One of the reasons I keep coming back to SPARK (The web project that pairs artists and writers for mutual inspiration), is that it often takes me into places outside my photographic comfort zone.
This time (SPARK 16), the wonderful poem from Lisa Nielsen, “The Vaguery of Us”, took me to a more familiar venue. The Coffee Shop.
The image that first came to me was actually the opposite of the one I ended up with. In my mind’s eye I saw a couple in still, sharp, detail surrounded by the swirling and indistinct blur of people in motion. Where to find bustling activity on a holiday weekend? Why a shopping mall, of course!
Two shopping malls later I knew this idea was not going to work. Even in a busy place like a mall food court, most people are just sitting and eating at tables. People eating actually move a lot less than you might think – even with an eight stop neutral density filter pushing my exposure time to 20 or 30 seconds, all I got was a bunch blurred people at tables. Not what I wanted — and the neon restaurant signs in the background didn’t fit the ambiance of the poem at all.
Plan B: (Plan B is always the best plan!) Now I’m looking for an actual coffee shop …with a couple …at a table …who I can covertly photograph from a close distance(!). My new idea is that the couple is motion-blurred and the surroundings are in sharp focus.
Naturally this was not as simple as it may sound either, and I was soon cursing the people who put free wifi in coffee shops. It seems every coffee place in Silicon Valley has been taken over by students and the new work-from-anywhere generation who sit there for hours, alone with their laptops. How these places make any money is beyond me.
Several latte’s later I was starting to give up hope. What I needed was a place I could reliably find non-techie people who actually wanted to talk to each other.
The answer: The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) …or their cafe, anyway!
Just for once, luck was on my side. The place was spacious and airy, not too busy, and there were a few couples, of various gender pairings, in animated conversation. …and next to one was an empty table against a wall!
Now for a covert picture… Bear in mind that I’m not using a little hideable point-n-shoot or a camera-phone here. I have a full size professional SLR camera with a lens the size of a couple of fat coffee mugs! I attached a remote shutter cable, and my neutral-density filter (it’s black and opaque – looking a bit like a shiny lens cap) and set the camera on the table (pointing toward the couple) amongst a bunch of my other photo junk. Then I studiously ignored them, read a book and drank my latte. (…all while taking shot after shot with the remote.). Eventually they finished and left. As did I.
I couldn’t be sure what I had until I got home and feared that I might have to repeat the exercise, but this picture seemed, miraculously, to capture the poem perfectly. After a little experimentation, I discovered that removing color made the image stronger, emphasizing the contrast between the sharpness of the objects on the table and the couple, blurred by their movements as they talked. As a result, this is one of my rare black-and-white images.
The Vaguery of Us
By Lisa Nielsen
There is constant motion
There is the speed at which you think you know me
There are sinkholes
That turn into minefields
Then there’s us
Cornered in a café
A conversation ambling
Into the piles of china and silverware
And the squish of restless shoes
Fingers form steeples
Mouthing a whisper
If these lips could talk
They’d want an answer
At the same time, I provided this image as an inspiration for Lisa. Her wonderful poem in response, is below.
The Jagged Key
By Lisa Nielsen
The jagged key’s anxious dance
I want a moratorium declared
on the loitering of information
and the morgue of offerings
that mock my life.
Have I become so desperate
that I’ll consider
jumping out of planes (despite my fear of gravity),
cruises (despite my fear of the ocean) and
sushi (despite my fear of mercury poisoning)?
Yet, a wish is made that I will open
the portal into my own private universe
and see the bidding
as more than a handful of paper.