Fail and Fail Again

If at first you don’t fail then you really owe it to yourself to try again. Fail people, please fail. There is nothing wonderful about ease, perfection,routine and the word that will ultimately destroy photography….convenience. Failing is like slamming your shin into that chair you moved right before you went to bed and right after you forgot you moved it. It sucks at the moment of impact, but it reminds you not to forget you can’t see in the dark. I fail all the time, and I routinely go out of my way to do things that ensure my failure. Like testing. I was recently given a camera, a plastic camera. I looked at it, opened up the box, figured out a way to customize it then promptly went outside and shot the images you see here, junk images rife with self portraits and odd little backyard landscapes, telltale signs of the all important test. In other words, crap.

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However, as it turned out, these are important crappy images because they don’t actually look like the kind of crap I was going for. If you like these images, that is okay too, but I don’t like them which ultimately is all that matters. The technique I THOUGHT was a slam dunk was in fact a complete air ball, but I didn’t know that so I tested. I do this on a regular basis and actually find it very entertaining. My office is littered with bad images, prints, books and odd tests. It is FROM these creative debacles that I often times find my visual promised land.

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New Project, New Sample Book

“You know when I saw that latest work you were doing I thought you have totally gone off the deep end.”

This statement was made to me after I showed this work for the first time during my talk at Photo Plus Expo in New York. The person who made this comment to me is a legend and someone I really respect as a photographer. Once we spoke further about this work he explained that he realized there was a method to my madness and understood where I was attempting to go with this work. It was a great moment for me, not because I need praise, but more specifically because I think this exercise, or doing things like I’m doing here, is critical to the creative process.

Let me explain. Something was missing. It still is, but I’m closer to finding what I’m looking for. I felt my photography had grown too detached. I went from fully digital and REALLY feeling like I’d lost my work, back to the analog world but I still felt like something was missing. What I realized was I missed the actual physical part of photography that I knew many years ago.

So, I got lucky and found a darkroom in Santa Fe, a location I’m sharing with another photographer who also feels he wants to reconnect with the physical, wet print process. I have yet to make a print in the space, for a variety of reasons such as not being in Santa Fe and also not having the space fully built out, but it’s coming and it’s coming soon. I KNOW what this place will allow me to do. And believe me, I’m NOT a great printer, not by any stretch. But, it’s actually not about that. It’s about slowing down and MAKING something by hand.

I grew up doing a fair amount of physical labor, and I have a feeling all of this stems from this reality. I NEED to make things and the computer just doesn’t do it for me. But, like I said before, I’m not IN Santa Fe as much as I’d like. I have this pesky Blurb job and all these other responsibilities, so I felt like I needed something here in California. I needed a project that would help me satisfy those physical, MAKING needs.

So what you are looking at is the first incarnation of this project, something I’ve tentatively titled “Vandalism.” What you are looking at is all done in camera, painstakingly slow and laboriously. It’s about reexamining existing work, rephotographing it and adding in a little trickery/mystery along the way. There are several different materials involved, several different cameras and techniques. None of this is really that important.

Also, as you can see, I filtered the living crap out of these images(the ones in this post) for NO other reason than I could! You see, I sometimes lose control and this is a perfect example. It feels great! I think maybe this plays into this strange physical need. The camera on the iPhone SUCKS so bad that using straight images makes me feel like I have the swine flu, so I filtered the crap out of them because it forces me to press buttons and at least DO something to the image. It’s a pale and lifeless substitute but desperate times demand desperate measures.

This book sample is a Blurb 8×10, portrait style softcover book. It’s not really a book, it’s just a sample to see how these images look on paper and how they play with each other. I used the ProLine Pearl paper, which is great but I might actually change that up and go with the uncoated which does have more of a handmade, craft-like feel. You also might be wondering why I put this title page in the BACK of the book, and at the END of this post…well I’ll tell you why. SO many people who look at my book pay SO little attention to the book that one of the things they do is open and view a book from the back! I KNOW, it’s criminal but it happens all the time. So, I repeated the front matter in the back of the book. Take that short attention span people!

