Route 14

As many of you know, a few short years ago I was able to venture to Uruguay, a small country located nine-hours by air south of Miami. Uruguay is not on the radar in the United States, which is ONE of the many reasons I wanted to visit. I also wanted to visit because I had a friend there, an interesting chap named Martin Herrera Soler who I had initially met in Los Angeles back in the late 1990’s. Through Martin I met Diego Vidart another very talented storyteller and visual communications person. Also on the trip was Larry Hayden, aka “Alcatran.” The four of us, over a ten-day period worked on a project together, which you can see here, and here and here.

I just got off of Skype with Diego, and when I speak with someone like him it is VERY apparent I’m speaking to a real artist, a real storyteller and someone with a high intellectual knowledge of his industry, craft and history. I can’t tell you how refreshing this is, and how EASY it is to give someone like this my complete and total undivided attention. All of these guys are the same in this regard, so it’s not like I wasn’t prepared, but they are people you should know and pay attention to. Diego mentioned a project he just finished, Ruta 14 and after hearing the background details I knew it was something to share with you all. The film below will give you the basics.

Ruta 14 / explicación del proyecto from Diego Vidart on Vimeo.

Personally, it chaps my ass I can’t speak fluent Spanish, and this is yet another reminder I need to get off my ass and learn it once again. What I love about this project is the concept behind it, the tangible, physical requirements and the borders created by the story itself. For those you non Spanish speakers the essence is a return to the tangible of photography, of touch and smell, via the “Box Camera,” as well as the tracing of Route 14 for it’s entire length through Uruguay. This is an unfair synopsis, because there is much more, but it will get you started. There is much more to come from Diego, so stay tuned.

And this is just the best thing I’ve ever seen.

Proceso Fotográfico from Ruta 14 on Vimeo.

The man behind the mask.

Diego_Vidart

Postcards from a Wedding

I wrote this post over a year ago and totally forgot about it. Sorry. It WILL be the last post I ever do in regard to anything related to a wedding. Ever. I’ve been out of that game for a long, long while and won’t be going back anytime soon. I’m not even sure I could do it anymore. Anyone who has ever done a wedding knows it’s both a mental and physical game.

CLIFF NOTES: If you don’t want to read this opus the basis is MAKE YOUR OWN IMAGES.

I was asked to write about advice for wedding photographers, something I promised I would never do again. However, earlier in the year(2012) I photographed my last wedding ever and I thought it an opportune time to sign off on this industry and business. This post might seem hard hitting, which I hope it is, but the intention is simply to make people think. As photographers we are capable of so, so much, but in difficult economic times, or trying times for the industry, I am baffled by the level of conformity perhaps best illustrated by the portrait/wedding world. Yes, many weddings are comprised of the same format, preparation, ceremony, celebration, and there are similarities from shoot to shoot, so in some ways repetition, standardization and trends all contribute to an assembly line type situation. However, I spent ten years in the portrait/wedding world and was successful because I did NOT conform. There is power and there is value in unique imagery, just as there is in unique literature, poetry, art and sound. So the next time we find ourselves walking on the same well worn path, let’s turn around, step off or begin hacking a new trail.

I named this post “Postcards from a Wedding” as a tribute to Magnum photographer Susan Meiselas and her “Pictures from a Revolution” film. Yes, we are talking a major stretch between the Nicaraguan Civil War and a wedding in the Caribbean, but hear me out. In or around 1990, when I was first beginning my official photojournalism degree at the University of Texas, Susan Meiselas came and screened this film for the PJ students. My first “photojournalism” class had hundreds of people in it because “photojournalism 101″ was an elective that any communication, art or journalism student could take. Consequently it was a packed house. I was hooked. Completely and utterly hooked. First, the film gave me a feel for who Susan was. Second it gave me a feel for what type of effort it required to do this work, and it also gave me a clear picture of the connection between a committed journalist and the people she was working with.

Susan’s Nicaragua work was also graphic, violent, beautiful and felt like the kind of work that I wanted to make. Years after meeting her, and years after graduation, when I finally had a portfolio I believed in-my first book-I sent her one, unannounced. This was before I had a computer, email, cellphone, etc, so it was mailed to her in a giant envelope. Several weeks later it came back, and it came back with a long, handwritten note. In a nutshell it said “You see the world in a unique way but you have to learn how to make YOUR images.”

Maybe, just MAYBE, there were two or three images in the entire book that would prompt someone to say I saw the world in a unique way, so I figured she was being polite, which she had already proven by writing me back! What I took from her advice was the last part. I had to learn to make MY images. This is easier said than done. I see so much work today, so much, and the overwhelming majority is work I’ve seen before. Finding vision, as I’ve said many times in the past, isn’t easy. And you can find it only to lose it just as quickly as you found it. I know, I’ve done it. Several times.

