Addicted to Change

Our house is currently being shown some love and care by our friend and favorite contractor. Subsequently I had to take evasive action with nearly everything in our diminutive home. A few bits and pieces ended up in the shed, a few others in the garage, but most of the “good” stuff ended up crammed in my office. Right behind me actually. I mean RIGHT behind me.

At first glance this room reminds me a squatters shack, or even crack house. It’s that disheveled. And yes, I HAVE been in a crack house. Research people, allllllllll research. Crack makes you whack!

SR_s_rockpile

The author, Southern Wyoming, 1980’s.

Last night when I finally reached over to turn off the light, which was now resting on the floor next to an old fur covered trappers backpack, a stack of framed photographs and a space heater I felt a strange sense of calm. I allowed my eyes to adjust to the semi-darkness and remained motionless on the bed, which was also sitting directly on the floor. The room was filled with strange light, coming out of things and off of other things, all of which I normally didn’t interact with in the dark. Light spilled through strange windows and the minute sounds were different from my normal room down the short hall.

It all felt so damn good. Good? Yes, good. You see, what all these new experiences, sights and sounds meant to me was that change was near. Again. I realized I’d been living in this house for approximately ten years, and this was, BY FAR, the longest I had lived in any one place. It’s easy here, really easy. No weather really, little trouble with those things we have to deal with living in cities, and for these reasons I CAN’T WAIT TO GET OUT OF HERE.

Leaving will be a royal pain in the ass, it always is, but I need it. My soul needs it. And guess what? I’m probably going to have to move a place, Los Angeles, a place that I promised myself I would NEVER live in again. But I don’t care. I need the unknown, I need the change. Static isn’t me. Easy isn’t me. Directionless isn’t me.

The problem is I know what’s out there. I don’t know the details, only the meaty parts. Unknown. Adventure. New faces. Frustration. Voices in my head….just kidding.

I printed a map of Central London. I looked around the room. I printed a hotel reservation. I looked around a little more. I packed my passport, my F6 and twenty rolls of TRI-X. I closed the door and sat on the floor, breathing in the history around me. As they say “the journey is the destination.” Wait, did I just use that cliche? Oh God no. Did I? Please don’t hold it against me. I take it back. Seriously……DO OVER! Never happen again.

Whew. Breathed it all in. Tried to find a truth or two. Change is in the air. The winds of change are fast approaching. “The pitcher is into his wind up…it’s a change-up.” More cliches. I’m rambling.

When I close my eyes and daydream I see vast expanses of nothing. Dust and sunshine. I see no permanent address. I see fluidity.

Repeat Offender

hangin0

I realized I had over 100 posts that were created and never posted. They cover a RANGE of topics, they are of varying age. This is one of these posts.

I was asked to write a post about switching from film to digital This request made me look back on when, how and why I made this move, and back on all the strange things that happened since then. I admit this is a strange look at the photography world, but the post is true, so that’s all the reason I need. This topic, even after all these years, seems to really get people going. What I want to make clear is I don’t care. I really don’t. I actually think what you are about to read is really funny because it was really funny at the time.

Now I use mostly film, but I love things like about digital. Digital photography is a powerful, fun tool and the “how” doesn’t interest me that much. It’s all about creating. Just go do it. Don’t ask permission. Just go. If you have something to say it will show in your work. Creating unique and recognizable content is not easy, even with the latest technology. Great work takes time, thought and focus. Digital gave a voice to hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people who otherwise might not have ever engaged with their visual side. Good luck, keep pressing.

