Pittsburgh documentary photographer

Photographing Faith

It was an honor and privilege to work on this story for Public Source.

 “Absolutely and unabashedly welcoming”: How some Pittsburgh faith communities embrace LGBT worshippers.

By using the silent mode of my X-Pro2 and X-T2 (sound off, electronic shutter on), I was able to work during the service and not be disruptive. Prime lenses (18mm, 23mm and 50mm) kept my X-Pro2 kit small and light, while the 50-140 on the X-T2 allowed me to get in tight from a greater distance. 

For the portraits, the 10-24mm was perfect to achieve the desired perspective and coverage. Godox TTL flash provided the right illumination to balance with the ambient light.

Without the flip screen on the X-T2, the exterior photo with the rainbow flag would not have been possible. To make that photo, I leaned over a row of prickly plants and framed the shot at a very difficult angle.

As always, my X System worked flawlessly and produced amazing files that needed almost no adjustment in post. 

Rev. Shanea Leonard, the pastor of Judah Fellowship Christian Church, sings along with the congregation during worship. Anita Levels directs the worshipers in song.

Rev. Shanea Leonard, the pastor of Judah Fellowship Christian Church, sings along with the congregation during worship. Anita Levels directs the worshipers in song.

Rev. Shanea Leonard delivers the sermon during worship services.

Rev. Shanea Leonard delivers the sermon during worship services.

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Rev. Shanea Leonard gives a hug to three-year-ol Vivian Grey during worship services.

Rev. Shanea Leonard gives a hug to three-year-ol Vivian Grey during worship services.

The Rev. Vincent Kolb is pastor at Sixth Presbyterian Church in Squirrel Hill.

The Rev. Vincent Kolb is pastor at Sixth Presbyterian Church in Squirrel Hill.

Yvonne Hudson and Lynette Asson in the sanctuary at Calvary United Methodist Church.

Yvonne Hudson and Lynette Asson in the sanctuary at Calvary United Methodist Church.

A rainbow flag outside of Calvary United Methodist Church on Pittsburgh’s Northside.

A rainbow flag outside of Calvary United Methodist Church on Pittsburgh’s Northside.

Beauty and the Beasts

A sight that we'll never see again. This is the big parade from the Barnum and Bailey Circus. When they rolled into town via train, they assembled the animals and walked them to the site of the performance. I created this image, Beauty and the Beasts while covering one such parade. 

When I saw this woman working with the elephants before the parade, I knew there would be a powerful photo. Her fair skin and silk costume were natural textural points with the elephants dark, textured hide. The size differential, she was small compared to the massive pachyderms, was a distinct bonus.

To put it all together, I backed off and selected a 300mm lens to compress the scene. I wanted all those elements on the same plane.

Compositionally I was aware of the line of the elephant's eyes leading the views eyes through the image. Instinctively I was also looking for the Fibonacci spiral or rule of thirds to strengthen the dynamic composition. When I felt all the elements come together, I pressed the shutter. I got one frame, and the woman disappeared between her charges. 

The scene developed in moments lasted for a split second and never came back together. That's photojournalism. You're either ready or your not. Your senses must always be on high alert whether you are covering the President of the United States, a city council meeting or a circus parade. As an early mentor always said, "To get there (hand held high) you have to start here (hand held low) and work your ass off every day on every job, no matter what you're shooting."

In the darkroom, I did a significant amount of work to massage the contrast in particular areas. Ilford Multigrade paper was a miracle. You could use a grade 5 filter in one area to increase contrast and a low grade 0 in another to balance a wide range of tones. It was not unusual for me to use three or four different filters on a print. A lot dodging and burning of small areas took place as well to bring the emphasis to the woman. As is often quoted from Ansel Adams, “The negative is the equivalent of the composer’s score, and the print the performance.” You see only to show.

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Diane Arbus

"Are you related to Diane Arbus?"

That was the question posed to me in 1980 by one of the most respected photo educators in the country, Angus McDougall at the University of Missouri. At that time, McDougall had more graduates in positions at leading newspapers and magazines than anyone else. So when he spoke, people listened. 

"Are you related to Diane Arbus?" he asked. Of course, the answer was no; I'm not. He wondered because of my photos being "quirky" sometimes almost to an extreme. I didn't have a style like most other students. It wasn't typical American photojournalism. It wasn't entirely European either. It was some strange conglomeration he couldn't put his finger on so he related it to the only thing that made sense, the odd, sometimes uncomfortable, work of Diane Arbus. 

While I'm not sure he meant it as a compliment, but I took it as such. My style isn't "the Missouri way," or any other teachable way, but it is my way. It's how I see the world, sometimes paring in odd ways. 

I've often looked back to my time at Ball State University and am thankful I found a teacher and mentor in Joseph Costa who allowed me to be me, for better or worse, rather than a prescribed formula for how an American photojournalist should see. 

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Hoarfrost

As I looked out the window this morning, it reminded me of a scene from long ago in Michigan. The overnight storm blanketed the area with four inches of fresh snow; it was just as lovely as the hoarfrost I saw in Michigan many decades past. 

For those unfamiliar, according to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, "Hoarfrost is formed by direct condensation of water vapor to ice at temperatures below freezing and occurs when the air is brought to its frost point by cooling." 

