12.03.2010

Lunch was happy, happy.

I'm shooting an event for a company this evening, downtown.  I probably won't have time for dinner.  So Belinda and I headed over to El Arroyo to have lunch.  I had the Sante Fe enchiladas and she had the "lite" plate.   The photo above has nothing at all to do with today's lunch other than it was lunch once.

I've done a fair amount of food photography over the years.  I've got two cookbook credits and I've done several dozen magazine spreads and probably a similar number of projects for the hospitality industry.  The photograph above was done at Uchi, here in Austin, for a lifestyle magazine.  I loved all the food that the owner/chef prepared for me.  What I like most of all was the clean and simple presentation.  I try to make the food look like it was lit by beautiful, clean daylight but in truth I lit it with a big white diffuser very close in to the left side (as you look at the food) and a white reflector four or five feet over to the right.  I used the reflector a bit further away than I might typically because wanted the little heart shaped shadow of the herb leaf to show well on the bottom right side of the frame.  I used a Kodak SLR/n and a 100mm macro lens.  I still use the camera from time to time and every time I do I wonder why I ever bought anything else.  And then I remember that it's not the most ergonomic or fast solution for anything other than slow studio work or studio-type work on location.  But what a magnificent file you can get out of it.  Just amazing.  The colors, tones and contrast is just wonderful.

It's a pity photographers didn't appreciate the Kodak products more for what they really do well instead of  insisting that every camera be the uber-camera.   You know, the super box that can shoot in inky blackness AND lock focus on five soccer players running in five different directions, simultaneously.  The camera of today:  The Swiss Army Camera.  "We can do it all."  Just not nearly as well as a precision crafted tool created just for a particular job.  I pity Kodak.  They made an incredibly good product (for portraits and food)  and then tried to sell it to the wrong market (weddings).  And, in some ways, we do that as photographers.  Hard to be good at everything.  That's why there's a lot of stuff I don't shoot.

But I like to shoot food.  And I like to eat it.  And if I can have lunch with a different fun and interesting person every day of the week I count myself happy.  As in "lunch was happy, happy."

(side note:  Many of you may be too young to remember this but Kodak basically invented digital photography in the 1980's and 1990's.  The earliest Canon and Nikon professional cameras were hybrids with mechanics by C&N and electronics and sensors by Kodak.  They owned the market until 2001 when Nikon came out with their own D1x and Canon came out with their D30.  Even then Kodak's "beast" the DCS 760 was (in my opinion) the camera to have.  It out muscled the other two in resolution and had a bigger sensor (1.3 crop factor).  It's real strength, and one rarely mentioned by reviewers or dilletantes was.......drum roll, please........Dynamic Range.  Used in raw, the files could do absolutely amazing stuff and the market is just now, nine years later, beginning to catch up.  I had reason to go thru older files today and look.  I'm still amazed at the quality of the files and the depth of the range from shadow to tweaked highlight.  The camera also had an stout buffer.  Twenty or so full raw files at one frame pers second was about three times the throughput of the other cameras of the day.  At one time I liked the look so much I had three of the cameras.  Now I keep one around for nostalgia.  At 6 MP they aren't resolution competitive with current cameras.  But for jobs that aren't going to leave the web?  Magic.)

Here are two samples from the DCS 760:

 This was shot on a sunny day for a sports medicine practice.  They have a 24 by 36 inch poster on one of their walls that is breathtaking.  All it took was a good interpolation tool at the right lab to bring out the quality inherent in the file.
This was shot for the 2006 Annual Report for the Kipp School.  It was blown up to a similar size for a fundraising event by the same lab.  People assumed it was from a Hasselblad negative........

And finally,  another example from the Kodak SLR/n.  I think the skin tones and shadows are amazingly good.

Amazingly good cameras.  Can't say I like the files from my Canon 5d2 any better.......





the holidays are upon us.  I humbly submit that a good book about photography will be most welcome by the photographers on your list.  Here are a few suggestions:

   















   















   















   

12.02.2010

Afternoon Dessert.

Whenever I write two or three columns in a short amount of time that are critical of mass culture, or take pokes at the irrational foibles of our own industry (photography) I get an inevitable spate of caustic comments letting me know that I am a washed up "hack" and a "bitter old man" and those comments are generally followed by the assertion that I am so out of touch that I just don't understand the nuances of progress.  And there's the consistent perception that, since I complain about the systems I must be mired in financial decline and lashing out.....I thought about these things as I delivered another photography project to a large, international technology company this morning.  Of course the client had to wait until after swim practice.

I'm doing just fine, thank you.  But my tone must be quite bleak because, today at lunch one of my close friends (and a daily reader of the VSL blog) remarked that my last several blogs had him worried about my state of mind.  Over a double cheeseburger at P.Terry's I assured him that I was feeling chipper.  I guess the bane of experience is having seen how good something can be and then watching its decline.

We talked about my article lambasting cellphone use.  He argued that I must get used to it because society was changing.  I argued that in Texas we've been able to carry concealed weapons for a while now but we haven't made it "culturally okay" to shoot them off in restaurants and movie theaters in moments of unalloyed joy.  He just shook his head.

