Masked Spring

I know we are all more than ready to put winter behind us. However, Chicagoans know a taste of spring can rapidly regress into more bone-chilling cold. Just ask what Chicagoans feel when they hear “cooler by the lake” in a weather forecast in April. This long winter was made profoundly more challenging due to COVID. Forced hibernation and isolation. Fatigue. And yes, a little fatter due to less than healthy eating. Indeed, we are ready for spring.

It might be called a masked spring. It’s hiding a bit. Even as snow melts and flowers emerge from the muddy ground, there is trepidation in our hope. Will we see another COVID spike? Will we face another round of gloomy isolation? Are we willing to live again?

Just like those first flowers pushing through the snow, there’s a risk of damage by poking up and out. Breaking through the cold, hard ground takes courage.

Yet I insist that we do live again. And I’m saying this to myself. Life is always a risky thing. It always was!

So I am coping. Are you? I get myself outdoors, even when there’s still ice on the roads. We recently hung out with friends for the first time in months. We are emerging a bit more each week. 

Now that Lent has started, I am praying my faith in Christ will take on new life and growth. Mixing a “faith fertilizer” requires trust and brokenness: I must must acknowledge my own weaknesses and fears. COVID winter has been difficult for sure. Yet when I think that I was in the ER on New Year’s Eve 2019 for anxiety, my inner spirit has been largely at peace despite all the difficulties of 2020. Even when at times I sensed a tinge of anxiousness in me, I just kept going. Through it all, God remains faithful.

And I still keep going. It’s why I still love photography. It is a catalyst to roam God’s creation to capture images of life. And I hope to keep doing that more and more.

So to make that more meaningful, I’ve started thinking about a small photo book project for this year. I’m hoping to recruit a few local friends who would be willing to spend some time with me and allow me to take their picture (portraits, candids, etc.). I want to hear the stories of how others have coped with COVID life (whether or not one has personally gone through the illness). 

Maybe you would want to take part? Would you share your story with me? Would you let me attempt to capture it in a few photos?


“The views and opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position…”

As a photographer, I sometimes have fear about taking certain types of shots on the street. I hesitate if I think there might be controversy. It might be that the shot could be interesting or even important. My second-guessing is because a photograph might be seen as endorsement of the subject, especially if I post it on social media. 

On the surface, journalistic photography, or documentary / reportage photography, might be expected to be free from bias. However, it’s plain to see in our culture that journalism itself has fallen from grace. The broad recoil in the face of so-called “fake news” stems from the accusations of manipulation. (The use of the phrase “so-called” often means one is dubious of said claim…I will merely say it’s a hot-button issue, thus the “so-called” adjective to hedge my bets).

In modern photography, images can be digitally altered. That’s when the proper noun “Photoshop” becomes a verb: it is said a photo was “Photoshopped” if it was altered to fundamentally change to truth of an image. 

Even without Photoshop, extremely fast shutter speeds and modern digital sensors can be manipulated to capture a public figure in an unintended pose in between the milliseconds of a person’s movements. Back in the film days, the skill of the photographer was demonstrated in anticipating the proper moment to press the shutter; the integrity of the photograph was exactly because of its fidelity to the truth of the moment. Now, one can press and capture dozens of images in seconds. How many photos of Trump, Hillary, Biden, etc. are either showing them as the quintessential leader we desperately need, or as the villain we are to disdain? At 10 frames per second, one frame can portray madness; the other greatness. Which is the truth?

The integrity of the photograph was exactly because of its fidelity to the truth of the moment.

All that said, I am not a journalist photographer. I post whatever I feel appropriate. But what happens if I post a potentially controversial shot without commentary?

Am I endorsing what I captured? This is where social media has become our instantly-gratified culture’s Achilles’ heel. When one posts a picture on Facebook, Twitter etc., the subject and/or story is likely to be perceived as something the person agrees with. I could say I just documented what I saw. Yet in our divided nation many are looking for a fight. So this picture of a small band of Trump supporters in Kenosha might predispose a viewer to think I am in agreement with what’s taking place (I won’t say, so don’t ask!). The bias is on the part of the viewer, of course. But am I creating a situation that simply amplifies angst?

Take this second image: what if I sort of agree…at least at one level? How can critical thinking assist us in the context of media, whether mainstream or social? I did post this image on Facebook, and in some ways I resonate with it. But what does “rise up” mean? What about “love”? Our culture proudly redefines words without necessarily doing justice to their historical meanings. Today, our use of love as a word is laced with social expectations and sometimes used as a weapon when others do not abide by the new order. If some folks are swept away to make room for a new “enlightened” (and more often youth-oriented) regime, is that love? Well, see my point? A photo, just like a brief slogan, can be misunderstood. I might be totally wrong about the artist’s intent here. How can I know for sure?

I can at least say this much: today we live in a vitriolic society where ideologies are at war. Since I am not a paid photojournalist, I have to operate within a construct of prudence. I will take a shot in these situations, but I am extra careful to avoid endorsing a particular cause. The last thing I want do to is inadvertently slip into propaganda photography! That’s simply not why I pick up a camera.

Fine Pop Art

I wrote in August about my strategic shift regarding social media. Honestly, I had just had enough of Instagram and so I disabled my account. It wasn’t just that my photos weren’t getting “likes” (that whole thing is absurd, like being back in junior high attempting to win a popularity contest). I suppose it is “pop culture”. I wasn’t popular in high school, and honestly I know that hasn’t changed. I’m okay with that. Some photographers may be pursuing popularity and fame. That’s not my aim.

The idea of pop culture or perhaps “pop art” (an actual style from the 1950s and 60s) got me thinking: just what kind of photographer am I? It’s often said in photography circles “you have to find your style”. At the same time, over time one’s style does evolve. I have been increasingly deliberate about what genre or style palette within which my photography manifests.

There is a problem, however. Most of us, myself included, are often unaware of the influences that shape us. My “style” is still developing, but that isn’t happening in a vacuum. It’s a product of my life’s journey…my background, where I grew up, the people around me, etc. 

It occurred to me on a recent photowalk that my early photographic influences were the ”Ideals” magazines my mother collected. They contained full-page color images of lovely autumn scenery or the snow-covered lane complete with covered bridge and a sleigh framed my imagination within the confines of someone’s vision of the perfect American life.

The photographs weren’t bad in and of themselves. Just like postcards, they are technically well-composed with appealing subject matter. Of course, no fine art photography to be found in its pages. The Ideals Magazine was formed as a remedy for the collective post-war shock felt by many. The magazine sought a return to a normal that never really existed, but a life to which Americans were encouraged to embrace. (And in light of recent social unrest about race, let us admit that was a white and somewhat upwardly-mobile American culture).

As I reflect on this, I see that when I first started shooting with a camera, I had that ideal in mind. It did help me compose fairly pleasing shots. Postcards really. Snapshots. There’s nothing wrong with that at all. And later, when I found myself taking photography more seriously, I still visualized images in that idealism.

But I also experimented. I attempted to do some street photography. I was exposed to other’s work. I started using different vintage lenses and tried different things to see how I can capture a scene in a new way. I have even printed a couple shots that I might define as “fine art”. Not that they would get displayed in any gallery or published. But to my eye anyway they are more artistic. 

Perhaps art in our post-modern world is darker and not ideal. It taps into other emotions. Some of those emotions are unsettling. Idealism has its place, even in art. The photos I post that get more attention are the lovely scenes of nature, flowers, and woodland. I still love that. But I also want to push the boundaries a bit–to step up more imagery to the level of fine pop art :) 

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