Monday, September 8, 2014


I hear people speak anecdotal-y about mental breakdowns often enough. My own mother would recite the words on the regular in halfhearted jest. Last week I'm pretty sure I experienced the actual thing, though. No, not just pretty sure... I broke.

The sense that I've been out of control of my own life for a few months now culminated in a fantastic series of questionable decisions and poor time/self management. Competing 9-to-5 office work and whenever-the-hell photography jobs, personal obligations mounting into a stacked mass of discomforting expectations, day to day life was dictated but a painfully tight schedule of events planned out weeks in advance with no room to breathe and no time to decompress. It was my own damn fault for letting my schedule get so obnoxious, the jet fuel motivation to earn more money and cater to every clients' whimsy grew massively powerful with the influx of new business in late May and I let that drive push me too far, into the realm of maddening.

I cannot impress upon those who may seek to pursue photography as a business in the future the grand importance of the work/life balance. We all have different thresholds, but once you push past yours you won't realize it until you've already saddled yourself with obligations galore and all life seems such a misery to endure. Please, take time aside for yourself... it really is necessary.


Friday of last week was the breaking point. Impulse told me to either rebel against the confines of the month's long mental tax of a schedule or resign to a state of permanent misery. I rebelled. Despite obligations and duties and expectations, I lifted a generous helping of middle finger to the overlords (both real and conjured) and eloped with my wilted muse to "Pennsyltuckey" to photograph things and in a fashion that might barely be able to rejuvenate a dying passion.

The drive North felt surreal on its own. Lots of time to ruminate on choices and the momentum of my life, its direction and how much say I ever really had in its current state. I may have continued falling victim to self-imposed stresses were it not for Kyle, my photographer friend whom I drove up to visit in my act of rebellion. There are precious few with whom I feel creative wavelengths fittingly pair up to, and Kyle happens to be among the few. We wasted little time, quick to pack up camera bags at 10:30 at night and rush out to capture however many stars would manifest themselves in the presence of the moon's bright glow.

Something I hadn't done a lot of since the battery of photography-as-business transactions had been genuine exploration. Traveling not only to places which were new, but where I probably wasn't supposed to be. I understand now more than ever the critical nature that feeling of risk plays into my enjoyment of photography, and more than that, how critical a thing that risk is to finding those opportunities to create images that speak to me. Inherently it is because of the experience attached to them that they impact me so strongly, which can never be conveyed to others and therefore they don't stand out one way or the other to the casual observer. But to me, they encapsulate and romanticize an experience that I can recount as if it had happened yesterday no matter how many years have passed since the photo was taken. In this instance, we found an abandoned quarry, filled with water, surrounded by trees, isolated from the city lights. It was our trespass, and it was good.

Since picking up the OMD E-M1, I'd yet to really put the camera through its paces. The only miles clocked on the camera were sloppy real estate jobs I'd dragged the thing to, trying to learn its intricacies in completely the wrong way. With the expectations of working shoots, the freedom to screw up wasn't there, and I simply reiterated the rigid shooting practices of my old system. Out there, in the low light freedom of that quarry in the middle of nowhere, I was free to push the machine, to test the limits of its high ISO capabilities, see how well it would play with my bag-o-lenses, experiment with its new Live Bulb feature, actually develop a second nature with the controls... so many crucial things to one's relationship with a tool. Much to my pleasure, the E-M1 developed a second nature feel remarkably fast, especially with the efficiency of its dual function twin dials (made playing with night exposures magnitudes more direct than any experience I'd ever had with the E-P3). In general, the experience was still slightly hit-or-miss given the guess work require with composition, but following the digital level and at least having some context of the sky made it world's easier than any experience prior (even if only by a fraction over the E-P3).

One night in and I could veritably feel my body and mind release pressure. Like a steam valve that had been in the red for so long, finally whistling with sweet release.

The next morning we slept in. No point in waking up early to catch the first light of an overcast sky. Morning rise was just another obligation, another expectation, and this rebellion wasn't going to be commanded by self-imposed photographic deadlines. Instead, we had a leisurely breakfast at a classic diner with probably the best omelettes and home fries I've ever tasted. Exquisite coffee, too, not weak nor burnt, but fresh and perfectly creamy. A good start. And in the vein of the prior evening's exploits, we engaged in the thing that drove both our muses - a good trespass.

Kyle had just moved into the area in the last month and was cataloging a host of new locations well ripened with age and yet to be explored. The mark of the day was a steel production plant that fell on hard times in the last year and was up for sale. Alas, upon arrival the main plant itself was already undergoing demolition, but several outer buildings were still available to the perusing curious.

Of primary interest to us was a large, empty warehouse, likely used to store completed product during the plants heyday. Like any large, open space, photographing it was less a study of direct objects, of things, and more a study of light and how it permeated the space. In waiting for the light to change periodically, however, I had the opportunity to test another of the E-M1's touted features which caught my interest particularly - WiFi remote operation of the camera.

Joke about how awful "selfies" are all you like, I hate them myself. But in the practice of exploring places most people simply don't go, there is an inescapable allure to capturing a photograph of you and your crew in whatever amazingly alternative environment you find yourselves in.

