the writing and photography of Neil Kramer

Three Photographs

I bought an inexpensive Canon camera on Amazon during Black Friday and I received it in the mail last week.  As usual, I ignored the suggestion to read the manual and started to play with it without knowing what I was doing.  Why are there so many buttons and menu selections on a camera?

But so far, I haven’t broken it.

I’m not a true photographer at heart.  I don’t get tremendous urges to capture a moment in time or to shoot a scene on film.  I do like photos.  Especially your photos!   I would love to take more photos of people — quirky individuals doing funny or incongruous things, like nuns eating hot dogs, but I’m too shy to ask them if I can photograph them.  It seems rude.

Here is my first shot with my new camera:


I was in a very nice cafe at the time, by myself.  Most normal people might have taken a photo of the pretty cafe or the people in the cafe.  Or ME sitting in the cafe.  I didn’t think about it.  I’m not 100% aware of my surroundings.  I am more of a “storyteller” in my own mind, than a photographer interacting with the real world.   As I sat alone, sipping my over-priced coffee in this trendy Manhattan cafe, I created a story about the girl sitting in the corner.  She was wearing a black-and-white striped dress and a red beret.  In this homespun New York City tale of romance and adventure, I strutted over to her table and joined her.  We talked and laughed for an hour; the time passed as fast as the sun setting in the Pacific on a summer day.   As she cocked her head to the side and smiled, the light in her eyes…

…well, anyway, it was only a story.  And it was sort of cliched.   I never finished it.  Besides, she left.   It didn’t bother me too much.   Her table was a mess.  She left behind crumbs and crumbled napkins.  It was a big turn-off.   I probably should have just photographed her, so I would always remember what she looked like.   Already, her image is fading, like an old Polaroid.

I need to figure out how to use my zoom lens.  That way, I can take photos of people without them knowing.

Here’s my second photo:


It is from Thursday night.  It was pouring outside, but my mother and I schlepped into Manhattan to see the play “August: Osage County.”  This is the play that won the Tony and the Pulitzer Prize last year.  It is excellent, a skillfully written and acted drama about a dysfunctional family.  If you can, you should see it.  I know most of you can relate to the subject matter of the play, since so many of you are nuts or on anti-depressants.

I told Victoria, a blogger in New York, that I was going to the theater.

“Are you going on a date?” she asked.

I wasn’t sure what to answer.  It seemed pathetic to tell her that I was going out with my mother.  But with 2009 coming soon, and my #6 upcoming resolution being, “Never Lie to a Woman,” I decided to tell her the truth.

“I’m going with my mother.”  I said.  “She wanted to see it, too.”

“Oh, that’s so nice that you’re going with your mother.”

At first, I was taken aback by her positive response. Then, I remembered this Oscars ceremony from a few years ago, where Leonardo DiCaprio walked down the red carpet with his MOTHER as his date.   The pre-show host (Joan Rivers, maybe?) was all over him, saying how wonderful it was that he was bringing his proud MOTHER to the Academy Awards.  So, rather than hiding the fact that I went to the show with my mother, I am proudly making it into a public announcement.

I WENT TO SEE AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY WITH MY MOTHER, much like the handsome, extremely talented Leonardo DiCaprio, who clearly could have brought any gorgeous women in the world with him to the Academy Awards, including that hot Israel model he was dating — but he chose to pick his mother out of love and respect.   So, don’t assume that I went with my mother only because she is the only woman who will talk with me.   I just didn’t feel like going out with ANOTHER Israeli model!

This is my third photo:


It is from a large toy train display in the lobby of the Citicorp Building (soon to be renamed The Tower of Broken Financial Dreams).  I went with my childhood friend and his wife, and their two young boys.  The older boy, K, is obsessed — OBSESSED — with trains.  He can tell you about every episode of Thomas the Tank Engine.  He owns DVDs of famous train lines speeding through Europe and Asia.  One of his favorite activities is going to Grand Central and watching the commuter trains take off to New Jersey.  Even though K is only in pre-school, he is an expert on the New York City subway system.  When we were on the subway, he announced the stops before the conductor.   K can also point out the differences between the old trains and new trains on the “R” and “6” lines.

