Sunday, September 14, 2014

What Happens When Nothing Happens

This post is brought to you by two failures.  First, a failure to get out of the house, and second a failure to find a narrative thread.  As to the first failure, I expected to have some blog-fodder from the Alyeska Climbathon, an event that took place yesterday where participants have ten hours to ascend the North Face trail at Alyeska ski resort, a trail covering approximately 2,000 vertical feet over a little more than two miles.  Racers climb the trail as many times as they can in the allotted time, taking the tram back to the base between each lap.  I was signed up, and thought it sounded like a fun way to spend a day.  But I woke up yesterday to steady rain and a forecast in Girdwood of more of the same.  Driving 40 minutes south and slogging through run and mud all day sounded, well, less fun.  So I stayed home.

At home, I took a stab at drafting a blog post on a trip we took to Nome, Alaska earlier this summer.  But that just gave rise to the second failure.  After typing for awhile, I thought I had a decent lede, though perhaps a bit long for a blog post:

A group of us had settled into the living room, although it was a separate room in name only, sharing floor space with the kitchen, dining room, and hall of a small house in Council, Alaska.  Our host was in the kitchen, putting together lunch for the unexpected crowd.  We were at the end of one of the three roads that spill out from Nome, Alaska, getting ready to eat thanks to L, an old colleague and friend of my father-in-law D.  L was raised in Nome and, though she now lived elsewhere, was coincidently in the area over the same weekend as our trip.  She had dinner plans in Council, some 70 miles outside of Nome, but, rural Alaska being what it is, felt free to invite us along.  Our hosts, expecting three for dinner, came to have five extra bodies to feed.  Of course, rural Alaska again being what it is, our host was another D's old friends and colleagues.  And so we found ourselves in the midst of a reunion.  

With lunch preparations underway and the initial batch of memories calibrated for truth, we had settled alternately into couches, chairs, and on to the floor.  L's reminiscences moved further back to growing up on Norton Sound in far west Alaska.  “Oh, man!  We ate fish every which way you can think.  Baked fish, boiled fish, fried fish, dry smoked fish, wet smoked fish, stink fish, . . .”

“Wait. Stink fish?”

“Oh yea. Stink fish.  It is where you put the fish head in a jar, bury it, and come back after it's gone rotten.”

I looked over my shoulder with some concern into the kitchen.  Luckily the woman taking the reigns on lunch appeared to be slapping ground beef into patties.  She had lived in Nome and Council for many years, but was originally from Nevada.  At a glance, she looked to come from cultural stock likely to show up at a potluck with potato salad or deviled eggs.  The risk of finding rotten fish on my plate appeared minimal.  Relaxed again, I turned back to the group to find Lorena had moved on to fish eyeballs.  “Pop 'um out of the fish and pop 'um into your  mouth.”  Those burgers were starting to smell pretty good.

But at the end of the day, I couldn't find a story to tell to tie together the disparate tales from the trip.  So I scrapped the whole thing.  Well, except for the bit above, which I copied here to make this whole post appear longer than it really is.

So, without sore legs and muddy shoes and without a story to tell about western Alaska, I'll rely on the old standby of posting pictures.

Nome:







Sunday, August 24, 2014

When the Lights Go Out on the Eighties

I'm pretty sure the pop duo Hall & Oates is stalking me.  They were stalking everyone in the early eighties, with hits spilling from any speaker loosely connected to a radio station.  When the fickle fame cycle had run its course and pitched Hall & Oates into the void, I would have thought I was done with them for good.  Then a few years ago I saw a ski-film clip featuring John Oates.  He had parlayed all those gold-records into a house in Aspen with a recording studio in the basement and had become a ripping tele-skier.  (I can't find the clip anywhere on the internet, but this 2008 article talks about his skiing.)  It looked like the guy spent his days skiing and nights playing music.  Huh.  That dude made some good choices in life, I thought, and assumed I was once again done with Hall & Oates.

