It may be that my life is too isolated. As an advertising and corporate photographer there are blocks of time spent with groups of people making projects work and then blocks of time where nothing happens. A few days into a period of inaction and I'm always presented with a choice. On one side is the path of least resistance: Let's see what Michael Reichmann says about the new Phase One back. Let's see what Michael Johnston says about the new Koudelka book. Let's see what the people on DPReview say about the new Nikon.
On the other side is the path of most resistance. On this path the choices are: (the bane of all creative people) Pick up the phone and schedule some portfolio shows. Pick up the phone and call someone and beg them to come over and sit for a portrait. Grab a camera and go out looking for something wonderful and interesting to shoot. This path is much harder but in the long run it's a lot like weight lifting. If you keep doing curls with a five pound weight it's hard to see much progress down the road. A bit of heavy lifting and you can feel it the next day. To build muscle you have to overcome the resistance. To build creative muscle you have to leave the safety of the creative den.
I took some time off from blogging last week. Too much seat time. It only takes you five minutes to read one of these but it inevitably takes me forty minutes to think and write one. I did client jobs and I did portfolio shows but mostly I walked around, met people and took images. And it re-energized the way I feel about my work.
The one important thing I did for my art was to find this image (above), have a large print framed, and hang it over my desk. It reminds me that I'll never find what I'm looking for in my own work if I'm glued to the computer. Nice.
It reminds me to unplug and move. Because at the core, photographers are like sharks. When we stop moving we stop breathing. And that's when we die.
Above image shot in Rome with a Mamiya Six MF rangefinder camera (square format), 50mm lens, Kodak T-max CN.
All last week I had a wonderful crush on my EP3. Right up until I used it to shoot some theater stuff at ISO 1600. I also packed an old Canon 1dmk2n in the bag, along with a 70-200 L lens. The focus wasn't an issue but getting really clean, sharp files from the EP3 at 1600 was. (And I didn't expect them to be....).
The EP3 does lots and lots of stuff right. The images, from ISO 200 to 800 are nice and clean and saturated but at 1600 they don't really stand up to the larger pixels on the larger sensor in the Canon. That was my first incidence of dissonance.
This morning (Sat. Sept. 24) I had occasion to wake up my kid at the way too early hour of six a.m. to get him ready and deliver him to a cross country invitational race in Cedar Park, Texas. I packed the EP3 and the same Canon rig again. In bright morning sun both cameras are superb. The Canon is a giant brute of a camera and, with it's white lens on the front, it weighs a ton. The Olympus fits in my hand perfectly and is nearly weightless. But a few minutes of trying to track runners running at speed, coming toward my camera, had me tossing the weightless wonder back in the bag and grabbing for the 2005 vintage sports camera.
The Canon 1d series has three attributes that make it a top choice for photographing your kid running cross country: 1. It focuses incredibly fast. Maybe faster than it's descendant, and with a high degree of accuracy. Even when you are in AI autofocus and tracking. 2. It can shoot at 8 frames per second which gives you options for framing and foot placement of your subject. 3. It has an inherent color palette that works well for sunny and shaded scenes.
The Canon 1Dmk2n is a wonderful sports camera and built to a price point of around $5,000-$6,000. It was almost custom made to do exactly the kind of work I put it to above. The focus is better than anything else I've ever owned, from Nikon, Canon or Olympus. But it's not nearly as much fun to shoot on a downtown street or in a crowded club.
If you only have one camera you'll need to make some practical choices. If you buy some previous generation cameras that are specialized, along with current cameras in other niches, you might end up with the best of all possible worlds. Just not at the same time.
