Top Reasons for Doing a Personal Photography Project

I have spent a lot of time purging things lately and one being my enormous collection of analog and digital images. For the most part, it became obvious that the commercial work that I had done for the money years ago, looked dated and wasn’t worth keeping. However, the images
Beijing, Chinathat I shot for personal projects were timeless even though they had been shot decades ago.

I  have grown weary in our youth obsessed culture that as an older creative female many times I am being dismissed – I have become invisible. I don’t say this to complain and I’m certainly not the first one to echo these sentiments, but I found that it was beginning to undermine my self-worth. As I looked through some work that I hadn’t seen in many years
Havana, CubaI realized that I am reacting to people who are judgmental and ageist. There are two things that I can’t change – my height and my age – so I thought that it does me no good to care about others who define me and my value by my age. Rather than feel bad about the longevity of my career, I choose to tell myself that I must be doing something right to be in such a competitive business like photography all these years. The answer is that I love to create photographs and now videos – it’s something that I HAVE to do.  It keeps me alive.

Regardless of where Blackpool, Englandyou are in your career, take the time to shoot what you care about. It’s the most important thing you can do, not only for your career but for your self-esteem.

Here’s why:

  • Assuming it’s an idea you are passionate about and not doing it to second guess the market – it will be a reminder of who you were then. It’s  also great to put new eyes on it a second time around.
  • When you’re paying for it yourself, you’ll work harder. Failure is not an option because there is no failure.
  • There are no restrictions or mandates – the world is your oyster. If you dream it, you can probably make it happen.
  • Working on a personal project is great for making new contaPinetop Perkins, blues musiciancts. You learn to be tenacious in selling your idea in order to gain access to someone or a place. It’s much harder to sell yourself and an idea when you don’t have a letter of assignment from a major magazine.
  • Most likely these will be the images that won’t get old even as you do.

 

 

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How a Passion Begins

There are a million things I should be doing right now. My husband and I just returned from a 6 day road trip to Chicago to see our daughter, Erin and all the “stuff” of life piled up while we were away. I should be out in the yard picking up dozens of littered branches that had come down in a storm that happened while we were gone – and yet I’m compelled to write.

Writing became a habit a few years ago, when I would wake up early in the mornings with my mind fully active and spinning with ideas.  Instead of tossing and turning in bed, I would get up, go to the computer and write – like this morning. I was encouraged by a friend to share some of those writings through blogging, so I did. I know that I break every blogging rule, because I write what happens to be on my mind, instead of being consistent to a theme and I generally don’t provide a lot of links, but somehow readers like these ramblings. Regardless, writing is something that is part of me now.

This past weekend we happened to be in Chicago while the Chicago Blues Festival was going on, so of course we had to devote a day to it.  It was a bittersweet experience as so many blues legends had passed away this year and it wasn’t the same without them – Pinetop Perkins, Willy “Big Eyes” Smith and Hubert Sumlin to name a few. But being at this festival brought me back to the first time I attended the Chicago Blues Festival

Junior Wells

in 1993 when I was in Chicago shooting a story on the city for the National Geographic Traveler Magazine. My plan was to cover the festival for one day as part of the story – I ended up going all three days and that’s when my passion for the blues began.

I hadn’t even thought of shooting video back then, but 2 years later my partner Tom and I began shooting 35mm motion footage for stock – and that’s when my passion for motion began.  Funny, within a two year period, two passions surfaced in my life and collided into the making my first short documentary The Delta Bluesmen, six years later.

As I listened to the music last Saturday in Grant Park, my mind wandered in a million directions, but once again I thought about how the universe works – that is if you don’t fight it.  The times in my life when I have just followed my instincts, have been the most gratifying times of all.  Most of the time, I was simply listening to a higher voice inside, instead of following the dogma of the day. It hasn’t always worked out and I’ve had my share of rejections, but that all goes into the messy mix of life.

I try to not linger on the negativity that comes with “rejection” and focus on the “rewards”.  There may not have been as many as I would have liked – but they would not have happened at all, without the lead up.  It all comes with the many years that go into the “overnight successes”.  Life’s too short to put road blocks in my own way or talk myself out of doing something with a hundred “great” reasons to rationalize it. And so – I’ll take the bitter with the sweet any day.

We’ve Lost a Blues Legend – Pinetop Perkins July 7, 1913 – March 21, 2011

Yesterday, legendary bluesman Pinetop Perkins died. Pinetop was 97 years old. He was one of the greatest boogie-woogie piano players ever to strike those keys. I could go on and list all of his awards and accolades because Pinetop has received some of  music’s highest distinctions. He recently received a Grammy, making him the oldest Grammy winner on record bumping George Burns. He had previously been awarded a lifetime achievement Grammy.

