It was cold today. There's a winter storm warning. We're going to get freezing rain. I dressed wrong for the walk today...
Quiet photography. Steering clear of negative emotions.
Deep focus. Black and white.
Studio reset. Moving backwards in time. Re-embracing bigger flash again...
I've spent the last few years photographing portraits predominately with LED lighting. It's a nice way to work because you can see exactly what you are getting as you progress through a shoot. Lately I've been going through older portraits that I really like and noting how they were shot (helps as a commercial photographer to keep little notebooks with quick sketches and descriptions of your lighting set-ups).
It seems that most of my favorites were actually done with electronic flash. That was a revelation to me. But everything is a trade off, right?
What I found I was missing is exactly what flash used to provide; the ability to know that you've frozen subject and camera movement and the ability to use both smaller apertures and lower ISOs. It's a different look. Sharper in the details because of getting closer to the sweet spot of a lens, and a different tonality caused by the lower ISOs and a different noise profile in the images.
In the run-up to my big Abbott (medical products+poeple) shoot in the Fall I was torn between using LEDs (which had become second nature to me...) and falling back to using flash.
I'd sold most of my bigger flashes in favor of a small and lightweight flash system I could more easily travel with. That travel kit includes three of the Godox AD200 Pro lights and a bunch of their different heads and modifiers. It's a great system for on the road. But I felt like I needed more power to punch into a big 47 inch octabox with added diffusion on the front of it. For a big, soft and inefficient box I wanted something twice as powerful in one light. I also wanted a real modeling light instead of the small LED that the AD200s use. It's one of the trade-offs of the AD200s battery power supply; the need to conserve power.
I had one bigger electronic flash fixture in the studio. It's the Godox DP400mk3. That fixture puts out 400 watt seconds of flash, has a 150 watt tungsten modeling light and is solidly built with a metal body and an in-built cooling fan. They are pretty inexpensive. You can buy them new from B&H for about $200. The light has a full complement of controls and a full power recycle time of one second.
Since I was on the fence in my pre-production and was nearing a coin toss to decide between flash and continuous lighting I thought it prudent to buy a second DP400iii since my imagined lighting design pretty much demanded two big flashes to the front of the set and then lower powered direct flashes to illuminate the white background. I ordered the second light from B&H but ended up taking the other path and using Nanlite LED fixtures for the project. The shoot was very successful but I'm reasonable certain we would have been able to pull it off just fine whichever lighting method we went with.
So, now I have this body of work that I've re-discovered that I really like and want to extend. The portraits I shot in the film days and pre-continuous light days of digital. It seems based on the use of a single, big main light of electronic flash, with a big modifier, augmented by a second light to bring up the backgrounds. And now I just happen to have several almost unused flash instruments to play with.
I've spent part of this weekend back in the studio setting up the flashes and experimenting with the light in order to get back to a style I did almost non-stop back in the 1990s. I didn't realized it at the time but each type of lighting is a style in itself even if you use exactly the same modifiers, in the same placements, to shoot with. I say I didn't realize it but really I was just letting my impulsive desire for constant change over ride my logical sensibilities. That, and trying to find one type of light that would work equally well with photography and video...
None of this is "all or nothing." I'm not suddenly going to try something like a new approach to street photograph by adding flash to the mix (not yet, at any rate). But I am gearing up to go backwards in the studio and reconnect with all the things I liked about shooting in the studio with flash.
Now that the numbers for Covid have dropped into the low category in Austin, and there is a general decline in community transmission in the county, I am more comfortable inviting people back into the studio. Here we go again.
Addendum: Many of the images I've looked through come from the days when I shot with four different cameras that all had one thing in common. I worked, serially, with the Bronica SQ-Ai, the various Hasselblads, the Mamiya 6 cameras and the Rollei 6008i systems. The one feature all of them had in common was the square, 1:1, 6x6cm aspect ratio and image size. And it's a geometric format I love to photograph with for portraits.
To that end I'm currently working with the Leica SL2 and shooting it in the square format. If the portrait project stays with me and I with it I'll almost certainly start looking at which 100 megapixel medium format system might work well for this kind of work. Cropped to squares, of course. The cost of a Fuji GFX100S body is less than that of the SL2 so it's not a tremendous reach. And the lenses are even more of a bargain. I'd like to print large but I'll see what I can get out of the SL2 while banging away with flash and ISO 100. Might be all I need....
Hope your Sunday is going well.
