I want to go ahead of Father Time
with a scythe of my own.
H. G. Wells
OK, I admit it. I’m a lousy blogger. I’m too easily
distracted and don’t post anything for weeks; sometimes even months! Too easily wrapped up in assorted obligations
and other amusements. There are way too many other things that take time away
from sitting down to write with regularity. First there is a regular job not
related to personal blogging or writing.
(For a couple of years there was a second job but I quit that one so I have freed up some time.) Then there’s
commuting to said regular job - about two hours per weekday. Admittedly, my
commute is a drive through some interesting, rural countryside and I make it a
point to stop and make photographs whenever possible. The commute is not a
total waste it but takes time and it’s very challenging to blog while driving.
there is actually being at the aforementioned place of regular employment;
grinding out spreadsheets, marketing strategy documents, going to staff meetings and lots of other such
excitement. Personal blogging is not in the job description and I do like to
pay the mortgage on time. All of these pesky
employment endeavors leave little opportunity for personal blogging but I'm not quite ready for sofa surfing at the homes of
friends and acquaintances or life in a refrigerator box.
But here’s a thought: Could I angle a way to get paid for
blogging about photography? People do it – make a living blogging. Maybe that
is a solution worth investigating; might even be worth blogging about. If I become successful I could even write a book: How to Make A Million Blogging! (Call now! Operators are standing by!!) It’s sort of like turning your stand-up
comedy act into a TV series. Jerry Seinfeld did it! On second thought, some of
the statistics I’ve read about bloggers lead me to believe I have a better
chance making money playing the Lotto twice a week. I’m sure there are lots of
funny people and would-be bloggers on the Lotto ticket line.
I could make lots of other excuses but really, life is just
buzzing by. It happens when I’m not paying attention. That’s what is so disconcerting.
We’re just screaming down the time tunnel and there’s no turning back. Must get
in control! Before I know it I’ll be 112 wondering what the hell happened.
"To visualize an image (in whole or in part) is to see clearly in the mind prior to exposure, a continuous projection from composing the image through the final print."
Ansel Adams, The Camera
With the help of some new software I’ve begun seriously thinking in black and white again. It’s taken some time to start thinking that way after a couple of years of shooting digital color almost exclusively. It may sound funny but when I shot film, I could more easily visualize the end product. I could look through the viewfinder and visualize the composition in black and white without distraction. I couldn’t see the results until I developed the film and made contact prints. I’d have in my mind the b/w images I wanted to see in the final prints; wouldn’t even think about the original color scene. In the darkroom, with a little work (sometime lots of work!) the image would become my reality in the developing tray. It was a total b/w “workflow” uninterrupted by color images popping up anywhere.
I actually used this “imaging” technique to good advantage with whatever film I was shooting whenever I was shooting it. I could spend a Sunday morning thinking in Tri-X about the city grit and evaporating fog wandering the streets of San Francisco. Later in the day I’d be thinking in Kodachrome as the sunlight slanted across an August afternoon at Land’s End. It worked well for me, this compartmentalized thinking. I know photographers who carried two cameras – one with color film, one with black and white; shooting both at the same time. To me, this was photographic schizophrenia and would have driven me over the edge.
With today’s amazing digital technology the image pops up on the back of the camera in full color in an instant! This was very disturbing to my b/w vision quest. Yes, I know I can change the camera settings to make the instant image b/w but it’s still distracting. It’s not the b/w image I would see in my mind’s eye and just confused the issue even further. When I was shooting I found it hard to think in b/w and was too distracted by the ease of shooting spectacular color. To muddy the waters even more I wasn’t happy with the results I got converting color to b/w in Photoshop. For whatever reason - my lack of software skills or limitations of the product, I just couldn’t get what I wanted.
Lately I’ve managed to start “thinking” in black and white (and shades of gray) and with some new software tools I can realize my vision. It’s very satisfying (and more than a little ironic) to get “old fashioned” results with new technology.
