I just returned this past weekend from the annual National Geographic Photographers’ Seminar at National Geographic headquarters in Washington, D.C.

The Photographers’ Seminar is a time when one might see certain friends for the only time during the year.  They may have come from Paris, New York, Sweden, almost anywhere.  But because many of us lead a semi-nomadic life, crossing paths with others of the same ilk can be rare.  Like the sighting of some elusive species of wildlife.

It’s the one time in the year when many–although never all–of the photographers who contribute to the magazine are brought together to share their thoughts, their work, and to enjoy and contemplate the work of photographers invited to speak and show work, photographers whose photographic interests and aspirations may be greatly dissimilar to those of the Geographic photographers, but still of strong interest and visual value.

There was a time when photographers not part of the Geographic’s stable of staff and freelancers were not invited as speakers.  Fortunately, that changed years ago, notably when Rich Clarkson came in as Director of Photography. It’s not important if the speaker does work that doesn’t come close to what the Geographic might publish; that’s actually often very refreshing and stimulating.  In fact, au contraire.  What a bore it would be if all of us leaned in the same direction in our efforts.

Paolo Pellegrin, who opened the seminar Thursday morning, showed a variety of his work, ending with a selection of images on New York.  Paolo’s pictures are always so well seen.  He is a favorite of mine.  I can sink into his images at times.  On my writing desk I still have a copy of the New York Times Magazine from February, 2009, with his marvelous portraits of Oscar nominees.  Much of the work he showed last week was far darker. I won’t say deeper because some of them showed  the seemingly never end of man’ capability for brutality.  Maybe they could be fairly said to be more important.  But I wouldn’t ever want to give the impression that his movie star pictures were shallow in comparison; nothing could be farther from the truth, in my opinion.  His access to those people who act and create a place for us to momentarily escape and at times bring us to a higher emotional and intellectual level, was evidently better than very good and he took advantage of that access and depicted the various players in ways really brilliant.

I won’t go through all the presenters at the seminar other than to say it was, as usual, quite a mixed bag.   I wish I could remember it accurately enough to quote from National Geographic senior picture editor Todd James’ well thought out introduction to David La Chapelle, who closed the seminar, but I will say that La Chapelle’s pictures ran the gamut from startling to stupendous, and his visual thinking is extraordinary. His imagery is such a wonderful combination of intellectual interpretation and photographic mastery.  Even if one is not quite taken with some of his pictures, I, for one, find his visual contemplation fascinating.

I am now going to take a break from writing here in a Waynesboro, Virginia Starbucks(I suppose if I were a tweeter I could announce it that way but I’m not and why tweet, anway, about just getting in a car to go home?) and go home to my writing area where I can play some music and finish this up.  I’m in Starbucks because our Hughes high speed Internet connection has given up the ghost and we can’t get a service guy until the end of the week.  And then they say we have to pay a service charge.  How is it that when a service one pays for breaks down, the person being serviced gets penalized by having to pay for it to work?  We live on the side of a mountain with not much in the way of high speed Internet options.  We’re a step up from dial up, but it’s a very short step.  And for now there is nothing.  No step. No signal. Nothing.

It’s an hour or so later and I’m back.  I had to stop at the deer processing guy’s house to find out why my son Anthony got all burger and no steaks or summer sausage from the deer he brought in last week and I picked up on my way home from the seminar.

But now I’m not really up for music, having stopped on my way up the driveway at the pump shed to check on the water pipes after a very cold last night and discovered we have a leak, maybe from a frozen pipe and now must have a plumber come out, after normal workday hours to fix what ever needs fixing. Last week while I was up in D.C. the boiler providing our hot water and heat went bad and was exhausting carbon monoxide into the house so we now need a new boiler and the accompanying new exhaust piping and tearing out of ceilings and all of that.  It will cost a lot.  Possibly over twelve grand.

And now we need a plumber. At after hours prices.

Sadly, I’ve lost my craving for music for the time being.  Can’t think of anything to play that will help my anxiety over the onrushing bills to pay, so I’ll try to finish up this thing while writing at a table just off the kitchen, watching Every Day Italian with Giada on television, between paragraphs.  She’s always a pleasure to watch and I may, although not often, jot down a recipe or take note of a cooking technique.  It sometimes depends upon what Giada is wearing.

Probably one of the most awaited aspects of the National Geographic Photographers’ Seminar is the day after the seminar speakers, on Friday afternoon when “Works In Progress,” kicks in for about three hours.  Open basically only to photographers who are regular contributors to the magazine or who have recently had something in the magazine, they are invited to show work they may be in the midst of producing, not necessarily for the magazine, although many do show assignments on which they are currently working.

The natural history guys never cease to amaze me at the “Works in Progress” sessions. They seem to constantly raise the bar ever higher for excellence in what they do.  I’m so happy I don’t have to compete with them for a gig.

Paul Nicklin and Brian Skerry continue to make incredible images in their underwater explorations; David Doubilet, now, I think, considered one of the pioneers at underwater work, always seems to have that slightly more artistic edge to his images. He showed some fascinating half in/half out-of-the water pictures.

Tim Laman, whom I kiddingly called “The Blue-Eyed Maniac” after watching his video of him descending from a canopy where he had been photographing Birds of Paradise or some other winged creature reached photographically only by climbing high into the jungle tree tops using some kind of rope device and once there, by climbing by hand, limb-to-limb.

