Michael Freeman’s Eye, Vision and Mind

Over time, I’ve bought, or browsed, dozens of books about photography. Most of these books are either too basic, too technical, or remarkably unfocused on the impact of picture making. Several books by Michael Freeman set a high standard for smart books with a strong aesthetic and storytelling sense, and yet, they are written at a level that provides solid, practical advice for even the most casual photographer. I’ve become a big fan of these books, and I would recommend one, two or all three volumes as holiday gifts for anyone with even a passing interest in digital photography, and, I would strengthen that recommendation if the gifts are intended for someone who is serious about photography.

Photographers MindOf the three, I think I like The Photographer’s Mind best. The opening chapter is not about lenses or exposure. Instead, the book opens with a chapter entitled, “Intent.”

If you want people to pay attention to your photography and enjoy it, you have to give them a reason to look at it for longer than a glance… [and this is] more about why than how.

And so begins a well-illustrated consideration of beauty, cliche, irony, the mundane, revelation, and other core concepts that go far beyond the snapshot. The second chapter, “Style,” explores harmonics and balance, relationships between visual style and musical style, opposition, minimalism, engineered disorder… you get the idea. This is a smart, thinking person’s approach to photography, aspirational but practical, nicely written but the focus is on the (many) sample images. And the pictures really are terrific–Freeman’s intelligent, emotional approach to teaching is well-represented by his work.

Photographer's EyeAll three books are personal favorites, but the second book I would buy is (rhymingly) The Photographer’s Eye, a book about design. Freeman considers the relative merits and artistic potential of various frame formats, horizons, frames within frames, and other tools/tricks of the trade. My favorite chapter is the second one, in which musical and aesthetic concepts offered in opposing pairs: soft/hard, thick/thin, diagonal/circular, much/little, sweet/sour, and more. Consider figure and ground, rhythm, single vs. multiple points, dynamic tension. I know that these ideas are dancing in my head when I’m out shooting for the day, but they’ve always been disorganized, and never quite coherent. With Freeman as a teacher, my perspective changes. I study his images, read his words, and understand the tool in my hands differently. And I want to spend hours and hours practicing.

Photographer's VisionI think of the third volume, The Photographer’s Vision, as the most advanced of the three. This is the one that considers purpose and greatness, the volume that places Lee Friedlander, Robert Capa and Brassaï in contexts where their work, or, at least, their unique creative approaches, are presented so that a contemporary amateur can both appreciate and perhaps emulate the work of legendary professionals.

Gosh, these books are good.

And then, I take a deep breath. I search for Michael Freeman online, and it turns out, he is a cottage industry. So many great ideas, so much valuable instruction, so little time.

Buy these books for a family member or a friend. They’ll be counted among this year’s favorites, I promise.

Beyond the Easel – Serious Field Work

I visited B&H Photo in Manhattan with a sketched diagram in my hand, hoping to find something that would allow me to attach a shelf to my tripod. When I was using the tripod only for still photography, the need was there, but minimal. When I started using the tripod for drawing and painting (with a sketch board firmly attached to the tripod head), it became clear that I needed a place for my pastels, my paints, the water, the paper towels. When I added videography, the tripod kept the camera firm and fluid, but I needed a handy place for the microphone, the iPad, the Zoom audio recorder, and other supplies.

After trying to rig something on my own, and failing, I started visiting local hardware stores, and was able to cobble together a solution involving perforated steel strips and cotton twine. At best, I had devised a temporary solution. Entering B&H, my hopes were not high.

Then, I spotted a large, flat piece of plastic called a Tripad. Aha! This was the solution. As you can see in the image, the Tripad surface extends from two of the three tripod legs. The genius part–the part that I never considered when I was doing my own (lame-o) inventing was a brace that fit over the head of the tripod and supported itself by hanging onto the far leg. B&H has lots of tripods, and I happened to find myself there around dinner time, when the busy store wasn’t too crowded. The Tripad worked: it was stable, not too large, and, quite perfect. The surface measures 15 inches wide and 11 inches deep (plus the part that connects to the tripod legs); the second triangular piece fits over the head and onto the leg. It weighs three pounds and holds eight. It comes along with me, but mostly when I travel by car; it’s little heavy and large for casual use, but durable and solid for professional applications. Here’s the video; see for yourself. The Tripad costs $99, and you can buy it here.

