My Afternoon with James Evans and Andrew Eccles.

Crazy From The Heat.  By James Evans.

A few months ago I shot a black and white video of photographer, Michael O'Brien, talking about his new book, Hard Ground.  He shared the video with James Evans and the next thing you know I'm getting ready to do a video of James talking about his new book,  Crazy From The Heat.  James is one of the most interesting photographers I know.  A self described hermit, he moved to Marathon, Texas (pop. 250) about twenty five years ago and he's been photographing the landscape, the animals and the people of this desert region since he arrived.  He doesn't pay much attention to what everyone else is doing, he just does work that pleases him.  He is his first audience.  But his work is appreciated by collectors, major magazines and museums.

I met James 28 years ago when he moved up to Austin from Corpus Christi.  He claims that I'm the first person he met here in Austin (it's a long, good story).  And our paths intersected from time to time since Austin was a small town then.  When the bottom fell out of the local economy in 1988 he decided to chuck the dream of being a commercial photographer and do something a lot more fulfilling: Become a real artist.

We made plans a couple weeks ago to shoot an interview this weekend.  He was going to be in town for a gallery opening at the Stephen L. Clark Gallery.  I dropped by the opening/book signing to pick up a copy of the book so I could look through and decide what we'd talk about.  While we planned our session he nervously asked me if it would be okay if he brought along his friend from "out of town",  Andrew.  I wanted him to feel comfortable, right at home, so of course I readily agreed.  I had no idea he was talking about Andrew Eccles.  Andrew is kind of a legend in advertising and editorial portrait photography and a former first assistant for Annie Leibovitz.  His work is amazing in a totally different way from the way James's work is amazing.

So, five o'clock rolls around.  The temperature outside has been holding steady at 105 for a few hours now.    I've had the studio air conditioning set to super-turbo high for the better part of the afternoon (we'll need to turn it off to record good sound and I want it under 70 degrees when we go "dark cool.").  The Toyota rent-a-car slides into the driveway and James, his wife, Marcie; and Andrew pile out and head into my frigid, little studio space.  

We do the refreshment offer/request thing and get down to work.  I'm using my trademark lighting set up.  That means just about anything that throws off light pounding through a six foot by six foot silk diffusion scrim.  Today I'm using two of the big LED panels as primary light sources and they're giving me exactly the light quality I want and BONUS! the exact exposure I wanted:  ISO 200, f2.8, 1/45th of a second.  Magic.  And amazing quality.  I also stuck another LED light source on the background for a little separation.

James spoke about the fun of immersing oneself into a sparsely settled area.  Where I have thousands and thousands of people around to potentially make portraits of James has a hand full.  But what he lacks in choice he makes up for in depth.  He's totally in.  He remarked that a small town like Marathon turns everyone (for better or worse) into family.  You know EVERYONE.  Your documentation is their life.  Their life is your work.

James has taken a different path than anyone I know.  He's earning a living by selling his work through his gallery and galleries in Austin and around the country.  His work is in many, many private collections.  But he barely concerns himself with the nuts and bolts of commerce.  He's not a blogger, has only a rudimentary website, probably doesn't twitter.  His focus is making work that hangs together over decades.  And his true work is pleasing himself and being happy with his life.  The scary thing?  It works. He love the adventure of shooting and he loves the time he spends in the traditional darkroom.

To a large extent James and Andrew are the "odd couple" as far as friends go.  Both came from Corpus Christi.  James ended up chasing the light across the lone deserts of the southwest, sleeping on the roof of his car and spending weeks and months at a time pursuing projects with no deadline and no client other than himself.  Andrew is the quintessential New York super photographer with an amazing reputation and an enviable body of commercial and editorial work.  And yet they seem so comfortable as friends.  After a couple of hours of catching up, shooting and then having the video camera turned on me, James, Marcie and Andrew went off in the little red Toyota Corolla determined to have sushi at Musashino.  They invited me to join them and I would have loved to go but Belinda was making Ratatouille, there's a super Tuscan breathing on the sideboard,  and my life is different from theirs.  They're catching up and James is still basking in the glow of a very successful gallery show and book signing.  Sometimes it's better to bow out than to get in the way.

