Books I Love: Beyond the Fall

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The latest installment “Books I Love.” The concept is very simple. Find a book in my collection, photograph it, then share it with you. The idea being to share what I love about the book or why I have it. The books will range from traditionally published, POD and handmade. The only stipulation is that I love the book. Most of them have a backstory, which I will also share. Books and photography are forever linked, so why not explore the relationship through my bookshelf. Hope you enjoy.

In short, I don’t think you can find a better book of reportage. “Beyond the Fall” by American photojournalist Anthony Suau is a ten-year look at the former Soviet Bloc in transition. TEN YEARS for those of you who came of age in the “modern” photography world of weekend essays, isn’t an exaggeration or typo. He spent TEN YEARS working on this book, and one look at the images living on those pages and you will very clearly see what that kind of time does when it comes to the quality of reporting. Suau covers it all, politics, family, war, high-society and everyday life. When I think of documentary photography books, it’s publications like this that set the bar. You have to remember something very, very important. This is a book of moments. The vast majority of these images are one frame moments. Just think about that. Just think about how much time and focus that requires. Now think about doing that over a ten-year period. So many of the documentary books I see today are the “abstract urban landscape book” void of people(So no need for interaction or model release) or the “portrait series” documentary book which can be done VERY quickly(There are a few stellar books in this category however). Forget it, this book was like an ultra-marathon.

Now, books like this rarely get the credit they deserve because for whatever reason work like this is considered too reality based and the art world doesn’t seem to know what to do with it(Something that has been written about by a fair number of art-world folks), but for me this work is SO DIFFICULT, so RARE and so TIME CONSUMING it deserves it’s own wing in the museum world. Forget the gallery world, this work it more important than MOST of those spaces(There are worthy galleries.)

I KNOW there are so many of you out there living under the ultra-romantic notion of photographer. The loner walking the back streets of a crumbling empire, Leica in hand, pouring their life into their contact sheets. Well, in this case, that is in some ways what you had, but I will remind you of the DATE these images were taken, and the reality that this lifestyle is EXTREMELY rare today because the industry that supported photographers at this time is basically gone. Even during the time this book was made it was a supreme struggle to do this work. Today, nearly impossible. The time isn’t being spent, the work is made digitally now and it just doesn’t have the same cache or impact, nor do folks want to slow down and actually appreciate the work. The reason I’m telling you this is to slow YOU down when you consider a book like this. This is a treasure. A gem. Give yourself, and the photographer, some respect and sit down alone, sans mobile phone umbilical cord, TV, laptop, iPad, etc., and just look at the work, start to finish, front to back. Trust me, it’s worth it.

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I simply can’t tell you the range of what this book offers. I’m not even going start with design or materials, which are both very good, because I still can’t get over the quality of the photographs. The alarming thing is that each photograph represents what has to be an archive of other work. You see an image of a destroyed downtown Grozny during the height of the Chechen War and you think “What ELSE does he have?” You realize to get that one image there had to be MONTHS of preparation and sacrifice. This work is “classic” in all the right ways, and could or should be used in photojournalism schools to illustrate the kind of work being done by one motivated individual with time and resources. Perhaps not as much as he would have liked, actually don’t know, but I’m guessing. This book gets better with age.

Don’t walk, RUN, and go by this thing.

Behind the Orange Curtain Cover

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Here is the cover to my Orange County book. I’ve CASUALLY been working on this for YEARS, but don’t really have my heart in it. Orange County really doesn’t light my fire if you know what I mean, so I’m not dreaming about this project. The cover…I know and have.

Wrong font, size and placement but image is what I want. Do I know these people? No. Did I talk to them? No. Do I know what is going on? No. Was I incredibly fortunate the person standing is wearing an ORANGE shirt? Yes. And that is precisely why I like it. It’s just damn strange, like this place. Proof that it pays to carry a camera while on your bike. You just never know.

Book Review: “I’m in Miami Bitch” by Andrew Kaufman

A certain subset of the human population believes that because I work for Blurb I’m a mutant-like savant when it comes to the world of illustrated publications. It’s not true. I come from the weird world of photography where the Earth revolves around people consumed by their chosen narratives, passionate to tell their visual stories to a world with seemingly little care or concern. My razor-thin knowledge of books only began to build in 2006, and like the practice squad for the Jamaican bobsled team, there have been many twists, turns and accidental rollovers on the way.

When I review a book my thoughts are not intended for the high-end book world. Those folks work from a pre-Berlin wall, Soviet-like, super-structure of knowledge, impenetrable to all but a chosen few who were trained in underground bunkers near the North Dakota/South Dakota border. You can see this world unfold at precisely this time of year with the much hyped “Best Books of the Year” lists, or better yet, the “Worst Books of the Year” tally. Those lists to a guy like me, a blue-collar luddite, remind me of movie reviews where a Hollywood academic waxes poetic about influence, tribute and feminism while referring to a three-hour foreign flick about lesbian relationships, but when I ask a female friend who had just seen the film what her thoughts were I got the “lots of gratuitous pussy” summary which not only peaked my interest but also provided me far more realistic insight than the aforementioned Hollywood piece. Nothing wrong with academics, we need them, and their insight, but different tools work at different times for different people, and my view is that most of the books on these lists could be interchanged and not a single complaint would be voiced.(There ARE version of these “best of” lists that are more complete than others, and a very few are really sourced and thought out, so go find them and you will find true treasures. These lists include the far reaches of the publishing world, not just the expected heavyweight choices.)

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This is a book review of the book you see above, Andrew Kaufman’s “I’m in Miami Bitch,” but I want to continue with the critic theme just for a moment because there is another point I want to make in regard to audience. Kaufman’s book was NOT published by Blurb, but like always I need a round about story to get to my points…

I’ve been approached by A LOT of photographers over the years who confront me with question number one….“Hey Milnor, how many books have you sold on Blurb?” Now, what this question REALLY means is “Please tell me you have sold a lot of books because I want to sell a lot of books and I’m really hoping you are going to tell me it’s possible.” The first few years I would break down the question rationally and actually talk about numbers, but then I realized I was missing the point. Now I answer with a question of my own. “How good is your database?” I get two responses. Occasionally I get “It’s good, categories, but within the overall database I have a select group I work with more closely.” These people can sell books. The most common answer I get is “What is a database?” These folks are in real trouble and simply aren’t going to sell books. Audience, and having a relationship with one is HUGELY important to bookmaking and more specifically book selling. Photobook people, critics and the well known or famous can be very important in the life of a book. They can write reviews, endorse something, even just talk about something and drum up interest but the audience they are typically drumming up is important yet very, very small and not representative of the world in general, something that took me a while to figure out. Personally, I no longer have any interest in having my work in galleries or publications because I realize those places don’t reach the folks I want to reach. The people IN my photographs don’t buy these publications, nor will they ever go to a gallery or museum to take in the work, even if they are in the show. And in most cases they won’t buy the book. So my question is this, “Why not grab someone off the street, someone totally unknown, someone totally outside the world of illustrated anything and get their opinion?” Who will you learn more from, the critic or the stranger? Does it matter? The reason I’m bringing this up is you need to really consider who your audience is and how they operate. The life of your book might just depend on it. Until 2007 I was interested and driven by the industry person, the critic, the expert, those I thought could influence my career. Then I realized I was more interested in the thoughts of those in my photographs and my life has been VERY different ever since. Now, when you approach a total stranger and ask them what they think of your photography book you need to realize you are not always going to get a warm and fuzzy reception. Most people have NEVER been asked to participate like this and sometimes the resulting response is fear and suspicion. Heck, I think people are fearful in general, especially those who watch cable news all day long. Tunneling accidents in the US are up 30%. It’s weird out there.

And speaking of sales. Let me clarify a few things. I recently spoke to a class of graduating seniors at an art school and I asked them how many in the room wanted to publish a traditional photobook? All forty people in the room raised their hand. When I asked how many books they envisioned the publisher would print on their first run of books you know what the first answer I got was? Guess..come on…guess. 100,000. Yes, this is entirely delusional but it’s based on the idea of fame which has crept into the photography world and has landed full force due to things like social media, online followings, reality TV and the selfie epidemic. The subsequent answers, by the way, went UP from there. Let’s just say that many illustrated books are printed in the 1500-3000 copy range and many just simply don’t sell. The numbers are actually pretty sad. But guess what? So what? Because here is the interesting thing. You could print 1500 books, place TWO of those books with the right people then lose the rest in a gambling accident and the book could STILL be considered a success depending on those two books you placed. The book, in the life of the artist, is a catalyst. And let’s also not forget some books SELL and I mean really sell in multiple languages in the hundreds of thousands. But let me get back to a specific book.
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Andrew Kaufman is a pain in my ass. He always has been and this goes back to the late 1990’s when I first met him. Most people, in some way, shape or form are a pain in the ass, so his warm home in this category shouldn’t be a surprise. Andrew is a photographer. He’s not old school, or new school, he’s somewhere in the middle. There are many parallels between his “career” and mine. There was the photojournalism degree, the subsequent newspaper experience, followed by magazines, portraits, a bit of commercial work, but most importantly the lingering disease of long-term storytelling in a world consumed by microwaved thoughts spilled out via mobile device, so when Andrew first told me about the project, the project which would eventually become the book you see here, I knew I was in for a long and treacherous road as sounding board, confident and insult driven fire starter. Yes, I said insult, which is being “G” rated because if you actually knew what we said to each other, both for sport and for motivation, you would probably not only never read this journal again but you might even think of calling the NSA to encourage them to broaden their piercing surveillance of us “undesirables.”

You see, when a project like this first invades your mental space there is momentary loss of reasoning, of reality, because you know the seed has been planted and there is nothing you can do about it, but you also know that until the final nail in the visual coffin is made your life will no longer be yours. Your life will be about the project. Friends, family, duties all become annoying blocked, creative arteries. There is no half-ass. There is no shoot for ten minutes then spend ten days Photoshopping and promoting via social channels. No, that is for the other people because Andrew and I both know one very damn important and sobering thing. Just as you can’t take your supercharged, nitro-fueled, crossfire injection muscle car and outrun the radar, you also can’t outrun your negatives and contact sheets. If it’s not there it’s not there, regardless of how much you promote, and to get it you need to make a pact with evil and everything else falls by the wayside.

There were the phone calls, the emails the texts. There still are. And this is the way it should be. Remember, this is first an idea, then a story, then the actual fieldwork, then the editing, sequencing, design, publication specs, printing, shipping, distribution, reviews, placements, contracts, shows, promotion and subsequent dizzying amount of details. Books are children. There is no way around it. Any of it.

I look at a lot of books. A lot. Via Blurb, via online outlets and the traditional brick and mortar stops like Photoeye here in Santa Fe. In less than a minute I am lost in another world of war, society, art and the rest of the human spectrum. Books are journeys, ones that allow for the imagination of the viewer to run wild. Interpretation is a magical thing. When I respond to a book it has little to do with the author. A lot of folks will buy books sight unseen based on who the author is. Not me. Yesterday I was in Photoeye and noticed a new, oversized book by one of the true superstars of the art photography world. It did NOTHING for me and felt more like an inside joke between the artist and the art world, almost as if they were saying “I’m so important I can do anything and people will love it.” This might in fact be true, and I am only relaying my feelings which are probably skewed, flawed and dangerous. What I do base my book love on is the work. Design is important as well but the WORK HAS TO BE THERE.
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Now I come from the reality based photography world, journalism, and for the most part the art world has no idea what to do with this work. A lot of people more credible than me have written about this, but it’s an important point to make, especially if you are prone to wasting your time making real images of real people doing real things. This work takes copious amounts of time, luck and a willingness to do things like sleep in your car, starve yourself and perhaps even put yourself in places you might not get out of. This work is disappearing rapidly because it takes too much of said time and it will almost certainly rule you out from even becoming famous because the work tends to be about the folks IN the photographs and not about the person behind the camera. Most of the time.

“I’m in Miami Bitch” isn’t an artist driven book, it’s a STORY driven book. Now this story happens to be about artists, a cruel twist of publishing fate, but this point is important. This isn’t a book about Andrew Kaufman saying “Look at me, I’m a badass artist.” This is a book about Andrew Kaufman saying “Look at what these other artists are doing and look at how it has become a part of the fabric of the DNA of our city.” This is a book about street art, community, history and preservation of a style of art that often times is gone less than 24-hours after is has been finished. This book is evidence.

“In the fall of 2012 with the Art Basel Miami Beach quickly approaching I decided to ensconce myself in the street art scene of Wynwood to tell the story.” An area once known as “El Barrio” and now gentrified into the Wynwood Art District, every year in late November artists from around the world descend on the streets of Wynwood to remake the facade of almost every building, overhead door and nook or cranny where paint could be applied.”
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My first impression of this book was “intimate, buyable.” The size is right. What size is it? Well, I could give you specs but let me describe it in another more practical way. You know when you go someone’s house who is in the art world and they have those pillars of books stacked on top of each other with the massive books on the bottom and the tiny novels at the top? Andrews book is in the “I will actually pull this book out and read it” space as opposed to the monolith style, behemoth statement books at the bottom of the stack, books that haven’t been viewed in years because most people would rupture a disc attempting to handle the beast. Another way of describing it would be this book is approachable, and I cannot stress enough how important this is in a world of minimal attention span. Monograph style books, often times, are just too much for “outsiders” to deal with when they are browsing. And remember, when it comes to this book, ask yourself this, “Who is the audience?” This is where things get really interesting. In my limited opinion this book has multiple audiences. Yes, this book works as a statement for Kaufman, a calling card, a business card, but this book also belongs to the people IN the photographs and most importantly this book belongs to the people of Miami. This is the beauty of a story driven book, especially one that takes on something like street art, a specific neighborhood during a specific timeframe. This is the kind of shit that really gets my juices flowing. What to DO with a book like this after you get your grubby mitts on it.
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Am I a book designer? No, far from it, so when I speak of the design it’s coming from limited knowledge. Street art is the Wild West of the art world and this book takes advantage of this as well as things like vibrancy, Miami-style and the freedom and experimentation that lives alongside those who conduct their lives living on the edge of permission or possible incarceration. The design is fun. From doubletruck full bleed to album style grids of the details of modern spray art warfare. Also scattered throughout are vertical images run horizontally which force the viewer to physically turn the book sideways, something I’ve heard many serious people say is a no-no, but personally I love it. Anything that makes me physically interact is a good thing. Heck, he could rig a few books to spray the viewer when they crack open the cover and I would still love it. The book also has a forward written by a street art heavyweight and an interview between Kaufman and yet another major player illustrating the photographer wasn’t just snapping away with imagery in mind.
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Speaking of the imagery. This is pure documentary photography. This isn’t color content. If you know Kaufman’s work you know it’s his when you see it, something that every photographer should strive for. I just flipped through the latest issue of a well known outdoor magazine and there wasn’t a single good, recognizable image in the ENTIRE publication. Color content rules the day. I told my wife, “Don’t resubscribe to this rag even if it’s free.” When I first opened this book my first thought was “Cool, this is film.” Color, medium format falloff plus a combination of 35mm black and white and color. For those of you who say “Who cares if it’s film,” just consider where you see the benefits are in things like skin tone, tonal range and depth within the images, even those printed very small. It makes a HUGE difference. Plus, it tells me about how the photographer works, something I think is important. Modern documentary photography has been overrun by the full frame digital SLR with 50mm 1.2 shot wide open all the time for no apparent reason. I’m SO BORED WITH THIS LOOK, so when I see something different it peaks my curiosity, and makes me realized the photographer has given a lot of thought to things like PALETTE, choosing specific tools for specific projects as opposed to the speedy, “one technique fits all” of the modern electronic world. I’m guessing here, but I think Kaufman has at least seventeen different cameras, from 8×10 to a bevy of 35mm, 6×6, 645, 6×7, 6×9, Polaroid, panoramic, etc, etc and he uses them based on what he is needing or wanting on a case by case story by story basis. Oh, and I should also point out, had this book been created with a mobile phone I would have never picked it up let alone purchased it. Sorry, I’m entirely over the mobile phone essay, especially since Robert Clark did THIS all those years ago. Listening to major news outlets, ad agencies and industry publications STILL talking about this method is frankly, incredibly depressing. Can’t we all just move along?

The book contains a select set of classic photographs, things that have the potential to become a part of Miami’s visual history, photographs like “Art Died in Wynwood, “Lincoln Continental” and “Hole in the Wall.” It also contains factual, location and time specific images that work to round out the story, and STORY is the key here. This is visual journalism, complete with unposed, real moments. The photographer as participant, not conductor, and for those of you who do this work you know what I’m talking about.
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Conformity will be the death of photography, in my opinion, and this book breaks with conformity. This book dabbles in what you aren’t supposed to do which is why it works so well. Street art does the same damn thing, which is what makes IT so fantastic. This book matches what the work demanded, NOT what the artist demanded. A self-sacrifice on paper. What more can anyone ask for?

This book was printed in Asia.

PS: You can purchase and handle a copy here.

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.

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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….
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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.

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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.

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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.
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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.

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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.”
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.

Collaborative Book with Mom

After making books with Blurb since 2006 I’ve finally done a first draft of a collaborative book with my mother. Now, before I explain this you should know that from 2006, when my mother saw her first Blurb book, I had her convinced I was the ONLY one who could make these. I did this to elevate my sibling rank within our family. My sister is rotten, my brother is worthless, and I am clearly the ONLY one who matters…..
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Mom thought the book thing was native to ME. For years it worked perfectly.

But then mom asked “Why don’t you make me a book of my poetry.” To deflect this I fed her the line that makes many people cringe. “Sure, I’ll make you a book just as soon as you edit your work to the best twenty-five poems.” She responded as I expected her to. “Narrowing to twenty-five is impossible,” she said. I said, “Well, when you get there let me know.”
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As expected, she was slightly delayed with this process. After six years, my ranking within the family had plateaued. I’m still, by far, the most important sibling (wink, wink) but I wanted to put the final nail in the coffin of my brother and sister, so while at my mother’s house a few weeks ago I made this first draft.

I’m not stupid. I didn’t tell her I was making the book otherwise we would have had MASSIVE creative differences in regard to which poems best paired with certain photographs. I just did it. I also just did it because I knew it was a first draft. I do this all the time with books, but I’m amazed at how many folks I run into who either never think of doing this or are convinced they are going to make a perfect book the first time out. The odds of their doing so, in most cases, are very slim. I’ve found that doing drafts takes all the baggage associated with making books and throws it out the window. My question is “What is the downside?” I’m on the hook for ONE copy and when I get it I live with the good and bad,and I learn from the draft and make a better, more polished book the second time around. Sometimes I even do three or four versions before I’m happy. Yesterday I was faced with someone wanting a signed copy of this thing, which caught me by surprise, but I explained this was only flavor number one and there was a subsequent flavor on the way.
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There are things about this book I like. The overall dark and somewhat edgy feel. The portrait format. And I also love the puzzle you are required to solve when you combine seemingly RANDOM imagery with specific poems. I LOVE certain spreads. I don’t love page numbers. I love the mixture of image and border sizes. I don’t love the size of the copy. I also should have used charcoal grey or black end sheets and NOT the light grey, and I don’t like the final image in the book, it’s just too obvious. I do like the scanned, blank 4×5 negative I used in the front, and I REALLY like the spread with title page on the right and definition of inertia on the left. Imagewrap worked well although this is only a stand in cover image. I’ve got another image, very similar to this one, that has a different meaning to me and version two will see this new image on the cover. I think twenty-five poems is a good number and a roughly 60-page overall book is good and fits the attention span of the audience of this particular publication. I also see a series of these books which is why this one will be titled “Volume One.”
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Version two will be pretty solid I think. This book is not for sale, nor will it ever be. It was not made to make me famous, or her. It was not meant as a barometer of my talent, or hers. It was simply an exercise, and a record of her work and mine and how those two things play together. This book alerted me to the fact I’ve been missing an entire genre of books. There is much to do….