On Sunday afternoon, we were all traveling by subway to the Rubin Museum of Himalayan Art (only in Manhattan do parents bring their kids to see the Tibetan art as a fun activity).   As we took off from the station, K pressed his face against the window, watching as the train noisily sped through the mysterious subway tunnel.  K does this every time we enter a subway train.  This makes me smile, because we are kindred spirits.   I used to do the exact same thing when I was his age!  I would sit between my parents, knees pushing against both of their legs, peering out at the passing blurry lights, and I would imagine that I was a NASA astronaut in a spaceship speeding through the emptiness of space.

I thought this was a perfect way to bond with my friend’s son.  I sat next to K, facing the window, much like I did in my youth.   Together we sat, young and young-at-heart, both facing the dirty subway window, both of us directly under the “Drink Stolchinaya!” advertisement.

“I see you like looking out.” I said to K.  “It is dark out there… and all those lights.  You like that, right?”


“You know, I do that too.  I look out the window and I see all the darkness and I imagine that I am in a spaceship passing by all these stars and galaxies.  Like I am astronaut on an Apollo mission or on the Starship Enterprise!  Doesn’t it look like space?”

He gave me a WTF look, as if I was speaking another language.  Mentioning the Apollo mission and the Starship Enterprise was like my late Uncle Morris talking to me about Joe Dimaggio’s skill as a batter.

“It is space,” said K, finally responding to my statement.  “There’s space there so the express train can pass by on the other side.”

Smart ass.  I was dissed by a pre-schooler.

But I learned a lot from my young friend through that statement.

I’m not 100% aware of my surroundings.  I am more of a “storyteller” in my own mind, than a person interacting with the real world.   K will be a better photographer.


  1. Twenty Four At Heart

    I think I bought that same camera! I got it as a gift for my son … I’m glad you like yours. The photos look good so it seems you’re off to a good start. Love hearing about K explaining space to you. Kids see life very clearly ….

  2. Sunny

    K surely will.

    As for your photographs, they tell stories the way you do: they pick unrelated details, throw vague light on surroundings creating an unfinished picture. So a reader adds the rest.

  3. headbang8


    The key to taking a good photograph is to take a lot of bad ones. Not so much as a learning exercise, but simply becuase 99% of what we see is noise, like 99% of what we hear.

    If one takes a picture that tries to capture everything in a moment, one is likely to capture a whole lot of meaningless visual noise that obscures your point.

    The second picture is an example. What says “street outside a mid-town theatre”? A close up of the pedal cab next to the limo would have telegraphed this to me, but that’s not the focal point, and I’m distracted by a whole lot of other stuff.

    With pictures, one doesn’t have the luxury of a narrative. You can’t seduce your reader into the flow, and lead them to the point you wish to make. In a picture, the point gets made, and you’re there for it, or you ain’t.

    Like in writing, the single small detail tells more than screeds of description, however accurate. That’s why your first photo is a masterpiece.

    The distractedness of the half-finished coffee. The now-superfluous stick and sugar wrapper to the side–lonely, spent, unwanted. The brown-ness of the surroundings, reflecting the forelorn contents of the cup, half-empty..or perhaps half-full? The world around the cup becomes as half-hearted and lonely as the world within it.

    No, really. I like the photo. I might frame it. Seriously.


  4. Annie

    There is nothing wrong with being a story teller, we all have our strengths and weak points. And your photos are just fine, you will get the hang of it the more you use it, it took me 4 months to find my zoom button, actually I did not even know I had one because I too hate reading manuals :-).

  5. Noel

    No trains go from Grand Central to New Jersey. May you succeed in your goal to cease lying in 2009.

    And Leo “extremely” talented?

  6. Finn

    The first photo? Turn off that awful flash. Ugh.

    Of course then the picture will be too dark because you didn’t read the manual to figure out how to compensate for that.

  7. Geoff

    You’ve got a tough audience today, Neil. For the first shots on your camera, it’s enough to have it in focus. Everything else is bonus.

  8. Neil

    Geoff — Yeah, I like tough critics. But you should see what I write on their blogs!