I should have my interview with James up sometime this week and I think some of you will really love it.  His message is unmistakable:  The government, corporations and society try to make you into obedient and controllable cogs but you can do whatever you want to do.  The system will take care of itself.  

Book Notes.  The book was shepherded through to publication by many people but the designers were D.J. Stout of Pentagram, and Julie Savasky, also of Pentagram.  The design is impeccable and gives the images in the book a very comforting flow.  The images are the best examples of wide open landscape, night shots in vast empty spaces, whimsical shots of animals and defining shots of the feel of being in west Texas.  If you are interested in landscape it's a "must have."  The printing defines world class.  It's a nice romp through the desert.  My favorite?   Nude with Clouds.


I never get to see myself working. This is cool.

Thank you, ATMTX


This was taken while we were working on the Bodhi Bike photos a week ago.  It's so fun to see behind the scenes stuff for me.  I spend most of my time on the other side of cameras.......


Just a few new edits of some ranch photos.

Just trying to do a better job optimizing for the web.


Work/Life Balance. And the obverse. And the inverse.

The author went out to fly kites with the kid.  The kid took the photographs, for a change.

"Never put the quality of your life in the hands of a commercial corporation."  - Nigel Marsh, TedX Sydney.

"I'll have a life when I retire.  After my wife has left me.  When the kids are grown.  When my health has failed....."  - Nigel Marsh, TedX Sydney.

"The small things matter."  - Nigel Marsh, TedX Sydney

I was so smug.  I'd be driving down Mopac expressway, heading for Dell Computer at 10 am in the morning to do a portrait of an executive at one of their offices and I'd think, "I'm a freelancer, I make my own schedule.  No rush hour traffic for me.  Not trapped in an office cube.  No crappy boss with sociopathic tendencies.  No hurried lunch at my desk.  How wild and free!  I must be the envy of all those working stiffs....." And then, in 2008 I woke up to an awareness of my own rigid and joyless habits.  I had become my own bad boss and I worked under the tyrannical control of freelance general fear and anxiety disorder.

Let me explain.  It's true that I can sleep till noon and not be fired.  But I also won't get paid any money.  And when the money runs out all hell breaks loose.  And it's true that I rarely participate in rush hour but it's usually because I'm too busy compulsively checking in with Twitter, Facebook, LinkenIn, and all the other little niches to see if my clients still love me, if the world still works the way I presume it works (doesn't, never did) or I'm doing accounting or frantically marketing so I have work coming in (I hope) in two months or five months or whenever.  While I'm being smug about not working in a cubicle I'm trying to become an expert in health insurance policies because, big surprise, as you get old your health insurance rates start to double and triple (what the hell happened to the Healthcare Bill?) but if you work for someone else they eat a lot of the financial sting.  Self-employed?  Suck it up and start looking for more cash.  Or never, ever plan on getting sick.

I'd like to do more fun work because I think it would be fun and it might be nice for my clients to see some more reach and flair but I'm usually hunkered down in my cheap office chair writing a blog or responding to something or trying to figure out how to light a fire under a book that's quietly succumbed to the wimpy and frayed part of its long tail.....

I wanted to shoot some video yesterday (Sunday) but I needed to write a few chapters of my new book on video.  I have a deadline.  If you are a freelance person you always have a deadline.....or many deadlines.  The only thing worse for your morale than a deadline is not having any deadlines because the way most freelance brains are wired not having a deadline is almost certainly linked with the not so irrational thought that you might be out on the street, living out of your SUV with your family in no time.

And it's not just me.  I watched another photographer put up 127 post in one day on twitter in the hopes that his followers will increase, that they'll pay to come to one of his workshops.  That his online training scam will finally pay off.  That he can ride the wave of some new social media trend and make some money.  I watch another photographer who's been paralyzed by the economic downturn and the wholesale abandonment of most forms of profitable business.  He stays hunkered down in his home studio, sitting in the dark, endlessly going through the tutorials about some dire boring aspect of PhotoShop and waiting for salvation or armageddon.  And I feel for these guys and myself because we're not surrounded by co-workers who buffer the fear and, through social pressure, mitigate our growing idiosyncrasies that may one day blossom into full bore neurosis.  No shared plate of cupcakes or uniform disregard for the manager...