So, on a lighter note:  Dessert.  There are few things as yummy and fluffy as a lemon cake with white icing and little sweet crystals of lemon festooned all over.  I did a decidedly happy project several years ago for Tribeza Magazine.  I wrote ad article about three different kinds of bakeries here in Austin and what kinds of goodies they make.  I also took the photos for the article.  My first stop was at Sweetish Hill Bakery.  I'd like to talk about the complexities of lighting in this shot but........it was the existing light in the bakery and I just maneuvered around until I got the warm reflection in the metal backsplash, opened up 2/3rd's of a stop and shot a series on aperture priority automatic with a Nikon D200 and the 18-200mm VR lens.  Yes, yes.  I know that the camera is hopelessly obsolete and the lens has all the sharpness of a Coke bottle bottom but just three years ago I hadn't read all  that vital information so my photos were able to turn out well enough. (insert smiley face).

I was so smitten with the cake that I bought it after I shot it and Ben and I feasted on most of it, growling at Belinda so she would keep her distance.......(insert smily face emoticon).  It tasted as good as it took.
On another day, but for the same assignment, I went to the historic Driskill Hotel and gained access to their pastry and dessert kitchen.  The hotel has a nice cafe where one can go at all hours until late at night and have drinks, dessert, coffee.....whatever your pleasure.  I've always been happy with their chocolate cake, especially when they go all "Pixar" with the alien tentacles of chocolate waving around in the air.

The nice thing about jobs like this, either for the writer or the photographer, is that you are doing the businesses a big favor.  You've chosen them as one of your favorites so they know that, at worst, they'll get their name and address in the article, and in the best case scenario they'll have some of their flagship products showcased in large photographs, and the writer will describe a very positive experience that will leave the reader with at least a heightened curiosity about the offerings on the menu.  Everyone wants to discover something new.

Sometimes writing is harder than taking the photos.  In both of these examples the available light was ample and appropriate.  In fact, you can see the reflections of the ceiling mounted florsecents in the white dishes in the photograph just above.  But the writing has to spring, fully formed, from out of nowhere.  And you could handle it in a thousand ways.  I prefer to get my inspiration from the source so I made notes while I savored every bite of the chocolate cake, interspersed with ice cream.....

I used a small, lined Moleskine notebook and a Mont Blanc fountain pen ( a very discreet one ) to write the text.  And, of course, I have my own technical flourish for the writing......I choose to write my notes with my left hand.  Not so wild when you find that I am, in fact, left-handed...... (to my more "opaque" readers:  the previous three sentences were meant to be ironic. Or sarcastic.  Or both...)


The last segment of the article was about the Mexican Bakery on South First St. They are 100% traditional, right down to the ingredients.  I'm not sure the editors really wanted to do this bakery, but I did and I was writing and shooting the article.  So I shot here too.  It was the most fun.  I love this place because the customers have character and the food is a riot of color.  It also tastes great.

Same very involved lighting and technical information as the two photographs above.  The same Coke bottle lens and primitive body.  The same lack of all lighting gear.

I'm having a stunning afternoon.  Thank you for asking.  Potential clients have called inquiring about video projects (thank you!) and photography projects and the calendar is full of fun, contracted projects for the next two weeks. I have two book contracts.  Everyone here is in good health and my swimming continues to improve as I take Steve's advice and work on technique instead of brute power.  The dog is sleeping peacefully at my feet.

I'm taking a break in a little while to find just the right dessert for Merienda.  I'm thinking a big Mexican cookie and coffee.  Maybe you'll get up and have an afternoon snack too.  Couldn't hurt.

12.01.2010

A portrait from the studio.


This is Ameerah Tatum.
I met her at Zachary Scott Theatre
Where she performed the lead in a musical play called:
Once Upon This Island.
She came to the studio to be photographed.
She brought her leather jacket.
The Tri-X whirred thru the camera.  

I made prints.
Some for Ameerah and some for me.

I can't remember what we talked about but the shoot 
took an hour.

When I see this photograph her performance on stage
comes rushing back in my mind.


Everybody wants a critique. No one wants to hear your opinion.


In the end it's easier just to go shopping.

Everyone seems to want a critique.  Whenever I meet for lunch with an aspiring photographer they have their black portfolio case in hand and the ask me to look it over and give them my opinion.  I'm sure they don't understand that my opinion hardly matters in the context of current commerce or in the world of art. I've learned to flip thru the book.  But not too quickly.   And then I smile and say, "Thank you for showing me your work."  Very few people want a bonafide critique because they are too emotionally attached to the connection with their own work.

When I taught at UT part of my job was critiquing students' photographs.  We'd pin up prints to the cork board wall, have the person explain what their assignment was and then go around the room and discuss the prints.  Student work is interesting.  A lot of kids re-invented wheels and shot in popular styles.  That's to be expected.  They were young and hadn't seen a lot of stuff yet and they were still in the process of discovering art history and the incredible work that's been done.  While we tried to focus on content we'd point out when bad technique got in the way of good seeing.  We'd also point out when the seeing was absent and there was nothing more than technique.  But mostly we tried to get each other to see, on an emotional and universal level, what worked and what didn't.  (ex: "You say this photo is about sorrow but all I see are lace curtains and bright sunshine....").

