The mystery within

I’m staring at a mug I bought at a craft show in 2008. The potter has glazed the outside in muted blues and greens and let the speckled brown surface show in faint rows. It is a serviceable piece.

Inside, the colors burst from the sides, washing over circles like watercolor, changing hue and depth as they flow.

I have a bowl like that. We use it to hold fruit. On the outside it looks utilitarian. On the inside, the colors explode. We see the outside daily. We notice the inside only when we clean the bowl.

Why do potters hide their best work? Comments are open.

Learning to Look: a Year in the Life in Photos

We were sitting at a table in a small restaurant. My friend Joan had just received a high-end digital camera as a gift. She’d decided to chronicle her life by taking a picture each day and posting it to her social network. I wondered how anyone short of National Geographic’s Jim Brandenburg had the discipline to not only take a photo every day but make it an interesting one.

Back at work, I thought about following Joan’s lead. Would the project be worth the effort? Could I sustain it? Would anyone view the work?

We never know until we try. So I downloaded the Instagram app to a smartphone, linked it to my accounts with Facebook, Twitter, Flickr and Tumblr and started to shoot. I wanted the first image in the series to reflect reality, not aesthetics, and chose to photograph the highway through the windshield during the morning commute—not something I’d recommend doing on a regular basis, given the problem of distracted driving. And since online privacy is also an issue, I avoided photographing family members.

During the year I’ve taken photos on vacation, at concerts and in the office, shooting from airplanes, sailboats and cars. The subjects range from kayaks to cats, from people in line at Wal-Mart to flowers to Ferris wheels. The images are straight or processed. They chronicle a life in transition, capturing the changes in families, careers and seasons.

Some days I knew what I wanted to shoot—the current activity, the dramatic change in weather, the empty road that captured the sense of isolation we sometimes feel. Other days I left things to chance. I vowed to shy from the overly familiar subjects on the Internet—pets, food and sunsets—and never to take a photo of something just to fulfill the daily requirement. But on busy days I had to bend those rules.

In reviewing the year, I find I enjoy the images that look artfully composed, like the still life of silver frost edging green leaves. The impromptu images seem more interesting, like the elderly couple falling asleep at the gate while they wait for their plane. I also enjoy social commentary—the bored faces of fellow workers during meetings, the pre-school girl using a $600 smartphone some adults can barely afford, the empty chair outside a classroom in a district that just dismissed dozens of teachers.

But my favorites are the unexpected images—the delighted look on a woman’s face as she wins a prize at Bingo, the college mascot flexing his muscles during graduation, the couple photographing themselves at a baseball game. Each carries an emotional impact as well as an aesthetic appeal.

While I’m pleased with the images—you can view the collections at the Year in the Life board on Pinterest or the two YITL sets on Flickr—I’m amazed at the response. Almost every picture posted to Facebook receives more “likes” than anything I’ve written.

That enthusiasm is contagious. After a year of collecting snapshots I find myself as fascinated with the process as the product. Photography is a great teacher. It urges us to act boldly, to stand in the rain, to get close to noise and dirt and smiles. It helps us to focus, to crop the distractions. It teaches us to see.

What better way to spend the year.

Jeff Widmer is a writer, editor and photographer. He is the author of The Spirit of Swiftwater and other works.

A Year in the Life collage

 

 

Dear graduate: take five

If it’s spring it must be time for graduation . . . and those dignified speakers polishing their well-worn nuggets of knowledge. Time to take a break from all that earnestness and listen to the advice of the most tuned-in of all philosophers–the musicians of the world.

Rather than rehash the old “you can’t always get what you want” debate, we can glean workable advice for building your career by listening to some of the pioneers in a field that is probably 180 degrees from yours–jazz. Here are four ideas from the front lines:

  •  Work hard. No one short of Keith Moon or Buddy Rich has played with the muscle of drummer Billy Cobham. Take the recording “Total Eclipse.” Fire leaps from those sticks, especially during the opening suite “Solarization.” But he also composes the most exquisite melodies. While the rhythm moves your feet, it’s the song that moves your spirit. OK, we’ll use the two P words here, passion and purpose, but let’s not make their discovery a career in itself.
  • Play soft. You can work quietly on occasion and still capture attention. Listen to Joao Gilberto’s sultry guitar work on “The Girl from Ipanema,” or Astrud Gilberto’s vocals on “Corcovado.” High speed and volume all the time will wear out you and your welcome.
  • Have a heart. You may have a constant craving for promotion but consider the feelings of your coworkers. Listen to anything by K.D. Lang or Tony Bennett for a guide to acting naughty or nice.
  • Take a bow. Acknowledging the applause after he’d finished, trumpeter Maynard Ferguson would tent his hands in front of his chest like a praying monk and bow. He’d also acknowledge everyone in the band. That’s a gracious leader, one that others want to follow.

