Una Pura Verdad: a film by Flemming Bo Jensen

Several years ago, while I was still working as a photographer, I received a call from the marketing director at Blurb who asked what I was working on. She explained that Blurb had a film crew and was looking for a photographer who was mid project. I gave a quick explanation of my New Mexico Project and film crew said, “Yes, yes, yes.” Several weeks later I met up with the team in Southern New Mexico and we spend three days together. It was a great experience, and the resulting film really took on a life of its own.
New Mexico 201209. Una Pura Verdad
Fast forward to 2012. Early in the year I taught a workshop in Peru and one of the students was this photo-Jedi from of all places Denmark. I’m a product of the public education system here in the good old US of A so I was VERY well acquainted with Denmark. A red and white flag of some sort, reindeer and people who live in mud huts, but what was puzzling to me was the photo-Jedi himself. He went by the name Flemming Bo Jensen, which in itself was complicated and confusing but nothing compared to the language he spoke when he we first met. If you haven’t heard Danish please look it up online. It turns out the perpetually traveling Dane was an encyclopedia of anything Star Wars and would often times reenact entire scenes, playing all characters and reciting dialogue to perfection. Talk about a great skill to have. He was also an accomplished photographer and technology dude of the highest of levels. After the workshop we remained in contact and ultimately made plans to connect when his travels aimed him toward the American Southwest.
New Mexico 201209. Una Pura Verdad
I was continuing to work on my New Mexico Project and began to realize how advantageous it would be if I had another film to play with. Blurb had plans to release their rich-media platform, so I knew I would have a home for both the original film and as many other motion pieces I could create. I mentioned this to Flemming and asked if he would be up for working together. He was.
New Mexico 201209. Una Pura Verdad
So, we formed a plan, lit some candles, sacrificed a few, small woodland creatures(kidding) and set out into the Land of Enchantment. As with all things in my life, I didn’t have much time. I took a week off from work and we did what we could. Some things worked really well and others not so much, but what I can state with absolute certainty is that we both learned a lot. I did audio recordings of text I had already written, and tried to wrap my head around an edit that might be interesting. Flemming was buzzing around our tiny house like an angry bee, shouting instructions in Danish and waving his arms in a figure eight pattern as he talked about growing up on a farm in Degobah. At the end of the week I departed for California and Flemming rented a supercharged Dodge and continued his travels.
New Mexico 201209. Una Pura Verdad
Over the past few months the film began to take shape. Flemming approached a local friend and guitar player, David Goldberg, who agreed to do a soundtrack. I processed the film and made my selects. Flemming, through his Danish music scene connections, began to polish the sound and edit. Ultimately what was born is the film you see below; Una Pura Verdad(A Simple Truth). If you want to know the technical details and read Flemming’s take on the matter you can read his post HERE. When the film was finished Flemming and I made the instant decision that the finished film was more of a opening than a closing. We both know that filmmaking is going to be a big part of our future, probably more for Flemming than me, just based on time, but we already have plans for a future meeting in Santa Fe with more films on the visual horizon. This film was a tremendous amount of work, and I wish I could say it will repay us with fortunes in lost gold and invitations to late night parties in Hollywood, but the reality is this film was a labor of love that will, chances are, end up costing us several thousand dollars to produce, more if you count the time and travel. It’s something we did because we felt we needed to do it. It’s a personal project down to the DNA. Many thanks to Flemming, my wife Amy, David Goldberg, the Copenhagen crew and also photographer Arthur Drooker who led this horse to water. Siempre junto.

Una Pura Verdad from Flemming Bo Jensen on Vimeo.

Why?

A few weeks ago I was fortunate enough to speak to a class at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. The chair of the photography department, Dennis Keeley, is a very cool cat, and in addition to his life as chair he has lived several other interesting lives, including photographer and musician. A few years back, Dennis paired me with another photographer, Patrick Hebert, and we taught a class about photographers working with NGO’s. To say that Patrick is a good teacher just doesn’t go far enough to describe what he does or how we works. In short, he’s wicked smart.
So, when Patrick, who goes by Pato, as me to come and speak to his class, I did.
We discussed photography, styles, techniques, history and of course, books. Overall, this was a fun night, but there was one thing that has been lingering in my mind. One thought. One question actually.
I showed a brief slideshow of my work from Sicily, something I do because I use that work to describe books, marketing, portfolios, etc, and not just as “Look at how good I am.”
Shortly after the slideshow a student asked me why my work looks the way it does.
“I don’t know,” I answered.
Now, saying “I don’t know” isn’t a great way of making a point, and Pato being Pato he added, “Well, it’s not that he doesn’t know….” Then proceeded to talk about style and how these things come about.
But, for a second, I really didn’t know. I didn’t have an answer, but what I did have was a feeling.