We worry about younger photographers giving away the farm.  We worry about trends that move so fast we can't understand them.  We overanalyze the tea leaves looking for whispers of our own demise. and yet,  I can't help wondering why we choose to always go to the dark side.

A year or so ago I came to the conclusion that I worried too much and that worry was advanced payment for a catastrophe that hasn't happened, and may never happen.  I decided to stop worrying.  to stop paying into the fund in advance. "Don't worry, be happy."  And it's been a tough, tough sell to my inner psyche.  It's hard to simultaneously undo four decades of self-training.  But I feel more at ease and life seems less threatening.  Funny that, when I acknowledge that I have less control than I imagined over the big arc of life I simultaneously feel happier because I don't have to spend the energy trying to control it.

It's nothing big.  I didn't need to loose 200 pounds or stop smoking five packs of cigarettes a day.  I didn't need to give up binge drinking since I haven't tried it.  I wasn't addicted to any prescription meds.  Not in the middle of a messy divorce.  The kid isn't rebelling too hard.  We weren't insolvent, or even close to the edge.  In short, there's a ton of stuff a lot of people have on their plates that wasn't even on my radar.  I'd simply let my worry about business take over the rest of my life.  Irrationally.

To fix it I took baby steps.  I decided that exercise at least four days a week was mandatory.  I could always put off worrying about taxes or the lack of tax liability (logical next step in the thought process is....) or the funny sound my car is making, until after I swim or run.  I cut back on my caffeine consumption.  No one really needs fifteen strong cups a day.....   I stopped buying everything I wanted and try to only buy what I need.  I've spent more time making sure my gardens look good and get some water.  I pay the bills now the minute they come in the mail.  I write when I feel inspired and stop when I feel stale.  I try new art and I'm coming to grips with the idea that, in the Southwest, life quite naturally slows down a bit in the Summer months.

It's a firm family rule that we eat supper together (no electronics at the table----ever) and it's Belinda's rule   (since time immemorial) that we save money every month.

I'd like to say that I never worry or that since my resolve to stop worrying the business has miraculously returned to the halcyon profitability of the 1990's but those would be a couple of bold-faced lies.  Business ebbs and flows with the pervasive currents of hope and fear that flow through our culture.  I'm not out buying new Porsches and Bentleys but neither am I skimping on good food, good wine and art supplies.

I try to learn new ways to do business and new things to offer to my clients.  I am surprised that writing, something I've never worried about "monetizing", is becoming a larger and larger part of my overall income.  I'm also surprised at how quickly clients have accepted my overtures as a video producer.  I'm getting my Bodhi Bikes electric bike at the end of the month to see what it's like to be more green and less dependent on my car.  I'm swimming more and enjoying it more.

The remarkable power we have as humans living in the cultures we do is our ability to change and grow.  To look back at something we were invested in and slough it off like a snakeskin to embrace something different and better.  Lately I feel like my lowered resistance to change is my ultimate super power.  Try something new.  Abandon something that doesn't work for you anymore.  Change your routine to change your perspective.  You get one shot at this, you might as well not suffer.

Sometimes I think freelancers think too much.  The thoughts aren't necessarily better than anyone else's or worse.  It's just that we have more time to think and maybe that's part of the problem.......


Ranch Weather. Ranch Lenses. Texas Girl.

Selena.  Zeiss 50mm Planar.  

It's been in the triple digit temperatures here in Austin for the last twelve days in a row.  It was 96(f) here last night at 10 pm.  And I don't know why but that always makes me think of west Texas ranches.  I remember driving out I-10 toward El Paso in some cranky old Buick and watching the wiggly heat waves shimmer up from the ribbon of black top up ahead on the horizon.  And whenever you got somewhere you got there thirsty.  Even though Selena and I did this shoot on a cool Spring day it has that feel.  And I think it's my brain putting together the long drives of my youth, done in the Summer months when school faded away with my memory of ranches owned by the family of friends.

I've shown some images of my shoot with Selena before but the soft focus shimmer off the road outside my studio at 10:30 in the morning put me back into that little niche of combined memory and I went back to my library and started to look for images that resonated.....

Selena.  Zeiss 50mm Planar.