In college I think the most important lesson that aspiring artists can learn is that technique is secondary to having an interesting point of view.  We could readily teach technique.  Over the few years I was there we taught dozens and dozens of people every year how to use an 8x10 inch view camera, how to master film development and how to do studio lighting in concert with these Brontosaur-like cameras.  But I believe that you can't teach  an artist what to be creative about.  Or, how to have a point of view.  

It's like style.  You can buy style at any department store.  But can you make your own style visible in your own work?  It's hard because style is both a "way of seeing" and a "what of seeing."  And it's an intertwined combination of Pick-up Sticks.  Removing one supporting stick causes the others to tumble.  Style and point of view don't stand well on their own.

One of the reasons I think smart people go to workshops is that they have the idea that they will "fast track" the boring and rote learning and get onto the sweet meat of creation.  It's the way I delude myself when I want to buy a new lens.  Or a new camera.  I construct a rational that insists that some technical issue is all that stands between me and artistic success.  I know that's not true.  But it is also untrue that there is any fast track toward developing a POV or a style based on technical instruction.

By the same token, if I critique someone and tell them that a photograph should be cropped  this way or that way for success I am giving them a roadmap to make their vision more like my vision and less like their vision.  Like politics, we all have opinions about what constitutes good art.  But in the end it's just as immeasurable as political right or wrong.  Many of Garry Winogrand's photos had tilted horizons.  Should mine have tilted horizons?  Do I want to be another Garry Winogrand?  Here's a hard truth:  There is no roadmap to art.  None.   There are no mentors or dojo masters.  There is only your vision and your clarity about your vision.  And the idea that, until you die, it's always a work in progress.

In the critiques we often talked about production values.  That means mastering your technique.  Many times it just means taking the time to make a believable prop or find a better location or shoot a better negative or file.  We can talk about those things objectively.   But the idea is always subjective.

Show Robert Mapplethorpe's homoerotic work to an audience at the Crystal Palace and you'll have a riot on your hands.  Show the blue ribbon, award-winning work of a PPofA wedding photographer to the SOHO art crowd and you'll have a "sneer" riot on your hands.  But no matter how hard you work to credential yourself in the art world your opinion counts as just one more educated vote.  

It's fine to do photography as an exercise.  My dad plays the piano for enjoyment.  Has for all of his life. But he never makes the mistake that by playing Chopin he is, himself, becoming a composer.  That only happens when you write your own music....

(photos from The Spanish Steps.)



the holidays are upon us.  I humbly submit that a good book about photography will be most welcome by the photographers on your list.  Here are a few suggestions:

   















   















   















   




11.30.2010

A post from mid-summer that goes well with my recent sunday "end of the world" post.....


Search back to july 2 if you want the original comments...


FRIDAY, JULY 2, 2010

Is technology destroying art? Does anyone care?


This is the naked die of a micro something or other.  We shot it last month for the semiconductor company that makes it. Its brethren will go into some sort of consumer product that will make some person's life more efficient.  And the promise of that increased efficiency should have meant more free time for that person to do things for themselves.  Play with their kids,  wash the car, see a movie,  or do art.

But it isn't working out that way.  Society is using the increased efficiency to get more out of the next person.  More lines of type per hour.  More lines of code per day.  More products more quickly to the marketplace.  Cameras that autofocus faster and have aquarium modes. More profits to the shareholders. More stuff.

Cellphones seemed like such a good idea.  They would free us from the umbilical cord that tethered us to the desk or to the house.  But it didn't really work out that way.  Faceless corporations found that they could get more "free" work out of their workers by using a virtual umbilical cord that keeps workers connected to their offices nearly continuously.  And injects a sensibility that there's duty to make the job one's life.

And please, make no mistake, when I say workers I don't mean it in the old communist way:  as a description of the uniformed factory people who made things with their hands or dug for coal.  When I say workers now I also mean the lawyers and executives and nearly anyone who has a job working for anyone other than themselves.

I've watched the progressive strangling of people's time by new technology.  Executive dads sitting in the bleachers frantically jabbing at Blackberries with their thumbs trying to get in front of a new "issue" while little Johnny makes a soccer goal that dad doesn't catch.  I watched three investors glued to their iPhone screens in the middle of a play and wondered why they'd taken the time to come to the theater.  You could quiz them and they wouldn't know whether they sat thru "Oklahoma" or "Romeo and Juliet".

Everyday I watch couples at restaurants staring into their screens instead of each other's eyes.  They seem afraid that they'll miss something.  That the world will introduce the next miracle and they want to be in on the genesis and get the announcement.  So much so that they miss all the important stuff.

So, efficiency was supposed to give us time to exercise and relax and invent and enjoy and do our own art.  But what it's really done is increase the work week of the fully employed, robbed them of their own un-contracted leisure time, convinced people that a salaried position means 24/7 contact (and mindshare) and left them ragged and unable to concentrate on the present and the  here and now.  It robs them of living life as it's happening.