I have a photographer friend I'll call, "Andy." He makes magic with his cameras. Every one of them. At least I think it's magic because his look is so different from mine. His images are perfectly exposed but they seem airier and lighter than mine. The shadows and highlights are crisp as cold celery and open. And everything in Andy's images seems sharper than the content in my images. So much so that I finally pressed him about his secret sharpening formula. He walked me through an explanation that sounded so much like something I already knew and we both walked away feeling a bit baffled. (At least I did....). At another time a photograph whose work I really like was looking at two prints (not dissimilar to the ones I'm showing in this blog) and he asked me how I got such a feeling of gravity and substance into my prints. But I couldn't answer any better than Andy answered me. And then it dawned on me that we saw the world, physically, in a very different way. That our prints are reflections of our own unique vision of the world. And I realized, at that moment, that we all sing with a different voice and with a different timbre. And it's not being able to reproduce exactly what Andy does that makes me so interested in the work he produces. Because when I look at his work I have a visceral glimpse into how he sees the world. It's degrees different than my vision. And vice versa.
And that's how art is supposed to work. If everything could be reduced to formulas and spreadsheets we could program photo robots and never have to lift a finger to photograph again. And how sad would that be? (Note to self: reject all creative formulas. Additional note to self: Is "creative formula" an oxymoron?).
I've read many, many books about portrait photography and they follow several threads. On one hand we have handbooks that walk you through the entirely technical process of "manufacturing" a portrait. You know the drill: "First you establish your main light looking for a small triangle of light on the opposite cheek. Then you add a fill light and establish a ratio of 1:2 for portraits of women and 1:3 or even (horrors!) 1:4 for men. Once your main light and fill light are established you can move on to your 'kicker' light and rimlight the subject's hair. Be sure to back off the exposure by 1.5 EV if you are rim lighting blond hair........" The process goes on with advice on cameras, focal length, and optimum camera to subject distances. It can be the formula for generations of remarkably boring and eerily similar portraits. No doubt that a few gifted artists use the same formula for lighting and camera specs and still make dynamic and eminently beautiful portraits. But most technically driven workshops, books and approaches tend to lead to portraits with no more differentiation from the mean than a random sampling of McDonald's hamburgers. And the output is equally bland.
But portraits done in this way are comforting in the same way a Big Mac is comforting: You know what you're getting. You know what it will cost. You know it's not going to be too spicy (interesting). Working to a formula is a dangerous way for artists to proceed because you quickly move from experimentation, and the thrill of possible failure, to an assembly line approach to producing a product which can be.....reliably produced. Good for production and efficiency. Bad if you got into photography to pursue and be seduced by your muse (the goddess, not your subject!) or because you already had a unique vision to ply.
This technique-driven approach also spills over into posing. And here it's even more egregious. Several publishers here in the U.S. publish books on posing. There are workshops about posing and some marketing genius has also created a line of posing flash cards for the aesthetically deprived. "Have the girl tip her head forward to show subtle submissiveness...." (Yuck).
And taken together these obsessions with formulae conspire to convince compliance with the general mythology that taking a good portrait is nothing more than "excellent" lighting and "good" posing. And nothing could be further from the truth.
The single most vital component of getting a great image of a person is to establish a collaborative rapport. An emotional and intellectual understanding of each other's intentions. And there's no book or workshop that will help you to do this because each person you meet is so different. It's suggested that you make small talk. Find out about their hobbies. Play their favorite music. Give them a glass of wine. But each of these approaches, or mixed matrixes of approaches, is shallow and fraught with the very limitations you bring with you and your client brings with them as human beings. A deep and revelatory rapport is rarely possible to establish in the first meeting and even more so in the first fifteen minutes of a session with a stranger. And I speak from experience. I've done thousands of rushed corporate portraits that have failed, in my eyes, miserably and yet; since the client and I both understand the limits of that commercial intersection we soldier on, use the images and don't look back.
But from time to time I am really driven to make portraits because I find the person interesting. Because I find a gesture or expression expressive and compelling. But mostly because I want to see the person portrayed in a style I like and with an emotional frame of reference that transcends the process, even if just by a little bit. I want my light to work a certain way that isn't "right, proper, standard" and I want an expression born of shared sharing and not banal manipulation coupled with resignation.
So, in the few instances that I've been successful, what is it that happens in a session that makes everything come together and actually work? Little more than patience and listening.
