Behind every good photo
is a good story
by Janice Nigro
I’m not into photography, I thought, my heart pounding outside a jewelry-box-sized camera repair shop on a main Los Angeles thoroughfare. The litter blew around my ankles with each passing car as I rang the bell.
Wedged between two restaurants, the store stood as a bulwark against the minimalist style of recent times. Neurons sprang to life as I gazed at the hundreds of items cluttering the shelves inside. A reboot of memories from my youth of my father and his cameras.
People come to this store and tell stories. This kind of place. Of course, it was a service store. It’s their job to hear stories. Misadventures like mine, jamming a roll of film in my father’s iconic camera.
“That’s not all,” said Steve, a skinny gentleman from Korea who has worked on motion picture cameras in Los Angeles since 1975, as he emerged from his work room. “The lens is not working properly.”
Dollar signs flashed before my eyes. One of those moments where you wonder, are you in or are you out? I was inside. It was my father’s camera.
I was more afraid to leave the camera behind me. Out of my reach. Will they lose it? Will someone break into the store and take it? Or will Steve just want to keep it?
All irrational thoughts. My brain was working overtime on the responsibility of a camera that a duplicate could never replace.
I looked around this crowded store feeling like I had landed in time with the vintage camera as a time machine. I was embarrassed to go into it with a problem that I could have avoided by just watching a YouTube video. He shouted inexperienced photographer. I was not.
My love for photography, however, did not start with cinema. It didn’t even start on earth. I only discovered the art of photography through scuba diving. I took pictures of things before I started scuba diving, but didn’t realize the artistic potential of photography. An impulsive decision to buy a camera and underwater housing three hours before a year-long Fiji diving trip set me on this unexpected path. Although my first underwater pictures were terrible, I felt compelled to take them anyway.
But underwater photography is a leap into the abyss. There’s no mode other than manual, and there’s always another accessory or new rig you want because this year’s camera won’t fit in the underwater housing of the last year. It’s a whole bunch of stuff that I had no idea I would ever want or know how to use.
Early on I realized the limitations of the compact rig I had, but when I wanted to move on, the owner of an underwater photography shop in Singapore talked me out of it.
“You don’t know how to take pictures. Better to learn on land first with a camera with manual functions,” he said.
I left the store with a stroboscope which took my underwater photos to another level, then I bought a single lens reflex digital camera (DSLR) and a macro lens to teach me the principles of photography on earth.
What started as a naive interest in documenting my underwater adventures for my friends and family turned into a legitimate skill in taking great pictures. When I first moved to the South Bay, I had just traveled for three months, diving in Southeast Asia. I thought my photos might be good enough to sell at the Hermosa Beach Farmer’s Market. I asked and the market manager, Barbara, told me to bring my set-up next week.
After that first day, Barbara and her husband Gary picked me up with my tent and my suitcases containing my items for sale and took me to the market. On the way to the market, we discussed deep topics like politics and science. On the way home after the market, we discussed how slow sales were for me.
“Beach pictures,” Barbara once told me, “you need beach pictures.”
I hesitated but couldn’t deny its straightforward logic. While my underwater photos fascinated people, they just didn’t want pictures of nudibranchs hanging on their walls. My bias against taking beach photos was that they were everywhere. And I couldn’t see how to stand out in a beach community already full of talented photographers.
One step after another. I go to the beach, every morning and almost every day at sunset, with my cameras. And my beach portfolio grew, but without focus, until I discovered the mood portrayed in photos taken in the marine layer.
I already knew about the West Coast phenomenon, having lived summers in San Francisco, and loved it. I even have my own names for it, my favorite being “dripping mist”, when the sea layer is so dense it feels like a misty rain is falling on your face.
The marine layer is a near-Earth cloud that forms when the air at the surface is colder than the air above. Marine layers form in part because of the cold water current that flows from the coast of British Columbia to the Baja Peninsula, cooling the surface air. Once the sun rises and begins to warm the air, the water evaporates and the cloud dissipates. Most gray mornings turn into sunny days. As if by magic.
I have no secrets for making artistic photos on land, or underwater, except to photograph what moves you. You have to find it, so taking pictures is partly technical, but perhaps more importantly, it’s just being there with a camera. Walk close enough to the lifeguard towers and you’ll find a stage with the right ingredients for a provocative image.
So I jump out of bed in the morning. I hear the fog horn at the end of the Hermosa Beach pier and run towards the beach before the cloud disappears. One day, as I was bouncing from lifeguard tower to lifeguard tower in the marine layer, I spotted a surfboard adorned with a simple yet elegant symbol leaning against a tower just south of Manhattan Beach Pier. I was glad I stopped a few rounds to reload the film.
I picked up my pace in the sand to reach the tower before the owner came back to claim the surfboard. It was still early, so no one else was hanging around the tower, corrupting my scene. I took a few photos with my DSLR to get color images, then set up the shot with my old camera and black and white film.
Taking pictures with my film camera wasn’t second nature yet, and it has its quirks, like manual focus and it’s heavy, which makes it a bit difficult to use. It takes a bit of patience even when the thing you’re photographing isn’t moving. My concentration was shattered when the young man who owned the board came out of the ocean.
“Is this your painting?” It’s nice! And it’s perfect for a photo of the tower in the marine layer,” I said.
“It’s my dad’s vintage Rick surfboard. He’s had it since the early 1970s,” the young man said.
Until this morning, I had no idea that Rick Surfboards was another Hermosa Beach born company. All I saw was an opportunity to capture one of my favorite images.
“How cool, because my film camera is from the same era. It was fate.”
I took three hits, hoping for the best. It’s a mystery until the movie comes back. Then I asked if I could take a picture of the young man himself.
Kurt (or maybe it’s Curt) obliged. I thanked him, but didn’t ask him for his last name or his social media handle.
When I finished the roll of film, I prayed to the film gods not to mess it up in one of the many steps needed to process the film. I was ecstatic when the photo lab, a recommendation from a professional photographer I know from the beach, confirmed they had received my rolls of film in the mail, and then again when there were digital files to download. The photo turned out, with some flaws; it is underexposed and has a minor obstruction in one corner. But the picture was good enough to be professionally printed and framed.
It now hangs in my apartment. Every time I look at this, yeah, a simple beach shot, I see the story behind it. Emergency room