And the ability to process great volumes of information hasn't done much for us either, as far as I can tell.   May be it's good for predicting sales or elections.  Data mining can't stop hurricanes or earthquakes but endless data availability progressively robs us of our privacy and financial security.

But none of that really bothers me.  I understand better than you might think that the nature of western man is constant innovation---for good or bad.  No, what bothers me is that we've used all these tools to turn our lives into something that's measured based on productivity.   Volume.  Throughput.

I heard a great actor speak two days ago.  He defined art.  It's not about which lens renders hairs on the kitty photo the sharpest or who's got the best toys.  And it's certainly not measurable.  He defined art in this way:  Art teaches us what it  is to be human.

But this is a problem because art is notorious for being unmeasurable.  And in a society that values ranking and measuring above all else it gives one the feeling that art, which teaches us what it is to be human, is being replaced more and more by craft just for the sake of craft.  And the craft is powered more and more by precision, performance and production and less and less by ideas and translations of human experience.

It starts in school.  We, as a society, need to give as much weight to the study of art and art history, music and drama as we do the math and science courses.  We need to make sure our kids are as content literate as they are process literate.  I can assure you that, as technology becomes more and more pervasive the real value; the "gold",  will be content.

Multitasking?  I've got a bridge in Brooklyn you might be interested in.....

My photo session with a very famous attorney.


Charles Alan Wright.  Here's his profile on Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_Alan_Wright

The short version.  One of the foremost authorities on constitutional law, ever.  Attorney for president Richard M. Nixon during the Watergate hearings.  And so much more.  An amazing figure in an amazingly profession.

I was hired by Private Clubs Magazine ( an American Express publication for Platinum Card Members) to photograph Mr. Wright.  This was back in the days (mid-1990's) when you could actually get a legend on the phone and set up the logistics directly.  Because of his very busy schedule he requested that we shoot at his office in the University of Texas Law School.  Fine with me.  I liked working on location.

I've always been a contrarian and this day was no different.  While I contemplated packing for the short trip from my studio in downtown Austin to the UT campus I looked over a drawer full of Hasselblad cameras and half a dozen Zeiss lenses.  I also contemplated taking my Profoto power packs or a set of monolights.  In the end I gave in to my "on again/off again" infatuation with my old, twin lens Rolleiflex cameras.  One to use and one to sit in the case as backup.  Not the most intuitive choice for a premium assignment with a premium magazine.  Just to do some "reverse" gilding of the lillies I passed on the studio lighting and grabbed an old Metz "potato masher" flash, a Vivitar 285 flash, a shoot thru umbrella and a couple of small light stands.  Reminder:  This was a decade before the word "Strobist" showed up in our collective vocabulary.....

Everything fit in two bags.

I showed up and we chatted for a few minutes.  We decided to use his office as our studio.  He walked down the hall for a few minutes to make a few phone calls and when he came back I had my lights set up, the optical slave tested and everything carefully metered.  No polaroid and no instant preview.

The first thing he remarked about when he returned was the Rollei cameras.  He knew all about em.  Had friends who'd shot with the for decades.  Then he asked me where to sit and what to do.  I had just done a job for another magazine about a friend of Mr. Wright and we talked about the famous banker for a few minutes.  When I saw expressions I liked I asked him to "hold" and I clicked the shutter.

I loaded a new roll after every 12 frames and, in the intervening time, we talked about law and presidential power.  He was a republican and I a democrat but that was a time when people could hold different opinions and still have the benefit of mutual respect.  I shot three rolls of twelve exposure film and then our time was up.  The magazine picked and ran the close up.  I like the medium distance shot.

At the time it was just another assignment but over time I've come to understand the stature of Charles Alan Wright and I marvel that he was so patient and accessible.

Why did I choose to use "lesser" gear to do the shot?  I knew I wouldn't have time to spend on fancy lighting set-ups and I knew that in the small law offices I wouldn't have the option to go long and compress and still get a feel for the office.  I'd just read a book by Fritz Henle, published in the 1960's and marveled that he was able to do an incredibly wide range of images, all with the Rollei twin lens cameras.

Back in the pre-paradigm days we did things a bit differently than what gets done now.  I shot with ISO 100 transparency film which was pretty unforgiving where exposure was concerned.  We always metered carefully.  We didn't have RAW to save our butts.  Going "sans" Polaroid was a bit of hubris but I was on a roll.  Now we'd cover it with 200 frames in raw.  Back then we had more confidence.

One person asked me why I had him sit for the photos.  I remembered that he was about six foot three inches tall and, with the waist level finder on the Rollei I would have had to be on a ladder to pull off the right camera/subject elevation.  At five feet eight inches tall I've stood on enough boxes, thank you.

Sometimes we take a photograph because we just love the subject so much.

Ben was so young when I took this.  It was so long ago.  We'd moved into the house the year before and I'd just bought the white chair and the ottoman Ben was sitting on.  To Ben's left is a set of French doors and soft, late afternoon open shade flowed through the big windows.  Ben was sitting and listening to his mother read something like "Winnie the Pooh" or something by Dr. Seuss.  I walked in and saw the light floating across Ben.  I had a Contax G2 with the 45mm lens over my shoulder.  I'm pretty sure I had a roll of Tri-X inside (what else could it have been?)

