Blurb Tip: Learn from Bruce Lee

I think most people who are knowledgeable about martial arts would describe Bruce Lee as a transcendant martial artist. Before he became the legend he did Lee studied a variety of styles, many of which had been around for decades, maybe even centuries. But it wasn’t enough. Bruce Lee was looking for something new, something different and something distinctly his. It was because of THIS that Bruce Lee became a legend. I think there is A LOT to learn from a guy like this. Lee had many detractors, those who suggested he was a fake, those who suggested he was revealing secrets he shouldn’t, some even claim this the cause of his death. Was there a secret “death touch” applied to him as he made his way through the safety of his daily life? More likely his death was from natural causes, but the rumors still swirl all these years later. What I take from Bruce Lee is the reality of the payoff of finding your own way. I learned to look at what has been done then build on it. I’m not always going to succeed. In fact, epic failures are common, but I’ve learned that these failures are only that in the minds of others, those needing constant support and gratification. I know that starting over is a good thing. I know because I’ve had to do it over and over and over.

I think this concept is a good one when it comes to looking at Blurb. I spend a lot of time around the photography world and I see some truly inspiring things, but I also see a tremendous amount of conformity. I myself was, and am, a product of learned behavior. A traditional photojournalism education, twenty plus years of working full time as a photographer. These influences did things to me, still do, and thus I realize my photographic brain was in part designed by someone else. Skynet made the Terminator. Those around me, and the industry made me, but all these years later I’m learning to reverse this reality. It isn’t easy, but it is WELL WORTH the effort.

Over the past few years I’ve heard more than a few photographers refer to Blurb and say, “Well, I can only use Blurb to make a portfolio or a book maquette for a publisher.” For me this is such a painful sentence to hear because it is so far from the truth and is so illustrative of what I’m referring to, the learned behavior we are all so influenced by. Making portfolios and maquettes are both grand endeavors but they are far, far, far from the reality of what you can do with a platform like Blurb. And when I say Blurb let’s just say I’m referring to ANY new platform that provides a substantial tool base. These platforms are designed for everyone, but where they really shine is in the hands of the searchers, the pioneers, the Bruce Lee’s of the world who see the tools and ask, “What can I make with those?”

In today’s world I see most of these new, challenging things being made by people who aren’t working professionals which is both expected and unexpected. Pros are typically hunting a trend, a style, an industry tradition or keeping the all-powerful hierarchy in mind while the consumer just responds to what feels right. I think this is a very powerful example for us to follow. In short, take new technologies and run with them. Blurb was never intended to replace traditional publishing, something that some photographers think was the intention. Not even close. In fact, when sitting around at the office looking at books, I’ve had that conversation with Blurb folks from every facet of the company. We see a book we love, try to see where it fits, how it works and then say, “This would be great for a traditional publisher.” If it contains quality work, points to a specific audience and the photographer, or creator, has a community then why not. Just the fact a traditional publisher won’t print you one copy of your book, or the fact that Blurb isn’t going to print a six-color offset 6×17 book with silk endsheets and a varnish should be enough to quality this fact, but in some cases I guess it isn’t. These approaches are apples and oranges.

So, with this in mind I bring you something very new and very different. After one hundred and sixty books, many of which were done for commercial clients I think I FINALLY started to figure out what companies like Blurb are offering me. In one word, freedom. This ain’t a word I take lightly. Live under the thumb of someone else, or something else, for long enough and freedom takes on even more taste. What I bring you here is the first installment of a series I will call “Because I Can.” These are simply books I’ve made because I have the ability to make them. But let me tell you how this came about.

Several months ago I got a call from a photographer who was asking me technical questions about color management. Now for me I equate color management with that gymnastics thing with the ribbon. I know there is an audience for it, but no matter how long I try attempting to comprehend its real meaning I always remain puzzled. Color management, if you are going to print anything, is wildly important, no doubt, but it’s just that I find it really boring. And, I think if you are too fixated on color management you will miss the idea of making the book in the first place. I equate this scenario to the famous Bruce Lee quote of “It is like a finger pointing to the moon. Concentrate on the finger and you will miss all that heavenly glory” I included the You Tube film at the top for your viewing pleasure, and for you to see the original use.

So, after this phone conversation, and after my urging the photographer to calibrate, use the ICC profile and to keep monitor brightness in mind, I realized my good intentions had been lost on someone still occupied almost entirely with color. I hung up the phone, turned to my wife and said, “I don’t think he gets it.” After further consideration I began to realize that perhaps I needed to be an example. If I MADE things that illustrated my point then perhaps the idea of the final product would outweigh the things that might keep people from feeling all that heavenly book glory. I made a decision right then and there to make ANY book that came to mind, NO MATTER HOW SILLY, STUPID, RIDICULOUS OR UNREALISTIC THAT BOOK IS. Am I selling these books? No. Am I putting them forth in the world and telling everyone how great they are? No. Are these the only books I’m making? No. But let me tell you something very critical. These just might be the most important books I’ve ever made.

