Archives for category: Photography


Yesterday Whirl and I attended C2E2, the Chicago Comic and Entertainment Expo. We met up with our friends Farmboy and Princess. The three-day convention covers comic books, movies, television, toys, anime and video games. The show floor plays hosts to hundreds of exhibitors if you’re looking to score some interesting loot. There are panel discussions and autograph sessions that allow fans access to artists, actors and writers. And the ever-popular sneak-peek film and television show screenings. This was the second year for C2E2. Last year was fairly lightly attended, but well-received.

I wasn’t particularly interested in spending three days at the convention, but I thought it would be a nice way to spend a Saturday afternoon. And besides, I’ve always wanted to pull out the camera and see what kinds of cosplay portraits I could make.

We attended two panel discussions. The first was “The Walking Dead Q&A” with Jon Bernthal (“Shane”) and Laurie Holden (“Andrea”). This was very funny, with Bernthal running away with the conversation on more than one occasion. Farmboy remarked a couple of times about Bernthal’s apparent southern California origins. While I have no idea whether that’s true or not, I can attest to the fact that his choices of slang and colloquial idioms stagnated somewhere around 1989. Everything was “rad” and he was “totally digging” working with Frank Darabont. The highlight of the panel came about two minutes after all the press photographers filed out and Bernthal found himself trapped in a nearly three-minute long string of unintentional double-entendres. Each more embarrassing than the last.

The second panel was the “True Blood Q&A” with Brit Morgan (“Debbie Pelt”), Kristin Bauer (“Pam”), and Sam Trammell (“Sam Merlotte”). While not quite as entertaining as the Walking Dead panel a few hours earlier, it did provide some moments of levity and one crucial insight into acting from Morgan. While answering a question about contending with the various supernatural stressors placed upon the characters they portrayed, Morgan talked about becoming a sort of legal advocate on the set, with their character as their client and the director as the judge. The two women also agreed that Alexander Skarsgård is even more beautiful in person than he is on-screen. Trammell was conspicuously — and humorously — mute with his opinion on that question.

We walked the floor between the panels and took in the environment. There was a lot to see and photography was not only permitted, but actively encouraged. Aside from the challenges of making a frame with a halfway acceptable background, it was an exceedingly target-rich environment. The skill and creativity that went into a number of the costumes impressed the hell out of me more than once. I’ve published the full set of photos, but a few of my favorites include:

Muppets 1

The Chiditarod Urban Iditarod, a shopping cart race and mobile food drive, is an idea stolen from some folks in New York (who in turn stole it from some people in San Francisco).

Inspired in part by the Alaskan Iditarod dog sled race, an urban iditarod replaces dogs and sleds with shopping carts and costumed heroes.

Tobias Fünke 12011 was the sixth annual running of the race in Chicago and this year the start of the race coincided with the start of the Alaskan Iditarod race. The weather in the morning was cool with some light snow flurries and continued to deteriorate over the next several hours. Winds kicked up. Snow turned heavier and icy. Whirl and I dressed for the weather, packed up the cameras and spent the afternoon running alongside the racers on the streets of East Village, Wicker Park and Ukranian Village shooting the race. Whirl reprised her standout role as photo shoot producer, providing operational support and keen insight into composition and dramatic moments worth capturing.

She also was our navigator, which was no easy task. There were a total of twelve checkpoints. Each team had to complete a circuit of five of these checkpoints. So two given teams would not necessarily follow the same route, in fact no specific route is prescribed. Teams must appear the the assigned checkpoints in the appropriate order. That made it somewhat challenging to capture the entire scope of the race with a single camera. We tried!

The race did not disappoint. There were over 170 teams and the mass start was truly something to behold as racers streamed down the street and out into the surrounding neighborhoods to their respective checkpoints. We ran into one of Whirl’s classmates who had worked on one of the most incredible entries of the race, the immense ten-man Titanic entry. Their entry actually comprised two teams of five racers each. One team was the bow of the doomed oceanliner, one team was the stern. Of course the ship was appropriatedly broken across the beam.

Titanic 3We saw two teams of Muppets, three teams of Black Swans, Angry Birds, Gnomes, an Oregon Trail team — complete with a boombox broadcasting the appropriate 8-bit MIDI soundtrack.