I smiled and slowed down as I came thru the door.  I got down on my knees to get to Ben's level and pulled the camera up to my face.  I know the meter would read "hot" because the back wall was out of the light stream.  The wall was a gold color.  I instinctively dialed in a minus 1.3 stops but that sounds a bit disingenuous as I write it.  The reality is that the "dialing in" was in my brain.  The camera was set in manual so the "dialing" was more an increase in shutter speed over the meter indication.  I shot three or four frames and, at first, Ben was intrigued by the whole process.  Then he started moving and, with the light levels being what they were, I could no longer freeze action.

The orignal frame has more on each side.  There's an unmade bed to the left of the frame but the white of the sheets was too much of a lure for my eyes so I chopped it off.  That left the right side unbalanced and showed too much of the white chair so I chopped that off too.  Sadly,  this print was made long after I gave up my black and white darkroom so I scanned it with a Nikon LS 4000 scanner and had it output on a Fujix printer.  Had I still had ready access to a darkroom I would have printed it on a multigrade paper and tweaked the contrast in little areas while softening the edges.  The grain would also have been more demure.

I can't really articulate why I think this is a wonderful photograph beyond the biographical reality that it is my own kid.  Since he keeps getting better and better the old print somehow gets better and better to me as well.  I should have the print mounted and framed and hanging somewhere nice.  In reality it is tacked up just over the top of my monitor.....right next to my favorite photograph of his mother, my wife.

The prints are a reality check.  What's important in life?  Has technology made a difference in the quality of my work? (no.)  Do I now understand a bit better why people want family portraits and photographs of THEIR kids? (absolutely.)  Can I do as well with current cameras? (not to date.)  The prints sit where they sit so I can compare current work against known quantities.  While I might have honed my technical chops over time I understand that emotional chops are not time-linear.  Everything gets created in context.

It's important to surround yourself with a work you've done that you really like.  It inspires you to try and try again.

Predicting the past is easy. The future, less so.

I had an interesting lunch with a friend today at Maudie's Mexican Food Restaurant on Lake Shore Blvd. today.  It was an interesting lunch because my  friend, whom I'll call Bob, works at a mid sized public relations agency.  He actually owns his own creative company providing art direction, creative direction and ad design to the surrounding firm.  I love having lunch with Bob because he works with top clients from as far away as Japan and, while he's closer to my age, he is surrounded by 20, 30 and 40 year olds every single day.  We talked about family and hobbies and funny stuff that happens and then we got down to the meat of the meeting:  What's going to happen next year?  Where is the ad business going?  What will the trends be?

Here's something interesting.  Bob was a very early iPad adapter.  His justification for purchasing it was as a presentation device.  Now he admits that the screen is too small and, given a choice, all (regardless of age) of his clients prefer to see presentations and portfolios as PRINTS.  So last century.....but that's the way things go.  Big prints.  It's the wave of the future.   Also, little prints.

We've both been watching magazines come back strong.  We agreed that perhaps all the marketers overshot the whole "everything will end up on the web" pitch.  Seems that clients really do want audited results, tangible proof of circulation,  direct feedback and so much more.  While magazines folding up their tents make the most splash in the gossip forums the reality is that there are more titles than ever before and the ad revenues to the standing players are recovering quickly.  Amazing.  Two years ago we were ready to leave them for dead.  Prediction?  A lot more paid placement in print and direct mail, supported by the web.  That means designers need to dust off their "print chops" and remember how to manage color for paper and all that other stuff.  But now clients want to measure all this stuff.  And remember, you'll need better technique for print.  The file are much bigger and the details and faults are ten times as obvious.

And, who ever guessed that this would happen? Holiday parties are back with a vengence.  Wheeeeeeeee.  And they're actually buying nice wine and good food.

So, what the heck does that have to do with the photo above?  And why is all out of focus?  And why is everything blurry?

I was walking around the train station in Rome with my Mamiya 6 camera.  I'd been taking photos all over the place all day long and I was getting ready to meander back to my hotel.  I noticed how Italian business guys fell into two strata when crossing the station.  If they were in groups of two or more they'd walk slowly and chat and gesture.  When they were alone they would do this brisk walk.  I like the brisk walk so I waited around until a likely candidate emerged from the crowds and headed by me.  I wasn't paying attention to exposure like I usually do.  I'd set the camera to auto exposure.  I lifted it up to my eye and waited for the right moment and then shot.  I could tell as I heard the slightly extended action of the shutter that I was down in the 1/8th to 1/15th second exposure zone.  Yep.  I screwed up.  I think.

But much later I printed this negative and I started to like the feeling of motion.  I started to like the way all of the background mushed together.  I liked the way Tri-X handled the grey tones and the highlights. But I like most of all the energy of the man heading home.  It's okay to do things wrong.  It's okay if you're the only one who likes them.  But it all goes into the learning mix.

Getting back to basics.