Earlier in this same exact day, another photographer sent me a PDF of a book he made from a recent trip to India. This photographer shot all color, 35mm, and as I perused his book something very odd happened. One image depicted a middle-aged man inside a house with blue walls. The image was cropped into a square. The man was wearing a red turban and had an open fire burning near him in the center of the room. Again, the walls were blue, the turban red, the man had a great color to his skin and the fire projected orange light all throughout the interior. Only I didn’t really see any of it. I stared at that image, in real time, with my eyes open and what I saw was a horizontal, black and white image that wasn’t color but was about the rim of light that lit the man from behind. My mind literally took the blueprint my friend projected on the screen morphed it into something that my brain either wanted to see or needed to see. I kept staring and literally had enough time to ask myself, “Is this really happening.”
Okay, so maybe I was Indian in past life, or maybe that magic marker I inhaled during my lunch break had lingering effects, but I don’t think so. I think I’ve either learned to see this way, or perhaps, even more interesting is that this is what my vision really is.
So when those students looked at my dark, grainy, contrasty work from Sicily and innocently asked, “Why does it look like that.” Well, maybe because that is how I see. Not how my camera works or how I prepped the files to look. Perhaps this is how my brain interprets the world?
I’ve read that many male of our species are color blind and I’m wondering if perhaps THAT has something to do with it? Trees are kinda orange right? Okay, all on the same page here.
Seriously, this has been lingering in my mind for over a week now and I’m still not sure how to explain it. My eyes were open, they were glued to this image and yet I saw something entirely different. And the image I saw was dodged, burned, highlighted and emphasized precisely what I found to be most important, the direction and quality of the light.
I think the term “vision” gets thrown around like single bills on a Friday night in Vegas, but in many cases, this is just horse%$%^ thrown around to sell something. And folks, I’m not saying I’m a visionary, or that my vision, if I have one, is incredible. What I’m saying is perhaps I HAD a vision, and this vision was reminding me of something, or filtering something for me. I for one think this is entirely real.
When I’m in the field and I enter a scene where I KNOW there are images, a place or time when I can FEEL those image forces around me, this type of vision is what I try to draw from to find my sense of clarity in the clutter of the world. (Stolen from Peter Schwepker) This internal filter takes over and I either naturally, on a good day, apply this, or on a bad day, fight to find it.
I know there could be many reason why this happened, reasons like short attention span, not paying attention, learned behavior, selfishness, etc. Again, not sure.
I’m not sure this has happened to you or you think I’m entirely full of $#$%, but I’d be curious to know.

INTERVIEW: John Bilderback

John, pre-shoot on Oahu’s North Shore.

PREFACE:

I was first introduced to the world of surf photography, years ago, when I worked for Eastman Kodak. I was living in Southern California and was hired by Kodak to be the liaison for photographers in my region. After having moderate success, I convinced Kodak to send me to Oahu for the Pipeline Masters surfing event. Not only did this event attract surfers from around the globe, it also attracted surfing photographers from around the globe. Photographers came from France, Australia, Japan, England, Indonesia, New Zealand, Portugal, South Africa and all over the United States mainland. Digital had yet to arrive and film was the name of the game.

Looking back on those first few years I didn’t realize just how good we had it. There was a small town atmosphere to the North Shore and to the gaggle of photographers that lived there during the winter months. I wasn’t a part of this small community, just an interloper that came once a year with the new wares from Kodak. Leaving California, and the corporate bubble, and landing on the North Shore was like leaving this world and arriving in an alien land. Oahu is the most remote landmass on Earth and the surfing culture personified a modern, nomadic tribe filled with energy from competition, territorial attitude, cultural clashes, history and tension derived from those attempting to look deeper into the limits of their skill and courage.

After a successful first trip I was to make many more, and over the years I got to know a few of the photographers fairly well, some of whom I’m still friends with today.

One of those photographers was a lanky New Jersey born photographer named John Bilderback.

A few months ago I had the good fortune of having a shoot on Oahu, and my wife and I decided to stay a few extra days to relax and check in with some old friends. I’d mentioned to John a few months earlier about potentially being on the island and thought it might be a good time to fire up an interview or photo-shoot. Oddly enough he agreed. He also agreed to let me follow him on an afternoon shoot so that I could make a few pictures to go along with this interview.
So much has changed since we first met, but as you will read, John is still making pictures, and films, and has adapted to new technology, new subject matter and new clients.

Before we go any further there is something you should know. In all my years of being around photography I don’t think I’ve encountered a group of photographers more misunderstood than surfing photographers. Their industry, rife with cliche, isn’t viewed in the same way of mainstream sports and we all have bad surfing movies and characters in our mind. Don’t let this nonsense fool you. There are a handful of people in the entire world who can do this work at this level. Standing on the beach is one thing, swimming and shooting in monster waves is a risk each and every time. It’s humbling as a photographer to look at work and realize there is no way you could match it. I feel this way when I see John’s work. Plus, he’s just a cool, humble guy and that is a great combo. This interview and selection of images is just a TINY window into his world.


Trying to predict the oncoming storm.


-A guy from New Jersey shooting surfing? How did that happen?

