The Artist’s Corner – Michelle Smith, Photographer

When I seriously started to hone my chosen craft of writing, one of the first things I noticed was how closely related the approach is too many other forms of art.  Whether it’s cooking, painting, composing, dancing, or taking pictures, we all start with desire and ability.  Where it goes from there depends on our level of commitment, how we respond to mistakes, rejection, and criticism, and how we allow ourselves to grow.  The great artists press on and realize that their success isn’t measured by fame or fortune.

In A Snapshot of Writing, I detailed one of my favorite crossover art forms, photography.  After re-reading the post, the idea came to me to feature other artists and discuss their approach to their chosen art form.  I decided to start with brilliant, budding photographer Michelle Smith.

Welcome to The Artist’s Corner.  Tell me a little bit about yourself.

I’m a survivor.  My strength is my compassion.  I’m a pet person with a rescue cat addiction.  I’m destined to be the crazy cat lady, but my husband and son won’t let me.

Do you put yourself into your photography?

I do.  I’ve had some rough spots in my life, so I’m trying to tell a story through what I’m taking pictures of.  They reflect who I am and how I’m trying to find myself.  I want to be seen, and although it’s who I am now, it’s not where I want to stay, it’s not who I want to be.

Ankle deep in commitment.

What has your experience been?

I was a stay-at-home mom for ten years before I started my career at thirty-four as an EMT and then progressed to paramedic.  I worked for a private ambulance company for eight and a half years, three and a half years of that was in training and education.  I currently work in the ER Department of a hospital as an active paramedic.  I love it!

Did your work experience lead to the pursuit of photography?

No, actually it didn’t.  My husband’s job did.  He’s a detective who trained in taking crime scene photos.  His experience piqued my interest in photography.

How did you develop your passion for photography?

I started going with him to take picture outside of the crime scenes.  He shot landscapes, objects, places, and eventually senior class pictures.  I found myself telling him what to take pictures of, and I started taking the camera from him.  He’d just chuckle at me.  Then he started explaining what I was looking for and how to work the settings, but I didn’t pay attention at first because it wasn’t my camera.  I let him move the settings, and I took the picture.

That lasted for about six months until he gave me a camera for Christmas.  We were going on vacation, and he knew I’d want my camera for the trip, so I got it in November.  It was either give me my own camera or lose his!

What’s your inspiration?

Spending time with my husband because it’s something we have in common.  Listening to him patiently tell me how to use my camera.  Taking long car rides to where we’re going to go take pictures and chatting about it on the way.

What do you enjoy photographing?

I enjoy taking pictures of abandoned places because I feel sad for them.  I think of all the things that took place there.  I don’t have memories of these places so I think what happened here?  I wonder about the families that were displaced, the moms who raised their kids there, and the people who lost their jobs.  Where are these people now?  Time has forgotten these places and no one wants to hear the stories, so I take pictures of the abandoned places and tell their story through my photography.

Where can someone find you online?  Do you have a website?

I have some of my pictures posted on ViewBug under the name Just4FunPhotography.  You can find them on the home page newest to oldest.

In which contests have you competed?  What awards have you won?

On ViewBug, I participated in peer-created challenges and received the People’s Choice award in the categories of Lanterns, Save the Rain Forest, and Toy Planes.  I also received the ViewBug Member Selection Award and Staff Winter Selection for 2015.  I took first place in Nature and also in Architecture at the Portage County Randolph Fair.  At the Lake Community Branch of the Stark County District Library’s Annual Photo Contest, I took first place in Nature and second place in Architecture.

Do you take photos for people?  How does a client contact you?

I haven’t yet for major events such as weddings, graduations, but I’m willing to learn.  I think I’m afraid to because you can’t have that moment back like you can with a landscape or object.

What is your process for photographing people?

Well, actually, my focus is on landscapes or objects.  I’m not a big fan of people pictures, so all the movement in my photographs is natural:  waterfalls, wind through the trees.  Right now, I don’t incorporate people.

How is what you shoot for yourself different from what you do for people?

When I shoot for myself, I look at the picture with a more critical eye because I am the photographer.  I’m harder on myself than when I’m shooting for others.  That’s not to say that I don’t put all my effort into shooting for other people.  I take their requests very seriously.