Then I ran across the Nicki Bluhm and the Gramblers van session cover of “I can't go for that."  The van sessions stuck me as a pretty clever way to market a band in the new digital world, and the Hall & Oates tune was good.  I ran across Fitz and the Tantrums doing their song “Money Grabber” with Daryl Hall, which sort of clued me in that the whole Fitz sound was just an extension of the Hall & Oates Philly soul thing.  I read about and found Daryl Hall's “Live from Daryl's House” show, where he basically just invites artists over to jam with a great backing band.  The songs performed, which include a healthy sprinkling of old Hall & Oates tunes, are good.  The Fitz clip above came from one of the Live from Daryl's House shows, though I didn't catch that at the time.  Were the light-rock and r&b stylings of a long-forgotten band suddenly becoming relevant to me?  And if they were, did that mean that I was losing all credibility as a punk and metal fan?  And why were Hall & Oates suddenly everywhere?

And by everywhere, I really mean Anchorage, because on Thursday the paper reported that John Oates was performing a benefit show (raising money for the American Cancer Society) the following Saturday.  This had gotten out of hand, and I figured the only way to put the Hall & Oates revival to bed was to go to the show.  There were only three-hundred tickets available, but the show was not sold out when I checked.  So, last night, C and I went to Chilkoot Charlie's to see what would happen.

What happened, it turned out, is that before John Oates came on stage Koots evacuated us from the building.  A staff member appeared on stage and started talking with some animation into a dead mike.  We ignored him.  He moved to a live mike.

“Um, I need everyone to leave.  Really.  Through this exit.”  Two emergency exit doors leading to the front parking lot were now open and daylight—still fifteen hours of daylight up here—penetrated the dark corners of the bar.  “Technical difficulties and we need you to evacuate.”

People continued to ignore him.

“This needs to happen now.  Start moving.”  Nothing.  “You can take your drinks with you.”  Ah, there was the trigger.  The room emptied.

I have no idea why we were evacuated in the first place, but when they let us back in all of the power was off.  The facility started lighting candles, and so long as you had cash kept selling drinks.  The woman next to us, two empty shot glasses and a full beer in front of her on the bar, was doing her part to keep the place in business.  She wasn't too pleased with the turn of events.  “I paid $100 [remember, this was a benefit] for this?!” she slurred to anyone in ear-shot.  Everyone else seemed to be having a good time.  

Eventually Koots fired up a generator to power some small PA and the amps, and put a lantern on the stage.  John Oates and his band came out and started to play.  Old songs and new.  The guy was an entertainer straight through, telling stories between ripping guitar lines like ski lines in that film I saw many years ago.  But I guess you don't make a multi-decade career out of music if you can't perform when called to.  After the show, they auctioned off a couple of guitars to raise more money, the lights came back on as if on cue, and we came home.

Now, in the cold-light of day, I'm puttering around our place and humming "Maneater." It looks like the Hall & Oates haunting will continue after all.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Revisiting Recent Posts - Sounds, Reviews, and a Rigorous Quirk Analysis

Long time (or, frankly, brand new) readers may recall that C and I went to New Orleans last month.  Or they may not.  I forget most sentences I read before I reach the period, which makes comprehending a paragraph something of a struggle, and is why I pepper conversations about current events, literature, grocery lists, or anything else built upon the written word with a lot of strategic guess work.  Which is to say I would not blame you for forgetting that I recently wrote at length on the Crescent City.  In fact, I hardly remember doing so myself.  But to jog your memory, I have two (maybe three) follow up items to cover related to that trip.

The first requires me to really stretch the capabilities of the internet and enter the brave new world of multimedia.  Did you know you the internet is capable of transmitting sounds?  Yeah, me neither, but it turns out that it is.  I think it works a little like a record player, though I have yet to find the grooves.  But in any case, this allows me to stretch my interests in comparative urbanism by offering a sonic comparison of the Louisiana urban and rural environments.  To wit:

Exhibit A: Sounds, Royal Street, French Quarter, New Orleans, Louisiana.


video

Exhibit B: Sounds, field , Loyd Hall Plantation, middle of nowhere, Louisiana

video


Make of it what you will.

The second involves the power of user reviews.  We stayed at a B&B in New Orleans and would not hesitate to return in the event we ever go back to the city.  At our departure, the innkeeper came "hat in hand" (as he characterized it) and asked, if we were so inclined, if we would post a review of his establishment on one of the many internet sites dedicated to such things.  As a small business relying in no small part on the tourist trade, it would seem their success ebbs and flows with their rankings.  Sure, no problem.  As stated, we enjoyed our stay, wished the inn great success, and were more than happy to do so.