    Noel — No? Where do all these trains go? To Connecticut? Amtrak? There are no PATH trains at Grand Central?

  9. better safe than sorry

    i love that first photo.
    as for your mother, she is the only woman who will ALWAYS be there for you, ALWAYS, no matter what. hold your head up high and be proud to have her on your arm.

  10. V-Grrrl

    I am 100 percent aware of my surroundings but I am also a storyteller, writing my own story. That is why I told the lady at the store to kiss my ass. My brain was not interested in writing a faux happy ending or making excuses for her obnoxiousness. Instead, I decided to BE as pissed as I felt.

  11. leah

    love the photos, carrying a camera wherever you go gives you enormous freedom to document a moment.

    i rarely leave my house without my camera, i take loads of shots from different angles just to be sure that i get the “right one”. i used to take one here and there, never felt i was very good at it, worrying that other people around me would think i was being a dork.

    i began to improve once i kept it all about me and what i wanted to shoot at any angle i choose. i guess that’s a standard anyways.

    as for kids, they are much more precocious these days than they used to be. and, they can tell if you are “trying too hard” or talking down to them. (not to say you were doing that, i’m just adding that in. not that you need any “tips” from me or anything.)

    kids, like dogs can smell fear.

    how soon before your talking body part requests use of your camera?

  12. Betsey

    Being a kid who was convinced that random power boxes around my town were homeless people’s refrigerators, I think your way of thinking is more common.

    But then again, I thought homeless people had refrigerators.

  13. Jenny, Bloggess

    1. I bet sausage county would smell delicious.

    2. I cannot believe you are doubting my prostitution skills. Which, I assure you, are many. I assume.

  14. *pixie*

    Kids are so smart. And that coffee cup shot? Better than any cafe shot could be. It’s a story in its own right.

  15. headbang8

    “Geoff — Yeah, I like tough critics. But you should see what I write on their blogs!”

    Actually, Neil, you don’t write anything on my blog. I realise that all my posts are meticulously argued and impeccably expressed, making it difficult to find an entry point for discussion. Perhaps you could spot a typing error. I make lots of those. Or maybe you could just say “hi”, or “how true!”

  16. Nancy

    I love reading what rolls around n your noodle and now can I look forward to you sharing what catches your eye. I’m sure there will be some very interesting photos forthcoming.

  17. Danny

    I think it’s Penn Station to NJ, but that’s an honest mistake.

    I love those photos, especially the first one which I find rather haunting (even with the garish flash).

    I’m glad you liked “August: Osage County,” I saw it twice and thought it was extraordinary. But then again, I heart plays about wildly dysfunctional families. What’s next on your theatre agenda? (I’m so jealous.)

  18. churlita

    I’m an obsessive documenter in words and in photos. I just take tons of photos, because I can usually sift through and find one or two good ones. That’s the beauty of digital photography.

  19. Janna

    My son is obsessed with Trains. I can only imagine how excited he would be to see that train display.

  20. mommyknows

    Photos are unnecessary when you tell a story as well as you do!

  21. LeAnn

    Not to belabor the point, but Leonardo DiCaprio recently attended August:Osage County in NYC and guess who he took?

    That’s right. Mom. People can say what they will about that model hound, he does love his mother!

  22. threeboys1mommy

    Oh yeah, I think DiCaprio, I think Prius, Catch Me If You Can, then Neil, absolutely.

    Is it strange that I’m a little offended by MommyKnows comment? 🙁

  23. veep veep

    OMG how dare you not lie to me. And how dare you share our super top secret Broadway conversations with the likes of these… these heathens…

    P.S. Nice pics. 😉

  24. Lady Fizzlebottom

    I got my first camera about 2 years ago and I was nervous about taking pictures in the beginning, that I had to ask peoples permission, but that wears off and you eventually stop giving a shit. The best part about using a camera is that it hightens your awareness even more than before – I think it’ll be a great compliment to your already impressive story-telling skills.

  25. Beth

    I like the coffee shot the best. Just have fun with the pictures and make up whatever you like. We’ll listen and laugh right with you.

