It’s yet another expression that floats in and out of my consciousness from time to time. I find myself saying it more and more as I wander the countryside snapping away. Years ago, while working for a different newspaper, I consistently got the same note at staff meetings: “decent copy, lousy pictures.” Outraged, I defended myself by insisting that I am not a photographer, but a writer who is forced to take pictures along the way.
“Get better!” I was told, so off I went, in search of skills I had no desire to hone. Little did I know that photography would become an integral part of my daily life, or that my instructions to “get better” would become all-consuming. Taking a “point and click” class at night, paired with a determination to add another line to my resume, combined to spark what is now a mild obsession with the lens, and my desire to “get better” grows daily, as I observe the world through a (sometimes filtered) lens.
“I Am a Camera” (with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking) is the first line of Christopher Isherwood’s novel “Goodbye to Berlin,” which inspired a play, a film, a song and a little musical called “Cabaret.” How fitting, then, that I spend the better part of my days taking pictures of (and writing about) plays, films, musicals and songs. This week being no exception, I headed off to Bethel Woods (www.bethelwoodscenter.org ) to photograph someone not usually on my radar: Kid Rock.
I don’t know that I’ve ever been described as “quite passive,” but “not thinking” seems apropos as I pulled out my trusty tripod, signed my life away for Kid’s “people” and made my way down to the proscenium. Warnings of intense heat and pyrotechnic displays rang in my head as I tried to focus, attempting to get a shot while Mister Rock strutted the stage, leaping about and playing every conceivable instrument for a packed, stoked, rockin’ crowd.
“Stand still!” I screamed over the roaring crowd, knowing that I had a brief time to accomplish my goal, frustrated at how (suddenly) difficult it seemed to snap a still, since “motionless” is not in Kid’s vocabulary. When he (finally) stopped for a moment he said, “Thank you for coming out and spending your hard-earned money to support us.”
Jumping on top of the Honky Tonk bar that spanned the stage, the P.T. Barnum of the rock world (my words, not his) engaged the audience with personal history (born Robert James Ritchie) and a genuine appreciation of his roots, his fellow musicians, his family and the audience that has supported him for “a few years now.” No longer exactly a kid, this guy blew me away with his newest signature song “I’m (bleeping) Forty” that brought the audience to a new level of excitement. Wasn’t easy getting pictures, but (IMHO) well worth the ride!
Returning to the scene two days later, a couple of ladies begged me to shoot “great pictures” of up-and-coming country heartthrobs Rob Blackledge and Noll Billings (aka Blackjack Billy), opening for the Doobie Brothers and Lynyrd Skynyrd. Promising to do my best, I scanned the stage for explosives and set up shop. Still nervous from the volatile flames prior to Blackjack Billy, I clicked away, enjoying their “deep rooted country sound” while acknowledging that the boys were indeed, extremely photogenic.
The pair exited, making way for the Doobie Brothers (“Takin’ it to the Streets,” “You Belong to Me,” “What a Fool Believes”). Yet another sold-out crowd danced the night away to hit upon hit as I worked the camera to the best of my ability. Before headliners Lynyrd Skynyrd took over, the legendary group made clear why they were inducted into the Vocal Group Hall of Fame (in 1994) as the audience cheered the “American Rock” sound of encores like “Listen to the Music.”
No strangers to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, Lynyrd Skynyrd (inducted in 2006) formed in 1964 (I was 10) and they look it. (Come to think of it, so do I.) Loud, raucous and sounding pretty good, I decided to let my camera do the talking, since they were not only interesting to hear live (I had earplugs) but pretty cool to photograph, having been around the block once or twice. With the aid of theatrical lighting, smoke and strobes, I have somehow managed (I hope) to capture the essence of these musical experiences. As I fold up the tripod (these days, I call myself a photojournalist) I muse on whether the camera is forever an extension of me, or if in reality... I am a camera?