Sometimes we take images for the memories we think they'll evoke. But mostly we take them to try and freeze the bittersweet rush through life.
I don't know which camera or lens I had in my hands other than it was a 35mm film camera. The lens must have had a fast aperture and the shot was on Kodachrome 64 slide film. It didn't matter. It hardly ever matters.
Like a catalyst in chemistry the perfect muse starts and sustains a reaction in the artist that makes the process of art both possible and, to the artist, desirable. When I started out in photography I was "home schooling" myself. And I made a lot of trials with a lot of errors but I had one short cut that many others, whose goal was to become "an artist" or "a photographer" didn't have. I had a burning desire not to "be" an artist but to make the art. I kept stumbling into beauty at every turn and I wanted to record it, share it and say, "See what I see. Isn't life amazing?!" And since I came to the art looking for tools to share what I saw I bypassed the whole quagmire symbolized by the question: "What should I shoot?"
There are two ways (probably millions of ways) to come to photography. One is to become enchanted by the tools and set off on a life long journey to master the tools and wield them like a wizard in an RPG. The second is to find a subject and to search for the right media with which to have a conversation with everyone around you. The wizard seeks power while the person struck senseless by beauty tries to lend power to his subjects. To translate their beauty into a universal language.
I've often said that I can take or leave landscape photography. Same goes for still lives or big Crewdsonian tableaux. Ditto the Didactic demonstrations of Gursky. But every once in a while I'll be walking down the street and I'll look into someone's face and become transfixed with the perfectly imperfect symmetry of a face and the transient nuance of a serene grace I see there. Other times I'm equally riveted by a playful half smile or a majestically projected innocence. And I want to make a photograph because it's all so fleeting, and the universe and time keep gobbling up our chaotic intersectional interfaces with an insatiable and unstoppable vigor. True beauty, to me is the wonderful contenance of another person, projected without affectation.
So I slowly taught myself how to make portraits. And for the last thirty years I've worked to make my own encyclopedia of beautiful faces. And it's much harder than it might seem. First you have to recognize them; the people who resonate with you. Then you have to gain their collaboration. Then you have to guide them through the process of being photographed. You have to be wary of dabbling in new styles so as to not obviate your clear vision. You have to be able to take the raw materials provided by your session and work it like clay or marble and pull from it the vision you saw with your heart. That's the hard part. And I fail far more often than I succeed.
But sometimes it works.
So many things can derail you. The biggest obstacle is fear. Fear that you'll not be able to find the "right" subject. Fear about approaching a stranger. Fear of failure. All kinds of fear. Almost impenetrable fear. But, of course, as Steven Pressfield aptly conveyed through his characters in his magnificent book, The Gates of Fire, the opposite of fear is love. And the capacity to fall in love is the secret tool that makes a portrait artist successful.
To fall in love with a face. To fall in love with the way light caresses soft skin. To fall in love with the creation of an idealistic symbol of a person's outward projection. To fall in love with the wonderful energy of eyes, vital and alive. The opposite of fear is love. Love doing your work and you banish fear.
So the muse is there to make sure that, even if only for a minute or two, you experience the warm, rich embrace of love and translate it into your art. I laugh and I kid but I really do understand that a portrait will rise above the level of documentation or decoration when I feel myself falling, however tentatively, in love with my subject. And my one desire is to share with my audience how special my subjects are. How unique and vibrant.
Poor Belinda. I thought she was so radiant and wonderful when she was 20. How silly of me not to understand at the time that every year she would become ever more so. That's the nature of your muse.
I worked with my friend, Lane Orsak, to make images for his conception of a website for one of our venerable, creative and wonderful Mexican restaurants here in Austin: Manuel's. He has a movie on the splash page that mixes my food photographs, my lifestyle images and even small movies done with my custom made slider and an Olympus EP-3 camera in its video mode. Please check it out:
Joe York in The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
A few years back Zachary Scott Theatre produced their version of the Rocky Horror Picture Show, and the lead character was played by one of Austin's greatest actors, Joe York. Joe was always up for a good photoshoot and, as was routine back then, we jumped right in to do some publicity stills to send out to various media. On the evening we made this image I was mostly shooting with a medium format camera, on a tripod. We were using hot light through small diffusion scrims as a light sources. The image above is lit by one light through a 4x4 foot scrim. The light level was very low. But this image is not from a medium format camera. Back then I always carried my Leica rangefinder camera with me as well. I'd just finished shooting a series on the bigger camera and we were planning the next set up when someone said something off color to Joe and he struck a pose. I lifted up my Leica and snapped one frame. And from all the images we took that evening this one is my favorite.
