Picture Stories – Fish Out of Water

Somewhere in 2011, I became acutely aware of my commitment to telling stories with my photography. My stories are more often about place and time and less about people and events. I observe the action around me – the sights, the sounds, the smells. From this consciousness I form my interpretation. I let it sink in and marinate a little before brining the camera up to my eye and layering on all the compositional and technical stuff that merely provide the tools for my expression.

Sometimes, rarely, a single image will suffice. Often, mostly, a set of images combines to develop a deeper narrative. Frequently, usually, one image rises to become a keystone note.

Perhaps a better photographer could capture their impressions in just one image. Are there images in my picture stories that are but filler? But brevity is not my measure for good tale. A good story needs a beginning, middle, and an end. It needs tension but also rest and resolution.

Here I present Fish Out of Water, A Requiem for Fish. The story told to me by the Salton Sea.

Click to play

Take The Best Available Picture

Air by I Nancy, on Flickr

During my workshop with Sam Abell, he used this phrase often: “Take the best available picture”. I think there were two messages here. His first message was not to miss the shot. Even with all your concentration and preparation at 110%, you can only control so much. If you get 90% of the image working, “take the best available picture”. Perhaps a better picture will emerge in a few minutes, but perhaps not.

His deeper message was not to be discouraged. This street-documentary work is hard. I think Sam’s standards are super-human high and it is exactly these standards that brought him his success and brilliance as a photographer.  Somewhere along the way, however, he realized that if a photographer allow themselves be overwhelmed by these standards, they may never produce another photograph, ever. So he reminds his students, and perhaps himself, “take the best available picture”.

This picture is not perfect. I wish there was separation between the bottom of the skateboard and the people below. This could have been achieved if the people were not there. I wish the two people on the left looking on at the trick didn’t have palm trees behind them and were wearing more colorful clothing. I wish there were some more amazing light or color to the sky. But these things were not there. This was the best available picture and I’m glad to have taken it and learned from it.

Ghostly Spirits – Salton Sea

Ghosts- Fish Out Of Water
Ghostly Spirits – Fish Out Of Water

I have finally finished processing my Fish Out Of Water series. This series represents my impressions when visiting the Salton Sea.

The Salton Sea is a complicated place. It is not entirely man-made and not entirely natural. As the Salton Sink, it would fill and evaporate about every 400 years (they believe). In 1905, the perfect combination of nature and man, a wet winter and broken agricultural canal, flooded the area and created today’s Salton Sea. In the 50’s this area was to be the next playground oasis in the desert. However the sea continued to evaporate, salt concentrations increased, and nitrogen-rich agricultural runoff  caused huge summer algae blooms. These conditions led to a annual summer tilapia die off which pretty much put a kibash on the summer water fun.

When visiting the sea, you cannot escape the sight of dead fish at various states of decay. At the northern ends the fish are mummified and nearly whole. As you move south there is more decay. Ghostly Spirits is from an area in the middle where fish get covered with mud and slowly dissolve. Here, however, they appear to be crawling out of the earth.

Pigeons on 12th and Maple – On Composition

Pigeons on 12th and Maple
Pigeons on 12th and Maple by I Nancy, on Flickr

Last weekend I took a workshop from Sam Abell. It was entitled “Sharpening your Photographic Vision”, or something like that, but it was really all about composition. This man is a master of composition. He talks of macro composition and micro composition. Background and layers. He also talks about approaches to get these kinds of images to happen.

Here we had just arrived on our morning location at 12th and Maple in downtown LA. Of course we all saw the 200 or so pigeons on the wires above us. Sam’s words – compose and wait – find the background and then wait for the subject to come to you, miracles happen.

From time-to-time, the pigeons were coming into the street, so I found the orange background got down and waited for the birds to do something interesting. The street merchant threw rice in the gutter, the pigeons came down to eat, the van entered the intersection, the pigeons exploded, and a man rode through dressed in black wearing a hat.

In this image I achieved a deeply layered composition. We have the pigeons in front with all of their movement and flurry. A background of orange with the street patterns adding more visual interest. A “V” in the front of the image and the diagonals complete the macro-composition. In the micro-composition is the 12th St street sign – free from obstruction, its blue color standing out against the rest of the background,  the van which looks like it is bursting through the intersection, and the man riding through.

Miracles happen.

A Storyteller With a Camera – Telling the Story of the Salton Sea

By the sea, by the sea, by the beautiful sea...
By the sea, by the sea, by the beautiful sea… by I Nancy, on Flickr

I am nearly finished processing my images of the Salton Sea area from the trip I took a few weeks ago. Thank you to Roy, Anne, and Ken for the organization, relaxed atmosphere, and general frivolity. As I processed my images I became profoundly aware are my purpose as a photography as a storyteller with a camera.

Telling the story of the Salton Sea

Several years ago, I spent an intensive few weekends photographing downtown LA and Hollywood. As I sat in my lightroom processing my images I became deeply interested in the stories that these historic theaters and business had to tell. Los Angeles (Loce Ahng-hail-ais) rose from the small Spanish settlement El Pueblo de la Reina de Los Angeles (The Town of the Queen of the Angels) founded in 1781. Through a grand industrial expansion between 1870 and 1913 and the founding of Hollywood in the 20’s and 30’s it has become the modern multi-ethnic city of riches and poverty that it is today. That project, Los Angeles – Yesterday, Today, was so natural to me and my lasted project with this visit to the Salton Sea has given me insight as to why.

Almost immediately upon arriving at our first location at the Salton Sea, I noticed the dead fish littering its shores. I knew right then that I would be photographing these fish in as many was as possible. And I knew that I would go home and spend time learning more about the Salton Sea, what kind of fish these were (tilapia), and why there are so many dead fish on the shores.

My buddies chuckled and chided, “you’ll see a lot of dead fish”, but I knew that these mummified tilapia were an important part of the story of this area. I knew that I wanted to express their importance and do more than take “merit worthy images”. I wanted to tell the story of the Salton Sea, or more accurately, tell the story the Salton Sea was telling me. My images would be different because of my inner voice telling me to capture all the sea had to offer, the birds, the beauty, the decay, the abandonment, the real-estate dreams gone awry, and the fish. Yes, I would start with the fish.

This trip cemented my reasons for photography as a creative storyteller spinning the tale being told to me as I observe and listen to my surroundings. Be it the beauty of yellow-clad fall aspens or the unpleasantness of urban decay of a dying city, I want to tell their story. I need to tell their story. I go home and learn about the how the incredible sandstone features of the Vermillion Cliffs were formed, the golden boom and bust of Bodie, and why there are millions of dead tilapia on the shores of the Salton Sea.

When Scott Bourne photographs wildlife he says he “does it for the birds”. When I photograph the Salton Sea, I do it for the Sea. The Salton Sea a body of water formed and dried no fewer than eight times over the millennia and profoundly affected by time, flood, and the desert dwellers quest for water.

I do it for the Sea and my images are different because of this.

View the set on Flickr