Over a year ago I shot what was potentially my last commercial photography assignment. Photography has taken on a new direction for me, and working for other people, in essence shooting other people’s images, is no longer what I want to do. (Save the comments about “I shoot my own images,” I’ve heard it all before.)
During this last shoot, which was very enjoyable, a strange thing happened. This thing was not strange for me but it certainly was for those around me. I shot film, all black and white film to be exact.
Around me were four other photographers, all shooting digital(Two because I asked them to). I clunked around with my Leica and Hasselblad, waist level finder and all, looking at the world with my head pointed at the ground. I worked slowly and in constant reminder mode, urging myself to forget everything I knew, everything I’d learned about “being a photographer.” I tried to work free of expectation, free of the poison of industry trends, popular themes and especially free of what the masses were doing.
The clients were young, relaxed and accommodating, as were their friends. I once spent a fair amount of time studying anthropology, so for me to be able to spend time with this group, hearing their conversations, listening to their music, learning from their style was a great thing. Clunk, clunk, clunk I began to connect with the event and with the people.
Not long after beginning the shoot I was approached by a gregarious, young guy in his early 20’s who said, “Oh man, I really love your cameras.” We chatted while I worked, and then he made the realization I was not only using old cameras, but I was using film. “That is incredible,” he said. “Film is so much more interesting.” “Digital is okay because sometimes I want to see the images right away, but film looks better and is more interesting because you can’t see the images.”
Believe it or not folks, this happens to me ALL THE TIME, and this event was no different. All though the day, and into the night, people approached and offered their support of film, the “old ways” and the casual, visual nonchalance of working in digital. I would guess that I’ve head this same sentiment during every single event I photographed since that fateful day in about 2001(or2002, can’t remember exactly) when I switched back to film from my beloved digital. Yes, you read that correctly, when I SWITCHED FROM DIGITAL BACK TO FILM. I was an early adopter of digital. Yes me, the same guy who has been labeled “anti-technology, a luddite, backwards, stupid, behind the times,” and the guy once told he was “going the wrong way on the highway.” Me. Same guy.
Brace yourself, I was using digital, potentially long before you were.
Now, I had an advantage. I had just been released from serving four years with the Eastman Kodak Company. Ha, get it? Released from a four-year stint………Kidding, Kodak was a blast actually, and taught me a tremendous amount about the industry. I just knew I wanted to be a photographer again so I left.
What gave me an advantage was that Kodak had been a major part of the first high-end cameras to land in the professional market, namely the DCS 520 and 560. These were $15,000 to $30,000 dollar beauties that gave us a first look at what was possible with a decent file. So when Canon came out with the D30…I was ready to go. Plus my wife worked for Canon. Wink, wink.
Within a few short months I was standing on a golf course in Flagstaff Arizona, shooting a “destination wedding” and the groom gathered his groomsmen, looked at me and said, “Check this out, this guy is super-high-tech, and he’s not shooting ANY film.” I did manage to fire off a few 4×5 Polaroids during that event (foreshadowing?) but for the most part he was right on the money. I was booking jobs because I was fully digital.
And then, a short while later, it all changed. First of all, I grew tired of spending my life in front of the computer. Coming from the documentary world, the idea of turning over my post production and edit to someone else was so counter to how I viewed my work that it was never even a remote possibility. Turning over the post, to me, seemed like blasphemy, a sign that the photographer was either completely unattached to their work, or was shooting the exact same pictures every time. Neither described my methods. I began to feel like I wanted to hold my Leica again, something small, light and void of the electronic umbilical cord.
Other things changed as well. Digital had become more of a mainstream part our lives and clients began to view photography in a very different way. Speed and quantity became the driving force while quality of images fell down the scale. Photography went from a historical, permanent record to temporary, disposable and free. Our collective attention span began to crack and peel.
It was over for me, almost before it really began.
Now let me back up. When I originally made the “jump to light speed,” my move was NOT met with positive feedback from the industry, especially the wedding industry. Does this sound familiar? I was called “unprofessional” and was flat out told by “experts,” “digital will not work for wedding photography.” No people, I’m not making this up.
Three years down the road, oh how the world had changed. Just as I was realizing digital might not be my future, the masses had discovered it in full force. Like an army, high on technology, not only were many of these folks steaming full ahead toward all things digital, they were simultaneously trying to condemn anything related to analog photography. It was, and still is, STRANGE.
Get ready for it…wait for it….I did a panel at a tradeshow and was called, “The most unprofessional photographer I’ve ever seen” by a 20-something marketer turned photographer who said that by me working alone, and shooting the dreaded film, I was committing an act of digital treason.
THE EXACT SAME PEOPLE who told me digital would not work for weddings were now telling me, “YOU WILL GO OUT OF BUSINESS IF YOU DON’T SHOOT DIGITAL.”
This transition, for me, proved just how many insecure people packed the photo-ranks. I began to hear countless discussions, COUNTLESS, about technology, and what I began to hear less and less about was the actual imagery being created. Entire marketing campaigns sprang from the lamest of lame premises…”I could have never done this before, but now with my Zupperflex 5000 I can blend margaritas and shoot countless images without even knowing I’m doing it.” Believe it or not, after all these years, I STILL see this campaign being used. Suddenly, photography became about the TOOL. Lame.
The wedding bubble began to build, the ranks filled with those adopting the “Spray and Pray” methodology of the terminally unskilled.(Harsh, but again…true.) By the way, whoever coined “Spray and Pray,” nice work, it fits perfectly.
I went to yet another industry tradeshow and heard a speaker say, “I shot 10,000 images at a wedding, by myself,” and the crowd burst into spontaneous applause. I’m not entirely sure but I think, at that precise moment, a rainbow formed over the stage with a band of unicorns riding the wave. I knew at that VERY moment my future was not long for this industry, although I do love unicorns.
So coming back to my final shoot. I had to laugh. I kept hearing, “I love your cameras.” “I love film.” One person even went as far as to say, “The other stuff doesn’t matter, I only want to see the film.” I only wanted to see good pics, regardless of how they were made.
But my friends, this story gets even stranger. Now in 2013, all these years later, well hasn’t film just become the belle of the ball. Many of these SAME people condemning it for years suddenly realized there was a marketing angle to film, and now it’s okay. In fact, WE ALL SHOULD BE USING IT. Come again. Did I hear that correctly? Dollars will do that to people.
So recently I’m back in the desert, poolside, dreaming up all the ultra-relevant and world shaping blog posts I can do, and my wife finds herself in a conversation with someone who happens to be an event planner. A very nice person, who also does wedding planning. She throws out a list of names of good photographers, all of whom are very familiar to me. She says a name, and I mentally say, “Yep, good choice.” All of them……wait for it…..wait for it…..FILM SHOOTERS. No, I’m not making this up. And then she drops this one.
“Some of these photographers now don’t even shoot film, they are just doing digital with color washes.” The same thing that FIVE years ago was all anyone was doing. Now, it’s not enough. Anyone can do it. It has no soul. There is no style behind it. It’s all button pushing.
So there I am, the castigated one, listening as the world creaks on its axis and comes FULL CIRCLE.
Now, it’s official. Film is okay again.
There is a moral of the story here folks. The only voice that matters, the only direction that matters… is YOURS. Not mine, not the industry voice, or the marketing voice. You can copy cat your way into this business, have ZERO to say and make a perfectly good living. But is that being a photographer?
I’ll let you decide.
For me, it’s simple. Film slows me down, forces me to think and doesn’t distract me by providing the image instantly. I don’t think seeing an image right away is helpful in the learning process. I don’t believe shooting as many images as possible is a good thing. I think digital has nearly destroyed our ability to edit. Film has cut my computer time by 80%. Film doesn’t require the perpetual upgrade, software, hardware, firmware, and it provides a feeling of permanence that doesn’t’ require a cloud of unknown electronic promises.
In short, film fits my lifestyle and philosophy. I’m a better photographer using it, and ultimately that is all that matters.