A parting word of advice: stop taking vocational-aptitude tests and hunting for your passion. Enjoy the music. The song doesn’t last forever.

 

Piquing your interest with Pinterest

What do you get when you cross Facebook with Flickr? Pinterest, the hot new social networking site that lets users collect and share photos across the Internet.

Mashable, the source of all things digital, describes Pinterest as a “digital pinboard,” a place where users can connect to others through shared tastes and the images that fascinate them. Users create category-based boards and then pin images to them. They can populate those boards by finding media online or uploading their own artwork. The boards are visible to all users, who can repin images on their own boards, “like” those images and follow other users.

So what does an image-based social site look like? Let’s take a look at my boards. I started by collecting images in some of the preset categories such as “Favorite Places & Spaces.” After that I created a few categories like “Design” and populated them with Pinterest user images I thought were worth sharing. Finally, as a bruising cold spell swept across the Northeast, I uploaded a few original photos I’d taken last winter after a snowstorm. (I’m trying to go beyond the share-the-misery idea and find something positive about a foot or more of snow.)

A few hours after the photo went live Cassandra Gouws from Pretoria, South Africa repinned it for one of her collections labeled “Travel.” I’m returning the favor and following that board and one more called “Amazing Photography.”

What impact Pinterest will have on the social and business community is anyone’s guess. Mashable only started covering it last October. And at this point participation is by invitation only. But as of late last year some 30,000 people had downloaded the Pinterest app from iTunes. And Mashable has written a primer on its use.

Participating takes more work than Tweeting and yields a smaller audience than Facebook but the site may appeal to people who prefer visuals to text. And since one of the default categories involves favorite products, Pinterest is positioning itself for companies in the fashion and design industries.

The Fog

Slowly the fog,
Hunch-shouldered with a grey face,
Arms wide, advances,
Finger-tips touching the way
Past the dark houses
And dark gardens of roses.
Up the short street from the harbour,
Slowly the fog,
Seeking, seeking;
Arms wide, shoulders hunched,
Searching, searching,
Out through the streets to the fields,
Slowly the fog –
A blind man hunting the moon.

— F.R McCreary

Twilight time

We’ve taken to walking in the evening after dinner. The road rises steeply to meet us, you can feel it in your calves, as if gravity increases with altitude. Trees reach across to shake hands, congratulating each other on another fine day. Lilies start to spiral inward, their yellow throats glowing in faces of orange. Under the pines the darkness condenses from the air and settles like silt in a pond. It rounds the edges, turns trees into hills, gives them a solid shape you can feel a hundred yards away. Reminds me of “Evening” from the The Moody Blues’ “Days of Future Passed.”

It’s late, the dishes await.

Culture as an engine of commerce

U.S. politicians who want to cut federal funding for NPR might read a study by the Ifo Institute for Economic Research in Munich. Researchers there found a direct link between spending on culture and regional economic health.

The authors studied the economic growth of regions with and without opera houses. Their conclusion: regions with these cultural centers attracted residents with more training and education, leading to greater economic growth for the region as a whole.

Or in the arcane language of the study: “Proximity to a Baroque opera house is a strong predictor of the district’s share of employees with a tertiary degree.” The study is quoted in the Economix blog by the New York Times.

Now you might dismiss the parallel with public broadcasting by saying that no one moves to a new location solely to be near a radio or television station and that’s a valid point. But for affluent and well-educated citizens, proximity to sources of knowledge and culture factor almost as heavily as health care in the decision to relocate. (In a recent survey by  homebuilder Del Webb 61% said one of the top reasons for deciding where to move involves cultural and recreational amenities — a percentage point more than a favorable climate.)

Since these consumers have the wherewithal to support politicians as well as newscasters, lawmakers might reconsider using fiscal policy to drive social change.

Bavarian State Opera, Munich

Bavarian State Opera, Munich

It’s the end of the world and we like it

There isn’t a lot of literature about 9/11. The attack on the World Trade Center has given the nation a case of post-traumatic stress disorder. With End Days, Deborah Zoe Laufer just might change that.

In her play, the Stein family is reeling from the attack in New York. Each copes in his or her own way: Arthur, the father, has collapsed into depression after surviving the collapse of the towers, the only one of 64 in his office to live. His wife Sylvia has become a born-again Christian who campaigns for repentance before the rapture, which she’s convinced will happen this Wednesday. Their daughter, Rachel, dresses as a Goth to keep others at bay. Into their lives comes a classmate, Nelson, who wears a white Elvis Presley outfit like a medieval shield. An admirer of Rachel and cosmologist Stephen Hawking, he places his faith in love and his trust in science.