The Chiditarod is not just fun and games however. It is a food drive that collects thousands of pounds of food for the Chicago Anti-Hunger Federation every year. Additionally, checkpoint hosts donate signification portions of their proceeds from the day’s events to charity. All of the teams, carts, costumes and creativity are donated — put together out of spare time, ingenuity and willingness to do something good for other people.

Devo 1 Derailers 1 Don't Tread On Me 1 Samurai 1 Finish Strong

This year’s project is inspired by the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus. Spencer and Templar took their children to the circus this year when it came through Chicago and that served as the seed of the idea for our annual gingerbread project. We started with the traditional three rings and then contemplated how to include some vertical elements into the display: a high wire act, a big top, something up. After some consideration we decided that a tightrope extended across the rings might just work — if we could successfully build some sort of support. This year we did it.

Gingerbread Circus

For years, we have unsuccessfully attempted to build circular towers out of gingerbread. Gingerbread is not the strongest of building materials. Our attempts at circular towers have fallen upon a series of results filled with failure and despair. This year Spencer struck upon the idea of baking the towers around a paper towel roll protected by some parchment paper. We baked the towers for twice as long as we baked other elements of the construction, rotating them throughout the baking process and the cooling process to help them retain their shapes. The towers were a little uneven around the base, as the bases were not square. But it was nothing we could not correct with some shims made from candy and a healthy application of icing as mortar.

Purple Pony Tightrope WalkerWith that problem solved we were able to buttress the towers with gumdrops and icing to give them stability and began attacking the issue of the tightrope. Templar fashioned a rope out of Twizzlers and we managed to secure it to the towers once we added the platforms. We had the stage for our own high wire act so we went about designing the various acts.

None of our gingerbread creations have ever suffered for a lack of bizarre visualization and elements. This year was no different, and included more than a few references back to earlier gingerbread projects, particularly the year of the zoo. As a result, our gingerbread circus acts included some standards and some (shall we say) adaptations on a theme:

But the spotlight obviously was focussed on the tightrope. And we needed a tightrope walker. Danaan provided. Our tightrope walker was something you won’t see at that other circus when it comes through your town. No, our tightrope walker was a purple pony!

A purple pony! Top that, Cirque du Soleil.

Printer's Row Helicopter Lift 1

A week ago all the residents in Printer’s Row recieved notice of an extensive helicopter lift operation taking place in the neighborhood. Four new pieces of HVAC equipment were to be lifted to the roofs of the Printer’s Square towers on Federal Street and the old equipment lifted down and hauled away. While the rest of Chicago enjoyed an extra hour of sleep due to the end of daylight saving time, Printer’s Row had street closures and low-flying aircraft as our makeshift alarm clock.

I grabbed the camera and headed out into the chill morning to get some photographs. I’ve seen several helicopter lifts, but none ever this close. Some of the most memorable were the various lifts to place new antennas on the top of the Sears Tower several years back. As you might imagine, the lift attracted quite a bit of attention, and there were a number of amateur photographers out taking pictures — and then quite a few more people obliviously trying to make their way down Dearborn to get a cup of coffee. Chicago police were vigilant in keeping sleepy pedestrians out of harm’s way. The helicopter was flying as low as 100 feet above the street right next to the 22-story Transportation Building. Exciting stuff.

Unfortunately, the lift ended a little over halfway through the projected process. The final two pieces turned out to be too heavy for the helicopter and the task was cut short. Midwest Helicopter succeeded in raising two of the four HVAC pieces to the roof and lowering three of the old pieces down to the awaiting flatbed trucks.

Windy City Rollers vs. Oly Rollers 5
Last year I had the opportunity to shoot the Windy City Rollers All-Star squad shortly before they headed to the Declaration of Derby, the WFTDA National tournament in Philadelphia. And as much as I wanted to make some frames that would make Strazz weep with envy, I didn’t quite manage that. But I’m not one to just give up with one minor setback. They knock you down, you get right back up and try again. (Just so that it is said, I didn’t get knocked down. The girls did; I didn’t.)

