4.15.2011

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:

4.14.2011

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........

4.11.2011

Oh Fun. Olympus sent me another camera to play with.

I came back from somewhere this morning to find a nice, brown cardboard box sitting in front of the door to my house.  I shuffled into the studio and grabbed my Bowie knife and slashed it open.  Inside, with no notes or invoices was a small box containing the new Olympus ZX-1.  Now I've been around the block with Canon G-10's and G-11's and I've played with the G-12 but the intriguing thing about this tiny camera is that I can use the EV-1 finder from my Pen EP2 kit to get a full bore, eye level, state of the art finder image and I don't have to hold the little beast at arm's length like a goon.

Give me a couple of week's play time and I'll try to write something.  But as you know, I'm not very prolific and it may take me some time to really do it justice.....

The battery is charging.

4.09.2011

Random Thoughts on a warm and windy Saturday.

First up:  I'm so happy with all the responses (online and offline) that I got about the last blog post.  People really do want to understand why they photograph and what it all means.  At least my readers pretty much uniformly understand that technical prowess should be a means to an end and not an end goal.  Several people wrote to say that they couldn't express what it was they wanted to capture in pictures until they had the skills to make the statement and I think that's a different way of looking at the same equation.  I think we need to have more give and take about projects that are dear to our hearts.  And maybe we need to share picture stories more often.  People are always welcome to post links within their comments as long as it's not spam-o-rama.

Second:  A few little items that have made life fun and intriguing for me in the past few days.  I've always liked working with the manual focus Zeiss lenses I've been buying up like a college kid buying pizzas, but I've had issues with focusing.  In good light....no problem.  In marginal light those sucky autofocus enabled focusing screens are awful.  I end up depending on the focus confirmation and I am disappointed from time to time.

Yesterday I got the first of a mess of split image rangefinder focusing screens I've been researching and ordering.  It's the EC-S screen for the 1Dmk2N (and all other early 1D camera variants out there).  The screen was a whopping $30 and it's changed things for me.  A nice split screen in the middle that show very clearly when you've achieved sharp focus......two images come together as one!!!  Then there are two concentric circles around the center that give a sharper (more aggressive??) indication of in and out of focus.  The rest of the screen seems brighter too.  If you get one be sure to head into the custom function menu and switch screens there so the meter will continue to be accurate.


I also ordered a screen for the Canon 5Dmk2.  It's not a Canon screen so I'm holding my breath in anticipation.  It comes from a company called,  Cowboy Studios.  It's called a 180 something or other...
How they decide on these names I just don't know.  Once I found this screen I was emboldened to also order one for the 7D but I look forward to its arrival with much trepidation because the screens in 7D's are not made to be user replaceable.  But they include tools and an "instruction book."

If you look hard and long enough on the web you'll find just about anything.  I'll try my luck with the 5D2 and the 7D but I won't mess with the 60D because it's currently my "go to" video production camera and I'm right in the middle of a project.

I came across the photo below.  It's from 2006 or 2007.  I was doing a PR job in Scottsdale, AZ for the folks at Freescale Semiconductor.  I thought it was a silly photograph and that the more curmudgeonly among my critiques would have fun sending me "interesting comments."  Lost to the crop are my amazingly cool black shoes.  Interesting shoot coming up this Tues.  I've been reminded by the client several times that I am currently "under NDA" but since it's something newsy I look forward to spilling the details a few days later.  After the embargo is finished.

I've decided to go ahead and do the book revision project I anguished about all last week.  Does that mean we'll have a flurry of Pollyanna/Happy blog posts?  Maybe.  That's it.  Tomorrow is my first afternoon off in ages.  You probably know what that means.  A big walk thru downtown Austin to check out the value of that new focusing screen in conjunction with some manual focus piece of glass.  Either that or some portraits.  Hope you're having a good weekend.  Kirk

4.07.2011

On the idea of photographic education. Maximum bling?

It's always about the look.  Not about the light.

If my son were to come to me and ask me to teach him photography what would I say?  How would I do that?  There are many people today who would tell an aspiring photographer that he needn't pursue a traditional education at a college or university.  They would state (and believe) that everything you need to learn to be successful is on the web or can be learned at a series of daylong or weekend long workshops.