I grew up in a house on the beach, in a little fishing town called Barnegat Light. We lived within earshot of the lighthouse’s foghorn, and right on the inlet to Barnegat Bay. Everyone was either a fisherman or a tourist. I came from a family of fisherman, but my friends and I preferred to hang out with the tourist girls. I took up surfing around 1972 and I couldn’t even carry my own surfboard. When I was seventeen, my father died, and the only way I could react was to try to fill my life with as much adventure and surfing as I could possibly fit in. I went from an all boys prep school in New Jersey, to the University of California at San Diego, where I could surf Black’s Beach every day and surf and camp in Baja on the weekends. My good friend Rob Gilley, another surfer whom I met at prep school, also went to UCSD and we began taking surfing pictures together. We shared the costs of the equipment and learned from each other, and from our numerous mistakes. Before too long we began getting photos published. Eventually we both went on to become senior photographers for SURFER Magazine.

In front of the monster, shark diving.

-When did you land on the North Shore?

In 1988 while working for the legendary photographer/photo editor Larry ‘Flame’ Moore at SURFING Magazine, I was offered a one way ticket to Hawaii and a raise. It took some consideration, maybe thirty seconds, and I was off to face the biggest surf in the world. I took everything I had and put it in a box.

-You had an assisting career as well correct?

During my college years I worked for most of San Diego’s best commercial photographers. Dean Collins, Jim Coit, Aaron Chang, and many others. It was an awesome education that really added to what they taught me in school and showed what a real photographer’s job was like. Dean is a genius, but from him I learned that technique was not the only thing you needed. Jim is also a genius, he has a way with people, any people, in any situation. He taught me about the things you need to be able to do that had nothing to do with cameras. Aaron took me under his wing when it was time to swim in the big surf, he taught me how to manage hairy situations.

-For me, photography was about the need to record. Why do you think photography became your life, not just a hobby?

The beautiful scenes that you are a part of when you are in the water motivated me most. I’d swim with the waves and the dolphins and surfers at dawn at Black’s Beach before heading off to sell cameras at Point Loma Camera and I’d have this buoyed, indestructible feeling. I could handle any little problem, because I”d already filled my tank with beauty, and awe and stoke. It seemed that I’d found a little secret energy source and I could share it somewhat if I brought back good enough images. It was a perfect blend of my loves, surfing and shooting.

Backlit kiteboarding.

-There is a big difference between enjoying the water and making it your life and career. What is it about this culture, sport, etc, that brought you to it? Can you see yourself ever doing something else?

I’ve always felt as surfers we’re blessed by trying to be in tune with the ocean and nature. You are, by necessity adapting to the conditions around you, and I’ve come to believe that a quest, especially one that takes you out of your comfort zone is a centering experience. When a ten foot set comes out of the horizon, there’s no one to help you; you face it entirely by yourself. Your attitude, your resolve, your fear, are all tightly wound up in who you are. And if you aren’t humble, alert, and thinking ahead, you get beaten. Lessons come from everywhere. When its really big and you’re going to get licked, you need to look inside for the confidence that is essential to staying calm and getting past the next few minutes safely. And when you succeed where your fear said you wouldn’t, nothing is better. After a few years of scaring the crap out of myself, I was hooked.


-I noticed early on there were a lot of folks shooting from the beach, but not nearly as many in the water. And on big days, even less in the water. It seems in the age of the 600mm and autofocus a lot of folks could shoot from the beach. What are your thoughts on this? And how did autofocus change your industry? How about digital?

We’ve seen technology come in waves. In the beginning of my career we were all shooting Kodachrome 64, manually focusing slow Century lenses, and we were lucky to get anything tack sharp. My photo editor used to advocate sitting on the side of the road practicing focusing on cars as they sped by. It wasn’t easy. Then we got auto focus lenses and nearly anyone who bought gear could stand behind a tripod and produce sharp images their first day. Digital photography has further relaxed the qualifications needed for shooting surfing. We used to spend hundreds of dollars a week on film and processing, or have a relationship with a magazine that paid that bill for us. As a result the magazines invested in us, and our future. Now anyone with a CF card, and a thumb is a surf photographer, and the mags get images for free. And that’s fine, there are some incredible shots being taken. But the dream of being able to survive making surf images is gone. The change has been to photography as a whole, not just in our industry. We photographers used to be like wizards. We mixed potions and worked under dark cloaks and in mysterious darkened rooms. Now cameras are literally everywhere. There are 1.3 cameras per person in the United States. There went the wizardry – and now we’re paid accordingly.

A lighting setup unlike any other…….

-When did you get comfortable shooting in big surf? What is your mindset when you go out on big days? Carrying a housing, etc.

I’m never ‘comfortable’ I don’t think. I’m always in a heightened state of awareness. Where’s the good spot? Where’s the wrong spot? When is that next massive closeout coming? Really, its problem solving, like most of photography. It varies from spot to spot and day to day, but you need to have a strategy that will keep you safe, while still allowing you to bring home something that’s worth maybe risking your life for in the first place. The shooting itself is a rush, yet the feeling of successfully getting back to the beach on a big day, potentially holding a box full of gems is so powerful, that it is also a reward unto itself. Its far more motivation than the small money involved. I think I never feel more alive than when I finish a day shooting in big surf.

