the writing and photography of Neil Kramer

Month: January 2013

The Photo is the Story


I’d like to say a “thank you” to those who said nice things about my Instagram photos from my trip to New Zealand, especially those that I took of Juli.

I’ve been taking these Instagram photos for a while now, and I have a few online friends who know me more about me from Instagram than my blog. I would never have expected this plot twist!

Instagram has given me the opportunity to connect with new people and to see the world in new ways. I now even look at trees.

Yesterday, my friend Miss Britt asked me if I could give her any iphonography tips, which prompted me to write this —

I do wish a few of my photography friends weren’t so snotty about Instagram, fearful of the dirty Instagram mob with their scary hipster filters. But in some ways, they deserve to be wary — “real” photography is hard work. I’m comfortable with my status as an amateur. That doesn’t mean I can’t share with you some things I learned; I see my limitations as a lowly iphone Instagram photographer as my greatest tool.

First of all, I can’t teach you anything about F-stops or lighting techniques. I’m not completely ignorant about these things. I did attend USC film school, but at the time, during graduate school, the technical aspects of movie-making were less interesting to me than the “story” of a movie — the script. Even today, I hate movies over-stuffed with special effects or 3D. I like compelling stories about life.

My main photography tip is — “look for the story.” I know it sounds like a cliche, but is what I do. Don’t get too hung up on the technical. Yes, there is some artistry involved. I use filters and think about composition, but the best photos have a story. Sometimes the viewer will get the story. Other times, the story only makes sense to you. It doesn’t matter. The story will create the energy. I always look for the story.

Editing the photo, especially the cropping, is essential because it is part of storytelling. I see it like editing a manuscript. It is common to only discover the story during cropping! I might take a photo of a beautiful woman walking down the street, and then, during editing, notice the homeless guy sitting on the street near her. Forget the hot woman, and go for the STORY. Cropping to me is a second chance at finding the story.

EXPERIMENT: Go right now and take three quick photos of your child. Or your husband. Or even your couch. Now look at the three shots. They will seem almost identical, but I bet one of the shots tells the story better than the others. This is why professionals take a hundred shots of the same subject. They pick out the photo which tells the best story. I’ll admit that for every “beautiful” photo of Juli that I put on Instagram, there were four others that sucked, or caught her eating a sandwich with the mustard dripping on her shirt.

Story trumps all. An umbrella could be blocking half of the woman’s face and the photo blurry, but if it has a better story than the same photo done perfectly, I would pick the inferior photo technically.

When you take your photos, don’t think of it as a photo. Think of what you are doing as storytelling.

How to find — and capture that story — is more complex, and I’m not ready to discuss that yet. We’ve all seen an Instagram photo of a hamburger on a plate, and we make fun of it as a waste of space. And then we see another person’s photo — a hamburger on a plate — that makes us stop in our tracks. We ask ourselves, “Where is she eating this hamburger? Who is she with right now? Are they having sex later?” The photo tells the story.



My trip to New Zealand was all about water.   Without water, we would all die of thirst.   But don’t try to grab it with the tense hand; it will laugh at you with disdain. It is a chameleon that takes many forms and shapes, always moving. Only a fool tries to control it.  Water runs fast.  Water can calm — the gentle brook, and then belittle you with a ocean’s tsunami, swallowing you whole.  Water is sex and religion.   Sweet wetness and holy baptism.  Water is risk.   Water is mysterious and powerful, like a woman.

The Blurry Photo of J

Call me old-fashioned, but I was convinced that she would be the first to crack. Blokes like myself believe women are the sentimental creatures, so I was surprised that, on my arrival at LAX, the first text I received from her read simply, “Going camping with my son for two days.”

Camping in NZ also means “non internet access,” so this also meant that our communication channels were down. So, on this historic day when President Obama was sworn in as President, barriers fell throughout the land. We now have our first two-term African-American President. Gay rights were mentioned in an inaugural speech. And — for the first time ever, smashing centuries of gender roles — a man cracked first, turning to his blog, sentimentality in his heart, while the woman went camping in the wild, a pocketknife in her purse. Who’s the weaker sex? My heart sinks faster than that US Navy landing craft that was swamped by a wave near Paekakariki, NZ ’s during that infamous tragedy in June 1943.

J and I first went camping after Christmas. Her son stayed with his father. I had not gone camping since I was twelve years old. As an adult, I found it fun, but exhausting. One of my Facebook friends touted camping as “sexy.” Uh, no. But if you get your kicks sleeping in cramped tents without bathrooms, who am I to question your alternative lifestyle?

I’m surprised that I enjoyed it as much as I did. The scenery certainly helped. It was amazing to wake up in the morning and look at greenery so lush you felt like you just rented a room in the Hobbit’s Shire.

Still, after a week sleeping on an air mattress, I suggested (well, insisted) that we spend two nights in a motel in Napier, a Hawkes’ Bay town famous for its art deco architecture.

