Wonder as I Wander

Sunset in Nebraska with my FM2 and a D810. March, 2017.

I meant to write a blog last week. It just didn’t happen.

I moved from my old apartment to my new house, edited four videos, made arrangements for shoots in Nebraska and Kentucky, planned ahead for trips to Sri Lanka and Spain, and - in general - felt pretty overwhelmed.

I don’t get overwhelmed often. Over the years I’ve gotten pretty good at balancing work and life (though it wasn’t always a healthy one), but sometimes the scale tips to one end or another and things get left undone. The thing that got left undone last week, was this blog.

This week I’m no less busy. Bill and I have been in northern Nebraska working on the next piece for the Nebraska Project.

It’s been hard work full of long days and short nights. We’ve been to a branding, camped in three state parks, shot time-lapses, made portraits and landscapes, and driven about 300 miles.

October 2016 in O'Neill, NE, setting up the Cinevate Motion Control Timelapse. It's not from this trip, but is an accurate representation of what life on the road looks like. The only difference being that it's colder right now, and our minivan is white.

October 2016 in O'Neill, NE, setting up the Cinevate Motion Control Timelapse. It's not from this trip, but is an accurate representation of what life on the road looks like. The only difference being that it's colder right now, and our minivan is white.

While we always work hard on the road, it never seems as stressful as it does when work piles up at home.

There is a freedom in being on the road.

I sometimes feel like I take on an alter ego when I travel for work. I don't shower or wear makeup on a regular basis. I eat peanut butter out of the jar, tuna out of the can, and more bananas and oranges than a captive monkey (they are the only fruits that come in their own, natural wrappers and don't require a fork and/or knife to eat).

I’m Laura Heald, the vagabond photographer, wondering as I wander.

On the road, work is all that exists. There are no girl friends to talk to, parents to visit or significant others to spend time with. That’s not to say I prefer being away. I don’t. But I also don’t dislike it. (Disclaimer: I would trade days on the road for time with any of the three aforementioned parties 99 times out of 100.)

Time on the road gives me nights alone in tents and hotel rooms. That’s time to think; to sit alone and sort through the weight in my brain that I never get around to lifting when there are better things to do.

My room last night - The Mari Sandoz Suite at the Olde Main Street Inn in Chadron, NE.

My room last night - The Mari Sandoz Suite at the Olde Main Street Inn in Chadron, NE.

Time on the road is time to create. Making images during the golden hour of light just before sunset or long exposures of the milky way on a clear night are pictures I always intend to take when I’m home. But at home there are dinners to cook, runs to go on, happy hours to attend or sleep to be had.

A starry night in Toadstool Geological Park in northwest Nebraska, this is print currently available in our flash sale

Those things don’t exist on the road.

Life on the road is life in a vacuum. It’s easy to forget I have a normal life waiting for me somewhere else. As the road lays out before me, so do opportunities. Getting lost in a moment - a story or a sunset - is the only reasonable thing to do when there is nothing else pulling me away.

That’s why on a cold Wednesday night in Chadron, NE, I’m sitting up in bed writing a blog. I’m doing it because I can. The only other thing to do is sleep, and I’ll do that when I get home.

The Lambeau Effect

Holding Becky's name for her. All I know about Becky is that she loves the Packers and was beyond excited to be at the game.

The Green Bay Packers take on the Atlanta Falcons this weekend for the the NFC Championship and a trip to Super Bowl LI in Houston, TX.

My history with both teams goes back a long way. 

The Falcons were my first team. Back before the Jaguars came to Jacksonville they were the closest thing we had to the NFL. My dad is from Atlanta and I still have a lot of family up there, so we were fans with good reason. 

However, my grandfather in Atlanta preferred the Green Bay Packers over the home-town team. He wasn't much of a sports fan, but he loved that Green Bay is a town-owned team; that the players jump into the stands after a touchdown; and that Lambeau field is always full of fans. Rain or shine, snow or wind, the stands are always packed.

Lambeau became this mythic place in my mind. The Frozen Tundra. Titletown, USA. The place where football was played how it was meant to be - with heart and a devoted fan base.

I finally got the chance to visit Lambeau in December 2012. It was a wet and snowy day. Not too cold, but cold enough for this Florida girl with a waning winter wardrobe. Luckily, the one beanie I owned at the time was a bright yellow “Nikon” cap, so I fit right in with the Packers fans in their green and gold.

Sports Illustrated was working on a book on Lambeau Field - Green, Gold and Glory - and sent Bill and I to take portraits of the fans in their winter best. We took a portrait of as many fans as we could and did short interviews with each for caption information. I talked to people who haven't miss a home game in 40 years. And others who had - like me - always dreamed of making the pilgrimage to Lambeau and had finally found their way into its hallowed hallways.

For the editors in New York to know who was who, we had everyone write their name on a piece of white paper and hold it up for a frame or two. That system worked pretty well, but one person in particular - Becky Fazer - was too excited to hold still long enough, so I stepped in and held it for her.

Becky's expression says it all. She was a lifelong Packers fan making her first trip to Lambeau Field and her elation was infectious. She didn't make the Sports Illustrated book - only a few people did - but she made one epic, dirty-set photo with me.

I don't know where Becky is now, but I hope she watched that incredible finish against Dallas last week. I don't know if I'll be rooting for the Packers this weekend - I will be in London and far away from football - but I'm willing to bet she will be, and with enthusiasm.

Backstage, Backyard

Onstage with the Backyard Babies in Turku, Finland.

In January 2010, Peter Brodin and Nikon Nordic invited Bill and I to come to Scandinavia for a shooting and speaking tour. We were set to visit Stockholm, Oslo, Copenhagen and Helsinki.

