An interview with Michael O'Brien in which we discuss his new book, Hard Ground.

Michael O'Brien Speaks.  Hard Ground. from Kirk Tuck on Vimeo.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with Michael's work, here is his website:  http://www.obrienphotography.com/  I met Michael in the 1990's when he moved his family to Austin, Texas after having done a six week assignment here for National Geographic.  He is an icon in the industry having done the ground breaking, "What's on your Powerbook?" campaign for Apple, Inc.  A beautiful and timeless campaign for Bank of America and countless amazing photographs for magazines, from Texas Monthly to Life.  And of course, National Geographic.

I decided to interview Michael after the publication of his new book, Hard Ground.  It's an amazing book. I hope you enjoy hearing Michael talk about what he does, how he does it and the thought processes behind it.

I'm so honored that he made time to do this interview with me.

The book is called, Hard Ground.


Mini-Camera Review, Social Photography Commentary.....

Dave Steakley's shoes.  Perfect with a black tuxedo.

Belinda and I went to the $300 a person, super deluxe, wonderfully fun, fund-raiser for Zach Scott Theatre last night at the downtown Hilton.  The event is called, Red Hot and Soul, and this year's theme was the 1960's.  Bee hive hairdo's and Sgt. Pepper outfits we well represented as were pink suits for men and "Madmen" fashion for women.  The culturally clever even made reference to, La Dolce Vita, with some pretty stellar sunglasses.  Tons of great music.  Mercifully short speeches.  And best of all,  NO SILENT AUCTION.

Since I wasn't working I didn't take a serious camera but I did take along a camera I almost condemned.  See,  I was just about to send Olympus back their ZX-1 for a list of what I considered, "design faux pas".  I'll list them and we'll get that out of the way:  1.  You charge the tiny battery in camera with a USB charger.  All cameras should come with chargers that allow "out of camera" charging.  And the camera size shouldn't be so small that it compromises battery performance.  2.  While we're on the subject of small !!!!!!  Things can be too small.  I don't have big hands but I felt like my hands were the size of catcher's mitts when handling this one.  And the buttons.......they are made for ants.  3.  The camera is way too thin, front to back to hold comfortably.  Really.  Were they trying to become two dimensional?  And is that a selling point?  This is why serious photographers opt for a Canon G12 instead of the S95......there's more to hold onto.  And finally, of course, #4.  The menu and interface operation still sucks.

But I stuck it in my pocket with an EV-2 finder on the top and we went downtown.  I had the camera set for auto-ISO, AWB, and auto flash.  Sometimes I turned off the flash.  

So,  I wrote all that negative stuff above.  Why am I still writing?  Because I like the photos I got out of the camera.  Because it locked focus in a very dark room very quickly.  Because the flash was nuts on every time.  Because I could use the eye level viewfinder from my EP-2.  Because it has a raw mode.  Because it has a built in neutral density filter.  And because the battery didn't run out.

I'm keeping it for another few weeks and then I'll decide if it really deserves a big review or not.  I will say that Belinda thought it was wonderfully small.  And it's a good reminder that not everyone is looking for the same things on their cameras.  

The Winner of the Best Hair.

Kissy Face with the managing director, the artistic director and the two incredibly dedicated board volunteers who filled the giant ballroom to its fire code limit with generous donors and fans of live theater.

And...what does a grisled old pro like me do on a night off?  Well I certainly take a moment to check out the photographers (there were three) who were working the venue.  While I am the official photographer for the Theatre I only do the shows and the creative marketing campaigns.  I don't do the "grip and grins."

Above is my favorite photographer of the night.  Dressed in a black shirt (approved) and black paramilitary cargo pants (neutral)  he got extra sartorial points from me for the matching it all up with a good pair of black shoes.  Lost points for wearing at least five big pouches all over his tactical belt.  But what amazed me was the size of his flash reflector.  Instant award for the biggest one I've ever seen.  Black Rapid (camera suicide straps)  on one each of a 5Dmk2 and 1Dmk4.  The only two lenses I saw him use were the 24-70mm and the 70-200.  I'm dying to know what was in the five cubic feet of bag space hanging all over his belt........

I'm dying to see the photos.