When I quit working as a photographer at the end of 2010, unexpectedly, an entirely new world opened up to me. The same exact thing happened the minute I made the book in the film you see below. Talk about a lightbulb going off. And it isn’t just me. I’ve done seven of these books so far, have a list of seven more I’m working on now, some good, some silly, some I don’t know what, and I’ve also shown them at some of the presentations I’ve done. Each time, after showing these books, I’ve had photographers come up and say, “Seeing those books jarred something loose.” This makes me feel like my idea of being an example was perhaps the right move.

People, if you are a photographer then you are a member of the creative community, a community which many people consider to be littered with “artist types.” One thing I’ve noticed about “artist types” over the years is that these people, under no circumstances, need to offer an apology for being eccentric. Art is eccentric. So then what is all the conformity about? Is it about chasing tradition? The market? What? I wish I could answer that for you but I can’t. I want to leave you with a word of advice, if you will permit me. Get crazy. Stop doing what you think you are supposed to do, and start doing what your heart, brain, DNA, anger, anguish or frustration tells you to. It might not work the first time, or the tenth time, but ultimately, I have a sinking suspicion, you will find the creative promised land and when you do what you finally create will probably shock you. As humans we are unique, like snowflakes, so let’s keep this in mind when it transfers to what it is we are attempting to make. Good luck.

ONE MORE THING: I actually had someone suggest I was only doing these books because Blurb paid for all of them. Just so you know, first of all, that is a REALLY lame response to this idea, but secondly I used up my book allowance in February. I am paying for ALL of these books, regardless of how inexpensive or expensive they are. Am I rich? No, but I really wish I was.

South With the Night

“I have lifted my plane from the Nairobi airport for perhaps a thousand flights and I have never felt her wheels glide from the earth into the air without knowing the uncertainty and exhilaration of firstborn adventure.”

Beryl Markham, “West With The Night.”

I was rereading this book, something I do every few years, and came across this passage which made me stop and think. This is obviously in regard to flying but I think the same idea can be applied to the idea of leaving to go photograph, at least for me. The idea of not knowing what is going to happen is one of the things that really gets my blood going. People photograph for a variety of reasons, all of which are equally valid in my mind. I have a list of reasons why I do it. The need to record, sense of history, sense of documenting and for the adventure of it all, and this is where this quote most aptly applies. The adventure of it all. I know that the vast, vast, vast majority of my images will simply not work, so embarking on a photo-adventure with high numbers of perfect “keepers” as the goal isn’t really on my mind. The idea of consistent failure is true for everyone, but we can fool ourselves into thinking, or Photoshop ourselves into thinking, that a higher number actually work, but let me just say..they don’t. There, don’t you feel better? Relax and enjoy the relevance of this fact.

It never gets any easier, this photography thing. I might think I know what I’m looking for, and I have settled my technique to a certain degree, but I don’t really know anything. I feel the pressure, self-induced, each time I leave the house. I begin to snoop around and when I frame something that shows hope the walls of insecurity and pressure begin to crumble. But each night these same walls are rebuilt.

These images were made a BMX track in Texas, and are photographs I think I have posted before, but I did so again because I wanted to emphasize the point above and the one to follow. I was at this track with a Hasselblad, 80mm and tripod, YES I said tripod. I was going to say I never use tripods, but I will amend that to “I rarely use tripods.” These tracks are home to many, many people with cameras. In most cases they are home to the dslr and long lens. After all, people are trying to get photographs of little Timmy burning up the track. I get it. Well, I don’t have a little Timmy, but I do have a nephew who was burning up the track. I shot a few of those pictures, but was left with an empty feeling. Peak action sports images are not my thing. I LOVE sports, but shooting sports, not so much.

I wasn’t alone at the track. I had a brother, sister and friend riding shotgun, but in my mind I was entirely alone. You know how it is when you put a camera in your hand. Little else matters.

The humidity made me shoot these pictures. It did. The humidity made me realize the important thing about these images had to be how they made me FEEL about being here. The adventure here was in the details, in the atmosphere and it was my job to snatch them away, preserve them so that someone else could FEEL what is was like to be here, not only SEE what it was like.

I don’t remember how many images I made this night, but it wasn’t that many. A few rolls perhaps. Doesn’t matter. But I can remember every single detail because my mind was set to “adventure” mode and I was entirely ready to embrace the unknown.

But I Can’t See His Face

What can I say, this little guy has style. So does his brother. Been photographing him since he was a little bugger. It feels like yesterday, but it has been many years now. This image came up on the monitor and my wife looked over and said, “What I like best about your work is being able to watch these kids grow up.”