Keep searching. Keep asking questions. Use whatever you want. There is no reason not to, no matter what anyone says.

Purity

I just might be the photographic antichrist.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Al Queda Takes Down Another One

I just heard some disparaging news. At least it was disparaging news to me. To others the news will come with relief, glee and the sound of chalk on chalkboards as the name at the top of the list is crossed off.

Salgado has gone digital. Yep, it’s true.

Was it the unbelievable quality? Nope.

Was it the ability to shoot unlimited images? No.

How about being able to see those Galapagos animals seconds after he snapped them? Nope, not that either.

Salgado went digital, at least according to what I read, because of airport security.

The world’s greatest documentary photography, reduced to the pixel by the residue of Bin Laden and those blue coats at the TSA.

Yep, it seems that his problems traveling with film were at a peak during his recent project, forcing him to change what had been his method of working, dare I say from the beginning.

Scanning his 220 film, multiple times, had reduced the quality down to 35mm levels, and the desire to print big forced him to make a change. So, the images he captures on digital are written back to film, then printed analog. This might seem odd, but people have been doing this for years.

If I had to guess, and guessing is my best attribute, I’d say this will end with this project. I would imagine, in the future, as the need to make wall size, house size, airport runway size prints takes over the art world, as it has for the past four years, the digital print will also become a part of his world. The sinks will dry, the lab coats will hang on hooks from the back of doors no longer required, and fat, negative cabinets will be replaced with monitors, cables, surge protectors, raids backed up on raids, as our best world treasure in photography experiences his own migration into the slippery world of digital imaging.

He has success on his side. I would imagine that behind every terminal will be a young digital ace, fresh from tech-school, able to perfect every pixel of a world we all used to know as being flawed. No longer. Most of us come to digital closer to the other end of the rating scale, forced into digital by clients no longer willing to pay for film and processing, clients on skeletal budgets, used to getting things for royalty free rates from photographers willing to offer up anything they have and anything they can get, just to keep the machine moving.