But would that be enough to make one a good photographer or even a successful photographer?

I guess the first thing we should do if we pursue this topic is to make a demarcation between good and successful.  Most would point to financial success as a critical marker.  And in that regard mastering the bare mechanics of a plastic art and wrapping a cocoon of business strategy around it might be enough to engender what the typical man in the street would call success.  If you can make a process routine, predictable and appealing you may well be able to somewhat mass produce the process and sell the same basic steps over and over again.  The process of learning from lighting diagrams, charts and "behind the scenes" shot is, to good photography, what "paint by numbers" is to real painting.

As the field of photography broadened over the last decade it attracted more and more people who, by dint of their demographic, didn't have the luxury of learning in any other way than by putting their feet on the "dance diagram on the floor" and trying to follow the numbered steps.  And I understand that for many this was the available path.  A photographer educated in this way is looking for rules and steps that make the photographic product easier and repeatable.

4.04.2011

Why Take Photographs?

Belinda.  Sometime in the last thirty years.  Seems like yesterday.

(Originally written in 2004 and modified today)

I was trying to remember all of my initial brushes with photography and piece together when and why the addiction to the process stuck.  Christmas in the late 1960's.  My unstructured memory of my life before high school would lead me to believe that my family was living at the time outside of Ft. Worth, Texas.  Someone in my family got a Polaroid "Big Shot" instant camera and we all took turns using it until the novelty of the fixed focal length and the color quality of the milky, soft, squarish photographs wore off.

My mom and dad were traditional, middle class, single income parents at the time, trying their best to keep everything moving forward while dreading the not too distant cost of paying for three college educations in a row.  The cost of unnecessary novelty films seemed as wasteful as tossing quarters  from a moving car.  We didn't ask for many replacement packs of Polaroid because we were pretty sure that it would come down to a choice between new shoes and film----and our feet were still growing.

I remember stories of my mother going with a Turkish taxi driver to the outskirts of Adana, Turkey to photograph a gypsy tribe with a Kodak Instamatic and color print film---but she rarely pointed this camera at her own family.  My next brush with cameras came when I found my parent's older Argus A4 camera, discarded in the garage.  It used 127 film.  A film size discontinued by Kodak a few years ago.  The camera was made of bakelite(tm) plastic and had a finder you composed with but no focusing aids at all.  Everything was strictly zone focus.  And of course, typical of an inexpensive camera from the 1950's it had no automation or metering whatsoever.  But that's why Kodak had pictograms of exposure recommendations packed with every roll of film they sold....

Knowing now my parent's almost pathological resistance to any and all mechanical devices I am amazed at the Kodachrome slides they took of us with this primitive camera back in the very early 1960's.

At any rate, I retrieved it from a box of junk in the garage in our San Antonio home some time in 1971 and revived it.  At the time I had no allowance and earned just a little bit of money as a lifeguard at the high school pool.  But I bought a roll of black and white film (it was much cheaper to buy and have developed in 1975 than color) and I proceeded to experiment by shooting the only thing that held my interest at the time, my girlfriend, Linda.  

Owing to my non-existent technical knowledge and the deterioration of the lens and the body of the camera, the results of my first foray were less than good and I didn't touch a camera again until years later.  Sometime around 1974 or 1975 when I had been at school for several years I was working at an audio store, part time.  I sold stereo systems (now they are called audio systems).  The owner, manager and the other salespeople were avid photography amateurs.  One day Herb Ganz flipped open a black Halliburton case that cosseted a family of  black Olympus OM-1 camera bodies and lenses, tenderly, in pre-cut cushions of foam.  I was hooked.

Herb helped me select and buy my first of many cameras, the Canon Canonet 17 rangefinder.  A fixed 40mm 1.7 lens on a sleek and hefty camera that took 35mm film.  In the early days that "17" took rolls and rolls of home loader 35mm black and white film.  It was the magic of making my first black and white prints in the Ark co-operative darkroom that led me down the path to my photo-addiction and all that it entails.

