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Photographer of the Week: Derrick Z. Jackson

Posted by Teresa Hanafin  December 16, 2008 05:23 PM

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Loon Lunch
"Loon Lunch" Umbagog National Wildlife Refuge, NH by Derrick Z. Jackson
July 2006 / Nikon D70, 1/500, f/6.3, 80-400 zoom lens, ISO 400

Derrick Jackson, an Op-Ed columnist for the Globe, is well known for his annual "Graduation Gap Bowl" columns, written at the time of the college football bowl selections, and his gender graduation brackets, published at the time of the NCAA March Madness basketball tournaments. Sometimes, this native Cheesehead bleeds a little green-and-yellow in his columns. And occasionally, you'll get a glimpse of another of his passions: Photography.

(There's a gallery of his work at the bottom.)

Derrick's office at the Globe is adorned with his images: Egrets, cranes, herons, bald eagles, canyons, mountains, deserts, famous people. He brings his camera when he goes canoeing in the Lake Umbagog National Wildlife Refuge in New Hampshire. He packed his camera when he traveled to Iowa for the presidential caucuses because hey, the fertile and teeming Mississippi River was right there on the eastern border. He sells his images very cheaply as framed prints or notecards to raise money for the Boy Scout Troop and Co-Ed Venture Crew he helps lead on backpacking and youth leadership trips into the wilderness. (I'm the very proud owner of one of his loon photos.)

He is an excellent amateur photographer, yet is extraordinarily modest about his achievements. I thought he was a natural to be one of our Photographers of the Week.

By Derrick Z. Jackson
Globe Staff

My bedroom in Milwaukee in the mid-1960s through the mid-1970s was plastered with every sports photograph I could get my hands on. My wall in particular was a museum of the Green Bay Packers' and Boston Celtics' glory days (I had read Bill Russell's autobiography and admired his grit from afar). In fifth and sixth grade in my public elementary school in the mid-60s, my favorite way of doing show-and-tell reports was cutting photographs out of magazines and brochures I procured from a travel agency near my school. I remember doing a science project on snakes and history reports on Greece, Rome, and the Alps.

I can't honestly remember why visuals were important to me, but at one point during this time, I asked my mother for a camera to take pictures for a report at our museum of natural history.

Polaroid Swinger
It was a Polaroid Swinger, a black-and-white instant camera. The moment the image was done developing, you had to roll a smelly green stick over it to preserve it. God knows what toxin that was. I did not yet shoot much outside my family, but my mother graduated me to a color Polaroid by around the age of 15.

At 16 years old, in October of 1971, and just a few months into my after-school job as a reporter at Milwaukee's African-American weekly newspaper, one of the editors knew I was a sports fan and asked me if I wanted to go to a Milwaukee Bucks game. I thought he was only talking about a normal game ticket. That was exciting enough as the year before, the Bucks of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Oscar Robertson had won the National Basketball Association championship. Of course, I said yes.

The editor unrolled his hand to reveal a FLOOR PHOTO PASS! Never mind that the only camera I had was the Polaroid, utterly useless for action -- unless you want to rationalize the artistic value of blur streaks. Oblivious to how other photographers must have silently laughed their heads off at me, I took my blurry eight shots allowed on the roll.

TopconMamiya Sekor 1000 TLNikon FTN
A few days later, I excitedly told this to our upstairs tenant, Mr. King. Mr. King just happened to augment his day job by being a nighttime party photographer. He told me that the next time I got a photo pass, "take this with you." He cradled into my hands his Topcon camera. So I started shooting Bucks games for real, including their playoff run in the spring of 1972. I quickly saved up for my own Mamiya/Sekor 1000 TL and by summer of 1972 moved up to a used Nikon FTN and even a 300mm lens. My parents did not pay a penny for this. It was all from my job -- and selling some Bucks images at my high school.

This working-class kid felt so empowered by the camera that on one summer's night, I took the bus to Milwaukee County Stadium, where the Green Bay Packers were playing the Chicago Bears in an exhibition game. I had never seen the Packers before. I paid $6 for a ticket and then walked all the way down to the front rail.

"Armed" with my 300mm to make me look professional, I opened the gate and walked onto the field. No one bothered me. My images that night are long forgotten. The privilege of making the image has lasted forever.

Last year, when I was able to do photo slideshow commentary on the great regular season of the Packers and Patriots, it was, for me, a coming of full circle from those photographs I plastered on the wall. And, in a recent piece in Nieman Reports, the journal of the Nieman Fellowship for Journalism at Harvard University, you will get a better understanding why I later went into nature photography.

But the images I am sharing with you for POTW are images that need no press passes, no special privileges, and certainly not the crazy boldness to sneak onto an NFL field (which today is impossible). You do not even need the best equipment, which in this age is getting easier and easier to say, with amazing images possible from high-level point-and-shoots.

The last film Nikon I had was a mid-level N6006. My digital Nikons have been first the D70 and now the D200, both of which were mid-level to start with and were rapidly supplanted.

I primarily use two lenses, the 18-200 VR and the 80-400 VR. They are both sharp, though not super-pro, ultra-fast-tracking sharp, but in some ways, that is good because it forces you to try that much more to get the focus as right on as possible in the field.

The real trick is patience for nature to come to you, getting up early for the most awesome light or getting there early for the right position. That is why my submissions end with photos of Barack Obama. These particular images were shot from the crowd as I was interviewing people about him.

Derrick Jackson
I hope these images help people who are thinking about photography to realize that it is not all about the equipment, though that helps. It is, to borrow from real estate, location, location, location. You just have to make the decision to put yourself in the location.
Good luck shooting,
Derrick Z.

To fully appreciate Derrick's photos in the gallery below, click on the "Full screen" link. Hit it again to return to regular size.

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