But let me break this down with the wedding thing in mind. It is a challenge to bring up weddings and Susan Meiselas in the same sentence, but it’s my blog and my soul died a long time ago so I’m gonna go ahead and do it. I’ve written about this for years and normally get crucified when I bring it up, which is reason enough to do it. The wedding photography industry is filled with photographers who aren’t really photographers in the traditional sense, but that’s okay(They approach from a different angle). If someone finds joy in working in an industry then more power to them. However, there is a downside to this little tale if you have wider plans. If you have “other plans” in photography it can be difficult to be associated with the wedding industry, fair or unfair that is the truth.(Just had this conversation again, last week, with another photographer who said he was not getting commercial work due to being known in his area as a wedding photographer.Much to the chagrin of another photographer who didn’t think this could be possible.) One of the ways this can go away is if wedding photographers learned more about not only photography but about themselves. You GOTTA study, work, toil and fight to figure out who you are with a camera in your hand, and frankly most people don’t do it and the industry doesn’t put ANY pressure on them to do so. There is also an unfair stigma associated with wedding photographers. “If you can’t do anything else, you do weddings.” This just isn’t true anymore, not by a long shot, but the IDEA remains and sometimes this can be a real issue requiring educational skills on the part of the photographer.

The wedding industry was the first industry where I listened to photographers tell me they learned the business by going online, in 2005, and copying who was hot. This isn’t good. That might get you a business but it doesn’t make you a photographer. There is one photographer in particular, someone I first heard about years ago, who has been cloned by an entire generation of wedding photographer, right down to his camera and lens. I see dozens and dozens of wedding snaps that all look EXACTLY like his…only not quite as good. But guess what, it’s good enough. The bar is low so people can get away with this. And also, a lot of wedding snappers base their work and credibility on their clients who are mostly people who DON’T look at imagery. They like most things. This doesn’t lend itself to developing a higher standard.

I’m not gonna show you the bulk of the work I did on this wedding(Private), which by the way was the final wedding I will ever do. It’s over Johnny. The vault has been sealed and dropped overboard. I did this wedding for several reasons, but most importantly I did it because I really like the people involved. That’s all I need. Yes, the location was great, I had freedom to do what I thought best, and even though I was the official photographer I was also part of the gang, which makes things far more civil and enjoyable. The images you see here, with the exception of two, were all made with a plastic, discontinued underwater point-and-shoot. The rest were taken with a 43-year-old rangefinder. Why did I use these old tools? Well, I like them, but they also give me the STYLE of image I was going for. And when I say this I mean for THIS particular shoot. I had a very concrete idea of what I wanted the final product to look like the DAY I accepted this job, which was months and months before the shoot. I didn’t just apply my “wedding photography” to this event like all the rest. I’ve done weddings where I shot a grand total of 20 images THE ENTIRE DAY(665 Polaroid), and I’ve done others where I shot digital and shot literally thousands of photographs. I’ve done weddings in black and white only. I’ve done 6×6 weddings, 6×7 weddings, 6×9 weddings, and even used a 4×5 once or twice. I’ve shot Lomo, Holga, Pentax, Fuji, Canon, Leica, Polaroid, Zeiss, Voigtlander, Contax and a homemade pinhole. I used this messy range of clunkers because I had a vision for what the job not only required but how I envisioned the final product. I had this vision because I had experimented enough to know what worked and what I could expect to walk away with, and I was fine tuning my approach and technique to fit each job individually. This is a doable thing when you are doing a total of ten shoots a year. It becomes REALLY difficult when you are shooting 20+ events per year and suddenly conformity becomes a part of the equation. If someone else can do your editing you might be on the path to assembly line.

The goal is to be able to see the final project, which in this case is a book, and say, “I know who did that.” Call it style, vision(overused) or point of view, doesn’t matter. What matters is HAVING ONE. Wedding photographers should demand more. They should rally around those who take chances and set a tone that borders on chaos and failure, not volume and year-end-sales. Could we possibly take anymore of the mystery and experience out of it?

To be fair, working as a photographer these days is not what it once was. There are different pressures and the value of photography, especially in the mind of the general public, has changed and not for the better. There is less appreciation for the process and also less concern with the longevity or impact of the images. But, this doesn’t mean you don’t fight the fight. If you are a wedding photographer you have to educate yourself and your clients to what it is you do, SPECIFICALLY, and why you do it that way. In the long run, it’s all you’ve got. And don’t go thinking this is a rant against wedding photographers because this level of operation is happening in almost all genres of photography. Having an online following or filling a workshop doesn’t make a good photographer. These aren’t bad things, not by any stretch, but what I see happening is people associating these abilities with photographic talent. In my opinion, the best photographers in the world aren’t on social media and they surely don’t teach a lot of workshops. Why? Because they are making their work instead.

For you newbie wedding photographers out there I’m going to cut you some slack. Keep learning, keep expanding your knowledge base. The people I want to direct this post at at the “pros” who have suddenly found themselves in the wedding world. This really started happening about fifteen years ago, based mostly on economic pressures. YOU folks have a responsibility. YOU have the knowledge and experience which makes it truly painful when I see YOU conforming to what the industry is subscribing. When you homogenize your photography to meet an industry with seemingly no quality bar it really has devastating effects and not only on the wedding market, which is some ways is impervious to impact. How many times have I see or heard a photographer from another genre land on the wedding market and make some bold proclamation about “doing things right” only to see the same person six months later churning out the same generic content under the fateful statement, “Well, the clients aren’t complaining.” Weddings offer certain photographers, very good photographers, their FIRST real chance to make decent money, and ultimately for some that becomes overpowering. I get it, but ultimately I don’t get it. It just makes me sad. These folks tend to stop making good imagery, and not just within the borders of their wedding work. They just stop creating or thinking or whatever it is that made them photographers in the first place. This in turn drags the industry down ever so slightly. And then someone else does, and it happens again and again and again, and suddenly the slight variant is a deluge of brain drain. The truth is these people don’t need to do this. Many of these folks came from genres where the photographer has lost all rights, all ability to work in a pure sense, and where they have had to conform, sign contracts and give up on working in the style they dreamed of working in, but in the wedding world you can do ANYTHING you want to do, so when someone gives up, conforms, caves in, it makes it that much more difficult to watch. So if by any strange change ANYONE actually reads this post, take this ONE thing away which is to find that inner photographic kid once again. Stop doing what you think you have to do and start doing what you WANT to do. I guarantee your work will improve and photography will be a lot more fun once again. Photographers have an inherent power I wish they would take more advantage of. Not everyone can do what we do. I’m a firm believer there are the SAME number of photographers there always has been. There are millions of people with cameras, but they aren’t photographers. When you make a unique style, or recognizable style of image, there is a power you can harness and your clients will know and respect this. Your images might not fit every job, but you don’t really want every job. You want the right job.