It’s a great satisfaction for me to be able to take a photo for someone and capture it exactly as they wanted.  Recently, I took pictures of pigs at a fair for a friend who grew up raising pigs for 4-H.  I wasn’t sure I got exactly what she wanted because I couldn’t get past the fences to take the pictures.  She loved them because that’s what she remembered:  looking at pigs up close through the fence.  It was a successful shoot because I made her happy.

Has your work ever been used for commercial purposes?

No, but I’d definitely consider it.  For National Geographic; I want that shot!  It’s the dream.  I’d also like to see my picture of a baseball player on a card or the electronic billboard at the game.  Or maybe a hockey player because of their facial expressions.  If you have patience, and capture the right moment, they have some intense expressions.  But then I’d have to photograph people!

What’s your favorite photograph that you’ve taken?

I have to choose one?  I have two!  I captured it on my first day out with my own camera.  Picture this:  With butterflies all around, capturing just one was difficult.  I turned to notice the curls of a flower vine hanging just above my head.  As I admired its beauty, this butterfly fluttered right down onto the dangling vine.  I was filled with excitement and literally shook!  I slowly raised my camera into position, took a deep breath, and then snapped the picture.  Then I recalled my lessons; even though I took the picture, the settings may not have been correct for this situation.  I reined in my excitement and slowly changed the settings to capture the picture as you see it.  I smiled, thinking to myself, Wow that’s going to be amazing.  This photograph has no post-process editing.  I named it Curly Q.

My second favorite is of the 1792 distillery rickhouse in Kentucky.  It’s called Master Distiller Approved.  I applied the rule of thirds and vanishing points to the picture, but when I snapped it, it came out with too much backlight from the windows.  I closed the aperture, and it was perfect.  Plus the smell of bourbon in there was heavenly!

What’s your dream photograph?

Are you really ready?  People are going to think I’m freakin’ crazy.  I want to capture what was left behind after Chernobyl.  After viewing other photographers’ work, I became inspired and decided that’s one of my dream shots.  It’s part of the abandoned place thing.  So many lives were lost, these people had no time to pack, they were evacuated in forty-eight hours, and told they were leaving for just a short time.

The other, I’m claustrophobic so it’s never going to happen, is to photograph the abandoned hulls of underwater shipwrecks.  I’d like to do war ships, but you can’t get close.  Talk about stories to tell!

What’s your biggest beef with photography?

Photoshopping!  Lightroom, a program that fixes the picture and makes it more than it was to begin with.  It’s not real, and photographers are getting awards for this type of work.  The pictures are over processed, over edited.  There’s a minimum of allowable tinkering.  All I’ll do is sharpen, define, and noise reduction which fixes shaking.  If the picture is already good, it’s not even noticeable.  There is some post-processing no matter who you are (National Geographic, Victoria’s Secret, or Sports Illustrated), but you can’t make a bad photo good.  Well, you can, but that’s cheating.

My other complaint is photographers who steal other people’s work.

Would you like to work full-time as a photographer?  If so, how do you see your business growing?

Absolutely!  To enjoy your hobby as a career could be more relaxing than the grind of an everyday job that is so-so.  Not that my job is so-so.  Remember, I love being a paramedic.  Breaking in to the world of photography to make your name takes time and commitment.  There’s the investment in equipment unless you get hired in somewhere that supplies equipment.  So, I’d work for someone commercially to get started.

Then there’s the investment in your craft.  I’m still learning and growing my confidence.  I need to work at handling variables such as people (they’re so unpredictable!) and not putting a picture in my head and trying to make it happen.

Do you work alone or with a partner?

I prefer going with someone else.  I enjoy going with other people whether they’re photographers or not because when they see something they want a picture of, I can give it to them.  I don’t have to guess at what they’ll like.  It’s quite confidence building to deliver a picture right then and have them be pleased.  Plus I like to chat with people!

To Praise with Admiration

For far too long those crazy Latin-speaking people have influenced English to the detriment of high school students everywhere.  Until we can stop them, here’s some information on compliment versus complement.  No doubt the confusion started with the fact that they are pronounced alike and used to have similar meanings.  Fortunately, they evolved into separate words.

The older of the two words, complement with an E derived from the Latin complementum.  As a noun, complement means “a thing that completes or brings to perfection” and “a number or quantity of something required to make a group complete.”  As a verb, it means “to add to (something) in a way that enhances or improves it; make perfect.”

Noun 1:  The lyrics provided the perfect complement to the music.

Noun 2:  As of today, we have a full complement of employees.

Verb:  The navy blazer complements the tan slacks for a classic look.

