From Cheese Balls and Jawbones to Congaheads

Photo Site of The Month:  Martin Cohen | Contact Me

Lucky us.  The Grammy Awards will be staged this month.  Rap stars who are more money-oriented than the Republicans they despise, “Auto-tuned” divas, post-Punk poseurs and other vapid characters will be feted for their contributions to the slurry of contemporary pop music.

I don’t mean to make short shrift of the Top 40’s worship celebration.  There’s a time and place for fluffy overly processed music as there is a time and place for such food.  If I’m at a party, even I don’t mind indulging a Katy Perry tune while munching on cheese balls.

And, as with food, it’s good to purge the system with that which is organic, home-cooked and having just the right amount of spice.  If you’re not familiar with the Afro-Cuban sounds of Latin Jazz or Salsa, a search on-line is sure to yield samples of Tito Puente or Celia Cruz.

Then, head on over to Martin Cohen’s “Congahead” website for his collection of mostly black-and-white photos documenting the major artists in Latin, Afro-Cuban, pop, jazz, classic and rock from the 1960s to the 1990s.  There you will find live concert shots, portraits and trade ads featuring Machito, Carlos “Patato” Valdez, Eddie Palmieri, Ray Barretto, Dizzy Gillespie, George Benson and countless other musicians of the era.


Carlos "Patato" Valdez

An Excuse To Take Pictures

As a photographer, Cohen had unique access to these musicians.  That’s because Cohen’s “day job” – or as he puts it, his “excuse to take pictures” – was running Latin Percussion, the company he founded in 1964.

Born in the Bronx, Cohen’s first exposure to percussion-based music was at the famous Birdland Jazz Club in 1956.  By the 1960s, he was a full-out student of Latin music but had difficulty acquiring a set of bongos as a result of the U.S. economic embargo against Fidel Castro’s communist Cuba.  Fortunately, in addition to being a photographer, Cohen was a skilled mechanical engineer and was able to construct his own set from a photo of Johnny Pacheco’s bongos.

This experience launched his company – Latin Percussion or LP as it is also known – which included the manufacture of cowbells.  His Latin nightclub haunts provided a ready clientele of musicians that also provided constructive criticism or what we would call “market research” today.

Soon he added claves and wood blocks to his line.  But it was a special request by The Tonight Show’s drummer that resulted in Cohen’s first patent.  There is a sound common in Latin music that you’ve probably heard in countless Spaghetti Westerns.  It’s the rattling sound made by the teeth of a horse’s jawbone.  Cohen designed a much more practical version of this traditional instrument called the Vibra-Slap.  I own the Vibra-Slap along with close to a dozen other instruments made by LP.  It sure beats carrying a piece of skeleton around to gigs.

Visit February’s Photo Site of The Month:

© 2011 Xiomáro

Photo Site of The Month: The White House | Contact Me

“Inside North Korea,” produced by National Geographic in 2006, provides a disturbing glimpse into the dictatorship of Kim Jong-il.  The documentary follows a humanitarian medical team that was admitted into the country to provide over 1,000 cataract surgeries in less than 10 days.  Government “minders” watched and regulated their every step.  As you can imagine, the making of the documentary was no easy task.  Photographing and filming anything other than what was officially sanctioned was a dangerous game of hide and seek.

What a difference from free societies where just about everyone has a camera built into their cell phone.  The speed and ease with which footage can be uploaded to websites  like YouTube, Flickr and Facebook puts an interesting twist on who the minders are.

So it was refreshing to juxtapose “Inside North Korea” with “The President’s Photographer,” another National Geographic documentary produced last year.  Narrated by Morgan Freeman, we come to learn of the common denominator between Presidents Obama and Reagan — Pete Souza, the official White House photographer.  With a workspace less than 100 steps from the Oval Office and a reserved seat on Air Force One, Souza has constant access to President Obama’s comings and goings.

One Million and Counting

“I am so lucky to be doing this… but it’s a grind,” explains Souza.  The responsibility of documenting the history of Obama’s presidency means 13 hour days and an endless stream of digital photos.  Souza and his staff create about 8,000 to 20,000 images every week.  As many as five percent of the images are handshake photos taken at meet-and-greets that are given to White House visitors and guests as mementos.   By the time Obama was 16 months into his term, nearly a million photos were made.

Every single one of those images gets examined by the White House photo editor.  The best images are selected, and a portion of them are uploaded to the White House website for access by the public.  The photos are also enlarged and framed for exhibition in the West Wing, which gets refreshed with new “Jumbos” every two weeks.  “I would say [the] changing of the pictures is one of the biggest events that happens around here that everybody loves,” says Robert Gibbs, Press Secretary.

