Cliché Bells Ring

December 15, 2011 

Once the turkey-wine-and-starch hangover wears off, holiday season dread starts settling in for me. I'm no soldier in the supposed war on Christmas, but there's plenty for me to loathe in the most wonderful time of the year. Chief is how boring I find the majority of holiday-themed assignments.

The annual cycle of community photojournalism does repeat in numerous areas of coverage, but standard go-to Christmas features make me cringe more than any other. There's a lot to like about the feel-good stories that populate holiday pages, but I'm lamenting the easy cheesy space-fillers.

The top offender is our annual rundown of local Christmas light displays. It'll be in our Sunday Extra section on Sunday, Dec. 18., and I know some readers can't wait to get recommendations on what houses to check out. I like Christmas lights just fine, but photographing them is as mind-numbing as it is finger-and-toe-numbing.

They're not hard to shoot, but it's time-consuming and there's little room for creativity. The displays at addresses readers send in are generally just as average as the dozens of homes I pass by before settling on one I think warrants a stop and a knock on the door, and hunting for unique displays has gotten harder each year as I try to avoid homes I've already shot.

The coolest displays are usually animated, like this dragon torching a poor reindeer in West Richland,

but a single still photo can't capture that. I tried to work some interesting light and textures with the recent frost,

but I didn't really pull it off. Other than that, it's an uninspired edit of building mug shots:

The assignment might have the worst ratio of time spent versus visual interest or news value.

What irks me the most is that I see our job as giving our readers a different perspective on common subjects, and I haven't figured out a way to do that with this assignment. A less-obvious look at the displays wouldn't accomplish the basic goal of this Herald Christmas tradition, though.

While you'd think shooting photos of people hanging Christmas lights would be even more boring, at least that gives you a little more leeway in how you shoot it:

Sure, it's not a portfolio shot, but it's a more interesting image than your average person would probably make and it's not as expected. Seeing the unexpected is why I really liked this moment from a couple weeks ago as young Mario Martinez III objected to being held by Kennewick Police Chief Ken Hohenberg as his family gathered for a photo after Mario Jr.'s swearing-in ceremony:

It's the same basic reaction that's common at Santa photo booths, and one that happened again last Sunday when I visited Beaver Bark in Richland for another feature photo:

It's just not as fun when it's a frequently seen scene, but I resigned myself to the cliché on a shift where I was short on time and inspiration.

It was a fitting follow-up to the previous evening's Winterfest parade in Benton City, which combined the trifrakta of winter chill with a standard parade format and seasonally overdosed Christmas lights. I tried to embrace the technical challenges of shooting a parade at night and look for the non-obvious shots after snapping some float mugshots.

While I have grown to really enjoy learning how to harness artificial light for portraiture, I usually stick to available light while covering events to try and keep it looking as natural as possible. That look can be tough to reproduce in newsprint, though, and this shot of Linda Leingang of Yakima would have taken a fair amount of work to print legibly since saturated colors can end up as muddy messes the next day:

So when I saw the hubbub over young Madison Moffett not being in the sleigh with her mom Linda as the floats started rolling out, I played it safe and popped a little fill flash as Andy Church hoisted her aboard:

I had already learned that the ornate float had been updated with angels as a tribute to Don Schab, who died from cancer in March. His brother Ed worked with Andy to take over the float, which was pretty impressively decorated. I think the flat flash lighting makes it look kind of like a cardboard cutout, but it's colorful and marginally cute, so I banked it as a probable main shot and tried to shoot something more creative.

I tried a couple window reflection shots,

but neither has an interesting enough reflection or moment to make them work. I also toyed around with zooming my flash in for a vignetting effect as children nabbed candy:

It's a technique I fiddled with some more a couple days later during a rosary procession in honor of Our Lady of Guadalupe:

It's a fairly common technique, but one I've always eschewed for softer, off-camera flash work and it was a nice reminder that there are always more tricks to master and ways to approach assignments. The stark aesthetic was a nice contrast to some slow shutter speed photos I worked with the same group of dancers as they moved through the dim streets:

Manuel Soto's portrayal of Saint Juan Diego was just too colorful to pass up — especially since it got to the heart of why the 200 people gathered to celebrate anyway:

And though I've technically never shot the the Our Lady of Guadalupe parade before, its elements were familiar enough to lump in this loathsome category. I didn't leave with a sense of resignation, though, and was surprisingly happy with the photos I made Monday night. Pushing myself ever so slightly to try and see things a little differently made a big difference. It's a recurring theme in my photo funks and a good reminder of the constant need to push and prod myself further along.

I should remember the non-commercial reason for the season, though and put the problems I've mentioned in perspective. If shooting boring Christmas lights is my job's TPS report, I know I have it better than many. I feel lucky to have survived four rounds of layoffs and buyouts in as many years, and to still have one of the dwindling number of staff gigs doing what I love.

A lot of photojournalists more talented than me have lost their jobs in recent years and some have lost much more. Although talent is no guarantee of continued employment in these tough times, there's added obligation to not just settle for good-enough clichés as the axe continues to dangle overhead.

No matter how boring the assignment.

Speaking of layoffs...

Four were laid off last Friday from Voice of San Diego, an online nonprofit news organization many pointed to as a beacon of hope for the future community journalism. Included in the three newsroom cuts was the lone photo editor and shooter Sam Hodgson. You can read a column lamenting the losses over at San Diego City Beat.

Thanks to Interactive Media Director Andy Perdue for passing along this viral clip of a camera MIT researchers claim captures light traveling at a trillion frames per second. It's a cool video with an unfortunate music selection that would probably fit better if played at a lower volume while crappy secret agents picked locks and dodged laser alarms. A Wired blogger questioned the claims, but reading that article makes me feel really stupid.

Lens has a really interesting conversation with Jerry Uelsmann, who uses analog darkroom techniques to create surreal scenes from photographs. It's especially interesting after hearing about a "Super Photoshop" that makes digital manipulation even easier.

There's a head-shaking anecdote from legendary Sports Illustrated photographer Walter Iooss Jr. at Deadspin about how LeBron James wouldn't let him speak directly during a photo shoot. He knows that "King James" is only a nickname, right?

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