Added at 6pm CMT:  The interview with Michael O'Brien goes up at 1 am Monday morning.  Thanks.

UPDATED:  The photo gallery from the photographer has been posted and it's pretty darn good.  Guess he had some magic in those little bags!


Take me to the river.

Leica R5.  180mm Elmarit 2.8.  Tri-X.  Pedernales State Park.

Notes for photographers:  Time spent Tweeting is time lost  for photographing.

Time spent retouching is time lost photographing.  Time spent researching equipment is time lost for photographing.

Time spent measuring performance is time lost for photographing.

Time spent talking about gear is time lost for talking to subjects.

Fall in love with your subject.  Then you have a reason to photograph.  Fall in love with the process of photographing and you're short changing your subject.

Use alternative processes if they are really what your vision is all about.  Learning lots of alternative processes?  You're just bored.  See:  Fall in love with your subject.

Two thumbs up for my friend AM (anonymity requested).  I saw his book last week and was stunned at how good his interior architectural work and wide angle landscape work is.  Rare for me to like photos without people.  AM pulled it off well.  Also told me he uses HDR......I didn't believe it.  He uses it in the service of his vision and not the other way around.  And he does it with such a skillful approach I couldn't see his hands on the button.  Here's a link:   http://www.mostlyfotos.com/  And here's a shortcut to the architectural stuff I liked: http://www.mostlyfotos.com/search/label/Architecture

AM changed my jaded perspective on HDR.  I no longer think that all of it looks like Technicolor Vomit.  And I'm also amazed that the stuff I liked so much was shot on a Sony Nex-5 with a 16mm lens...  Great Job.


Three Days of Lighting and Hanging Out With Young Photographer/Students.

Well, not this young.  And with better equipment.  And in a bigger space.

I've been asked by the Mac Group, the people who represent Profoto in the USA, to speak as part of their "Mac on Campus" initiative.  I'll be speaking on Tues. the 19th at the Art Institute here in Austin.  One Weds. the 20th I'll spend the day with the classes at San Antonio College (took a biology course there when I was in high school ) and then, on the 21st I'll be doing a morning and an afternoon session back here in Austin at Austin Community College.

I'm dragging some of my own, favorite Profoto gear along with me but for the most part I'll be talking about lighting and doing demonstrations of my favorite lighting techniques.

Digging around inside my camera with a screw driver and shaky hands.

If you've read the column for any length of time you probably know that I'm both attracted and repulsed by different aspects of "gear."  I want the stuff to be good and to work right but I don't want it to stick its head into the picture and start giving me "helpful hints," and I rarely want to hear about exactly how anybody did anything.

I was attracted to Zeiss manual focus ZE lenses and bought four of them to shoot on my Canon cameras.  I know most people think I should using the lenses on the 5d2 but I'm stubborn and I like what I like and I wanted to also be able to use them on the Canon 7D.  Here's the problem I found:  While I can easily manually focus the lenses if I use live view and enlarge the images ten times trying to accurately focus fast lenses on the stock 7D screen is hit and miss.  And mostly miss.

I bought a new screen for my Canon 1d2N and it worked really well.  The screens I'm looking for are the ones with the split image rangefinder in the center circle.  Just like the ones we used to have in our Pentax K1000's and Olympus OM-1's. (And our Canon f-1's and our Nikon F's).  The braniacs at the camera companies decided, when they implemented autofocus, that no one would ever want to focus anything by hand every again and took that opportunity to remove screens that would allow us to do it out, replacing them with "candy" screens that make everything seem delightfully in focus to the eye even when the focus is way off.  If screens don't need acuity for proper manual focus they can apparently be made brighter and.......happier.  And we know how much everyone likes a bright and happy finder....

But curmudgeon that I am I wanted to manually focus and I wanted to do it with my really super cool 7D and not always be locked into using just the 5D2 or the 1dmk2n's.  I looked into the Brightscreens and they made changing the focusing screen on my own sound ominous and scary.  But if I coughed up about $180 (with shipping) they'd stick one of their plastic gems right in and send it right back.  I like to manually focus but can you imagine how many cups of Nescafe instant coffee you can make for $180?

