Again with the Fair

Ventura County Fair

Though still hot and dry in Southern California, Labor Day marks the official end of summer. To celebrate I bring you a few images I shot at the Ventura County fair in August.

As I was editing these, I heard the voice of Jay Maisel as he reviewed the 10 images I had brought from home for his workshop in New York. At about the 3rd image with a fair theme he said: “Again with the fair?” (or maybe he said “Again with the circus?”). This is how different it is to live in California. Today I will head to Santa Barbara and take images of the California scene. Shorts and tee-shirts, sand and surf. The fair, the circus, or just the leisure life of Southern California.

Ventura County Fair

Ventura County Fair

Ventura County Fair

Ventura County Fair

Disqualified from the Ventura County Fair

Yesterday I received the following email from Superintendent of Photography of the Ventura County Fair:

Nancy: According to the entry guidelines (Professional is defined as a person who engages in events or activities as a livelihood rather than a hobby and/or offers their services for pay as a photographer, instructor, judge, and/or demonstrator), you meet the qualifications of a professional photographer. Therefore, in order to accommodate you in this year’s fair, you can do one of the following: you could change your photos from amateur divisions to the professional divisions (707) at a cost of $20 per photo, you could leave your photos in the amateur divisions and not have them judged, or you could remove your photos from the fair.

Not only did I receive this email, so did several of my close friends.

Though county fairs are typically associated with agriculture and home crafts, through the years the Ventura County Fair has also embraced photography and fine-art with extremely high-quality and competitive exhibits. I first entered photographs in the fair four years ago. I remember walking around the exhibit viewing the impressive images that received awards. I jotted down names of strangers who are now close friends – George Hutchison, Ron Matson, John Ferritto, Roy Allen, and Jerry Koenig to name a few. The quality inspired me and led me out of the virtual community of Flickr and into a flesh-and-blood community of passionate and accomplished photographers living in the area.

Our community of amateurs is not bound by the need to make a living with endless weddings and portrait sessions. Instead we take our vacations together at dramatic places like Death Valley, and Coyote Buttes, Zion National Park, Joshua Tree, and Big Sur. We head to the local hills and poppy fields in the springtime. We walk the streets of Hollywood and Downtown LA on our weekends. We are generalists who enjoy hanging out together, talking shop, and challenging each other’s vision and expression.

There are more than three photography clubs in Ventura County with many members fanatical enough to belong to more than one of these clubs. The more advanced members freely share their experiences and knowledge with the community and each year we looked forward to the exposure, challenge and friendly competition offered by the fair. It was always a thrill and surprise to see who walked away with honors. The pride of seeing a good friend win Best of Show was almost as sweet as if you had won it yourself.

It seems this year the goal of the Photography Exhibit at the Ventura County Fair has changed and they have elected to exclude some of the best of the county’s amateur talent. Their definition of professional casts such a wide net as to exclude all of us who find it meaningful to share and give back to the community that supports and fosters our own growth. We neither provide photographic services for money nor do we sell our images on the open market. We merely take photographs for our own enjoyment, enter them in local shows (paying our fair share of framing and entry fees), and volunteer to share our knowledge leading local workshops and giving lectures. Yet the new leadership of the Photography Exhibit has chosen to exclude us under the guise that we are “professionals”.

The Ventura County photography community is strong and vibrant due to the images and information so freely shared by my friends George Hutchison, Darrel Priebe, Jerry Koenig, Jean Castaing, Ron Matson, Randi Siegel, Allyson Barnes, Susannah Kramer, Roy Allen, Anne Allen, Carl Volpe, John Ferritto, and many others. We are not professionals and it is a shame that some of us have been excluded simply because we dig in so deeply and share so freely.

An Open Letter to Superintendent of Photography for the Ventura County Fair

Dear Superintendent:

I am disappointed by the receipt of your letter. I do not know how you made the determination that I am a “professional photographer”. In my field, Information Technology and Computer Science, a great deal of credibility is placed on the role of a professional. Professionals typically have proof to qualify for a level of pay including experience and degrees.

I am truly an amateur photographer. While I have spent a great deal of time and monetary investment in a hobby which provides me with a creative outlet outside of my profession, this does not qualify me as a professional photographer. The services I provide to the local photography community are completely voluntary. The Ventura County photography community is strong and vibrant as it is only because of the information so freely shared by George Hutchison, Darrel Priebe, Ron Matson, Susannah Kramer, Roy Allen, Anne Allen, Carl Volpe, myself, and many others.

