Fail and Fail Again

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

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

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Your Friday Gift: More Photos of Me

Yes, just what was lacking here at Smogranch, more photos of me. This time as I navigate the gritty streets of Salt Lake City, a place just as strange as the rumors that surround it. Normally I hire a crew to follow me around filming every moment from my eyes opening in the morning until they close once again late, late, late at night, or morning or however you want to describe that. But my crew was off duty filming a pop star who was dropped into the South American jungle in an attempt to reach lost relatives.

At my side in Salt Lake was Kent, otherwise known as “Style Wagon.” Kent works at Blurb, but is a man of many talents. Photography, art, fashion, danger and high-octane cocktails.Kent makes a lot of strange things, and he makes them on a regular basis. You never what form of capture device he will be sporting. Normal, not-so-normal or truly abstract. He was paired down in Salt Lake, choosing only a bulky Polaroid of some sort and a tiny 35mm loaded with color from the former Soviet Union. It was cold, we were puzzled by it all and we had no plan whatsoever.

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And a photo of the man behind these odd assortment of color tidbits.

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And finally, the “artifact” I produced from my time on the streets. An artifact that sits on a pile of other artifacts probably never to be seen again.

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Black and White

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

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

What I Learned from my First Piece of Promise

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This is the first art piece I’ve done that showed a bit of promise (at least in my mind.) Believe it not, this began as black acrylic circles that were originally intended to be a piece about motion. I started by making these overlapping circles in three rows spaced evenly a third of the way down and a third of the way across the paper. After doing so I realized with a few “confining” strokes I could anchor the edges and create more an abstract facial piece. The colors just felt right. I added the blue after the black then finished with the yellow which gave me the contrast I was looking for.

I realized after making this piece that I could probably spend my entire life working with JUST black acrylic and paper and never come close to extinguishing the possibilities. I don’t need much at all. Just SIMPLE tools, time and practice. I would also love to study drawing, art, illustration, from charcoal to watercolor, but with my schedule it is almost impossible for me to commit to anything routine.

Over the past few months I’ve made about 25 pieces. The most difficult part is actually the concentration required to do this kind of work. My mind is a mess, it really is. I am SO easily distracted these days. I’m actually trying to figure out how to remedy this because it really is something I’m not dealing with all that well. The moment I try to begin a piece I find reasons not to, and this just has to stop.

Over the past year I’ve been watching people as I travel, a full range of people. Young, old, technical, non-technical doesn’t matter. To say we are addicted, physically addicted, to technology is not a stretch. I see it in myself, and I have certainly been seeing it in many of the people around me. I FIRST noticed this back in about 2005 while photographing children. When I stopped to load a roll of film they would instinctively reach for their phone, punch in their code, check something, then turn the phone off and wait for me. Within TEN SECONDS they would pick up their phone and do it all over again. I thought to myself, “Wow, this is a physical addiction.”

A few months ago I landed at John Wayne Airport here in lovely Orange County and the pilot said “Well, the good news is we are eight-minutes early, but the bad news is we have no gate and have to wait eight-minutes.” The woman next to me, who I am guessing is a mid-level exec based on her clothing and briefcase, turned on her phone, punched in the code and checked Facebook twenty-four-times in eight minutes.” THAT my friends is addiction. Think this is rare? Think this is a wild chance encounter? Think again. Like I said, I’ve been watching this for a year. Even a younger friend pulled me aside and said “You know, I thought you were exaggerating about this but you aren’t, I’ve been watching too and it’s out of control.”

Do you wake up in the morning and reach for your phone?

Do you rush home at night so that you can get on the computer to surf?

Do you filter the world through your social media, at all times, all moments?

Has your regular camera been abandoned for your mobile phone because it’s easier to post?

Does your brain think of Facebook, Instagram and Twitter during those moments in the day when you have even a moments break?

Do you check your email on your phone more than ten times per day? Twenty times? Fifty times? A hundred times? (No joke.)

Are you actually putting weight into something so trivial/fickle/ridiculous as views and likes?