It will seem odd to the current generations of up and coming photographers that we were able to accomplish so much so well with mechanical units and no computers or instant preview on backlit screens.  The moment of my first cognizant love of photography camera when I made a photograph of a cute and adventurous girl friend sitting on some concrete stes in one the neighborhoods just south of campus.  She had on her glasses and a cornflower blue Mexican wedding shirt and a baggy pair of short khaki shorts that were quite worn.  She sat with her knees up and her legs slightly apart and her shorts billowed out slightly, revealing her white cotton underwear loosely and barely covering her body.  I shot a photo.  Just one----and I was hooked.

I had reduced her thirsty sexuality and keen sense of playful tease in one inarguably correct image.  It would forever conjure up for me the notion of carefree sex and love in the mid-1970's.  But with time the photo and the memory of the photo is stronger than any later memory of the same woman.  It was at the moment I took the photo that the visual memory imprinted on whichever part of my brain was affected.  NOT upon the revelation of the print.  Not the final art but the initial conception or discovery of the image. The magic moment for me has always been the realization that there was a scene, a tableau, a moment that had reached a sort of distinct ripeness.    I want to freeze "now".  And then savor it (the memory) over time. 

And here's the funny thing.  The photos don't get better or worse.  They are always in my mind just the way they were.  It's almost as though the matrix that constitutes the right scene and the right time is frozen into an unchanging cube of objective reality.  Always my own reality.  And, I find, nothing about that sense of reality is universal.  I find what I find in each image and it's not mirrored in someone else's viewing.  Each person brings his or her own complex reality to the viewing giving the viewer a value commensurate with their own emotional commonalities.

During my years teaching and thru my time in advertising photography existed as a passion, an obsession if you will.  I walked thru the streets of cities all over the world discovering the uniqueness of their citizens' existence and the commonality that binds us.  As long as I operated in that sphere the enchantment was pretty much complete.  And there was a constant and consistent destination for the images I saw, the things I committed to film.  The best of the best would become prints and the prints would get shared in shows, both formal and less so.

What I found and find to be most compelling is the way a portrait can capture that thing that led me to find someone interesting, compelling, attractive, delightful and how much I wanted to preserve just that feeling that is a combination of the subject's quick glance, their turn of the head, their sly smile, their earnest eyes.......

This is the way I originally approached taking pictures when I was always the primary audience.  As I began to go after paying jobs everything started to shift.  

When I photographed primarily for an external audience (an advertising client?)  I felt a loosening of emotional control over the ownership of the image.  In an image not created for my sole enjoyment I feel a distancing from the work as though it squeaked thru without my complete and complicit approval.

I was struck today with the realization that photography has changed for me in almost every conceivable way.  Rather than being a joyous hobby that sucks down every spare dollar, it is a profession that earned me a little over $XX,XXX last month.  Instead of spending days in the darkroom coaxing images onto sensitized photographic paper I spend most days tethered to a computer trying to optimize a mish mash (I was going to reflexively write: "mismatch" ) of pixels into beautiful images.  The overview challenges are the same:  Capture the image and share it on paper.  Or, capture the image and share it on the screen. But everything changes from there.

What sucks about all of this?  There feels like a disconnection between my thought processes and the computer rendering.  Wet photography was more inviting and addictive.  It was a learned skill set that was never exactly reproducible.  Every print really, REALLY was a unique work of art.  Today I spent most of my day processing raw files shot in a UT lab, under existing light, for a technology client.  The unsettling aspect was the ease and the degree to which everything in the frame could be corrected.  The process seemed so mechanical and cold.  Or should I say so binary and cold.  And yet, this is the practice of current photography.

The processes all seem compromised.  We store images on hard drives and Cd's and DVD's and we're not at all sure if we'll be able to read these media in ten years.  The standards, formats and machines will evolove and there is no assurance of backward compatibility.  Now we are learning that the CD's and DVD's may not survive the next ten years so that we can even try to using the next successive generation of readers.  We can make prints with much more control but they may last only ten or fifteen years before the inks start fading away.....eventually to disregard the work on the paper  without a trace.  Like an old Ektachrome slide from the 1950's.

Another grievance is the quickness with which everything happens.  In the old days clients would show us comps and we would bid.  A week later someone would call and tell me I was the successful bidder.  Another week would pass as we rounded up props and talent, locations and film.  Now clients call and ask for bids with only the most ephemeral description of the project.  They want a price immediately and, within the space of a few hours they award the project.  They push to shoot immediately with no thought for pre-production (physical) or a thorough thinking through.  No, everything seems so transient and thin.  Gone are the underpinnings and thoughtful foundations of art.  And whether a photographer admits this or not, they are all in it for the art.  