Back home I drafted a review which C and I posted to both Trip Advisor and Yelp.  I also posted a review for a restaurant in Natchez, Mississippi that I thought was fantastic--creative and well executed cocktails, delicious food, historic setting.  However, I just checked and my Yelp reviews do not show up.  Neither business has many reviews on Yelp (just seven total each), so it is not like my review has been lost in the crowd.  Perhaps an algorithm quarantined them.  A new user claiming to be based in Anchorage shows up and posts two 5-star reviews of places on the Mississippi, then disappears back into the river mists.  Yelp probably thinks I'm a shill.  For whatever reason, the reviews are invisible.  So, I've decided to provide links here and my recommendation for good eats and good sleeps in the south:

La Belle Esplanade, (New Orleans B&B)
King's Tavern (Natchez restaurant)

The value of my doing so is negligible; the vast majority of my blog readership was with me on the trip and already has a pretty good idea about the places.  But I can't let Yelp keep me down.

The third item that will (finally) bring this now extended update to an end, wraps in Portland as well.  I described in earlier blog posts observations in both cities: a devil--red suit, horns, palatable desire to doom souls to an eternity of damnation--biking the streets of New Orleans and waving with some vigor as he passed a church; and Darth Vader in a kilt, on a unicycle, playing the Star Wars theme on the bagpipes in Portland.  But in the great quirkiness competition, I give the nod to New Orleans.  In Portland, you get the sense that the weird is a bit affected.  Darth Vader probably spent the last year learning the bag pipes and working on his unicycle balance for the sole purpose of taking it to the streets in order to out-quirk his neighbor.  In New Orleans, you got the sense that the devil was just headed to work and may not have even known what he was wearing.  Maybe it is the weight of all that sediment flushing out the Mississippi, but it seems the weird runs deep at the river's mouth.


Thursday, July 24, 2014

First the Wine, then the World

“Excuse me.  Do you know where the food trucks are?  The ones that were on the TV?”  The woman—maybe in her seventies and put together for travel, all function and no fuss—stopped in front of me and C on the corner of Salmon and Park in downtown Portland, her head turning back and forth to stare down the cross streets, hoping to see a kimchi taco beacon guiding the way.  The whole food truck thing was clearly getting out of hand.  We knew where there were some trucks, a full city block full in fact, and were headed there ourselves, though I have no idea if they had ever been on the TV.  We pointed her a few blocks further on, and then set off ourselves for bowls of meat and mole.

We lived in Portland eight years ago.  Being on a student and minimum wage budget at the time, food trucks were a common enough dining option.  There were a handful clustered on Third Avenue, a few with a permanent spot on Pioneer Square, and solitary operations that had staked territory on random corners.  Now, there are thriving neighborhoods made up entirely of portable food, old parking lots entirely given over to kitchen-equipped panel vans, and tourists seemingly visiting the city for the sole purpose of eating from a paper plate while huddling underneath a tree.  But then the proliferation of food trucks was not the only thing that had changed.

In the years since we have been gone, downtown has filled in a bit, developers have put up new buildings, the city has picked up new energy.  It was still “Keep Portland Weird” weird—where else are you going to find Darth Vader in a kilt and on a unicycle playing the Star Wars theme song on bagpipes?  But in between the  unicycle and street punks, there were also hour-long waits for doughnuts and a whisky bar that calls itself a library and requires a membership to get in.  And get this: memberships, which just give you access to the place so you can spend money on booze, start at $500 and are at capacity with a waiting list to join.  I'm not sure that is a business model that would have succeeded in Portland eight years ago.  But now there is more of everything: more money (apparently), more restaurants, more coffee, more stores, more visitors, and more public spaces devouring parking lots (which I support).  So less parking, but more of everything else.

There were also thousands of people attending something called the World Domination Summit.  When asked, a woman serving our coffee one morning explained that it was a conference for people to exchange strategies for dominating the world with their next BIG IDEA.  I'm no expert, but it seems if you want to dominate the world the first step would be to not tell thousands of other people how to do it too.  Rather than rub elbows with our soon-to-be overlords, we instead fled to the hills. 