This video was inspired by an assignment from the book "The Practice of Contemplative Photography: Seeing the World With Fresh Eyes" by Andy Carr and Michael Wood. It runs about two and a half minutes. I hope you enjoy it.
An artist is somebody who produces things that people don't need to have.
I often drive the byways of rural New York looking for photographic inspiration. Late one summer afternoon I came upon yet another old barn. There are thousands of barns in the rustic countryside of upstate New York. Some are quaint and well kept. Some are rugged and well-worn but still in use. It seems like many more are damaged and dilapidated; caved in or about ready to topple into a pile of broken beams and pastoral wreckage. But this one stopped me cold in my quest. I pulled the car to the narrow shoulder to get a better look. Though it was old and no longer a “working” barn it seemed different. The farm it was on had long ceased operations. I couldn’t see a farm house but there were a couple of mobile homes parked nearby. No tractors or farm equipment around, not even rusted hulks. No bucolic fields or benevolent bovines on the hoof; just overgrown weeds and a rusty, older, but still-used, car near one of the trailers. The place looked deserted but apparently people still lived here and were keeping up the barn. It still had a roof in good condition and power lines going to it.
The late afternoon light was sharp and clear and perfect. The barn sat up the hill from the road a little way. The clouds behind it and the wild weeds in front set the big building off like it had been plopped down on some bizarre Monopoly board. I got out of the car and set up my tripod, screwed my 35mm Canon to it and prepared to shoot. I had parked a little way up from the barn so the shadow of the vehicle wouldn’t be anywhere in my frame. I walked down the road a few hundred feet to get a better position in front of the barn with the trailers on the left. I was using a wide angle lens to get as much of the sky as I could while keeping all the buildings in view but I still needed to get closer. I walked a few feet off the shoulder into the weeds to get a better angle and shorten up the foreground. Wow! What a perfect day, a perfect scene!
I was blithely shooting away when I heard someone yell and saw a woman standing in the driveway near one of the mobile homes. She was stout and serious, wearing a housecoat of some kind, with long, wild gray hair drifting in the breeze.
“Hey!” she yelled. I turned in her direction.
“Hey you there!” she yelled again but with more screech. She had her hands on her hips and seemed really upset, with the ruddy complexion of someone about ready to blow a gasket.
“What you takin’ pitchers of?”
Sometimes you run into people on shoots. Most are curious but amiable. They ask a few questions, there’s a little chit chat back and forth. They eventually go along their way, often bemused by the crazy photographer "takin' pitchers" of rusty mailboxes or derelict buildings. I usually keep shooting until I get what I’m after. This woman was different. She seemed really angry but I knew if I was polite and chatted with her for a few minutes all would be well.
“Why this beautiful barn and the spectacular rural scene of course. The light is just perfect.” I yelled back.
“Don’t you take no pitchers 'round here!” She was shaking her finger at me now and stomped a few steps closer.
Perhaps I needed to explain more clearly. “But I’m trying to capture the zeitgeist of the decline of post-modern rural America…”
“What?!! Zeitgeist my ass!” She took a few more steps closer.
“I’m trying to craft a metaphorical representation of the effects of globalization on the waning culture of contemporary rural America as it’s represented in the state of this iconic structure and …”
“Are you from the tax assessor?!”
“No, of course not!“ I know everyone hates the tax assessor. I thought I should change the subject and get on to something less weighty. Perhaps I could tone down the conversation.
“On another level, the rectilinear form of the barn is the perfect counterpoint when juxtaposed with the amorphous sky and the tangle...”
She cut me off with a wave of her arm. "Don’t you talk like that to me! Rectilinear counterpoint!? Jeeze! Where do you people come from? You just get on your way!”
“Don’t make me get my boys!” She turned and started hustling back up the driveway to the nearby trailer, pumping her arms and shouting unintelligible expletives back over her shoulder every few steps.
