Monday, June 30, 2008

Heart to Heart...

Over the last ten or so years, I have participated with our Church's youth group. It is one of those things in my life that give me peace, joy, and hope. Each year we travel to some part of our country to serve others through mission work, and this summer is no different. Last week we made our annual mission trip. We teamed up this year with youth groups from Zachary and St. John's UMC. Our destination this year was New Mexico, and we spent a few days in Carlsbad followed by some time spent in Roswell. For fun, we visited the Carlsbad Caverns and the Alien Museum in Roswell. These trips are very special to me as they are full of fun, hard work, and also an opportunity for us each to stretch ourselves spiritually. It is a special gift when all three of those activities can be accomplished as one. This year we accomplished quite a bit of work; maybe even more than I have ever seen our group complete in one trip. We painted the exterior of a church in Carlsbad as well as repaired some windows and sheetrock. In Roswell, we painted the interior of a church, made some roof repairs, did some yard work, and uncovered a beautiful stained glass window. The Boys and Girls Club of Roswell hosted us in Roswell. There, we painted a room for teens (complete with a mural), helped with younger kids in arts and crafts, organized a weight room, served meals, and again did yard work. The yard work at the Boys and Girls Club included spreading a truck load of manure from the zoo! All of this, of course, is something to be proud of, but for me it is all worthless unless we have grown within our own spirituality and found deeper meanings in the experiences we have had. This year, I found all of the meaning I needed to find in an old stained glass window.

Removing plywood from a stained glass window.

On Wednesday, of our week in New Mexico, we began work at El Divino Pastor United Methodist Church. Located in Roswell, NM it is known by the locals as the Spanish Methodist Church. Sadly they have lost all but five members. In an effort to inspire growth, they invited us into their church to give it a facelift. The facilities at El Divino Pastor are not perfect, but are all intact. There is a mid-sized sanctuary, a large fellowship hall, several classrooms, and a small kitchen area. Nothing really is lacking as far as the buildings are concerned. Our work list here included patching some roof leaks, cleaning up the church grounds, and painting the interior of the church. I set out early that morning to show four teenaged girls how to spackle cracks and holes in drywall in preparation for painting the sanctuary(...and they did a great job!), but that was just my task. We were a group of nearly fifty, so if you can imagine a swarm of bees decending on this place and going to work at different jobs, then you will nearly have a picture of all of the activity of that morning. In the midst of all of this buzz I noticed on the back wall of the sanctuary near the peak of the ceiling a darkened stained glass window. I could barely make out a few details because of the darkness, but I was positive that it was of an intricate design...and quite old. I couldn't help but wonder why it had been covered, and then I saw the holes. The window had been broken.

An art project made with the plywood that was removed from the window.

After awhile, when I was sure that our sheetrock patchers could be left to their own devices I made a tour of the building to see what other work was being done. Eventually I found my way to the roof. There, I realized that the stained glass window had been covered over with a simple piece of plywood to keep the rain out. I thought that it would be pretty easy to remove the plywood and replace it with a thick sheet of plexiglass. Not neccesarily what the window really needed, and not on our worklist, but definately a way to allow light to pass once again through that stained glass. I suggested this "fix" to one of our other adults. He and I then convinced the other adults that we ought to at least give it a try. Everyone was onboard with the idea. A few phone calls later, I had located a local supplier of plexiglass who had enough of the stuff in stock to cover the window. All the supplier needed was the plywood covering to be used as a template to cut the right size and radius on the arch at the top. Three of us then went up to the roof to remove the plywood so that it could be taken to the glass shop. Removing it was simple work that required a screwdriver and a ladder. I remember picking up all the loose screws as well as a couple of small shards of the broken stained glass that were lying below the window on the roof and put them in my pocket to be thrown away later. I was later told that while I was away at the glass shop an adult woman who had come from Baton Rouge with us began crying at the sight of the window once it was uncovered. It was that beautiful.

Worship at El Divino Pastor with the window lit by the afternoon sun.

I would have liked to have been a part of repairing the window, but on Thursday I began work at the Boys and Girls Club of Roswell with part of our crew while the remainder went back to El Divino Pastor to complete the work we had started. I am told that the plexiglass installation went smoothly, yet I was unable to see the finished project until we held a worship service in their sanctuary on Friday evening, our last night in New Mexico. On that night it was lit very well by the setting sun, and later was a beakon to the surrounding neighborhood by light from within. Two of El Divino Pastor's members were present at that service, Carmen their lay pastor and her older sister-in-law. Carmen spoke to our group briefly through a shower of tears expressing her thanks, and telling the kids how much they have inspired her. She was without a doubt the most greatful person I have ever seen, and to show her gratitude she had us line up so that she could give us each a hug, a kiss, and a thank you. She wanted to be certain that she had not missed thanking us each and all personally. I had the feeling that the inspiration we had given her paled in comparison to what she had given us. Carmen had to leave for work before we were done with our worship time, but her sister-in-law owns a fireworks store, and we were to visit the store that evening and be treated to a box full of fireworks for our own enjoyment, so after the service, myself and another adult went to the fireworks store so she could show us the field that we could use to set off all the gizmos in the box. This is when I found out what the stained glass meant to at least one of the members of El Divino Pastor.

A Son who lives eternal.