If so, I have a little test for you. Try sketching or drawing but try something very small and very detailed, which is what I accidentally did when I started this “art” thing. I haven’t shared these pieces with you yet, but I will at some point. They are small, 6×9, ink on paper and each one took DAYS to compile because the design I was attempting was infinitely small. I can’t tell you how difficult this was for me. I had to put my phone in another room and turn it off because the minute I ran into either physical or mental difficulty my relief came by telling myself, “Oh, I better check my email, where is my phone.” “I better be “productive” so maybe I should get my laptop and check things online.” “Maybe I should check Facebook, Twitter, etc.” and then the train was off the rails. Gone, fractured, destroyed. I simply didn’t have the attention span to pull these things off.

Suddenly, I was the guy checking his phone twenty-times while sitting on the runway. Yep, that WAS me.

Now, I never started this “art” thing to make realizations about myself. I did it simply to see what would happen, but the beneficial byproduct, so far, has been this acknowledgement I have an issue with attention. And based on my observations…..you might have one too. The truly odd part is not seeing these issues in my friends, etc, it’s finding someone who DOESN’T have the issue. I’m not kidding. The “clean” people, those untarnished by technology, seem STRANGE. They listen, they ask questions and they don’t engage in rapid-fire conversations where each person is simply verbalizing a mental, drop down list, not waiting for each other to finish a fractured sentence, instead jumping in with their bullet points.(I’ve done this too.)

My wife and I had dinner with one such “clean” person and when we left my wife asked “Oh my GOD, that was weird, what was going on with them?” I said, “Well, I think what was happening was they were actually listening, then thinking, then responding with a well thought out reply.” It was unnerving. It really was. It felt like we were engaged in a conversation while slowing sinking in quicksand.

I recently spent some time with a relative, a 14-year-old kid who is not a “screen kid.” He had screens at his disposal, phones, iPads, computers, games, etc, but for whatever reason chose not to engage with them. It was ENTIRELY strange. The kid exuded an energy I would equate with that of a shaman, not that I’ve spent a lot of time around shamans, but the kid was rock-solid-steady, calm, focused and felt like the most mature person in the room. The rest of us bounced from phone to laptop to phone and back to laptop, using senseless apps for no reason, repeatedly checking email and sending texts like crack monkeys. The kid just sat and watched, listened and had a look on his face like “Guys, the joke is entirely on you.”

Now, during the time I was with this kid I made a book from images I made with my phone. I actually made the book through my phone, and I like the book. I also shot a few rolls with the Hasselblad and a few with the Nikon. I did get a few things done, but when I think back on this time it feels like a dream state where everything is playing at top speed. Friends who hadn’t seen me in over a year described me (I found out later) as jittery, distracted and unable to sit still.

Normally when I bring up anything that questions the modern way I get plenty of hate mail about being a luddite, or not being smart enough to understand the technology or that I am “anti-technology.” This is the easy route. “That cant’ be true, he MUST be an idiot.” “How dare he question these things, technology has made our lives clearly better.”

All I’m saying is I am, at times, a complete mental mess. This is ME. If you spend a lot of time with a phone in your hand or on your computer than you MIGHT take a moment to reflect. Or not. All I know is I have to change a few things. I used to think “brain fog” was a joke. Now I have difficulty reading novel length material. I used to think technology was aiming us in the right direction. Now I hide my phone to get real work done, and place it in the trunk when I’m driving.(another long story)

It’s not like any of this technology is going away, nor should it, but I no longer view it in the same way I once did. I find it appalling to watch people interface with the Grand Canyon via their mobile phone. I don’t like selfies. And I’m entirely over the amount of self-promotion that has invaded our little world.(Like this blog?) What else can I bash? I’ll think of something later I’m sure.

Luckily, I now have “art” to keep me company now. Yep, I stand in front of blank pieces of paper, petrified of that first mark. Will it be right? Will it be perfect? Ah, perfection…..the idea of damn perfection…..that leads me to my next point.(Post) To make this ONE piece I found interesting I made MANY that were simple embarrassingly bad. I mean REALLY bad. I have zero background, education or knowledge in regard to art, so I have a lot of ground to make up, probably more than I hope to do in my lifetime, but I feel like trying. I need to study, and to do that I first need to find…peace.

Stay tuned.