When I learned that the Windy City Rollers would be hosts for this year’s WFTDA National tournament, Uproar On The Lakeshore, I applied for photo credentials. And got them! Although not for the entire tournament, I received a full-day press pass for the main day of action, Saturday. It was also the day the Windy City Rollers were guaranteed to compete. Being a single elimination tournament, teams only get one shot at moving on.

So, handy press pass in hand, I headed over to the UIC Pavilion yesterday morning and set about finding my way to the “digital darkroom”. This was serious business, this time around, with dozens of photographers from all over the nation covering the event. Team photographers, press photographers. The Derby News Network streamed all the action live online.

And then there was me jumping around trying not to get run over and trying to make some good shots at the same time. The whole style of the game has changed since last year. Last month, the Chicago Reader published an extensive feature about the advent of “slow derby” and its corresponding challenges to more traditional leagues like the Windy City Rollers. The tournament was a great opportunity to see these new styles in action.

Bout after bout the teams who best incorporated the strategies of the Western style came out on top, so I set as a goal for myself to try and capture some of the technique: the strategy of trading penalties, the massive walls of stopped blockers. And the ensuing frustration that played across more speed-and-power oriented teams.

I covered three bouts and stayed to watch the fourth and final bout of the day while editing what I’d shot:

Rocky Mountain Rollergirls vs. Charm City Roller Girls
Photos: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, Recap

Kansas City Roller Warriors vs. Philly Roller Girls
Photos: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, Recap

Windy City Rollers vs. Oly Rollers
Photos: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, Recap

Rocky Mountain Rollergirls vs. Gotham Girls Roller Derby

FistbumpIn my ongoing attempt to learn more about photography and try new things, Smokes and I set about to try our hand at an action-figure photo shoot. We collected some action figures, some poster paper stock and set up a little studio on our dining room table at the Warehouse. There’s an actual professional photo studio in the first floor of the building and while I considered asking if we could use it for our little project, I decided against it and went for a more DIY approach.

The result is a set of macro photographs of action figures is primarily a series of lighting experiments, humorous expressions and other whimsies and mistakes.

I don’t have a lot of lighting equipment (yet!). Just the camera, a tripod and a Canon Speedlite. I’d received an off-shoe bracket as a birthday present about a year ago. So I decided to use a birthday gift certificate pick up the requisite off-camera shoe cord (thanks Dugie!) so I could finally use the bracket for the shoot. We didn’t have umbrellas or remote triggers. And our key light could only be a could only be a foot or so away from the camera due to the length of the cord. That was our setup. It was enough variables for us to play with. We played with reflecting bounce flash light to backfill and minimize shadows. We used some of scientific equipment Whirl has collected over the years as props. We even deployed a flashlight as a spot to light up the plastic flame of the Green Goblin’s pumpkin bomb.

Doomed!Of course, the idea of two grown men — now in their 40s — playing with action figures is something that is going to engender some amount of scorn and ridicule. We knew that. We welcomed that. We were not disappointed. Bitsy and Whirl were quick to jump in and start things off with offers to provide appropriate snacks: celery sticks with peanut butter, Fruit Roll-Ups, and grilled cheese sandwiches with tomato soup. Tea made sure we had plenty of Capri Sun juice pouches.

So it was with the cynicism of our generation that we set about our shoot, finding humor and irony in the mudane. Ideas included:

  • Iron Man and Colossus embracing in reaction to the overturning of California’s Proposition 8
  • Green Goblin adding pumpkin spice to his homebrew beer wort
  • R2-D2 and C-3PO relaxing to some Daft Punk

The highlight photograph came at the end of the second day when Smokes came up with the idea of recreating the look of the conspicuous awkward prom photographs from high school.

See “Green Goblin and Spider-Man Go to Prom” after the break.

Read the rest of this entry »

(Scott Strazzante/Chicago Tribune)

Dustin Byfuglien broke out last night. In a big way. That fits. He’s a big guy. He grabbed two goals and two assists on the Blackhawks route to a 7-4 win over the Flyers in Game Five. Game Six is in Philadelphia on Wednesday night. Game Seven (if there is a need for Game Seven) would be back in Chicago on Friday night. Chicago has two chances to win one game. One goal.