I wasn’t prepared to defend against reinforcements. It was time for a strategic retreat. There are lots of other barns and I wanted to live to shoot another day.
Photography deals exquisitely with appearances, but nothing is what it appears to be. ~Duane Michals
I think there is some irony in the fact that painters didn’t create a genre called “photo-realism” until over 100 years after photography was invented. Creating a painting that looks like a modern photograph is a thoroughly modern invention, evolving from Pop Art in the 1960’s. However, before photography many painters attempted, and often achieved, what might be called a “photographic” realism in still-life, landscape and even portrait paintings. Some have even been accused (the venerated Vermeer among them) of using a camera obscura to copy real life scenes to achieve such wondrous results. Before photography they couldn’t call this “photo-realism” but it seems that as realistic a rendering as possible was, by and large, often the intent.
The flip side of this is photographic Pictorialism, popular in the late 19th and early 20th century. Photography wasn’t considered serious art and photographers were looking for ways to be taken seriously as artists so they made images that looked like paintings. A whole range of techniques, equipment and manipulation were used. They often made softly focused photos, sometimes painting on the emulsion to change the texture or using textured paper to get a painterly effect. Before too long all this changed when photographers didn’t feel the need to be painterly to be considered artists. “Straight” photography came on strong and photography grew into its own artistic force.
We’re not as dogmatic as our artist ancestors once were. Today, in many respects painting and photography are closer than they have ever been. It’s routine for painters to take reference photos of subjects to capture detail in the interest of realism and for photographers to manipulate images with lighting, software or camera techniques to make them more painterly. Photos look like paintings and paintings look like photos. This doesn’t necessarily make it any easier for artists in either genre. Indeed, it’s a good bit harder to stand out in the crowd when just about anything goes.
“If you're not prepared to be wrong, you'll never come up with anything original.” Sir Ken Robinson
You need to try lots of things and be prepared for failures, fiascoes, botches, disappointments, bombs, let downs and catastrophes. It's just a growth process, learning from your mistakes. When you're getting good at this people will often say you're wide of the mark, off topic, off kilter, off message, outside the mainstream, too far outside the box, and just plain wrong. The important thing is to ignore most of them most of the time. The hardest part is to know when to listen to them and when to listen to yourself.
It takes a while to learn to trust your own judgment. Some people never do. When you do, sometimes you will appear (no, you will be) pig-headed, stubborn, obstinate, quixotic and unreasonable. More power to you. When you are a success in the face of criticism and everyone agrees you did it right, the adjectives will change to more favorable ones like resolute, stoic, firm, determined and maybe even visionary. With luck, this will come when you’re still alive and can enjoy it.
“Books are for people who wish they were somewhere else.”
I love looking at photographs and have been fascinated by all kinds of images since I can remember. Holding a print in your hand or seeing one in a quiet gallery may be the best viewing experiences but it’s not always possible to do those things. Over the years I’ve collected a number of photography books to feed my hunger for images. While books may not be the ideal way to view a photo they are certainly optimal for leisurely perusing, reviewing, understanding, learning, examining in detail lots of images. In a book you may not get the privilege of seeing the vintage Robert Frank print right in front of your eyes but you don’t have to travel 250 miles or more, burn gallons of expensive fossil fuels, pay bridge and tunnel tolls, (don’t forget parking fees!) then wait on long lines to pay your museum admission just to get elbowed by the hundreds of other gallery gawkers like yourself who are jostling for just the right viewing angle in front of Parade-Hoboken, New Jersey and Trolley-New Orleans. If you go to the exhibition you should also buy the companion book. Going to the exhibit and buying the companion publication is the best of both worlds. Take the memories and photos home and browse at your leisure. Sometimes you should even read the essays in the exhibition book, obtuse as they often are…but that’s another blog post.
