10.19.2016

A story from the archives. Elton John, Andy Roddick and Rick Perry walk into a hotel....


I thought I'd break with our little tradition of mixing gear reviews and photo-philosophy by telling a little story from the archives. It was back in 2005 that I got a call from Andy Roddick's people. Andy's foundation was going to hold a fundraiser for the new Children's Hospital and they wondered if I would be available to photograph the event. The people asking were good friends and always well intentioned and so, of course, I said, "Yes." Then, having secured my engagement they let the other shoe drop; the guest of honor and entertainer would be Sir Elton John. I've always been a big fan to so I was incredibly excited to be on the team. 

Now, by way of a little back story, our Governor at the time in Texas was the redoubtable Rick Perry. The same guy who more or less stumbled his way through the primaries an ill-fated campaign for president this year. Back in 2005, in an attempt to curry favor with the more conservative factions in Texas (and just two weeks before Sir Elton John's visit) Perry decided to push an amendment to the state constitution basically banning gay marriage. The legislation was called "Proposition 2" and it was passed by Texas voters in November of that year. Now, I don't know if it was a coincidence or not but just one week before coming to Austin, Texas to do his part raising money for the kids, Sir Elton John very publicly announced his official marriage to his long time, same sex partner. Around Austin people were pretty sure that this was his way of answering Perry's Prop 2 (later struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court...). 

The day of the shoot finally arrived and I was excited (I was a fairly big Andy Roddick fan and a Yuuuuge Sir Elton John fan ---- a side fact, E.J. is a well known collector of photography and had, last I read, a world class collection of work. An eclectic collection...  but all top quality work...) to see them both in person. 

I packed the gear I was using at the time. It was a bit of a weird mix. I was getting into the Olympus system and brought along a couple of E-1 cameras (5 megapixels) with two zooms, and also a Nikon D-70 to use as my flash camera.

The venue for everything was the Four Seasons Hotel in the downtown area. We started out with a "press only" news conference with Andy Roddick. Later in the afternoon Elton John arrived and he met with Andy in one of the downstairs conference rooms. I was the only photographer in the private meeting and was called upon to take shots of Andy and Elton together as well as shots of them both arranged in various groups with members of Andy's family. It was very casual and laid back. I introduced myself to Elton John and he and I bantered back and forth for a bit about photography, Austin and Texas. 



A few hours later we headed next door to a larger conference room for a press event with people from various print news outlets and three TV stations. It was typical of social news event coverage. Lots of innocuous questions and an emphasis on continually mentioning the charity that would be supported.

We had a break after that and I wandered around with my cameras and talked to some of the other shooters in the foyer. 

Around 6pm the reception space outside the grand ballroom started filling up with people in fancy clothes, throw back suits, and well to do people clutching albums and CDs to get signed. Sir Elton John would be the guest of honor for a formal dinner and then would play a solo concert for a very lucky room of about 300 people. The doors to the dining room opened at 6:30 and people streamed in. Sir Elton John entered from a side door, shadowed by two of the most proficient looking body guards I have ever seen, and was quickly embraced by the crowd. He was gracious, signed autographs, stood for photographs from all comers (thankfully, this was before the selfie craze....) and was generally the magnetic attraction in the room. 

At some point before dinner Gov. Rick Perry entered via a side door followed by his Texas Ranger bodyguard. The Texas Ranger was wearing his gray, felt cowboy hat. Perry was dressed totally out of character in a black turtle neck pullover, no glasses. He started to make a beeline in the direction of Sir Elton John. After all, what politician would not want to stand next to the center of gravity? But he was intercepted by one of E.J.'s enormous body guards who leaned over to the Gov. and said something, quietly, that I couldn't quite catch. Whatever it was Perry stopped in his tracks and found someone else to talk to. A short time later he vanished out the door he'd come in through and did not return. The scenario with Perry and  EJ's bodyguard flew under most people's radar. But I was there to observe and document everything and it was from my overwatch position on the stage side of the tables that I had the vantage point to observe that instant.

After dinner Sir Elton John walked up to the stage, sat behind the grand piano and mesmerized the entire room with an hour long concert of our favorite hits from an arc of forty-some years. No one was allowed to photograph near the stage. I remember being the only photographer in the room.  I captured the concert on the Nikon D70 because I happened to have the old 80-200mm f2.8 lens in my bag and it was the longest lens I owned. I was positioned at the back corner of the room, near a door to the kitchens.  

Looking back at the files from the time leaves me with some mixed feelings. The images remind me of just how much fun it was to meet and hang out with someone whose music I had always enjoyed. A true celebrity in every sense of the word. It felt good to realize that my work allowed me to occasionally meet people who have changed the world. At the same time I look at the images and realize how primitive (relatively speaking) the cameras I was using at the time were, compared to current models.