I found a source on Amazon that sells a screen for around $30 with shipping and they have step by step instructions on the web.  Not nearly as hard as the Brightscreen people made it out to be.

The screen came yesterday.  It just happened to come on a busy afternoon when I was way into overdosing on caffeine.  After too much coffee and a couple glasses of white wine I grabbed my magnetized screwdriver and went to work on my $1500 camera.  At the kitchen table.  I used an LED ring light for close up illumination.  Two screws and one springclip later and I had the old screen out.  A few shaky, false starts and I had the new screen in the right place and the camera pieced back together.  And you know what?  It really works.  The screen is a bit darker than the Canon screen but you can see the exact point of sharp focus with fast lenses.....just like we were able to do ten years ago, and twenty years ago, and thirty years ago.  I tested the whole shebang after swim practice this morning and it's just about as accurate as the 10X focus in Live View.

Go ahead and perform surgery on your camera, if you are using MF lenses.  You  own it.  You are allowed to take it apart.........

Sad media note:  Kiplinger Magazine named Austin the BEST city to be in for the next ten years in all of the United States.  Any time we get a declaration like this hordes of people from LA and NY rush down here like prospectors on a gold rush.  Then we have to wait in long lines in restaurants, the roads are packed with idiot drivers (and I didn't think anyone could be worse than Texans.....) and we hear whining about how the body waxes here just don't compare to LA or how shitty our bagels are from the New Yorkers.  Then the market crashes and they all leave without paying their bills.

So I'm starting a little campaign.  If you are thinking of moving to Austin let me share a few facts with you:  1.  Every years thousands of people die here from the allergies.  Hay fever that won't stop till you hemorrhage and drop.  You literally sneeze yourself to death.  That's something the Chamber of Commerce won't share with you...  2.  While we have a few weeks of mild weather in January and February you can pretty much count on it to average around one hundred and five to one hundred and ten degrees most days.  Sometimes it gets so hot people's tires melt and stick to the road, stranding them. Then the engines overheat, the air conditioning stops working and they die in their cars.  Not too many.  Five or six hundred a year.  3.  All cuisine is covered with Habanero peppers, the most virulent in the world today.  Yep, you guessed it.  If you don't build up an immunity......well.....you die.  4.  We don't have an income tax but, before you get too excited, we have the highest property taxes in the entire world.  Even Hong Kong and Monte Carlo have much cheaper property taxes.  Millionaires cry when they see the tax bill for their garden sheds. (so expensive it's all laid out a la carte......).  You may think you'll be escaping some taxes but yikes.... 5.  Did I mention that everyone in Texas is encouraged to own guns and carry them around the way other state's citizens bandy about with their cellphones?  We give them out to small children, psychopaths, insurance salesmen, the people who stand around on the street corners, talking to themselves and even to our pets.  Sometimes you can't hear Rick Perry on the television because of the casual gunbattles happening all over the city.  Just don't reach for your pocket too quickly at the PTA meetings.    And finally, we live the Tea Party conservative dream here.  We spend less per student on education than Bangladesh or Somalia.  We provide limited healthcare for seniors.  Once a year poor seniors get a voucher for their own box of band-aides and a bottle of Nitrogen Peroxide.  If you're coming from one of the those "blue" states you'll have to get used to stepping over the bodies of the dead and starving to get to work.  Hell, even to get into the grocery stores.

So, to sum up.  Moving to Austin, Texas is a bad idea.  Especially if you are a professional photographer.......just a little perspective.  

Here's the screen info:


A quick rat-atat-tat. Some clarifications for the previous screed.

 I think my writing style must have become defective somehow.  Many people are interpreting my posts to reflect a frustration or anger or bitterness on my part at the changes taking place in photography and in art endeavors in general.  It's just not so.  My year to date has been rewarding, both financially and artistically.  I am ever curious and spend so much time reading, researching and trying new things.  While I love the work we collectively did in the past there's more and more good stuff out there.  It's just a matter of finding your voice and overlaying it to the changes.

I love what the image above represents.  It means to me a level of craft and control that made printing beautiful and enduring.  And it still goes on today.  When I was covering the Formula One event here in Austin on Tues. I got a bag with swag and in it was a printed brochure done by a company called Exopolis.  It was beautifully designed and very well printed.  And though there were flash drives with fast paced videos (well done)  on them the collateral I remember is the brochure.

