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Home Stretch

 (DavidRaboin)

Here we are, floating above the White Mountains on the eastern border of California, I’m almost home.  This craggy, old ridge marks the final stretch for all my trips.  We’re less than one hour flying time to San Francisco.  Out the front window, I can see over the Sierra’s, Yosemite, and into California’s Central Valley.  If I squint just right, I think I can see the Bay Area’s fog shimmering in the sunset.  While sitting six miles above some of the most desolate, inhospitable landscape in the United States, I’m already thinking about our descent, the flow of air traffic arriving in SFO, the traffic on the 101, and the Bay Bridge.  Tomorrow morning I’ll probably take my kid to the park and the suburban moms will be eyeing this unshaven, weekday dad suspiciously.  Meanwhile, the spring sun will pour down on these desert mountains.

*David is a California Photographer . You can order prints of the photos featured on this blog by clicking on the image or visit our website at photos4u2c.com Support this site by using one of my links to Amazon.com. Thanks!

The Bin Marked “Other”

 (DavidRaboin)

A boy gazes confidently into the lush springtime hills of Central California — to me, this photo is pure optimism, a celebration of life on an abundant planet.   Last week, I brought my son, Holden, up to this hillside to play and try for some photos.  I didn’t have a specific photo idea in mind, but I was pretty sure that the heavenly background combined with a playful toddler would yield a something nice.  For a half-hour, Holden and I loaded his toy dump truck with stones and listened to the birds.  Suddenly, a helicopter appeared from behind the ridge.   Holden stopped playing and looked to the sky.  I had my shot.  Now, how would you categorize this photo?  Is it a landscape, scenic, portrait, snapshot, or something else?

Sometimes, when we’re trying to organize our thoughts concerning a broad subject like photography, we reach for categories.  We try to sort a photographer’s work into tidy bins.  One bin is labeled Street Photography, another is Landscape, and there’s Journalism, Documentary, Stock, Fine Art, Fashion, Snapshot, etc…  These categories give us a shorthand when we discus photography, but our habit of categorizing everything can also create problems.  First of all, no one agrees on the exact parameters of each category and many photos wouldn’t fit into even the most loosely defined categories anyways.  The majority of the world’s photography would need to be placed in the bin marked “other”.  On the surface, this doesn’t look like a big deal.  Who cares how I categorize my photography anyhow?  Nobody.  But that’s not the problem.  The deeper problem lies beneath the surface.  What if our personal notions of these categories create invisible walls that box in our creativity?

You can thank, or possibly blame, Aristotle for creating categorical reasoning and starting mankind’s project of categorizing all things in the universe.  Categories are useful.  They help us organize our thoughts and facilitate clear, efficient communication.   It’s easier to say, “The bird pooped on my car,” than it is to say, “The feathered animal who is known to rear its young from eggs pooped on my four-wheeled, engine driven, mode of conveyance.”  Categorical logic is built into our language, laws, and thought patterns.  Don’t believe me?  Next time you’re stuck watching a PowerPoint presentation, pay attention to how much time is spent defining categories.  Or, leaf through your company’s procedural manual — I bet it’s at least twenty percent defining categories.  Now days, we’re so submersed in categorical reasoning that we categorize reflexively, without noticing, and sometimes just for the sport of it.  That’s where we run into problems .  We often make up haphazard categories with sloppy definitions.  These faulty categories are dangerous because they fit the pattern of our thoughts so well that they can be incorporated into the machinery of our consciousness without us even noticing.

 (DavidRaboin)

I took this photo in downtown Dallas on a very chilly evening.  How would you categorize this photo? Architectural seems the most obvious choice, but it doesn’t exactly fit.  To me, this photo is about a quiet winter evening in a city that grew up all-too-quickly out in the middle of the prairie.  The flock birds could make it a nature photo, and the puddle adds an element of landscape photography.  But who knows? 

