Like Jazz

Last Friday I went to my regularly-scheduled part-time job, video editing the television broadcast for a local church, and discovered as I walked in the door that this was not going to be an ordinary day. Funeral services were going to be held in the main sanctuary, and for somebody well-known, I was told. It turned out to be for jazz pianist Mulgrew Miller, who passed away after a stroke on May 29th.

Did I mention that I was a huge jazz fan?

As I helped out with some of the multimedia support, I saw such jazz luminaries in attendance as Ron Carter, Kenny Garrett, and Russell Malone, among others. Afterwards, I was amazed at how I just happened to be there: sad, of course, that the great man had passed at the age of 57, but glad that I happened to be there at the celebration of his life.

The right place at the right time…so how does that apply to taking pictures of signs? you ask.

I know I constantly preach get the shot anytime, anywhere, no matter what, and that’s true. The “Flats Fixed” service station I had been blessed to photograph last July (if you missed these shots, click here) was the fruit of that, and if I hadn’t stopped that day, I would have been impossibly disappointed later. Like jazz, improvise on the fly. But also like jazz, practiced and experienced enough to make the right decisions, to play the right notes.

For this reason, I’ve started to make a habit of revisiting places I’ve photographed before, just to see if I get some different results. If nothing else, to stay in practice, to learn from previous mistakes and make new ones. Most often, my second time through the shots come out better, and sometimes much better. Recently I made a trip from Harrisburg to Allentown along I-78. There are two great signs in a town appropriately called Midway. First, the Midway Motel:


The Motel has been gone for some time, but the sign still stands in front of a vacant lot. The “TV” speaks to this signs age: after all, it doesn’t even say Color TV. I’ve stopped here before, but now I was used to this stop. I know where to park, I know where to stand, I know which shots look the best. And all of that knowledge frees my mind up to be able to improvise. Maybe I stand a long way off and use my long lens. Maybe I use a filter, or (gasp) the cheap Holga lens with a Pentax mount I got for Christmas. At any rate, I tried the “straight-on” approach to this shot on a sunny day, and I love the results.

Next, Trainer’s Midway Diner, and this is where the magic of improvisation comes in. This was my third time getting shots here. It has a lovely long parking lot suitable for trucks that allows a lot of possibilities and angles. But I went “straight-on” with this one, too:


A tremendous sign, but do you notice something? I sure didn’t as I was taking this picture, but I was soon made aware of it. This was the fifth shot I had taken, and in my opinion, the best. I was lining up for shot #6 when I heard something: a hollow metal snap and then the beating of wings. It startled me for a half-second until I figured out the noise came from a bird that had poked his way out of the sign and flown off. I was disappointed because I thought I had missed it.

When I got home later, I told Laura the story as I popped the SD card into the TV to take a look at the shots I had gotten that afternoon. And who do you suppose shows up in the shot?


There’s something intensely cool about a classic sign becoming a bird sanctuary.

Improvisation is good, planning is good, and experience is good, but when all three come together, it becomes something far greater. Sometimes you find something you never expected.

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