Friday, March 28, 2014

Street Photography

"Bible Thumpers" Near Lincoln High School  (Shot thru a wet windshield!)

Back when I was just getting into photography and picture taking, I was blessed to be in a large city that offered a huge variety of people and cultures.  I really started learning about photography when I was in the Army and stationed in Berlin, Germany.

I learned the basics of developing black and white/color films, basic composition and exposure and the like and I enjoyed printing my own photos when I could, as I felt that no one was as meticulous as I would be!  In those days I preferred to shoot slide film. (Kodachrome...yeah just like the song)  I had a Pentax K1000 SLR and a standard 50mm lens.  The Army had a good Photo Lab and it was outfitted with fantastic equipment that was pretty much free to use. 

I took pictures of everything...Buildings, Russian Guards, Scenic Photos of Cities and Mountains and the like.  But more than these rather pedestrian photographic tasks, Berlin would afford me an opportunity to learn about "Street Photography".  I am not sure that is what it was called back then, but it is the current term for taking photos of people and spaces within a bustling urban setting. 

I remember heading out the door of my tiny, one bedroom apartment, hopping on an "U-Bahn" (Subway) from "Oscar Helena Heim Station" and jumping off at "Wittenberg Platz" in the heart of downtown take what I called...People Pictures.

These outings consisted of me with a camera slung over my shoulder, walking among the people, in the midst of one of the busiest areas of the City.  It is a very large city and at the time had well over 3.5 million people living there. 

I would simply sit on a wall, or a bench...or one of the "U-Bahn" terminals and take pictures of people going about their business.  Sometimes it was mundane, other times it was just depended on my mood that day, and the random expressions and behaviors of the people I would see and photograph.  You never knew what might catch your eye!

It has been many years since I strolled about, looking for interesting people and faces to photograph.  I have not lived in a city as large as Berlin since then.  I also have not relied on walking and public transportation like I did while in Europe.  This has limited my enthusiasm for taking those "People Pictures"...or in todays terms...doing Street Photography.

Today, after weeks of considering taking to the streets like I had all those years ago, I loaded up my old green canvas shoulder bag with a fixed focal length lens ( 64mm pancake lens) on my DSLR and a remote Flash Unit (just in case?!)  I decided to head to downtown Tacoma at about noon, as there might be some folks walking around at lunchtime and there would certainly be some students at the UW Tacoma Campus nearby.

Union Station on Pacific Ave...across from UW Tacoma

It felt good to be out with my camera as I paid for parking and headed down the very long stairs that cut through the UW Campus towards Pacific Ave.  I took a few photos...but nothing inspiring.  There really weren't many people out.  Trouble with Tacoma is it simply is not as "Bustling" as Berlin was...or many of the other larger cities. 

As luck would have it, it started to I ducked into a Starbucks that shares a building with the UW Campus Book Store.

Not wanting to waste an outing, I looked around the Starbucks and hoped I would find someone/something interesting to discreetly photograph.  I took a photo of a man doing what has become completely normal and is now a part of modern culture...texting on his cell phone.  It was an "ok" shot...typical though and nothing stood out about it..though I did like the composition within the "darkish" Starbucks cafĂ©.

I was about to finish my small cup of Hot Cocoa (No vanilla syrup/Extra hot!) when a man came in and took a seat behind me.  He was an older gentleman and he sat down with his drink and cracked open a book as he relaxed in one of the more comfortable "I am going to be here for a while" chairs.

His face showed the lines of having lived and experienced a great deal.  I could not see his eyes, as they were covered under the rim of the Nike hat he was wearing.  He held the book with a steady hand and seemed quite absorbed with what he was reading.  The gentleman was lit naturally from a window over his left shoulder that really highlighted the texture of his face and lit up the red brick behind him.  This could be a really nice little shot!