It's not a favorite because of any technical considerations. In fact it's noisy, not tack sharp and the color needed massaging in the processing. But it's my favorite because it's spontaneous, honest and a moment truly captured. We were using 64T film in the big camera. It's transparency film that's formulated for tungsten light sources. I was using Kodak 320T (T-grain) film in the M6, along with a 50mm Summilux lens. I'd set the smaller camera to an equivalent exposure the minute we'd taken light meter readings for the larger camera. Back then it was routine to make a mental calculation to compensate for the difference in the different film sensitivities. In essence, all I had to do to make the image was to lift the camera to my eye, fine tune the focus and squeeze the shutter button. All the other decisions had be previously made.
There's something wonderful and fun about using slide film because, in its essential form, it is the antithesis of a post production friendly medium. It begs you to get everything just right. The benefit to me is that it encourages both my technical attention and my laziness. If I get everything right at the time of the photography there's really nothing more I need to do. If a client likes the image I can send the slide out for scanning. If I want to view it I can hold it up to the light. If I want to file it I can put it in a page sleeve, scrawl a description across the top of the page and put it into the right spot in the filing cabinet. And it's resilient. I don't need to make back ups (although I do have some high res scans) and it's nearly infinitely scalable. It might not get sharper but it sure won't pixelate.....
And then there's Paul Leary....
Paul Leary. Around the time of "the History of Dogs."
Paul Leary had a dog named, Mark Farner. He was/is also a member of an interesting band called "The Butthole Surfers." I met him when I was photographing the BHS group for Spin Magazine. That was an interesting shoot and a story for another post....
Paul and I actually grew up not far from each other in San Antonio and we both attended the University of Texas at Austin, although a few years apart. A year or two after the images of BHS ran in the magazine Paul got in touch with me to see if I'd shoot the cover of his new album, The History of Dogs.
Of course, I jumped at the chance. Paul brought over his pit bull, Mark Farner, and we dressed him in the same wig you see above and made some really fun images. That done we decided to do some promo images of Paul as well.
In current times we would probably have been lazy, expedient, efficient, technically savvy and boring. We'd shoot against a green screen, drop the background out and add the background color we wanted. Then we'd do something tricky in five or six layers and then I'd be so bored I'd have to take a nap. Back when I took this there was no such thing as layers in PhotoShop and dropping stuff out wasn't a one click proposition. So we just shot it the way we wanted to see it in the end. I dropped a couple of magenta filters over some background lights and washed a gray seamless with color. Then I lit Paul with a big softbox and shot the whole mess. Exactly what I wanted. And.....no postprocessing necessary. The edited slides went into Federal Express envelope and made their way to the record company. And back again. My part, the imagining and seeing and shooting went smoothly. Their part, the separations and printing, also went smoothly. Again, slide film was a perfect solution for highly focused but inherently lazy working photographers. And it was also like working without a safety net. It was a time when not everyone got a trophy.
Shot with a Leica R8 camera and a 50mm R Summicron on Fuji Astia film stock. Nice stuff.
It would be an interesting experiment to give the current generation of photographers a camera like a Nikon F2 or a Leica R8 and one roll of 100 ISO, color slide film and see what they could do with it. And it would be fun to watch for the first hour or so as they looked at the back of the camera every time they pushed the shutter button.
While I'm on the subject of lazy photographers (me) and the benefits of shooting 35mm slide film I thought I'd throw in one more rail of my train of thought...
Lou. Test Image for Lecture on Movie Lighting.