Now, back in my inventing days, I was thinking (though never seriously) about a setup that might involve not a full shelf but a pair of arms extending, on the perpendicular, from the tripod legs. There is an artist’s tripod with this design (Mabef M27), but I could never quite figure out which search terms could be used to find such a contraption on Google.

Then, I got lucky. I found the Easel Butler: Maximillian (or, for friends, Max). I liked the site immediately: the device “weights less than two bananas.” And that turns out to be true. In ounces, that’s 11.5, and in length, it’s 14 inches. There is a metal brace that slides over two easel legs. The brace has two holes: into each hole, you place a metal rod. The rods are kept in place by rubber o-rings (which you must be careful not to close, especially when working in the field). There’s a bag that attaches to the far side of the easel, a counterweight. With Max’s arms outstretched, I was able to place a full box of pastels without once worrying about an accident due to instability (clumsiness is, of course, another matter entirely). Easel Butler sets up in an about a minute, and requires about as much time to strike and put away. It comes with a nice little bag. It’s sturdy, well-thought-out, and well made. And the whole package is light enough for anyone to take along, and small enough to fit into a suitcase so it can travel with you, anywhere in the world. Want to see it in action? Watch this… Or just buy it here for $37.95.

I’m happy. A month ago, I was traveling some inept path with no real understanding of how to solve a problem. Now, I have two good solutions, each well-suited to a particular creative application. Below, some additional pictures that may convince you to invest, or, at least, to think differently about the way you work when you create.

Here’s the Tripad on a trip to Mount Everest.

I hadn’t considered this possibility before, but the Easel Butler allows one pair of arms to be attached to all three sides of the tripod. For a pastel artist, or a serious videographer or photographer, this is a terrific (and extremely cost effective) solution. Lightweight, too!

Here’s a more relaxed, in-the-field version of the Easel Butler in use. Very, very simple.

Music and Activism… A Master Class

In August, 1964, $70,000 was a lot of money (it would be worth over a half-million today). Harry Belafonte filled a doctor’s bag with small bills, talked his buddy Sidney Poitier into traveling with him, and they boarded a plane from New York City bound for Jackson, Mississippi, then hopped a small Cessna for Greenwood, then drove in convoy to the Elks Lodge where they delivered the secret cash. The money was needed to keep the volunteers on site in Mississippi to encourage the Black population to register and vote. The Klan and the local police wanted the volunteers to go home. Harry and his show business friends saved the day. Turns out, this was not an altogether unusual day for Mr. Belafonte.

When I started reading Harry Belafonte’s autobiography, My Song, I didn’t know much about him. His song makes for quite a story.

No surprise that the started out poor, and became quite rich. What he did with the money, and the power of celebrity, is remarkable.

And how things happened, even more so.

The first few chapters set the scene: an angry young man who discovers the magic of theater, then tries to become an actor in New York City. He talks his way into the Dramatic Workshop at The New School for Social Research, where his classmates include Walter Matthau, Bea Arthur, Rod Steiger, Marlon Brando, Bernie Schwartz (later known as Tony Curtis), and Brando’s motorcycling buddy, Wally Cox. His early acting adventures aren’t going so well, so Belafonte is crying in his beer at the Royal Roost, a Harlem jazz club. Saxophone player Lester Young asks, “How’s your feelings?” and Harry tells him, “My feelings aren’t so good!” and Lester says “Why don’t you ask (club owner) Monte (Kay) to give you a gig?” Kay says “yes,” and Lester gives his young friend a send-off by backing Belafonte’s little intermission gig with his buddies, including Charlie Parker and Max Roach. Belafonte becomes a pop singer, and later, a folk singer specializing in music from his native Caribbean Islands, and story songs. And the list of “firsts” begins–the first Black to play the Coconut Grove in L.A., selling a spectacular number of records (competing with Elvis for the number one records in 1956, etc.), appearing on Broadway and in the movies (he had a deep crush on Dorothy Dandridge, being the first Black performer to host NBC’s Tonight Show (which he did for a full week  in 1968 with guests including Bobby Kennedy, Paul Newman, Bill Cosby, the troublesome Smothers Brothers, and Martin Luther King, Jr.) and as with any celebrity bio, the list of famous names is vast), and tremendous success in Las Vegas, first at the Rivera, then at the then-new Caesar’s Palace, and with that success, friendships with the mob.