But while I have nostalgia for four and five and six color ink printing I'm also enjoying immensely the whole field of video.  There's so much to master and so much to re-learn.  This week was an exploration in microphones and sound recording.  I'm in love with wireless lav mics.  I'm mildly infatuated with stereo microphones on a camera or on a pole and I'm ambivalent for now about shotgun mics on poles.  I just read a book called "Naked Filmmaking"  which was self-indulgent but at the same time interesting.  And I once again learned the two most important lessons of production which seem to be:  Don't cross the "180" and, cut on actions.  I'm putting together a piece that is mostly interviews intercut with stills and I'm having fun pacing it.  I'm in no way angry or frustrated at this stuff.  I think it's pretty amazing what you can do with a good camera, some good mics and an i7 laptop.  Couldn't do this stuff solo ten years ago or even five years ago.  At least not with the promise of any quality.....

Someone asked about my sleep habits and I have to confess that I'm one of those people who get by nicely on 8 full hours of sleep.  I tend to write faster than most people and that makes a huge difference in apparent productivity.  I also have mastered some aspects of time management, the most important of which is not to let people steal your time.  That, and a mania to never procrastinate.

When I write a post like the one I did earlier today it's not my intention to make a statement that one approach or another is definitive.  I do write in a declarative voice but my intention is to provoke thought, just as the subjects of that post are unsettled and thought provoking for me.  But if you are a photographer and you are certain of the future and comfortable in your position in that future you probably wouldn't be wasting your time reading my blog.  But then again, maybe you would.....

Offline a doctor commented that I tend to be, "Painfully Introspective"   and for many people in America and Texas that could be construed to be an insult.  But I would query back:  Why write a blog if you aren't presenting new or different ideas?  Why not question your position or opposition to the mainstream?  What do you have to lose?  What do you know better than yourself?

I find the process of writing out my thoughts to be mildly therapeutic but my intention is to push people to confront their own relationships with the topical subject matter and better understand how the shifts in culture and society affect everyone.  And I don't think that's too much to ask.  Every generation has the choice of putting their heads in the sand and hoping against hope that nothing goes horribly wrong or embracing change and surfing on it's ridge.  But to do that you have to go out every day and read the waves and practice getting up on the board. Right?

So I'll keep writing these kinds of posts for the fellow professional photographers who seem to need them.  If you've convinced yourself that your business or profession will never change and that you'll be forever insulated from the robust and sudden shifts in culture and commerce then I can only say, "Wow!  You're a real dumbass."

What I'm really stubbornly railing against is a lack of "point of view," a lack of "personal vision," and a lack of visual curiosity.  The last being the most important.  To slavishly follow the prevailing imagery down to technique and subject matter isn't a learning mechanism it's just mental laziness.  Visual curiosity is about making your own journey instead of gang banging your way thru art.......

Yes.  We did have beauty dishes in the 1990's.  I swear.

What makes me happy?  Swimming fast.  Eating well.  Drinking well. Belinda and Ben.  Fun conversations with smart people. Good books.  Well made things.  Automatic watches.  Nicely done coffee.  Interesting art.

What makes me unhappy?  People who talk way too loud in restaurants.  Bad traffic.  Bad art passed off as a stylish new trend.

My suggestion for people who lack an art historical education (not taking a cheap shot)  and who want to understand modern art:  The Painted Word, by Tom Wolfe.  And for the people who want to understand the last 20 centuries of western art, Jansen's History of Art.   If we all read these we can disagree but at least we'll all be talking the same language......

Scatterama. How many directions can you go until you get pulled apart?

There are two mythologies floating around the sphere that are diametrically opposed.  In one corner we have the idea that the successful photographer is the one who sits, monk-like, in his studio carefully honing the one style and one technique that will differentiate him and help him rise, meteorically, into the rarified strata of image makers:  Those who make real money.  Those who have big assignments.  Those who are dearly loved by the masses.  These monks work with a laser vision and decline any work or assignments that don't fall into the mold they've constructed for themselves.