If you ask anyone from Portland what they like about the place, every time—absolutely every time—he or she will say that what makes Portland great is that it is one hour from the beach and one hour from the mountains.  And it is.  Mt. Hood towers over the city and tails south into the Oregon cascades, with world class wilderness escapes at the ready.  The Oregon coast beckons to the west with sea stacks looming in the fog.  But we opted instead to explore Oregon's agricultural assets, and found ourselves in the vineyards.


With wine in belly, we made our way back to town and to the airport, a flight to catch.  It was a quick trip, just a weekend tacked onto a day of work, but long enough to make me first remember and then miss some of the many benefits of Portland.  Trail runs in Forest Park.  The Saturday Farmer's Market.  Two-dollar hamburgers at Jake's.  Ready access to cheese.  And, of course, that whole one-hour to the beach, one-hour to the mountains thing.  Downtown still smells like piss.  But then I suppose you have to have something to excite the senses of lost tourists as they try to find those food trucks from the TV.  Consider it a street-level amuse bouche.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

New Orleans

"Oh, we went to California once.  We slept with the windows open.  Can you imagine?"  The woman paused, lost in the memory, staring out the window of the Canal Street streetcar as it rattled past faded businesses in the one-time commercial heart of the south.  "Down here I seal the air conditioning in.   I don't want to lose a drop of it."

I can't blame her.  We were in New Orleans in late June, still weeks away from the smothering embrace of summer.  But it was hot and no fooling.  And indeed, part of our orientation at the bed and breakfast that was to be our home for five nights included the express instruction to leave doors and windows closed lest the proprietors find they are pumping cold air out to Esplanade Avenue, presumably at considerable expense.  So we too slept with the windows shut.  But we relished the heat at other times, let it slow us down and force a languid rhythm to the day, a rhythm perhaps common to the tropics but a bit foreign to us in Alaska.

We were in New Orleans with no agenda, meeting my parents for a chance to visit and catch up while seeing a new-to-us part of the world.  We spent the first four nights in the city, then set off for a two-day road trip around the lower Mississippi river, poking about isolated sugar cane in Louisiana and antebellum homes in Natchez, Mississippi before returning to New Orleans for one more night.  It was my first time in the area, and I'm wondering now how it took me so long to get there?  And when do I get to go back?

If the quality of a place is measured by the number of "good mornings" heard, or passing conversations about the weather had, on any walk taken further than the bathroom, then the deep south wins.  These people do friendly right.  Likewise if the unit of measure is brass bands.  New Orleans falls off the map entirely if the important factor is the quality of sidewalk repair and upkeep, but I'm not so sure that that matters to me.  What does matter is food, and this place takes food seriously and does food well.  Better than most.  And as near as I can tell, food is the single most important factor in the average resident's day.  After learning you are visiting, do the strangers you meet want to know what you did in their city?  No, they want to know what you ate.  "You had a po'boy yet?  Where at?  Parkway?  Yeah?  Now you liked you that po'boy."  The final pronouncement made as fact.  After all, there can be no question but you liked you a po'boy from Parkway.  Our cab driver on the ride to the airport summed it up nicely: "Going home? Oh, you're going to miss the food!"

I'll miss the brass bands too.  And Spanish moss.  And the stories about union soldiers haunting homes to this day, standing guard over stains of their own blood that have worked into wooden flooring and cannot be removed.  We saw the stains at a plantation near Cheneyville, Louisiana, though I couldn't tell you if they were really blood.  We never saw doors open on their own or hear foot steps crossing empty rooms.  But why muddy southern Gothic romance with observation?

New Orleans doesn't feel like any place else.  It is the kind of town where you can look up to see a devil, red face paint and horns providing the finishing touch to a body suit and cape, commuting by bike, waving with vigor at three gentlemen exiting a church.  I assume he was touring New Orleans' many houses of worship, but he may have just been on his way to dinner.  We couldn't find a Starbucks (though we didn't really look).  Unlike Anchorage, I can't imagine the city getting excited about news that an Olive Garden is coming to town.  It was a refreshing change of pace.

And the pace is likely dictated by the heat.  I'll miss the heat.  And maybe I'll miss the fact that we were on vacation, which is always more fun than going to work.  But definitely the heat.  Because sometimes you need the sensation of skin crawling away from the sun's relentless push, wiping sweat off of your face, welcoming a sudden breeze and a shade-draped sidewalk providing unexpected relief.  After all, we sleep with the windows sealed shut at home too, though it has nothing to do with air conditioning.