The President's Haircut
The President’s Haircut

One photo, however, remained on display for about a year and half.  The young son of a staffer had been told that he had the same haircut as the President.  The child wanted to see if that was true, so the President obligingly lowered his head for examination.  After the little boy pointed out the number of gray hairs, the President explains how the child patted him on the head “to get a feel for it.”  Can you imagine that scene ever getting played out with Kim Jong-il?

Despite the vast number of digital photos from which to select, all of them become part of the National Archives by law, and none can be deleted from the collection.  It must be daunting for Souza and his other staff photographers to know that – unlike the rest of us – they can’t simply press the Delete button for any bad shots that will be permanently associated with them.  Given the expertise of these photographers, though, I’m sure that the number of “bad” shots are few indeed.

2011 and Beyond

It was President Lyndon Johnson (1963-69) who had the foresight to establish the precedence of hiring a White House photographer.  In the internet age, we have easy access to the sitting President’s photos without having to visit the National Archives.  This month, Obama starts the second half of his presidency.  And the new edition of the House of Representatives is Republican controlled.  So it will be interesting to visit the White House website periodically to see how the photography staff documents the next two years in our nation’s history – each day features a new photo.  It’s a privilege that, unfortunately, is unknown to the people of North Korea and those oppressed by dictatorships elsewhere.

Visit January’s Photo Site of The Month:

© 2011 Xiomáro

Little Bottled Time Machines | Contact Me

Recently, I had an unexpected day off.  So I quickly seized the opportunity to crack open some long forgotten jars of linseed oil and gum turpentine in preparation for an experimental series I have in mind for an upcoming art exhibit.  Like an old song that transports you back to the time you first heard it, the toasty smells triggered a rush of memories as golden as the mediums themselves.

Time Machine
Time Machine

Painting en plein air.  Art books.  Pastels.  Charcoals.  My first models.  The thoughts were as fleeting as the points of light Monet struggled to capture with his brush.

Old Master styled glazing.  Simmering pot of rabbit skin glue.  My first art teacher.  The images and moments reached back even further in time.

My uncle.

Ah, I had forgotten.  Lower East Side.  Skinny and maniacal.  Van Goghesque.  Portrait of a man.  Repainted into a clown at my request.  The night I first smelled linseed and turp.  Off to Viet Nam.  Skinny and scared.  GI Joesque?

Years later.  His paint box becomes my paint box.

It was from that very box I retrieved my little bottled time machines.

© 2011 Xiomáro

Photo: Japanese Winter | Contact Me

Japanese Winter
Japanese Winter

It was one of those rare springtime snowstorms.  By the following morning, nature became a strange fusion of buds, ice, songbirds and snow.  It was a perfect occasion to try out my new camera.

We drove out to Oyster Bay, Long Island, and marched through the knee-deep snow at Planting Fields Arboretum State Historic Park.  The absence of footprints other than our own meant that we had arrived early enough to be among the very few on the grounds of this Gold Coast estate.  Our timing was a key factor in a creating a photograph that would generate a lot of interest and positive comments.

An Inspiring Landscape

The park encompasses more than 400 acres, so there was plenty of territory to explore and images to hunt.  The bright sun cast a sparkle on the ice-encased trees, which cut a dramatic silhouette against the clear blue sky.  Left-over leaves, still hanging from Autumn, made for a striking contrast to the snow as did the bright red Cardinals perched on spiny branches.  They were all moments worthy of capturing and many made their way through my lens.

But it was when we trudged to the rear of Coe Hall that the image came into view.  Coe Hall is a 65 room Tudor Revival style mansion.  On one side, there is an open field and, remarkably, no one had yet disturbed the pristine cover of snow.  And, there, off to the right stood a gnarly Japanese maple tree.

The Image That Composed Itself

I didn’t even have to look through the viewfinder.  With the naked eye, I could see the entire composition of the shot in front of me.  The Japanese maple was like a confident performer on a grand stage of snow, its branches like arms stretched outward acknowledging the audience of evergreens and budding trees in the distance.

In retrospect, I probably should have used a tripod.  In the open field, there was nothing to steady myself against.  But I rested the camera on my shoulder and gripped it tight.  The results were good enough so that I had very little postprocessing to do.  Just a bit of contrast and sharpening was all that was needed to heighten the sense of depth in the branches.  Other than that, the image was not touched up.  I didn’t even have to crop it.

Well, actually, I did convert the photo from color to black and white.  Not only did the conversion make the image more stark, it actually made it more real for me.  Not real in the physical sense – I obviously saw the image in color.  But the black and white was a closer approximation of how the image impacted me viscerally.  An emotional reality.  Indeed, when I exhibited both the color and black and white versions, the latter consistently drew the most attention… and the most sales.