I like and fear the Summer in Texas.  Seems that all the clients head out on vacation and the ones who don't wish they had and sit quietly in their offices staring out the window.  The heat slowing them down and slowing down the entire process of commerce.  I like the Summer because in the one hour of swim practice we go from cool breezes and the first glow of sun over the trees by the pool to full on sun and a warm set of rays caressing your back.  When I get out I'm ready for the day.  Summer means the kid is home from school and I can't be totally selfish.  I have to make concessions.  I have to drop him off places and pick him up.  If he's around the house I make sure he gets lunch.  When Belinda is working I spend more time walking the dog.

I fear that we'll never get rain to break a long drought.  My lawn is like fresh bread left too long in the toaster.  Getting crisper and crisper as the time drags on.  We're on voluntary water rationing and we take it seriously.  But I get out every evening and hand water the flowers and shrubs and I try to get some deep water to the trees because I'd hate to lose them.

I like that Summer makes everyone a bit more casual.  Shorts and flip flops are the norm.  Suits are gone.  Well, that's not totally true.  The state capitol was wall to wall lobbyist suits a few weeks ago.  All anonymous grey with bright red power ties...  But my friends, my people are in shorts and flip flops and lightweight ball caps.  Sunglasses become really important.   And I like that the heat wave gives me an excuse to try different Riesling wines.  I like the dry Rieslings, they're refreshing after a day of.....well....kicking around town trying hard to look productive.

Selena.  35mm Zeiss Lens.

I've done a good amount of work already this Summer and I guess another reason I dug up these images was to see what the Zeiss lenses look like.  When you are finishing an assignment you've been working on you've seen all the images too much in too short a time.  You're in and out of Lightroom and burning DVD's and all that and you really don't have time to just sit with the pictures and decide what it is you like and what it is that you don't like about them.

It seems like every job I've done recently, and especially the stuff I've shot for myself, I've been shooting with my little collection of Zeiss lenses.  And it's nice to go back and look at older stuff like this and compare it side by side with stuff I shot a few days ago.  I've also been looking at stuff I shot with Canon lenses and even Nikon stuff.  And I've come to the same conclusion I always do.....
Selena.  35mm Zeiss.

All the cameras we have at our disposal are very good these days and the difference between a Zeiss 85 and a Canon 85 and a Nikon 85 is like trying to define the difference between three good beers.  They may taste different but there's no good, better, best.  It's a matter of taste.  They all get the job done.  
Once I stop the lenses down to f4 or f5.6 they are, for all intents and my purposes, identical.  Even the slower, cheaper ones.  So much of what we buy is vanity.  Or self delusion.  Or the ubiquitous search for that talisman of optical power that may (in our dreams) confer some of its power to you or me.

Selena.  35mm Zeiss.

I really have come to understand that 90% of success is showing up.  The other 10% is asking for what you need.  That doesn't leave a lot of space for the influence of "great glass."

Selena.  35mm Zeiss.

Lenses trump cameras.  Lighting trumps lenses.  Gesture trumps lighting.  A good idea, well executed wins the hand.

Selena.  85mm Zeiss Planar.

Photographers as a group seem obsessed with whatever is next.  It could be the look of HDR.  It could be the anti-camera fashion of shooting everything with iPhones.  It can be prodigious post processing.  But in the end if the subject matter and the idea are boring your audience will soon discover that what you've done is create a costume for an idea that might be better savored without the embellishment.  Without the little paper umbrella.

Otherwise we'd have nothing but "manifesto" art.  And while that's great for MFA candidates to talk and write about it's about as satisfying staring into a funhouse mirror.  

If the subject and the idea are great you could probably make a good image with even.......a Samsung phone.  Ring, ring.  Your camera is calling.  You might want to answer that.


I love Central Austin. No matter where you look there's something funny and happy.

I love living in Austin because there are people who make their lives into art, don't care what the people in the suburbs think and take pleasure in living large.  How else do you explain an upscale trailer park in the middle of the most expensive and desirable property in the city, occupied mostly by people with a flair for fun?  I've seen this mannequin on top of this RV for months.  It's been dressed up in Christmas costumes and lights, Valentine's Day finery and sporty Summer outfits.