Our fragmented culture has inculcated us with the fallacious idea that we should all be Renaissance Men and Renaissance Women.  We should be, all at once, a writer, engineer, artist, photographer, triathlete, movie critic, economist, political expert and social critic.  Burrowing down, the faux Renaissance culture makes photographers feel like they should be masters of taking any kind of photograph, experts in all facets and styles of postproduction and retouching, they should be masters of sales and they should cast their brand far and wide thru dominance in "social networks".

So now we have lots and lots and lots of people tossing around lots of half baked ideas and meaningless, endlessly repeated prattle while snapping mostly vacuous and banal photographs and posting a huge melange of crap in every conceivable media.  As long as it's free.

But far from being a distant and dispassionate observers I have to readily agree that I'm as culpable as the next guy.  I've gone from being a regional corporate photographer who was generally thought to be a good portrait photographer to being quoted as an expert about lenses on DPreview.  I've pontificated so often about lighting on Flickr that I'm considered by some to be an expert there.  But it's all a big joke.  And I'm bursting my own balloon before someone else does it for me.

Mea Culpa.  I got swept up the in the supposed paradigm shift.  But in the end the web and all this noise is just the "pet rock" on the TV of a new generation. Bell bottom trousers.  Social networking is a desperate attempt at personal marketing in a time when jobs are shifting from employee to contractor and people are scared to death they'll be left behind.

I started posting on Facebook because one of my clients acted shocked that I wasn't on Facebook.  What if I miss an invitation to an event?  Fat chance.  I'm sure the invitation will be in the massive amounts of e-mail we look thru every day.  And if I did miss an invitation would the world end?  I'm hosting a party for my swimmer buddies on December the 11th.  To date I've gotten 32 invitations to other events being held on the same evening.  The problem isn't missing an invitation but weighing which ones to accept.

I started this blog to help sell my four books (please buy all four for everyone on your list) but no one really likes talking about books so I started writing about other stuff.   And now I write about other stuff all the time.

I started posting to Twitter to bring more readers to my blog.  But Twitter is so weird and disjointed that in the months and months I've tried to decipher it I still can't see how anyone gets any value from it.

I know how to do two things well.  I can take portraits.  I can write words that flow (most times) and make sense.  That's it.  I don't know more than the rest of us about philosophy.  I don't know much more about lenses than anyone else and what little I know either comes from actually shooting them or from taking the time to read more anecdotal stuff on the web and re-interpret (regurgitate) it.  What I know about camera sensors is meaningless and irrelevant.  If I had more understanding about economics than the rest of you out there I sure wouldn't be trying to make a living as a writer and photographer.

I taught workshops last year.  But it's hard to take workshops seriously when I think that everyone should just take their money and go someplace exciting and shoot on their own.    If you've got a couple weeks and $6000 burning a hole in your pocket just get on a damn plane and go to Istanbul or St. Petersburg and shoot from sun up till your last daily minutes of consciousness.  Then you'll have something to show off.  Something you might actually want to print.  All you need to know about handling your camera is in the owner's manual.  The rest, to reiterated my own tired quote, is just "time in the water."

So, what do I do now with the realization that I'm not smarter than most other people.  Not a wildly stellar, superstar photographer, not a brilliant philosopher or  economist.  What do I do with the realization that blogs don't sell books.  That Twitter doesn't sell blogs.  That I don't want to spend precious hours every day doing "rah!-rah!"  for myself about myself?

How about I turn off Flickr and Twitter and Facebook and do what's always worked well for me?  That would be taking photographs of people in my own style.  Writing stuff I know about.  And swimming enough laps everyday so that I can eat pizza once a week and a glass of wine or two and not gain weight.  That sounds pretty good to me.  And marketing?  Two postcards and $500 in postage brought in more money for me in a handful of jobs this year than all the web marketing I've done in five years.

Will I keep blogging?  Yeah, but I'm only interested in talking about street photography and portraits.  I'll leave it to someone else to sell cameras and books and lights and stuff.  I just want to know how to use them to make art.  And then I'll be happy to talk about art.

Two things I do well:  Portraits.  Words.  One thing I'm okay at and enjoy: Swimming.

I'd love to be a real Renaissance Man but it makes me tired just thinking of all the stuff I would need to be able to do.  No one has that kind of time.  Might as well be doing what you really love.




the holidays are upon us.  I humbly submit that a good book about photography will be most welcome by the photographers on your list.  Here are a few suggestions:

   















   















   















   

11.26.2010

"THE PASSION IS IN THE RISK"


Yesterday was Thanksgiving.  We had a houseful of people.  My parents were here and Belinda's parents, too.  Nieces and nephews and new additions to the family.  Belinda and I teamed up in the kitchen and put out some nice food.  My mom brought some fun wine, even three bottles of my favorite white wine, Conundrum, from Caymus Vineyards.  Everyone was happy and the day went smoothly.  I was so proud of my kid, Ben (you've seen his photo many times....).  We have a three step drop from the kitchen to the dining room and we were serving buffet style.  My dad is in his 80's and walks with a cane.  Ben waited until my dad filled his plate and then walked over and quietly offered to carry his plate to the table.

Most of our family lives in San Antonio and everyone headed back home in the late afternoon and early evening.  Ben got invited to go surfing, down in Port Aransas, with family friends and he was gone by 6:30 pm.  Once Belinda and I finished washing pots and pans and dishes we decided to watch a movie from Netflix and we settled on a mindless romantic comedy called, "When in Rome."