That description came eerily close to the summary I had written in my head for Game Five when I was thinking about it the day before. You know, the game where I faced off against a bar full of Flyers fans elsewhere in downtown LA? On Saturday morning after that more miserable turnout with Game Four, I put my campaign into action. I was going to watch the Blackhawks win Game Five. I was not to be denied by the seemingly insurmountable sea of Great Unwashed LA Lakers fans, or Philadelphia, or anything else for that matter. They may have been conspiring against me, threatening to thwart my desire to watch Game Five of the Stanley Cup Finals. They would lose.

And they did lose. They lost well.

Like the Flyers, the Lakers and their fans were defeated. Now I can’t take credit for Ray Allen’s record-breaking eight threes that helped propel the Celtics past the Lakers 103-94 in Game Two. But what I can take credit for is orchestrating unbridled control of the best television in the hotel bar and refusing to relinquish it until after the final whistle. NBC broadcast Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Finals at 5:00 Pacific. ABC broadcast Game 2 of the NBA Finals at 5:00 Pacific. I got to the bar at 4:00 Pacific. This after a two-day effort with the Front Desk to ensure that they would show the hockey game at all. I befriended the bartender. I bonded with him about Chicago. I impressed him when I spontaneously changed into my Brent Seabrook sweater and camped out in front of the “good TV”. And I tipped him. I tipped him well. — For my efforts he gave me the bar’s only remote control for the night. I never gave it up. It was mine. That TV was mine. After the first period I got an assist from the bartender when patrons asked him despondently, “When do you think he’ll be done watching that hockey game?” — “When it’s over. When are you gonna be done watching that basketball game?”

I cheered my team in full confidence of what I’d done while the basketball fans groused and grumbled and had to settle for seconds. Or go elsewhere. I played like Byfuglien. I got to the front of the net, I got in my opponents face and when the opportunity came to score: I did.

It was heaven. — Just one more.

This is the place
There is no place
Quite like this place
Anywhere near this place
So this must be the place

Those words are written in large black lettering above the front entrance of the Nickel Diner. It’s where I had breakfast this morning, my third visit. I ate a breakfast and a dinner here the last time my number came up for the foreign services tour of duty in Los Angeles. I can find no fault with the sign’s reasoning or the conclusion. Breakfast consisted of a bacon-crusted, maple-glazed homemade doughnut and hot black coffee. After my first full night of uninterrupted sleep and no unwelcome monsters lurking for me in the Dark Woods of Email that doughnut was a welcome — and delicious — respite.

I’m back in Los Angeles for another week. I won’t go into a lot of whinging about how the work part of the trip is going other than to say that the workload has significantly cut into my exploration time. At least so far.

Last night was relaxing despite the sports outcome. I broke out of the office at a reasonable hour and made my way to Big Wangs at Grand and 8th to watch Game 4 of the Stanley Cup Finals. Down 4-1 entering the third period, the Blackhawks mounted a valiant surge to pull within one goal with four minutes left. A Flyer empty-netter in the final 30 seconds sealed the deal for Philadelphia. The series is now tied at two each. I was the only Blackhawks fan in the bar. The Lakers won the first game of the NBA finals Thursday and I haven’t gotten the impression that most Angelenos have much interest in this year’s Stanley Cup. I walked in wearing my Brent Seabrook sweater and asked where they were going to show the game. The staff — some sporting Flyers t-shirts — were quite accommodating and turned on two 60″ HDTVs for the pregame. By the time the puck dropped I was surrounded by eight 60″ HDTVs and two giant HD projection screens all playing the game. Aside from the aforementioned Flyer-friendly staff, there were about a dozen Flyers fans watching the game, too. I struck up a congenial conversation with their ringleader. He turned out to be a comedian from south Jersey who’d moved to LA about six years ago after another five-year stint in Las Vegas. It’s true. You can look it up.

Wednesday night I resorted to old school measures to follow the game. Well, high-tech old school. I was stuck at work at the Times with no access to a TV (let alone a TV with Versus). So I streamed the trusty WGN-AM radio broadcast to my computer and listened that way. But despite my throwback to old time hockey appreciation, the Blackhawks fell to the Flyers in overtime: 4-3.