I found a wonderful book from the Phaidon Press the other day. First published in 1997, it’s simply called “The Photo Book.” I can assure you there will never be a single gallery show that encompasses all the images in this remarkable publication. With 500 images from as many photographers, a little over 500 pages and weighing in at over five pounds this is a serious photographic tome. It spans the history of the medium from the earliest daguerreotypes through the mid 1990’s. There are many dramatic, iconic images like Eddie Adams’ Street Execution of a Vietcong Prisoner and Ansel Adams’ Moonrise-Hernandez, New Mexico. There are also many others, less well known but equally compelling. The range of images of all kinds from all eras and genres is astounding, from straight photojournalism to conceptual art, to fashion, portraits, landscapes and others. There is precious little written about each photo (which is just fine with me) but included is just enough good data about each photographer and the date of the photo.
What I found most interesting is the fact that the photos are arranged, not chronologically or by themes the editors have invented, but in alphabetical order by the photographer’s last name. This makes for some strange, wonderful and thought provoking page spreads. We see Cecil Beaton’s portrait of Dame Edith Sitwell from 1956 opposite Bernd and Hilla Becher’s Industrial Facade #23 from 1980. Makes one think about the nature of a “façade.” Brothers Cornell Capa and Robert Capa share a page spread. Cornell’s image is Bolshoi Ballet School, Moscow. Three graceful dancers in flowing costumes practice at the barre. The Robert Capa image is Death of a Loyalist Soldier from the Spanish civil war, arguably one of the most recognizable war photographs of the 20th Century. There is a tragic grace in this soldier’s sudden death as he stretches, falling to the ground on the Cordoba Front.
Graphical themes often flow wonderfully. We find Fredrick Evans A Sea of Steps flowing into an obscure Walker Evans photo of the back porch of an Alabama clapboard farm house. There is humor as well. Let’s not forget Weegee’s The Critic opposite a William Wegman Weimaraner wearing swim fins and fake eye balls. There is something for nearly everyone here and well worth the price of admission. No crowds or elbows to the ribs, no tunnel tolls, no parking charges. You can enjoy a nice glass of Chianti while you study photographic history in your favorite easy chair.
Photography has not changed since its origin except in its technical aspects, which for me are not important.
For some photographers it’s all about the technology and the equipment. It’s all about having lots of the newest, coolest high-tech stuff. It’s about super-fast long zoom lenses, sexy camera bodies, filters for all occasions, dedicated flashes, expedition quality ballistic nylon bags, super-light carbon fiber tripods, all manner of enviable accessories. The equipment bug bites and gathering the “must have” gizmos becomes an end in itself. Sometimes hundreds of pounds of equipment are needed just to go out the door before a frame is shot
It is often a legitimate need to have only the most of the best and be prepared for all contingencies. Without question, if you’re running off to cover the revolution in Libya for Time magazine you certainly need the right equipment and you better have some back up plans. Do not miss the money shot of the mercurial Muammar in his latest Michael Jackson tribute outfit or you’ll never again get face time with, the even more mercurial, Time photo editor. Shooting your cousin’s wedding? Same issue to a large degree. It’s happening now, happening once. Do not miss the bouquet throw or your aunt will never let you forget it. And oh, BTW, your cousin will never give you the phone number of that really cute bridesmaid who actually looked good in the sleeveless fuchsia dress with the taffeta rosettes on the bustle.
We haven’t even touched on the photo processing software, widgets, and plug-ins, monitors, monitor calibration tools, scanners, printers, the computing power needed to run it all and terabytes of storage for the tens of thousands of multi-megapixel “captures,” iterations and back-ups.