But rather than go on and list more of Pinetops achievements, which can be quickly googled, I’d like to share some personal experiences I had with Pinetop over the years. I first met Pinetop and his manager Pat Morgan in 2001 when I was shooting my Delta Bluesmen Project. It was my very first multimedia project where I was shooting still environmental portraits of blues musicians, images and b-roll video of the Mississippi Delta region and interviews of legendary blues musicians from this part of America. I had no idea what I was taking on by myself – I just had this crazy idea that I needed to document these men before they died and I had no time to waste since the youngest was in his 70’s. So, I just decided to do it with the unstoppable enthusiasm of a kid.

When I first contacted Pinetop’s manager Pat to set up an on camera interview with Pine, she quite firmly rejected my request. Pat was very protective of Pinetop and never wanted to overload him with interviews and fan requests and she had already granted an interview to another filmmaker, so I was out of luck. But I was persistent and Pat finally said that I should come to Pinetop’s homecoming party at Hopson’s Plantation in Clarksdale, MS and get what I could catch of Pinetop there. The day of the homecoming, I was allowed to put a lav on Pinetop to get better audio of his interactions with people throughout the day. One reason Pat thought the homecoming would be a good opportunity for me was because Ike Turner was going to be there. Pinetop had taught Ike to play piano during the 1940’s when they were both working at Hopson’s Plantation and this was going to be a true homecoming.

I put the wireless on Pinetop and kind of forgot about it as the day went on. I was roving around the plantation getting great b-roll and then went into the commissary where there was a big music jam going on. I had taken my earphones off outside, but quickly put them back on to protect my hearing in this incredibly loud environment. I dialed the audio way down on the camera mic but Pinetop’s wireless was still loud and clear. All a sudden I heard Pine and Pat talking about giving Ike a little tour and showing him Pinetop’s old sharecropper shack. I glanced around the commissary looking for them and couldn’t see them – I could just hear them. So, I raced outside, camera in hand just in time to see Pat, Pinetop, Ike Turner and a couple of other people walking across the grounds of the plantation headed toward Pinetop’s shack, just as the sun was setting. I caught up to the group and managed to get some great b- roll and audio of this historic moment. With camera running, I followed them inside the shack where Pinetop naturally sat down at the piano and started to play with Ike chiming in. I was in b-roll heaven and just hoping I was getting it right in camera.

After that little tour was over Pat came up to me and told me that she had worked with a lot of photographers and filmmakers over the years but had never seen instincts like mine. She said she was blown away when I just showed up out of nowhere to film this mini event. Then she told me that if I could come by the next morning, I could get an interview with Pinetop. I did come back the next day and spent a memorable morning with Pinetop on the porch of his old shack. I will never forget that morning – the quiet and the warmth of the place and the man and the moment. You can see some of that footage in this 7 minute sample of my film. The still images and video component of that project is still being exhibited around the country.

I’ve stayed in touch with Pat and Pinetop over the years. In 2005 when Pinetop was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Grammy, the producers used some of my interview footage of Pine in his tribute film. I was there with Pinetop and Pat and a whole lot of rock legends like Jerry Lee Lewis, Ike Turner and Jimmi Page. Another memory etched in my mind.

The last time I saw Pinetop was at the Arkansas Blues and Heritage Festival (aka King Biscuit) in 2009. We were driving somewhere with Pat and she noticed that we had a small army blanket in our car and asked to borrow it for Pinetop that evening. It was a chilly October evening and she didn’t want Pinetop (95 years old then) to get cold that evening as he waited in the wings to go on stage. That night when I was shooting from the photo pit I saw Pinetop sitting just off stage with my army blanket wrapped around him and his customary cigarette hanging out of his mouth. I thought for a second, “I hope he doesn’t burn a hole in my blanket” and then I quickly thought that I wouldn’t mind if he did. In fact if he did burn a hole, I’d be reminded of him every time I saw it. The blanket was returned unscarred – but I still think of Pinetop every time I see that blanket in the back of my car.

I’ll miss you Pinetop. But I sure am glad I got to know you. We’ll always have your music and the wonderful memories you gave us all.

