Memphis in the Meantime

Street photography in Memphis, Tennessee

Memphis has been the subject of many a discussion between my son and I for a few years now. We love road trips and just being in the car together so when ever we’re hunting for a just barely out of reach, crazy destination to spontaneously shoot off to in the middle of the night (from Colorado) – Memphis has been a part of that discussion. Alas, common sense has prevailed and Memphis had remained unvisited – until this past July. As we planned our route to a family reunion in Nashville I was delighted to see Memphis sort of en route on the way home. We tend to drive any place we visit not for fear of flying – though who wouldn’t these days – but because we prefer to pass slowly through places en route to any destination – not zoom over places at 300mph in an aluminum tube with wings. So it was settled: Memphis on the return leg.

It’s hard to determine the origins of my fascination with Memphis precisely but strong contributors are Marc Cohn’s “Walking in Memphis,” John Hiatt’s “Memphis in the Mean Time” and of course the father of color photography, the incomparable Mr. William Eggleston – one who unbenounced to him – was instrumental in helping shape and refocus how I approach the art of color photography. Elvis and Graceland may have a little something to do with it too but not being quite as ardent “King” fans, they’re certainly not the strongest draw.

Graceland, Memphis, Tennessee (2014)
Graceland, Memphis, Tennessee (2014)

Graceland is Elvis’ old home and no trip to Memphis is complete without at least a drive by. We didn’t feel the need to go in – but were a little curious. Vans jammed with people cruised in and out of the fabled gates while a number of folks simply stood out front by the brick wall surrounding the estate. My wife and I agreed it was a little creepy – not sure how else to describe it… The wall was very interesting to me, containing “high-school yearbook” style insignias and drawings of Elvis along its 100 yard length. I walked it several times marveling at the influence this one, charismatic man had on so many people in a life cut short.

Graceland, Memphis, Tennessee
Graceland bussing people in and out of those fabled gates for a peek at Elvis’ mansion.

After Graceland we headed into the city center. It was a sunny, hot Sunday afternoon and we found a place in the shade to park near the bottom of famous Beale Street. As is usually the case on trips like this I’ll have my D3s and bunch of other gear buried beneath blankets in the car to keep everything cool, but leave it all in the car, choosing instead the F6, a 50mm ƒ1.4D and  some Portra 400 to carry while I wander. I like to minimize attention while shooting as much as possible and carrying a lot of gear gets uncomfortable – especially in the heat. While it’s true there are times when a few extra frames would be nice to have – I find I focus much more intently while shooting with a finite number of shots. Something I’ve discovered after years of editing: I hate sitting in front of the computer after a trip trying to decide which one of 10 images in a burst is the “best.” I’d much rather decide while shooting. This requires patience and being willing to pay the cost: sometimes being wrong and missing a shot. The benefits include more finely tuning your process to identify and take advantage of opportunity.

Memphis, Street Photography
Street Flipper, Beale Street, Memphis, Tennessee (2014)

The street flipper is a great example. There were two young men providing the afternoon’s entertainment, flipping down the gently sloping grade of Beale street. Pretty amazing, actually. I stopped and watched the first guy and overheard another young man walking past me saying to his girl friend, “yeh, I’m pretty sure I could do that…” I thought it would be cool to get a shot of him in mid-flip – hopefully in the air – so I walked up the street and found a good spot. There were trash cans lining the street and the one across from me was brightly colored, different than the others. I didn’t want it to be the brightest spot in the frame and distract from this guy’s athleticism as he flipped through the frame so moved up the hill a bit more. Working with the 50mm produced a lot of background that I couldn’t control. I could minimize it though by shooting a shallow depth of field. An aperture of ƒ4 allowed 1/1250 shooting Portra 400 at ISO200. Plenty fast to stop the guy in mid-flip were I lucky enough to time it right. Focus might have produced a problem at this point. Acquiring focus as the flipper flipped through the screen wouldn’t be feasible (he was a fast flipper), and if I settled for what the camera wanted to do I’d have been focused on the buildings across the street – making the foreground flipper blurry.

What to do… Here’s where de-coupling your focus from the shutter release is a really fantastic idea – and I think everyone should do it. It’s a good thing I usually shoot like this because I was ready. If not, to dig through the camera’s menus there on the street and fuss with CSM Settings would have taken too much time and attention away from all that was going on around me. In the F6’s CSM Menu, Custom Setting A4/AF activation/”AF-ON Only” allows the camera’s auto focus feature to be activated using only the AF-On button(s – plural if you use the MB-40 grip as I do). The camera’s default setting is “Release/AF-ON” which means if I’d used this setting to pre-focus on a certain point, the camera would try to focus again when I pressed the shutter to make the image – producing a blurry image because the camera would have focused on the buildings across the street instead of the flipper. At ƒ4 there’s not much room to miss before the image is out of focus. Not what I wanted. Using the AF-On button I focused on the street in front of me where I suspected the flipper would land, then raised the camera to frame the shot and waited. Almost immediately the other flipper came flipping through the frame and I fired one shot, hoping I got him. A little thought, a little planning and a little camera knowledge goes a long way.