While it is true that I have been asked to judge for the Ojai Photography Club in August, this will be the first time that I will ever have been paid for any photography services. I do not offer any photographic services for pay nor I do not have a photography business.

When I first saw the Ventura County Fair Photography exhibit four years ago, I was thrilled and enchanted by the quality of images. It was seeing the photography of George Hutchison and Ron Matson that inspired me get more involved in the local amateur photographic community. I do believe that the wide net you are casting over your own determination of who is and who is not a professional will greatly diminish the quality of your exhibit.

I do not wish to debate you on your decision and am voluntarily withdrawing my images from the fair.

Nancy Lehrer
Principal, Information Systems

Looking for Customers – Evaluating Street Photography

Looking for Customers
Looking for Customers by I Nancy, on Flickr

“I don’t have a philosophy. I have a camera. I look into the camera and take pictures. My photographs are the tiniest part of what I see that could be photographed. They are fragments of endless possibilities.” Saul Leiter in an 2009 interview with Dean Brierly

In general, I find editing my own work, choosing the good from the mediocre, terribly difficult. With my street photography I find it even more difficult because I don’t have the simplest lesson of beauty to apply. Insted, I have been experimenting with a method of evaluation that I recently developed while studying the works of various street photographers and after a very useful portfolio review with Ibarionex Perello. Ibarionex hosts a podcast, The Candid Frame, where he interviews photographers on being photographers. His interviews are not about gear or situation, but about process and approach. His method for about talking about photography, not photographic technique, was reflected in my portfolio review. Ibarionex and I talked a lot about commanding the frame, intimacy, finding the story, and capturing the right moment. We discussed my strongest images and also my near misses. In the near misses, the photographic technique and framing were fine, but some strong essence was missing. Coming away from the review, my task is to determine how to better recognize the strong work from the near misses and I decided that I would look at some of my favorite street photography and try to determine what made them strong for me.

My initial study was the photographer Saul Leiter. Saul Leiter, primarily a fashion photographer working from the late 1950’s through the 1980’s, also embarked on a personal endeavor in street photography. I am familiar with his work through a small, and inexpensive, volume simply entitled Saul Leiter (Photofile).  Using my gut instinct, I chose a small collection images from this volume which were the most memorable and powerful for me. As I studied them, I recognized three elements exhibited in each of these photos: story, visual interest, and strong compositional force or gesture.

Concerning story, in each Leiter image an underlying story is brewing, The story is shown ambiguously and in such a manner that the viewer is only able to experience its beginning or ending. In one image we see the feet of a man on a ladder leaning against a storefront. We wonder what he is doing, how long he has been there, and a dozen other questions?

The second element of my theory is the display of visual interest. This involves visual stimulus in the form of fine details, colored textures, or repetitive patterns, any one of which might be real or reflected. In most of his images there is this captivating backdrop that is full of texture or light or color which in no way distract but instead provide a deep experience within the frame.

And finally, in these images there is always one dominant compositional force or gesture such as a strong diagonal, an overarching shape, a heavy framing, or a contrasting splash of light or color. I can’t find a really good definition of gesture to capture my meaning. I am meaning more than just a human facial expression or body pose. Examples in Leiter’s images  include the large shape of figure in shadow, a strong diagonal formed by a ladder, the heavy framing of a window or door, deep negative space of an awning, a splash of light and color on a patterned dress, a red umbrella, repetitive panels of alternating color or texture, and the human gesture of walking or doing.

My working theory of how this photographic trinity works is as follows: the story pulls you in, the visual interest keeps you busy, and the strong compositional force binds it all together.I’ve started to apply this evaluation to not only my own images, but to others as well. It is a theory that goes beyond tips and techniques invaluable during image making such as “get closer”, “look for good light”, “follow good compositional rules”. Instead it is a theory that allows me to understand the whole after it has been put together to try to get a handle on what makes it work, or not, after all your best image making skills have been applied.

Here I present Waiting for Customers taken at the Ventura County Fair, one of my favorite venues for photography because you can do both night photography and street photography all in the same setting. The story here is contained in the anticipatory look of the carnival game operator leaning slightly outward with the ball in hand and raised eye brows, working on enticing customers to play his game. The visual interest is provided by the brightly light game stand which also provides a nice rim light onto the subject. The game prizes also provide a solid framing to provide focus onto the subject while also providing interesting context. And, finally, the gesture is the operators stance and lean and the strong leading line of the game railing.