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Finding Your Passion

How does one find their passion?  How does one even define the word – passion?  The dictionary gives a few definitions. I’ll cite two:
– “intense or overpowering emotion such as love, joy, hatred, or anger.”
– “the object of somebody’s intense interest or enthusiasm”

Passion isn’t something you can teach someone – you just have to have it inside of yourself.  If you’re passionate about something – you just know.  I’m a photographer and a filmmaker .  But my passion is “telling the story” and I use my craft as a means to that end.  I’m interested in the human story and the cultural context that gives birth to those stories.

My insatiable desire to seek out and explore the human story has led me down many wonderful paths in my life. One of those paths led me to shoot a personal multimedia project on The Delta Blues Musicians.  My goal was to shoot environmental still portraits– as well as shoot video interviews of them .  I met my goal – at least in terms of creating an exhibition of still images and a short documentary – but I’ve never thought of this project as really being finished.  And that’s because I’m so passionate about the subject – “the blues”.

This past Friday, I headed down to Mississippi for Pinetop Perkins homecoming.  PinetopPinetop Perkins is a legendary boogie woogie piano player in the blues world.  He’s 96 years old and still going strong.  He is living proof of a man who is “living his passion.  I’ve become friends with Pinetop’s manager over the years and yesterday we got together over lunch to catch up on what was going on in our lives. I hadn’t been to the Delta for a few years and she was giving me the latest news on some of the musicians that I had interviewed for my film.  Four have since died – Little Milton, Robert Lockwood Jr., Ike Turner and most recently Sam Carr.

Pinetop’s manager is a very interesting woman who used to be an Anthropology professor at University of California at Berkeley.  She taught interview techniques as part of her ethnology classes.  When I had originally called her up to request an interview with Pinetop – she turned me down.  But not being one to take my first no – I asked her to check out my website and I also sent her a portrait I had taken of Sam Carr.  When she saw the photo I had taken of Sam – she changed her mind – she gave me my time with Pinetop.  She said that after she saw the portrait I took of Sam – she knew that  I understood “cultural context”

Yesterday at lunch she paid me another high compliment.  She told me that while she couldn’t quite dissect my “interview technique” (and she kind of rolled her eyes as she said it – because at times my techniques are quite comical) – she said that people just seem to be comfortable with me and  because of that they wanted to talk.  She also told me that I’ve been the only one to get a smile out of Robert Lockwood Jr. in an interview – but that’s another story.  Those comments were rewards in themselves for the efforts I’ve made on this project over the years – but there have been so many more.  Many rewards – all because of my passion for “the blues”.

Later that evening I got a chance to see Pinetop perform again.  I was backstage at the main festival stage – it was unusually chilly and I had a blanket with me.  Pinetop was sitting in the wings and I gave him my blanket as he waited for his cue.  He seemed so small and fragile.  When he got up to walk on stage and take his place at his keyboard before the crowd – he came alive.  And when he played his first note – I caught “it” in his eyes – a passion for his music and more than that – a passion to play for “his people”.  He didn’t want to leave last night – he played another song for “his people” and raised his arms in joy as the crowd embraced him.  It was a moment I’ll never forget.

Pinetop Perkins – Still Singing the Blues at 96

Yesterday, July 7th as the world mourned Michael Jackson’s passing, another music legend, Pinetop Perkins turned 96 years old. Pinetop Perkins, King Biscuit Blues Festival, Helena, AR

Pinetop Perkins is a legend in the world of “blues” music. He taught Ike Turner how to play piano during the 1940’s while working on Hopson’s Plantation in Clarksdale, MS. Pinetop still tours the world playing his boogie woogie style blues. Even at 96 years old – he’s still living his passion for the blues.

I met Pinetop in Mississippi in 2002 while there for his homecoming. I had recently embarked on one of my earliest video projects – a project about the Delta blues musicians and the part of the world that gave birth to that music.  http://tiny.cc/ntwso My approach was to shoot still environmental portraits of these musicians, but more importantly capture video interviews of them talking about their youth and the Delta.

Pinetop Perkins, Clarksdale, MS I spent the morning with Pinetop sitting on the front porch of an old shack on Hopson’s Plantation. The crowds from the party the day before had come and gone and it was just the two of us, having a conversation on a glorious October morning. It was memorable and I captured his stories which I hope will be heard by generations to come.

That day led to many other wonderful encounters over the years with Pinetop and even a trip to the Grammy’s when Pinetop was honored as a lifetime achievement recipient.

Pineop_Ike_Gail

Seven years ago when I asked him what the blues was, he replied “ Something worrying you so bad that you mights need to cry about it – you got the blues if you can’t sing em”. I try to remember those words when I’m down – and sing the blues to carry my troubles away.

Happy Birthday Pinetop.