If something complements something else, it completes it or enhances it.  A handbag can complement an outfit, and a throw pillow can complement a sofa.  Remember the color wheel from grade school art class?  Complementary colors were those that were directly across from each other.  The contrast between them enhanced their relationship:  orange and blue, yellow and purple, red and green.

Remember:  if something complements something, it completes it.

Compliment with an I also derives from the Latin root completmentum, which explains some of the early overlap of meaning.  It was introduced to English by way of the Spanish cumplimiento, via the route of Italian and French.  You can pay someone a compliment, or compliment someone for a job well done.

As a noun, compliment means “a polite expression of praise or admiration.”  As a verb, it means “to politely congratulate or praise (someone) for something.”

Noun:  George paid me an enormous compliment.

Verb:  Marcia complimented Darren on his academic achievements.

Hopefully, today’s The Weight of Words helps with the compliment versus complement confusion.  If not, blame those pesky Latin-speaking folks.

The Many Deaths of the Firefly Brothers

Have you ever read a book so good that you wanted to rush through it because you couldn’t wait to see how it ended only to stop the last three to five pages before the end because you suspected that it was about to finish on a heartbreaking, bittersweet note?  I have a feeling The Many Deaths of the Firefly Brothers is going to haunt me for some time, but that’s all right because while I’ve read many good books lately, it’s been a while since I had one that stayed with me as this book did.

I suppose the reason this book affected me is that I couldn’t help looking at it from the romantic’s perspective.  The story is quite surreal, not fantasy and not science fiction, but written in such a way that I could completely suspend belief about what took place to the point that the story totally engrossed me.  Not to mention that Thomas Mullen is a natural born storyteller.

Mr. Mullen seamlessly weaves history from the Great Depression and the 1920s and ‘30s into his novel.  He also intersperses the stories with mention of famous gangsters like Bonnie and Clyde, Baby Face Nelson, John Dillinger, Machine Gun Kelly, Pretty Boy Floyd, and the Barker Gang.  One can’t help getting caught up in daring bank robberies, wild police chases, the brokenness of the Hoovervilles, and the tenacity of the G-Men.

But then Mr. Mullen blurs the lines ever so slightly when these gangsters, along with his own fictional Firefly Brothers, earn legions of fans across the country for sticking it to the banks that foreclosed on property of poor, struggling farmers.  True, their craft was an art, but they were also murderers living high on the hog whose charity extended to them first and their families second.  Past that, most of what they did was pure myth.

So how does one separate fact from fiction, truth from lies, and good from evil when the intimidating fingers of governmental control was more than implied in this somewhat prophetic tale?  Factor in the development of what became the FBI under J. Edgar Hoover, and it was like I read headlines from today regarding the American government and the NSA.  Perhaps we really are doomed to repeat history when we forget it.

And if you think I’m exaggerating the prophetic nature of the story, consider the following passage:

Part of the Bureau’s job, the Director had always explained, was to dictate reality—to investigate reality, fully understand it, and then, under the aegis of Mr. Hoover’s vigilant public persona, explain that reality to a public cowed by the depression and frightened by stories of gangsters and increasing lawlessness.  It was the Bureau’s job to reassure people that these shockingly hard times were merely speed bumps along the shared path to prosperity, and not a sign that the nation was spiraling into anarchy and madness.

I believe today we call that fake news.  What struck me about this passage was that even if J. Edgar Hoover never said these exact words or acted this way, even in 2010 when the novel was published, Mr. Mullen had understanding of where America was headed.  No doubt based on where we had already been.

At first I thought the novel promoted a lack of hope and something to believe in, but with further reading, I realized it toggled between this and hoping against hope to believe in the impossible as a means of survival.  Such amazing insight into the human condition and an unexpected source of inspiration from a novel is rare.  Another pleasant surprise was the concept of forgiveness, for others and for self, subtly entwined into the tale.

Long before I finished reading, I realized I was experiencing what I could only call a Literary Stockholm Syndrome in which I wanted the bad guys to succeed in their struggle against failure (whether real or perceived), to reconnect with their true loves, and escape.  I mentally pleaded with them to find their women and just disappear.  Nothing they were doing would actually work in the end, it was no longer about seeking justice, and they would most likely end up dead.