© 2011 Xiomáro

Product Review: Lowepro Fastback 250 | Contact Me

SLR cameras don’t seem too heavy.  But if you’re walking around with one all day, it can start to feel like you have a millstone around your neck – especially if the camera is outfitted with a telephoto lens.Eventually, I started lugging mine around in my backpack and drawing it out when I was ready to shoot.  But that proved to be a bit of a struggle as the camera’s shape and protrusions were never seated properly in a bag designed for laptops, books, or softer, crushable items.  And I wasn’t comfortable with the idea of placing other loose items inside that would make contact with the camera.

Lowepro Fastback 250

Lowepro Fastback 250 - Open
Lowepro Fastback 250 – Open

That’s where the Lowepro Fastback 250 excels.  This backpack is specifically designed for photographers.  A side-entry pocket on the bottom securely holds different sized cameras and lenses along with padded compartments for additional lenses and accessories.  Affixed with Velcro, these compartments are adjustable to fit your specific gear.There’s also a flat compartment into which you can slip a 15.4″ laptop.  A very handy feature.  For 17″ laptops, Lowepro offers the larger Fastback 350 model, although my 250 model had no problem accommodating my 17″ laptop.The top pocket of the Fastback opens so that you have a wide compartment for other accessories.  Inside are enclosed and mesh pockets for other small items as well as slots for pens and pencils.  The outside of the pack has additional storage pockets.The shoulder straps are well padded with a built-in cell phone pocket, though it’s far too narrow to hold a combination PDA/phone such as my Palm Centro or an iPhone.  There is also a padded belt you can secure around your waist to help distribute the weight more evenly.

Take A Hike

Of course, the Fastback sounds good on paper and it looked real nice in the store.  So, within days of my purchase, I tested it in a real-world situation.  I packed the Fastback with 12 pounds of camera gear and took a briskly-paced seven mile hike in Mohonk Preserve (New Paltz, New York) – half of those miles were going up a steep thigh-busting hill.  It didn’t take long for the 12 pounds to feel more than twice that amount.

But the Fastback was pretty comfortable, and I was able to access my camera much more easily than with my standard-issue backpack.  I simply pulled the strap off my shoulder, swung the Fastback around toward my chest and unzipped the side-entry compartment that nestled my camera inside.The camera, though, does not rest flat against the inner padding.  My Nikon has a rounded contour on the right side with which to grip the camera.  This bump tilts the camera against the padding so that it’s askew.  I would have preferred a more custom fit but, after 7 miles of jostling, the camera remained snug and secure.

Lowepro Fastback 250
Lowepro Fastback 250

One nuisance was what to do with the camera strap.  Mine is wide and padded for comfort.  So storing my camera into the Fastback’s side-entry compartment was a bit like forcing Jack back into his box.  The bulky strap would poke out before I had a chance to zip it back in.  Removing the strap and refastening it later is not a practical option.  It would have also been great if there was a way to carry a tripod or monopod, perhaps with one or more Velcro loops.  The Fastback is more spacious than it looks.  I still had plenty of room to bring a lot more gear.  But bringing my monopod took a bit of creative packing.  Eventually, I removed the head of the monopod and stored it in the top compartment.  As for the rest of the decapitated monopod, I was just barely able to fit it into the broad pouch intended for a laptop – its stumpy neck stuck out of the top with the zipper keeping it in place.  After reaching the summit, I finally had a chance to remove the Fastback and set it down for a short break.  Despite the weight and bulk of the contents and the uneven ground upon which it rested, the Fastback did not topple over as what would have happened with my old backpack.  The Fastback is constructed with a flat bottom that keeps it anchored to the ground.  I like that the bottom is padded as my camera and lenses are stored directly above it.  As gentle as I was in setting down my old backpack, it was often greeted with a cringing thump – never a good thing for a laptop’s hard drive.

At Least It Was Good Exercise

The hike back downhill was easier.  It was soothing to hear the nuts falling from the trees like manna from squirrel heaven as the rain hissed and pattered on the leafy canopy.  And that reminded me that as wet as I was getting, all of my gear remained dry because the Fastback is fully lined inside.  Ironically, after an arduous day like this, I hardly took any photos at all.  I fired off maybe four or five mediocre shots at the summit.  There really wasn’t time to set up, make settings, compose the frame and shoot.  I was with a group of about 15 and they take their hiking seriously.  Their pace is quick and deliberate.  If you lag behind, you face the embarrassment of the Alpha Hiker stopping the pack to wait for you to catch up – chest to the ground and tail between the legs.

© 2011 Xiomáro