Fair Nights Noir

Fair Foods
Fair Foods by I Nancy, on Flickr

This is a short series of the Ventura County Fair in B&W. I visited the fair twice this year. The first visit was primarily intended as a night to look over the Photography exhibit and to see how I did (2 – 1sts, 1 – 2nd, and 2 Honorable Mentions – thank you). I spent some time that night also shooting but had a very limited amount of time. I wrote up one shot from that first night a few posts ago.

The first round of shooting got my juices flowing for the use of light, color, and the wonderful vendors. This prompted me to set up a second night coordinated with a bunch of my photo friends. I knew I wanted to get more of the vendor booths. Little, outrageous, gems of architecture. Glowing with lights and serving up fabulously bad food. I wanted to catch their quirky characteristics. I was thinking about more HDR set with a low, wide angle. I shot the night away.

When I got home, I was surprised that I was not as happy with these images as I would have liked. Even with the combination of the color and the exaggerated angle they seemed boring. I was disappointed. As a few days went by and I couldn’t let these images go. Something inspired me to test these images out in B&W instead of the HDR I had planned. Voila! They came to life.

I think I need a photography psychologist to help me unravel this one. My list of things to portray as I shot centered around the lights and the color. Subconsciously I was pushing the envelope on angle and view and I guess it is the angle and view, with the color subdued, that really brought out the feeling I was after. What do you know?

I hope you enjoy this excursion to the strange and odd food venues of the summer fair.

My Dogs are the Best
My Dogs are the Best by I Nancy, on Flickr

Summer Fair Night
Summer Fair Night by I Nancy, on Flickr

Rainbow Candy
Rainbow Candy by I Nancy, on Flickr

The Good Stuff

The Good Stuff

Artist and Geek collided for this shot at the Ventura County Fair.Night at the Fair

Like a hunter in pursuit of that elusive prey, I’ve been in pursuit of night-time fair shots for some time. Mostly they end up in the bit-bucket, a jumble of over exposed lights and chaotic people. (A notable exception is my 2nd Place Fair Theme win at this years Ventura County Fair. It was taken last summer at the Santa Monica Pier). Given that luck and quantity weren’t helping with the quality of my output, a bit more thought was needed. Time to get the Artist and the Geek to talk to one another.

I’ll explain this one like I have a few others since listening to David duChemin’s CreativeLIVE Vision Driven Photography webinar. First a list of what I saw and felt. Then lists of how I went about the Frame, Capture, and the Process using the list as a guide.

The List – what I saw and felt, what I want to convey in the photography

  • Lights and bright colors
  • Excitement
  • Vendor booths of junk, pure junk
  • People, together and separate
  • Colors
  • Light in the darkness
  • People are part of the scene, but not the scene itself

The Frame – what will I put in the frame

  • I really wanted to see people interacting with the brightly lit vendor food booths. Here I saw these three friends in front of this booth. There was a lot to attract me to this subject. They were there for quite some time so I had time to think and compose. They were well back lit. It was a group of 3 (perfect!). There were good colors and contrasts of the group – red, black, and white.
  • The background booth was as colorful and audacious as it gets – The Good Stuff – all junk, pure junk. Then think about the friendship of the group of 3, hanging at the VC Fair for the evening. Now, isn’t that the Good Stuff too?
  • The rest just sort of fell into place – nice oblique angle, balance using the rule of thirds, timing getting the rest of the path clear.

The Capture – what camera settings, lenses and why

  • The oblique angle gives me some excitement
  • The exposure was the difficult part. The obvious solution to high-contrast situations is HDR – so I bracketed -2, 0, +2. This would allow me to capture the detail inside the building as well as the outside. I also knew that I would need to reblend in the middle-exposure of the people in order to avoid ghosting of movement.
  • 55mm – really just a standard street length. Let the building and the scene do the speaking.

The Process – post processing

  • I’m not a fan of wild HDR, but it is quite useful for these high-contrast scenes. For this I wanted lots of detail within the image, but keep the people as silhouettes with just the edge light. A combo of Photomatix from the RAW images and tweaks of the tonemapped image in Lightroom.
  • Then I processed the middle exposure to match the HDR and using Photoshop and layers, I masked the people in over the HDR to remove the ghosting effects of the people movement.

The result is a bright and dark scene. The colors of the fair and the emotion of friendship.