Now the trouble with this, is that he was behind me and it would be terribly awkward for me to turn around, put a camera in front of him and click away.  It would be rude and it would ruin a perfectly natural composition.  In my earlier days I might have shied away from this situation, but I had missed out on many a good photo because I lacked the tenacity and confidence to "get the shot".  The other thing to note is that a DSLR, while quiet..still makes the characteristic shutter release sound.  This means that I would need to get this shot right the very first time in case my nice gentleman hears/notices this and becomes less than "natural" and relaxed.

I set the camera to "Program" mode, where I could simply set the F Stop to F11 and let the camera worry about the shutter speed.  I carefully turned the camera around backwards as it sat on my rather elevated table and prayed that I would get a decent shot.  I pressed the shutter button one time and then tucked my camera back into my bag and left the coffee shop no one the wiser!

I walked up the 10 or so sets of stairs leading to my car and took a few photos of reflections in the rain spattered puddles as I walked. 

As I was driving home, I felt good to get out for an hour or so and force myself to see things from a photographers point of view again.  It was fun.  I hoped I had gotten that "one good shot"...which is all I ever hope for on an outing like this.

The photo of the man in the coffee Shop? turned out just fine!  Maybe I still have it in me after all!

Gentleman in Starbucks


Thursday, March 6, 2014

Greatest Female Vocalist?!

Best Female Singer Of All Time?

Recently, I was talking to a co-worker and the subject of who the best “Female Singer” came up. Actually, the wording used was “Best Female Vocalist of All Time”! Given the rather broad time period this would involve, I decided to limit it to my lifetime, as I do not think I am in a position to judge thousands of years of Female Singers. (Nor do I have the experience, or first hand knowledge to do so)

Like any other “who is the best” discussion/debate, this one would bring with it the comparisons of awards and dollars earned and the like and it had a generational element to it as well, as I was about twenty years or more older than this person! While I understood the “commercial” and “revenue producing” comparisons...and even the technical “x number of octaves range” displayed by one singer or another, I could simply not agree with my co-workers choice in “best” singer. Mostly because in my opinion money, and technical ability...when it comes to a pleasing and beautiful voice...simply do not tell the complete story.

Of course anyone reading this, with any common sense, will say “it is totally subjective!!” Well, I certainly agree and I suggested this during the discussion. I mean, music tends to transport many of us to times and places we personally cherish and for some younger people, it defines where they are they currently feel etc. I mean, they are in the middle of creating their “good old days” as we speak. Music and Songs and Singers...mean something special and different to each of us, for many different reasons. And for me, as I have gotten older, I tend towards music from my past rather than staying current with each new coming music trend and “sound”. That is not true for everyone, but it is for some. Certainly we “add to” our collective musical taste rather than “leaving the old behind” for the new. At least I think so.

I also doubt much of the music and singing these days would be enjoyed or should I say many people 60 years ago...just as their music is barely tolerated now! (Except for the rampant and shameless “Remakes” and “Remixes” of those classic tunes..funny how they are good enough to remake huh?) Likewise, I do not expect the current generation of teens to be enamored with The Beatles, the way my Parents generation was. It all has it's time and place...and fans.

Whenever I engage in a spirited debate, I always walk away from the discussion and think about the arguments on both sides. I over think it (like I do with everything) and usually I am able to understand the other sides points much more clearly the next day, or at least recognize the merits, if there are any.

In this regard I did a little looking around at Statistical and sales data etc. I will get some of the “technical” arguments out of the way first. 

Now when my co-worker told me who they thought the best singer was, and gave the “statistical data” to support it, it coincided with the current Music Industry's criteria. This concerns “record sales”, and “most number one hits” and the like. Ok, I understand the weight that carries, but I also realize that there is an enormous difference between the ability to generate those statistics now, vs say 20, 30 or 40 plus years ago! And guess what? There were some awfully good female vocalists back then too! This methods of arriving at the “Greatest” is similar to the Movie Industry touting the latest movies surpassing all previous “Gross Sales” and “Grossing more money the first weekend” of any Movie before it! Well, at 15.00 a movie ticket...I would hope so!! Movies were a “buck” when I was growing up! This “Movie” analogy is simply a way to illustrate how the measurement of popularity and gross earnings can be determined and even exploited.