I’ve spent the better part of my adult life flying commercial airplanes, living with the razor-sharp logic of aerospace engineering and bounded on all sides by standard operating procedure. Before falling deep into photography, my habitual mode of thinking followed the logical patterns that piloting demands.  When all those years ago I was first swept into photography, I had no reason to examine the pattern of my thinking.  I blissfully lacked deep self-awareness.  My original photographic passion was landscape and nature photography, and when I started off,  I attacked nature photography the same way I would learn a new airliner.  I studied the technology:  camera and software.  And, I taught myself the standard operating procedures advocated by the pros.  This approach quickly lead to some pleasing pictures, but after a time, I knew something was wrong.  My nature photography felt about as creative as operating a punch press.  I had fallen into a category trap and I didn’t even realize it.  Even after I grew somewhat bored of the subject matter, I couldn’t imagine myself taking a picture of anything besides waterfalls, mountains, deserts, forests, and wildlife.  The category “nature photographer” had trapped me.  I busied myself making poor copies of Ansel Adams or Art Wolfe.  It was terrible.  I always carried a tripod.

Luckily, two unlikely forces came along and rescued me from the category trap:  stock photography and Led Zeppelin.  In early 2006, I found myself with a hard-drive full of semi-pleasing nature images and I was growing bored with the then popular photo sharing outlets.  There had to be a profitable use for my photos.  Coincidentally, this was also the golden age of the the micro-stock photography agencies.  On a lark I signed up with iStockphoto and within a few weeks I was racking up sales.  Making money from photography was the biggest kick yet, and when I discovered that cityscapes sold a lot faster than nature photography, I immediately and obsessively starting photographing downtown Charlotte where I was living at the time.  This was liberating and fun.  My photography took on new dimensions.  But stock photography had its limitations too:  no logos, no faces without a model release, no artifacts, and no imperfections.  After a couple of years of shooting strictly stock, I felt hemmed in once again.  This is where Led Zeppelin lent a helping hand.  I was driving along listing to the Led Zeppelin song “Black Country Woman”.  The track was recorded outdoors.  At the beginning of the song, where the tape starts rolling, you can hear the producer say, “Don’t want to get this airplane on” and you can hear an airplane in the background.  Then, one of the band members says, “Nah, leave it, yeah.”  The band starts playing and the light-bulb flips on.  Perfection is in the flaws.  Black Country Woman’s glorious lazy summer afternoon vibe crystallizes during that throw off comment at the beginning of the song.  Sometimes, the heart of an experience shows through via the imperfections.  This thought didn’t jive with any of my ideas of photographic categories and suddenly the entire edifice crumbled.  I was finally free.

 (DavidRaboin)

I took this photo a few weeks ago while flying the red-eye flight from Los Angeles to New York.  It was 2:30 AM and we were cruising in smooth air above a cluster thunderstorms in western Missouri.  Over the years, my most popular photos come from a category I’d like to believe that I have created:  life through the eyes of an airline pilot.  This photo pops, and making it required just about every trick in my book, but notice that it also contains the ghostly imperfection created by my first officer’s movement.  This is my photography, my category.

I’ve come to study the canon of history’s great fine art photographers kind of late in the game.   It’s my observation, as a person who has struggled with the medium for quite some time, that many of the most respected or famous photographers of history are those that defined or created a new category of their own.  Cartier-Bresson still owns street photography.  Less famous in the art world, but loved by a trove of hobbyists, O. Winston Link holds the steam train night photography crown. There’s that guy who photographs his weimaraners wearing human clothes.  Danny Lyon is the biker gang guy, and Andreas Gursky prints everything huge.  Categories are great when it’s the artist who defines them.  Any photographer who has put together a portfolio knows it’s all about defining a category.  Categories give you firm ground and a direction, an empty box to be filled.  Just be sure that the categories are your own.