Beale Street, Memphis, Tennessee (2014)
Beale Street, Memphis, Tennessee (2014)


Lorraine Motel, National Civil Rights Museum, Martin Luther King Jr., Memphis, Tennessee
Lorraine Motel, now the National Civil Rights Museum, Memphis, Tennessee.

After asking around someone pointed us towards one of the more famous destinations of the area, the Lorraine Motel – where Martin Luther King Jr. was shot on the balcony outside room 306. The Lorraine Motel has been turned into The National Civil Rights Museum for all to come experience. This was one of the most powerful – yet non flamboyant – destinations I’ve visited in recent memory. People hovered around and the air was reverent; respectful – not a lot of goofing around and selfies going on amidst the large group of kids who’d gathered in the shade across the street. The depth to which I was moved at this location was unexpected and we explored for nearly an hour, taking it in. The museum’s doors were open and the air conditioning felt great, and they always appreciate donations to keep the lights on.

Lorraine Motel, National Civil Rights Museum, Martin Luther King Junior, Memphis, Tennessee
The Lorraine Motel became The National Civil Rights Museum to commemorate MLK Jr. Memphis, Tennessee (2014)

Speaking of the heat, I was a little concerned when I grabbed the last role of Portra from the console of the car. It had become warm despite the AC running while we drove. I put it in my pocket and hoped for the best, and was delighted when processing (thank you Digi-Graphics!) revealed no issues what so ever. Sometimes I’ll carry a cooler for the film but most of the time I’ll simply protect the stash from direct sunlight and call it good. I’ve never had any problems, even in the extreme heat of the Caribbean.

Beale Street, Memphis, Tennssee (2014)
Beale Street, Memphis, Tennessee (2014)

After the Lorraine we slowly made our way back to the car, wanting to savor as much as we could. On a Sunday afternoon there wasn’t much activity outside Beale Street and it was nice to casually view the architecture and decor lining our path. The musical legend of Memphis alone is worth the visit, but add to that the food, culture, history…

BB King's Blue Bar, Memphis, Tennessee (2014)
BB King’s Blue Bar, Memphis, Tennessee (2014)

great color and geometry in the signage, urban architecture, interesting people, and magnificent night light and my imagination ignites with photographic potential. It was tough to leave – but we had 1,200 miles and 20 hours of driving ahead of us.

Blues City Cafe, Beale Street, Memphis, Tennessee (2014)
Blues City Cafe, Beale Street, Memphis, Tennessee (2014)

Memphis is one of the wonderful perks found in driving across the country rather than flying over. We only had a couple hours in Memphis – hardly enough time to scratch the surface – but I’ll take what I can get.  It was fun to finally be there if even for just a short time. Hopefully I’ll have the opportunity to return and devote the proper amount of time and attention to such a historically rich city. Happy shooting.

Hope, Boundaries and Good Intuition

Sunrise, Great Sand Dunes National Park, Colorado (2009)

I’ve devoted considerable thought over the past few years as to why we as people make photographs and frankly have come up blank. I don’t think I could explain to someone why I make photographs other than the simple truth; it pleases me to do so. It’s fun to read the plethora of great essays by others, from the famous to the unknown, presenting wonderful theories and insights. I think I’ve finally concluded however that I’m not sure it really matters beyond the simple truth; it pleases me to do so.

I’ve been making images since I was about 11 years old, when my folks gave me my first Kodak 110 camera for Christmas, complete with the rotating flash cube on top of that tiny plastic body. I loved that thing. My next camera was a Canon AT-1, the manual version of the ever popular AE-1 and from the moment I held it I was a National Geographic photographer. Ruined for life. That was a good many years ago, and though I never actually became a National Geographic photographer, I’m still making images. I wonder what else we do during the course of our lives that stays with us like photography does? For me the answer is not much. It’s one constant – besides my family and my faith – that has endured through the years.

I think maybe most photographers – especially film shooters – are optimists. A musician friend once spoke of “the hope of a picture” in reference to deferring the shooting and editing process to someone who understood – and had the creative and technical ability to realize – such a thing. One of the highs of photography for me is the possibilities. The camera is full of best case scenarios, creative potential and hope. One of my favorite photographers (and writers) Robert Adams once said, “The job of the photographer isn’t to record indisputable fact, but to try to be coherent about intuition and hope.”

Storm Chasers, Arriba, Colorado (2011)
Storm Chasers, Arriba, Colorado (2011)

Hope. Every time I load a new roll of film I get a little thrill. It’s like a full tank of gas for me, the allure of that elusive “perfect frame” possibly hiding in every roll. Like a golden ticket, hidden in only so many Wonka bars. Perhaps that’s one of the things that appeals to me most about shooting roll film; the focused flexibility required to maximize finite opportunity. The digital shooter might counter with some sort of volume equation – like, the more you shoot, the more likely you are to find that golden ticket. I’m not so sure about that..