-Any close calls over the years?

Yes, sure, tons. I’ve been run over by surfers, and landed on. I’ve literally been reduced to tears at Sunset Beach. “Mommy, I don’t want to be a surf photographer anymore!” Once, I barely squeaked over the back of a closeout wave at Waimea Bay and pretty much saw my life flashing before my eyes. There were a few seconds where I swore if I got to the beach I”d never do this shit again. I’ve seen broken backs, broken pelvises, broken femurs. I’ve seen huge sharks. I’ve seen boats go over the falls and sink, and I’ve watched bravery beyond anything I’ve ever seen on land. My inspiration I draw from the athletes; and it always keeps me at the waters edge wanting to swim out.

-Can you feel when you are about to get something great? When the ingredients are there for something beyond the normal? What does that feel like? (This goes back to something I have said about feeling a picture before you actually see it.)

I”m not sure I can. I can feel when the conditions are coming together, but I have so little control over anything, and the moment often goes by so fast, its impossible to be one hundred percent confident that I got it.
However, when someone takes off on a giant wave, and time slows down, and you are fighting your heart rate, you feel the potential energy right through you. Back in the film days when we’d leave the beach with just thirty six precious frames to shoot, we’d agonize over every shot we’d fire, and we’d have to be very picky. Now we blast through four hundred or more shots, covering everything that moves, and its different. We almost expect to bring home flawless images.

-When we first met you were, I think, only shooting surfing. Now you branched out into kite boarding. Was this serendipity or planned?

Living on the North Shore for over twenty years, I’ve seen the number of surfers in the water go off the charts. Even our ‘fringe’ spots are packed with surfers now. Getting stink-eye while surfing at the spot in front of your house gets old after a while. So one summer Darrick Doerner, a proper big wave legend, told me I should learn to windsurf. ‘If it’s good enough for Darrick and good enough for Laird Hamilton, it’s good enough for me’, I thought. And blam, my eyes were opened! I rode bigger waves faster, and further, without any of the crowds, or small-mindedness of the surf scene. I’ve had some of the best experiences of my since that moment, and I promised myself I’d always be open minded to other ideas. So when Dan Moore and a few of the early pioneers put big kites in the sky and got dragged downwind, it looked funny, but I couldn’t write it off. Now kitesurfers are matching, and in some ways even surpassing, what a surfer can do on a wave. And with the situation we’re in globally, wind power is something we should all be paying attention to. It has to be part of the solution.

Modern kiteboarding, a long way from where it began.

-How does your job changed from shooting surfing to shooting kite boarding?

Largely it hasn’t. I use basically the same equipment and skill set. I work closely with the athletes, and swim cameras into waves. The main challenge is that now I have to keep my port clear in twenty knots of wind.

-I see you not only incorporated motion, or video, into your work, but you also launched a real feature film project. Tell us about that.

Fundamentally, I find motion and sound to be so much fun to work with. In a photo you have to have anything two things you want to talk about in relative proximity. In a film, you can cut from one to another, and they can be separate in time as well as in space. Artistically the possibilities are incredible. I’m still in diapers in that field, but I’ve just finished my second film called Big Windy, which chronicles some of the frontiers of kitesurfing. Wind and alternative energies have to be part of saving the planet, and as people who get flung around by it we’re very familiar with its power. Over eighteen months of filming in Polynesia, Micronesia and Indonesia, we met a family on an atoll with a pet shark, we taught kids who’d never seen white people to fly, and enjoyed ourselves like we were surfers in the 1940’s, when everyone was still nice to each other, the frontiers were still expanding, and the sport was brand new.

-I would assume being a Canon guy you are using the 5D to make your films?

5D’s and 7D’s. Having a huge sensor, all my great lenses available, and the small form factor of these cameras, I can live with or work around all of their drawbacks. (Can I please get some lower ISO speeds though please?) We’ve just worked out a loupe-viewfinder solution for the Essex housings and I’m super excited about starting the next project with them.

Keeping the gear dry as rain invades our shoot.

-Is filmmaking going to be a significant part of your future?

(Isn’t it going to be part of everyone’s? Now some phones shoot and edit HD video, and can post it right away to the internet. Everyone is going to be an imager to some degree.)
I’ll be compelled to express myself always. What form it takes is fluid. Tomorrow, my wife Alexis and I are off to shoot a Kite Camp for twelve year old kids in Cape Hatteras, then a pro kite competition in the Gorge, and then its a month of filming wave riding in Indonesia for Oxbow. I guess that is a significant part of my future!


-There is much talk of the print world going away and the future being almost entirely online content. Do you agree? How do you feel about this? And how does being based in Hawaii have any effect on your feeling?

