Barbecue by-the-book

07.17.14_FatBoys_Prattville0072Occasionally my job as a photographer really is what most people imagine. Day-to-day a photographer’s job is like any other. We do paperwork, make phone calls, tackle daily tasks while taking on jobs and assignments to pay the bills. But all the while we’re hoping for that special shoot, that terrific light, that perfect moment or assignment that opens opportunities and challenges us to lift and expand our creativity.06.04.14_TinTopCalera0052-Edit

This past summer I was lucky enough to get one of those assignments. The Department of Tourism for State of Alabama has declared 2015 the Year of Barbecue in Alabama. Among many other fun projects planned they decided to do a book celebrating all the wonderful barbecue across the state. I was fortunate to be assigned to shoot it. A good friend and wonderful writer Annette Thompson traveled the state for months researching the pit masters and the styles looking for the best representation of what Alabama barbecue is. Her task, an enviable one, required her to eat A LOT of barbecue.  (Under the heading of ‘someone had to do it’.) Annette’s travels took her to well over 100 ‘joints’.  Fortunately for me she was able to narrow it down a bit before I followed up photographically.06.13.14_BBQShackDothan0170-Edit

I’ve been lucky enough to photograph stories on Texas Barbecue and Memphis Barbecue,  barbecue in the Carolina’s and even Kansas City Barbecue. I’m a fan of every one. Are all worthy of their hard-earned reputations. But I discovered Alabama Barbecue is as good and often better than any of those places. It’s my belief that any lack of recognition for Alabama’s barbecue is because it lacks any single style like those other places. If you say Memphis or Carolina barbecue aficionados know exactly what to expect. Alabama has so many styles and is therefore harder to pigeonhole. And that makes it harder for food and media writers to ‘sell’ it in a story.06.13.14_Webbs2310022-Edit-Edit

Last summer as I worked my way across the state, friends asked if I was getting sick of barbecue. The answer was no, not at all. I enjoy it more than ever. It was  a hot summer behind the wheel and eating all that barbecue would have been too much.  So I didn’t eat a lot but I did taste at almost every place and definitely know my personal favorites. I also gained an education in barbecue tasting and cooking theory. I hope I get to put some of it into practice here at home.07.22.14_SawsBBQ_Homewood0131

I shot in (or somewhat near) 68 towns and cities. I shot 83 of the 88 places in 10 weeks time. My earliest shoot was 3:30 am. Those pits fire up early! My latest shoots time were just after 9pm. The most photos I shot at one place was 801 and the least was 11. The most locations in one day was 7 and in one week was 18. I shot a Big Bob, two Big Daddy’s and a Fat Boy’s. I shot 12,177 photos and gave the art director 1150 for possible use. I drove just under 5000 miles. There were times I thought the shoots would never end and the book would never get done. But it is done and looks great. Ultimately some 75 places made the pages. And I’m ready to start on Volume II any time.07.23.14_Archibalds_Northport0004

Alabama barbecue is terrific. Go to your favorite place soon for lunch. Grab a copy of the book and use it as a guide to seek out great places you didn’t know about near home and across the state from Ft Payne to Mobile, from Florence to Dothan. You’ll find top notch pork, chicken, turkey, brisket, sausage and even bologna and cabbage. And don’t forget the banana pudding and even the great fried pecan pie.06.14.14_BBQHouseTroy0038-Edit


so many experiences to re-live

On the road every week for 24 years I was privileged to meet so many great people and enjoy so many experiences. Though most things I shot ran in the magazine the edits were often very tight. Some stories didn’t work out for reasons beyond my control.

Going back through files the past couple months has be rewarding and humbling too. There were many shoots I thought were ok at the time but looking back just feel flat. Others have a wealth of images in them I still love but never made print for lack of space. Each file I open brings back the people, sounds, successes. failures, travails and experiences.