Rather than giving you a long explanation, here is a rather brief example of what I am talking about as it relates to movies (From IO9.Com):
For some perspective...there were less than 133 million people in the United States when “Gone With The Wind” was released. (1939) There were over 317 million people in the United States at the end of 2011! Gone With The Wind's tiny 32 million dollar gross “earnings” pales in comparison to even the most average movie's earnings today, but it's ticket sales tell a different story...even prior to the re-releases.

In a similar light, there was some discussion about “sales” and with this there was talk about the ability for music singles/albums to be purchased (and downloaded and streamed) via cd, mp3, I Tunes, tape (until recently) and that leaves out the multiple purchases of songs to replace those that you wiped off your hard drive or Ipod...or your Iphone ...or...(it goes on and on)! Lets just say, its wayyyy easier and cheaper (as a percentage of income) to purchase a “single”or a “song” than it has ever been in the history of music! I would also add that 99 percent of the albums I purchased as a kid, I still have!! (because they were a big deal to buy!) My generation of children did not “own” near as much music as today's children, as it was simply too expensive and I think disposable income was significantly lower. I mean, none of my friends had a library of 1000 songs at age is completely common to see that now. Heck most adults didn't have more than 50-75 albums. I mean, I played the records we had at the house. It's not like I bought The Beatles, or Ricky Nelson or Johnny Cash or Frankie Lane, or Black Sabbath (really Debbie!?)...or whatever my older siblings and/or Parents had purchased. Most of us picked the “records” we liked the best from our parents or older siblings meager collections and played them, heard them and grew to like some of them. I mean that WAS the collection!! It took a trip to a store and cash to hear a song, other than over the radio. I would have killed to have Pandora!!!??

I wont even try to estimate the number of us kids that would wait by the radio...with tape recorder record songs that were on the air! Speaking of “air time” it was not that long ago that there was no “Satellite Radio”, Internet Radio”, YouTube, and the like and there were half as many FM Stations to listen to music! Years earlier than that, there might have been only one AM radio station to tune into! In my youth we didn't have Parents that would buy us a “single” after “single”, the way parents buy mp3's, and “I Tunes” for their kid's Ipods and cell phones...these days. That is not meant to characterize it as “bad”, it simply was not an option financially years ago...due to the media (mostly vinyl) used for music. Lets just say that “music sales” in this ever expanding Television/Internet/4G/Cable/Satellite/Wireless market simply not a fair measure when determining the “Best Female Singer” etc...especially if one uses “sales” and “downloads” and “views” etc as Billboard clearly uses now to determine a Singer's popularity. The sheer exposure possible for artist these days is staggering! It bears mentioning again, that with literally more than 317 million people in the U.S. now compared to 200 million in say, even the early 1970's, (my biggest music years I think) the advantage in “record sales” and “exposure” is huge! That is over 100 Million more people!! 

Don't believe me? Here's How Billboard Charts it's songs: (Yes..the way one gets “Number One Hits” etc)