I’ve mentioned before how I wished an author would have finished a novel on a clearer, more positive note or would consider writing a sequel to undo the heartbreak and let me know beyond a shadow of a doubt that a happy ending took place (Is It Ever Too Late?).  I mulled these thoughts over again at the end of The Many Deaths of the Firefly Brothers.  Until Thomas Mullen tells me otherwise, I’ll wish for the impossible and believe in a favorable outcome.

Baring My Writer’s Soul – Part 22

I am making a transition in my writing life.  The reason for this is the complete derailment I experienced in the earlier part of this year.  I know that isn’t much of an explanation, but this short version is free of negativity and the temptation to succumb to it.  I could go on and on telling you what went wrong and how I allowed it to happen, but I do not want to contaminate anyone’s thought process with my own difficulties.  We’re writers; we’ll manufacture plenty of woes on our own without someone spoon feeding suggestions to us.

The good news for me is that my writing passion is starting to return.  The stories are creeping back into my head like deer tentatively stepping from the security of the forest into the wide-open unknown of the meadow.  It was my own fault they were driven away in the first place, and I must and am taking responsibility for this.

For a short time I did nothing positive toward my writing life.  The only connection I maintained to writing was reading.  I hid out in books, believing what I did was helpful, but I was living in denial.  One piece of writing advice that actually saved me was to do something different altogether.  I was struggling anyhow, so why force something that wasn’t coming to me naturally?  Instead, I walked.

My husband and I began hiking familiar trails close to home.  I welcomed the exercise and fresh air like old friends.  We kept at it, and now we look forward to seeking new places to walk.  I took pictures with my cellphone during our hikes, playing at the most amateur form of photography.  The simple act of creativity spurred my mind.  I began to mentally describe what I saw and fashioned one or two-line stories.

My efforts probably don’t sound very constructive to the writing life except for the simple fact that they placed my focus squarely back on writing.  I felt like an adult who had successfully recaptured the magical thrill of Christmas morning.  All the superfluous baggage that people will try to tell you (or you’ll convince yourself of) is part of the writing life simply disappeared.

Again, I’m avoiding detailing exactly what those bad things were for me so that my followers won’t latch on to them.  I’m also cautious in supplying instruction on how to overcome them because too many times we grasp a particular piece of advice as a hard and fast solution to our problems.  When it doesn’t work, we become more despondent and depressed than we were at the beginning.  In short, you must proceed fearlessly on your own to discover and apply what works for you.  Fellow writers can cheer you from the sidelines, but they cannot prop you up nor do the work for you.

With a deep sigh of relief and contentment, I am single-mindedly focused on writing.  The scales have fallen away from my eyes, the chains from my hands, and I am free to write.

Write Happy!

Have a Holly, Jelly Christmas

Christmas morning of 1917 was a time of excitement for Johnny Welles and his three older siblings.  In addition to celebrating the special day, a secret was brewing behind the scenes that would add to the festive holiday season and bring joy to the entire family.  In a passage leading up to the discovery of this secret, I wrote a portion for my novel, The Secrets of Dr. John Welles, that included the special treat of apple jelly on pound cake served for Christmas breakfast.  The following recipe is the one I had in mind when writing the above-mentioned scene.

Collie’s Apple Jelly

3 lbs. tart apples (¼ underripe and ¾ ripe)

3 c water

2 T lemon juice, strained

3 c white sugar

This recipe doesn’t require an outside source of pectin because it uses tart apples which are higher in pectin.  Also, the slightly underripe apples further ensure a natural source of pectin.

Sort and wash the apples.  Remove the stems and blossom ends.  Do not pare or core the apples.  Cut them into small pieces.  Add the water, cover, and bring to a boil on high heat.  Stir occasionally to prevent scorching.  Reduce the heat and simmer the mixture for 20 to 25 minutes, or until the apple pieces are soft.  Do not over boil or you’ll destroy the pectin, flavor, and color in the fruit.

Dampen a jelly bag and suspend over a clean bowl.  Ladle the cooked apples and liquid into the jelly bag and allow the juices to drip through on their own.  Pressing out the juice will result in cloudy jelly.  If a fruit press is used, pass the juice through a jelly bag to reduce cloudiness.

Pour the apple juice into a flat-bottomed pot.  Add the lemon juice and sugar.  Stir thoroughly.  Boil the mixture over high heat to eight degrees above the boiling point of water (this temperature depends on where you live in regards to sea level) or until the jelly sheets from a spoon.  Remove the jelly from the heat and quickly skim off the foam.