Some pictures and captions follow.

We hit the tourist high-points in New Orleans, like riding the St. Charles streetcar:





 And visiting Jackson Square:





And having beignets at Café Du Monde:




And finding all of those neighborhoods that haven't succumbed to gentrification:


We watched the moon rise above the French Quarter:



And we drank absinthe, which apparently put me and C in a reflective state of mind:




 
Outside the city, we went exploring beyond the levies on the way to Loyd Hall Plantation and found a community built on 40 foot stilts and a rotting paddle wheel boat:



And we admired the Big Muddy in both Natchez and New Orleans:








But mostly we drank coffee and sat in our rooms admiring the art work:







Until next time.





Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Hunting Runners With Glass - Photo Camp in the Desert

It takes a long time to get anywhere from Alaska further south or east than Seattle, meaning there has to be something enticing at the far end to convince me that the travel is worth the hassle. On the enticement scale--recognized by the International Society of Testing and Measurement and measured in units of "oohs" and "ahhs"--the Wingate Sandstone sits somewhere near the top. Something about massive red cliffs rising from the desert that satisfies a deep-seated aesthetic need. So when I learned that Trail Runner magazine was hosting its 2014 three-day photography camp north of Moab, Utah, where the Wingate finds its finest expression, I quickly committed.

This is the second year that Trail Runner ran its photo camp, although its sister publication, Rock and Ice, has hosted a similar camp focused on climbing photography for over a decade. I have long harbored an interest in the making and taking of pictures, and left to my druthers would likely run trails eight-hours a day rather than go to work, so the camp appealed. The location simply shifted it far enough along the enticement scale to justify a plane ticket. So I contacted Trail Runner, paid my deposit, and waited patiently for late May.

The day arrived, and I first flew to Salt Lake City and second drove to Castle Valley, Utah, about 20 miles north of Moab along the Rio Grande. We were scheduled to meet at an ill-defined time in an ill-defined location: basically before dinner somewhere in Castle Valley. In the weeks leading up to the camp, we were given a link to a VRBO listing of a rental house where some of the camp staff would stay. The link included a map, albeit a map with the house location marked in the wrong place. But thanks to photos, I was confident I could find the place. And indeed I was confident I had found the place when, fourteen and a half-hours after leaving my door in Anchorage, I pulled my rental car in to the driveway of a historic homestead on a Tuesday late in May. After all, the note on the door read "Welcome Trail Runner campers. Come on in." And the door was unlocked. I just had to wonder, where was everyone else?

I did not wonder long. A short while after I traded long pants for shorts and sandals, a truck pulled in and MB, managing editor for Trail Runner, popped out to introduce himself. "We've got cold beer inside. I'm going to grab one if you want me to get you one too." Why yes, yes I would. The camp was getting off to a fine start.

The concept of camp, as near as I can discern, is pretty simple. Bring together four elements: eager students, experienced photo and publishing professionals, world-class athletes, and inspiring settings. I and four others made up the student part of the equation. We converged with different backgrounds and hopes for what we would get out of the camp, from those already using photography as a commercial vehicle and wanting to step up their game to those still figuring out basic camera functionalities and hoping to come to terms with the inter-play of aperture and shutter-speed. I just hoped to figure out which end of the camera captured light. After three days in the desert, I'm pretty sure it is the side with the glass.

The professionals included the previously mentioned editor of Trail Runner, free-lance photographer Cliffy, the Trail Runner art director and former free-lance photographer Randy, and DR, publisher of Rock and Ice. Collectively, these four were on hand to guide and answer questions or, in my case, to keep a sharp eye to make sure I did not fall off a cliff and kept the lens pointed at the athletes.
And with the athletes we had on hand, that was not much of a problem. Hoka sent two of its sponsored runners, Magadelna Boulet and Dave Mackey, a former Olympic marathoner (now running trails) and the 2011 Ultra-runner of the year, respectively. We also had Darcy Conover from Colorado on hand, who appears to be a Marmot sponsored athlete, probably better known as a skier than a runner. All three were incredible to watch. Magda brought foot speed, and, based on thousands of frames shot over two days, spends more time running in the air than on the ground. Mackey generated massive power with a mere quad twitch, angling into and exploding out of every turn, giving those of us with cameras interesting visual lines to work with. And Darcy has an amazingly photogenic leap, thanks, I assume, to powerful skiing legs.

