SHADOWS, SHARKS AND SINNERS – MARDI GRAS 2016

“Go. Go ahead.  You know  you want to go!!”

“And … you need to work off all that food!”

My shoulder Devil-Angel were working in tandem, urging me to get out and go downtown Mardi Gras day.  Not something I normally do unless I have visitors from out-of-town.  But the day was beautiful, the city festive, and I had just devoured a dozen oysters, a bowl of crawfish bisque, an Irish Mule (the drink, not the donkey), half a king cake and three-quarters of a container of pimento cheese in the last 24 hours.  I’d sworn to myself that would be the end of the indulgences for the week. Exercise was in order. Plus, I needed to get out and shoot before all of the invaluable knowledge from the Foundation First workshop evaporated from my brain.

The walking parades were just entering the French Quarter when I arrived down town.  People spend months, even a year or more, designing and putting together their costumes for Fat Tuesday.  Pirates, monks, giraffes, and sugar skulls all band together drinking, swaying and marching from the Faubourg Marigny to S. Peters Street in a display of color and cacophony.  As I skirted the edges of the crowd, I was greeted by a member of the Krewe of Greasy Grandpas and gifted with a purple beverage coozy and friendly conversation.

The afternoon was bright and clear, and sharp shadows added mystery to the faces and gazes of the revelers.  Initially, I thought I’d have difficulty getting decent shots, but then remembered to embrace the light, and the shadows, and just enjoy the freedom of shooting.

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Royal Street was my destination.  Most people head for Bourbon Street, but the crowds and the shenanigans can get a bit overwhelming there when you are flying solo for the day.  Royal Street is a bit calmer and less manic, populated with antique shops and art galleries by day, but no less colorful and entertaining than Bourbon Street on Mardi Gras.  There were wrestlers, showgirls, zombies, and sharks, and traveling DJs cruising down the street with portable turntables and speakers blaring Queen and Journey.

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At one point, the street evangelists showed up and started barking their message of hellfire and brimstone.  This is when I remembered my lesson of “stop, wait, observe … and wait some more” from the Foundation First workshop.  I watched in amusement as the “sinners” and self-proclaimed “saints” walked past one another with dismissive and judgmental glances.

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The afternoon light shifted and I decided to stay in one place and wait for couples and pedestrians to pass through a lovely spot of light on Decatur Street.  I waited … and waited … and waited (and have the contact sheet to prove it), and while my photographs were not spectacular, I was proud that I stayed and allowed for the potential of a scene to develop before me.  That is not something I would ever have done before the photography class last month.

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After lunch, it was time to walk back to the car and head home.  The afternoon had been exciting and I was encouraged with the variety of photographs I’d shot.  But, the crowds had thinned and there was more negative space to work with now … and a few interesting stragglers.  “I need your phone number, I’m starting a business, and I need people like you”, said the old guy with the cigar and bowler hat.  I’d not even spoken to him yet.  I laughed and at the same moment, his companion walked up, a lovely elderly lady who informed me that she was, as the hand-lettered sign she carried said, a former Playboy bunny.  For a minute, I felt like I was in some weird adult version of Alice in Wonderland.

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One last character caught my eye as I exited the French Quarter.  He said nothing as I asked if he minded a photograph.  So I quickly snapped a couple of shots and stopped to check my exposures.  When I looked back, he was gone, and with him the end of my romp through the city that day. Next year I’ll be ready, camera in hand, and maybe, just maybe, I’ll work up the courage to go in costume.

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Note:  view the full gallery on my website.

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REALITY CHECK, TEXAS SIZE

It was supposed to come easily to me.  Photography was supposed to be one more academic pursuit that came naturally to me.  Because I have two degrees, three professional licenses, and have been self-employed for years, photography, like every other pursuit, should just … come … to me. I’ve attended photography workshops, done on-line courses, bought slick equipment, done a few shoots, familiarized myself with strobes and Speedlights, and even understand the Inverse Square Law, dammit!!  So this Foundation First Workshop I was attending … it was going to be a great experience.  And I would ace it.