And stop talking about new equipment. It won’t help and has no bearing on your imagery. I’ve been having conversations with photographers who tell me they are worried about showing up at a job with a 5D Mark III because they are afraid the client has the same camera and won’t think of them as a professional. This is incredible. If your client can make the same image you are making they maybe you AREN’T a photographer? (Buy a 40-year-old camera and you won’t have to worry about this!) Your photographs should be about light, timing, composition and your visual history, but if these items started in 2005 by you copying someone online…you might have a problem.

If you are offended by this post just know….I’m by no means a perfect person or photographer(OBVIOUS), but what I am is a pretty decent witness to the times and to photography. I’ve made plenty of horrible images, some for myself and some for clients. I’ve had successes and failures and this post is simply my opinion. Take it or leave it. I walked away from working as a photographer so that I could work on purely my own work. I fought the downward slide of “professional” photography for the past ten years. It’s doable, but it’s all about education of the client. To do this you need the kind of work that educates. You don’t need a standardized test that EVERY OTHER photographer has.

My advice for wedding photographers? My advice to young photographers?
It’s all the same, and I’ll go back to what Susan told me all those years ago….make YOUR photographs, whatever those may be. In the long run, it’s all you have. You have to get outside of the wedding world and look at the full range of photography being made. Perhaps your images will be more influenced by Sternfeld, Steber, Shore, Smith, Salgado, Seliger, Stanmeyer or Strand than someone in the wedding field. If you don’t know these names(Please, please, please don’t tell me if you don’t know.), start there, look them up and see how you feel.

I walk away from this industry with overwhelmingly positive thoughts because I walk with memories of the people and the true moments that happened far from the glitz and glitter of the reception, those moments when hearts beat fast and the honest decisions were made.I walk with the truth of knowing that I was chosen to be the witness.

PPS: The images you see are the images I printed for MY book of the wedding. A snapshot book. 6×9, 300-pages .

Meat and Candy: A Western Australia Story

It has been weeks since I first wrote this post. I’ve been sitting on it because I’m nervous that people will take it the wrong way, and it’s also very long. It’s also a bit related to another post I have ready, a post which is over 5000 words in itself. I have to say, there is something about Australia that has really been sticking with me. Australia has a style and feel that is very unique in my experience. It’s not that the country is perfect, not by any means, but I don’t think anywhere is perfect. There SEEMS to be a cohesiveness, or maybe I’m just naive. There is a pride as well, amongst the art crowd, photo-crowd, etc. Perhaps the size of Australia or the small population has something to do with this. Regardless, it’s a place I’ve been thinking about more and more which is odd. I have a sinking suspicion I’ll be back one day. At least I hope so.

Earlier this year Blurb asked me if I wanted to venture to Australia for a series of presentations, school visits, festivals and a few other creative industry here’s and there’s. I said “Sure, why not?” To most Americans, myself included, Australia represents the wildness of the unknown, the other side of the world and the lusty promise of adventure. Australia, and its wonderful population, alien landscape and quirky demeanor did not disappoint.