How different the image quality might have been if I'd have had a longer lens, a bigger sensor, some in-camera stabilization, lower ISO noise, etc. But that's a silly way to feel. Looking back at the actual images I see that we got our part of the job done and that the content (as nearly always is the case) trumped the constraints of the technology of the time. 

I packed up and headed home as the concert wound down. I edited my photographs and sent along my selections to the Andy Roddick Foundation and then got back to work with my regular clients. But for a week or so I was a bit star struck and every other job seemed a bit mundane. In the end Elton John and Andy Roddick raised well over a million dollars for the charity. A job well done.





And two from the actual concert:



10.18.2016

Walking around with the 18-105mm on an APS-C camera, just having fun.

Garlic in black and white.

Being clear about what you like.



Taking even a short vacation seems to be good for coming to some understanding about what it is you really, really like to photograph. To be clear, even though I took the routine landscape shots and the colorful shots of food at farmer's markets, there was really nothing I was excited to photograph on my trip. I thought I might make a few thoughtful portraits but since portrait work is collaborative everyone has to be in the mood, or at least unhurried enough to consider sharing some time. 

Family vacations are like punishment for photographers. You reflexively bring your camera and a nice lens but the opportunities to use them for the kinds of work you might enjoy making are neutralized by the scheduling and proclivities of the group. 

Ben is a fine portrait subject when he is here in Austin, between semesters. He's been working with me on projects when he's not in school and he seems to really enjoy the unhurried pace of an unstructured hiatus between the dual grinds of school and assisting. When he is engaged in the middle of a semester he is all business. He's on a schedule, burning the candle at both ends and keeping his grades up. But it precludes the kind of padded time intervals that would make slowing down and sitting in just the right spot difficult. 

But there is another reason that vacations are not an optimum time for me to practice my own portrait work. I've come to depend on being able to shape light to match the moods and context that I want to portray in a finished image. I want control over how soft the roll off of light is into the shadows and I want to control the direction of the light in relation not only to the subject but also in relation to the background elements. 

When I roll out to locations locally with the priority of making portraits for me I generally travel heavy. I drag along the Elinchrom Ranger flash system, a big soft box or umbrella, a C-stand or two. Some sand bags and a few extra diffusers. These are a godsend and a logistical encumbrance. And there was not way I wanted to drag them along on a weekend end vacation and even less of a chance that the other members of the family would be comfortable going along with this rather extreme program of creating family snapshots. 

I know myself well enough to know that I needed to defer my usual bent of work in order to fulfill the goals of the trip at hand: to see the boy, to see his new living quarters, to sample his academic life, to meet; and have dinner with, the parents of one of his new roommates, to make sure Belinda enjoyed the weekend and to see the sights and sounds of my kid's chosen environment. 

This was obviously not the time to drop into the role of producer/director. And knowing that is good. Not trying to interweave two diverse and conflicting agendas serves to mitigate or eliminate the frustration that would flow from presuming that one is always on. 


My favorite work comes at events where I am supposed to be photographing. Where I have license and access to photograph. I love this image of a young girl who had just finished her event at a swim meet. I was at the swim meet as the volunteer team photographer and it was my job, obligation and delight to be charged with getting great images of the swimmers to share on the club's website and with the kids and parents. I largely ignored my family (except when it was Ben's turn to swim) and the run of the meet and concentrated on making impromptu portraits and group shots of the kids. I was able to bring a focus to doing so that made the work seem like play. 

At the end of a swim meet I look back and realize that being in a certain zone made the day seem to pass in five minutes and that distraction is what happens when you aren't having fun.


I enjoyed spending time away from Austin but I also enjoyed letting go of the photographer label for the duration and enjoying the time away as a civilian. In that capacity the images I took were ones that just presented themselves, didn't require art direction or posing, could be made without revving up a light and could be walked away from in order to conform to the vagaries of the schedule. 

I realized in the moment that I sometimes take my role as an image maker far too seriously. That the camera isn't the centerpiece of every social gathering. That fussing with dials and menus is not an appropriate task while sitting in the dining room of a nice restaurant having conversations with new (or old) friends. 

So, what do I like? I find myself re-enlisted in pursuit of a few things that have been leitmotifs throughout my life with cameras. I love the look of wide ranging tones of luxurious black and white photographs. We can argue all day long about whether or not it has to do with suppressing extraneous and confusing color cues or if it's really just about nostalgia but, to my mind, done right, black and white images focus my seeing of the final print more acutely. I'm less and less interested in landscapes and even street images than I have been in the past. I want to work with one person in my frame and I want to have the whole experience be confined to a two person collaboration with no outside intervention or suggestions. And, more and more, I want to control the lighting. 