I understand this equipment need. I love equipment, do occasionally suffer megapixel or lens length envy and drool over the B&H catalog at every opportunity. But these days I’m more into relative minimalism. One 60D body, one short zoom, one longer zoom, remote release, polarizer, graduated ND filters for landscape work, a budget (but sturdy) tripod, an extra battery and a couple other minor accessories. It all fits in one reasonably priced bag I can carry on a commercial airliner. I don’t necessarily carry the whole kit with me all the time or use everything on every shoot. It really depends on what I’m after on any given day. Generally, I like to keep it simple. I also make every effort to avoid excessive “post processing.” The idea is to avoid getting lost in the foggy forest of equipment lust or miss a shot because I was fumbling in my bag looking for just the right gadget. In the end it’s not about the technology or the equipment. The only equipment Cartier-Bresson carried was a Leica with a 50mm lens. He knew the most important detail about good photography. When all is said and done, it’s all about the image.
I've been reading a book called "In the Yikes Zone: A Conversation With Fear" by Mermer Blakeslee. It’s nominally about skiing. The vignettes and stories throughout the book are about skiers afraid of some aspect of skiing and how the author helps them understand and work through what makes them afraid. They learn how to understand their fear and work with it to improve their performance. The skiers experience degrees of fear from mild discomfort and frustration at not wanting to chance a challenging run to being literally paralyzed at the top of a hill, sometimes even the bunny hill, when they get off the lift. Some of them ski pretty well in their comfort zone but avoid anything remotely challenging. Others are so afraid they need to be guided down a small run with Mermer skiing by their side or skiing backwards in front of them, talking them through every little bump and turn on the way down. Some are new, inexperienced, afraid of their untested potential, of stretching too far. Others have been skiing for years, are very experienced and know well the painful consequences of overreaching.
Some are afraid of injury but most seem to be afraid of more than just getting hurt. They are afraid of confronting the uncomfortable. The extreme cases get anxious, afraid of being afraid which feeds more anxiety and more fear until they’re tense, stiff, paralyzed, can’t feel what their bodies are doing, can’t flow with the terrain. They’re so afraid they can’t begin to become better skiers.
I see many parallels with fear in photographic situations. If you’re afraid of shooting a subject, whether it’s a person or a poisonous snake you’ll get tense, tentative. You won’t flow with the “terrain”. You won’t stay with a shoot long enough or get good shots while you’re doing it. When you’re afraid in any photographic situation you get timid, tentative with the camera, bringing it to the eye only occasionally, furtively.
But what are we really afraid of? We worry too much…about too many things. We over-think. We’re afraid of being afraid before we even shoot. Afraid of confrontation when we point the camera. Fear of rejection when showing the photo. Fear of over-reaching. Fear of getting hurt. Get over it! Let it go! It’s not as bad as all that. You're not likely to break any bones. It’s only a very small fraction of a second and you're done.
Sometimes there is no substitute for wretched excess. There is benefit in frantic intensity, in frenzied passion, in a lunatic lust for aesthetic endeavors. This is often the image of the quintessential genius, possessed by the muse, creating breakthroughs, crafting new paradigms, inspired by lightning bolts of inspiration. No time for quotidian concepts like food, sex, tidying up, answering emails, checking in on the world. Well, maybe sex… but nothing that doesn’t feed the beast.
I’ve never made a living at photography although; from time to time the thought had crossed my mind to try to do just that. Quite a while ago, while attending photography school part-time in San Francisco, I investigated the possibilities; showing my portfolio, talking to prospective photographic employers, editors and art directors. I learned much about photography and the business of photography that was extremely useful. I learned that, typically, photographers start as assistants in an established enterprise, carting equipment and schlepping coffee, taking almost any assignment to get hired. In some ways it is a very exciting, fast paced way to learn the business and make a living. I also learned that assistants didn’t get paid very much and didn’t have any more time than I did to pursue their own projects. Indeed, many professional photographers didn’t have much time for “personal work” as they called it. They were too busy shooting what clients wanted, paying the bills and directing assistants to create their own work. During a job interview I asked one pro about his personal work. He admitted he had to “shoot a lot of refrigerators” in his studio to carve out a little time every month for his real passion, shooting landscapes in the Sierra Nevada Mountains.