On a gravel patch in the middle of a field on the outskirts of Roswell she leaned against the door of her car and said "thank you". " Thank you, thank you, thank you" over and over again as tears trailed from her wrinkled eyes. In her heavily accented and broken english she says to us " I have seen that window once before, but only once." "My son would have been fifty-two this year" she says "but he was killed young in a skydiving accident....but I remember that window". When he was seven, he was christened on Mother's Day. She had attended her own Catholic Church that day for the christening, and then gone on to her mother-in-laws church, and now her own church, El Divino Pastor for the Mother's Day service. She said that she never noticed the window until the service was over and it was time to leave and then "Oh, it was so beautiful, and the sun, and I could only stand there and stare, I could not speak". By my math that day was Mother's Day forty-five years ago. On this night the most beautiuful archetectual element of her sanctuary had been returned to her and it had ressurected long ago memories. Memories of her dead son's christening returned by gazing into a picture of a Son who lives eternal.

Later, while packing, I found the two shards of stained glass I had pocketed. I have always collected tidbits such as this to be tucked away into the box my Bible came in. It is full of cards and letters and other momentos from my experiences with our youth group. This may seem too sentimental for some of you, but the things in that box mean the world to me. On a whim, I offered one of the shards to Jill. She is the lady who travelled to New Mexico with us and cried at the sight of the uncovered stained glass. She didn't say, but I have a sneaky suspicion that her shard means perhaps as much to her as the rest of the window means to Carmen's sister-in-law.

Monday, June 16, 2008


Many times while out on a photoshoot, I like to take the opportunity to capture some details. Often, the detail shots are the ones that define the day, and often are favorites among the people involved in the shoot.

Aside from our faces, there are many things that say who we are. A parent or loved one can recognize us just as easily from our parts as from our whole. As much time as I spend trying to set up a location shoot so it will look "just so", these detail shots do not depend on anything to do with the location other than the lighting. Straying from what is typically defined as a portrait and focusing in on details often results in photos that are more abstract in nature, yet they still portray us as who we are.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Family Photos...

I have a bad habit of looking for portrait settings everywhere I go! This isn't necessarily a bad thing. Often, when approached by someone who wants to do an on location portrait session the very first thing they ask is..."where would be a good place". As long as I keep my bad habit up I guess I will never have to scratch my head to answer that question. There is a treasure trove of excellent locations in and around Baton Rouge, and I have made great use of many of them.

A week or so ago, I was approached by a friend about doing a set of family portraits for her family. Sure enough, the question of locations arose. Although I can supply recommendations of great locations, I usually make certain to point out that a location that actually means something to those involved would be best. On this recommendation, it was decided that we would do their photos out of town on a beautiful piece of property owned by her father. With his barn and the golden glow of the afternoon sun as a backdrop, we were able to capture some very good looking photographs that will become even more valuble to the family over time. So, when booking for your on location family portraits remember....location, location, location!!!


Last week, I found out that this photograph recieved enough votes to place as second runner up in a photo contest. I was thrilled with this news, but even more thrilled that I had envisioned this and been competent enough to capture it and see it through its post processing to realize that vision. Although many of the photos in the competition were of the type that could be repeatedly shot until it was right, my idea for an entry was based on a one-shot opportunity. I arrived at my daughter's high school graduation early enough to insure that I would have a seat in close proximity to where I would need to be for this shot. During the ceremony, I fiddled constantly with camera settings trading ISO, aperture, and shutter speeds around until I felt I had a wide enough aperture and fast enough shutter speed to accomplish my goal. I wanted a perfectly crisp image, but not necessarily one that did not have any motion blur. I used a hotshoe mounted flash bounced into the ceiling behind me for additional light. As the ceremony wound down I positioned myself for this shot and was able to squeeze off three shots that captured the hats in the air. This one was the first of the three frames, and held the most hats aloft. I knew instantly when I viewed it on the LCD that it was an excellent photojournalistic type photograph.


I awoke the morning following graduation and immediately went to work on the image. My first step after minor adjustments and converting from the RAW file was to convert the image to black and white. I chose to use a LAB Mode conversion method which is by far my favorite method of conversion when working with portraits. It seems to offer the very delicate, crisp, smooth tones that I like in a good black and white photograph. The only ill effects of this type of conversion is that mid-tones are usually somewhat lost in the conversion, and it will magnify noise in a high ISO photograph. Since I was going for that richly toned photojournalistic look, I would need to take special care that I retained as much mid-tone contrast as possible. I achieved this by doing curves adjustment layers and masks in Photoshop to squeeze every drop of contrast that I could get out of several key areas in the photo. I had one layer totally devoted to pulling a shadow out that had gone inky dark between the feet of the young man at front left. This part of the photo isn't visible in the version I have posted here, but you can at least appreciate the trouble I was going through to achieve my end-goal. Another layer was entirely devoted to adjusting for contrast in the faces of the kids. The hats in the air were also treated to their own layer to adjust their sharpness and contrast. Once I had the tones I was looking for, I moved over to noise control. The well exposed foreground had very little noise, but the dark curtains on the back wall were another story. My solution here was to do two noise correction layers, one for the foreground and one for that back wall, to allow me to minimize the ill effects of noise removal in the important areas of the photograph and keep my image crisp. I then added a warm tint to the photograph to keep it from having that greenish grey cast that is present in many black and white photos. The final step was to sharpen the image using the high-pass sharpening method. I have found that this is an excellent way to sharpen the details in an image while having 100% control over sharpening the noise in an image.

The version here is one that I plan to present to our school board. They have only been in existence for one year and this was their very first graduating class. I hope that they can see and appreciate the sheer joy on each of the faces within the frame. So many dreams and ambitions together with relief are evident in every corner of this photograph. I think it speaks well to what the goals of the school board should set for itself. Congratulations to the class of 2008!