So how do I make it work again?  How can I be happy doing the work?

I'm thinking these things when I run into John at Chipotle's.  We're both ravenous for burritos.   Ben and Belinda were there too.  We got to talking about how different cultures live and he told a story about a cheese maker in Italy.

The man was 58 years old and all he made was Parmagiano Reggiano cheese.  But he made it better every year. And better than everyone else.  It always won the top awards in all the food shows and the vitally important cheese competition.  Finally, after 20 years the contest officials retired his entry number so that someone else could win.  The point was that as a society we don't value mastering and craftsmanship.  Only instant gratification.  We need to re-value and resell the whole concept of mastery.  Maybe that's what gives meaning to our efforts.  A non-plastic recording of beauty and sensuality.  

But what does this have to do with why I photograph?  Because, in spite of my feelings about the commercial marketplace I still pick up my cameras every day and take pictures that delight me....

(added today)

So, I came across the above in one of my journals and it became the basis for a whole train of thought for me today.   And at the bottom of the process is still the question, "Why take photographs?"  

Looking at all of this some seven years later is interesting.  The cultural switch over to digital imaging is more or less complete.  The retreat from the high production demands of fine print to the less produced but more immediate display on screens is largely in its last phase and the mantra of the last two years (with my voice occasionally included) is that moving images will conquer the still market.  As though it's inevitable and only a matter of time....

And that led me to re-examine my whole premise and my whole interaction and allegiance to all the plastic arts.  And here's what I've found (which in no way is original thinking but in fact is the echo of a pervasive counterstream of philosophy of aesthetics about imaging) :  I've been doing video for  a while and no matter how entrancing I've never had a memory for a scene of video.  When I think about a subject my brain conjures up a still image.  The moving footage doesn't resonate in the same way.  It has power, yes, but no stickiness.  In the same way that movies are transient and what we really remember is the emotion and the dialogue but not the stunning shot.  (although there are a handful of exceptions).  But still images have a singular power to tattoo layers of information right onto some part of the brain.  And they stick there and become symbols for ideas, experiences and emotions.  And even many years later that stickiness in the brain speaks to the power of the single image.

When we look over the history of the last century or even of last week it's not the documentary footage that we remember because our brain is not good at cataloging so many interwoven frames into a composite for good storage.  Our brains crave the single, fully formed and singular image in their cataloging process.  Nothing else comes close.

There's lots of grainy motion picture footage from the Viet Nam war but the images we remember are the still images of the cursory execution of a captured officer taken by Eddie Adams.  We remember Ut's photo of the girl running down a road burned by napalm.  Images from Iraq trump footage from Iraq, in the stores of our memories.  

And so it is also with our personal images.  We might have film of our fathers and mothers but our memories are stabilized, reinforced and preserved by the still images we covet.  And it's more than nostalgia it's brain science.  It's the science of memory and vision.

And so,  I've come full circle and entrusted my wonder and amazement at life to my still camera.  Video is a powerful marketing tool and it works in the "here and now" but still images have a resonance or a repeating "pass along" factor that can't be beat.  If you take a photo of an event that is powerful to you its resonance remains undiminished and this is the true power of photography.  To be able to evoke memories and emotions and context without even needed to re-see the photograph once you've initially experienced it.  And re-experiencing it can be an additive experience as new subsequent learning is leveraged into your subconscious appraisal of the viewing experience.

I long labored under the depressing idea that the art form I had come to love so much was dying.  That we were in the process of writing its obituary.  Only to rediscover that it has a power that other media can't match and for that reason alone it earns it's place in the hierarchy of visual art.  It is the pervasive nowness of video that gives it power.  It's the staying power of still images that gives them their pervasive value.  That's not going away and neither are we.

In the past seven years we've lived thru so much and so many cultural adaptations have been made as a result of our diminishing economic power and our fear of global events, relentlessly presented.  We are all in a funk of post traumatic stress re-order and it colors our perceptions of value and purpose.  But one thing I am sure of and that is we photographers will always want to photograph the things we find special so we can make that indelible tattoo on our own brains of the things we never want to forget.  And that's why this is such a valuable art.  Photography = permanent brain tattoo.