At the time of these career investigations I was attending school part time to pursue my interest in making pictures, not to change careers. I was already making more than twice what a photo assistant could make running paper cutting machines in a union printing company. If I were to quit my “real” job to be a photo assistant I’d have to take a big pay cut, I’d still, more or less, be punching a clock, and still not have any more time to make my own photographs. I decided I didn’t want to compromise. I wanted to pursue my own work on my own terms. I didn’t see the need to be in the photography “business” to do that.
Doing something for a living is quite different from doing the same thing for oneself. Unless you drive the whole enterprise and call all the shots, if you make photographs for money, any money, you have to ask “whose art is it anyway?” Even if you have “creative control” on an assignment you’re still working for someone else. It’s a rare photographer who can make their living following their own vision without compromise.
It’s a conundrum, an intricate and difficult problem for many artists: Art for money, art for making a living, or art for oneself? Today, I’ll occasionally sell a print or get an assignment but on the whole it’s never been my intention to photograph for others or sell pictures. It may sound a little selfish, but I photograph for me.
"If your picture isn't good enough, you're not close enough."
Comfort is often a killer to creativity. If you're “comfortable” with your work you’re probably not pushing your limits. You're not learning, growing, developing, honing your edge. You may be getting very good shots but not necessarily the best you otherwise might get. If you really want to grow, as an artist and as a person you need to be uncomfortable, at least some of the time. You need to challenge yourself to be more audacious, take a risk, maybe even get a little reckless. It’s hard to overcome the fear of getting closer, engaging your subject, taking the braver shot but the more you do it the easier it will get.
Staying fresh and motivated is sometimes a challenge. It's easy to get comfortable and stale shooting the same things, in the same places in the same way. It's important think new thoughts, try new things, stimulate your creativity with new "inputs".
Talk to strangers. Seek out interesting people, people you may not normally engage with, people much older or younger than yourself, people in different disciplines, with different interests and motivations. Have different conversations with people you know. Ask different questions. Give different answers. Say what you think. Listen better.
Read, listen to music, look at images or make images you don't think you'd like, maybe even stuff you know you don't like.
Learn new software, techniques and tools for your art. Experiment and don't be afraid to make mistakes.
Explore. Travel far or near. Wander around in your city or town or neighborhood or house to parts you seldom or ever visit.
Commute on a regular route? Leave 20 minutes early and explore on the way. Find your road less traveled.
Turn off the TV.
keep a notbook or blog or photo jornal for you ideas and insprations whre you dont worry abot speling and; or puncuation or perfect images.
Exercise regularly. Get sweaty. Make your muscles sore. It brings more oxygen to your brain. You'll be dizzy with inspiration.
Kodachrome is no more. Kodak stopped making the film and the chemistry a while ago. Many photographers had stockpiled film but are out of luck now if they haven't used it. Kodachrome was a complicated process using proprietary chemistry, not something you could mix up in the kitchen sink. The last Kodachrome processing machine was shut down last week and will be sold for scrap. For about 75 years this wonderful film was an industry standard, with processing labs worldwide. Introduced in the 1930's, there was nothing like it. True, it was slow and it was easy to overexpose but at a half stop underexposed the color was voluptuous and rich and beautiful. Almost nothing could take its place. Almost...
We'll miss our Kodachrome for a while but maybe not so much when we really think about what we can do today. Kodachrome was wonderful stuff but in this current digital age film in general has become a quaint anachronism, a relic of 19th and 20th century photographic technology. I'm sure it will have its fans for years to come and may even see a minor resurgence if somebody buys the rights to the technology from Kodak. There may be a niche market for it among fine art photographers like there is for platinum prints or wet plates and antique cameras. But Kodachrome is obsolete technology, as obsolete as other, one time, state of the art technologies like daguerreotypes, calotypes, ambrotypes, tintypes, etc. It seems hard to believe that these ancient processes were once "state of the art". It seems harder to believe that in a few years we'll be saying the same thing about the current "state of the art".