Immediately pour the jelly into hot, sterile jars.  Be sure to leave ¼ inch headspace.  Wipe the rims with a clean, damp paper towel.  Fit a canning lid into a ring and place on the jars of jelly.  Take care to level and tighten them properly.  Process the jars in a water bath canner.  The time required will depend on the altitude at which you live:

0 – 1000 ft. for five minutes

1001 – 6000 ft. for 10 minutes

Above 6000 ft. for 15 minutes

Remove the processed jars using canning tongs.  Allow the jars to cool on several layers of towels.  During this time, you’ll hear the lids pop indicating successful canning.  You can remove the rings for reuse once the lids pop and the jars cool.  Any lid that does not pop has not sealed properly.  These jars should be cooled and refrigerated for immediate use.  This recipe yields about four to five half-pint jars of golden sweet deliciousness.

Now it’s time for the confession portion of this post.  Thinking like a modern woman, I had Collie making the apple jelly a few days before she served it for Christmas.  In my world, one would simply go to the store for apples or pull them from the refrigerator where they waited patiently to be eaten or made into something delicious.  Refrigerators for home use weren’t invented until 1913, and I seriously doubt the Welles family would have had one by 1917.  They could have had a cellar, but I never mentioned this in the description of the house, and to do so for the sake of one scene would feel contrived.

Apples will last for six to eight weeks with refrigeration, but left on a counter, they will ripen ten times faster because enzymes are much more active at room temperature, and they will only last for a week or two.  More likely, Collie would have made the jelly during the months when apples were in season.  So while I made a small culinary mistake in my novel, fortunately I discovered it prior to publication.  As I’ve always said, the research begins with the author.  It will be easy to edit this scene by having Collie say she held back one jar to use on Christmas morning.

Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt

I recently read Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt.  If you follow me on Goodreads and you’ve read the book, you might think I’m rather rigid in my assessment of the memoir.  I’ve read other fiction and non-fiction accounts of the Great Depression in America as well as extremely poor people in Ireland, Appalachia, and other such places, and I must say that for a Pulitzer Prize winning memoir, Angela’s Ashes did not strike me as exceptional in any way.

I’m not sure why the book is titled as it is when the story is predominantly about McCourt’s experiences as a child.  His parents’ courtship and marriage prior to his arrival was necessary to set the stage for what the entire family would endure due to his father’s alcoholism and eventual abandonment, but again, the bulk of what one reads focuses on young Frank.

The prose is pleasant (riddled with Irish slang, sayings, and swear words galore), but nothing poetic or beautifully descriptive.  Sometimes dialog is properly placed between quotes and employs commas, periods, or question marks where necessary, and other times it’s buried in long paragraphs of run-on sentences.

One saving grace from all the depressing tales McCourt relays is the hilarity of the situations he’s writing about.  The thing is, the humor is derived from circumstances that are simultaneously horrific.  Yet the reader has to laugh because the truth is almost unbelievable.  Sadly, some of these dreadful circumstances include the way adults in the story treat McCourt, his siblings, and friends.

It’s unacceptable when adults express the depth of frustration, prejudice, and ignorance-born hatred toward each other that McCourt conveys, but children should never have to suffer at this level.  Educators, employers, priests, nuns, relatives, and hospital administration inflict verbal and physical damage on par with child abuse.  It’s a wonder any child living in these conditions turned out normal.

Near the end of the book, Angela McCourt finally takes the self-sacrificing initiative to do something for her children’s welfare.  Prior to that she tolerates her alcoholic husband’s actions to the extreme detriment of her family by keeping her abuser front and center in her life.  Perhaps it was the era in which the story takes place, perhaps it’s that divorce still carried the stigma of shame back then, perhaps it’s that Angela suffered from some type of battered-woman syndrome (hers being in the form of neglect beyond all reason), but because she refused to rid their lives of her worthless husband’s presence, they underwent shame to an equal degree anyhow.

There comes a point in the book when, in my opinion, McCourt rushes through years thirteen to nineteen because to tell it in any more detail would read as more of the same depressing ground already covered over and over and over.  Things turn around for young Frank ever so slightly; he hops a boat to America, end of story.

I’d like to say that Angela’s Ashes is one of those books that just shouldn’t be missed, but I can’t.  I’m not sorry I read it, but if asked whether or not it is a worthy read, I’ll probably shrug my shoulders, suggest the reader try it, and make up his or her own mind.

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