Broken Banjo Photography

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Jesse and His Typewriters: Berkeley, California

This is Jesse. He has worked for over twenty years at Berkeley Typewriter on University Avenue, though has been a typewriter technician for twice that. His brother, Joe, owns the shop. I was looking for props for a nearby photo shoot one day last year, and simply wandered in.
An unplanned photo; a portrait photographer needs to always be ready to create a good image, despite zero planning, and without the expensive, complex setups needed for studio or commercial shots.  After spending a half hour with Jesse, exploring the shop, I asked for his portrait, and to choose a couple of typewriters important to him.  I did not choose pretty red ones that I thought looked nice; he knows what's important in his own life.  Two speedlights were used.  One was set on the counter, camera right, facing the ceiling and tilted to feather some light on his face.  It had no modifications on it.  The other was held by me and aimed at the wall behind me, to create some bounce that would fill the room.  Too much highlight on the right typewriter?  Yup.  Shadows visible behind the typewriters in the background?  Sure.  But to make this shot perfect would not only take too long, but would ruin the moment of spontaneity.  Use what you can in the time that you have.  Shot with a Nikon D3, at around 25mm.  In post-processing, I muted the colors and split-toned to create a bit of a sepia tint without going overboard.  Shooting time, from proposal to packing up: 4 minutes.  Processing: 30 minutes.
 This was an example of excellent cultural and visual serendipity.  I was photographing a big event nearby, The Nonprofit Technology Conference, where I was planning to build a photo booth for attendee portraits.  My concept for a creative backdrop was this: these people are inundated daily with the very latest in technology...what if I photographed them with "obsolete tech", such as Nintendo machines, old IBM printers, Laserdiscs, and, yes, maybe a typewriter or two.

I had a very small budget, so "cheap to free" was my range for props.  When I stumbled into Berkeley Typewriter, I quickly learned that the word "obsolete" should never be uttered in a shop like that.  "We have no parts to spare," I was told.  After all, in a world dealing with machines that are no longer manufactured, every single key, ribbon, and body needs to be saved in case it is needed.

However, showing an interest in the process and story of the business, Jesse invited me on a tour of the place.  From the showroom out front, full of gorgeous machines from the 20's through 60's, to the back rooms, he told me of the resurgence of interest in typewriters.  They're hot.  People buy them for their offices as props, for their kids as gifts, for their weddings as creative guestbook-writers.  They are rented for Hollywood films (need an authentic typewriter for a 1940's office scene?  Here's your place!).

In the back, there are tool chests and drawers everywhere full of parts.  Keys are organized by style, brand, and font (remember when you were stuck with just one font?), and he told me about his favorite styles, and about the cultural upswings in the business.  

"You can take photos of any of these," he said, thinking that my primary interest was in the equipment.  

"Actually," I said, "I'd love to take a quick portrait of you."

"Me?  No, you want the typewriters," he said, with a combination of pride in the restored machines and shyness.

What we did was wrangle up two typewriters from behind him...ones with a story, some of the oldest ones in the shop that he has been restoring.  Both are from the same era (late 1800's), the very first generations of typewriters.  If I recall the story, both were made in the same city, but the one on the left became a model of standard design, and the one on the right lost ground in the market quickly.  One reason, said Jesse, was the names of the companies.  The late 1800's and early 1900's were times of great patriotism, and people were supporting American companies.  Unfortunately for the typewriter on the right, the designer chose to name the company after himself.  While both manufactured in America, one company used its decidedly common name (Smith, on the left), and the other used its own: Blickensderfer.

I will be in Berkeley next week, nearly a year after taking this photo, and will drop in to give him a copy.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Nick and His Instruments: Anchorage, Alaska

This is Nick.  While on assignment in Anchorage recently, I stayed with an old friend of mine in town.  One night, during my visit, she took me out to dinner at a pizza joint in Anchorage; her friend was there, she said, participating in a ukelele jam.  Pizza and ukeleles?  Yes please!

She introduced me to Nick "The Dream" Weaver, a co-worker of hers.  He was a tall man with a big presence and gentle smile; he was holding a steel resonator ukelele and sitting amongst a dozen and a half other tiny-instrument players. 

In my head I thought, "I want to photograph these people." I had my camera with me.  Why didn't I pull it out and ask?  I don't know.  A resolution for the new year is this: when I see a person that I want to photograph...ask them!

This was the first portrait that I took with my new Pentax K-01, a camera purchased to be a backup to my more professional equipment.  I used just two flashes for the image; at ISO 100, 1/160th of a second, and f/5.0, I was able to remove all ambient light and maintain a satisfying depth of field to keep most instruments in focus.  I arranged some of the instruments behind Nick to maintain interest, and experimented with chair position while he happily entertained us with songs.  The biggest challenge: controlling shadows from all of the guitars to make the lighting look relatively natural.  One speedlight was propped up on a chair camera right, aimed at the white, angled ceiling.  This cast a general diffuse light over the whole scene from above.  Another flash was held by my friend, camera left, and aimed straight at Nick's face. It had to be angled carefully to avoid a shadow cast by Nick on the wall.  Finally, I had to be careful to watch sharp reflections in the shiny instruments (the ukelele, bottom right, is a little hot for my taste) and angled the camera upward to avoid the pea-soup-green carpet in the photo (nothing says "rock star!" like shaggy carpet).
Luckily, I saw Nick again a couple of nights later, and he invited my friend and I over to his house, where he had (proudly) gotten most of his guitars hung up on the wall.  "Sure," I said. "Can I take your portrait with them?"

When we showed up, it was a billion degrees below zero outside (Alaska in December...there are reasons that tourism plummets!), but warm in his house, a space he was still moving into.  There was very little there...a couple of changes of clothes, some cookware, a table, a few chairs...and piles of beautiful instruments.

While arranging the room for the portrait, Nick played endlessly entertaining songs; people like him remind me how many wonderful musicians there are in this world who I will never hear.  Every time I'm at a campfire, wedding, potluck, street corner, and hear a talented person pushing music out through their voice or instrument, I'm simultaneously thrilled at the experience and saddened that relatively few people will ever give them credit for their art.

Luckily, it's the age of the Internet, and people have the option of playing the street corner of the web.  Nick is on ReverbNation and YouTube

This was a photo done for fun, and I'll be sending him a copy.  Most people are quickly willing to sit for a portrait, especially when in the context of their own passions and things they identify with.  Ask to take portraits!  Often you're offering a gift to the subject, not the other way around.  Remember that.