December 19, 2016

Personal Documentary

Hair Ritual

Over the past two years I have worked on two personal documentary projects. The first is a short “day in the life” documentary of my parents after they had moved into an assisted living apartment. It was shot over the course of 4 days as part of a photojournalism workshop. The second, a longer and even more personal story, as I followed the first four months of my husbands slow recovery from Gillian-Barre Syndrome.


Both of these projects were extremely rewarding. These images not only have special meaning to me, but from them have emerged a small set of images that each stand on their own as fine photographs. In these photographs, I had unique access to intimate and subtle moments, and it was that unique access that produced the very best of the images.

The challenge of a Personal Documentary project is to use the trust afforded by personal relationships to take your best photographs. These are not snapshots or “I was there” photographs. These images need to pull together all the components that create a great photograph – story, light, color, gesture, framing, line, position, tonal contrasts, and the relationships between objects – to tell us about something for which you have a front row seat.

Japan - Basho's Path November 2016 with Sam Abell and George Nobechi

I spent two weeks this past November traveling through Japan with Sam Abell, a retired National Geographic photographer and mentor of mine. Sam believes strongly in keeping a photographic diary. He uses all the same care and skill capturing images for his diary as for his assignments. He believes that there is great power in documenting your daily life and those around you.

I encourage you too to start your own personal photographic diary or personal documentary project. It is the holiday season, a time for families to get together for special occasions with special decorations and customs. There is plenty of photographic material. Did the dog knock over the tree? Did the grandchildren open other peoples presents? Did flour fly everywhere when the mixer went bizerk during your holiday cookie baking extravaganza? Did you experience your husband/wife/child/grandchild/dog/cat bathed in late afternoon window light quietly absorbed in a good book, or more likely texting on their phone?


December 10, 2016

Portraits of Japan

Japan - Basho's Path November 2016 with Sam Abell and George Nobechi

Produce market on the street leading to the Yamadera Temple

For most of 2016, my photography focused exclusively on my husband’s journey through illness and recovery (see our blog Chick’s GBS Adventure). Finally, on November 4th, I boarded Japan Airlines flight 61 from LAX to Tokyo to join Sam Abell, George Nobechi and Sante Fe Workshops for a 14-day photographic journey of Japan to follow the first half of Matsuo Bashō’s travels as documented in his narrative diary: Narrow Road to the Deep North.

Our trip took us from Tokyo to Nikko, Matsushima, Hiraizumi, Yamadera, Kanazawa, and back to Tokyo. I was not prepared for what I would see – cities and small towns, lakes and temple gardens, swan boats and giant chrysanthemums.

Here are a few portraits of my journey.

Japan - Basho's Path November 2016 with Sam Abell and George Nobechi

Oko Nikko (Upper Nikko)
Surrounded by nature and beautiful lakes

Japan - Basho's Path November 2016 with Sam Abell and George Nobechi

The road leading to the Geibikei Gorge

Japan - Basho's Path November 2016 with Sam Abell and George Nobechi

Matsushima Bay
One of Japan’s three most scenic views

Japan - Basho's Path November 2016 with Sam Abell and George Nobechi

Selling tea in the Tea House district

Japan - Basho's Path November 2016 with Sam Abell and George Nobechi
The 10th floor view near Tokyo Station
October 30, 2016

A Sweet Moment


My blog has been quiet for some time as I haven’t been photographing much beyond the  Chick’s GBS Adventure images of my husband being treated for and recovering from GBS (still an on-going recovery).

At first I thought I would use this space to do a compositional analysis of some of the images, but I couldn’t do it. It felt too artificial and I just want those images to speak for themselves emotionally.

But today I finally unloaded a card-full of images from about a month ago – a casual trip to LA’s China Town with my husband and friend. Never one to pass up a reflection shot, I captured this sweet moment.

In a few days I leave for a photography trip to Japan. It will be the first time that I leave my husband alone since he became ill in January. Although his recovery is going well and he has caregivers to keep him company during most week days, I will miss him and he will miss me profoundly. Here is a little moment to keep us together.