The other mythology surrounds the feedback we get from all those incredibly smart vocational advisors we hear from on the web.  In this scenario you must, even for a grudging modicum of success, embrace a new way of working which requires you to become everything to everybody.  Everybody suddenly is made to feel that they must master not only all the various subroutines of photography (past and present) but also conquer html5 (and 6 and 7), create websites from scratch (and why the websites have to look like the front page of an old Enquirer from the supermarket newsstands I have no idea....) master all blog and social media formats, have programming for iPhones, create videos for the web and whatever other use there is for video and, while doing all of this, re-invent themselves as masters of content for the iPad and all the nasty, snaggle-toothed cousins that Apple's competitors are working over time to spawn.  And did I mention the requirement that you must lead weekly, or at least monthy, workshops to teach dentists and programmers all the things you've learned over the course of your careers?....

Well.  I've tried it both ways and neither of them work.  As I looked around the smoking and wrecked battlefield of photo commerce as it exists in 2011 I can see a lot of guys who refused to go beyond the style they've done for the last 30 years and they are just dead.  We'll be burning the bodies soon.  They didn't shift and overlay their clear and unique voices onto new platforms and styles.  They didn't even try to keep up with change.  I tried to poo-poo the gyrating and trendy status quo by not embracing new visual cues.  I had the hubris to think that, like the Beatles and the Rolling Stones in music,  my generation invented, distilled, made the best images in the best way and every thing that came after is crap.  And I got my lack of lunch handed to me on an empty plate.  Good for retrospectives.  Not so good for continuing commerce.

Now if a client "needs" some additional saturation, some grain and destruction, some charming faux HDR or glancing (irrational) accent lights, we'll serve it up hot.  Because, regardless of how much we want to further the idea that everything we touch is art at the end of the day what we do for a living is to swim in a fast flowing river.  If we try to stay firmly rooted in one spot the river flows on without us.  And if we don't keep up with the party barge how will we get invited on board for drinks?  It's possible to keep a voice and change a style.   I like to think that what my work is all about is my interaction with my subjects.  I'm pretty sure that as long as the connection remains intact I can wrap the core in any style I like and still be successful.

In my little world, in the best case aspirational mode, I'd spend all day long photographing intriguing people against a lovely gray background with a medium format camera loaded with tasty Tri-X and endowed with a virile and vital 180mm lens.  But nobody seems to be breaking down my door demanding that these days.  I do get lots and lots of requests to go on to locations to make heroic skies and dramatic portraits of people engaged in real, physical work.  I do those jobs and get paid.  And then we don't have to raid the college fund just to buy cheap Riesling.  But hell, after the last few years I'll pretty much bend my personal aesthetic standards with great flexibility.

To wit, this last seven days has been an Oster blender of a week.  I'm working on: two artsy video projects (sorry Michael O'Brien, I'm delayed but working diligently...),  I've interviewed doctors,  I shot a new Thunderbolt product for a start up company, I shot cool portraits of six executives for an intriguing company called SocialWare (and I got to do them in a style I invented and love),  I shot a day long event for the Formula One people who are bringing exotic European car racing to Austin, and I met with people who want me to do a workshop in May.  Oh......I also wrote some blogs and am writing book #6.  And I'm so busy trying to figure out what I'm supposed to be doing right now that it's driving me nuts.  If I have to add SQL and another layer of social marketing to all this then I'm going to quit and get some sort of job as a janitor or bank regulator.  Something easy and stress free.

So, what's my point?  Well, as the brilliant designer, Belinda Yarritu, would say: "Moderation in all things."  I guess I need to find the things I like to do best and prioritize them.  And I'd guess that's something every photographer working today needs to do.

But you know what?  As much fun as it is to shoot black and white in the studio there is a certain satisfaction in making it all work on a location.....

Warning.  I've edited this over the course of the day.  Andy thought it sounded a bit negative and angry when we talked about it at lunch.  Will thought I sounded defeated.  I've made a few changes because I want to honestly reflect that I'm having a great time but that everything changes and no one has a map.  It's all back to trial and error.  But if we're having fun and making money it's okay.  I'm just thinking out loud about the process of re-invention.  I want to make sure I don't throw the good stuff out with the bad or spend too much time doing trendy stuff that doesn't stick........