SR_Australia_017
I know what you are thinking. “Wow, that Milnor is one lucky guy, getting paid to go to Australia.” Yes, you are in fact correct but there is a “but” you need to know about. Blurb moves at lightning speed. Being a technology company means the playing field changes on a daily basis, so this trip was NOT akin to a congressional junket to “Coruptastan”, or a boozy romp complete with escorts and backdoor, pork-belly deals. In short, the first three weeks of my trip were work. I saw nothing, did nothing and experienced little more than planes, cabs, hotels and conference rooms. This sounds like total bullshit, I get it, but it’s entirely true. I’ll give you an example because I smell a whiff of doubt. We did sixteen events in fifteen days in three different cities on the East Coast alone. Sydney, our third stop, is famous for many things, such as the harbor, skyline and beaches. My last night in Sydney I had dinner with friends of my wife, folks I’d never met before. We had a wonderful dinner and discussed a variety of topics, many of which revolved around Australia. “What did you think of the skyline?” they asked. “I don’t know, I didn’t see it,” I replied. “What about the harbor, or the Opera House? they asked. “I don’t know, I didn’t see either of those things either,” I replied. “Haven’t you been here for five days?” they asked. “Yes but I haven’t really been outside yet,” I answered. “GET IN THE CAR,” I was told and during an absolute torrential downpour they drove me down to see harbor. Thinking about it now I remembering being outside, but I also remember I was teaching a photo workshop, so my head was involved in the teaching and not in the looking around. There were days where we did an event in the morning, raced to the airport, flew to another city then did six to eight hours of presentations. I’m the guy that does all the talking, so all verbal communication was on me. You will see by the length of this post I like to talk/write. I love doing it, so I’m not complaining but I can still see this little explanation causing me to look like an asshole. If the shoe fits….
SR_Australia_009
By the time the first three weeks were over I was exhausted. I really didn’t realize how exhausted I was until I got off a five-hour flight to Perth. The “vacation” part of my trip had begun and I’d flown to Perth to meet up with two fellow photographers. These particular fellows happen to be brothers, twin brothers, and were old friends from my days of annual travel to the North Shore of Oahu for the winter surfing season. I was an interloper in Hawaii but my friends, Erick and Ian Regnard, also known was Tungsten, were very much a part of the global, full-time surf photography community. I hadn’t seen them in a long while but we had discussed connecting in Perth and “going into The Outback.” That was the extent of the plan. Getting off the plane I was a bit dazed but a homemade curry was placed before me and I think I remember eating like a saltwater croc. I also remember them having the smallest dish in the world and on that dish was the smallest dab of “hot sauce” I had ever seen. I was provided with the explanation that it truly was the hottest shit anyone has ever seen and if I accidentally used more than a pinhead amount I would have nothing left in my body approximately eight minutes later. Seeing as we had eight days of car travel ahead of us I skipped it.

SR_Australia_013
Ten minutes after eating one of the brothers said “Okay, you about ready?” “Ready for what?” I asked. “We are leaving now,” he said. I abandoned most of my clothes and all my electronics, grabbed my Hasselblad, a bag of film and got in the passenger seat. And this is where things began to become a little surreal. We stopped for supplies and I got my first true glimpse of my traveling companions. We seemingly bought only two things. Meat and candy. Okay, four things. Meat, candy, beer and fuel to roast the meat. In a cloud of diesel our ute(suv) was headed north and into the unknown. We had a map and vague idea what we would encounter, but nothing specific. We didn’t know where we would stop, stay, camp or converge, but this was what made it so great.

SR_Australia_036

SR_Australia_035
I began to realize my head was in a fog and I didn’t want to stress about the photography. I just wanted to be an explorer and let the images come naturally, so basically the polar opposite of how I was used to working where the imagery was the driving force behind every move, every human gesture. There were HOURS and hundreds of kilometers of the kind of nothingness that is so nothing it actually becomes something vibrantly real. Snow white beaches with no tracks from man or machine. Sky blue water and endless dunes. The conversation was varied but we did solve every single problem facing modern photography and came to the conclusion there were only three REALLY important people in photography; Ian, Erick and myself. We asked if there were any objections to this thought. We heard none.
SR_Australia_048
Eventually we turned east and headed into the great void of red, green and blue. The boys wanted to learn more about the Aboriginal settlements, and I knew so little about the culture and history I was also game to explore. We would simply find out where the communities were, drive in then ask permission to work. I think we were a bit of an anomaly. “This guy is from Los Angeles,” was like saying “Ah, this guy landed from a planet just beyond Saturn.” I don’t know enough about the Aboriginal situation to comment with any authority so all I’m going to say is that work remains. I see some similarities with the Native American situation here in New Mexico. It remains a live wire topic and not one I’m going to discuss here.

SR_Australia_067

These trips, these opportunities are such a privilege, and luckily for me, by the time we turned east I was experiencing a major disruption in the foundation of being a photographer. Perhaps it was fatigue, the frustration or just a glimmer of outside hope breeching the void of my entrenched thinking. I made a realization out there in that wonderful bush. I realized I’d been missing the point of it all. I realized that I needed to continue to explore but not as a photographer, just simply as a human being and if I made images along the way then so be it. I realized that the only people who really care about my little snapshots, for the most part, are friends and fellow photographers. Sure, from time to time you make something memorable that might impact a larger audience, but that the truly important thing was my translation of the experience as a human. I realized the snapshots that mattered weren’t necessarily made of emulsion but rather speech, song, texture and interaction. I realized in some strange way the camera was keeping me from these things. I still haven’t figured all of this out, but I can tell you my life has been entirely different since returning with the dust of The Outback on my boots.

Before we turned east the brothers had managed to procure, of all things, a lobster, which was thrashing around the back of the truck like a wild dog. In the middle of absolute nowhere, in the pitch black and under the most sensational night sky I’ve seen, the brothers pulled off the dirt track and said “time for surf and turf.” The absurdity of it was like a warm blanket. I had already learned that two brothers from Mauritius know their way around the grill, so I had flashlight duty, flashing back and forth between the grill, the bush, the beer cooler. It was treacherous work but somebody had to do it. Before long we were exhaling through our noses as hot lobster became a roadside reality. A moment I will never forget.