I will imagine that he will be at a level, right from the beginning, where he won’t deal with perpetual upgrades, software issues, corrupted drives and mismatched profiles. He will probably not have to spend day after day, night after night, solving electronic issues that come with “being digital.” Others will do it, and for this I would imagine he will be grateful.

But, in the end, as long as he keeps shooting, and speaking, and donating, and being a walking example of what is possible in the world of photography, well, that is all that matters.

The geeks will run with this, like they always do. As I write this they are mobilizing in the streets, like carnaval without the floats. “See, I told ya,” they will yell, fueled by another high-profile member of their camp, THE feather they dreamed of having in their proverbial hat.

But allow me for a moment to retrace where this post started. Airport security.

A lot of people ask me about film, and about traveling with film, and I have to say, post 9/11, for me, traveling with film has been EASIER than ever before. I don’t travel like Salgado, not even close, and I know his situation is far different than mine. But for me, pre 9/11 was tougher. I had a more difficult time getting hand inspections. Now, I’ve yet to have an issue.

With having said this, there are certain countries that just won’t hand inspect, even though having a hand inspection is your right as a traveler. Some will give you different reason after different reason, others no reason at all. Some countries see an American passport and your cooked, done, over, no chance. This has happened to me in France and Switzerland. In France it was veiled but also clear enough to figure out. In Switzerland it was clear. I was lucky you see, the airport security guard started screaming at me, yelling about Americans in general, how horrible we are and that any flight with Americans was a “high risk flight.” I explained my mom’s family was from Switzerland, which only seemed to incense him even further, as if I’d betrayed my motherland from the womb.

Oh, and I forgot to mention, I shoot a lot of ASA 3200 film. In fact, I’ve traveled more with this film than any other, and I’ve yet to have a ruined roll.

I think for a lot of photographers somewhat troubled by their transition to digital, blaming airport security is an easy way to say, “Okay, I know I’ve got to do this digital thing, so blaming airport security will at least make me feel a little better.”

Not to say that airport security isn’t a horrible mess at this point. In short, nothing they do seems to make much sense at all, unless complete confusion is their goal, and frankly, it might be. Might as well try it, works for the government right?

Take four trips in the United States, ask for hand inspections and you will get four different scenes. You might get an easy inspection on all four, but chances are, they will all be done differently.

You know me, I’m inquisitive. I ask. “Hey buddy, what’s the drill?” I’ve been told countless different tales of this rule, that rule, this regulation, that regulation, etc, In short, I don’t think they have a clue.

I’m scared to death of airport security in the United States.

Overseas, another story. These folks tend to have their collective acts together, more than we do. And in some places, they are downright militant. But again, I don’t see this as a bad thing. I wanna be safe, and I don’t want to ride coach with Richard Reid , or his lousy iPod music or vegan meal.

I don’t think Bin Laden, or any of his boys knew just how far reaching their acts would be. I certainly didn’t think I’d hear the world’s best photographer having to change his work due to the effects of the world of terror, but it appears as if the change has already been made. I can see Bin Laden, sipping his morning latte from the basement of the Pakistani Presidential Palace, chuckling as he turns the paper to his second in command, “Look, we forced Salgado to go digital,” his second in command sneering as he returns to his People Magazine, uttering to himself, “I hope he backs up his work.”

And let’s also not forget the power of the art world, the only world left in photography that seems to have money. If the art world wants big prints, photographers will print big, end of story. It doesn’t matter if you are a contact printer, if the gallery says, “Hey, I think I can sell those if you make your contact prints eight feet wide,” then that contact printer, chances are, is scheming a way to make a negative eight feet tall. I’ve seen it happen a hundred times.

I don’t think the traditional documentary channels are really viable anymore, at least not like they used to be, so all photographers must look elsewhere, for other, more profitable channels, and at the moment, the art world is the space being chased. Big prints are the rage, and I don’t think anyone can escape this. Digital makes big prints a snap, no pun intended. Get it, snap?? Okay, forget it.

So in the end, what did we learn? I can ramble? Due to me having written “Al Queda,” “Richard Reid,” Bin Laden,” I’m now on a watch list? And yes, another photographer due to reasons beyond apples to apples is headed down a new path.

I wish him the best of luck and hope like hell he continues his work for decades to come. And, I hope that somewhere out there, perhaps in a small, mountain village, in a remote land, a young kid is pouring over the pages of a book of black and white photogr
aphs, making the decision to follow in those very footsteps.

Until then my friends, I’ll be here, at home, polishing my lead bags and lighting candles to the Gods in blue jackets that roam airports like a pack of vipers. I fear not.