The setting took care of itself. Wingate sandstone, remember? If it is worth fourteen hours of travel, you can assume it photographs well.

While the camp concept seems simple, I imagine the execution takes some work. It turns out that a handful of folks carrying cameras to shoot with commercial intentions on federal lands in Utah (and perhaps elsewhere; I never asked) require the same permits and must satisfy the same conditions as General Motors when it sling loads vehicles to the top of desert towers in order to film a commercial. This required fees, careful scheduling, and hiring a third-party compliance monitor to follow us around and confirm we did not trample cryptobiotic soils. But then none of that was my problem. On the hardship scale--not yet recognized by the ISTM, but measured in "d'ohs!"--my responsibilities did not even register. I just paid my fee and showed up.

Others not already identified showed up too, but should not be given short shrift as they contributed equally to the success of the program. They included Yitka, assistant managing editor of Trail Runner, offering another publishing perspective. Yitka also took turns modeling alongside the athletes and a small army of current and former Trail Runner interns. The interns, Brandon, Tyler, and Nina, runners, climbers, and dancers, moved across rock, dirt and trail like seasoned pros, athletic models all. And Laura showed up from Gu to cover our nutrition needs. There, did you catch that? Before the camp, I would have said Laura showed up and gave us a bunch of gels. But after only three days, I've already learned that gels are "nutrition" in the ultra-running world. That is the kind of insider information I never would have picked up on my own, and I assume it will open countless doors next time I meet a sponsored athlete. I figure the conversation will go something like this:

"Hi [insert name of world class athlete here, say, Killian Jornet]. It is pleasure to meet you. Impressive result in [insert recent race name here]. By the way, who does your nutrition?"

"Why [insert nutrition company] provides my nutrition. Hey, here is a business class ticket to Italy and an advance on your substantial day rate. Solomon needs someone to shoot promotional photos for two weeks in the Dolomites, and I have final say on naming the photographer. You are clearly my man, based on your solid mastery of the lingo. Ciao."

Any camp, photo or otherwise, lives or dies based on the strength of its food. MB and crew lined up Andrea, who kept as fed and happy. She was fresh off a season catering for a heli-ski operation in Alaska. Heli-ski clients can potentially spend long hours (stretching to days) waiting for storms to clear, which translates into long hours sitting forlorn in a damp lodge with the stink of polypro underwear and ski socks. The chef for a heli-ski operation had better not fuck around. He or she better be able to give the clients something to look forward to on a day where food might be the only pleasure to be had. Andrea did so in spades, as we discovered the first night, spent getting to know one another over perfectly medium-rare beef with chimchuri sauce.

The pleasures of eating could not be savored long, though. It was early to bed because the good light waits for no straggler. Breakfast on the table at 6:00 the next morning, we ate and hurried to the first location, which... what the hell? The first location featured not a grain of Wingate, at least not in the foreground. I guess we were going to just have to work with the alien chocolate drop-biscuits of the Fisher Towers, geologically the Cutler formation capped by the Moenkopi. And the light. We were going to have to work with the light too.

After a short hike, we got to the first setup. The way it worked is as follows: we arrived on a location, picked as we hiked along because someone identified a striking visual (not hard to do in southern Utah). We sent the models--athletes and interns--out to run laps, back and forth and back and forth and back and so on, well past the point where the runners started shaking their heads, presumably thinking, "What? You don't have the shot yet?" I say presumably because the models did not complain once. Just smiled. "One more? Sure." Heels turn, charge back down the trail for the tenth "one more time" in a row.

We hit the ground firing on all cylinders. There was no lecture or example slide show. We learned by doing and making mistakes, finding the shot, hitting the shutter release, realizing the lens cap was still on. We chased light down the trail, working the models hard when conditions came up perfect. An amazing slice of sun cut between towers, demonstrating why the mornings (and evenings) are called the magic hour. As the sun got higher, the light harsher, and the temperatures hotter, we returned indoors to eat lunch, process the morning's work, and prepare to run through the first critique slide show.