On January 4, 1936, Billboard magazine published its first music hit parade. The first Music Popularity Chart was calculated in July 1940. A variety of song charts followed, which were eventually consolidated into the Hot 100 by mid-1958. The Hot 100 currently combines single sales, radio airplay, digital downloads, and streaming activity (including data from YouTube and other video sites). All of Billboard's charts use this basic formula. What separates the charts is which stations and stores are used; each musical genre has a core audience or retail group. Each genre's department at Billboard is headed up by a chart manager, who makes these determinations.
For many years, a song had to be commercially available as a single to be considered for any of Billboard's charts. At the time, instead of using SoundScan or BDS, Billboard obtained its data from manual reports filled out by radio stations and stores. According to the 50th Anniversary issue of Billboard, prior to the official implementation of Nielsen SoundScan tracking in November 1991, many radio stations and retail stores removed songs from their manual reports after the associated record labels stopped promoting a particular single. Thus songs fell quickly after peaking and had shorter chart lives. In 1990, the country singles chart was the first chart to use SoundScan and BDS. They were followed by the Hot 100 and the R&B chart in 1991. Today, all of Billboard's charts use this technology.
Originally, Billboard had separate charts for different measures of popularity, including disk jockey playings, juke box song selection, and best selling records in retail stores. A composite standing chart that combined these gradually grew to become a top 100, the predecessor to the current Hot 100 chart. The juke box chart ceased publication after the June 17, 1957 issue, the disk jockey chart, after the July 28, 1958 issue, and the best seller chart, after the October 13, 1958 issue. The July 28, 1958 issue was also the last issue that called the composite chart the Top 100; the following week began the Hot 100. Billboard publishes many different charts, with the Hot 100 and Billboard 200 being the most famous. Billboard also has charts for the following music styles: rock, country, dance, bluegrass, jazz, classical, R&B, rap, electronic, pop, Latin, Christian music, comedy albums, catalog albums, and even ringtones for mobile (cell) phones. In 2009 Billboard partnered with MetroLyrics to offer top 10 lyrics for each of the charts.
At the end of each year, Billboard tallies the results of all of its charts, and the results are published in a year-end issue and heard on year-end editions of its American Top 40 and American Country Countdown radio broadcasts. Between 1991 and 2006, the top single/album/artist(s) in each of those charts was/were awarded in the form of the annual Billboard Music Awards, which were held in December until the awards went dormant in 2007. The awards returned in May 2011.
Before September 1995, singles were allowed to chart in the week they first went on sale based on airplay points alone. The policy was changed in September 1995 to only allow a single to debut after a full week of sales on combined sales and airplay points. This allowed several tracks to debut at number one.
In December 1998, the policy was further modified to allow tracks to chart on the basis of airplay alone without a commercial release. This change was made to reflect the changing realities of the music business. Previous to this, several substantial radio and MTV hits had not appeared on the Billboard chart at all, because many major labels chose not to release them as standalone singles, hoping their unavailability would spur greater album sales. Not offering a popular song to the public as a single was unheard of before the 1970s. The genres that suffered most at the time were those that increasingly impacted pop culture, including new genres such as trip hop and grunge. Among the many pre-1999 songs that had ended up in this Hot 100 limbo were The Cardigans' "Lovefool", Natalie Imbruglia's "Torn", Goo Goo Dolls' "Iris", OMC's "How Bizarre", Sugar Ray's "Fly" and No Doubt's "Don't Speak".

Think there might be an advantage these days!!?? :)

OK, let us talk about Grammy Awards, as they represent the pinnacle of achievement for Singers and are recognized/voted on via experts in each musical category. (And spoken word) Let's be honest, these are the Singer's “Oscars”!

A little background about the Grammy's: (Wonder how many young folks even know what a “Grammy” “Gramaphone” even looks like!?)

The Grammy Awards were first awarded in 1958 and were then known as the Gramophone Awards. However, the first time that the live awards show was televised was in 1971. Prior to this, there was not actually a Grammy Awards show. The show was multiple, different music specials, which showcased the nominated artists and was called The Best on Record. Prior to the 1971 awards show, artists had the option to either travel to Los Angeles or New York, which were the two locations where the ceremonies were held. Winners would receive their awards at one of the two ceremonies. Since 1973, the Grammy Awards have aired on CBS. The process of nominating and winning is another question that many people have.
The nomination process is not done by the general public. Record companies are the first step in the process. The recording companies are allowed to nominate the recording artists that the company feels is deserving of such a nomination. There are then a group of about 150 music experts that have the responsibility of reviewing the recordings of the nominated artists to determine if the recordings are suitable for nomination and if they have been nominated in the appropriate categories which include 31 different recording fields.
Not just anyone is allowed to vote for the winners. Of the experts voting in the Grammy Award's nomination process, experts only have the ability to vote in the categories for which they have expertise. They are also allowed to nominate in the four general categories which are Record of the Year, Album of the Year, Song of the Year, and Best New Artist. These four categories can contain artists from any genre. They also nominate in a maximum of nine of 31 categories. Once the music experts have done their nominating of the recording artists, the final step is for those who are members of the Academy to vote on those artists who have been nominated. The members of the Academy vote in the same four general categories as the music experts and in no more than eight of the 31 categories. Once the members have voted, the winners are tallied by an accounting firm that has the responsibility of keeping the winners identities a secret until the live telecast in which the Grammy Awards are presented.
There are so many different Grammy Awards presented during the awards show that many of them are presented prior to the live telecast and are not seen by the viewing public. To a recording artist, a Grammy Award is the ultimate honor to receive as a result of their hard work in the recording world.”
I wanted to include the Grammy's as a “measure” of a Singer's talent and success, as it certainly bears mentioning.