May 17, 2016

Chick’s GBS Adventure – The First Image

In mid-January my husband, Chick, became very ill with Guillain-Barré Syndrome and we began to document his illness and recovery in a blog Chick’s GBS Adventure. In this series of posts, I will explore many of the images from a photographic perspective. You can read the background for this series in my previous blog post The Story Behind Chicks GBS Adventure

The First Image


The Imagery

By the time we received Chick’s diagnosis, he was fully paralyzed from the neck down and I had moved into the role of primary advocate. There are many layers to the story that are told in this one single image. First is my dominance, larger and in the foreground, against Chick’s subordinate role. However, my image is transparent while Chick’s image is lighted, thereby drawing the eye. Chick’s image is also one of the few things in the frame that isn’t impacted by the reflections. The fact that Chick is looking away gives a subtext to the gravity of the situation. The hospital room is also clearly recognizable. The superimposed buildings provide the context of a large medical facility and the two people entering the building in the lower right hand corner could be any visitor. Finally the darkness provide the mood of seriousness and uncertainty.

The Physical Setup

This image is a picture of Chick in his room taken as a reflection while looking out (or at) his window after the sun had set. My image and the room are all in reflection. The building, parking lot driveway and city lights are as seen through the window. Chick’s room was mostly dark with the exception of the light over his bed. The reflection is strongest where there is the most light in room, drowning out the scene outside. Darker parts of the room have the weakest reflection. Since I am only dimly lit, my image is ghostly with the scene and the lights of the city outside superimposed and shining through.

The Composition

Over the course of the late afternoon and evening, I took many images of this scene. As the sun set the lighting and color would change from sunlight, to the blue hour,  and finally darkness with contrast from the city lights. It was well after sunset when this visual emerged. In composing the frame, I had to be ultra aware of the corners and edges, carefully placing myself and balancing the monitor above Chick’s head in the upper right with the parking garage kiosk in the lower left, being careful not to cut off the corners of either of these two elements. The blank white wall in the upper right corner is somewhat problematic and I toned it down in post-processing as best as possible. Inside the room, the scene was rather static, but outside were a changing set of small details. In the end, I carefully held the framing while I watched only the lower right-hand corner waiting for the right configuration of tiny people to complete the composition.

May 17, 2016

The Story Behind Chick’s GBS Adventure

For much of this year I have published images every day on a blog Chick’s GBS Adventure ( which documents a deeply personal and emotional time in my life, caring for my husband who has been ill since Jan 12th. He is now recovering at a very progressive rate (according to his doctors) even though it will still be 1-2 years before he is back to his pre-illness fitness level.

Over the next many posts, I will explore the best of these images, stepping back from the emotional story, and talk about these images from a photographic perspective.

A while back I took a workshop with photojournalist Gerd Ludwig. During that workshop I was challenged over the course of a 4 days to do a Day-in-the-Life documentary of my Parents. Gerd said to me something to the effect that I would need to take a lot of pictures to in order to capture the full story, then edit them down to a manageable 10 or 15, but that out of the whole series, one or two images would stand out on their own. It was true for that series, and certainly true for this one too.


On January 12th, my husband was admitted to the hospital with no more specific of a diagnosis than “profound weakness”. The true diagnosis came 10 days later: Guillain-Barré Syndrome – an autoimmune condition that attacks the myelin nerve sheaths and leaves them incapable of transmitting nerve impulses to the muscles. The first symptoms are tingling in the hands and feet leading ultimately to various degrees of paralysis. Recovery begins only after the autoimmune response is stopped. It then typically takes 1-2 years for the nerves to completely repair themselves down through the hands and feet, and the strength lost by muscle atrophy to be rebuilt. In my husband’s case, over the course of the 10 days leading to his diagnosis, he became paralyzed from the neck down with involvement of his bowel and bladder. His respiratory and GI systems were affected, but luckily not to the point of needing aid.

On Friday evening, January 22nd, he was finally diagnosed and transported to UCLA Medical Center to begin 5-rounds of plasmapheresis, a treatment to stop the autoimmune response, and set him up for his long recovery.

Before his diagnosis I was completely freaked out, but once we got to UCLA and had a course of direction, I finally had enough awareness to start a documentary series of images which served not only to keep me occupied but also to serve as a record which my husband could then use to see his own progress – something very difficult when you are slowly pulling out of paralysis one small movement at a time.