Returning home, something I normally loathe, felt right. Most of my friends and family are moving so fast, and are so busy I was only faced with a few “how was it?” type questions where the person asking is already on to something else before you can formulate a response, so I kept the trip mostly as my little secret. I kept it inside and allowed my new realizations to burn and keep my creative fire alive. But there had to be a book. There always has to be a book with me, even if not a single other person ever sees what I’ve made. For me these books are therapy. Perhaps they serve as a sense of closure. I didn’t need or want anything large. There was never one second spent thinking this would be a portfolio or representation of anything other than a small voyage with friends.
Meat and Candy Cover
I quickly decided on two concurrent themes, one with color, mobile phone imagery and the second with the black and white square. The title, well, that was obvious to me. I wrote a short copy block as an intro, chose a font that felt right and began to drag and drop my images. I probably spent a half hour making this book. 7×7, softcover, Proline uncoated. Done.
Meat_and_Candy_001
Books are like puzzles with the images being the jagged little pieces that on their own might seem fragmented and lost but when combine form a smooth and accurate depiction. I always think I know what I’m doing but books are journeys, just like The Outback. I pretend like I’m in control, but most of the time I’m one half step away from glory or one half step from doom. I don’t think I would want it any other way. This particular book is a reminder to me. It’s a reminder of many things, things like friendship, travel, understanding and a general reformulation of an agenda unchanged for over twenty years. In short this book reminds me I can’t go back. Ever.
Meat_and_Candy_006
Now, at the risk of sounding melodramatic, this book didn’t change my life. It’s not like that. Frankly, it’s not that good. This book is buried under about ten other books somewhere in my office. However, I will equate this particular book to Steve Martin’s character in the movie “The Jerk” when he is working the “Guess Your Weight” booth at the local carnival and he realizes the idea behind the booth is making money. “Oh, I get it,” he says. “It’s a PROFIT thing.”
Meat_and_Candy_005
Whatever it was that happened to me while in The Outback, revelation, mini-stroke, whatever, was like an internal sonic boom. The response to my “departure” from all things photography and all things industry was seemingly more traumatic to OTHER people than it was to me. Someone actually said “Oh man, I’m sorry to hear what happened to you in Australia.” This was a kind gesture, a friend looking out of me, but I had to say “No, no, no, this is a very, very good thing.” I explained that I’d seen a small splinter of light into my creative future, or someone had dosed me with acid, either way I felt like a secret had been whispered in my ear. Now, the brothers and I were all sleeping in the same tent, so it quite possible was Ian or Erick talking in their sleep.
Meat_and_Candy_003
Over the past few years I’ve seen the professional photography industry change. Certain genres have exploded and retracted, weddings and portraits, while others have almost entirely died off. This is not a popular topic, at least not in public, but I can tell you with certainty it really is a topic when photographers are together and speaking freely. The reasons for this are many. Mention this in public and you will quickly be labeled as “disgruntled” or “sour grapes.” I know because I’ve been called those things many, many times, mostly by younger photographers who never actually knew how good things used to be. I’m okay with this. Everyone WANTS it to be so good, so if you pretend things are then perhaps they will be. I don’t want to be a downer by saying this. I’m simply relaying what I see and hear on a daily basis, but here is where things get truly strange.

Since “departing” from the race I’ve made better work, had more opportunities(a lot more), better opportunities and far more control over my own work. I’m not entirely sure of all the reasons for this, but you simply can’t believe the difference. I have my theories. First, people are SICK of the relentless promotion happening within photography, sick of things like a photographer spending two weeks on a project then spending two years promoting it. Two, they are very respectful of someone who says “No, I won’t do that shoot/project because it doesn’t work for me.” The power of a polite “no” cannot be stressed enough. In short, not only has there been ZERO downside to NOT being a photographer there has been a completely unexpected upside. I say “no” to almost all of these things because I truly don’t want to do them, but there is a sense of relief from these people when I say “I’m not a photographer any longer.” It’s almost like they are saying “Okay good, now we can have a real conversation.” I’m going to give you two examples to support my point because I can hear the groans. First will be the gallery owner. I was at a party in Hollywood, and yes it was as Hollywood as you imagine. I don’t belong at these things-I’m the opposite of cool- but I went anyway. Gallery owner comes up to me and says “What are you working on?” I explain. There are now three or four other people listening to the conversation. Gallery person says “You should bring that by so we can look at it.” “No, it’s not ready,” I say. “You should really bring it by,” they said. “Nope, it’s not even close,” I replied. “You should still bring it by,” they said.” “I will see you in two years,” I said. The gallery person leaves and the other people listening in say “Do you KNOW who what was?” I said “Yes, but that doesn’t change the fact the work isn’t ready.” The second little event involves a museum director who I was introduced to. During the intro I noticed the director looking at the ground, and I realized he viewed me as another photographer probably looking to get a show or get something else from him. I extended my hand and said “I’m your new best friend.” He looked up at me and asked “Really, why?” “Because I have no interest in having a show and I will never ask you for anything,” I said. His reply was awesome. “Oh, so you mean I can make eye contact with you.” What subsequently unfolded was what I would describe as a relaxed, adult conversation. The same thing happened. This person, probably feeling surprised and relieved began to ask me about who I was and what I was doing. Suddenly this person is giving me names, numbers, other outlets and saying, “Tell so-and-so I sent you.” Perhaps these cases were anomalies, but it doesn’t matter because I’m going to explain later why I think these are a good thing and what my ultimate dream would be.