And, then, in his words, “One day in the spring of 1956, I picked up the phone to hear a courtly southern voice. ‘You don’t know me, Mr. Belafonte, but my name is Martin Luther King, Jr.” So began a fast friendship and a very deep lifelong involvement in civil rights and social justice. With Paul Robeson as a role model, and Eleanor Roosevelt as an early friend in social reform, Belafonte agreed to perform at Carnegie Hall to raise money for the Wiltwyck School, where “mostly black children who had committed serious crimes but were too young to be incarcerated” were taught. With the Kennedy White House, his reach grew, providing guidance and often serving as a conduit between John, and more often, Robert Kennedy and the movement. He marched. He served in Martin Luther King’s kitchen cabinet, which often met at Belafonte’s Upper West Side apartment in Manhattan (Martin stayed there, too, and had his own bottle of Bristol Cream liquor for relaxing evening chats). He was King’s confidant, a close friend, and a principal fund-raiser for the entire Civil Rights movement. He was deeply involved in the SLCC and SNCC. He worked on the strategy side, and the movement benefitted from Belafonte’s gigantic rolodex and his ability to raise funds or contact celebrities for favors, often granted. He became deeply involved in improving life in Africa, first helping to build a (never built) performing arts center in Guinea, and later serving as a UN and UNICEF ambassador (replacing Danny Kaye), also with an African focus.

He introduced performers to American audiences, and helped Mariam Makeba (already a South African star) to build a powerful career. Much later, as a result of his encouragement, Fidel Castro established a facility for Cuban rap artists. But before that, it was Harry Belafonte who came up with the idea for “We are the World,” getting Michael Jackson and Lionel Ritchie and Quincy Jones involved, then fading into the background until the hard work of distributing funds to Africa was to be done, and he supervised. He helped to free Nelson Mandela, and then served as Mandela’s personal guide for his first visit to the USA, where he answered so many questions about the U.S. Civil Rights movement.

With the help of co-author Michael Shnayerson, Belafonte is a very good storyteller with a very good memory. At 84, he’s candid about his show business successes and failures, attempts to tell his version of the truth about civil rights and entertaining personalities, family matters, and his half century of therapy and shaky love and family relationships (TMI). The showbiz story is fun, but the book shines as Belafonte provides context and backstory about the day to day struggles of the American civil rights story. For that, this becomes an essential accompaniment to the Taylor Branch trilogy about Martin Luther King, Jr., and the equally remarkable (but lesser known) The Race Beat by newspaper reporters Hank Klibanoff and Gene Roberts.

1 in 25 Work as Creative Pros

Above, an elegant way to think about the global creative economy, as presented in a 400+ page United Nations report.

1 in 25 people–that’s the revised figure for 2010–work in creative industries in the U.S. More than doctors, lawyers, even accountants. Industry sectors above, details below.

In the United States, roughly 150 million people work full-time. Six million of us work in creative professions. We’re writers and performers; musicians and visual artists; marketers and strategists; architects and specialists who invent, improve, or bring ideas to life. In total, more people work as creative professionals in the U.S. than doctors (700,000), lawyers (800,000), accountants (1,300,000), and engineers (1,600,000) combined. The number of creative professionals exceeds the number of teachers (3,500,000 teachers pre-K through high school, plus 1,700,000 more who teach in colleges and universities).

Our output–which provides employment for lawyers, accountants, executives, retailers, and many others–is responsible for more than ten percent of the U.S. Gross Domestic Product.

A reasonable global workforce estimate would exceed 10 million creative professionals. Nations with significant creative economies include Germany, the United Kingdom, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Ireland, Japan, China, India, Canada, Australia, and, among countries with developing industries, Mexico, Thailand, Indonesia, Argentina, Singapore, and Chile. According to the United Nations Creative Economy 2008 report, the export value of creative in 2005 was over $300 billion, or about 2-3% of the global economy. (Yes, I am reviewing the 423 pages of the 2010 report to update these figures–overall, trends are up).

The long list of creative industries was nicely summarized in the 2008 U.N. report, presented at a United Nations Conference on Trade and Development. The orange version, above, makes it all that much more clear.

Within each of these clusters, the professional model is similar. Projects are developed, produced, and distributed. Mostly, revenues are generated through direct transactions with individual consumers (movie admissions; DVDs; iTunes downloads;physical goods such as jewelry), sometimes through subscriptions; or by advertising to consumers who receive goods and services by paying only a modest transaction fee (magazine subscriptions), or no fee at all (most internet sites; broadcast radio and TV).

You can download the 2010 UN report here. (Yes, I will update my 2008 numbers when time permits.)

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