I always mean to stop and go introduce myself and thank the person for helping to stave off the growing menace of mediocrity and group think.  I want to thank them for keeping Austin Weird, which is synonymous with keeping Austin fun.  Even the most curmudgeonly church goer probably understands on some level how important it is for society, culture, technology and even business to have a cadre of people who are still capable of thinking outside the box.

I finally met Jim.  I was doing a photo assignment across the street at Barton Springs Bike Rentals and I'd parked down the block behind the original Chuy's.  On the way back to my car I stopped to chat.  Jim was fun, smart, and happy.  And he does art all the time.  But he doesn't do it after work.  It is his work.  And there is no stop and start.  He lives it.

I think the name of his RV sums it up best.  On the top, over the driver's window there's a logo.  It says, "Flair."

It's stuff like this all over Austin that reminds me that life is short and the real goal is to have maximum fun without hurting anyone else.  I think of displays like this as reminders to me not to get too serious.  The pathway to serious is lined with migraines, ulcers and, eventually surrender.

Let's not just shoot more fun stuff, let's participate and do our share to keep all of our cities weirder and more creative.  After all, the wealth of the 21st century goes to the culture who creates content.  And I would conjecture the funnest kind of wealth goes to the cultures who create the funnest content.


Sometimes lighting up a room takes some real power.

Power cables running from four diesel, truck sized generators into a 20,000 square foot ballroom.

You think professional photographers are insane about back-up and the need to prevent failure at all costs?  I recently did a corporate show in a splendid new hotel that was still working out a few kinks.  I am good friends with the production company that turned a bare exhibition space into a high tech wonderland for a week.  Acres of computer controlled, color shifting LED accent lights.  Computer controlled moving lights.  Hundreds of pedestals with tech products and demos as far as the eye could see.

They did due diligence months ago to make sure that the hotel was wired with enough juice to handle everything but that was all...........theoretical.  The day before doors opened they brought up all the lights and in a few minutes the exhibition space went dark.  Everything shut down.  The hotel worked on it.  The production company immediately got on the phone and arranged an alternate source of power.  No questions asked.  No prayerful hoping.  All business.  All on.  All the time.

Turned out to be a programming glitch and the hotel ended up having more than enough power on tap.  But the generators stayed in place.  Just in case.  The production company's motto?  "When the credits roll make sure that heads don't."  And that motto is trademarked.  They don't have shows go down.  It doesn't happen.

Hundreds of thousands of dollars, millions over the years, are at stake thru reputation and word of mouth.

Next time someone tells you that you don't go on a job without mission critical back-up please remember how the big boys roll and save yourself from that possible career ending failure.  Pack twice as much as you need.  Make sure it works.  Get ready for Murphy's Law.  


Additional information about my Elinchrom lighting adventure....

The last time I wrote to you about lights I'd just dumped a two decade accumulation of Profoto lighting equipment and ventured toward the cheap side of the lighting universe.  I started out with one Elinchrom D-Lite-4 IT monolight and I decided that I liked it.  Pretty well.  It took a while to get used to handling a lighter and less robust lighting machine but the upside was the novelty and the digital controls on the back.

On friday I did my first corporate portrait with three of the D-Lites.  I used one as a main light in a 28 inch Fotodiox Beauty Dish, covered with a diffusion "sock" and feathered quite a bit.  I used a second light into a 60 inch Photek Softlighter with it's diffusion cover and, I used a third light with a couple layers of diffusion over an 8 inch, 50 degree reflector as a background light.

I had all the modeling lights on full and things were zipping along well.  I was shooting quickly and banged off about 35 frames over the course of five minutes.  That's when the fan came on in the fill light/Photek box.  A few minutes later the fan came on in the beauty dish assemblage.  All the lights kept banging away until we finished frame #110.  Then I was done.  The fans ran for a minute or so more and then stopped.  I looked at the frames on my monitor.  Even though I was shooting quickly I got into the pattern of waiting for the recycle "beep" to sound before shooting each frame.  The frames on the monitor were absolutely consistent.

The optical slaves worked fine on the two flashes not connected to the sync cord.

I'm using them again on Monday to make portraits of fourteen people at a medical practice here in Austin. I'll have them up and running for the better part of the day.  That's about it.