Friday, May 25, 2012

The Solar Eclipse: Beautiful Victory

It was an experience.  A good and bad one.  4 years of thinking about our SolArt Project is ample opportunity to consider and reconsider things very carefully.  I can't say I had all my T's crossed and i's dotted, but I had a pretty explicit plan for making this event something memorable.  From a distance, it would have been fascinating, perhaps even humorous to watch the best laid plans come undone at the seams like the stitching on an old pair of cheap sneakers.  Up close and personal though, there was a lot of soul searching and anguish.

Adversity and Good Fortune

Things went wrong on a variety of scale, from the mildly frustrating through to the near catastrophic.  Everything from a mild bee sting on my leg (my first!) through losing 6 models in one day (five were supposed to be backups), to finding all our potential shoot locations off limits.  I've never seen a more secured wasteland than the scrub-land of Albuquerque.  Everything is fenced off and posted "No Trespassing" even when there isn't much more than random tumbleweed to secure.

It wasn't till the day of the eclipse that we finally got a go-ahead from the owner of our prime location and the last linchpin of our shoot fell into place, only hours before the eclipse.  It was a moment of great relief for me -- that everything that was conceived was going to happen.  Considering the adversity we faced, sudden success seemed hard to believe, like a first draft script of a bad reality TV show.

Yet not all went badly.  Weather had been a threat clouding my mind for a long time, and yet it was a nearly perfectly clear sky.  My estimate for a clear sky in May in Albuquerque was accurate, though perhaps this was more luck than anything else.  I transferred through Denver to get to Albuquerque, and it was cloudy and rainy there, only one hour's flight time away.

Another recurring nightmare was the thought of thousands of eclipse groupies wrecking the solemn solitude of my shot.  In fact, Albuquerque as a region was besieged by enthusiasts from everywhere and in some noted places, quite crowded.  As it turns out, even on the very cattle ranch we set up shop, there were thousands of cars parked in a carnival atmosphere, only just past the sand dune we occupied with a satisfied serenity as we found out afterwards.

Knowledge of making Women look Beautiful comes in Handy

Perhaps the most revealing part of this experience was that we successfully recruited a traveler from an adjacent hotel suite as a stand in for the AWOL models.  Just a woman who flew in just to take photos like everyone else, and bless her heart she had the faith and presence of mind to accept an invitation from three strange men to come out to a desolate desert and be our model.  When you think about it, its pretty crazy.  But this whole project was nuts to begin with.  Our good fortune was to find a free spirit whose greatest concern was whether she was "model material".

And I didn't want to laugh outright because that would have been impolite and would have conceivably risked losing our last option to capture these unique images.  But of all the potential pitfalls to be concerned about on this project, whether I could make an ordinary woman look beautiful was not even remotely on that list.  I assured her that I would make her look beautiful.  I just needed her to be willing, and leave the rest to me.  And indeed, following a quick "how to look super-sexy" training session in the hotel parking lot, it was so.

What we Learned

Perhaps victory in something grand is not meant to come easily.  I didn't set out for an "adventure", or for "challenges".  I'm well past the age for that kind of youthful character building exercise.  I just wanted to get some beautiful and unique images.  Adventurous challenges were a frustrating obstacle in my path towards getting them, at times engendering a feeling of humiliation and impending defeat.  Somehow we managed to make it work.  And for that, I am grateful.  Grateful that the circumstances came together to allow it, grateful to my assistants for backing me up and brainstorming solutions with me, and grateful for a young lady from New Jersey who had enough faith in three strangers to join our intrepid team and be the centerpiece of our project.

We learned that there is no "I" in team.  We learned to trust ourselves and others who share our passions.  We learned that photographing an eclipse without a filter on your camera will not set it on fire or damage your sensor.  We learned that if we were really determined, we could be responsible and not look directly at an eclipse.

Photo by Steve Griffey (right)

You can view slides of the experience here.

And you can purchase some of the images here.

SolArt Project 2012

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Final Prep for Eclipse Project

In the end our modest Kickstarter campaign for the quest to capture the glory of the May 2012 eclipse didn't get funded.  Wrapping in a tough year personally and professionally undercuts the resolve to make this happen.

Indeed, a variety of lesser goals have been shelved for the time being, but this one... its not something you elect to pursue later.  You either shoot it when the opportunity presents itself, or you don't.  Its the same reasoning that convinced me to go for it in the first place.  This is here, and this is now.  If you don't feel like it.  If you don't have the funds.  If your resources and process are strained to the breaking point.  In the end, if you don't do it, you don't get a do-over when things come together.  They MUST come together when the cosmos says so, or the opportunity to make a statement is gone, period.

So we're going anyway.  Its not the same team, but the shot is the same.  And the results, for better or worse, will be the same.

Final Preparations

An itinerary of what we're doing next weekend has been drafted -- a long day of location scouting on Saturday; final supplies and tweaks adjusted on Sunday.  A last minute scramble for a local model and a bevy of backups because prudence demands it, just like a prime location and a slew of backups.

My recurring anxiety is the premise of showing up to a pre-selected spot of suitably desolate landscape only to find a flash mob of eclipse groupies wandering through my field of view.  There is 600 feet of scrub brush between the end of my lens and the model and all it takes is for one groupie's head to block my view, let alone hundreds of them.

Weather too weighs in the back of my mind as a factor out of my control.  Wouldn't it be lovely if it rained or was overcast during the 4 minutes I have to shoot.

For these issues, I am at the mercy of good fortune.  For all others, I have my logistical background as a former engineer to lean on for all manner of contingency planning.

Among the Critical Tools -- the Lowly Paperclip

The idea to capture a shot of grandeur is to put the model inside the eclipse.  Anyone who's ever tried to shoot someone in context to the moon or a sunset knows how small these titan celestial bodies are in relation to a person.  Just a small glowing bubble the size of a balloon, at best.  But for a truly eye-popping shot, it needs to be HUGE.  The trick is not to make the moon bigger, because you can't.  Instead, you push the person further away -- much further.  600 feet further in fact.  And without a tape measure it can be kind of hard to know how far that is.

Except if you use a standard office paperclip.  It turns out the moon fits in the end of a paperclip held at arm's length.  That's how big the eclipse will be.  And that's how big a person needs to be to be the size of the moon.  So you hold the paperclip out and keep walking away until they're just that small.  A good 600 feet as it turns out.

And once you do that, you understand why such a gargantuan lens is needed to get anything more than a tiny spec in the distance.

Only a week away at this point.  Woohoo.

SolArt Project
INFINI Boudoir