Now, I’m sure voicing this reality will get me slaughtered by a variety of people. I can see their names and faces as I write this, but it is very important for me to say this. Someone wrote me a week ago and asked about how to make the jump to being a photographer. This person gave me the gist of their life and my response was, “You are crazy to do this.” “Why would you want to take something you love and make a business of it?” He had specific ingredients in his life that prompted me to say this. Note, I did not tell him not to do photography. In fact, I stated flatly I think photography is a GREAT thing, but making a jump into this industry with his specific ingredient set, at this time in history, is a risky business.

Personally, I think photography needed to change. There were simply too many untrained people jumping in, buying a Dslr, building a website and taking anything that came along. Plus, we all got really, really, stinking drunk on the technology and began to think the next generation would be the one that really made things right. The mistakes made early on, like 1997(giving it away for less than analog shoots because of perception digital shoots were less expensive due to no out of pocket cost with film and processing. Yes, this actually happened, and yes it was happening as far back as 1997.), with the technology are STILL being felt today and sadly they are impossible to reverse.
Meat_and_Candy_004
There was a second bullet point to my revelation in Australia. The second bullet point was about YOU not me. I realized that the vast majority of my friends who are photographers are compromised in their professional work.(It’s always been this way, to some degree, for most photogs with the exception of those who are so good the are left alone to make what they make.) Budgets, contracts, production, duration of shoots, usage, stock sales, have all been compromised to such a degree that the idea of making GREAT work, often times, isn’t even on the table.(This is where the deadly term “content” starts creeping in). I’m referring to the real photographers on Earth when I say this not Cyberspace photographers who are always doing well because that is how you gain followers. I’m talking about the people doing the real editorial, commercial, advertising, fashion, photojournalism, etc. And hey, there are people killing it out there, there really are, but there are not NEARLY as many as I would like to see. There are a lot of talented people sitting in neutral.

I think the problem is to make great work you have to battle SO HARD and SO OFTEN that it takes one of two things. One, you are already an established person.(Most of these folks are in their 50’s.) I know many of these folks who have been working full time for decades and know the agents, agencies, etc. They know the legit rules of the road and are respected. They are doing major campaigns for major agencies for rates that would stun and paralyze many up and comers. The Cyberspace photographers typically don’t know any of these people. Different worlds. The second group that lives on is the possessed. The people who say “f*uck everything else” I’m going to invest every moment of every day into my work and abandon everything single other aspect of my life. If you want to know the prototype, “Photo Alpha Male” research W. Eugene Smith. Rumor had it he passed away with $13 in the bank and a list of people who were unhappy with him. He drove everyone crazy while he worked and nearly drove himself to death making his images. In my opinion, what he received in return is the title of “most significant documentary photographer of all time.” And believe me there are plenty of “Photo Alpha Females” as well. Now, I’m going to add a third category here, but it’s a facade category. The third category of photographer who appears to be making it is the up and coming star, and this is what has been bugging me for quite some time. This category is touted in the industry pubs and social outlets as doing amazing work, and in some cases they REALLY are, but behind closed doors they are hanging on by a thread, but this little detail can’t be discussed because it would blow the facade. Case in point…last year I had dinner with one of these folks. I had never met this person, but found them very capable and very engaging. They had just had a COVER story done about them and their rise within the photo ranks. The moment this person sat down I knew something wasn’t right. They immediately began to divulge the realities of their professional life. Remember, I didn’t know them and was certainly not prying. “I hate what I’m doing.” “There isn’t anything in my portfolio that is actually mine,” they stated. Over the next hour they basically blew apart what had been written about them and their work. “I need to either start over or get out,” they added. I don’t knock or fault this person AT ALL. In reality they were in a position of power but just didn’t realize it yet. This type person is HUGELY important at this time in photo history. This is the person that needs to be empowered, not confined, but this little maneuver is a 9.9 on the degree of difficulty scale.
Meat_and_Candy_002
Before Australia I’d spoken with agency people, photographers, designers, illustrators and a bevy of other creative industry folks because that is my job at Blurb. I’m a link between these folks and the company. I work with people one-on-one, or in groups, to help them find uses for the platform. It is an incredible job that has given me a view of the industry I would have never had as a photographer. Many of these folks feel compromised, frustrated AND all on the same path. “I want to do less commercial work and more personal work,” or the “I want to make my personal work my professional work.” Right now, the ratio for most people is about 80% commercial to 20% personal. However, ask them which of the two is the better work and they will quickly reply “my personal work.” And here is the kicker….the clients say the same thing, yet the trend remains unbroken. Agency people complain about clients “trending” with silly mobile phone campaigns, photographers complain about getting work or how their work is treated, designers and illustrators want to be turned loose not held back, etc. AGAIN, I’m going to say this ONE MORE TIME because the haters will be fueling up reading this. There are people doing GREAT work, on their terms and finding financial success, which is all that matters because they are living proof of what is possible.

Driving through The Outback I began to wonder what would happen if I took one photographer, one designer, one illustrator, one writer and one agency person and said “Here is he concept, everyone needs to remain on concept, but what you do to convey this concept is ENTIRELY up to you.” “Work together but make PURE work based not on ridiculous parameters.” “Take your time.” What would happen? Everyone I asked about this said “Chances are you are going to get something spectacular.” (I just explained this post and this idea to a photog in his 50’s and he said “That is what advertising USED to be.”)