4.03.2011

Spring cleaning. Good for square footage. Good for the brain.


When I undertake a project, like the LED book, I tend to compulsively jump in with both feet.  I feel like ''total immersion" is the only way to really learn a subject.  But as I add new stuff to the mix I find that my limited storage space (literally and metaphorically) fills up quick.  So every once in a while I do a big ole studio purge.  I toss out a lot of stuff.  Things that have good market value go to Precision Camera where they sell them for me on consignment. Other things get pieced out to up and coming, or struggling existing, photographers around town.  Yesterday I took a box full of optical filters and flash brackets to Precision Camera.  Along with a host of batteries I'd collected for cameras I no longer own.

Today I'm feeling especially ruthless.  I'm dragging stuff out of closets and out of tool kits.  I'm determined to minimalist-ize my space and be like one of the those Zen Monks of photography.  But let me tell you, the attachment I feel to some of this (though misplaced) is strong.  Every time I jettison something is symbolic of the passing of one era or another.  And that nostalgia creates sticky webs that slow down the whole process.

Here's what I'm getting rid of today:  A Calumet four foot by six foot softbox (shallow design).   A Photoflex four foot by six foot softbox.  An Alien Bees Ringlight with cords and the "Moon Unit" softbox.  Lots of partially used rolls of different colored seamless paper backgrounds.  An orange shipping tube for lightstands and tripods (Indestructible plastic resin).  A set of pop up reflectors.  Some older light stands.  Maybe another set of Profoto strobes (although those have high stickiness.....)

I'm also throwing out any film from corporate jobs prior to 2001.  Hell, with the exception of my "art" negatives I may just throw it all away.

Only in this way can I make room for the next wave of stuff that's sure to come.  It's just relentless.  But that's what I get from living and participating in the world's greatest consumer culture.

4.02.2011

Following thru on your projects is good practice for following thru on life.


It's so much fun to shoot stuff.  It really is.  The camera makes fun noise and the little screen on the back of your camera does a good job letting you feel as though you are creating art with each gentle mush on the shutter button.

But it really doesn't count for much if you don't go back to the office and edit, and then do some color corrections, and then put up a web gallery for your client.  And even more importantly, when you get a list of images from your client you really do have to sit back down and do all the post processing you crowed about being an ace at on the shoot day.  The retouching, getting the color exactly the way you want it (as opposed to settling for the "correct" way) and then burning the disk you promised your subject.

Otherwise..........

But, once you get into the habit of following thru you start finding yourself getting things done almost unconsciously.

I promised Selena I would take photos of her for her nascent but quickly blossoming career as a singer/performer if she would give me some time as a model for my just finished LED book.  She did her part and now I've done mine.

I hear from a lot of models who get burned by photographers.  The photographers promise something in exchange for a model's time and energy and then toss a few unprocessed files into an e-mail and walk away.  No wonder models don't take photographers as seriously as we'd like to be taken.  So, I'm encouraging everyone out there with an uncompleted project to jump to it and get it done.  Once you've cleared the decks you've let the universe know that you are ready and able to jump onto the next fun project.  And generally the universe delivers.  (No 30 minute guarantee.  That's just for pizza.)

4.01.2011

I spent my morning photographing oral surgery. Better to photograph it than sit in the chair...

