Originally published October 14, 2006
Assignment: Heather Armstrong is the writer behind Dooce, one of the top blogs in the world. She writes about parenting, depression and life.
Early on in the process, Tribune reporter Matt Canham filled me in on this story and I spent a couple weeks poring over the Dooce site. After reading pages and pages of her posts, and looking at dozens of her photographs, I was hooked. Dooce posts very candid pieces about parenting, depression and just plain life. Every post grabs you, both funny and tragic.
Matt and I went over to the Armstrongs’ home and I couldn’t have felt more welcome. Heather (Dooce) and Jon Armstrong could very well have been close friends of mine for decades. We live in the same neighborhood, in homes that are small and cozy with beautiful woodwork, well-stocked bookcases and framed photographs all over the walls. We share musical interests and religious upbringings. The more we talked, the more we had in common. I even realized I had photographed Jon’s ska band Swim Herschel Swim in Provo back in 1989.
But there were photos to be taken. I didn’t know how it would end up. My plan was to go in and just shoot a bunch of photos with a 50mm lens using available light- just like Dooce does. We talked and I photographed. Leta, their daughter, watched a DVD while eating lifesavers and chewing blue gum.
After a couple of hours, the energy in the room was dying down. The moments were appearing less and less. I left, worried that I really didn’t have that one image that told the story. I hadn’t set up a portrait as insurance. I had just clicked off a bunch of photographs.
When I sat down at the computer, the real work began. In the editing process, I pieced things together and found images that told the story. In the composite above (which was not published in the Tribune) I captured the people, the story. In the composite, Heather and Jon are talking about how personal (and often embarrassing) her writing is, especially when she writes about their relationship. She seems to be laughing from somewhere within, aware that her writing has often gone off like a bomb on those around her, but she means no harm. It’s just who she is. Jon seems to be reacting with, “please don’t post that unflattering quip about me, but even if you do I’ll always love you.” Leta is being her cute self, up top, watching from her innocent spot, symbolically above it all. Even Chuck the family dog makes an appearance. The lamps illustrate the warmth I felt in their home and the sippy cup and basket of childrens’ books represent the parenting process Dooce is famous for writing about.
The hours I spent editing and building this unpublished composite weren’t a total waste. The layout in the paper mimicked some of what I had done, and captured the interplay between the Armstrong family. But I can’t deny I prefer the composite.
Chuck the dog makes frequent appearances in Dooce’s photographs, often balancing objects on his head. And Leta was so cute watching her DVD and eating candy. She is so used to be photographed (by her parents) that she completely tuned me out. Thanks to the Armstrongs for letting me peek into the world of Dooce. You can read Heather’s wonderful work here.
An assignment yesterday took me to the Utah State Capitol to photograph Gov. Jon M. Huntsman Jr. signing a new tax bill into law. Never mind what the bill does tax-wise. That’s certainly not important. Not here in the blog, anyway. What is important is that you are about to see some photos that are never seen. The fun ones. These are the shots that normally end up in a drawer and are certainly not published.
Everything starts out good. I love working with reflections, and the table in the conference room makes for a very cool shot of the Gov. Quick side note: I was flying on his plane one time, headed to cover some massive floods in St. George. He pointed to my Spinal Tap baseball cap and listed the best comedies (in his opinion) of the past three decades. 1980’s: This is Spinal Tap. 1990’s: Dumb and Dumber. 2000’s: Napoleon Dynamite.
Okay, now I’ve got a good shot of the Gov in the can. He’s still talking so I get an overall. I’m shooting a ton of these photographs lately. With the equipment I’m using now, these composite panoramas give me a lot of detail and when I print them up on large roll paper they are very cool to pore over. They also give more historical context than a lot of what we do on a daily basis. Look at the photographs of the early West and you’ll see a lot of this wide stuff that gets all the detail. I’ve got hundreds of these now from all over.
After the Gov speaks, it’s a parade of politicians getting up to thank so and so and praise the bill. One of the TV reporters is actually signaling his cameraman as each one gets up, saying, “Don’t roll on this guy.” Sometimes in the middle of one of their speeches he’ll tell the guy to turn the camera on, but it’s usually for a quick sound bite. If only they knew, but of course they do. No disrespect to these guys, but their talks just weren’t doing it for me either. Certainly not visually. This is where the photographer gets bored and you start to goof around, like the photo above, of Sen. Curtis Bramble.
After Bramble sits down, I try to zoom in on his ID badge. At this point I don’t know his name. It’s a simple face-saving measure; I’m trying to get his name without having to ask. I can’t come back to the paper without knowing his name, and there is nothing worse than having to go up to some of the most powerful men in the state to ask them what their name is. I’m supposed to know this stuff. But really, who does? People might recognize the Gov, but no one on the street would recognize any of these other guys. Sorry, but it’s true. After my failure to photograph his nametag clearly, I start thinking about how I’ll ask his name. I figure I’ll start with, “Pardon my ignorance, sir, but could I ask your name?”
After six men talk, a woman gets her say. It’s Rep. Rebecca Lockhart. The prankster in me just can’t resist taking the photograph.
The last speaker gets up, Senator Sheldon Killpack. I turn to the reflective surface of the table again for inspiration, though I know it is unlikely this photograph will ever be published.
Finally they go to sign the bill and a bunch of politicians crowd around the Gov. Senate President John Valentine cracks a joke (he’s at left for those of you who can’t recognize these guys).
The Gov signs. I try a tight shot cropping out the other people.
Then I shoot a little looser as they applaud the bill. One politician jumps into the photo and before I can ask his name he’s gone. A reporter back at the paper identifies him for me; it’s Fred Fife. I’ve met Fife and taken his photograph before, but for the life of me I didn’t remember his name. Guess I’m not covering politics enough.
Out of the 178 photographs I shot at this 20-minute event, this is the photograph that runs in the paper.