Near the end of the movie the female protagonist is trying to decide if she should take the risk and marry her new boyfriend.  Her father threw out a line and I grabbed for a Post-It (tm) pad and a pen.  It's a line that resonated with me like a bell.  He said,  "The Passion is in the risk."

THE PASSION IS IN THE RISK.

That's pretty much the culmination or distillation of what I've been trying to say here for the past two years.  The magic dust that makes art work is the passion you bring to it.  And the passion is proportional to the risk required.  I've included two photographs to illustrate my point.  In the top photo I'm photographing life in the Termini train station in Rome.  I'm determined to get a shot of the baggage handlers.  I go in head first because I know they may (and did) object and I'd only get one chance.  Before I started I thought that there might be a heightened chance of confrontation.  There's a certain risk in a direct, "looking into the eyes" presentation.  I had to be quick with my technique.  I could be embarrassed if they got pissed off and made a scene.  All that stuff that goes thru your mind when you're out of your own neighborhood, out of your demographic and out of your own culture.  But you move forward because you embrace that level of risk and deem it acceptable for the potential reward.  That being said, this isn't my favorite photo.  But each time you risk you get more comfortable with the risk and you understand that something moves you to do this thing that's beyond a staid calculus of accrual.

In the arts the passion is never truly about money.  It may be about fame and with fame may come money but in reality the arts are about the passion.  When I step out the door I'm looking for a photograph that makes me feel something out of the ordinary.  Art is never a reaffirmation of the value of the ordinary.

The second photograph is passionless.  We make these all the time.  It's a quick, furtive shot that shows nothing but the back of one person and the profile of another.  There's no engagement.  There's little passion.  And when you look at this image you tend to pass it by because it's something you've seen a hundred or a thousand times before from every photographer who shoots in the street.  There's little reward because there's little risk.  And without the risk there's no passion.  And the passion is what gets transmitted to the viewer.

But the idea that The Passion is in the risk goes way beyond street shooting or even just the practice of the arts.  In fact, I think the slow building of passion comes with taking multiple levels of risk that correspond with access to the passion.   An example.  If you want to create great work in any art it takes constant practice.  I've used the analogy of competitive swimming as an example.  If you want to be a great surgeon you have to use those brain and hand skills all the time or you get rusty.  I have many friends who are doctors and when they need to have a surgical procedure done they never settle for the guy who's done a couple hundred successful procedures they search out the guy who's done thousands of successful procedures because they know that with practice comes expertise.  The guy who's done 2,000 procedures has dealt with every permutation.  In art parlance, he's become a "master".  By the same token I don't think photographers can be at the top of their art unless they live it with the same "hands on" intensity.  If they pick up the camera every once in a while they just aren't fluid enough to make great art.  And it's not just knowing where the buttons are and when to push them....for a people photographer it's also about knowing how to work with people in a fluid way.

So, that means that it's almost impossible to do photography at a passionate level and still have the time and energy for a real job.  And there's the risk.  Freelance photography gives you the time but it also delivers risk.  And if you can accept that risk and move forward even with the knowledge that you may end up hungry and poor, but you still feel compelled to move that way then you may be driven by your passion and that passion may reward you with art you can love.

Beyond that, risk also means removing yourself from a comfortable situation to an uncomfortable situation that elicits responses in a photo which in turn make it interesting to you and your wider audience.

The ultimate risk is working when you are the only audience.  When you stop caring what other people think about your work and you make work that is uninflected by the subtle pressure of others.  In this arena the risk of total isolation is so strong that only the most courageous passion will drive sane people forward.  It's a level I've not achieved and I'm not sure I can.  I have too many responsibilities.  I have too much to lose to risk everything.  And yet it's something I am jealous of in other photographers.

The person who finds a $100 bill on the street is just a bit richer.  The person who pulls a diamond from the jaws of a pissed off, deadly dragon has a story to tell for the rest of his life.  And he creates a legend.

That's what the few real artists in our lives do.  They battle metaphorical dragons that come complete with real risks.  They've already signed a blanket waiver with life and they're ready to strap in and take the ride.  They're the test pilots and we're waiting for someone to come along and pressurize the cabin.

So.  Why have I decided to work with LED lights in the last few months?  Do I think the results will be technically better than what I can get with state of the art flash equipment?  No.  But I know the results will be different.  I know that some stuff will be riskier (like subject motion and color correction) but I know that intangible and tangible differences in the way portrait subjects respond and react makes the photographs different and it's a risk with a return.

If I know how to do a technique forward and backward why do I constantly abandoned the safe techniques and try new stuff?  Because the risk of maybe failing makes the process more exciting.  If the risk pays off I have something that's new and maybe closer to my vision of what an image should be.  If I fail I learn and I come back and try again.

If I never try then I master one technique and use it, safely, over and over again until it's so stale and old that no one ever wants to see it again and I've squandered years and years when I could have been investigating and playing and failing and succeeding and doing new stuff.