As a resident of an isolated island, the internet is the greatest thing in the world. It removes the thousands of miles of ocean, and makes things possible that required living in metropolitan hub before today. We can live detached, and still be as connected as we need to be. That said, I think there will always be a separate place for beautiful printed photography and art. There’s nothing like a great print on good stock, in good light. Many things though, are better delivered on the internet. News, especially today, changes far too rapidly for print media to keep up. And a magazine is no way to show video. And I believe trees don’t need to be cut down so I can check the stock market. But a glossy high quality image is something made to savor, not be dosed with, as if it were information. And there’s a permanence and robustness that also have value, so I don’t think the only things we’ll appreciate will be on a monitor. It defines what we believe is art, by the place we give it to occupy. And the internet is just another place.


-Where do you get your inspiration? What photographers do you look up to? Admire?

For my work, I get my inspiration mostly from the athletes. The things they do, their ability, and the endless variety of conditions you have to handle. A tennis player knows what the court will look like when he or she wakes up in the morning. A surfer has to be ready to face anything. Every day at the office is different. As for photographers, I look up to people outside my field, doing things I find difficult. Lori Adamski-Peek is a great example. She was a sports shooter turned people shooter and her work is amazing. I really admire her style.

-What is your dream shoot you haven’t yet been able to do? If you can share it?¶..

I’ve been working with a helicopter pilot friend for about three years getting ready for the next truly giant day of days. I was in a rented helicopter on January 28th 1998, the biggest day I’ve ever seen, and tow surfing was in its infancy. I could only afford to pay for about two hours in the air, and when the swell is that big, the sets only come every half an hour or so, so I only got to shoot a few sets. The jet-skis were under-powered back then and only a few people really had the skills to challenge it. It was an awesome sight that I couldn’t make the most of. Now there are super-charged skis, highly trained and motivated professional hell-men, and I have a friend who is gonna put me above the action till my arms give out. I want another day like that.

-How many times have you been told by a tourist that you have “The best job in the world?”

It does happen.

To see more of John’s work including his film “Big Windy” have a look at his site. http://johnbilderback.com/

Questions from a Reader: About Process

A reader wrote me a note and asked me to write about my projects. I was thrilled to get this request because doing projects is what I enjoy the most. Most of the time, these days, I get questions regarding primarily three things, three things which might surprise you.

I get questions about legal issues. I get questions about technology. And I get questions about business. But questions about actual photography, or process-hang on to this word-really don’t come around all that often. This might surprise you because it surely surprises me.

I find it very strange to speak to a class of college photo students and not get one question regarding process or the actual photography, but get bombarded with legal questions regarding model releases, property releases, usage and how to avoid legal matters when it comes to their imagery. I find it odd that young photographers are so enamored with technology, and in many cases feel like their education, or basic knowledge of photography, is in fact tied to this technology. I also find it rather odd that it APPEARS that young photographers are spending more time marketing and advertising their work then they are actually creating it.

At some point I want to discuss these things further, and the idea that once you make a decision to make your living with photography, in this day and age, everything changes.

But let me get back to that “P” word. Process.

In the past few days I’ve had no less than eight meetings with photographers, gallery folks, magazine folks, book folks and educator folks. I’m exploring, as usual, snooping around, gathering creative intel and trying to keep the learning process going. The idea of “process” has popped up several times, and each time it gave me a buzz.

As a young photographer, attending college, I would head to the stacks at the school and dig through every photo-related publication I could. This was pre everything electronic, so doing this required a bike ride or hike, of several miles, in 100-degree temps. I would arrive at the tidy office, soaked in sweat, then have to sit in the hallway until I stopped dripping. Upon further inspection the woman behind the desk would say, “Okay, you can go in now.” This was my escape, digging through these magazines. At the time, “News Photographer” was my favorite. It was very different than it is now, and I couldn’t get enough. The school I attended had years of this pub, each in it’s own plastic holder, sorted by year. I memorized those pages. If you asked about the feature regarding the Miami Herald photographer who did the project on street gangs, I could tell you which issue it was in. If you asked about the photographers getting shot at in El Salvador I could tell you that too. The school also had all the European magazines, which in my mind, were far superior to our editions. They did not have limits on what they could run, and the Euro’s knew how to design and lay out a real spread. French Photo was grand, really grand, at that time.

What drove me to these publications was the idea of learning how someone else went about their business(work). Where did the idea come from? How did you pull it off? What was your mindset? And most importantly, what was the experience like in the field?

My questions were about process, not about legal, technical or business aspects of the work. But, at that time, the business of photography was very different, and the industry today perhaps requires a different form of passion and direction. Photographers, working photographers, from around the world, would come to the school, speak and show their work. I remember asking one of these people, “What was the ultimate reason you felt you had to get into Haiti at that time?” And, “What was the feeling on the plane on the way in?” I remember my fellow students asking things like, “What was your typical day like in Haiti?” and “Was your skin color ever an issue?” The photographer spoke about her relationship with the Haitian people, and she showed images of specific people and how they had become close. She spoke about how long it took to make the images, sometimes years, and when things went so wrong during the fighting how she managed to get out, make her pictures and then get back again. She spoke about editing, about searching for those missing pictures that would help explain to the world what was really happening in this tiny, island nation.