I hope that I occupy a tiny part of their brains. I really do. I hope that when mom and dad tell them they are going to do another shoot they have good thoughts, specific thoughts, not just to the images but about me as well.
I think having a relationship with the people you work with is absolutely critical to making images that go beyond the standard portrait shoot.
My favorite thing is working with the same kids three or four times a year. I would much prefer this to a new client or working in the volume shooting game, where you are looking at new face after new face. Don’t get me wrong, I need new clients, but so much or so little can happen on that first shoot and RARELY do you get something magical the first time around. Be honest folks. “Magical” means different things to different people, and I’m referring to the “magical” that is photographer to photographer, not photographer to client. I think this point might need a little clarification. Say you are photographing kids. Say you don’t have your best day. Well, you are photographing someone’s kids! You are gonna get the benefit of the doubt when it comes to the pictures because, after all, they LOVE their kids. So getting a passing grade from a client is very different than getting a passing grade from another photographer. At least I think so. Yesterday I had a surprise visit from a photographer I really admire. She showed me her new book and I showed her mine. My book had one image I KNEW I needed to get rid of, but had yet to cut those bounds of love. And then, .11111 seconds after viewing that image, my photographer friend said, “Ah, I don’t think so, get rid of it.” It’s done. Gone. I trust her and respect her opinion because of what she has accomplished and what she knows about imagery and editing, heck and making books for that matter. A few years ago I began to hear photographers say something very strange, “Well, my clients aren’t complaining,” when they referred to their work that might not have been up to THEIR, the photographer’s standard. Quality bars in this profession of ours have gone from fairly high to nonexistent in a few short years. This can be a real slippery slope for your work when you are allowing the client to dictate your quality bar. My advice…don’t do that.
Oh, and the easiest thing of all…photograph the kids in your own family! You can do anything! I don’t have any kids of my own, but my nephews and nieces are fair game!
Okay, back to my little story.
I think my desire to work with the same kids over and over comes from my working as a documentary photographer, or I should more accurately say, “Me spending time making documentary pictures,” cause I’m sure not working for anyone else when I’m doing this stuff. Just spent two days sleeping in my car in 100 degree temps. Yes, it sucked, at the time, but was well worth it in terms of exploration.
When I work with the same kids over and over I lose those initial moments of awkwardness, where the dancers move around one another but are yet to begin the routine. We start instantly.
Sometimes now, mom and dad are not even home. I get text messages. “Just go in and do whatever you want, we’ll be there in a little while.” Trust, confidence, earned from past results. You can’t beat that.

What this means is I don’t need the routine any longer. I don’t need the expected. I don’t need those safe images that we all feel we have to make when we meet someone new. Now I find myself leaning forward, or toward the edges of what I can dream of.
These two images I like, and I can see printing them, but in my mind are still a bit too safe and routine. A few years ago, because you could not see his face or all of his face, I would have thought, “Well, I better get something straight to appease everyone.”
WRONG. Sellout. Choker. Conformist.
I should have had my shooter card revoked. Small minded thinking folks. Really.
So now I see these images, which I believe say volumes about this kid at this particular time in his life, yet don’t go quite far enough into who he really is, AND, who I am as a photographer. They are in the right direction but I need to go further. This might take more time, a different attitude, luck or simple communication with the boy himself.
You can take this too far, lose the bridge to that client trust, and I’ve come close. Sometimes it takes a good sit down to explain what your intention was or your vision. Sometimes this is enough, sometimes you gotta do over!
This folks is why I keep doing this. I don’t know where I’m going. I know I’m only in control of fifty percent of the equation and I will never be in control of the other fifty percent, so I’m teaching myself to live with this fact.
It isn’t easy. But once it does become easy it means you are either not trying hard enough, or have fallen into the routine of accepting what is average or expected. I’ve found myself more than once framing something up and then saying to myself, “Don’t do that, you are just falling back on what you know will work here.”
Look at what our industry is about these days. Total control. Over control. Volume. Mass production. Perfection.
I just don’t feel it. I just don’t understand it.
I feel myself losing control and I really like it. I realize now that is where the best images happen. Fractured moments, impossible to predict, impossible to know or create until you see it forming in front of you. And, images that only exist in my world, my mind.
I compare this to a great book(Assuming my image ends up being great…rare.) We all probably have a favorite author who churns out book after book. These books we really like and find comfort in, but when asked about our favorite book of all time they don’t make the list. Because there was a book by someone else, someone who only did a few, a book so powerful it changed our life. A work like that is never mass produced. It takes too much pain, good and bad, to produce. It’s like the author left a part of themselves behind when the final pen stroke was made. This is what I’m looking for. But again folks, these images, these true portfolio breakthroughs, the handful of images you will take into the next world, they don’t come around very often.
It’s funny. Actually making the images should be the best and most fun part of what we do, and most of the time it is. But, I think sometimes we grip so hard during the time we are actually working we limit ourselves by the mental baggage we carry with us. We find ourselves running so many scenarios through our minds, thinking of all those we are trying to appease, thinking of all the techniques we have read about and we actually, in some ways, close ourselves off to what is possible. We should have a clear mind when we work. Don’t look at me. I’ve, at times, got the Samsonite of mental baggage. I’m no Grasshopper. If you have the answer put it on DVD and sell it for $99.99 and I’ll buy it.
So go forth my friends and search high and low for your edge of control. Don’t be afraid when your breath comes in short gasps, it just means you are living.