I don't always have a specific lighting design in mind when I get ready to engage with subjects but I am always aware that there is a style and a consistency of qualities that I like more than others. I'm not a fan of light that's spectacular or trendy. I don't often light hard light (unless I intend to create the final image using the equivalent of diffusion or soft focus) or highly angular light. But I know as I work through a session, or even just an encounter, that I want more and more control over how the light works with the face in front of my medium-to-long telephoto lens.

In social situations this just isn't in the cards. Nor should it be. But it's a life long lesson to re-learn and re-learn. 



I am constantly reminded that I like scenes that are rich with texture and even decay or disorder.


I labor with the idea that the work I like and finish all the way out is destined to be matted and framed and shared with a small circle of people. At times all the lights, stands and cameras in the studio are put away and the matt cutter comes out to play. It's been years since I hung a show but my re-entry into my regular routine this time has convinced me that I'm overdue and need to start thinking in terms of a small show of black and white portraits. 



Finally, I spend time thinking about things outside photography that I like. Family goes without saying. And the same with my noble Studio Dog (currently just a bit conflicted; she is pissed that she had to spend three long nights alone but happy that we hired her absolute favorite dog sitter to come over four times a day while we were gone). But I also cherish my routines. I think we all do. My Sunday walk through downtown. Coffee with friends. The way an afternoon nap feels on my couch with the sun pouring through the French doors to the back garden. Early morning swim practice. Noon swim practice when I am either too lazy to get up in time for the early one, or motivated enough to do two in one day. I like the conceit of control that I've tried to construct in my Austin existence but lately have come to understand that comfort and control are also part of the nefarious impediments of resistance that keep me from focusing on doing my work. 

With that said I think I'll wrap this up and convince Studio Dog to head back into the studio for some pre-production on an approaching job. Being part terrier she revels in keeping me focused on the task at hand so I can spend more down time tossing the tennis ball decorated as a mouse....



No matter what business you are in it makes good sense to step away and think, and to try and remember exactly what is was about the business that put you on your current path. More importantly, have you been true to your own satisfaction in executing on those delightful details that make what we do fun? 


 The camera is so much less important that what your real intentions for your photography might be. Being clear on the mission usually uncovers the reality that any camera will do, but not every approach will satisfy.




Another early morning. Another milestone. VSL hits 22,000,000 direct page views.

From "Priscilla" at Zach Theatre.


While Google tells me that 87,000,000 page views have occurred that's a cumulative measure of all links and blinks and RSSs and stuff. The total number of "I went to the actual site and took a look..." numbers is, this morning, 22,000,000. It's fun to think about the sheer number of eyeballs that have read what I've splashed out over the last eight years. 

If you've enjoyed the ride consider dropping a comment into the queue to help celebrate another milestone. The "quick hello" is one of the fun things I get from filling this site with content and images (lots of images. thousands of images.)

I'm back at work but wishing I was still on vacation. I bet the same is true for you...

10.17.2016

Fascinated by tourist icons.



I marvel at how intact and untagged so many things are in the northeast. I think I am drawn to photograph images like the one above because things like this really don't survive long in our locale. Outside of the wealthy and secure neighborhoods people need to chain their stuff up in order to keep it and anything that is quaint or curious or just generally available is stolen, vandalized, smashed or covered with painted gang signs.  The two towns I visited on this trip, Lake George and Saratoga Springs, were largely devoid of a kind of human driven entropy that seems more or less rampant in bigger cities.

It's interesting to think about why people photograph certain objects. I can't recall seeing one of these coin operated, binocular telescopes anywhere in my travels across Texas, although I have to assume they exist in some nook or cranny. So they are, to me, an oddity. I remember in my youth seeing these near most big natural attractions but they seem only to have been preserved in unique spots and in unique slots of time.

The implicit intent of our visit to Prospect Mountain, near Lake George in New York, was to see the scenery. The glorious, technicolor trees and the blue waters of the lake. But when I got there I was most interested in the telescopes. I shot lots of angles and lots of different magnifications of the units as I found them. To me, they represent a time in our national past --- the 1950's and 1960's --- when car travel for vacations swelled and families became captive to a national movement: "To see the USA in a Chevrolet." 