Hoarfrost doesn't happen often, but when it does the show is spectacular, especially if you experience it on a bright clear morning. I'm still waiting to see it in the sunshine. But, knowing my preference, I would probably photograph it with Tri-X, as I did here.

When presented with something as fleeting and fragile as hoarfrost it's best to have an idea where you want to photograph. I knew this location. I scouted it and filed it away in my mind to return to when the conditions were right. Location scouting is an essential part of the job. As a photographer, you need to find your locations. Don't be lazy and rely on crowdsourcing. Do your legwork. Get out there and drive around, walk about and look. Build a location notebook. Don't make other people's pictures by using sites others suggest. Find your places and make your photos. 

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Little Michael

In 1975 Little Michael Lord, 7, was a child evangelist, faith healer and one of the hottest attractions on the Bible Belt. That year his big yellow van with “Little Michael Ministries” scrawled on the side racked up more than 100,000 miles on the revival circuit. So when the revival show rolled into Mid-Michigan, my editor dispatched me to cover the event.

Little Michael and his father, Rev. Michael Lord Sr., loved media attention, so I had carte blanch to move around the tiny church where they preached. To move quickly and quietly I used two Leica cameras, M2 and M3, and just three lenses; 21mm, 50mm, and 135mm.

At 51, he's no longer "Little" Michael Lord, but still touring the country as an evangelist.

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The Cat's Meow

What happens on Bourbon Street, stays on Bourbon Street! 

You can have the Vegas strip, for me, nothing beats New Orleans for street photography. Any day of the year you can find pictures ranging from dramatic to outrageous. You just have to be there, be ready and shoot. 

Wandering around one night, I found these two at the Cat’s Meow. Just two overzealous patrons who got on stage to dance, sing and shout. A small crowd gathered on the sidewalk to watch the impromptu show. I framed my shot between two onlookers to provide context and eliminate distraction at the edge of the frame. Then it was just a matter of catching the right moment. 

Technically there was nothing fancy about the photo. I was carrying a Leica M6 and 50mm lens on the camera with a 35mm in my pocket along with a few extra rolls of film. No flash needed or wanted, I had to stay as stealthy as possible to avoid any potential confrontation. On Bourbon Street, you’re dealing with a lot of drunken people. It can be an unpredictable situation so travel as light as possible. And remember, what happens on Bourbon Street, stays on Bourbon Street, except for the pictures.

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Zen Way

Scan your frame from edge to edge before you release the shutter. Look for the angles, the complex geometry.  Where are the squares? The triangles? Does the eye flow around the image? Is it a circle or elliptical motion? Where are the subject points? Do you have a center of interest, an anchor point?

If you’re capturing moments on the fly, you’ll need to master the principles, so they become present without looking. Put the technique so deep within you it’s always there. Find your flow, your zone, your Zen. 

The checker tournament was intense. Man pitted against man. A hall filled with silence. One by one they fell until only two remained. The shutter of my Leica broke the muteness like a stick snapping in the forest. I paused, waited, composed and finally squeezed off a frame when the elements came together, the narrative complete, the composition revealed.

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Goodnight, Manny.

Everything changes. Nothing is forever. Everyone knows this, some in Pittsburgh more than others. I’m sure Manny never thought he’d see the day when he would lay down his hard hat for the last time because the once might mill was closing. Many years ago, on an editorial assignment, I was granted access to a shuttered mill in McKeesport. I had an hour. Not enough time to explore a place so vast as a once active steel mill. It was, at best, akin to salvage archeology; hurry up and gather as much as you can in as short a time as you can. But that’s often the job.  In this case, all I could do is look for the basics to illustrate the story. I needed something wide to set the scene, something closer, and details. I was more documentarian than anything else. 

In that brief time, I thought of the photographers from the Farm Security Administration who documented America for Americans in the 30’s and 40’s. People like Walker Evans. And, of course, Clyde “Red” Hare who photographed Pittsburgh first as part of Roy Stryker’s Pittsburgh Photographic Library, then stayed after falling in love with the city. 

My mind was racing, and my eyes were wildly scanning the scene for images to add to the narrative. I needed to tell the story, show what was there before it was gone, before time ran out. I wanted more time to explore. Request denied. It was time to go and leave this history behind. Within weeks the mill was razed. Everything is now gone. Just a memory. Another footnote in Pittsburgh’s history. 

Never take for granted the responsibility we hold as photographers. We don’t make history; we record it for future generations because, everything changes, nothing is forever.

 

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Refresh and Recharge

There are days when the well runs dry. Maybe it’s cold, rainy or just one of those blue days when nothing goes right. Don’t give up. Take a break. Go for a walk. Breathe deep and recharge. Keep your eyes open and look around you for the little things. 

Go back to the basics. It’s time for some visual shadow boxing. I don’t mean shadow literally, but it could be. Just look about you and open your mind, heart, and soul to the world. Laugh out loud, chuckle to yourself and smile. Find the joy within. Remember what it was like the first time you saw a picture, be it in the darkroom, or on the LCD screen. 

The weather in Pittsburgh has been lousy. It’s February. So don’t sweat it, just shoot. Find a theme, or not. Work on a narrative, or not. Just see. Shoot. Repeat. Spring is right around the corner. 

 

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