Tomohisa IKENO, on the Nikon F6* design team, summed it as “the value of unique pictures.” He said, “With a digital camera, the number of pictures you can take is infinite, in the sense that there is no limit in the number of shots to take, unlike shooting with film. You don’t have to hesitate when taking pictures. Just release the shutter… But on the contrary, some photographers reject the prospect of such ease, as they desire a more careful, rigorous approach to making photographs. They want to treasure each picture-taking opportunity by etching their vision on film…a certain degree of respect to taking each great picture.” This careful, rigorous approach can go a long way towards fulfilling the “artist” struggling for a voice in each aspiring photographer.

National Geographic reported the number of digital photographs made in 2006 was 53 billion, in 2011 was 80 billion and in 2015 is projected to be 105 billion. That’s a lot of pictures made. And deleted. If you’ve ever visited flickr, it sure looks like randomly clicking 5-12 frames per second until you stumble onto something creative may seem to have replaced this “careful, rigorous approach.” But I believe as people we benefit from limits. Boundaries.

Architecture and Shadows, staircase, Denver, Colorado
The Staircase, Denver, Colorado (2013)

We pretend to love to hate boundaries. Truth is, though, while we may initially accuse boundaries of cramping our style, they can provide a more creatively satisfying approach through a thoughtful blend of methodical experimentation – with a little “wonder of the unknown” thrown in for good measure. Boundaries may not be mandatory in order to force one to think, but they certainly go a long way in helping us focus. Whether you have 1, 10, 12, 24 or 36 frames  – you have that much-needed boundary; a governor to help steer your thinking into productive action. And in a counter-intuitive way, I’ll contend that boundaries even encourage intentional creativity.

John Szarkowski writes in the introduction to William Eggleston’s opus, Guide, “It’s not easy for the photographer to compete with the clever originality of mindless, mechanized cameras, but the photographer can add intelligence. By means of photography one can in a minute reject as unsatisfactory ninety-nine configurations of facts and elect as right the hundredth. The choice is based on tradition and intuition–knowledge and ego–as it is in any art, but the ease of execution and the richness of the possibilities in photography both serve to put a premium on good intuition.”

Good Intuition. Photography encourages a sort of focused flexibility; balancing logistical boundaries while remaining responsive to the nudges and pricks emerging throughout the creative session. The focused photographer then responds with method, technique, knowledge and bravery. I’ll suggest that all these things help train up “good intuition.” These are the things that make creative film photography a wonderful journey. Sure, there’s math and science involved too; you measure light, choose an emulsion based on creative goals (or whatever’s thawed from the freezer); you communicate through the machine’s knobs and dials your preferences on how best to approach the scene – knowing through intimate repetition how it’ll interpret and render your input. You view, you tweak. Rinse and repeat. Until you get it right. Until you get what you want. Until you’re released to move on to the next thing.

Fall Colors in Gunnison National Forest, Colorado (2011)
Fall Colors in Gunnison National Forest, Colorado (2011)

Again, Robert Adams: “Over and over again the photographer walks a few steps and peers, rather comically, into the camera; to the exasperation of family and friends, he inventories what seems an endless number of angles; he explains, if asked, that he is trying for effective composition, but hesitates to define it. What he means is that a photographer wants form, an unarguably right relationship of shapes, a visual stability in which all components are equally important. The photographer hopes, in brief, to discover a tension so exact that it is peace.” This “peace” usually isn’t the product of dumb luck, but creative intent.

This narrative began as a high-and-mighty dissertation on why people should still shoot film. Then I pulled up some digital images made on a recent outing and thought, you know what? It really doesn’t matter – beyond what your creative intent is. Digital photography has made me a better film shooter, and shooting film has helped hone my vision; my focus. For whatever reason, though, I’m always more creatively invigorated when I pick up my film camera (and I love the quality of the image. tangent: Image Quality is often talked about as only “high” or “low.” I think of Image Quality as a summary of the unique qualities an image possesses).

The way I see it life is one, big art project; sometimes even maybe like a beautiful tapestry: if you’ve ever viewed one of these intricately woven masterpieces from the bottom it appears chaotic;  threads running everywhere, patterns abruptly halting, isolated threads hanging down; far from beautiful. But if you flip that same tapestry over and view it from the top, it’s a masterpiece.

Colorado Pet and Feed, Fort Collins, Colorado (2011)
Colorado Pet and Feed, Fort Collins, Colorado (2011)

As an artist then, I think an important step in recording this “masterpiece in progress” is to find a tool – a medium – that speaks to your creativity. A while back I was listening to a radio interview with Booker T. Jones, the incredible musician known for his unique sound, created with the Hammond B3 Organ. He said about his discovery of the B3, “I found an instrument that I can speak through.” I think that’s really the key to a lifetime of fulfilling, creative photography: finding tools that encourage your unique vision. Then begins the process – as it did for me that Christmas morning long ago when I popped that flash cube on my new Kodak – of getting out there and creating your own tapestry. Though at any given moment the results may not appear to possess coherent attributes; some semblance of purpose or direction; don’t stop. You never know what it’s going look like from the other side.

And yes, it’s OK if your only reason for doing it is simply because it pleases you to do so.

You’re in good company.

postlude: This essay was originally published in Bob Kidd’s “Sunday Street” blog. To visit Sunday Street please click here.