While getting anywhere in Texas is a feat of travel endurance and rewards speed and persistence, travel in the middle of New York state seems to have been a different sort of experience. One combining frequent scenic overlooks followed by Howard Johnson's restaurants and Holiday Inns. Until recently Texas had always been a poor state and travel meant one rest stop with chancy toilets every 250 miles or so (with a view of flat, hot land and blowing tumbleweeds) bookmarked by a dusty, independent version of a Motel 6, with a tired and shopworn Denny's diner next door. The Texas Whataburger chain was a sign that a town located off I-10 had made it.

But I am assuming that to a person who grew up in the northeastern part of the United States the experiences might be flipped. The desolation of Texas' open spaces might seem fantastic and unreal while the rawness of the food and accommodations might seem adventurous.

When I think of travel I think of the book, On The Road, by Jack Kerouac. The descriptions of various regions always served to remind the reader that wealth and middle class opportunity in the 1950's flowed from New York City and trickled into the south diminished by an evaporation that left the furthest points south in the deepest poverty.

When I see a coin operated telescope I am reminded of the saying among cultural anthropologists who say that there are only two places that have no trash and litter. At one end of the spectrum are areas of extreme poverty where every paper scrap or piece of trash is collected and used for something. Even if it is just gum wrappers to keep open fires going for boiling water. At the other end of the spectrum there is no trash or litter because people are wealthy enough to pay others to perform constant and strict maintenance. It is only the places in the middle that deal with litter. And the area around Saratoga Springs and Lake George was more or less pristine...

A poor family from a different region might see the unattended, coin operated telescope as something that could be wrenched from its moors and sold as scrap metal while a family from a wealthier cohort ignores the object completely because it is part of a constant landscape in which public objects are immune from a certain cultural entropy, one driven by the idea of deprivation.

As a Texan for most of my life I can only say that I love it that objects like this continue to exist, undamaged, as a marker of a time and space that is removed for most of us now. It's a reminder of an age of innocence. It is visual time travel. Like the old American sedans in Cuba.

It's so different to travel on a family vacation to a wealthy, established town in a community with history. I become like every other proud father visiting his kid's college town. Carrying a camera to record all the things that are novel and different with little regard for making art or presenting the visual material in some personal style. Just recording the things that stick out and make this newly discovered locale unique in my catalog of places. And in a year and a half I'll have finished paying for an undergraduate adventure at a private college and we'll collectively move on to the next stage.

I'm back home and trying hard to settle back into this different culture. Everything here is both new and worn at the same time. Pre-fab, tilt wall America. Young people in a hurry. Pretensions of hipness mired in a culture of discount ethos. I guess that's the thing I photograph when I'm seriously working on my own photographs. Every place is still as different as it is the same.








Home from a mini-vacation. The smaller camera and zoom lens was just right.

 I went to New York State last Thursday and now I am back in Austin. And I'm asking myself, "why?" We spent most of our time in Saratoga Springs, luxuriating in the cool, Fall weather and getting to wear sweaters and jackets that normally only see use in January and February here in Austin, Texas. And then there is the appeal of a relatively small town with very little traffic. You can actually park in the a free parking garage in the middle of their downtown ---- in the middle of the weekend!!! Amazing for a boy from the boom town...

Our main mission was to visit our son at college. It was Skidmore's Family Celebration Weekend. Belinda and I say through a class offered to parents, showered our kid with time, money and affection, and generally soaked in the atmosphere of being back on a campus.

The food in Saratoga Springs was uniformly good. They now have a decent Mexican food restaurant for homesick Texans called, Cantina. It's right on Broadway. They've got their soft, corn tortillas down perfectly and their instincts for seasoning and spicing were spot on. Steaks at Max London's,just down the street, were also superb.

This year we added a run up to Lake George while the kid stayed on campus to study. Right now, this instant, the color of the trees is turning and the skyline heading up the highway is a riot of color. We parked in town and climbed Prospector's Peak and were rewarded with spectacular views of the lake and the cascade of technicolor trees marching down majestic hillsides to meet it.

In a previous blog post I wrote that I had decided to take a specific camera but, of course, as we were leaving the house at 5 a.m. on Thursday morning I changed my mind and substituted. The camera I ended up taking was the Sony a6300 along with the 18-105mm f4.0G lens. This combination was smaller and lighter than the ones I had previously selected and, I decided to just go and be a proud parent instead of a compulsive photo-junky. It was a wise decision as I found the a6300 and lens to be the perfect travel companion for a long weekend mini-vacation like this one.

Here's a random selection of images I made this last weekend. I'm happy I went. It's an area I'd like to explore more. And sometime I would like to go, spend a few days around the area, and then hop on the train to Montreal. Could be a fun adventure. But I think I'll wait till next Fall for that...







10.12.2016

Which camera did I decide to take to Saratoga Springs? (It's not November yet!). Also a Zach Theatre Photo Link.


I swam at noon today. Crystal blue skies and mid-80's. A perfect day to shirk all responsibility, ignore all clients and get in a good swim. Jane was coaching and so the workout was thoughtful and interesting. Descending sets of sprint 50 yard swims interspersed with cruising speed pull sets. Go hard for a set of 50s and then chillax with a set of 150 yard pulls. Nice. (I will be packing my goggles and Speedo jammer suit so I can get in a few swims up north...)

Made me hungry by the end of the hour long workout so I indulged in a guilty pleasure: Jason's Deli makes a Tuna Muffaletta. They call it a Tuna-Letta. It's on the same crunchy bun but instead of the usual, New Orleans inspired, ham, cheese and tapenade it's stuff with tuna, hardboiled eggs, spinach and, well, an olive tapenade. I think it's delicious. Big sandwich, chips, sparkling water and a free ice cream for a whopping $6.81.

Then I got on to my important job for the day --- deciding which camera and lens to drag along with me to go visit the younger Mr. Tuck in Saratoga Springs. I leaned heavily towards the original Sony a6000 for its "uncluttered-ness" along with the Sigma 30mm DN for its "damn that thing is sharp!-ness" But in the end I think I've decided to take the Sony A7ii and the Zeiss 24-70mm f4.0 with me instead. I like the lens range, the light weight of the lens and the old school look and feel of the body.

When I visit colleges it always takes me back on the nostalgia express to the time when I first got interested in taking pictures. The A7ii is really my only pure nostalgia camera these days just because it is frankly uninteresting and not remarkable. This way, if I get a good photograph over the weekend my family and friends might be more inclined to give me some credit instead of chalking it up to some idea of the "magical" camera that can do no schlock.

That's my plan this hour. I hope not to change my mind at the last minute because I don't have the time to crank out another blog post today. Tomorrow? Maybe. We'll see....

on another note: I frequently write about the work I do for Zach Theatre and I thought I would show you one way in which they use my photographs. The link below goes to a web version of an e-mail they just sent out to their subscriber base. It touts the latest two shows and asks for ticket purchases for an upcoming show (Santaland Diaries). I like their approach but be aware that this is only one tool in the box. They also run print advertising, do direct mail, make point of purchase posters and run radio and TV (with my images embedded in the video). It shows me an effective use of the content. I like it. Click the link to see:

Here is one way in which Zach Theatre Uses my Photography. click to see

10.11.2016

Should a love of something else be the driving force in loving your practice of photography?


I was not an early fan of the personal practice of photography. While I grew up looking at the same news and lifestyle magazines that everyone else in my generation consumed I was always much more  interested in the written stories. More specifically, the stories about the people in the photographs. When I started college I was an electrical engineering student. I was always interested in things that were somehow connected to engineering and my biggest enthusiasm was for audio engineering. I dutifully built tube amplifiers from Dynakits, enjoyed putting together my first transistor amplifiers and, of course, making my own loudspeakers --- complete with custom-made crossover networks. One of my proudest possessions as I got more and more immersed in the tantalizing pleasures of audio was my Linn Sondek turntable and its companion Audio Research pre-amplifier.

At some point I realize that I would run out of money if I kept buying audio gear and hoarding it in my dorm room so I walked up the street to the Dobie Mall and applied for a part time job at a store called, Audio Concepts. It was one of two stores in Austin in the 1970's that catered to audiophiles. The other was High Fidelity Inc., the town's McIntosh dealer (No, silly, not the computer company!).

We classified McIntosh gear as the kind of stuff you sold to older doctors and lawyers who couldn't hear third order harmonics if you sat them between a set of Klipschorns. We were proud to peddle Luxman, Audio Research and a few "downmarket" brands like Crowne and Phase Linear as well as the small "apartment systems" from Yamaha and Onkyo.

Like most gear nerds of the time we had raging arguments about Dahlquist DQ 10s, Magnaplanars, and a raft of other loudspeakers. But at the very bottom the whole attraction to audio was not, for me, a love for music but a sense of marvel at how lifelike we could engineer something like natural sound. Now, I like music just fine but it's not a passion for me. I can tell the difference between Beethoven's 9th Symphony and  Orff's Carmina Burana, and I can enjoy everything from old recordings of Bob Will's to new stuff by Goriilaz, but I'm never in withdrawal from not having music or desperate to hear something....anything. I can go days or weeks without clicking on iTunes or streaming something from Amazon Prime.

In the end it was the lack of love for the subject matter that kept me out of the audio business in any form. Probably the reason why I've never bothered to buy a pricy audio system for our house. Just a little Tivoli radio, with a second speaker, hooked up to a re-purposed iPhone. Yes ---- audio Luddite.

But the picture is different if we talk about photography. I was dismissive about photography until my junior year at UT. Then I met a lovely girl who was a studio art major. Her name was Beth. She asked what kind of art I did personally and I was caught up short. Did I paint? Did I draw? Did I sculpt? Nope. She suggested that I try something (strong implication that a real, 3 dimensional human with pretensions of being "educated" had to have some conversation with art...) and, in a mildly condescending way suggested that photography might be an easy starter. I scoffed and said that I felt photography was just a mechanical process. A bringing together of a few logistical variables. Nothing of consequence. She challenged me to prove it.

I stared at her beautiful eyes and realized that it would be wonderful to have a photograph of those eyes. To have my visual interpretation of how those eyes made me feel when I looked into them. So I accepted the challenge, marshaled my meager "savings" and bought the camera that one of my friends (who was devoted to the acquisition of cool cameras) suggested: A Canonet QL 17. A rangefinder focusing compact with a fast, 40mm lens (f1.7) and a quick loading feature. I learned the basics of exposure and quickly got the hang of rangefinder focusing. For a long time I was happy with the camera because I was happy with what I was photographing. Let me repeat that: For a long time I was happy with the camera because I was happy with what I was photographing. 

It goes back to being interested in the stories about people. So much of most people's stories are written on their faces. There are short stories written by their postures or gestures. And there is an infinite variety in the ways people consciously or subconsciously project themselves. It's a never ending story with an ever changing cast of characters. My thrill in photographing, even to this day, is to try and figure out the dominate story line that each person I photograph carries with them and to make that story line into an almost abstract visual construct. I'm essentially telling their story as I see it in one snapshot.

Better photographic technique is always an attempt to clarify the story. Better lighting can (but not always) make the story clearer while a longer lens might eliminate the chatter a nervous background introduces. But always, it's the story that the person in front of me is telling with with their stance and their expression that drives my curiosity.

I have said many, many times that I am indifferent to landscape photography and to the documentation of architecture. I can't see the stories there like I can with people. I don't think about interpreting objects. But with people the amount of time I spend with them deepens the way I understand their stories and gives me a certain insight into which face or which gesture is genuinely part of their unique presentation and which ones are cobbled together, along with self-consciousness, for the camera.

In some ways it was folly for me to choose the life of a generalist, commercial photographer precisely because I've gotten drawn into photographing so many things in which I really have no interest. It shows in that work. And as a salve for the boredom of forcing myself to work on something outside my areas of interest I've made the general process of commercial photography more interesting by doing what I did back in my days of audio fascination. I let myself be seduced by the process. I started collecting the gear that matches the wide spectrum of subject matter that keeps arising. It's the same with lighting. Once you leave the locus of your passion for something to pursue an ancillary or adjunctive subject you move from passion for the subject to a passion for the process.

While I was seduced into photography by a pair of beautiful eyes I've staying in it for largely the same reason. The eyes tells such compelling stories. The faces are exciting introductory chapters to stories that beguile and amaze me, and in some cases frighten or disgust me. But they are all rich stories that visually speak to a collection of experiences outside me. I'm not using the portrait subjects as canvases for my canned technique I am using my status as a photographer for access --- a free ticket to turn the pages of someone else's life.

I recently photographed my friend, Michelle. I've photographed her many times over the years. It's my own kind of personal work. We spent a lot of time talking and we are not at all alike. We're on different journeys through life. But the exchange is insightful and, for me very interesting. I understand my compassion in a different way. In our pre-shoot and post-shoot conversations I am taught a different way to look at life. What an amazing gift to receive from so many people for such a long time.

My biggest secret to photography is the reality of my distillation. I am retelling stories. They may have been told better by the person I photographed but you weren't there to hear them. At my best I am functioning as a conduit between the sitter's experience and you, the audience for the final images.

Lots of photographers these days are talking about "story" but I think they mostly mean a literal story where one picture after another in a sequence tells a linear tale. My visual stories of my portrait subjects are usually one, concise image. The next time I photograph the same person the story has inevitably changed. At that point we are capturing a new story. We do it by building on what we've already seen.

When we talk of a love for photography I think we are essentially misguiding ourselves. We may enjoy the tinkering, the mastery and the possession of beautifully made machines that seem to use magic to do our process, and we may enjoy the experience of looking at images, but I conjecture that the images which resonate most for each of us are the ones for which we used photography to tell a story about something outside of photography that we loved uniquely.

I never got to take a portrait of Beth. I have no picture. No story beyond my memory.  We were both in relationships with other people. But she gave me a gift of curiosity and opened my eyes about the way to tells stories that I love about people whom I find to be very interesting. And, as I grow older I find just about everyone fascinating.