I've tried everything imaginable to get perfect skin tones from digital. Sometimes it works but most of the time I'm dancing around the edge of highlights that seem to want to escape to white the minute I try to do anything with the midrange or shadows of a digital camera file portrait. I was beginning to think it had always been this way and was about to resign myself to shooting a little darker and using more and more make-up to fight the dreaded glare that always seems to materialize in the middle of the subject's forehead or on the tips of their noses and then I stumbled across this slide from a series I'd taken to illustrate a lecture on movie lighting.
Lou is my model and she did (probably still does) have perfect skin. That made things easier. But even with a molecule of make-up her face stayed glare free, burned highlight free, and detail smooth. And it's because even slide film from ten years ago is much more graceful and much less linear than the capture curve of all the digital cameras I've tried. And if you've been a reader of the blog you surely know I've tried a lot.
It has to do with the longer "shoulder" built into films like Fuji's Astia or Kodak's EPN slide films. Instead of following a nearly linear tonal progression the films rolled off the curve so that additional exposure had less effect on highlight areas.
Again, this meant that with good metering and good lighting I was able to eliminate several of the steps that now seem mandatory to me in the age of digital photography. Now, before you mark me as a newcomer please note that we bought our first professional digital camera in 1996 and, since 2006 have put over 200,000+ digital files into my SmugMug galleries for a bunch of different clients. Rather than argue that I have a nostalgia for film I think it makes more sense to argue that I have a nostalgia for a lazier and more productive time. And an easier back end process.
Thought that writing this might be a bit of an antidote to my recent fascination with the tiny ( but glorious) Nikon V1....
Finally, not all film captures were great. I offer, for your derision, an out take from a shoot for a company that builds waste water treatment plants across the U.S. It's poorly seen and poorly shot and it wouldn't have mattered if it had been shot on film or digital. It's just a mess....
Leica M series with 15mm Voigtlander lens.
Just rummaging around Amazon. Saw this and bought it. I've used their 8 gig cards and they work well in my V1. I thought this would be cool for making movies with the camera...
I had to run over to Precision Camera to buy some "fashion grey" background paper yesterday. When I got to the store Gregg, the sales manager walked up and handed me the Nikon Series One 10-100mm zoom lens. "This came from the Nikon rep with a note to give it to you." He said. I asked him for details and he just shook his head and said, "She told us you could use it as long as you wanted to, but eventually she'd like it back…" Sounded reasonable to me. Of course, when presented with a new state-of-the-art toy my first inclination is to drop everything and start playing but life interceded and I remember that I needed to pack, help Ben with some math and post process my Mexican Chef image.
This morning I was up early getting ready for EMP attacks and heading to the Renaissance Hotel to photograph execs with the regal and competent Amy. In fact, it was nearly 5 pm when I finally had the time to put the lens on the front of a Nikon V1 camera and direct the ultra-high performance, F1-ready Honda Element and head downtown. I needed a walk and the lens needed a rational for existence.
First, a bit of information about the lens. What many people don't understand is that the Nikon Series 1 cameras are designed to be incredible video cameras. The throughput from the sensors and related processors is faster than just about anything short of a Red Scarlett and the camera's ability to do beautiful video is amazing. Nikon must have rationally decided that, with a camera that is so outstanding in its video capabilities a fairly large number of people would flock to it to do video production. And to better serve that market it would be really smart to create a technically advanced optic to serve that market in a way that would be familiar to them. So they designed a lens that does these things well: It zooms without shifting focus. Try that with your still camera zooms. I bet you'll be surprised at how enormous the focus shifts are. It has a power zoom setting with three sensitivities. When you zoom you can create ultra smooth video zooms just by maintaining a consistent pressure on the zoom toggle button to maintain the same zoom speed. And, finally, it should be pretty darn sharp across the wide range of focal lengths.
It's not a fast lens since it starts just under f5.6 but it remains there over most of its focal length range. Let me just say, after having shot movie film and video for over twenty years now, this is a production lens. You could use this lens alone, and a V1 body to shoot a movie, a TV program and ANYTHING that is destined for the web. The plus is the fast and sure AF in reasonable light. Down low, all bets are off.
But, what this wide zoom range and tight focus control really means to photographers is that compromises had to be made. In this regard Nikon chose to let distortion take the hit. And that's probably a wise decision since most filming is of three dimensional subjects and not flat walls. I found that, even with the corrections profiles in RC Lightroom 3.6 there was still lots of geometric distortions, even in the middle focal ranges.
I'll make my first totally declarative statement on the lens: If you shoot architecture this lens is not the lens for you. Look else where. In fact, the whole system seems to currently be based on this compromise. The other lenses are sharp and well controlled in every other aspect other than geometric distortion.
The first two images below show you the range of the lens. The top is at the lens's full extension of 100mm which relates to the same field of view you would get on a full frame cameras at approximately 280mm. (The camera sensor is approximately 1/4 the size of a 35mm sized sensor). I assume that you know you can click on each frame and enlarge it to its full 1600 (long side) uploaded size....
The next frame is shot at 10mm and shows off how much is included in the 27mm equivalent frame.
Part of my reason for walking and shooting the same route is to give you, the gentle reader, the chance to go back and compare frames with other cameras and lenses that I've shot with and displayed over the last three years (and nearly 800 posts). Another reason is that it's a nice two mile loop with good coffee at one end and great food at the other end. I wish I had stocked my studio with super models this afternoon to show off how that would look but we just didn't have the bandwidth...
The Nikon V1 generates interesting raw files which can now be read and converted in Adobe Lightroom release candidate 3.6 and in ACR. The files are a little flatter than I like but that means they handle contrast correction well. The camera also tends to create, in AWB, files that are a bit warm. Again, not an issue.
The pluses for the lens are:
1. Incredibly long focal range. Analogous to 27-280mm on a traditional 35mm film camera.
2. Very, very, very good image stabilization. Handholdable at full extension down to 15mm. And you know I'm a regular coffee drinker. In fact, I'm working on my black belt in coffee....(insert nervous muscle tremor..)
3. No focus shift over most of the range. Fairly small aperture shift as well.
4. Big enough to hold on to. In fact, you'll quickly decide to hold the lens instead of the camera for maximum stability.
But there are some downsides. Or cons. Or forum fodder "fails."
1. It renders the camera ===== unpocketable. Sniff. (tear falls down face). I tried to shove it into my slim cut, size 30 Levi's but the lens was just too big. My pocket ripped open and, quite by accident, I spilled several thousand dollars of loose pocket change onto the street. Now that was embarrassing... All kidding aside it's just a bit smaller than a Coke can. Which is funny because some person, in response to my column on "pocketability" stated that he routinely puts his money in his front pants pocket and then shoves in a Coke can to defer thieves when he shoots on the streets in Rome. He fears the "gypsy kids" the way the Seinfeld character, Kramer, fears clowns.... Seriously, if you are walking around Rome trying to photograph with one third of a Coca-Cola six pack shoved down the front of your pants you are already asking for trouble. Really.
2. The lens is approximately $750, street (as they say). That's a lot of money when you consider that what still photographers want in a lens is quite different that what digital video producers might want in a lens.
3. My biggest gripe with the product though is the bad placement ( for my hands, at least ) of the zoom toggle switch. It is too far forward and I missed it every time I reached for it.
So, what's my recommendation? Well, when I read about the lens I was very intrigued. Lots of juicy words light "aspherical" and "ED Glass" (Which does NOT stand for erectile dysfunction glass...) and promised of internal focus and all the usual "buy me" optical terminology. I felt like this one should be special. And I would buy one in a minute if I ever decide to shoot a commercial video project with the Nikon Series One cameras. But as a still photographer I think I'm better off with the two standard zooms. They cover slightly more focal lengths and, even taken together, are smaller and lighter than the PD10-100mm. In fact, you can also throw in the 10mm and still not upset the scales of optical justice.
You also give up at least a stop of aperture at nearly every focal length.
Near the end of my walk the sun had set, the afterglow had faded and the sky was in the deep blue state it affects just before it turns to black. What a glorious time to test both the camera's ISO 3200 capablities, its dark scene focus capabilities and it's resistance to flare from hard light sources in the scene. The photo above and the photo below tell you what you need to know. Not state of the art. But not bad.
chef: Juan José Gomez
I got a call late Tues. afternoon from one of my favorite advertising executives who has a chain of high end Mexican food restaurants as a client. They needed to have a portrait made for an international gourmet festival coming up in Madrid. Could I help them out? Absolutely. The first question I had was: Location or studio? The advertising person huddled with the client and decided on a classic studio shot. The ad guy and I traded several illustrated e-mails and decided on a treatment that would work for everyone and I headed off to Precision Camera to buy "just the right" color of seamless background paper.
I set up the shot one step at a time, starting with the background. It's pretty simple. It's an Elinchrom monolight with a standard reflector, fitted with a 20 degree grid. Then I added the main light. It's an Elinchrom monolight with a 28 inch beauty dish firing through a white diffusion cover. Finally, I added a third light bouncing off the white wall behind the camera for a little fill. Chef Juan José Gomez showed up with the client and the agency in tow, carrying two different white jackets and a black one. We tried one of each but it was the consensus that the black jacket made for the most dramatic overall presentation.
Lately, I've been shooting most of my portrait work tethered to a 15 inch Apple MacBook Pro. Not because I particularly like shooting tethered but because I'm working around a camera shortcoming. Recently I test all of the cameras with which I like to shoot portraits. I was trying to decide which one has the best skin tones and the best colors, even when the files are blown up to larger sizes. The final battle royale came down to the Canon 5Dmk2 versus the "much" older Canon 1DS mk2. You are entitled to your own opinions and you can do your own tests but I found that, at ISO 100, I much preferred the older camera. The only thing is that the antiquated screen on the back is miserable. I'm amazed to think that screen technology has come so far so quick. I wish I could cobble the Nikon V1 LCD screen onto the old pro camera......
But the way I do portraits is pretty controllable so I started tethering. Then I decided I liked to shoot that way. It slows me down and makes me pay much greater attention to small details before I click the shutter instead of the usual pound of cure after the fact.
The photo shoot was fun and lighthearted. Chef Juan can be hilarious. The art direction was good, coherent and smart and the client had the grace to collaborate in the process instead of trying to dominate it. When we finished I asked about schedule and was told that we had ample time. Two hours later I got a phone call telling me that we were trying to make a "next morning" deadline for inclusion into a Spanish magazine out of Madrid. Selections were made, the file was retouched and the blessed miracle of FTP pressed into service once more. I like the image. It's different than my usual style...but not by much.
Today, Amy and I left the headquarters of the Visual Science Lab early in the morning. I'd been up most of the night implementing our new lab safeguards against EMP damage but duty called. We headed off to the Renaissance Hotel and spent the morning doing individual portraits of fifteen different executives for an insurance company. We used the same tethering technique but with a more subdued, gray background and a bigger, softer main light. Now we're back in the studio doing all the back end processing and unpacking. Just another couple days in the life of a photographer working a cool but small metro market. Hope you're having fun.
I made sure Ben bundled up against the wet cold this morning and dropped him off at cross country practice at 6:45 this morning. Then I picked up a small, almost pocketable, slr system camera and went off for my own run around the lake. I stopped when I saw stuff I wanted to photograph.
Nothing special. Just a few scenes from a chilly morning.
If you click on the images they will get bigger.
Program Note: for more information about shooting portraits: http://visualsciencelab.blogspot.com/2011/01/thinking-about-art-while-swimming-how-i.html
What is it in a portrait that makes me stop and take a long second look and decide that I like it better than most of the others I have seen or taken? It's an interesting question because it has so many layers. This portrait has one attribute that's widely considered to be a flaw. The subject is nearly precisely centered in the frame. I could fix that by cropping but, contrary to common strictures, I think it works just fine the way it is.
I like a portrait that makes me want to know more about the person being portrayed. I want the image to spark my curiosity in a way that pronounces the person's uniqueness. I want the portrait to have a visual appeal that supersedes the subject herself, and by that I mean that I want the tones of the print and the contrasts between various elements in the print to have a life and vibrancy all their own. I like portraits better when I don't have to decipher intentionality in the background elements. In fact, I am so linear I don't really like background elements, which is why I try to consistently make them go away by putting them as far out of focus as I can.
Male or female I want each portrait subject to have a direct engagement with the camera. There are very few portraits I like where the subject is looking out of the frame. And in those few, if I am critical with myself, I know I only like or admire them because the subject is famous or so visually compelling (beautiful/sexy/powerful/grotesque) that I am influenced by the energy of the emotionally charged aspect of the subject's image. I want the eyes locked on me as in a conversation. I want to feel the engagement that the subject had directly with the photographer. I want to be able to imagine myself in the place of the artist. If I was the one who took the portrait then the direct engagement always seems to have more spontaneous and visceral impact when I view it than a more indirect and more passive subject countenance.
I am drawn to portraits where the subject is not locked in a grinning smile but in a responsive attitude that signifies a conversation was being conducted. That he or she was sharing collaboratively in the process. But most of all I want to feel that the subject had a genuine interest in the process. And a genuine interest in the artist.
I was remarking to Belinda about how the change over to digital had presaged my addiction to the wild merry-go-round of camera buying and how it was well nigh impossible to choose "just the right camera" to use in making the images I really want to make when she laughed, derisively, and said, "The camera indecision has been going on since the day I met you. You can hardly blame digital." And I was prepared to defend myself because that's what guys do when they get called on their bullshit. But I took a few moments to reflect.....
These studio images of Rene Zellweger reminded me of my dalliance in the small field of medium format cameras. Convenient memory wants me to believe that I only dabbled in prestigious German and Swedish brands but actual filmic proof demands that I recognize that I also sampled most of the Japanese fare as well. These images were done back in the early 1990's with the first Pentax 645 camera and whatever lens I was enthralled with at the time. I remember liking the very hip sound of the motor and shooting at least twice as much film as I normally would have. The lighting camera from a studio, electronic flash with a 60 inch Balcar Zebra Umbrella, covered with their unique (and thick) diffusion attachment. These were the days when I eschewed fill light altogether so the one light is it.
I came to the Pentax 645 from the Pentax 67. That camera was a beast and the film had a wonderful look BUT unless you were shooting in the studio that gigantic mirror took its toll interms of vibration and very slow flash sync. It sync'd at 1/30th of a second and the mirror slap was agressive enough to create secondary image blurs even when mounted on a hernia inducing tripod. The practice of the day was to only buy the model with the mirror lock-up and to use it on every shot. Even when doing flash. You got your ten images and then you loaded again. You can see why I was lured into the 645 system with its preloadable inserts and 15 images on a roll. You could shot forever. At one point I even own a second 645 with a fiber optic enabled Polaroid back to shoot tests with. But the 1/60th of a second sync speed stunted my affections for that system as well.....
It was always fun to shoot with Rene. She would show up and we'd shoot whatever one of us had in mind. One day we'd go out and shoot cross processed negative film down by the train tracks and other days she'd float down the steep hill on Tenth St. towards Congress Ave. in a giant platform heels, a tiny black dress, a leopard print scarf and Bridgette Bardot sunglasses while balancing a coffee cup and saucer in her hands...(we were making an ART video about coffee entitled, "Coffee. Is it a gift from God or a tool of Satan?" And we were using the very first Canon L1 high eight system in Austin. Very bleeding edge.) But the amazing thing to me, when I look back on our shoots is that fact that we rarely used the same camera twice. There are negatives from both of the Pentax systems and from Leica M's, Nikons, Contaxes and Leica R's but we never did nail in a "favorite" camera.
Which brings me back to Belinda's observation. I've always enjoyed mixing it up. In fact, I'm toying with the idea of opening a store for people like me. We'd have a couple of all the coolest cameras and we'd charge a subscription rate. Every day you could come in and trade out and use a different camera. I haven't done my market research and it could very well be that I'm more or less unique in my indifference to routine. Especially inventory induced routine. But I don't think so.
None of my subjects have particularly cared which camera or lens or film I used. They just wanted to enjoy the process and like the end results. My only regret in my shoots with Rene and others at that time in my career is that I wasn't shooting with the square yet. That would have made things a little more perfect. As it is the work is still fun.
It's cold and windy and wet today. A nice day to stay inside and scan. A nice day to blog. I hope everyone is having a nice start to the week.