The turn over of gear is open to many interpretations but unlike most amateur practitioners I seem to go from the highest iteration of equipment to the lowest instead of the other way around.  I'll start with a Canon 5Dmk2 and slide down the product scale where the risk is greater because it's more fun to work without a safety net.   Buying better and better gear is a way of trying to manage risk.  And managing risks is the perfect way to suck the absolute passion out of your art.  Perfect risk management means sitting in a bunker with the air filters on high.  But nothing moves forward that way.

Here's an odd thought.  One posited by a character in Stephen Pressfield's magnificent book, The Gates of Fire,  "What is the opposite of fear?"  The eventual answer?   "Love."

We work through the fear that everyone feels.  Fear is a very uncomfortable emotion.  Most people feel fear and move away from the thing that made them feel fearful.  Or they work to contain the process or action that caused the fear.  Some work through the fear to feel the love.  The work is the love.  The process is the fear,  The fear is the risk.  And the risk is the thing that artists embrace.  And that's what makes the best work work.  Knowing that you might fail.

Someone asked me the other day if being 55 and in a field that seems to be falling apart and crashing and burning scared me.  Yes.  I'm as scared as I can be.  But not because I won't make money.  I'm scared that I won't have the time and the courage to keep going out every day and doing something that rational people don't do.  Every time I go out and shoot it scares me.  And every time I go out and ignore the fear I get into zone and the photos get better and better.  When I stop getting scared the work falls apart.

The scariest moments for me are the days when I wake up and I've lost the determination to go out and try it all over again.....as if for the first time.  When I'm working from a "playbook" of greatest hits I know that it's over.  The passion is gone.  It's time to stop.  But the scariest thing of all is that all the inspiration and vision and passion comes from a well within.  There's no way to inspiration other than to wake up and want.  And  to be willing to accept the risk that creates the passion.  And that's why it's worth it not to copy anyone else but to create your own art and take your own risks.  Because:

THE PASSION IS IN THE RISK.

The passion and the risk are different for everyone.  And so are the rewards.  And that's why people talk about gear instead.  Because it's so hard to say why you do what you do.  And it will be different for you.

added at 5:22 pm.
I never did get around to explaining why I took the image of the guys in the train station.  Let me go thru that process and see if I can put it into words.  We really don't have a train station here in Austin.  The closest we have is an airport and it was built in the last ten years and doesn't look much different than a nice strip mall with a bunch more chairs.  I have a romantic nostalgia for train travel.  But even more to the point, I  have a bittersweet memory of a time when travel was civilized and special and much, much less stressful.  The guys in the top photo are remnants of that earlier time.  It was a time in which you and and your family could travel for weeks  with multiple suit cases.  You would have suits and ties and nice shoes to wear to fancy restaurants.  Hiking boots and heavy jackets for romps through the Alpine plains outside of Chamonix and you would have also packed some casual clothes for evenings wandering through the old neighborhoods of Rome.  You'd find a nice cafe and have hot chocolate while your parents enjoyed a few glasses of wine and some savory treats.

And it was all made possible by men like these in the train stations and airports who would take care of the logistics of moving your heavy cases from the train to the to taxi's and back again.  And you were pretty sure they worked for tips and they worked hard every time a train came in.  They were freelancers like you are now.  Somedays no one would want to pay for their help.  Other days the work would be non-stop.  There were no guarantees.  No safety net.  But it was what they knew how to do.

And slowly all these men have have faded into oblivion as wheeled totes and "carry on" only became the vogue.  And now we  travel with only what we can carry and we're more like overnight visitors than real travelers.  But at the same time these guys were brusk and sometimes unlikeable, with a street smart cynicism that put you on your guard.  And there are now no more young porters.  It's a dying art.  Like dye transfer or black and white darkroom printing.  And it's sad when an era passes.

And they know it's only a matter of time before their knees give out and their lungs protest the decades of smoking and they won't be able to lift the heavy boxes that often replace the luxe leather suitcases and trunks.  And they're pissed.  And resigned.  And how can I get all those emotions and all those thoughts into something as insubstantial as a photograph?

I look over and see the scene come together.  They are resting on the cart, looking for customers.  They are smoking.  I walk closer.  I've already set my Mamiya 6 camera to the exposure I think the scene offers.  I bring the camera to my eye to fine tune the focus with my rangefinder.  The man raises his hand and as he starts to wag his finger I click.  Then I drop the camera down and gesture that I get it.  I understand.  I won't shoot another frame.  I'll hope I have what I want and spare them the indignity of overt and obvious study.  Young life swirls around them.  One man smiles in a resigned way.  Two others continue their conversation, oblivious of my transgression.  And the man with the wagging finger follows me with his eyes, just to make sure I got the message.  Yes.  I did.  I got the whole message.

When I develop the negative I wish I'd gotten closer.  Much closer.  But cropping is not the same.  I wish I'd gotten closer and wider.  The 55 instead of the 75.  But I got what I got and I learned that my reticence to walk in closer with the wider lens is like a slap to the face and I know next time I'll take the risk or not take the photograph at all.


the holidays are upon us.  I humbly submit that a good book about photography will be most welcome by the photographers on your list.  Here are a few suggestions: