s choirs sang as people of all ages, economic backgrounds, and races wandered through the display filled rooms. Tears unexpectedly filled my eyes when I peeked into a tiny room barely larger than a coat closet, which had been transformed into a stable. “Try this on,” said the lady shepherd passing tunics to a young man and his wife. “Place your baby here in the manger,” she said adjusting the husband’s headpiece and motioning them to sit on the bales of hay. The next family in line had already been handed the young couple’s camera and took photos of the costumed family in the Bible story setting. (Now I understood what the greeter meant by "family photos.") In the South American room, colorful tissue flowers and shiny ornaments hung from the ceiling. In another room, the walls were covered with a black silhouette of an ancient Middle Eastern skyline and a short video reenactment of the nativity played on a loop on a big TV set. There was no charge for the viewing and although I felt it was a shame I couldn’t take photos, I would probably have had to be pulled away while the event was being dismantled, saying “But I need to take more photos!” I was mesmerized by the variety of sculptural pieces from 50 countries as I asked myself, “How did they all know the same story?”

Reading has always been a challenge for me, but overload me with visuals and I’m happy...  hence, the drive-through nativity staged by the local 7th Day Adventist Church was the next activity on my quest. When it was my turn in line, I rolled down my window and a man named Jon (the pastor at the church in shepherd garb holding a warm cup of soup – did I mention it was 38 degrees outside), welcomed me as well as all the cars in front and behind me. Next another shepherd helped me turn my car headlights to parking lights. Then a woman and her son, dressed as townsfolk, took the census, “How many people in your car and how did you learn about this.” I’m sure her son looks forward to one day playing the role of the innkeeper or a wise man. Finally another shepherd handed me a CD and explained that the CD would tell the story of each scene and indicate when it was time to drive to the next scene. 

Like the Duomo, against the darkness of the nighttime sky, the vignettes shown as brightly colored pages from a child’s picture book. The sets glowed with just the right amount of theatrical lighting and just the right amount of wind and fog to make each scene believable. The flat backdrops and draped curtains were simple in form and, graciously accepted shadows cast upon them by the movement of the actors. Camels, sheep, donkeys, and roosters performing in unscripted roles provided the added touch to bring the scenes to life. Painted billowing canvas created the cave-like space containing the nativity scene. It was very much like the actual birthing cave in Bethlehem that I saw when I was 27 when my mom, dad and I went to Israel. Where the baby was born in the stable was a confined space, a small cave. Instead of the closeness making me feel too large like Alice in Wonderland, I felt quite tiny. If I had been there at the actual birth, I imagine I would have fit into the little hand of the newborn baby Jesus.  
I visited neighbors the next day and mentioned how impressed I was with the staging and props, and how the cars dimmed their lights and it really felt like a private showing, and that maybe now I was beginning to understand the nativity story. The conversation was not interactive, just me recalling in elaborate detail the drive-through experience, complete with a weather report on the temperature and a short commentary about what the pastor might have worn under the shepherd outfit. Bill’s head tilted down as he looked over his half glasses reading the Sunday paper; Jeanette hummed as she wrapped holiday sweets in the kitchen; and Jennifer sat by the fireplace with her feet on an ottoman, hand stitching a very large needle point. I jabbered on describing the life size sets one by one, “And there was a real camel, and sheep, and at the end there was heaven and it was all foggy and there was with a band of angels with white-mittened hands standing on a truckload-of-cotton-balls cloud and blowing songs of praise out their horns, and then an exit sign.”
                                        “Ah,” said Jennifer without skipping a stitch, “the back door to heaven.” 

The CD continued after the tour was over which gave me something to listen to on the ride home. Pastor Jon talked about how much his church liked to stage the free drive-through nativity scene and he said something I had never heard put into words before, “Think of it – how could a Jew of humble birth who lived only 33 ½ years, never went to college, who never traveled more than 200 miles from his birth place, never wrote a book, and who when he died possessed nothing but the clothes he wore, have influenced the societies and the cultures of the world so profoundly that time itself is divided before and after his birth.                   
And that brings this story of my search for the “Nativity for the Common Man” to a close.  Needless to say, I was intrigued by the interpretation of artists from around the world as they recreated the story of a man whose wife had a baby in a stable on a star lit night in Bethlehem many, many years ago.  Happy Holidays to all – may you each find the nativity story presented in manner that speaks to you.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Canon and the International Organization of Postcard Image Pickers (IOPIP)

Photo left: "Weeding the Palms" 2011, volunteer gardeners on a Monday at the de Young Museum, San Francisco, CA 