During our first stop in Stockholm we were introduced to a Swedish rock band, the Backyard Babies. They had a new song and a new album coming out in a few days and were looking to make a music video. Perfect, we were in Scandinavia with a camera company as our host,  a massive locker of Manfrotto tripods supplied by our friends in Italy and a bunch of Cinevate movie making equipment. The timing worked out, and we made a music video.

The idea of making music videos was always something that intrigued me. It's the merging of my favorite art forms - poetry, music, visuals and storytelling. I grew up watching MTV and VH1 - back when they actually played music on those channels. As a kid and young teen I watched countless Making of the Video episodes. I saw the Foo Fighters and Red Hot Chili Peppers bring their music to life; I witnessed the incredible production and makeup that went into videos for Britney Spears and NSYNC.

In 2010 the Backyard Babies had been playing together for 20 years. The band was comprised of singer Nicke Borg, guitarist Dregen, bassist Johan Blomqvist and drummer Peder Carlson. We first met them at their studio in Stockholm to get to know each other and hear their new song, “Abandon.” 

We all immediately got along. They were down to Earth and open. Funny in a way that people who live their passion always are. Dregen was the personality of the group, outspoken and charming. Nicke was the intellect, quiet and thoughtful. Peder was energetic, always bouncing around with his hair in braided pigtails. Johan was more of a mystery. He didn't say much but greeted us with a friendly smile.

They were laid back and confident. They knew what they wanted, and we knew we could deliver.

They wanted a hard-charging video that would show what it felt like to be at one of their live shows; to show the work they put in and the product they created for their fans.

We quickly set up a couple lights and cameras in their studio and got to work. We recorded a couple run throughs of the song in their Stockholm studio that day, then we all took off for Turku, Finland. They had a show at a venue called Klubi the next night and we were set to record their setup and the show for the rest of the video.

Making some images in the Backyard Babies' Stockholm studio with our Chimera triolet and a Nikon D3s.

When we got to Turku - which is 2 hours north and west of Helsinki - it was negative 17 degrees Fahrenheit. For this Florida girl, that is a temperature that shouldn't exist. We walked around town very briefly - because I was frozen - to try and find a place to shoot a nice opener for the video; something to introduce the audience to the guys in the band.

It didn't take long. Turku is surrounded by water, the Baltic Sea, which was frozen solid. That January afternoon was a rare sunny day. The only thing in our sight was blue sky and flat, white ice. We called Nicke and Dregen and told them to meet us at the beach. We quickly set up a small Cinevate jib and shoulder rig. 

The band pulled up in their tour bus - which had a broken heater - and met us out on the ice. The shoot only took a couple minutes - we were all freezing - but we got what we needed. Their long shadows moving across the endless ice made for a perfect introduction - a Swedish rock band walking across the frozen Baltic.

From there we went back to Klubi to prepare for the show. The band setup their stage, we setup our cameras. We had  remote cameras on a pole in the back of the club, a camera on stage left, another on stage right, a long lens in the back focused on Nicke, a shoulder rig, a jib. We had it covered. 

The guys played the song a few times in rehearsal that afternoon so we could record it. We followed them through their pre-show routines. Nicke getting his mic ready. Dregen doing his hair. Johan setting his volume. Peder playing air drums.

Then the show started. All of our preparation came down to one play through of the song live. We shot other pieces throughout the show - photos of the band and fans, a stop motion of Peder playing the drums - but the the video needed to be them playing “Abandon” on stage.

It all happened quickly. Ten songs in, Nicke looked at me and nodded. That was our cue. I hit the test button on the Pocket Wizard in my jacket, triggering the remote camera at the back of the club. I started the camera on stage right, Bill started the camera on stage left. Our friend Curt Bianchi started the camera in the back. Our friends from Nikon helped protect all the cameras from the raucous crowd. Bill ran a slider in front of the stage. I had a D3s on a shoulder rig.

Part of the fun of the shoot was how unplanned it was. We went with feeling, just like they were doing on the stage. The end result, I think, shows that.

We quickly broke down all of our equipment after the show and got on a tour bus back to Helsinki. We had a speech the next day at noon where we were set to premiere the video. I opened my Macbook Pro, plugged in a portable hard drive and got to work. I edited the beginning of the video in the back of a tour bus with Mattias, our Swedish friend who introduced us to the Backyard Babies, asleep across from me.

Editing on the tour bus back to Helsinki with Mattias sleeping on the bench across from me.

I continued editing through the night and into the next day. I was almost done when our speech was set to begin, so Bill started without me. After an hour alone on stage in front of a Finnish audience (the Fins are notoriously quiet which is unnerving when you're presenting), Bill came backstage.

“Please tell me you're done,” Bill said. “I'm dying out there.”

“You're doing fine,” Peter Brodin told him. “Three people asked questions.  For a Finnish crowd that's huge.”

Then he slapped Bill on the back and we all laughed.

Helsinki was our last stop on the tour. In every other city our presentations had been like conversations, with people asking questions and offering comments. Every venue was filled to capacity. It was a full house in Helsinki, too, but unlike the other cities it was very quiet.  Not only did the crowd not ask questions, their facial expressions never changed, making it impossible to know if they were enjoying it at all.

I handed Bill a thumb drive with the exported video on it. He showed it to the audience without seeing it himself. When it finished playing, the crowd applauded loudly and a few people even raised their hands with questions. In Finnish terms, that made our presentation a massive success.

Over the years we have done a number of music videos, but this one is my favorite. Maybe it's the song, maybe it's the guys in the band, maybe it was the whole experience of being in Scandinavia in the winter. Whatever the reason, I love this video, the song and the memories it brings back.