Much to my giddy excitement, operating the E-M1 via Olympus' OI Share app on my Nexus 5 was a seamless experience, with lag in live view output minimal (not good enough for action, true, but more than sufficient for any number of more realistic uses). It was such a wildly new thing, to operate a camera, live view and settings included, with a remote nearly 50 feet away, that I found myself testing it over and over again, trying to find the boundaries of its usefulness and, barring fast action, coming up short of ways in which it wasn't the loveliest thing. With a series of shutter delays available, the ability to exclusively focus the image without triggering the shutter, full control over ISO, aperture, shutter speed, white balance... it was the greatest thing ever. Of course, only later that day would I discover its crux - it eats batteries alive. All in all, however, a small price to pay.

Perhaps 2 hours later we opted to hike around more of the heavily wooded lengths of the property in search of more hollowed buildings to explore, running into little more than extensive cobwebs in the trees which would agitate us for the rest of the day. By the time we decided to trek back to the car, however, the demolition staff tearing down the former plant had left for the day and we obliged ourselves the opportunity to investigate the large heaps of rubble. Overcast skies still dominated exterior scenes, pockets of sunlight growing rarer as our exploits unfolded. Out of morbid curiosity I set the E-M1 to one of its multiple HDR modes, HDR1 specifically, which bracketed 4 shots, kept a RAW file at even exposure but produced a JPG on the side composed of the exposure gamut made available by the bracketed exposures.

Continuing to impress me in unexpected way, the HDR processing built into the E-M1 surprised me with how responsibly the JPG files were rendered. HDR1 specifically kept contrast high and leaned more toward retention of highlights than worrying about full exposure gamut retention. The files may not have been my cup of tea, but it was pleasant to get an idea of the breadth of information available in the captured RAW file with the compiled JPG render, and I wouldn't have hesitated to upload the HDR JPG files had I been aiming to upload content on the fly. There was also something to be said of the weird sense of power in ones hands with the full speed of the E-M1 shutter firing off 4 shots in less than half a second (with the HLD-7 battery grip attached). I'd been on the fence about the mushier sound of the E-M1's shutter after years spent with the sharp click produced by the E-P3 and GF1, but the sound of the thing in full on rapid fire was strangely intoxicating.

Our explore concluded when our stomachs grumbled angrily for sustenance. We drove back to Kyle's place to drop off our bags of gear, kept cameras in hand and walked the main strip of his new home town both to photograph its lazy transition into nightfall and locate an ideal eatery at which to indulge our appetites. We settled on a very "Jimmy Buffet" tiki bar & grill just up the street from his new abode, ate burgers, drank beer, and once settled and content with ourselves, resumed out walk of the main strip, capturing the homely small town storefronts in the twilight.

I played with the HDR mode some more, wondering how well it would perform in both dealing with motion in a scene and the randomness of hand held long exposures. Remarkably it resolved both without falter, not a ghost to be seen or hiccup in rendering despite speeding cars and the shaky hands of a tipsy photographer. In keeping with the trend I'd set earlier in the rubble field, I continued to shoot in HDR mode for the rest of the night, only wishing the gamut captured in the JPG files could somehow be pre-baked into the RAW files themselves (alas, that task remains relegated to the post-process).

Walking off the beers from earlier, we wandered past many highlight locations, and I found myself quickly developing an affinity for the atmosphere of this little town in Pennsylvania. Being both a college town and located excruciatingly near to a popular tourist magnet of a theme park, it was simply in nice shape compared to the other small towns I'd grown used to frequenting on excursions to the North. Cute small businesses specializing in antiques and floral arrangements, not afraid to leave their displays sitting in the street all night, populated the main strip. Monuments and plaques dotted special constructs on many street corners commemorating local history, inconsequential on the grand scale but advertised with pride.

During the entire foot tour of the strip, I couldn't help but ruminate on the idea "This is aging with grace". Starkly different from the likes of my own home town, which has been rotting for over a decade and showing it nakedly with homeless increasingly present and visible, storefronts not only closed and empty but vandalized, and clearly broken people wandering from place to place in a zombie-like autopilot shuffle, scarcely aware of themselves, let alone each other. The sagging spirits of my home community are as much a weight as the socio-economic downturn itself, and the density of our nearly-urban population breeds a kind of dog-eat-dog mentality simply not encountered in similarly dense population centers spotting the Appalachians. It will always be a thing that bothers me, regardless of whether it is an actionable problem or not. And I will always wonder if such an environment of the small town now called home by Kyle would see me thrive or suffer. Mentally thrive, most likely. Financial suffer... unfortunately. Oh, how I want to not have to worry about money.

A little hike around the college campus, quick stop in the beer outlet (for his sake, I had to drive home) and it was a done day. But it was a good day, ultimately, and exactly the kind of day I needed. No expectations, no obligations, no schedule or set hours of operation. In four months it was the first day of its kind so far as it was rationalized by my (oft strangely wired) brain. Amazing what one single day of unabashed freedom can do.

In the future, I aim to take one at least... oh... every other week. Bare minimum.