I was hooked. I was enamored. I couldn’t sleep at night, thinking about what I was going to try to do. I wondered how I could make such an impact, impression or difference. I had yet to figure out my own process. That would not come until years down the line, long after I realized that process is a fluid situation, changing its colors, shedding its skin. Let me repeat this for all those young eyes out there. My process, really figuring out what I wanted and how I needed to do it didn’t come until YEARS down the road, long after I had begun making my living with photography. Sometimes today I see that photo-cart miles ahead of the photo-horse, and this folks will only get you so far.

So, a few weeks ago someone wrote with specific questions regarding process and I thought I would give it go in terms of explaining myself. These questions are copied straight out of an email. I’ll try to explain and show examples. But before I go any further, I need to preface this list, and this endeavor. This is MY process. It might be of interest to you, or not. It might work for you, or not. It might be a good process, or a crumby one. I don’t know. When I look at modern photography I always have more questions than answers.

– Once you come up with your subject matter do you just take time to go out and shoot with that in mind
or is it a more organized and planned effort?

Yes. All the above. Coming up with the subject matter is an art in itself. I keep a list, both in physical form and in my head, in regards to what I’m working on now and what I want to do in the future. I could work every day for the rest of my life and not get to all the ideas on the list. The list is growing on a daily basis. I try to keep multiple stories going at the same time, both close to home and those further away. I can’t go for long periods and not work on a project. I get depressed, unhappy, lost, etc, just doing “commercial” work. And when I say “commercial” I mean what makes me money. Commercial work is fine, but often times it is a compromise and it just doesn’t feed my inner fire. I wish I had more of a passion for money and for things, but my drug is experience.
Once I’ve settled on a project it typically becomes about time and money, or resources. How much time can I afford to spend on this story? This is why I keep several things going at once. I currently have a story done entirely at my house in California. I don’t have to go anywhere. I can literally shoot from where I’m sitting right now. This is simply about producing work, new work, which is CRITICAL for me. In today’s world it is easy to do a body of work, then spend years trying to find it a home. I used to think this way, or operate this way, but stopped doing this about five years ago. I think modern photography is very fickle, and in many cases, a waste of time trying to engage. So I take the time, energy and money required to sell work, and put it back into doing new projects. People can sort it out when I’m dead.
When I undertake a major project there is a lot of planning involved. When I go into the field, the research is basically giving me the best chance to produce. With limited time and resources you don’t want to waste time. However, from time to time, I’ll just go, with no research at all, just to see what happens. Did this last week. 2000 miles in the car, shot 2.5 rolls total. But, explored an area I had never been, and learned a lot. Later in the year I will work on this particular project again, and I’m researching specific events and locations where I KNOW I can make pictures. This is a very broad, wide ranging story based on a simple idea. So, when I’m there shooting one thing, I meet people, or see things that lead me in new directions and I just have to go with it.

Image from the series shot at my house. This book is almost near completion, titled “Homework” and will be an edition of 25 books total, each with a print included.

– Do you brainstorm by making specific shot lists [with the idea of remaining open to serendipity] or do you
shoot more once you get there and are reacting to your subject matter?

Well, I plan as much as I can, in SOME ways. Checking on a specific event, contacting specific people, but I never try to plan the images. I learned at the newspaper that visualizing imagery before you actually saw it was certain death. Nothing was as I thought it would be. And really, that is what is so great. I don’t know what I’m looking for exactly, I’m just reacting. The idea is to put yourself in the right place, at the right time, in the right LIGHT and react. Serendipity is everything. But here is a HUGELY important point. I’m shooting REAL moments. I’m not posing, staging, or doing a portrait series, most of the time. Images like this are so frickin rare I can’t tell you. Great images I mean. Think about it. Right place, right time, right light and good enough to capture something that is happening once, in a split second, and then is gone forever. It is the ultimate challenge and you have to be mentally prepared to NOT get it, and then have the drive to go back again and try again.

Working New York City and just stumbling upon this guy in a tunnel while walking to another shoot. Serendipity. Random image. By the way, I asked him to shoot this image. When I see a guy with a gun and wad of cash, I’m feeling him out before engaging. He just nodded.

– Before you shoot have you decided on the lenses you are going to use or wait for the subject matter to
dictate this? [I do realize since your direction is usually documentary in style that you do tend to shoot with
your 35mm & 50mm when shooting with your Leica.].

I decide on the look I want before I do the project. The content dictates what I will use. I have 6×6 projects and 35mm projects, and occasionally a 6×9 project. I also choose color or black and white. With the 6×6 I own two lenses, but I choose one for each project. With 35mm I own two lenses total, and with 6×9 I only own one lens. So, not many choices to make. Recently I taught a workshop in Peru and I broke my rule of working. I used both the 6×6 and 35mm, and I shot both color and black and black and white. I won’t do this again. Too many options. Too many choices. Not enough depth with either. For me, I need simplicity. To get the depth I need, I can’t use more than one style. Now the book I produce from Peru will look good, it really will, and it will be different from anything I have ever done. And, most importantly, I learned what NOT to do the next time around. In a nutshell, if you are thinking about your gear, you are failing. Period, end of story. I see so many young photographers completely at the mercy of their hyper-complex dslr. And then subsequently, at the mercy of their hyper-complex software. I actually feel kinda sorry. And now we are adding sound and motion. This is why most of what I see from the new media looks like one person doing three things at once. That is such an unfair burden to have to work under. I’ve used the same cameras for so long I don’t have to think about anything but what is front of me. This is a very liberating feeling.
Also, different gear provokes different reactions. You walk into a small town with a dslr and 70-200 and everyone in town knows “the photographer” has arrived. I can’t stand this happening. I walk in with my Leica and nobody pays me any attention. This is critical to making real photos and also being able to keep people at ease. Last week I walked into a small cafe, in a very small town, in an area of the country that is experiencing some difficulties. There were three men in the cafe, all local cowboys, all Latino, and all speaking Spanish. I sat five feet away and made pictures without ever saying a word. Everything was established with eye contact, head nods and a mutual understanding(and I speak Spanish well enough to work). I shot with the Leica and 50mm. Had I walked in with my Hasselblad, or a 5d Mark II, it would have been different.


My double down work from Peru. Don’t get me wrong, there are images I like from each style, but ultimately I’m looking for work that is above my head, beyond what I’ve done before, and to do that, I need to simplify and establish an understanding and a bond that goes far beyond the temporary and superficial.

– Do you shoot till you’ve exhausted your ideas or do you have in mind a rough estimate of the amount of
images it will take to cover your subject they way you want?

I never predict image count. My “Homework” book has twenty five images total and I’m done with the project. My ongoing, larger project will force me to shoot thousands of images over the next two years or so. I will edit down to say fifty images with the intention of doing a book. Remember, Robert Frank shot something like 27,000 images while he was making “The Americans” and edited 53 images total for the book. This is how it works.

An image from a six picture package from San Diego.

– After each shoot [I’m sure you look at what you have, edit etc..] do you then regroup and figure out what
holes exist in the work, with the intention of going back to get shots that fill in the holes.

Yes, exactly. I shoot, edit, make prints, add them to the overall take. Then, periodically I look at the entire project and try to find that theme, see what is missing. I work on an island, and don’t really show anyone my work. Recently, I made my first magazine, an 88-page issue with a certain theme. The issue has seven chapters, the last of which is my latest project, in it’s infancy. I’ve shown this magazine to about ten people, and each time that new project has prompted many questions and suggestions. It has been interesting for me because I’m normally not getting any feedback at all in regards to my documentary work. I’m not sure I’m going to do this in the future, but it has been interesting. I also have to figure out what text I need. How much help does the viewer need in putting this all together? Can I get away with just image titles, or captions or do I need an essay?
Also, it is critical to live with the work before you make major decisions. If you are shooting and looking at your work right away, personally, I think that is a huge mistake. It takes a while to figure out what you have and what it means. I was in Peru months ago, and I’m still editing and looking at those contact sheets. I recently found an image from a shoot I did back in 2000. I missed it all those years, and then suddenly there it was. Today everyone is in a rush. Instant gratification is the rule of the day, and then we wonder why the quality bar has fallen so low. We shouldn’t be so shocked. I had a curator tell me recently, “Art projects need to be produced very quickly these days.” Well, okay, but don’t complain about the quality of projects you are reviewing. There is NO substitute for time and access.

My long lost friend, first made in 2000, but not found until 2010. A lesson to anyone deleting images in the field, or on the computer once back at home base.

– What would you say are your common themes amongst your varied subject matter?
The only thing I can think of is people. The vast majority of my work is about people, which complicates things to a tremendous degree. I see a lot of the urban, abstract landscape style documentary projects that are popular right now, and I’m sometimes envious of the detachment. You just wander and shoot. No talk. No discussion. No working your way in. But that work just doesn’t do it for me. I find it cold, sterile and temporary. But again, I’m in the minority here. That work has dominated modern documentary photography for the past five years. This work is based on the work from the 1970’s and 1980’s, so it is not like this is original, it is just experiencing a second or third life. A lot of people like this work. I’ve seen countless shows over the past five years made in this way, so there must be something about it that hits home with folks. My work seems to be like pulling teeth, so much so I don’t really think about time anymore. I’ll finish when I finish. Not like there is anyone waiting for it!
I recently had a book publisher ask about my latest project and about seeing it. I thought to myself, “Well, okay, let’s talk in two years.”

Douglass Kirkland photographing me photographing him. Even when I’m not working, I’m photographing people.

– Do you work as a fly on the wall or are there times you set things up and direct your subjects: being animal,
vegetable or mineral..

This depends on the project. Most of the time, fly on the wall. But if I need to shoot a portrait, I’ll do it. Working in the classic documentary tradition is the most difficult, thus the most rewarding when I get something good. Like a chess board with pieces moving and you need to be five or ten moves ahead to anticipate what is possible. I’ve done portrait projects, but more as an experiment than anything else. Speaking of animals, I’ve done a bunch of projects regarding our great beasts. They can’t talk back or tell me, “Hey, you can’t shoot here.”