When a beautiful woman comes into my studio, especially someone over say, 25, we have to work our way through the poses that every photographer who ever convinced her to sit attempted. In this way we cover, or break down, the past. Then we slow down and get quiet. We talk about what I'm trying to do with this time together. We talk about what we really love to see in photographs and portraits. Usually we both agree that black and white portraits are more interesting, more visually sensual, than color. Then we share about how we like the shadows. Darker and contrasty? Open. Mostly people have never thought about it but when we look at samples they seem always drawn to the mysterious nature of a rich, dark shadow setting off their face.
Then we work slowly. One shot at a time. I usually have to explain that constantly moving is the antithesis of what I want. For some reason all the fashion geeks have "trained" beautiful girls to constantly move around, change expression, adapt "sexy" poses, etc. But I explain that I'm shooting and looking and finding what I like about their face. And to do it right we need to move in small, small steps and when we find a position where the light kisses them with passion they need to hold that position so we can play with expression and subtle nuances of gesture. We hold the position that provides a beautiful frame, and then we try to light up their eyes with curiosity and passion.
The talk becomes quieter and more sporadic. Suggestions become one or two words. "A tiny bit left. A bit more. Right there." And once we find the spot where the light plays across lips and cheek bones and eyes just right we dig in and talk about what sorts of emotion we want to see in the final, ultimate photo.
I usually suggest that a smile isn't what I have in mind. If I'm looking for a smile I want to see it as a twinkle in their eyes. But what I really want is a look of anticipation and deep interest. "What will we talk about next?"
And an hour later, after we've cleared out the weird poses and the fashion frenetics and the beauty queen smiles, we finally dig down to a calm and serene expression that works. For a few moments I feel deeply drawn toward the subject. As though we're thinking the same thoughts. As though we have all the time in the world to get the image we both want. And we work slowly through a process that's more flirtation (on their part) and an admiration and appreciation of the beauty they've chosen to project, in our session, on my part.
And just like a movie or play or even a tryst there's a single second, a single frame where it finally all comes together and we both know it. We stay at it a bit longer to see if there's more or better but there never is. The mystery's been solved and committed to film or sensor. And we slowly close up shop and make some more small talk and the session is over.
Cost effective? Not hardly. Satisfying? Like the best meal you've ever eaten. You both walk out of the studio confident that you created art together that will be different from what any two other people will do. And in this cookie cutter world it's the best feeling. You've made something "one of a kind."
And it's that mutually supportive give and take that makes a real portrait work for me. Everything else is one sided. On one hand, the traditional retail portrait formula manipulates the sitter into accepting a "standard" iteration of the modern portrait product. On another hand, in the example of a quick celebrity portrait, the celebrity uses the portrait photographer as a mechanic and causes him to project the celebrity's practiced image onto the photographer's canvas, nearly complete and inviolable.
In some respects my way is the middle way. We both come into the studio as equals and wait quietly to see where the conversation will take us.
Is the print dead? Was analog photography really about print? Is digital a different medium altogether?
A number of years ago Steven Ray hired me to go to New York and shoot in a printing plant. The company specialized in printing the boxes that exquisite perfumes come in. The printer in the photo above is holding a thick sheet of glossy black that will eventually become a Chanel box. The printers were masters as foil stamping which imparts a metallic design element to the printed product. Their presses were also works of art. We shot all day long with a Hasselblad camera and three lenses, the 50mm the 80mm and the 150mm. All the film was Tri-X. So what I ended up with a few days later was a box filled with sleeved slivers of negative film and sheets of black and white contact images. Each one a delicated 6cm square with the frame numbers and edge information as a diffused and diaphanous ribbon against the black edge. To a non-photographer the film was unintelligible. It needed to be interpreted and applied before it had meaning. From the beginning of the project there was always the intention that the film would be printed. The secondary intention was that it would be printed large.
The end result was large black and white prints in a display at the Jacob Javitts Center for an industrial graphic arts trade show. The images were almost twelve feet tall. And they were wonderful. No one walked by the prints, which formed the boundaries of the companies large display area, without stopping to stare.