The Camera

My schedule was pretty unpredictable, as I spent all day and many nights at the hospital or rehabilitation facility providing a constant face of optimism and support. In addition, I never quite knew when a severe bout of pain or depression would hit. I wanted to capture this story, but it was the proverbial photojournalist’s riddle: If you see a man dying on the side of the road, which will you do first, help or take the picture.

My answer was certainly to “help first”. Managing cameras, batteries, memory cards, and lenses was secondary so I relied on what I had with me – a new iPhone 6s and its 12 MP / 31mm effective focal-length camera.

Ergonomics aside (the iPhone is a clumsy physical camera platform), my two biggest complaints with the iPhone are that the sensor has a very hard time with dynamic range and consistently blows out the highlights, and that there is a noticeable shutter lag. The former was just something that I had to work with, often fixing in my post processing. The shutter lag I tried to overcome by taking a lot of images in succession or using Apple’s “live photo” feature and picking the right frame in Lightroom, after the fact. Otherwise, the camera it is reasonably sharp and well performing especially for publishing in smaller sizes.

The process

About the time Chick moved to UCLA, he too became committed to telling his story through a daily blog post on a site we called Chick’s GBS Adventure. With GBS, Chick’s body was paralyzed but his mind remained lucid (except for some hallucinations as a side effects of the pain medications).  Chick and I quickly worked out a system where he would dictate his thoughts to me while I typed on my MacBook Air which I carried with me everywhere.

I would photograph throughout the day, being mindful to protect the privacy of the staff and other patients unless given permission, and we would use the best images of the last 24 hours to help tell the story. My process was to pick my favorites from the phone and email them to myself. Mac’s new AirDrop feature came in quite handy as well – and thankfully all the facilities where Chick was being cared for had good guest WiFi. I would import the images into Adobe Lightroom for light post-processing and export them in a size for publication on our WordPress blog, FaceBook, and email. We wrote each entry in Evernote, which is available on all my devices (MacBook, iPhone, and iPad) then cut and paste into the WordPress editor when ready. Later on we came to also use the voice dictation on the iPhone before doing the final edit on the MacBook.

April 13, 2016

Figure-Ground or Using Contrasting Tones (reprise)

Last night, I presented on using figure-ground, or tonal contrasts, in photography to the Thousand Oaks Photography Group. To recap what I wrote a few posts back on this subject, figure-ground is a compositional concept in which you use tonal distinctions (light vs dark, dark vs light) to distinguish subjects in your image and draw the viewers eye.

In graphic design, it often also refers to pictures that are ambiguous based on what you interpret as the figure (the subject) and the ground (the background). Here are three examples.


Cat or dog?


Hand or gun?


Old woman or young woman?

In photography we use tonal contrasts to separate the subject and details from their surroundings. You can use simple images to explore this technique such as a light (or lighted) flower against its darker foliage.


Here the dark outlines on the wings of each bird make it stand out against the lighter foggy background.

In Flight

The light-colored weeds and grasses stand out in all of their detail against the dark rusted cans.

Camp Keeler #12

In this street scene, the mid-tone wall is used to highlight both very dark and very light objects.


Or this white dog lying on the dark mat at the dog show. Note how the use of subtle gray tones within the figure (the dog) and the ground (the mat) add more information and interest than if it was just a pure white shape on a pure black background.

dog on black

Finally, in this more complex scene from Ireland, notice how the woman in her coat (it looks like a mysterious person in a cape) is a dark figure highlighted against the lighted part of the trail, but her white dog is situated in the shadow part of the trail. The use of tonal contrasts to enable the viewer to see each of them and their outlines clearly.


I recommend studying the work of Penti Sammallahti and Elliot Erwitt to explore and be inspired by their black and white photography and their masterful use of tonal-contrasts.

Recipes for Success Using Tonal Contrasts

  • If possible – Set your camera to B&W mode, to show your image in B&W in the Live View mode
  • Background First
    • Start with a background with an area of uncomplicated light or dark that you can use to frame your subject against.
    • Wait for a light object to frame within a dark area or a dark object to frame within a light area
  • Subject First
    • Find an interesting subject
    • Determine if it is a dark object or light object
    • Reposition yourself or your subject so that it is surrounded by contrasting tonality
  • Add complexity
  • Look for patterns of repeating light/dark
    • Look for images with both light on dark and dark on light
    • In stripes
    • In surrounding areas