From “Dogs Can’t Read” a project detailing dogs and graffiti in four cities around the world. This was from Tijuana, and I did not set it up. Sparky here was napping in the middle of this frame shop.

– What are you mostly trying to do or say? Make people think, see and/or feel or…all 3.

Good question. I’m selfish. I’m doing this work for me, not for anyone else. I’m doing it for the experience, and I’m not really trying to say anything, other than, “Hey, take a look at this,” or “What do you think about this?” Most people don’t really care about photography. If photography disappeared tomorrow the world would not skip a beat. We need to be aware of this as photographers and if you have an ego, do the public a favor and rid yourself of it. I think another point to make is I’m not making images for other photographers or editors. They are in the minority and are VERY unlike the general public in their view of imagery. I often ask younger photographers, “Who are you shooting for?” If you are shooting for an editor, or to win a contest, it will dictate what you do. There is a huge difference between shooting for the editor of a news magazine, and the person subscribing to the magazine. I’ve seen a huge disconnect on this front in the past ten years, and this disconnect is reflected in the number of publications going out of business. Sometime we get wrapped up in our own heads, our ego, and our goals of fame, fortune and perhaps acknowledgment. Misguided in my mind. Hey, I’ve been guilty of this many times. Trying to learn from it.


Heaven for me. In the midst of the mayhem, alone, one small camera and getting as close as I can without disturbing the scene. Who will see it? Who will publish it? I don’t really care.

– What parameters do you set up for yourself if any?

Learn. Have fun. Treat people with respect. Don’t quit. Don’t take the easy route. Don’t shoot the same images. Don’t settle. Don’t be content. Forget everything I know and just feel and experience what is front of me. Think. React. Predict. Prepare for success. Prepare for failure. Realize what I’m doing is mostly inconsequential. Realize how lucky I am. Don’t set things up. Don’t influence if possible. Lean forward not back. Keep my promises. Send work(don’t be an asshole and promise then not do it.) Write everything down. Don’t rush. Realize that having cheese puffs in the car when traveling is as essential as gasoline.
Realize I have a problem with cheese puffs. Realize there is nothing I can do about this problem. Wipe cheese puff residue off hands before grabbing camera.

Me putting an absolute beat down on my nephew while fishing, which is far more important than anything I’ll ever do with a camera. I have to do this now, while he is little, before he turns the table on me.

So what did we learn? I’m selfish. I love cheese puffs. I’m a loaner. I’ll probably never be a well-known photographer.

What else should you know?

I feel like I haven’t started yet. There is so much to learn, and so many images to make. I’m very, very happy being a STILL photographer and currently have ZERO interest in carrying sound gear or motion gear and joining the masses being told this is my future. I also think I can disappear. I do. I know, it sounds silly. But when you are in harmony with your surroundings, you can make yourself disappear and get those images you could only get if nobody knew you were there. Do this work long enough and you will know what I mean. I also think you can FEEL images coming on. There is an energy, sometimes good, sometimes bad, that hits like a roundhouse punch, alerting you to the fact something beyond your control is on the way. Sometimes you get it, sometimes you get run over.

I am never without my camera. I take flack, which I love, for carrying my “man bag.” I call it a purse. And if wearing a dress would help me get images, I’m a size medium, bring it on.

I wake up in the morning thinking about these projects, and I fall asleep at night with the same thoughts in my head. It is a curse, a real curse that takes over my life.

I could reduce my entire photographic life to ten images, something I try not to ever forget.

I find my inspiration in music and literature, not art and photography.

I can see someday in the near future, when I no longer work as a photographer. I can see this being an insanely liberating relief.

I feel like I’ve completed a major chapter in my life, with nothing but blank pages ahead of me, and the only way to find the words will be to walk out that door, close it behind me and never look back.

Peace.

Finite Foto Feature

New Mexico has a long lineage of art and photography. This continues today in the form of book publishers, galleries, collectors, workshops, etc. We also have New Mexico based online photographic outlets like Finite Foto, formerly known as Flash Flood. I’ve written about these folks before, and even had a piece featured a while back.
A few weeks ago I ran into Melanie McWhorter, one of the masterminds of this organization, and she asked me if I was interested in writing something about photojournalism.
Now I don’t consider myself a photojournalist, but at past points in my life I had done work in this genre, so I thought I’d give it a go. At the same time I had received several requests from blog readers to write something regarding my projects, why I do them, how I do them, etc.
I had just penned this little story when I ran into Melanie. So, here we are.

Now I don’t think this is going to answer all the questions, and this is also rife with my opinion about several things related to the modern documentary world, but I think it will be relevant to many of you, and might surprise or confuse a few others.
Also, I’m just one feature of several in this particular issue, and if you are interested in the doc/pj world, then have a look and bookmark this site.
Any thoughts, notes, feedback, drop me a note and I’ll give you my two cents.