To the extent I have considered myself a photographer at all, it has always been as a landscape photographer (with an interest in architecture because I'm drawn to the patterns). What did I learn the first morning? The biggest challenge shooting runners is getting your subject in focus. Runners move faster than mountains, which is why they win races, I guess. But that speed makes it hard to achieve the "tack sharp" holy grail. I shot many hundreds of frames the first morning, rejecting most out of hand because the subjects were fuzzy. But in the mix were some strong shots, shots I was happy to throw in for judgment during the daily slide show.

Another aspect of coming from an enthusiast's landscape background is that I have always thought of photos in terms of what looks pretty. I've never thought in terms of layouts. But we were presenting to a magazine and publishing group with an eye for copy. Where will the text go? Can I make this a cover? The fine art print has a place; think the "gallery" or "parting shot" portion of magazines. But the bread and butter is all of the other pages, images interacting with text and images telling a story. Trained eyes looked at our pictures with that filter and let us know what they thought worked and what was lacking.

Come late afternoon, we shot and the models ran, pushing until the sun went down. Our permits allowed us to only shoot one location per day, so we were back to the Fisher Towers for a back drop. There are worse places to spend an evening. Many hundreds of frames later, we had piles of digital files to sort and process. It was a long night.

Luckily, we got to sleep late the next day. Clouds moved in; no magic hour to be had. We shot in the morning near the lodge, then prepared for a date with the Wingate, finally. But the good shots don't come to you. You go to them. Sometimes that means 1,500 vertical feet over 1.5 miles in the heat of the day. The payoff? Towering walls of red sandstone. The world dropping off to the void. Drama. We got back to the cars hours later, tired but excited to see what we captured. Laura had her hatch-back up, recovery nutrition (see, I'm totally in the know) mixed and ready to serve. One glass down before recovery was trumped by MB standing by a cooler. "Anyone want a cold beer?" Why yes, yes I would.

Sitting hunched over our laptops that night, working on photos following day two's critique slide show, one of the other students casually asked, "Well, was it worth it?" meaning, of course, was the camp worth it. And it was a valid question. The camp is not cheap, although I think it is a good value. The travel is not cheap. And the time away is a commitment. But it was a great opportunity to get to know people whose job is, in part, soliciting and paying money for pictures, and who all turned out to be people I was glad to spend time with. And an opportunity to shoot Zeiss glass, which my wife will probably regret when she sees how much Zeiss lenses cost. And it was an amazing opportunity to have three days with world-class athletes at your disposal in a truly world-class setting. When does that ever happen? I assume it was just another day at the office for Cliffy, but to me? Never. And you know what I found in my files from the second day? Pictures of runners that were tack-fucking-sharp. And, at the risk of immodesty, some of them rock. Can you really put a value on that?

We shot again on the third day, and processed more photos for the final critique session. But then the cook, Andrea, packed her bags and left, which meant none of the rest of us had any reason to stay. So we said farewell and went our separate ways, with submissions due soon to the magazine for consideration as part of a later feature. And I started the 14 hours of travel home by driving back to Salt Lake City.

For a camp sponsored by Trail Runner, there was little time for trail running (though the athletes, who did not have to process photos, continued to train). There were just too many files to work through. An embarrassment of riches. So, with a few hours to spare before my flight, I took advantage of the trails in the Wasatch and went for a two-hour run, which was plenty of time to reflect on the fact that capturing great images is a work of brute force. Getting a great shot while out on a run with friends and pulling up for a single snapshot would be capturing lighting in a jar. Part way up the trail to Mt. Timpanagos, I started cataloging locations and people who might want to spend early mornings and late evenings running back and forth and back and forth and back, right through the veil of reasonable and into the ridiculous. Any interest? Give me a call. But keep in mind that there is no business class ticket or substantial day rate available for you. I keep that in my back pocket for those who demonstrate a mastery of photographic lingo.