Our room in Napier — at the appropriately named Art Deco Motel — was nothing fancy; it was a motel room that looked out into a parking lot. But after a week camping, it felt like the Four Seasons. We each took a long hot shower. It was the best shower of my life. J prepared lunch in the motel kitchenette, using leftovers in the cooler or the “chilly bin” as called by the Kiwis. J was wearing a towel from the bathroom, but as she fried up some eggs, the white cotton towel slipped off, sliding to the carpeted floor.

I took a photo of her with my iPhone.

In the photo, J was in the shadows, the light in the background flowing in from the large window leading to the patio. I fiddled around with some apps on my iphone until the subject was anonymous. I created a blurry photo of a naked, curvy, beautiful woman standing in front of a burst of light.

“Can I put this on Instagram?” I asked.

“Sure,” she said. “It’s your artwork.”

Wow. My artwork?! How can you not fall for a woman who considers your dopey and salacious photo of her losing her towel while frying some eggs as “artwork?”

The next day, she changed my mind.

“I forgot about my mother.” she said. She’s looking at your instagram feed.”

It’s a fine line between sharing and keeping things private.

“Can you take it down before she sees it?” she asked.

I deleted it from Instagram. And Flickr. And Facebook.

I’m in Los Angeles now. For now. It’s too bad that I can’t reach J. I want to tell her about my night in Melbourne, Australia. I met two Aussie bloggers and we went to a famous local restaurant.

Melbourne is a world-class city with culture and excitement. There are hipsters drinking coffee in converted warehouse districts. The Kapiti Coast of New Zealand — where J lives — is sleepyville. Bars close early. Local excitement is a sheep shearing and bringing home some fish and chips. But never have I seen so much greenery. And as a Pisces, I am drawn to the oceans and rivers and lakes. And then, there is J herself. She is in New Zealand.

I slide my finger along the screen of my iphone, touching the blurred photo of J. The one from the motel. The one that I deleted. It is a tame photo. J is shadowy and heavily filtered. But I understand why she asked me to delete it from public view. I know and adore every curve of her body, even in the dark. And that is very obvious to anyone looking at this blurry photo, despite my attempts to hide it.

Summer Love

Back when I attended my Jewish sleep-away camp, the summer ended with a big dance. It was on the last weekend of August, right before we all went back to our predictable middle-class lives in Queens, Brooklyn, Westchester, New Jersey, and Long Island, where we would focus on our schoolwork and prepare ourselves for a scholarship to a fancy college.  Fall, Winter, and Spring were times of seriousness.  It was only during the summer that we allowed ourselves to paddle a canoe or initiate”panty raids” on the girls’ bunks.

Having a dance as a camp season finale made no sense to a ten year old boy who had no interest in dancing, or the opposite sex.   The girls danced by themselves while the boys got sugar drunk on Dixie cups of purple punch.

One year,  on my seventh year as a camper, I asked Tammy to the dance, but just my luck — she ended up in the infirmity with the flu, so I spent most of the evening standing outside her window chatting with her about science fiction movies, until one of the nurses shooed me away.  I took off to the social hall, relieved to not have missed the final dance.  After so many years at this camp, the “last song” of the summer had grown in meaning to me.  It was always the same — “See You in September,” originally sung by the Tempos in 1959, but this was the latter version, covered by The Happenings in 1966.  The sappy song must have been a tradition for an earlier generation, because all of the counselors and older staff members would grab a partner and do a “slow dance.”

It never occurred to me as a camper that this “last dance” was not for the campers at all, but for the staff — many who were returning back to school or work, and had experienced summer love for the first time.

Summer love creates all sorts of complications.   Some counselors already had boyfriends and girlfriends back at home.  Some of the staff members were international visitors from faraway places like Ireland.   And not even Jewish.

So how did these summer romances turn out?   Most of them fizzled out.  Some tried to reproduce the lake-side romance in the Catskills back in Brooklyn, but it didn’t have the same vibe on Ocean Parkway.   The city can be romantic and mysterious, but it has a different soundtrack, more funky than mellow.

Tammy, the girl who was supposed to be my date for the final dance, ended up dating one of the counselors — a college boy — much to the dismay of her parents.   They are a summer romance success story, married for decades with children who now go to sleep-away camp.

Over the last month, while most of you have been freezing during the winter months, I have been on Summer Vacation in New Zealand.  It is Summer here.   The kids are off from school.  The beaches are full.  Everyone is eating ice cream.

But Fall is close.   Today there was a “back to school” commercial on the “telly.”  School clothes at 40% at The Warehouse, New Zealand’s equivalent of Target.

With summer ending, there is a call to seriousness.   It’s time for me to return to the States.   The vacation is over.    I’ve found a summer love here in New Zealand.   I’ve had a life-changing experience.