OK, Enough of the technical side of things!

My personal opinion of what constitutes a great singer, is quite simple really.

Since I was using movies as a comparison earlier, I will use Actors as an example here. When I was younger, there were a few Actors that I just didn't first, just didn't really “like” when I first saw them. My best example is Jodie Foster. It is not that I dislike her in any way, it was just some “judging a book by it's cover” thing for me. I would pop in a VHS Tape (yeah) of a “great movie” recommended to me thinking “I am just not a fan of”Jodie Foster! And every time I watched her in a movie...she literally drew me into the movie and her character...every damn time!! I mean...“Nell”???!!! Can you imagine me sitting down watching that movie??! I loved it. “Silence of The Lambs”??...yep she nailed it again!! And one of my all time favorite movies ever...”Contact”...I forgot she was even acting!! Jodie Foster is an incredible Actor...she is able to leave “herself” out of the role...and becomes the person ..the character...and pulls you into the person she is portraying. This is a selfless thing and, in my opinion, is a hallmark of all great Actors. They make you believe that they are the thing they are portraying!

Now let's talk about Singers. For me, this “selflessness” and “drawing one into the song..the words..the story..the meaning...the emotion” what makes a truly great singer. Do many singers possess excellent technical abilities? Absolutely. Some though, and not many...have the right timbre, the right mood, the right emotional expression...and the innate ability to make you believe that they are singing the song...from their heart, their own soul... via their voices. They can make you feel as though the song is literally one of their personal experiences.

These singers do not make it about their “technique” or “range” or abilities. Do they perhaps use these techniques, ranges and abilities to better convey a song? You bet! Do some singers pick songs to better show their technique, their range and their abilities? Again, you bet! I simply prefer the former!

I find it unnatural that every song have a climactic pinnacle...of holding a long and difficult to reach note...just because “they can”. Josh Groban is my favorite example of this. He has a wonderful and technically fantastic voice. But does he reallllly have to hit the above mentioned note in every song??!  It reminds me of a piano teacher I once had that said, “being able to play a lot of notes quickly to fill in parts of songs can be a great asset...doing it all the time can make a good song sound bad”. In essence, sometimes less is more. “Play the song” vs play as many notes as you can fit into the measure.

I is an example for much “range” do you think Louis Armstrong had as a singer? Half an octave?!! Ok, I am kidding but really, range was not his thing. (He made his trumpet exude SERIOUS Range though!) Next question...can ANYBODY sing “A Wonderful World” like he can???!! I think not. But when you hear him sing can almost see him smiling... he makes you feel and believe the song, not due to his technical ability, but because he “sings”(with his soul)...the SONG!
“Range was not Burl Ives thing either and to be honest....wasn't even Frank Sinatra's thing. But I doubt many will question their ability to “sing”.

And it is here that I had my misgiving about my co-workers “Best Singer” choice, Mariah Carey. I have heard some of her songs, and she is good. Not my style of music and she get's carried away I think with “showing what she can do” vs singing a song. I had occasion to hear her sing the National Anthem. Now the National Anthem means a lot to me. I learned much about it as a child, when singing it was much more popular. (And the Pledge Of Allegiance was not so “controversial”?!) In my Army years, I learned much about the care and meaning of our Flag. (The Star Spangled Banner) Morning “Reveille” and evening's “Retreat/To the Colors” found me and all soldiers stopping, facing the Flag and Saluting in respect. I served in places where it was an emotional reminder of home...and I had the duty and the honor, of placing that Flag in the hands of more than a few grieving widows at Memorial Services where I was charged with handling the Military Honors.