  26. Neil

    ThreeBoys1Mommy — I think MommyKnows just is visualizing me looking like Leonardo DCaprio.

    And can we have a moratorium on names with Mommy in them… it is getting too difficult to remember who is who.

  27. movin' down the road

    you went to the theatre with your mom. So did I! (my mom, not yours)

  28. LVGurl

    “I just didn’t feel like going out with ANOTHER Israeli model!”

    Made me laugh 🙂

  29. PattyCake

    I have three children, aged 10 7 and 4, who know who Captain Kirk is, and can name every Apollo astronaut and which mission they flew on. I’m 27, and I have no idea what they are talking about.

    The coffee picture is a masterpiece of sublime understatement and composition.

  30. Noel

    All trains from Grand Central Terminal go up Park Avenue and into the Bronx, where they break off into the Harlem, Hudson, and New Haven lines. So, yes, mostly Connecticut, plus all of Westchester.
    It’s Penn Station which has tracks running North, East and West (West to Jersey, from where one can go South). PATH has its own little set of stations, mostly along 6th Avenue, south of 33rd. My guess is that K could have told you all this.

  31. TorontoPearl

    Re. your friend’s son… We have a friend who’s 37. He was an art major who decided to drop his Ph.D. program in order to pursue his lifelong love for trains, a Canadian train in particular. He is everything trains — Canadian National Railway trains — and has a business he started a few short years ago, a business of making model trains for hobbyists. It is now a million-dollar business with several staff locally and a factory in China.
    He and his start-up business were featured in the newspaper a couple weeks ago. Not bad for a guy who has loved trains all his life and has now managed to make them his life.
    Tell your friend’s son that “there is a future in trains.”

  32. teahouseblossom

    Hey, the Rubin Museum is awesome! I went to a recital there once. I felt very zen.

    Your photos are very artistic.

  33. Nancy

    Wow — Haven’t checked in with your blog in a while, and you’ve moved! (okay, a long while.)

    You seem much more NY than LA — hope you’re happy there! Seems like a better fit.


  34. Charmarie

    I am neither a storyteller or a photographer, I’m a dreamer. Dreaming I’ll get one of those damn things down in my lifetime 😉 I’m actually more of a creative mind clouded by the dreamer. I’m not 100% aware of my surroundings either sometimes that’s the beauty of it not being aware and just being absorbed in your own thoughts to hear the chatter and observe the messy patron.

    All photos suck when you first use your camera, mine did. Why bothers reading the manual anyway? I never did, still haven’t and equally refuse to.

    I’ll be taking my mother wine tasting, we’ll both get completely plastered and she’ll complain to me about how my dad never took her wine tasting. Can I take your mom to a play 😉

    Leo, I LOVE LEO, more than Lucky Charms cereal. i love Lucky Charms A LOT!

    My son is obsessed with race cars and the Speed Channel and it drives me literally crazy. Children say some stuff that makes you look at them with the WTF look…but they’ve got it figured out. Sometimes life can be just that simple.

  35. Kelly

    Apropos of nothing – a friend of mine from high school is the state manager for August: Osage County. She was in New York for several months and is now doing the London run. (Deb Styer)

    Is it really that much of a schlep to go into Manhattan? Did Cali turn you into a rain-hating wimp?

  36. Kelly

    Stage Manager – sorry

  37. Fancy

    Great story. Read the manual, I promise it won’t disappoint. I got my little inexpensive Canon Powershot over the summer and feel naked if I leave the house without it, now.

  38. Paige Jennifer

    A little over a year ago, a then beau gave me a digital camera. I had asked to borrow one of his awesome three but instead he bought me a small one for me to call my very own. A kind gesture until I realized he didn’t want to lend me his because he was soon breaking up with me. Anyway, he insisted I spend two hours reading the manual. Bor-ing. But I did it. Then I went and tested out the settings, photographing the same spot of the room ten different ways. And as far as I could tell, every picture looked the same. So you didn’t miss anything by not reading the manual. Trust me.

    PS: I bought a print copy of Osage because the dinner scene…I just need to have immediate access to it no matter the time of day.

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