And thinking about this made me reconsider what I think about photography and its transition from analog to digital. Somewhere along the continuum we traded the idea that our work was destined for print (whether the fine art print, the magazine page, the poster, the package or the work print) for the idea that it was satisfactory for people to view our work on computer screens, telephone screens and as very low resolution projections. We talk about losing the magic of film but perhaps what we are really saying is that we lost the magic of the print.
While the iPad screen is seductive in it's immediacy, and the flat screen TV in the living room seduces us into a certain relaxed passivity, neither is a good substitute for a well made print, well seen. But what the electronic displays have done is to make it implicitly "okay" to not follow thru and make the print. And without the print as the final step photography is transformed from something that could always be objectively viewed and talked about into a medium that presents your work differently from house to house and computer to computer. Every screen is different and the proficiency of the viewers in preparing their screens is boldly distributed across the Bell Curve. The ultimate in subjectivity.
How can we talk about images if green here and green there are not the same? If the gamma is different from device to device? And how can we take our fellow artists seriously when they insist on showing us their work on 5 square inches of telephone screen space?
When I pause to think about all this I come to understand my nostalgia for medium format film cameras better than I have in the months gone by. It's really a nostalgia for the entirety of the process, including and culminating in the print. The print is the gold standard.
Screens both hide and reveal many flaws of technique and visualization. Sometimes with a mercilessness that precludes the idea that "loose technique" can also be evocative art. The print is my interpretation. It doesn't matter if the image started life as a digital Pen file or a scan from a twenty year old Tri-X negative, it's the interpretation into print that gives it the final step of life.
When I made the images above PhotoShop had just been on the market for several years and was no where near as sophisticated (and culturally intrusive) as it is today. Any effects I wanted in my prints I did by hand. Done over and over again the eye and the hand (burning, dodging and softening) worked in close concert to draw my intention from paper and chemicals. And, like snowflakes, no two darkroom workers work their process of interplay with prints in exactly the same way. This gave both the image and the print (as a separate part of the equation) their own primacy and singular style. And, try as I might to be uniform, each print that was burned and dodged and toned and nurtured was different, even if only microscopically, from the ones before and after it. That made each print unique and surprising.
In all things artistic, and in all attraction between the sexes and between people, it's not the perfection or repeatability that inspires, intrigues and invests us, it's the imperfection. The thrill of discovering singular nuance. Of savoring something that can't exist in exactly the same way somewhere else. Each finished print was special. PhotoShop, Inkjet printers, actions and all the rest of the new methods rob us of the genuine thrill of discovering and savoring imperfections. The imperfections inform beauty. And the unveiling of beauty is what drives my photography.
My practice is not akin to a printing press where we stamp out identical products. It's about constantly changing and challenging and experimenting. And chance helps us fail better than perfection and by failing reveals a new path to art.
All of this to say: We need to make and share more prints. That's where the rubber meets the contextual road.
We can also look into our crystal balls and see that video will have a big impact, in the future.
Once a semester my friend Bill Woodhull, who is the department chair for commercial photography, invites me out to scare the hell out of his students. These are the students in the last year of their curriculum and they are in the required course about business. Bill brings in lawyers to talk about rights and contracts, accountants to talk about accounting, and several different photographers to give the students a reality check about what to expect when they leave the nest.
I started my talk a six thirty yesterday evening after fighting rush hour traffic for way too long. We talked about these things: The parabola of earning power in the creative industry. The need to save up money so that you have a year of living expenses in the bank. The need to stay in good physical shape since lots of photography is full contact, extreme work (or at least constant rearrangement of furniture...).
The need to continuously market. The need to build a consistent brand. The need to accept credit cards. The need to minimize expenses and maximize income.
But then we talked about something dear to my heart and the whole tone shifted. We talked about how a real, collaborative portrait session actually works. What happens after you've done the lighting, set up the camera, and posed the model? What happens AFTER all that. And it dawned on me that in all the workshops and classes and books and magazine articles I've never seen someone really explain how to go beyond the "smile for the camera" ten minute commercial portrait and work with a subject to create a connection and to create real art. I shared the secrets I knew with them and in the process rediscovered what it is I love some much about doing portraits..........