Where does it go from here? I don’t know.  It is hard to carry a summer love into the Fall, especially when you live on different continents.   For now, I have a plane to catch tomorrow, and I want my last dance with Juli.

The Railway Station at Paekakariki

New Zealand

After lunch at her Mexican restaurant, Marianne dropped me off at the train station at Paekakariki.  I had an hour to kill before the train for Paraparaumu arrived, so I wandered around the tiny town’s Main Street, which took me all of ten minutes.


I walked over to the railway station, which while unassuming, consisting of a few wooden shacks on a 1/3 of a city block, is important to the city’s history.

In 1886 the Wellington and Manawatu Railway Company’s line from Wellington to Longburn was completed, and Paekakariki became an important stop on the journey. In 1908, the line was incorporated into the national network of the New Zealand Railways Department and became part of the North Island Main Trunk linking Wellington and Auckland, the North Island’s most important line.

During World War 2, Paekakariki also served as a major base for US Marines fighting in the Pacific, with over 20,000 Americans stationed here.

Paekakariki’s steep surrounding hills proved suitable terrain for marching and mortar practice, whilst its beaches were used to stage amphibian invasions. They were the scene of an unfortunate tragedy in June 1943 when a landing craft was swamped by a wave during a nighttime training exercise. Nine men drowned in the heavy surf according to official figures; local rumor put the toll higher. The incident was never reported at the time due to wartime censorship provisions.

I was reading about Paekakariki’s history on my iPhone, biding my time, when I noticed an open door in one of the side buildings.  I shyly walked over and looked into what seemed to be a dusty old used bookstore jam-filled with literature.  The location seemed so bizarre and incongruous.  While I can understand a Barnes and Noble at Grand Central Station, how could this used bookstore do any sort of business in the middle of nowhere, hidden in Paekakariki, population 1600, a town name which in Māori means “perching place of the kakariki (green parrot).”

Inside the bookstore, a man in his sixties, a Bohemian with long white hair, was standing on a ladder, struggling to hang a framed photo on the wall.

“Good.  You’re tall,” he said.  “You can help me.”

“Sure,” I said, and entered the shop. I climbed onto the ladder and tried to match up the wired back of the frame with the nail on the wall.

“A little to the right,” he directed me.   “To the left. Perfect.”

I climbed off the ladder and he pointed at the sepia-toned photo.  It was of some waterfall.  He told me it was an original photo taken by some famous New Zealand naturalist, the Ansel Adams of the country.

“Are you looking for a specific book today?” he asked, changing the subject.

“To tell you the truth, I’m just stumbling by. I was waiting for the train when I saw you were open. I was surprised to find such a cool bookstore in the middle of the train station.”

“Grand, isn’t it? Where are you from?”

“From the States. I was born in New York.”

“That’s one place I want to visit one day. You liking New Zealand?”

There was a spark in his voice. Many Kiwis seemed quite reserved, but the bookstore owner seemed impish and playful.

“It’s beautiful in New Zealand,” I answered.

“Listen, as a thank-you for hanging up my photo, I’m going to give you one of my books. What do you prefer? Fiction or poetry?”

Before I could answer, he had analyzed me.

“You seem like a fiction person. I’ll give you one of my novels.”

He grabbed one of his own books from a shelf. It was titled Unlevel Crossings. I learned more about my new acquaintance. His name was Michael O’Leary.

Michael O’Leary is a New Zealand publisher, poet, novelist, performer, and bookshop proprietor. He publishes under the imprint Earl of Seacliff Art Workshop, which he founded in 1984. He runs a bookshop, Kakariki Books, from the Paekakariki Railway Station.

Born in Auckland, he was educated at the Universities of Auckland and Otago. He wrote his master’s thesis on the history of small presses in New Zealand. He is the author of Alternative Small Press Publishing in New Zealand. He completed a PhD in women’s studies at Victoria University of Wellington on the ‘Social and Literary Constraints on Women Writers in New Zealand 1945 to 1970’.

O’Leary’s novels and poetry explore his Māori (Te Arawa)– Irish Catholic heritage. Under the Earl of Seacliff Art Workshop imprint he has published work by a range of writers, both alternative and mainstream, including: Raewyn Alexander, Colin Lloyd Amery, Sandra Bell, John Pule, Greg O’Brien, David Eggleton, and others.

O’Leary is a trustee for the Poetry Archive of New Zealand Aotearoa, a charitable trust dedicated to archiving, collecting and promoting New Zealand poetry.

“Thank you for the book,” I told the writer/publisher/bookstore owner. “I’ll read it on the plane home.”

The warning bell of the approaching train rang at the train crossing.

“What’s your name?” he asked, the clang of the metal wheels of the train from Wellington growing louder.


“Nice meeting you Neil. And what brings you to New Zealand in the first place? A woman?”

“How did you know?”

“It’s always a woman.”

I said goodbye. I rode the train back to Paraparaumu.  Juli picked me up and I took this photo of her for Instagram.


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