I am documenting the faces of the interesting people I meet. Behind the faces are timeless stories of human experience; joy, sorrow and mischief. The stories are projected or reflected.

We are drawn to photography by what we love outside of photography. We are sidetracked by the pressure to photograph more and different things. The greed for different gear is a symptom of those diversions. When we hew to our desired and true course our external needs relent.

One more point I have noticed. As I get older I am more and more content just to be in the conversations and to aurally hear the stories. I find myself becoming more "present" than ever before; with or without the camera in my hand. That's a nice thing. It makes me a calmer artist. I don't worry as much about the ones that might get away. If I saw the story written on a face then, camera or not, I got to see a small part of their story...

It becomes part of a rich and complicated matrix of memory. Even moments just observed become part of the process of inquiry in the next session.

10.10.2016

A writer at Petapixel recently wrote a column and strongly suggested that we no longer talk about gear. From now on, only about the art of photography....hmmm.


When I first became interested in photography there were only several ways to learn about how to do it and who was doing it well, or had done it well in the past. You could look at books about photography or you could read magazines. If you were inclined to do photography for a living you could go to school or attempt to find a good photographer to assist. Since gear turned over much less frequently pretty much by the third or fourth year that a Nikon F2 was on the market we all were pretty familiar with the concept and the various methods of use. For us, the real discussions were about famous photographers, how famous photographers lit, and why famous photographers chose to photograph something in the style or in the conceptual approach they used.  Since all the cameras of the time were focused by hand, metered by match needle and possessed of the same three controls there sure wasn't much to say about the differences between them. It was big news if a new finder had a new kind of metering cell that allowed accurate center weighted metering at one EV less light level that is predecessor. And most of us could read the light anyway and didn't really need the meter.

While magazines dutifully reviewed camera body after camera body they saved the big guns for reviews of the new lenses. Which also were released much less frequently. A good review could cause a run on a spectacular lens. Maybe the maker would sell a couple hundred more in a year than they had predicted. Nothing like the insane backorders we are seeing today for mid brow cameras and lenses. 

It's been said many times before that the real focus, in addition to the long and detailed photographer profiles that graced nearly every photography magazine, was on new films and new ways to use the films, along with interesting articles about how people lit. Not what they lit with. Just how they lit. 

Now, for the most part, we've lost those wonderful, long form profiles of those who would be our current "famous photographers." Instead we reward mediocre hacks who recycle techniques that have been around for years but who have mastered social media and the art of being famous in their fields for doing pretty much nothing great. There is a side industry in photography of worshipping the Paris Hilton's of our business for their fame and NOT for their work. 

I think Petapixel has it all wrong. The average digital camera user is no longer an informed liberal arts graduate who can overlay ideas and concepts popular in the realm of fine art to photography, they are people trained in linear, literal technical skill sets that are trained for no other reason than to be useful and profitable for big corporations. That demographic seems only interested in the gear. Petapixel and DP Review, and many others have built a reader market for people who are serial equipment review readers, technical review consumers and ardent members of forums where the discussions are never about allusions to action painting or conceptual art, or the resonance of J. Koudelka in modern street photography but are always about shutter shock or the moronic explanations of equivalency, or about the mushiness of control buttons. Nobody gives a rat's ass about the art of photography or the motivations of artistically inclined photography practitioners. 

Except that's not really true. There are pockets of people who are interested and do care. There are niche blogsites like theonlinephotographer.com who try hard to be intellectually relevant and engage in spirited discussions about the art instead of the constant tool chatter. But if people really cared to learn anything at all about the art of creating work instead of chattering about equipment then these niche sites would be exploding with readers while sites like Ken Rockwell and DP Review would suffer the web equivalent of tumbleweeds and lone coyote howls. 

I'm sad when I remember the 1978 issue American Photographer which profiled Richard Avedon. Page after beautiful page of his work with thoughtful and chewy captions. Lengthy interviews about purpose and vision --- and a one third of one page sidebar about the tools that he used to do the work. A throw away set of paragraphs about shooting with an 8x10 view camera. No sales potential for Deardorf; the average photographer would never embrace a tool that was so costly to produce with or which demanded so much discipline and knowledge. I'm sad that the journalism and literature of photography has become so diminished. The last refuge seems to be Photo District News. And that's quickly slimming down and now rushing to save subscriptions by beefing up the technical (gear review) sections. 