One of my favorites was a story on how music is helping preserve the ‘cajun’ french in Southwest Louisiana. I love the area, the people, the music and the food. I got to hang out with some great musicians including Marc, Ann and Joel Savoy, all extraordinarily talented but also wonderful in the many ways they give back to the area.  I also spend time at the home of Christine Balfa and Dirk Powell and their two beautiful children. Unfortunately they’re no longer together. In fact their photos were a large part of the story and between the shoot and going to print they split. It had an impact on how the story played in the magazine.

I worked with one of the best writers and nicest people ever in Valerie Luesse. We drove all over Bayou Country in Pearl, her white Cadillac. We hit dance halls like the great Whirlybird and we went out with a local conservationist pre-dawn into a Virgin Mangrove forested lake for sunrise and did a little crabbing on the way back in 7357_8786_DiscovertheRealAcadi0052web 7357_8786_DiscovertheRealAcadi0057web 7357_8786_DiscovertheRealAcadi0059web 7357_8786_DiscovertheRealAcadi0078web 7357_8786_DiscovertheRealAcadi0107web 7357_8786_DiscovertheRealAcadi0210web 7357_8786_DiscovertheRealAcadi0211-2web 7357_8786_DiscovertheRealAcadi0255web 7357_8786_DiscovertheRealAcadi0275web 7357_8786_DiscovertheRealAcadi0309web 7357_8786_DiscovertheRealAcadi0358web 7357_8786_DiscovertheRealAcadi0421web 7357_8786_DiscovertheRealAcadi0433web 7357_8786_DiscovertheRealAcadi0443-2web 7357_8786_DiscovertheRealAcadi0477web 7357_8786_DiscovertheRealAcadi0495web 7357_8786_DiscovertheRealAcadi0611web 7357_8786_DiscovertheRealAcadi0771web 7357_8786_DiscovertheRealAcadi0871web 15-7357_8786_DiscovertheRealAcadi1217-copy-2. And of course we had our share of local cuisine. I might have had more than my share.

A day of firsts and a mystery shoot.

A day of firsts and a mystery shoot.

Friday I shot my first freelance job since leaving Southern Living at the end of January. That was 8 weeks and one day without taking out my cameras, the longest I’ve gone since high school. It was also my first automotive shoot and my first major studio shoot. I have always been a location specialist rather than a studio stud.

The shoot was for a friend so I didn’t charge him anything like ‘the going rate’. In fact, after the shoot time and the post-production editing I may just clear minimum wage. But I would do it all over again just the same. I had a blast, exhausting though it was.

The project was/is … embargoed. It’s going to remain a mystery until he can get the project out in the public how he wants. My friend restored a historic one-of-a-kind car. He has his heart tied into this as well as his financial investment.

My friend rented a video/soundstage production studio here in town and I talked him into hiring their lighting equipment as well. Nothing like a 10X20 F2 Chimera light bank to make me and the car look good

I’m extremely happy with the images we did over the 10 shooting hours. I cannot wait to share them. But for now I’m committed to the embargo on the story. I’ll post the images and the story behind the embargo as soon as I can.

Returning to the Natural State-eyePhone Tips too

Returning to the Natural State-eyePhone Tips too

Twin Falls in the Arkansas Ozarks.

A few months ago when my friends at Arkansas Parks and Tourism asked me to be a speaker at this years annual Governor’s Conference on Tourism I was thrilled…frightened a bit, but thrilled. As comfortable as I am with a camera in front of me I’m equally uncomfortable in front of a mic. I’m good one-on-one but nervous in front of groups. I have spoken a few times and fortunately my knowledge of and passion for photography gets me through.

Then my recent job change happened and I wasn’t sure I should talk since I no longer had the crowd-drawing name of Southern Living behind me. I let the Tourism folks know immediately and their kindness and encouragement to come just the same was very heartening. They wanted me as someone who knows the state and the South and has the photo skills to be a knowledgeable speaker. And they wanted me because I’m a proud native son.