And that would make a great workshop....
Thanks very much to Bill's students for helping guide me. I think we all had a good experience.
Cameras are interesting in that professionals and hobbyists seem to see them in two different ways. I've got a bunch of them and they grow around the studio almost organically. I see them as different ingredients for exciting visual recipes. I seem them as sultry brunettes and sunny, exuberant blondes. Some times you want to look at Rembrant. Sometimes you want to look at Picasso. And rarely, but occasionally you want to glance at a Jackson Pollock. Some of my hobbyist buddies are aghast that I collect outside the rigorous boundaries of a single system. All Leroi Nieman all the time.
Buy more cameras. Don't watch the same episode of Star Trek over and over again. Variety is the spice of life. But don't go overboard. All things in moderation......
People love to talk horse poop about stuff they haven't tried for themselves. My favorite is the put down that you shouldn't buy micro four thirds cameras because you can't do narrow depth of field effects. I shot this at Starbucks this morning while sitting around with a bunch of my swimmer buddies, swilling coffee. Pen EP3 with Pen F 40mm 1.4 MF lens.
Let's get a few things out of the way first. I walked into Precision Camera and paid for my Olympus EP3. Olympus isn't sponsoring my review or giving me this stuff so I feel pretty okay saying just about anything I want about the EP3, good or bad. I was immediately interested in the Pens on their launch because I am a collector of Pen F film cameras and their incredibly good Pen F lenses. The stuff is downright amazing. I rushed to the store two years ago to look at the EP1 and I passed on that camera. There was no way to do eye level viewfinding. No EVF. I'd have to wear reading glasses to see fine detail on the screen. Just not going to happen. But I didn't get too upset because I knew it was only a matter of time before they released a model with an EVF. Well, we got the EVF in the form of the VF-2 and while many people don't like this solution I'm very, very happy with it. In fact, I own two of them and now use one on the EP3 and one on the EP2 or the EPL1 depending on which camera I'm toting as a back up. I got the EP3 a couple days ago but today was the first time I had free time to walk around and shoot with it. I put the kit lens in the small bag but I also dragged along a bunch of the old glass, including the (All Pen F lenses from the 1970's) 25mm 2.8, the 40mm 1.4, the 60mm 1.5, and one of the two 50-90mm zooms. It all fit, with my phone and an extra battery, in a bag about half the size of an 9 by 12 inch envelope. The Pen lens are all metal construction with buttery smooth focus rings and the build quality (optically and mechanically) is nearly on par with older generation Leica M lenses.
Minimalism as mainstream? Small cameras the new pro cameras? Is the world out of control, or just catching up?
So I was at Holland Photo Lab on South Lamar Blvd. this morning. I'd come via a circuitous route since the city of Austin has closed off most of the streets I normally navigate to have some sort of "rock" concert in the park for the next three days.... I dropped off my three rolls of Velvia 100f (a whopping 36 exposures, total) from my roadway project and I was waiting for someone to log in my film when this magazine caught my eye. "Be A Minimalist." the cover demands.
There are several articles in the magazine that gush about the move to use more "minimalist" gear in your lighting and shooting. There's a breathless article about a shooter in Joplin who uses only an entry level DSLR with a kit lens and a couple of clamp lights from Walmart. That's one of his shots on the cover (above). Sometimes he even uses.......available light!!!! Further into the guts of the magazine is a long "technical" article that explains how shooting with cameras aimed at rank amateurs can "make sense" for professional photographers. It shows a chart with all sorts of entry level cameras including two I felt were odd choices, both because of price and also the capabilities of these weather proof and well regarded bodies. Those were the Canon 7D and the Nikon D300s. Seems not every photographer covers sports and needs superfast response and (AMAZING) not every professional photographer shoots in harsh environmental conditions that would require weather sealed cameras.