Late afternoon documentation of an iron works facility that's just west of downtown proper. Still working. Can't believe it will be there in five years....or less.
If catch and release works for sports fishermen then why not street photographers?
When I walked with my friends this week, ostensibly to take photographs, I found myself looking forward not so much to finished images but to the different parts and pieces of the walks themselves. The job of selecting the right camera and lens for an adventure can be lots of fun. Having someone else set the formalist boundaries of the walk is a great change from a route becoming a hobby. Getting out on a cool but sunny day and tasting the fresh air feels right. Conversations that run far afield from photography can be eye opening, entertaining or just plain fun. Chancing upon a new place for lunch is always an interesting and, if the food is great, it's a discovery for future good meals.
On the two days I was out walking with a photographer friend this week I was less enamored with the actual process of taking photographs than I was discussing life. Now that's not to say that we didn't discuss social issues, favorite photographers and a bit about color science, it's just that those topics weren't constant, front and center, or even very important. We did talk a lot about travel and food and other friends. Catching up, expanding horizons.
All of which got me thinking about the practice of random street photography and how it fits into my existence. Or my life style.
So much of what I photograph when I am out walking, with or without company, is more like note taking. Or at an even more basic level it's me saying to myself, "Hey, Kirk, did you see that? That would make an interesting image. Let's see how you'd frame it. Let's see how you would approach that person. Let's see what it looks like once you've tossed some adjustments on it in post. Let's share this with people who might enjoy it." It's not even that I think the photographs have "long legs" or need to be archived. I've come to realize that the vast majority of the images I take are analogous to Garry Winogrand's repository of thousands and thousands of undeveloped rolls of film. Filled with shots he wanted to capture but shots that he had less interest in using again past the process of actually just looking and shooting. The feel of the camera in his hand. His mastery of instant composition, etc.
Were each of those frames vital and precious to Winogrand he would have had ample resources with which to have them developed and contact printed while he was still alive. Heck, when he was a guest instructor at UT Austin he could have tapped any number of grad students in the College of Fine Arts Photography courses to work on processing his work. They would have appreciated the chance to do so. But he didn't. And he didn't because the act of shooting continuously was more important to him than cataloging every shot frame and preserving them all for some future posterity that most of us mortals never see.
To me Winogrand lived in the process of "catch and release." He was nurtured by the flow of his work. The actual, physical work. Everything else was moved along by the need to finance and underwrite his experiential photo existence. I always had the impression, when talking with Winogrand at UT (or at one of our favorite haunts, a local hi-fi store) that he derived the most pleasure from being outdoors engaging in the pursuit of beautiful co-eds to capture on film with a deft click of his Leica. The rest of the business of being an artist seemed much, much less appealing to him.
After all, he left behind 6,000+ rolls of undeveloped film. If he was concerned the way most amateurs exhibit "concern" about their "work" he would have been rushing back to the dark room at the end of each shooting day to "see what he got." To start the process towards making prints to share. Instead...he pressed on with what he enjoyed: the search, the moment, the capture of the image. The latent image. The mastery of divining when to shoot and what to include. For him that was the resolution. Not the print or the book or the show. Those things were done, I think, to primarily keep his career as an artist on track and financially supportive. It's almost as if his actual practice was more like conceptual art with the operation of the camera and the constant loading of film being the actual art itself. Performance art.
In the past four or five years I've filled up a number of multi-Terabyte hard drives with raw files and Jpegs of the images I shoot nearly every day out in the streets. I find I photograph differently than my friends who are in my local orbit. When we shoot together I'm happy to use up many frames to get something just right. Each frame building on the last one. My friends are careful, almost parsimonious about shooting. They'll maneuver and jockey about, searching through the camera for just the right angle and just the right juxtapositions before they engage the shutter. And they generally walk away with one or two shots of a scene instead of my ten or twenty.
My time as a photography student and then instructor gave me a window into the many different approaches to making photographs existing out in the wild. Local influencers like Russell Lee and Reagan Bradshaw worked with view cameras and were, by nature, frugal with film. After all, each frame was much more difficult to work with than the smaller film cameras of the day. On the other hand, Tomas Pantin, for whom I was a teaching assistant early on, was a commercial photographer who often worked with Kodachrome slide film in a bunch of Nikon SLRs and was famous (infamous?) for banging through 50 or so rolls of film to bracket exposures for a single scene or set up. And then there was Winogrand who felt constrained if he came back from an afternoon walk down the drag with fewer than five or so exposed rolls of film.