Check that shit at the door, girlie.  Total misplaced confidence and naïvete.

The classroom day, Day 1, was stellar.  In all of ten minutes, it is very apparent that the Foundation instructors, mentors and staff are there because they love what they do, they love each other (in that big, goofy, rowdy family sort of way), and they love to share their passion for photography with others.  You immediately feel welcomed and loved, too, no matter your background, experience level, hometown, or taste in music.

DSCF8160.jpgPhoto:  Joe Appel

But you are going to need that love.  Because that love is what will carry you through on Day 2.   Shooting day.

Shooting day was a surreal experience.  We were assigned to shoot for ten hours at the Ft. Worth Stock Show.  Get in there and get those shots!!  I never meet a stranger and will chat up anyone. Easy enough, right?!!

No.  No, no, no, no, no.  Something happened.  Something I wasn’t entirely prepared for.  Because it was supposed to come easy.  But it didn’t.  For a myriad of reasons, it didn’t. I shot horrible photos.  Total crap.  Total shit photos.   For two. Solid. Hours.  And then, then the frustration set in.  Absolute, crippling, self-loathing frustration.  So I retreated to the bleachers, sat down, and proceeded to brood.  Until the mentors appeared.  The mentors won’t let you brood.  Miraculously, they show up at your lowest point.   Right when you need them most.

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Photo:  Sergio Lopez

I won’t go into detail about what was said at each of the four mentoring sessions that day.  It’s like describing a roller coaster ride to someone.  You hear the words, but can only really experience the sensation if you go for the ride. The workshop mentors are all very accomplished, gifted photographers with distinct personalities and styles.  It was such a privilege to be a beneficiary of their wisdom and generosity. Huy taught me to stop, be quiet, and listen to – not see – what unfolds before you.  Gulnara taught me to be bold, get closer, follow the light, and wait for the beauty.  Craig taught me to be open-minded, allow for the “potential of the situation”, and to wait some more.  Even when you don’t want to anymore.  And Sergio.  Ah, Sergio.  He taught me about myself.  And perseverance.  And sunsets.

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Photo:  Huy Nguyen

If this all sounds a little touchy-feely, new age-y, then so be it.  Progressing as a photographer means progressing first on a personal level.  Only then will the moments, the passion, the love, the fear, and all the wondrous things you experience in life ever shine through in your photography.  That, ultimately, is the lesson at a Foundation Workshop.

At the end of the day, I was able to center myself, listen to what my mentors were telling me, and put their instruction into action.  I was proud of the final photos we all walked away with at the conclusion of the workshop.

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Photo:  Shelly R. Sessions

But, I have a lot of work to do.  Mostly, I need to rid myself of old thought processes and bad habits, and devote myself to this.  In school and professionally, I have always done well without having to really bust my ass studying or preparing for things.  That attitude will not serve me well if I am to grow as a photographer.  I don’t want to just do “well”.  I want my work to have significance and convey meaning.  I have been given the tools to work towards that now.  Shame on me if I don’t follow through.

Photography is not an academic pursuit.  Foundation First is not about making the grade, passing a test, or receiving accolades.  Foundation First is about falling in love – messy, tumultuous, tear-inducing, cathartic love – with yourself, with the possibilities, with the light, and with the gift of being alive, and conveying that message to the world through photography.

It was a tremendous privilege to learn, albeit too briefly, from the mentors in the other group:  Tyler, Candice, Joe, and Jan.  I hope to have the opportunity to learn more from them in the future.  And deep gratitude and love to the three amazing women who nurtured us throughout the process:  Kelly, Sherry and McKenzie.  Most of all, thank you, thank you, thank you and big love to my classmates and new siblings:  Jennifer, Bridget, Veronica, Annie, Christine, Rob, Katie, Kate, Melissa, Juan Carlos, Tina, Rhea and Mark.  Best wishes in all your pursuits and expect to see you back next year for FW 2017!!!  Work that lovefinger!!!

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