What they might not know is just how proud a native son. I wasn’t born in Arkansas but adopted the state and love it as only someone who had a chance to choose what they claim as home state could. I lived in California and Texas before Arkansas but never would have had the opportunities to become who I am if I hadn’t ended up in Arkansas. Within days of moving to the state I had my first camera and first photo responsibilities. I ended up at Fayetteville High School nearing the end of my junior year. When I came in as the ‘new kid’ and registered for classes mid-spring I saw that Yearbook was offered. I signed up and Ferrell Ervin, the advisor, put the camera in my hand and said go forth and document. I’ve never stopped.

Even before graduating from the University of Arkansas I was shooting full time for the Northwest Arkansas Times and eventually worked at four different newspapers in Arkansas.

I explored every byway and corner of the state in those jobs. After moving to Birmingham to work for Southern Living I became the staff ‘expert’ on Arkansas and ended up going back often for stories, working with the folks at Tourism, and learning to love the state all over again from the outside. It’s a beautiful place and the people are generous and caring. Like most any other place, the reality belies media stereotypes.

As for the conference, it was a blast. I ran into and caught up with friends from the past, friends from Facebook and made what I hope are many new friends. Best of all, I was able to reconnect in person with my friends in Parks and Tourism. In my years of travel around the South I discovered that Arkansas really does have the best system of State Parks in the South. There are magnificent parks in most every state but Arkansas consistently offers the most beauty, best experiences and programs. That happens only because of the passion and commitment of many dedicated people and the backing of the state government.

My talk went pretty well. I wasn’t as uncomfortable as I expected. I talked about my world of photography too much and not enough about how they could improve their own work. I think the biggest hit I made was offering three quick tips on how to instantly improve iPhone photos.

1. the photo is taken the moment you let off the button, not when you push it. So to better time a shot keep your finger on the button and let off at the best moment.

2. Before shooting gently touch your subject on the screen to focus and expose for that exact spot. You’ll see a quick pulsing box as you do that lets you know it’s done. Then let off the button.

3. You can ‘lock’ the focus and exposure for your subject and then recompose a shot. When you touch the area you want to be correctly exposed and focused, keep your finger on it a bit longer until you see a second larger ‘pulsing’ box. You can then move the camera around for better composition and keep focus and exposure where you want it.

Simple stuff that many discover on their own but something nobody tells you. And who reads the manual?

So deep thanks to Kerry, Marla, Kat, Joe David, Richard, Kim and all my friends at the Arkansas Department of Tourism. And thank you to all the people in Arkansas who helped, inspired and encouraged me. I hope one day to return home to live.

Big Learning Curve but I’m finally ‘LIVE’

It’s been an amazing learning curve this past few weeks trying to get a new website up. The people at APhotoFolio have been great and their manual very helpful. But choosing photos and learning the ropes has been an education. I had a website before at my domain name to feature and sell prints from all my 70’s and 80′ rock n’ roll photos. I wanted to use that domain name for the new site. That one was hosted by Livebooks for years.

With the domain name registered with Yahoo I had to learn how to change A names, C names and a lot of other behind-the-scenes internet addressing protocols that most people don’t even know exist. I sure didn’t. I have a few new friends including Rajeesh at Yahoo’s support center.

Livebooks also had the email address I wanted directed to their servers from Yahoo. I wanted to keep art@artmeripol for my website so I also had to deal with a third party email company NetworkSolutions. Again, more long long holds with tech support people who’s first language was tech and not english. I’m getting there. I though each call would be the last. I think my final call comes this morning as I figure out how to host this blog from my website rather than separately from WordPress. It’ll still be here but there too.

The website is up and LIVE! I’m very happy about it. It’s been just over three weeks since I learned I was a new freelance photographer. it’s been a full time gig just getting this far.

I’m always glad to hear nice words and so many people have been encouraging and it’s keep me going. But if you look at the website and can offer design or image choice suggestions my ears and mind are open.