But to close on an upbeat note, Whirl informed me that one of my photographs of the 2009 Dragon Boat Races in Ping Tom Park was finally published in the guide in this week’s edition of Time Out Chicago. I even got paid real folding money for it. Given the number of photography and movie shoots I’ve been seeing on the streets of Los Angeles at night this week that little bit of success has got me thinking. Maybe it’s not too late to be a star!

Wacker Banding 07

Whirl and Mary invited me to come along with them yesterday to my first chick banding at the South Wacker site in the Chicago Loop. I took an extended lunch break on a quiet Friday before a three-day holiday weekend to meet them and make a few photographs to record the process.

What struck me most about the whole thing was the dramatic shift in atmosphere once we got into the mechanical room accessing the nest ledge. In the lobby of the building and on the way up it was friendly, fun and conversational. When we stepped into room everything went quiet, serious. Everyone involved knew their roles and they got to it. Matt geared up with the harness, helmet and safety line to go out and fetch the chicks 40 stories above street. Mary, Stephanie and Gracen set about getting the banding gear, blood vials and specimen containers set up.

I don’t often get an opportunity to observe my child bride working with her team of fellow scientists. Today I did. It was really cool. Read her more complete report in her field journal.

Wille-Van Dyke Wedding 03Yesterday our friends Brian “Steamboat” Wille and Melissa “the Hurricane” Van Dyke were married. They held the ceremony and reception in their home in West Lakeview, Chicago. Whirl and I were among the small group invited to attend. I first met Brian through Mooch in 1996 when Mooch and I worked together. Several years ago Brian brought Melissa around to a poker game to meet the usual suspects. That’s when I first met her: at that game at Mooch’s place.

The highlight story of that poker game involves Melissa naively digging through the discard pile to try and recall what she’d folded. Her first offense garnered a warning and a pass. The second offense earned her a full-throated series of harsh rebukes from most of us: the callous, self-declared leather-assed poker old-timers. We made Melissa cry. But Melissa picked herself up, came back to the table and never repeated the mistake. Two years later, she was winning tournaments at Binion’s Horseshoe. I was the one reduced to bankrupt tears over beers at the loser’s bar.

The effect Melissa has had on Brian has been remarkable. Early in their relationship, Melissa served as a stabilizing influence. She buoyed Brian when he got down. She encouraged him to try new things. She made him laugh. — I could keep the cliches coming, but I think you’ll appreciate it if I stopped here with a simple summary. Melissa made Brian happy. Brian with Melissa was a happier Brian than I’d seen in a long time. Happy was not a condition that I often associated with Brian over the many of the years I’d known him before Melissa.

It hasn’t been a one-way relationship with the two of them. The effects went in both directions. Brian’s intellect and introspection have challenged Melissa. She’s working full-time and going to school full-time and when she gets out the other side of all of this will be a force to be reckoned with. They bring out a level of competitiveness blended with cooperation and coordination that makes both of them stronger, better individuals.

The four of us became close friends. Brian and Melissa were there for me when I got hurt. We’ve traveled together to Las Vegas. Gone to Blackhawks games together. We’ve hung out with her family, her brother her parents. They’ve taken us out with them to poker games held in the suburbs by collectives of manga artists. I taught them about phở in Little Vietnam. Brian and Melissa have become instrumental members of our urban tribe.

So when they told us of their intentions to get married a few months ago, Whirl and I were ecstatic. The two of them had planned a simple ceremony for family and asked if I would mind being a backup photographer: they explained they had a relative to shoot the event for them, but if I wouldn’t object, could I get a few pictures of the reception. I agreed. Yesterday when I arrived, I learned that the primary shooter had decided against shooting still photography and wanted to focus exclusively on video. Tag! You’re it! I set about shooting the wedding. I’ve never done this before — not in any significant way. I’ve shot some personal shots at weddings. But this was me shooting the wedding for the bride, the groom and their families.

I did my best to set my anxieties aside and just have fun with the shoot. These are people I really care about during a watershed moment in their lives. I could have drawn a much worse hand with which to go all-in. I’d been invited to share in this experience — to share it in a two-fold sense: to be a part of the moment itself, and also to record it, to share it to the broader world on their behalf.