In the United States during the 1950s, a popular means of vacationing was the road trip. My family lived in Northern California and we made the eight hour drive to Southern California to visit my aunt and uncle who owned a candy factory in Palm Springs. Pop packed the trunk of our Chrysler New Yorker with suitcases and wedged a green Coleman cooler filled with sandwiches on the floor behind the driver’s seat. Between her feet, Mom balanced a tan metal thermos of steaming Hills Bros. coffee, which they drank from red plastic cups at the highway rest stops. Pop announced our seating positions – even though they always started out the same – and we were off on an adventure. The last stop before hitting the open road was the gas station where the attendant filled the tank, washed all the car windows, and waved goodbye as the sedan pulled away. We weren’t even out of town when my brother and I started singing television commercial jingles, the predecessor to calling out road signs, spotting convertibles, and collecting postcards from roadside attractions.
As in Italy, or probably anywhere except the Sahara desert, when you travel on land for eight hours the scenery changes. Southern California didn’t have big buildings in a financial district or cable cars or the Golden Gate Bridge like San Francisco, but it had its own icons – gigantic palm trees. Some lined both sides of long country driveways and some stood at attention in large groups like a platoon of restless soldiers. Other palms clustered four or five together in an Oasis setting where their wide green fronds blew in the breeze as if shaking their hair dry from an early morning swim. There was something awe-inspiring about these trees. They were larger than life and as child, I wondered if they would grow to touch the heaven, their fronds overlapping into a cushioned carpet for the angels. In the barren Southern California landscape, the palm tree served as the icon of the bottom half of the state: its likeness was found in every postcard rack right next to the other So.CA iconic images of oil wells, grapefruit trees, bathing beauties on the coastal beaches, and odd roadside attractions like a life size cement dinosaur and the giant orange – a juice stand that no father could drive by without hearing shrieks of horror from the kids he thought were asleep in the back seat. The 1950s postcards had an unusual look as if the images were not real, not actual photos, but they were. They looked old and although clear in focus, they seemed muted or slightly distorted. Maybe this had something to do with the printing process, the paper stock, or maybe it was a design trend.

Before the postal rates rise in the United States in January, I submit my photo (volunteer gardeners on a Monday morning at the deYoung Museum) to the Postcard Makers Image Advisory Board in hopes to be placed in the annals of favorite postcard images under the category of looks-like-an-old-postcard. “Weeding the Palms,” has been selected from 385 entries to be in a juried show of 78 photographs called "Parallel" at the Viewpoint Gallery in Sacramento. The show opens today, Saturday, December 10, 2011 and the photographs will be on display through Saturday, January 7, 2012. (see  2015 J Street, Sacramento, CA 95811-3124)

People remarking that the palm tree image (taken with my not-so-big-camera-with-a-really-long-zoom, Canon SX30IS) resembled an old time postcard started me thinking about postcard photo images and the postcard as it relates to the travelers experience, and, the Canon (camera) recording the canon (journal) of the trip, and the artistic canon (icons) of the city. It turns out there are so many varied definitions and applications of the word canon that I decided to create my own – the real deal – that’s it plain and simple; genuine and honest examples of greatness in any given field requiring an artistic endeavor.  

So, is there an International Organization of Postcard Image Pickers? Has some advisory board developed rules or a series of grading tips on how to pick the image that will appeal to the broadest audience? It seems that there is a universal similarity in the choices that reflect the heartbeat of cities around the world and that the knowledge of “the right image” is an unspoken canon (list of rules) in postcard land. For each city, there are six or seven mandatory shots. 1) a longshot that offers perspective of the placement of the city’s icon; 2) a closer look at the icon as a whole; 3) an isolated detail of a portion of the icon – all taken in best light, usually during the day; 4,5,6) the same or similar shots taken at night; 7) an optional shot taken from an unusual angle. The culmination is a composite postcard created using several city images with the name of the city on a banner.

In the Duomo at the English speaking Saturday Mass, the priest recites a canon from religious papers; in the Uffizi Museum the canon of artistic masterpieces graces the walls; and at the newsstands, the canon photos of Florence fill the racks with picture perfect images to send back home. Against a clear sky, the photos of the Duomo (the iconic church in Florence) looks like a sticker pasted onto blue construction paper, and at night against the darkness, the church takes on the role of giant theatrical prop… painted plywood, cut-out and staged in front of an indigo velvet backdrop. The crisp postcard images take on a “beyond reality” quality when applied to cardstock with a blank backside awaiting a stamp, an address, and a hand written note that most likely will be covered with postmarks rendering part of message illegible. But, yet, there is something undeniably sensual about holding a postcard. You often don’t know the name of the photographer and can only guess why he or she snapped the particular image, why the postcard company picked it from hundreds of options to print, why your special someone selected that specific card, and why you react with such joy when you see the image resting in your mail box, then magnetized to the frig, and finally pasted into a scrapbook or lost in the back of a drawer…  only to make you smile with delight when you find it years later while cleaning out the dresser.

Whatever credentials are required to hold the title of the official city postcard image picker, everyone who has ever taken a snapshot, at one time or another, has thought, “This would make a great postcard.” Be it blowing on Polaroids to make them dry quicker, sorting prints from rolls of film, seeing images appear on wet sheets of photo paper in the dark room, or the watching the slideshow on your computer – there is no denying the personal satisfaction of discovering that you alone have captured that one particular postcard-worthy moment in time. "Photography takes an instant out of time, altering life by holding it still," said American documentary photographer Dorothea Lange (1895-1965), a woman with many postcard-worthy images. Welcome to the world of postcards where images in real photos seem unreal, canon is a measure of excellence, and going to a museum on a Monday (the day it’s closed) resulted in a surprisingly charming photo of an unusual roadside attraction.