P.S. - For a post on a photo camp, you may by now have noted an incredible absence of photos. I'm still working through files and determining what will go to Trail Runner. Nothing is being posted here anytime soon, but keep an eye out for the Trail Runner Feature. Also, Magda left the camp on Friday morning to travel to New York and race the Cayuga Trails 50 race in the Finger Lakes region, this year's USATF 50 Mile Trail National Championship. She won (first woman and sixteenth overall). So it appears that modeling is a great taper. Keep that in mind if you have a race coming up and I call you for some back and forth and back and so on.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Top Tips for a Successful Blogging Career

If you read at all about the secrets to a “successful” blog, you will find the following tips among many others. First, you (the soon-to-be successful blogger) should find a subject niche, the narrower the better, and hopefully one a) for which there is a ravenous and large population waiting to consume; and b) that no one else is serving. Better to cover a single topic in great and painful detail than to write aimlessly about whatever crosses your mind. Second, update frequently. You people are insatiable, demanding fresh content by the minute, and you have an attention span bordering on a medical disfunction. At the very least, the blogger should post consistently. Third, engage on social media. Get out there, press the digital flesh, and drive traffic to your site. Comment on others' blogs, always including a link to some value added prose you recently posted on your own site. Meet, greet, tweet. And fourth, try not to gloat as you sit back counting all the cash pouring in from corporate powers desperate to have just a skiff of your digital savvy rub off on their brands. (Note, there is a possible fifth tip that should be mentioned: ignore the fact that the blog is dead, killed by Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, et al.)

Any long-time readers know I don't hew too closely to these guidelines, which might explain my blog statistics. If you are reading this I probably know you on a first-name basis, and since I only know, like, four people, I don't think the laws of physics allow but so many page visits to accrue. But Google never-the-less provides me with analytical tools. You may recall a prior campaign on my part to collect readers from as many countries as I could based on those statistics, which purport to tell me the country of origin for each page visit. I've since learned that most of those visits are probably attempts at reverse phishing, explaining the numerous page visits from Russia. But the truly curious aspect of the Google analytics is that the vast majority of my page visits appear to have occurred three-years prior to my first post.



While I appreciate those 897 page views in August 2007, I'm left questioning the accuracy of Google's reporting.

In any case, this is all a long way of saying that, in an earnest campaign to get my fair share of all that sweet, sweet, corporate blogging money, I have decided to get back to basics. This all started as what could be called a cancer blog, and it is time to revisit my roots. Luckily, I just had the pleasure of a PET scan. The good doctor wanted to take a look at my insides as he can only with the help of a radioactively tagged sugar injected into my circulatory system, so I took sedatives and emitted gamma rays for a half-day or so, some portion of which were captured by what I suspect is a very expensive scanner. Last week I met with my oncologist to discuss the scan, and I left disappointed that I will not have an excuse to just stay home, nap, and catch up on the Wire now that HBO's original programming has been added to the Amazon Prime service. But, silver-lining to every cloud and all, at least I'm still free of cancer cells. So there is that. But I may never see the Wire.

And now bored of the laser-like focus of a single subject blog, I'm moving on to a bunch of other topics that I occasionally touch on here, like: traveling somewhere that I expect to be warm, but it is instead cold. (See here and here, for example.) We have been having an incredible spring in Anchorage, with lots of warm days and opportunities to legitimately wear shorts and sandals because they are more comfortable than the alternative (and I'm thinking long pants and shoes, here; nudity is no longer a legitimate alternative for me), and not only as a chilly act of defiant hope, which is the best I can muster many years. Last weekend was more of the same. We woke up early on Saturday, the sun stroking skin to life. To take advantage, we packed the car and drove north to Denali National Park, adding the pleasures of a road trip to the pleasures of a warm breeze on a blue-bird day. The drive was stunning. The Alaska Range erupts from its southern drainages in cascades of topography, peaks etched against the sky in high contrast. The road north frames views that pull instinctive exclamations and lead to impromptu high-fives, and we drove with jaws appreciatively dropped in our laps. But the mountains do what they do. Clouds started to build. Late afternoon, the skies opened up, rain coming in roving downpours that organized into a night-long drizzle. By morning, we climbed out of our tent and got to walk in a combination of sleet and snow.


Or another topic I frequently explore: running. My first race of the season, the Race Judicata, came and went, a 5-k at which I hoped to, but did not, crack 20 minutes. Instead, I ran a 20:27. Or a 51:35. I can't be sure. The official results have me listed twice. Which makes me wonder if the race director relied on Google for the statistics.