 Another one of my "day in the life" stories.  One of my clients is an oral surgery practice.  I've been doing a lot of work with them lately.  We're creating an extensive catalog of images to use on their website and in their print collateral.  We like to show the doctors and surgical assistants at work and that's where I come in.  Random little secret:  I've never been comfortable with medical or dental procedures, faint at the sight of my own blood and get queasy around needles.  Of course I should also confess that this random secret is pretty much "past tense."  Over the course of the last year, working with these guys, I've become less and less reactive.  I guess that's because I'm getting better at being thankful it's not me in the chair.  But if I needed something fixed or extracted I wouldn't hesitate to go to these guys....
Today I needed to make a portrait of one of the doctors at a clinic out near Lake Travis.  I packed a Profoto 600b acute pack (battery powered) with a head and the Fotodiox 28 inch beauty dish with matching diffuser.  I brought along a flex fill to bounce in fill light, a set of background stands and a light gray background.  When I got to the clinic I went straight to the doctor's office, moved chairs around and set up the portrait stuff.  I wanted it ready to go so that we could move in and do the portrait on a few minutes notice.  The magic in using one light is in the feathering.  If you don't know about feathering do a search.  This blog ain't for beginners.
Once the portrait lighting was set I grabbed a camera from the bag and set out to shoot actual patients in procedures. I shot one implant procedure and one wisdom tooth removal.  In both instances the patients were sedated via IV's.  I dressed in my regulation pressed khaki's, white, button down dress shirt and sensible shoes.  I tend to wear a mask just in case.  The surgical team largely ignores me.  We've worked together before and once they were reasonably certain that I wouldn't faint and hit the floor, or do something dumb like unplug a bp/vo2 monitor during a procedure they tend to just accept my presence with good graces.

Since I've been shooting a lot of video lately my big Domke bag has gone thru some inventory changes. Out are the two Canon 1dmk2n's and in are my two favorite Canon video shooting cameras, the 7D and 60D.  And they're both great for this kind of work.  Newbies get all excited about needing super high ISO's and fast lenses to shoot under any interior condition that they aren't lighting with flash.  Not so necessary.  The operating areas are very well and uniformly lit.  My basic setting is the half sized RAW file (10 megapixels), AWB, ISO 640, f2.8-f4.0 and a shutter speed range of 1/125th to 1/320.  But mostly it's right in the middle at 1/250th.  Today I pulled one lens out of the bag and used it all morning long.  From clinical shots right thru to the portrait.  It was the manual focus Carl Zeiss 50mm 1.4 ZE for Canon.  When you use the manual focus lenses with cropped frame cameras that have gushy screens meant to look pretty with auto  focus lenses you really have two choices if you want sharp photos.  You can use live view (assuming you are comfortably situated on a tripod, which I wasn't) or you can use the center focusing point just like a rangefinder on a Leica.

Here's what I've decided is true about manual focus on cameras without manual focusing screens.  To a large extent the focusing screen itself is useless.  You need to use the autofocus confirmation lights or lights and beep to know when you've achieved focus.  The screen seems to have a native "f-stop" of around 5.6 and it doesn't matter how good your eyes are or how good your diopter adjustment is, the screen itself isn't going to show you in and out of focus in the way a camera would if it's screen were optimized to work in manual focus.

I've tried it a thousand different times.  And every time I come back to setting the center sensor as my target sensor and using it with good success.  Why put myself thru this when Canon makes a plenty of good, auto focus lenses?

Because, in video it's all different.  Smooth focusing matters.  You'll be using manual focus anyway and you'll be right back to the same question of how to do manual focus.  Also, the Zeiss lenses have really smooth, well damped focusing rings.  And I like the neutral color rendition along with the high resolution performance. (Lost on most video footage....).

I shot for several hours, then we did the portraits and I packed up and moved on.  Back to the office to download and tweak before putting them up on Smugmug to share with my client.  The rest of the afternoon was spent returning calls, writing on a project and editing thru some video footage.  Things seem more and more to be getting back to normal in my business but I get the very real feeling that the roiling and thrashing in the ad business is continuing relentlessly.  A good friend and winner of hundreds of awards for creative direction and television just lost his job at the big mega-agency.  It's hard to understand the map for creative people these days.  Every thing changed but the change itself is changing and nothing seems to be working in some areas.  I'm happy to have my plate full and my clients happy so I'll keep doing the things that have kept me moving forward as the economy moved backwards.

I have a few observations about the gear.  The 60D and 7D bodies are really great to work with.  I like them a lot and I like them better, for the most part, than the 5Dmk2.  The 5 has nicer files.  But feels different.  Second observation:  If you are of my generation you'll just enjoy the feel of the big, heavy Zeiss lenses on the front of your camera because the feel the way we were taught that lenses should feel. A lot of my perception that the Zeiss lenses are somehow better is doubtless due to the placebo effect.  But that doesn't make it any less metaphysically real.  Does it?
This weekend I'm diving into the learning curve with Final Cut Pro.  Shouldn't be much harder to use than iMovie, right?  It is an Apple product, right?  I'll let you know how it goes......