This book and this project are about simple things. Clearing my mind. Asking myself what I want to do. Wondering what is missing in my work and why, and then just simply playing around. I have no commercial angle with this, no need to rush it out, or ever really show it for that matter. It’s for me. In the wee hours of this morning I was packing for Uruguay, shuffling around the frigid house, digging through old bags, making notes and trying to compress as much stuff into as little space as possible. I came across an old plastic bag filled with oil paint, ink and an odd assortment of drawing and sketching materials. I dug it out and now it sits across the room from me, silently screaming. All of this makes me wonder “What’s next?” Going off the deep end never felt so good.

Portrait of a Place

So I’ve got a few workshops coming up. Two of these workshops are about travel, storytelling and books. The third is about making documentary portraits. So, I’ve been thinking. I look at a lot of portfolios. A lot. And I look at a lot of books. Many of the books I look at are created by consumers. In many ways I think pros and consumers are all striving for the same thing, and if you reduce this down to one simple idea I would classify it as “The need to tell a story.” The longer you do this you more you learn about not only how to tell the story but you also learn what your audience needs to fully understand what it is you are trying to visually explain.

A lot of the consumer portfolios I see are random. Lots of travel, lots of places and lots of faces, some faces who know they are being photographed and others who don’t. Many of these portfolios are random because that is how the photographer came to photography, simply bringing a camera along and shooting whatever it was they encountered. This is totally fine. However, if you are trying to accurately portray a place, a people, a story, sometimes as the photographer you must think in terms of story or theme. Even within the idea of the story, each piece, whether that be a landscape, a portrait, an action shot, can also have a mini-story attached to it. These small stories, and their information, make up the overall piece.

I’m a little odd because I’ve always worked with theme or story in mind. Always. When I head out and try to work randomly, I find myself falling back into the idea that what I’m working on is a small part of a larger story. Now I’m realizing I need to move even further back and consider that all my stories are actually a part of an even larger idea that will encompass, perhaps, my entire career with a camera in hand. Scary to think about that edit. This idea was presented to me by a book publisher who flat out told me that I should look at everything I’ve done and look for a “master” theme if you will. Again, I can’t imagine sitting down to begin that process. Maybe if I get a nice, long, prison sentence I can start this baby up.

The pictures in this post are from a series I did in Hawaii, on the North Shore of Oahu to be exact. I went to this place, at the same time each year, for almost a decade. Each year I had a mini-theme in mind, sometimes landscape, other times a specific person or place, but overall the images all played together. When I broke down the portrait idea I realized that pulling back was as important as moving forward. What I’m treading around here folks is context. Context simply puts me in the place, beyond a tight face. Context answers things like “Where?” “How?” or “When,” and is essential for telling a story. The goal is stand alone images that all fit together. Think about that. Images that are good enough to completely stand on their own yet fit together like a visual puzzle, ultimately presenting one, enormous, clear theme. It ain’t easy.

So many of the consumer portfolios I see are filled with tight faces because these are very simple images. These images are easy to read. The wrinkled face of the mountain tribe person. The hands or feet of the mountain tribe person. Woman in market, etc. We’ve all seen endless amounts of these images. The are expected, but in many cases they tell little about a place. Again, nothing wrong with these photographs, but I think there is much, much more to explore when it comes to actually telling a story. I think an easy way to begin this journey is to think about creating a picture package, something small, like five or six images. Give yourself a goal. “I’m going to tell the story of Venice Beach California, and I have six images to do so.” Do you think your images will all be tight portraits? Maybe. You might be able to pull this off, but getting the idea of place or story, with only faces is a tough go. So you begin to think about story first and then images. Maybe you need something that says beach? Maybe you need something that says California Beach? Maybe you need something that says Southern California Beach? Maybe you need something that says unique, Southern California beach? You see where I’m going with this?

Now the fun part of working this way is you have the ability to edit the final images into a variety of stories. And, if you show your work to ten different editors, chances are, you will end up with ten different final edits. This is where making books, working in themes, really gets interesting. You being to edit, see your idea coming together then realize, “Hmm, I’m missing something.” You then head back out to figure out that final piece that works as the visual glue to keep the piece together. And believe it or not, many of these type images are NOT the most visually stunning. I call them transitional images, pictures that link sections of a story together, images that provide very small pieces of critical information that assist the viewer. Nobody likes talking about these pictures because we all want to be top guns and talk about the brilliance of our most successful snaps. Again, that is great if you are showing a portfolio perhaps, but when it comes to storytelling sometimes we have to play by different rules.