I left Australia dreaming of making this a reality. Now, I don’t think I can do this because the reality is I’m a nobody and I don’t operate in those circles, but my dream was to plant the seed in someone who can. One project at a time, a hand picked lineup of talent and a client who signs a contract saying “I will not interfere.” Probably a pipe dream here, but I have to say the thing that gives me hope is the response I get when I bring this topic up with photographers. The response I get is anger. I’m turned on like a pack of wolves converging on Bambi. This is natural, and a good thing because it tells me they are fed up. At SOME POINT something will pop, ping, snap or turn, perhaps like it did for me.

There is absolutely NOTHING better for me than to meet with someone who has been turned loose and set free. Whether it be an illustrator, designer, photographer or anyone else who has been empowered to be who they know they can be, not who their industry or clients are telling them to be. They exude an unrivaled energy. They are dangerous people. They really are. I want my phone calls and text messages and emails to come from happy friends who are still growing as creatives. I want those who are coasting because they found a niche to stand up and throw off the blanket of routine because photography doesn’t have time for this. I’m greedy. I want to be stunned by invention, risk-taking and friends with crazy in their eyes.

By the time we rolled back into to Perth my internal flame was glowing. I was SO jazzed to try and figure this out. I had dreams of how I could accomplish this, dreams that will remain private because I MIGHT be able to eventually accomplish one. The festivals I attended were SO good and SO inspiring I couldn’t sleep at night. I sat on this post for months because I was very, very nervous about posting it. I still am. But I realized that I can’t do what I want to do on my own. I thought if I write about these things, and at least put them out there, then maybe someone else will read it and say “I’ve been thinking the same thing.” Hopefully this person is in a position of power. I don’t expect anything to change overnight. I’m looking only for an experiment. I will not be involved because I’m not good enough. I have a short list of people I would like to unite, but I don’t know them well enough to pull it off, nor do I have the track record to interest them, but I’m snooping for a go-between.

I just realized what a rambling mess this post is, perhaps the result of me having both Lyme Disease AND a kidney stone. However, mess as it may be there are at least three ideas here I’m going to break out into individual posts only because I know there are huge, waiting masses eager for my opinion. Wink, wink. I also want to remind you that although some of this stuff might seem negative I don’t see it that way at all. Through the murkiness of life there are flickering splinters of light. I know because I saw one while in the Australian bush. Now I need to turn myself and see just what the light was illuminating. I heard an interview with author Doris Lessing who admitted she felt that she had only had a light impact on a small number of people, but she continued to write anyway, which I think is the most important point here.

PS: I want to thank all the Australians I met during my travels. I wasn’t able to even scratch the surface of your wonderful country, but I’m coming back as soon as humanly possible. If you are in the photography industry in Australia and you don’t know Ian and Erick you really should reach out and introduce yourself. They are good people and also share a desire to make YOU the best possible photographer you can be because ultimately it helps everyone involved. Just beware, they only consume two things. Meat and candy.

Black and White

It dawned on me that I never posted these images to Smogranch. I made these books while I was offline and working only with my Tumblr site. As you know, I’m not a designer. I’ve never endured even a single class on design in my entire life. My early books were putrid in regard to design, and some would argue that all of my books still reek of inexperience. I would say “fair enough.” However, one thing I’ve learned from book people far more intelligent than I is that all rules can be broken if the overall design simply works. My first bit of advice for ANYONE making books is to go look at illustrated books. You would think this would be the logical first step, but many folks just blaze away without giving much thought to what has been done and what they can learn from our past. The truth is the history of illustrated books is rife with legendary movements, motions and risk-taking. From these pioneering publications came everything else. Book design is hyper-specific, and many of the pioneering current books are based, or designed as tribute, to something that came along years or decades ago.

Milnor_6x9_Latin_003
For the first twenty years of my career I did little else than look at imagery. I poured over News Photographer Magazine by the hundred while holed up in the Harry Ransom Resource Center. I also poured over French Photo, which was far more interesting than the American version, and also gave me my first real understanding of things like editorial policy. I looked at all of the major work being done in whatever genre I was working in at the time, starting with photojournalism, then on to editorial, portraiture and fine art.
Milnor_South_America_004
When I started to make books back in the early 1990’s everything I made was black. After all, I was a PHOTOGRAPHER, and everyone knows that photographers LUST after anything black. I had black clothes, black hats, black bags, black cameras. No other color existed, so the moment I sat down at my Mac Performa 630 to create the pages of my first book it was a “select all….BLACK” moment.
Milnor_South_America_003
Then one day it dawned on me, after looking through the hundreds of traditionally published photobooks in my collection, that I had a very small number designed with black pages, and the subject matter of these small few covered topics like insane asylums, war, famine and a bevy of other heavy realities. I began to realize black was perhaps not the best option for every single book especially when the book was about something like children’s portraiture……
Milnor_South_America_001
During my travels with Blurb I often run into photographers who look at the Blurb samples and make quick and lasting decisions. “I’m going to do black pages and I’m only going to print on Proline Uncoated.” The very next person will often times say something like “I’m only going to use white pages and I’m never going to print on Proline Uncoated because it is clearly inferior to Proline Pearl.” My advice is always “slow down,” and I also encourage people to stop drawing lines in the sand. Each project lives and breaths on its own, same for books. What is your subject matter? How do you want your images to print? What level of contrast and saturation is required for your specific body of work? Do you want or need all of your books to have the same look and feel, or perhaps you are doing a series of books? Do your images have white space with little detail that might blend into a white page? These are just a FEW of the questions you should ask yourself before making design decisions. There are no absolutes, so don’t create them for no reason.
Milnor_South_America_002
So this leads me to the images you see here. This is not a complex book, nor a particularly great book. What you are looking at is simply the same book printed black and also printed white. You might not think that such a seemingly simple change would make all that much difference but it actually does. One look at these and you will not only see but FEEL the work in a different way. This is what is so much fun and so challenging when it comes to making books. For me a book is a journey, and one in which I want you to travel a certain way and see certain things. I want you to ride the emotional roller coaster while consuming something you may have never seen or experienced before. Great books do this and do it without you even noticing. I’ve always been a believer there are very few transcendent creatives in the world, and consequently few truly transcendent things like photobooks, novels, paintings, etc. When you encounter one of these people or things, you know it because suddenly you see the world with a new pair of eyes.
Milnor_South_America_006
My last little piece of advice based on this post is to THINK about doing a test book. The first Blurb book I ever did was a test book and one that I still use six years later. There is nothing like seeing your own work on the pages, and on different papers, to fully understand what will work best for your particular situation. Oh, and the other thing. This process is supposed to be FUN, so don’t turn bookmaking into teeth pulling or in my particular case…KIDNEY STONE REMOVABLE. When you boil down what we all have to deal with in our lives, bookmaking is just icing on the cake.