Arthur has given up on life. Sylvia still fears she’ll lose Arthur and Rachel in another disaster. Nelson is learning Hebrew for his bar mitzvah and views his studies with awe and reverence, an approach that touches Arthur. And while the high school kids pick on him, Nelson can’t give up the security of his costume, which he associates with his late father. Sylvia talks to a Jesus only she can see and after reading Hawking’s book, Rachel talks to the scientist as he follows her in his wheelchair. Everyone has a different belief system, a different way of coping with a dangerous world.

Their beliefs collide at the end in a violent thunderstorm. Sylvia tempers her yearning for the afterlife with the realization that this one offers her the greatest hope for happiness. Arthur begins to recover his taste for living thanks to Nelson’s attentions and the boy and Rachel fall in love. The play is funny, dramatic and touching, one of the first attempts I’ve seen to deal with the aftermath of 9/11.

Directed by Lauren Caldwell, End Days stars Mark Woollett as Jesus/Stephen Hawkins, Filipe Valle Costa as Nelson, David Sitler as Arthur, Jennifer Smith as Rachel and Sara Morsey as Sylvia. It runs through Jan. 30 at the Hippodrome Theater in Gainesville, Florida.

EndDays

The accidental publicist

First we had cavemen sitting around the fire telling stories. Then gossips and reporters. Then came chat and blogs and we cycled back to citizen journalists.

With the rise of social media we now have citizen publicists. Like volunteer journalist, they want to speak their mind. When they listen, they want to hear what their peers are saying, not just the company line. And through the really big amplifier called the Web they can have an outsized influence on our work.

As creatives, we want to reach them.

FireOur agency regularly counsels clients who want to join the social media wave but are afraid of getting swamped. There are too many networks and monitoring them is a time-sink. So for those clients who want to dip a toe into online communications, we’ve developed an approach called the Social Media Platform that allows organizations to engage their audiences as well as publish their ideas.

It’s a perfect fit for artists, photographers, writers and other creatives who can’t afford a publicist.

Here’s the strategy: Organizations need to monitor and influence what people are saying about their brands. So do creatives, with the added task of promoting their work far and wide. We social media because that’s where our future editors, clients and benefactors hang out. With a social media platform we can harness the power of peers, asking influentials who like our work to spread the word. The social media platform is no substitute for a full-blown marketing campaign that uses advertising, direct mail, media relations and microsites. But it offers creatives a turnkey operation that allows them to join, monitor and influence the online conversation.

quest-for-fire_lHere’s how it works: The platform is an integrated collection of social media networks and tools. It includes the major social and business networks—Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, SlideShare and YouTube—but has room for numerous sites, forums and communities. At the heart is a white-label blog without branding for an independent look and feel. With the blog creatives can manage reputations, disseminate key messages and establish expertise in the market—this might apply more to non-fiction than fiction writers. Creatives who’ve already built a reputation can use the platform to solve issues before they become wide-spread problems.

There are six parts in the process of establishing a social media platform:

  1. Create. We start with a blog hosted on an independent site. Posts and comments radiate from the blog to the major social and business networks. The system notifies the blog administrator each time someone from the outside posts a comment. For your peace of mind, comments can be approved, edited or deleted before anyone on the ‘Net sees them. Tools: WordPress software, web host.
  2. Listen. Tapping into the online conversation about our brand is essential. Specialized search engines allow us to listen to what people are saying about our work. PR people call it reputation management. Tools: Social Mention, Google Alerts, Gmail to verify social network accounts.
  3. Contribute. Based on your expertise, you can contribute original text, slides, photos and video. Crowdsourcing allows you to obtain feedback on work. You can even use your network to float ideas for future projects. Tools: those listed above.
  4. Publicize. Blogs are like parties. You have to invite the right people to achieve critical mass. We start with the internal audience, your friends and business associates, and add editors, writers and bloggers in traditional and digital media. Tools: LinkedIn, Twitter.
  5. Monitor. The conversation is ongoing. The monitoring needs to be, too. But checking multiple sites dozens of times a day can get crazy. A dashboard can simplify the process: Tools: HootSuite, TweetDeck.
  6. Evaluate. You’re not a major corporation. The goal isn’t to fill spreadsheets and generate charts that dazzle but yield no useful information. We measure the volume and tone of comments but take everything with two grains salt. Tools: Twitrratr (Twitter rater), Twendz (Twitter trends), Tweet Level.

Does the system work? Yes. Our agency is seeing a good adoption rate from editors and bloggers as well as retweets of original material. Why does it work? Because it leverages three potent forces in our society: the shift toward digital media, people’s desire to hear recommendations from peers rather than companies and journalists’ need to discover leads rather than waiting for pitches.

That’s almost as good as telling stories around the campfire.