I listened and watched Mariah Carey sing the national Anthem and I could not help but think that it was about her, not the Flag..not our Country. I could certainly be wrong, but it seemed that her focus was on showing off her voice..her “technical ability” and not on simply singing a very, very important song with reverence and grace. She sang it like a damn “Pop Song”!! It turned me off..big time.

Am I being a bit hard on her? Am I making too much of today's popular singers..I mean many feel the need to “polish up” the old Star Spangled banner right? I suppose. But the other thing that has always been a big part of my liking or disliking a Singer..Actor...or any person of “Great Talent” Humility. The ability to be gracious and humble and put your ego aside for things that deserve it.

In her 24 plus years of singing, Mariah Carey has had 18 Number One Singles and has sold over 200 million albums, singles and videos. She has also won 5 Grammy's. She is reported to have a “five octave range” and is seen commercially as the best Female Vocalist. She certainly has a huge following and is a current musical powerhouse. Mariah is a philanthropist and has given tons of money to a variety of Charities. I am sure she is a good lady and she is certainly a great vocalist by any standard. Most “successful”? (and these days that translates into “Money”..lets not mince words) Sure.

The best??   No.   Not in this guy's opinion.

As a side note, there are two Female Singers that top Mariah Carey's “Best Selling” numbers....Madonna, and Barbara Streisand! Ummm how is that for contrast!! I doubt my co-worker would give either of those two a second glance! Ha! Just goes to show you....

I am being tough on Mariah Carey, and in truth, I have never really given much of her music a chance, but I have heard enough of the “hitting the high notes because I can” stuff, (Mariah, Celine ..every American Idol contestant...etc) that it just doesn't interest me. She was certainly not the first, and will not be the last.

Admittedly, I am much more a “Song”guy than a “Singer” or a “Band” guy. I like individual songs..some by the same group, or vocalist etc..but usually not. The vast majority, are ballads. That's just is very subjective.

We have come full circle to the subjective....who do I like most as a “Female Singer”?

Well, let's talk about the profession related accolades etc, as we did with Mariah Carey. This will give some comparison of their respective successes.

This singer was part of a group, but in all honesty her singing WAS the reason for the groups successes. She sang for a mere 14 years (10 years less than Mariah Carey) and in that time had 15 Number One Hits, sold over 100 Million Albums and Singles...and over the span of only 7 years, was nominated for 18 Grammy Awards, and won 3 Grammy's. She also had 2 Songs inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame, something Mariah has yet to achieve. 
Lastly, she did not have to show legs, cleavage and wear the tightest clothing most female vocalists these days seem to do?!  She actually let her singing be what she was about.

Oh, and she played drums while singing like an angel!! Try doing that Mariah!

I figured I would mention these achievements for those who find that stuff more “qualifying” than I do.

My pick, which is completely subjective and would be my pick regardless of how many “Number Ones” or “Millions of Records Sold” is the humble and incomparable...Karen Carpenter.

Not as “cool” as picking fact rather “uncool” to admit these days, but in the world of music and vocalists, and in the eyes of her peers both past and present, she is certainly considered “One of the best”!

As for the “Best of All Time”...I am sure in another twenty years, my co-worker will be faced with defending Mariah against another persons passionate pointing out of the ........latest and greatest and the newest..."Best Female Vocalist of All Time”!   I wish them luck in their defense!:)

Below are a few You Tube Videos of Karen doing some of my favorites...three of them as she is drumming! Take a listen/enjoy.
This is back when you had to "get it right"!  Karen was 20 years old here, playing drums and singing.
Carpenters "Close To You" 

Karen Singing "Superstar" on the Carol Burnett Show.
Carpenters "Superstar"
Another classic with Karen playing drums again while singing.
And this one?..Well I just really like the song!