Pachelbel's Canon.

One night walking home from dinner in Monterossa, I heard a familiar tune echoing through the block long tunnel. The musician sat alone holding his accordion as it oozed the melody of Pachelbel's Canon in D Major. You know the tune. It’s often played at weddings and memorials. The series of notes triggers the melody and you find yourself anticipating the refrain. Whether played with bells, a full orchestra, or just hummed in your head – there’s a reason it is called a canon – it captures in song a universal beauty, a memorable simple musical tune. I laid a pocket full of coins at the feet of this musician and then quietly snapped the photos, still walking so as not to interrupt the magic passing through his fingers. The photos are blurry, but think about the tune and you can actually see from his body language the sequence of notes he is playing. Here are some links to other street performers playing the “Pachelbel’s Canon” in Barcelona, Munich, Koln and San Francisco. Enjoy.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Global Power Drives Train of Thought

“Just take photos of anything,” echo Barbra’s words of assignment from our first day of photography class. How many times do I over-think that statement and question how one goes about taking photos of anything? A photo of a building speaks of architecture, a photo of sunset shows a glow of a painted sky, and a photo of dancers documents grace in motion. But what do the rest of these “photos of anything” say and more importantly – why do I take them? A hedge, empty chairs, a police man (well, a cute policeman), feet, shadows… what does this all mean? Am I subconsciously selecting details from the real world to create my own make-believe world? Today’s mission started innocently enough with me wandering through my photos in search of similarities and answers to the mystery. I pulled some seemingly unrelated shots to explore their relationships in an effort to learn more about what drives my eye to capture one moment in time and not another. Sincere as my intention was, I got sidetracked. The result is a train of thought experience… follow along with the story as I connect the dots or just look at the photos and see if you recognize the connections.

The globe is a powerful shape in that its rounded form suggests movement even when it's still. The trigger photo is of basketball size white globes with a red umbilical cord, a contemporary art installation in a white-walled gallery in the Palazzo Strozzi in Florence. The long narrow gallery with door openings on each end, encourages, requires, or merely tempts you to walk into and through the installation. Step over the cord, over the globe, walk against the wall – no matter how you do it, it’s a personalized art experience. That umbilical cord and starkness reminded me of the elongated black globes hanging from a mega-yacht in Portofino. Rather than tempting people to come close, these shapes repel and serve as a cushioned barrier to keep the ship safe from being bumped by another.  The sea water reminded me of seeing piles upon piles of fishing gear all lined up in a row at the dock where we boarded earlier in the day bound for Portofino. One particular pile had red misshapen globe-like shapes that resembled squat heirloom tomatoes with wrinkled skin.  

Of course the red of the tomato floats hanging on the fishing ropes made me think of nature and full plump round red fruit hanging from a tree. And fruit hanging from a tree that grew from the earth made me think of the sky. After the fruit is picked, it is often dried by the sun and sold in the marketplace. On one particular day in the marketplace, dried red cherry tomatoes (yes, the tomato is the fruit of the tomato plant) were displayed in a circular bin – certainly the cousin-shape to the globe. The green lining in the bin against the deep red of the tomatoes mimics the just picked fruit in the fresh produce aisle.    

The colors of growth and the warmth of the sun and thinking of tomatoes takes my mind to salt, an earthly mineral, and the neatly arranged salt shakers with their shiny circular silver lids at a café in Greve in Chianti where you can sit outside and watch the townsfolk ride by. Of course, that made me think of the shiny circular rims on the bikes lined up on the street and one with a red frame standing out in the crowd. And, the street of stone beneath the bikes led me to remember the circular shape of the hewn stone amphitheater in Fiesole, which also wears an accent patch of red carpet on the stage. 

In the blink of any eye, my mind has wandered from the initial visual attraction of the white gallery globes, to shapes extracted from the globe, to an ordinary piece of red carpet in a circular setting. The photos serve as visual examples for this story, but with the exception of the art installation, they are of ordinary fleeting scenes and common objects found most any day in Italy. Although I find the photos interesting, there is really nothing spectacular (oops, the mega-yacht WAS spectacular) about any of the individual topics. The images are no less or no more important than before they caught my attention, but I realized that the “photos of anything” topics are unknowingly elevated to a level permanence by simply having been captured through the lens of my camera... so yes, I am creating my own make-believe world.

It seems only fitting that after dragging you through all this train of thought thinking from things that are round, things connected with cords, things with red, things by water, things that grow, things that are dried, things that shine, and things that are made out of stone… that I stop short of a whirling dervish at today’s final photo selection. As Rod Serling, might have said, “Take note. All is not what it seems to be in this world beneath the waves. Is it real or a freak accident of nature? Look closely at the golden lures linked together, falling over satin river rocks where discarded jewel encrusted starfish pose proudly in the dimension of imagination.” He pauses, tips his head forward, cocks an eyebrow, and knowingly says, “Next stop, The Twilight Zone.”