Turning in the old, getting started on the new

Turning in the old, getting started on the new

Had high hopes for this week, my first as a newly minted freelancer. So much to get done and so much more to do. I wish I had accomplished so much this week that I didn’t. But then I did get a lot done too. First I turned in that employee Key Card to the office. I then came home, picked out and ordered a new laptop. The old one had to be turned in when I left Southern Living. As a pro photographer these days you just can’t shoot without one. So much of what I’ve been shooting is shot tethered to the laptop. It’s a great help to me in refining a shot. Going forward I expect any clients I might find will want to see it as well.

I had hoped to get started on a list of contacts to approach. Didn’t exactly get that done but I did go through a giant pile of old business cards and select the viable few. I talked to a good friend who freelances in Florida about software for billing, day rates, assistants, agents, websites, insurance and myriad other minutia where I’ll quickly have to get up to speed.

I’ve been looking at three websites hosts, Livebooks (who currently hosts my rock and roll photography website at my current URL Photoshelter which offers so many other services including storage and third party fulfillment for print orders and finally APhotoFolio, a fairly new host. I really like them all but I am leaning towards APhotoFolio because they use HTML5 which allows the site to work seamlessly on any device like smartphones and iPads. The guys who run it were photographers and photo editors who in their jobs were looking at thousands of photographer websites and came to realize what truly worked and what didn’t.
So, week one…some plans made, some more things to think about and a whole lot of editing to do for a website. At least I’m typing on my sweet new retina macbook pro. Now back to sifting through my external hard drives and thousands of files for that one image that might lift the upcoming website. I hope to have a site and business cards in the next couple weeks. But it’s almost overwhelming that I have so much to do in addition to walking the dogs.

Breakfast at Puckett’s in Nashville

photoBreakfast at Puckett's in Nashville

The morning after my shoot at Rolf and Daughters in Nashville I was assigned to shoot two breakfast plate shots at Puckett’s. Puckett’s started in Leipers Fork Tennessee and later opened a second great location in Franklin Tennessee. This was to be shot at their newest location in downtown Nashville. Overnight rains started and with temps below freezing the warnings for early morning were dire. I was up early watching local tv trying to find out if I could even make it to the shoot from my hotel. It seemed all the suburban areas outward were bad with wrecks everywhere but the central city was free of ice.
I made it down to the shoot, parking across the street in a pay lot. It was pouring and 34 degrees so I made the executive decision to take in my ‘strobist’ kit for lighting rather than try to drag my big lights across the lot. With cameras, lights, laptop and tripod I got in but a bit wet. I keep a small towel handy and dried everything off. Because the weather was so bad the restaurant wasn’t crowded which wasn’t great for them but sure was good for me. They had a nice table in a window for me, though there wasn’t a ton of light coming in. Still it worked out great. I put together my Westcott Apollo lightbox with canon strobes for a nice fill. Breakfast food often is not that easy to shoot but the first plate was great. It was two pancakes topped with cooked apples, pulled pork and a sunny-side up fried egg. Served with fried potatoes on the side. It looked yummy. The owners and pr people were there and were so relaxed and helpful. Great people which explains why it’s a great place.

On the tables they park condiments in old cardboard beer six packs. They found and brought me a Yazoo Beer six pack box which not only had great sunny yellow packaging but also is a local beer. Love getting any local touch in a shot.

Shooting to the laptop really helps. It helps, of course, with composition and lighting aspects but also brings the people helping with the shot. They see it and get very excited, drawn into the process and wanting to make it even better. It’s a huge help for me when I’m working all on my own without stylist or assistant. It’s a real kick when I blow up the detail in the food on the laptop and they see their own food for the first time in a new way.

After the shoot I sat down and ate a fresh version of the same plate. It was almost noon and I hadn’t had breakfast yet. And it was so tasty I cleaned the plate. When I left, the rain had stopped and it was over freezing for the drive home. As much as I worried about the shoot in advance it couldn’t have gone better.
The photos are scheduled for our April issue.

The two photos show the view from my hotel with car lights streaking over the wet but fortunately not icy streets and the set-up at Puckett’s.