Nick Nichols is in the process of making pictures of lions in the Serengeti with an intimacy perhaps never before seen.  Some of the pictures he showed were made through his use of a camera mounted on a motorized, miniaturized tank-like vehicle that rolls along, moving in on the lions in a way one normally cannot and with a far greater intimacy than with a long lens.   Once he has this thing fully mastered his pictures are going to be something else, indeed.  Unless, of course, the lions refuse to consider it something to be tolerated and eventually kill it.  At least they probably can’t eat it and the parts might be salvageable for some other use.

Alex Webb showed pictures from East London.  As usual, his pictures often had a lot of moving parts; his opening, bus stop picture was a favorite of mine.  David Alan Harvey showed pictures ripe with the fervor of Rio.  And a young couple with names I’m embarrassed to say I don’t remember, showed some images from the Andes I liked a lot.

Gerd Ludwig showed some very surreal cityscapes from his work in Astana, the new capital of Kazakhstan.  An extraordinary set of pictures with the people as well.

I can’t possibly list everybody that showed great work in what was a strong afternoon of well-seen imagery.

As for me, I didn’t have an assignment last year and photographed not much more than a few portraits of a naked pole dancer at her home and a hair stylist in her Day of the Dead makeup in a small, empty room at her hair salon. Both women live in Missoula, Montana and I may eventually add them to my ongoing “Her Picture in a Frame” project but I didn’t think it was enough to show.  I spent most of my time in Montana last summer and fall working on a novel I started maybe 15 years ago, then put aside for a long time and just last year returned to and hope to finish sometime later this year as time permits.  I’m not a good multi-tasker and if on assignment I don’t try to write on the side if I’m not writing the story.  Can’t do that.  An assignment is an all-demanding kind of thing.  And good writing is hard work and takes a lot of time.

But I’ve always participated in the “Works In Progress” part of the seminar so I asked Nick if I it would be okay to read a couple excerpts from my novel and I did.

I’ve read a piece of my writing before at “Works In Progress,” eleven years ago.  But that was non-fiction from a retrospective book I was working on.  That reading was about a range detective  in
Wyoming I photographed for LIFE who once drunkenly held a gun on me.  That was for real.  This time it was fiction and fair to say, more sexual than riding the range with a range detective . I needed a bit more than the three-and-a-half minutes limit imposed on the photographers, some of whom honored it.  I think part of what I read might have struck some as a bit over-the-top, but that’s what this kind of thing is about and you  have to be willing to stick your neck out.  I chose excerpts that had lots of word pictures, ones that didn’t have to deal with the vagueness of plot in such a brief time.  When you take a piece of writing out of context and let it float out there by itself, it may not fly as well or as high as you would like.  But I was in the mix and enjoyed it.

During his presentation David La Chapelle made an interesting note of something quite unusual to him: the comradeship he witnessed among photographers who work for National Geographic.  Quite different from what he’s used to in the world of fashion, I guess.  And he’s right on the mark today because the comradeship among National Geographic photographers has never been better or stronger, not because the times are better, but very probably because they are not.  We seek common goals and it isn’t just about making more money.  It’s about getting a fair trade for what we do and what we do has always had maintaining the highest excellence of the magazine possible at the top of our priority list.  We in the newly formed Photo Society, with its dedicated and extremely hard working elected advisory board, have a presence not seen before among our type and I’ve been around National Geographic photographers for 48 years.

The seminar wrapped up Friday night at a place called the Potomac Boat House in Georgetown and it was a fine party.  I had new boots that were hurting and did not dance, but many did.  And there was that same spirit of comradeship evident on the dance floor.  Even John Fahey, CEO of the National Geographic Society was out there, looking good.  I think it was a night to remember.  I also saw several interesting women during the seminar days that I hope I’ll be fortunate enough to photograph some day, if they’d like.

Just a closing note that fits right in with the way things have been going around here on the mountain lately: While trying to finish this blog the plumber arrived. It seems a pressure gauge down in the pump house is what has broken, sprouting a steady stream of water, requiring the water to be shut off until the plumber can return in the morning to replace the gauge.  So from here on to morning, no water.  It’s not quite dinner time.

After the plumber left I’ve taken telemarketing calls from someone offering “A really good way to avoid septic tank problems…” (we do have a septic tank but currently and surprisingly enough, no problem), and just now, a call from a guy with some company called, I think, “Walk In Care.”  He said it’s “A walk-in-bathtub.”  I said, no, I’m not interested.  Don’t need one.  I guess they have information that tells them who to prey on, who lives at such and such an address and how old the inhabitants are. Not to say there aren’t people who would find benefit from having a walk-in bathtub.  My wife is much younger than I and doesn’t need one and although I may be 74, I can still shower with the best of them.  That is, if I had water.

It’s now the next day.  The plumber came early this morning.  It took 15 minutes for him to install the new water pressure gauge.  The gauge cost $11.00.  The total bill for the part, putting it in, and the time involved, coming from his house to mine last night and then this morning, came to $491.00.  The hourly rate yesterday because it was after hours was $150.00 an hour.  Today it was down to $105.00 an hour.

Am I in the wrong profession? If so, it’s way too fucking late to change.