When I do workshops I’m normally working in theme mode. Information or transitional images are a big part of what I’m doing. If I just walked and looked for lifetime, stand alone pictures, well, I might get lucky but then again I might not. Now here is where things get really tricky. You can’t tune yourself OUT of looking for those incredible one-frame wonders. You have to do both. You have to react to what is happening. You have to anticipate. You have to predict. But in the background your overall theme hums along. I don’t know about you but I talk to myself almost nonstop when I’m working because all of these ideas are flowing without pause. It can be a lot of voices going at one time. And yes, from time to time, I lock them all out and look for a zen-like connection.

So when you look at the images in this post just realize that each one represents a chapter of the overall story. Competition, landscape, portrait, culture, sense of place, are all represented. There are many ways of getting from point A to point B. We each work in our own way. My goal with this post is to get you to think in terms of theme, of story and of the idea that whatever you are working on….there is something larger just outside your view.

Portraits + Workshop

I have an upcoming workshop regarding “Documentary Portraiture.”

Based on a few comments I thought it might be a good idea to show a few images and talk a little bit about portraiture, and more importantly the idea of what a portrait really is. I’ve thrown in a few standard portraits here, but the project I’m primarily featuring, “Paradise, America” is a long-term story I started a few years ago. There are twelve towns in America named “Paradise,” in twelve different states, and I thought it would be interesting to have a look at what it was like to live in one of these towns. I made my way to five of the twelve locations before realizing I wasn’t entirely happen with how I was working, and that I liked the story so much I wanted to start over and begin anew. I was working with a Pentax 645, in black and white, which is a look(and camera) I really like, but I wanted to start the project over with a bit of color, as well as a more mobile format which would allow for quicker pictures. So much of this story was about landscape and context, in addition to the portraits. I also wanted to spend more time in each location, and I feel the Leica is better suited for getting close and reacting to life. I think color will be better in setting mood and place.

When the world ends, the financial markets close and we are all living in looted rubble I’ll have plenty of time to get back to this story………………………………………………………

The information and ideas I speak about in this clip will play a strong role in the portrait workshop. Shooting tight portraits with a 70-200 is a fine endeavor, but might not tell the story you are looking to tell. Sometimes context and story need to be created, and these might be better served by making images that provide a sense of place. A few things to think about.

Isn’t a landscape a portrait?
What transitional images might you need to tell a story made with portraits?
How do you engage someone you don’t know?
How will your equipment effect your portrait style?
Do you need audio or text to help tell the story?

For those of you signed up for the workshop, if you have specific questions…hit me up and I’ll address them.

Purity

I just might be the photographic antichrist.

Earlier today I was searching through seven years of images, all of the same kid, in preparation for a book I’m making. I’ve got eight hard drives sitting in front of me, and during this process I stumbled across a variety of older images that prompted me to reflect. Maybe not such a good idea……
The images were everything from documentary snaps, weddings snaps and portraits. Just like everything else in my digital life, folder names, image titles, all changed over the years as I learned “better” ways of conducting myself in the electronic world. So, certain folders were filled with surprises, both good and bad, and I heard myself say more than once “Wow, I forgot about that.”
Well, something else happened. I found these images. All those years ago I was plodding along as a wedding photographer doing documentary on the side, a practice I found never worked that well. I wanted it to work, it just never did. The weddings were fine, it was the documentary part that took on the limp, damaged feel of someone with not enough time.

And then kids came along, by accident really. “Hey, do you shoot photos of kids?” my neighbor asked. “NO, I don’t photograph kids, sorry.” “Great, I’ll bring them over,” she said. That was it. One shoot. Changed everything. Soon, I was a “kid photographer” a title that strikes a cringing fear in anyone in a “serious” category of photography like documentary, photojournalism, fashion, editorial, commercial, advertising, product, still life, fine-art, conceptual, experimental, etc. Suddenly my wife was introducing me as “my husband the kid photographer.” Gone were the days of “my husband the super-cool, studly, macho, documentary photographer who travels the world and pours himself into his projects.” Gone. The “kid photographer” intro, in most cases, was like casually mumbling, “I have the Hanta Virus.” People would flee in search of more interesting to people to drink their warm, foamy beer with. “Hey honey, that guy works in the dead-letter department at the Post Office, let’s go talk to him.” Me, I found a sick fascination with this, and used it to my advantage making proud announcements for no reason at the hippest of events or parties, just to see the cool people run from my path. “Hey, you wanna see me make balloon animals?”