For me, airline pilot photographer is the category that I’m most known for.  That’s fine.  I think I was one of the first and certainly I have been doing it for a long time.  In my head, flying pictures get dropped into one box, but there’s also a line up of other boxes waiting to be filled.  There’s one category I’d call “amazing, abundant world” and another that documents my somewhat bleak subdivision.  I also have a really small box called “tripod street photography”.  I’m not sure if that one is worthy of much attention yet.  Now that I am aware of categories in my photography, I can control them and use them as a tool for inspiration.

*David is a California Photographer . You can order prints of the photos featured on this blog by clicking on the image or visit our website at photos4u2c.com Support this site by using one of my links to Amazon.com. Thanks!

Donuts On a Rope Contrail

 (DavidRaboin)

We took off from New York’s JFK at 3:30 pm and we’ve been flying into the setting sun all afternoon.  When you fly airliners for a living you notice the changing seasons.  After passing the spring equinox, the hours of daylight lengthen — especially when you’re flying towards San Francisco at mach .76.

 (DavidRaboin)

The sun finally starts to out-pace us as we cross The Rocky Mountains and head into the desert of The Great Basin.  There’s lots of traffic this afternoon and the radio frequency is filled with chatter.  As we approach Nevada, Air Traffic Control starts to sequence all of us planes from the East Coast that are headed towards the Bay Area.  A JetBlue flight also bound for SFO took of right behind us in JFK.  We’ve heard their flight number on the radio all the way across the country.  Now, fifty miles northeast of Area 51 in Nevada, we can see them off our left wing as ATC issues us some spacing vectors.  You can see the JetBlue Airbus in the video below.

You can see in the video that the JetBlue plane is putting out a contrail, and you can see wisps of a contrail left by the previous aircraft.  Towards the end of the video you can see a rare type of contrail that I’ve only seen a couple of times in my 15 year career.

 (DavidRaboin)

A little further west we got a great view of these “donut on a rope” contrails that were coming from a United 757 that was about ten miles ahead of us.  I’m not sure what meteorological phenomenon causes this type of contrail, but you can see here that the air must be very still because you can still see signs of wingtip vortices even though the plane that put out these plumes is a few minutes ahead of us.  Also, you can see that the air is rising in some areas and dropping in others.  The 757 was level, not climbing or descending, yet the contrails form a wave pattern.

 (DavidRaboin)

Here’s another view from a little further west.  The air here must have been a little dryer causing the contrails to almost completely fall apart.

*David is a California Photographer . You can order prints of the photos featured on this blog by clicking on the image or visit our website at photos4u2c.com Support this site by using one of my links to Amazon.com. Thanks!

Big Sur (Day 2)

 (DavidRaboin)

We wake to silver-grey sky on our second day in Big Sur.

 (DavidRaboin)

At a random pullout from Highway 1, I capture California residents acting within the stereotype.

 (DavidRaboin)

By late afternoon, the clouds clear and I take pictures of the elephant seals basking in the sun on the beach below Hearst Castle.

 

*David is a California Photographer . You can order prints of the photos featured on this blog by clicking on the image or visit our website at photos4u2c.com Support this site by using one of my links to Amazon.com. Thanks!

The Meditative Look

 (DavidRaboin)

Photography is the art of seeing.  Over time, anyone who practices photography becomes attuned to light, shadow, colors, shapes and gestures.  This super-sensitivity to the visual world can lead photographers into beautifully transcendental moments.  That’s probably the biggest reward for practicing photography.  I try to express what it feels like to have one of these glorious moments of seeing with dramatic photographs of our everyday world.

 (DavidRaboin)

Maybe I’m not the right the right messenger because my photos almost always come out loud, and the art of noticing is actually quiet, requiring whatever you’d call the opposite of effort.  Good photography is a playful process.  Possibly a better way to explain this state of attentive bliss is through a video I came across yesterday (sometimes having little kids opens one to new insights).  This video is about listening but it could also be about seeing, or any other sense for that matter.

*David is a California Photographer . You can order prints of the photos featured on this blog by clicking on the image or visit our website at photos4u2c.com Support this site by using one of my links to Amazon.com. Thanks!
Support this site by using our links to Amazon.com