I fall into the Garry Winogrand, Tomas Pantin camps. I shoot like I have an endless roll of film in my digital cameras. It's my belief that my brain builds up a scene a frame at a time, constantly making small or large adjustments to my shots of a subject until the frame "feels" right. On a typical afternoon walk by myself, which might span two hours, I can, on a good, high energy day, come back home with 200 or 300 good exposures. If there are a lot of people out and about, like in the pre-Covid days, I could come home with double that numbers.
A very, very small percentage of them turn out to be interesting to me but of course I don't edit or delete stuff in the field. You have to scan through and make sure of what you got. But lately I've come to the conclusion that it's the chase or the enjoyment of the process that's foremost in my priority list. The final image is a souvenir, not a product. It's a culmination of looking at a thing that drew my attention but that's all there is to it. The actualization of my thought pattern that existed while photographing. An image need not have any more value than that.
In getting over my acceptance of the film era idea that all the images are sacred and worthy of hard core archiving I've begun to feel free to edit, delete, trash, unburden the hard drives, and otherwise toss all the images I know I'll never need or want to see again. If they were at all good (and that would be only my subjective appraisal) then you've probably already seen the images on my blog, or on my Instagram feed, or my website.
I've been editing ruthlessly when I get home from a personal photography adventure. Out of 250 shots taken sometimes none of them are worth keeping. On lucky days maybe five or ten make me happy and get saved into a folder. Everything else goes away permanently.
The last time I checked I had nearly 500,000 images uploaded to Smugmug. I've put over 14,000 images up on the blog since its inception. I have 491,568 images in my Lightroom Catalog. And more on local hard drives. Some is client work but the vast majority are the residue, the fallout, the bounty from walks, trips, explorations and adventures taken just for my own artistic pleasure. I've seen most of the images once or twice and the vast majority I never need to see again.
Lately, when I get back from a walk I'll take a quick look through all of the images and I may just sigh and re-format the SD card instead of bothering to upload the shots or even search through for well disquised "winners". If they are so well hidden that I don't see them on the first pass they are probably not good enough to sustain anyone's interest going forward. The ones that stick stick because they stand out; or stand above.
So now I've started to think of my experiences out walking around as walks augmented by a camera instead of adventures driven by the hunt for photographs. It's a calmer way of approaching this particular process. And now I have little to no compunction about deleting a whole afternoon's take solid in the knowledge (and decades of experience) that there's little of value to anyone nested in that day's collection of "captures."
How does this help? Well, not having a backlog of material I feel compelled to "own" and care for and keep safe frees me to continue shooting tomorrow and next week and next month, etc. Not having an obligation to hunt for gold keeps me out of a lot of cold streams. But in the long run it prevents my feelings of guilt and loss for not having the bandwidth to engage meaningfully with this ever growing mountain of content. The vast majority of which were just adjuncts to the pleasant reality of being alive and free to do whatever I want with my time. Having to act on the ownership of an ever growing archive is a form of self imprisonment. A way of chaining oneself to a desk to forever catalog and massage the work that's already in the rear view mirror.
Statistically, based on parents, genetics, lifestyle, etc. the actuaries predict I could make it to my late 90s. That only leaves me, at best, about 30 years. If I'm realistic I'll probably only be independent and mobile for twenty of those years. That's not a lot of time. Will I spend it chained to my desk captioning, cataloging and continually archiving what I've already taken, already used and already shared right up until the day I die or will I chuck responsibility for as much of it as I can to continue on with the very pleasurable process of walking around, seeing new things (and old things change) and making photographs which please me in the moment? Oh. Believe me. The actually photographing will win every time.
There are billions of us on the earth right now with cameras. It's not like the 1930s when the process itself took amazing skill and dedication. And only a handful of people did it well... Now photographing is almost automatic. The images we make might please a half generation beyond us but the reality of what photography is now has changed. We no longer make rare, precious objects. We are more like poets. They recite their poems to an audience and move on. Once the sound clears the performance is over. Once the images have been seen and enjoyed (or hated) that event is over as well. We move on. We make new work. We follow the momentum of our own universe.
Nice photo? Sure. Caption it and save it for all eternity? Nope. Most of them now are "catch and release."
Collectors? They'll all be dead some time in the near future as well. The work. The work will survive or die on its merit. But I'm the one who gets to judge if any of, or which of, my work has any merit beyond my own enjoyment.