But you seen now I have the golden opportunity, the 20-15 hind site to look back. I look back on these early days kid snaps and I marvel. You see I was still pure. I wasn’t REALLY a kid photographer yet. I had inherited the title, but I was still pure in that way that comes with first experiencing something. I didn’t have packages, pricing, online crap I didn’t need, business cards, letterhead, newsletters, promos, stock sales, blah, blah, blah. I was just a guy with a camera aiming it at strange kids. All locations were still new. People would call, I would answer. A plan would be made. I would go and shoot. I had no style in mind. I had no preconceived ideas as to what kid snaps were supposed to look like. I had ZERO tricks up my sleeve like “I’ll shoot backlit,” or “I need such and such an image.” It was so simple. It was so pure. And it was so much fun. It was so damn good. And then it all began to change. It all began to be molded, shifted, squeezed, controlled and manipulated by the simple IDEA that I was now OFFICIALLY A KID PHOTOGRAPHER. “Damnit, you’re a kid photographer, why don’t you act like it?”

The mass exodus of photographers from other genres had yet to descend on the poor unsuspecting kid market. Digital cameras had yet to land in the hands of every parent in the first world, and there was ZERO expectation other than “make something interesting that pleases me…the kid photographer.”

The work was good. The work was simple. And then it wasn’t anymore. It’s not that the work got bad, or I stopped being able to make good images of kids, in fact I went on to make many pictures I consider good even recently, but the forces around me began to change and I began to conform. Sales and profits became a larger focus. Margins, print prices, workflow, online marketing and promotion began to take up more time than the actual photography. It was supposed to be this way right? You get good, people find you and you build a business. Yes. That’s right. But as I sit here all these years later, looking back, I have feelings that flow contrary to this learned behavior.
I’ve spoken about this before and each time I do I brace for the fallout. Can we work as artists and make great work. Yes, I used the word “artist” but more to see if you were sleeping. Can we as photographers work and make great work? Short answer. “I’m not sure.” The deadly part of all this is that I see what happened to me happening to many, many other photographers. I meet a young snapper and their work is pure, it’s original and it feels good, and suddenly they find success. In many cases success today comes with IMMEDIATE COMPROMISE. You hear things like “Well, I used to shoot film, but now the client wants digital.” Or, “Well, I used to take my time and work this way, but now I have to have images in by the end of the day.” What I’ve learned is that “convenience” is DEADLY when it comes to photography. If you are allowing CONVENIENCE to dictate your imagery you are on a path that is heading in the wrong direction. CONVENIENCE is based on ease, and that folks is going to get easier. Easier doesn’t always translate to “better.” More people do it, more people think they can do it. More people think they can tell you how to do. Less people pay attention.

Last night at dinner, a casual conversation and a photographer explains where he was working on a recent project. He talks personally of his personal work. “Were you on assignment?” “Yes, a self-assignment.” There is no speech required. Those words come with the meaning of working on a self-assignment because that is where the real work is made, and that this simply would not have happened had he actually been on assignment, something we are all trained to believe is how we should work. I reflect once again on these photographs of kids and I had nothing but warm regard for how I made them and what they meant to me both at that time and now all these years later. My wife no longer introduces me as a “kid photographer” so I’m struggle with a new title that creates the same shock and awe. “C-student” might work, “Recipient of a Class-C misdemeanor” but that might strike a bit TOO much shock and awe. All I can leave you with is the idea that we don’t really have time to screw around. We, as photographers, have to shoot for us. There is no other way. “Yes, but we have to pay the bills.” No, you don’t. You just convinced yourself of that. You can do it, and pay the bills, but you can’t then complain of not making good images. I know cause I did just that. I don’t anymore. For me, there is no better feeling in the world that working on something I believe in and finding success at the purest level. When I look around me at the creative world, at places like literature, photography, art, I see the best work being done, the last working, by creators with a clear mind without limits. When we find commercial success, often times, this comes with boundaries, limits, requirements and expectations that simply don’t allow for moments of greatness. I just finished reading a book, a book by an author I truly admire. He talks about being hired to create a project then coming to realize he can’t complete it under the requirements of his position. He is fired. Then he creates the book I just read. I think beneath this little story is the story of truth, of purity, of working without questioning your motivation and rationale. We simply do what we feel we have to do and not what we think we are supposed to do.