Homecoming

“You know this story of yours might be a homecoming.”

This idea was presenting to me by a friend and fellow photographer after we overlapped on our current projects. My current project IS a homecoming, and each and every time I bring my camera to eye I can sense and sometimes feel the influence of my father. He’s out there somewhere. Sometimes he plays tricks on me. (The hummingbird thing..I know that was you padre.)

SR_dad_me_Wy

The short of it is I miss the old man. Dad was the reason we first went to Wyoming all those years ago. The cross country drive with siblings and a car sick dog. The silence, the wind, the smell of sage after a rain. Like an infection, that place put the hooks in me and never let go, and it’s because he put me there in the first place. I set my pants on fire with a branding iron because of him. I got trampled by cows because of him. I got stepped on, scraped off, bucked off and knocked over by horses because of him. I got my fingers caught in the fence because of him. I broke beaver dams because of him. I picked up nails because of him. I learned to shoot, hunt and fish because of him.

SR_beaver_

SR_calf_

Wyoming was true open space and once you have it in your bloodstream there is no antidote available. You have to live with the knowledge of what it’s like. The overwhelming din of absolute silence and isolation. The elements, those you need to mind or they will erase you from this place, and the landscape that reminds you that you are one step away from nowhere. I think about this place on a daily basis. I don’t fully understand it, not sure I ever will, but now I have New Mexico and this place is rapidly filling a mile wide void in my mental state. I need this place more than I want it, if that’s possible. Dust and bones, history and the knowledge that out there, around the next bend or over the next ridge line, is the unknown I’m stalking like the ghost of a bygone time.

SR_dandy_

The sound of leather soled Western boots on the dry ground. The flash of lightning and simultaneous pounding of the accompanying thunder. Hail so thick it looked like snow. Watching game move through that first crack of morning light, foreleg lifted but not yet placed, nostrils exhaling the steam of a heart driven combustion engine, all senses on high-alert. It was all too good to believe. Of course I had no pressure on me, it wasn’t my ranch. It belonged to him, and his ranch partner who is equally guilty in this crime of my exposure to the West.
SR_Juan_me

Juan wasn’t my father but it sure felt like he was, and this was a good thing. Juan wasn’t from the West, he was Cuban, but as they say he got west as fast as he could. The real deal cowboy. Not the rodeo type or the owner of a 4×4 with a lift kit, he was right off the pages of what you think you know about the West. I saw him do a lot of things you probably wouldn’t believe, so I’m not going to waste your time with trying to explain them to you now. He had a touch of the wild in him, probably still does. I hid his cigarettes and he ran me down and made me give them up. He made me do everything I was afraid to do. He taught me an extreme range of words I wasn’t supposed to repeat. He bought me a hamburger after I started crying when I slammed my head into the passenger side window on the way home from a trip to Ft. Collins to pick up tractor parts. He rescued my fingers from the fence. He left me in the middle of nowhere with a notepad and my first “assignment” to track the cows being bred by the lucky bull in front of me. It was perfect.
SR_mule_arizona

There was also another guilty party. Yep, mom was there too. She taught me a lot including what a Pentax K1000 and Haliburton case looked like. That case went everywhere we went, just like the bag I carry today. From truck to truck it would be stuck behind the bench seat as we roamed the pastures or mountainsides coming out from time to time to make these pictures you see here. Back then what she did was considered not extreme but dedicated. Like a slow trickle from an irrigation pipe, it might not seem like a lot but when all is said and done a photographic archive exists and the thirst of a field is satisfied.

I’m not sure where I go from here. I really don’t know. All I know is I can’t run from the demon forever. At some point the haunting of the West will come calling and I will need to go and pay whatever respect is required. It might be nothing. It might be everything. Until that time I’ll continue to drift. And when I’m out there amid whatever it is that brushes against me, I’ll know that the old man is there too, right where he should be.

Dedicated to BOJ

Thanks for putting me there.