Out of Focus

About midway through the quarter I changed some settings on my camera so that focusing and tripping the shutter are assigned to two separate buttons. This requires one first to push the focus button (with one’s thumb) and then shoot (with the traditional index finger). All the cool kids are doing it. This is, however, apparently a level of coordination that I cannot achieve, and since the switch about 2/3 of my photos are mildly-to-wildly out of focus. Trying to shoot at f/1.4 and in the dark (again, all the cool kids…) doesn’t help.

I realized on the boring bleak drive back to my folks’ house that this was metaphorical for the whole quarter. Started off great, for various reasons, but something happened. Really not sure what, but things just went out of focus. I enjoyed shooting single images for the photojournalism class I was taking, but all of a sudden my classmates were working on long-term stories, and doing damn well at it. I started off pretty strong, then coasted while everyone else just roared past. Considering I’m theoretically done with this whole thing in 6 months – the end of student loans to live on – this lack of focus is troubling.

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Anyhow, some highlights from the quarter: diving into the IT admin job (not sure that’s a “highlight”, but at least the department didn’t grind completely to a halt), getting started with Marcy’s Editorial Photography photojournalism class – with the new crop of first-year grad students, contra dancing (!), buying a 4×5 view camera (film!) and chemicals (!), and getting to know a whole new group of really cool friends.

Early in the quarter a series of very bad storms passed through the area. An email from mom alerted me to the coming front, so when the sirens went off I was already getting prepped. Grabbed my gear, snarfed down some food, and watched the radar online. I calculated, based on the radio reports, that if a tornado touched down 14 miles away 20 minutes ago and the storm was moving east at 30 miles an hour… it would probably be well past by the time I drove up 33 to investigate. Ooopsie.

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I passed under some very menacing clouds (turns out they produced a tornado or at least winds strong enough to destroy a building about 2 miles after they passed over me) and was forced to pull off the highway by high winds and heavy rain.

Once I got going again I headed for Nelsonville, since that’s where the reports said the storm was the worst. Drove around it for a while and didn’t see anything at all. Not even branches or leaves on the streets. Tried Hocking College – again, no evidence of anything worse than some drizzle. Tried to drive back to Athens via The Plains, but several of the roads were blocked by downed trees.

Finally made it to The Plains, and here the scene was considerably different. I think the tornado has since been downgraded to “straight line winds”, but whatever it was, it did a number on The Plains, overturning several mobile homes and causing widespread damage throughout the village.

I spent a few hours walking around, trying to take photos, and talking with the inhabitants. I was amazed first at how calm they were (still in shock?) and secondly how friendly and open they were to me. This was the first time I’d ever done something like this, and I didn’t know how people would react to a “ramptoerist” (great Dutch word for “disaster tourist”).

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Turns out they liked talking and sharing their stories about what happened. Turns out I could take photos and listen to their stories and put it together a little bit. I need to get closer next time, and spend more time in general, but it was a step in the right direction.

Another highlight of the quarter was the evening I spent roaming around looking for a photo for an assignment. I’d driven all the way to Lancaster looking for people picking pumpkins – I figured a pumpkin patch was as good a spot for “sense of place” as anything in Ohio in October. There was nobody picking pumpkins. I managed to find a stand selling pumpkins and squash and corn and such, but it wasn’t too exciting. On the way back to Athens I stopped in Nelsonville to explore the town square – something I, in 30-some years of living in Ohio and driving through Nelsonville on my way to West Virginia, had never done. I thought “ah, Stuart’s Opera House – more sense of place opportunities!”

The opera house was closed and the square was deserted. I was standing around waiting on some human to walk into the light so I could at least have something when I heard a train whistle and remembered the tracks and the scenic railroad over by the Rocky factory. I took off running and got to the station just as a diesel engine pulled in, with the hulk of a steam engine and a caboose in tow.

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I asked some of the people standing around if I could take some photos. They said “sure, but we’re getting ready to take ‘er out on a test run”. Asked if I could go along. “Sure!”

I’m still not accustomed to asking people to intrude on their lives, and it’s definitely still a rush when they are enthusiastic about it. And having the run of a moving train bouncing through a fall evening in rural Ohio is pretty damn thrilling too. I’ve since been told that photojournalists maybe shouldn’t have a grin from ear to ear while they are working, but I’m not convinced.

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I’m sure there is stuff I’ve missed writing about, but I’m going to try to post more than once a year. In order to do that I’ve got to keep it a little more simple, and this already took half the day.

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