Thursday, May 13, 2010

One day, one shot

Give us your best shot, the New York Times asked.

There was one caveat: the shutter had to snap at 15:00 Coordinated Universal Time (the equivalent of Greenwich Mean Time), on Sunday, May 2. In Kansas that translated to 10 a.m. We were lucky: the sun was shining.

The project was the pinnacle of interactive journalism: the capturing of a global moment in time. Any subject was sanctioned, any camera allowed, any photographic skill level encouraged. The images could be uploaded to the website where they would later be categorized and posted. It was vision-sharing on a worldwide scale. It was utterly brilliant.

Photographers rose to the occasion. Almost 11,000 of them, in fact. The number of entries deluged the editors of Lens, the photography, video and visual journalism branch of the New York Times. The editing process took two weeks but as promised the images went live on Tuesday, May 11. Beneath an interactive globe that viewers could spin like a top was a short statement that served both as a warning and a promise.

The statement contained nine words. It was brief, it was succinct, it was simultaneously cautionary and enticing: “Make no plans for the rest of the day.”


Mine was there, smack in the middle of the United States. As a photojournalist, I wanted to illustrate the changes undergoing our little prairie town, but instead of my usual focus on decay and abandonment, I wanted something more upbeat or positive, or at minimum newsworthy, that nebulous, often illogical and sometimes obtuse ideal. What that might be involved some pointed thinking. I was very busy that morning, and tired, and Lori was gone all day leaving me in a miserable state of disjointedness. Nevertheless, at 9:45 that morning, I drove to a spot just east of Blue Rapids and parked beside a shiny new center pivot sprinkler system. It was the best I could come up with.

I walked around it, judging its length, its breadth, the low ridge to the south and the deep woods bordering the Big Blue River to the east. If I parked the truck just so and stood on the cab and switched to my superwide lens I could get it all, even the white spire of St. Elizabeth’s Catholic Church and the towering elevator beyond.

I positioned myself and waited as the seconds bled away on my watch face. Not long, but enough to see a line of clouds forming in the west, almost transparent in the bright morning sun. Shadows arched away in neat patterns replicating themselves section by section, narrowing by perspective. The engine ticked as it cooled. A church bell tolled, once, twice, three times. A crow called.

Five, four, three, two, one. Snap.

Kim Hofmann, a friend who lives near Clay Center, nailed a perfect exposure of a barbed wire fence enveloped in a tree. “This shot is representative of how ranching and nature are completely entwined,” she wrote.

Lori happened to be at the trailhead for the new Blue River Rail Park in Marysville. Her image shows the sign and the trail stretching northward toward its eventual terminus in Beatrice.

Dave Leiker, an Emporia-based photographer, timed his exposure to the Kansas Sampler Festival in Leavenworth, with a portrait of three artists comprising three generations of the same family.

At the same moment we snapped the shutters thousands and thousands of others followed suit. I’m still trying to wrap my brain around the concept as it translates into the actual moment. After all, it was two hours earlier in California when my brother Reece photographed a pastoral scene of cottonwoods framing 14,246-foot White Mountain Peak, the third-highest mountain in the Great Basin, and Connie, our ex-sister-in-law-now-sister-in-good-standing, shot an image of the Caltech Owens Valley Radio Observatory. “Living in a rather remote and rural environment often creates a sense of disconnection from the rest of the world,” she wrote. “The observatory, five minutes from home, is a comforting reminder that we are indeed all connected through technology, dreams and a potential to become greater than we are.”

Which serves as a lyrical description of what the moment in time represented.

The images are simple, gorgeous, complex, colorful, monochromatic, serious, comical, playful, vertical, horizontal, slanted, and far too many to take in at once. When enjoyed piecemeal, they’re inspiring and oddly comforting. No matter the skin color, religious beliefs, customs, culture, language or place of residence, we are one people. It’s a lesson we sometimes need to rethink and relearn.

As a photographer, I’m drawn to those images that best involve creative genius. As a person, I’m drawn to the images of people and the places I’ve never seen. The warning statement is apt and should be heeded at all costs. If you’re short of time, do not take the globe for a spin. Don’t. If you do, you’ll be there for a while. Make no plans for the rest of the day.

One nagging criticism remains, however. It’s a familiar terrain I navigate each summer during the county fair or any time a group of photographers come together to show their works, and now magnified into the stratosphere by the global reach of the project. For at the second of truth, when those thousands and thousands of photographers lined up their subjects and pressed the shutter to forever record that moment in time, a distressingly vast percentage focused not on sunsets or sunrises, not on loved ones or babies or small children playing in fields of clover, not on baptisms or spiritual ceremonies, not on the mundane rotes or rituals universal in scope, not on poverty or sustenance nor on life or death, but on their cats.

Weird. Deeply, darkly, disturbingly weird.


Deb Southerland said...

All alone and laughing out loud. That's what happened to me today as I read your column. Probably because not only is it weird that a lot of photographers are focusing on their cats, but because, I, non-photographer, have taken the last 12 pictures of our ... cat, reason, unknown except he makes me laugh at least once a day.

I never wanted another cat, was determined not to get one, but our granddaughter pleaded with us to adopt her cat, as her dad was making her give him up. And, now here we are with a nincompoop, a clown, a daring acrobat. Our life has been enriched and when he's acting like a fool, it takes us away from our woes, and the weariness of our long days when we are caught between a 93-year old and a 13-year old.

However, given that photographic assignment, I would have taken pictures of people going into a church. Mainly because that's where I would have been and because it seems, somehow, so Midwestern.

Tom Parker said...

I did not mean to disparage cats. My thoughts were purely on the extravagant usage of cat photography. Partly it's because of the subject matter, and partly because of an incidence once where a "judge" -- I use the word with distaste -- selected a grainy, out of focus shot of a cat over my razor-sharp, perfectly composed landscape image. Fool!
Anyway, I hope that suffices as an explanation. Enjoy your cat. I miss our rabbit.

Deb Southerland said...

It hurts when you lose a friend, and animals are no exception as they are often some of our best friends, Have you thought of perhaps purposefully getting another rabbit? There's no replacing a friend, that's for sure, but you might find joy in making a new one.

Carol said...

I like your photo, Tom. And you know I'm telling the truth, as it was a pivot sprinkler system that I chose as one of my favorites of your winter photography project.

Tom Parker said...

Carol -- Quite right. But that glaringly empty sky ruined it for me. I wanted clouds, drama, definition!