While the writer at Petapixel was probably just responding to writer's block, or maybe incrementally improved equipment boredom, and needs a break, the great band of photo "enthusiasts" vote with their page views. As do I, and as do our VSL readers. Some suffer through rants like this to get to the equipment reviews that they know are coming, just like the third quarter door buster sales at major department stores. I don't have an excuse for any gear reviews I write. I rarely monetize them anymore and my turn over of gear has slowed down to a viscous trickle. I have just started to write about how I use the stuff instead of obsessing over newly added gimmicks.

I'd write more about the art of photography if I were an artist but, essentially, I am just a tradesman and all I can write about with any accuracy and passion is how I handle the work I do to keep bread on the table and electrons running through the wiring to power my various toys. 

No, I think the writer was writing his retirement article. Petapixel was publishing his time out. We're addicted now to the endless flow of decent writers pumping out glowing or critical-but-compelling reviews of cameras that really don't amount to much in terms of breaking news. And I have to stop for a moment and say that money is the driving force for the content on almost every photo blog and web site. If there was a way to monetize the sites without having to help sell gear I am certain that discussions would change direction and assume a broader perspective. But it seems as though the only way the photo sites large and small make enough money to keep the doors open is by including ads for dealers, ads for gear and links for the latest products. I applaud sites that try to make money by selling prints from well known and respected photographers. I cheer when sites have book sales. I used to click through the (non-gear) ads to read about workshops and learning opportunities but those kinds of promotions have become limited to just a handful of the more elite sites. 

If DPReview talked only about the art and use of the tools on the site I predict that Barney and his gang would be out of work in a matter of weeks. Trapped as they are into the paradigm they have helped create. 

I'll admit I was a bit chagrined at Michael Johnston over at theonlinephotographer.com. He recently claimed to have committed to pre-ordering the Sony a6500 camera, emotionally claiming that it was everything he ever hoped for in a camera. I think he'll find his enthusiasm misplaced after a bit of use.  The a6x00 line from Sony is quite decent, nothing to slag, but there is room for improvement in any camera that was not named Leica M3. Only a month of so ago MJ was in love with the Fuji products. Somehow I think we've switched universes; I haven't been interested in any new cameras since my purchases (and extensive use of) the Sony RX10iii and the A7Rii. I'm content just to shoot with them. But I'm using them for commercial work so I keep running out of cogent stuff to write about anyway. Other than how I use it.

No, the Petapixel writer's angst showed through but he blamed all the photographers who obsessed about the gear instead of pointing back to the site that trained them and addicted them to love the technical aspects of photography over photography itself. Petapixel can aggregate artful content if they really want to try and drive the market that way...

Here's what I think an interesting challenge to other bloggers and blog sites might be: Can we all go through the month of November writing our usual prodigious output without any unnecessary mention of gear. We could talk about the  kind of gear  we used to create images or the kind of gear we used on a job, if the type of gear we used was germane, but in doing so we'd all make a pact to disregard the brand names or specific models. What an interesting way that would be to ascertain what people really want from we writers instead of just what they say they want from the sources they follow. And imagine the chaos that would confront camera users who are used to getting so many miles of free and nearly free marketing hype type for their products; especially right after Photo Expo. Wouldn't it be like armageddon for them if the source of "previews", "hands-on assessments", "first looks", etc. of the newly announced gear just......stopped. Gone on vacation for the month of November? We might then understand our cumulative power as writers and market makers while manufacturer might come to a new appreciation of the marketing "free ride" they've gotten for a decade or so. I'm game to give it a try. I wonder if anyone else would come aboard. Can we go a month without gushing about the latest Sony or Fuji? Can we give the "game changer" narrative a 30 day rest? Probably not. We might all end up with readers and followers in the single digits....

on another note: 

One other thing that's bothering me lately is the endless repetition of the idea that the best camera is the one you have with you. What a bunch of phony baloney bullshit meant to rationalize dumbing down our vision and cramming it into a wide angle cell phone camera. If you are an artist with a point of view and a style, and you are out doing more than just gratuitous social media documentation, you need to use the tools that create your style without compromise. You don't need to worry over the exact brand of camera but if your style is wonderful portraits with optical compression and narrow depth of field and that's what you want to see in the final images you work to create then stop making puerile excuses and just put your damn camera over one shoulder when you go out to shoot. The pull of laziness and the disheartening effects of entropy will have you heading down that slippery slope to mediocrity in a heartbeat if you don't. A little discipline and forethought means that the best camera is the one you selected, practiced with, developed a style with and had the fortitude to bring with you.... just in case you saw something you wanted to shoot without compromise. It's only a couple extra pounds at most, right?

I've tossed in some photographs just for fun. It's stuff I like and if I have the energy I might circle back around and talk about why I like them. That would be talking about actual photography, right?