Postcards from a Wedding

I wrote this post over a year ago and totally forgot about it. Sorry. It WILL be the last post I ever do in regard to anything related to a wedding. Ever. I’ve been out of that game for a long, long while and won’t be going back anytime soon. I’m not even sure I could do it anymore. Anyone who has ever done a wedding knows it’s both a mental and physical game.

CLIFF NOTES: If you don’t want to read this opus the basis is MAKE YOUR OWN IMAGES.

I was asked to write about advice for wedding photographers, something I promised I would never do again. However, earlier in the year(2012) I photographed my last wedding ever and I thought it an opportune time to sign off on this industry and business. This post might seem hard hitting, which I hope it is, but the intention is simply to make people think. As photographers we are capable of so, so much, but in difficult economic times, or trying times for the industry, I am baffled by the level of conformity perhaps best illustrated by the portrait/wedding world. Yes, many weddings are comprised of the same format, preparation, ceremony, celebration, and there are similarities from shoot to shoot, so in some ways repetition, standardization and trends all contribute to an assembly line type situation. However, I spent ten years in the portrait/wedding world and was successful because I did NOT conform. There is power and there is value in unique imagery, just as there is in unique literature, poetry, art and sound. So the next time we find ourselves walking on the same well worn path, let’s turn around, step off or begin hacking a new trail.

I named this post “Postcards from a Wedding” as a tribute to Magnum photographer Susan Meiselas and her “Pictures from a Revolution” film. Yes, we are talking a major stretch between the Nicaraguan Civil War and a wedding in the Caribbean, but hear me out. In or around 1990, when I was first beginning my official photojournalism degree at the University of Texas, Susan Meiselas came and screened this film for the PJ students. My first “photojournalism” class had hundreds of people in it because “photojournalism 101” was an elective that any communication, art or journalism student could take. Consequently it was a packed house. I was hooked. Completely and utterly hooked. First, the film gave me a feel for who Susan was. Second it gave me a feel for what type of effort it required to do this work, and it also gave me a clear picture of the connection between a committed journalist and the people she was working with.

Susan’s Nicaragua work was also graphic, violent, beautiful and felt like the kind of work that I wanted to make. Years after meeting her, and years after graduation, when I finally had a portfolio I believed in-my first book-I sent her one, unannounced. This was before I had a computer, email, cellphone, etc, so it was mailed to her in a giant envelope. Several weeks later it came back, and it came back with a long, handwritten note. In a nutshell it said “You see the world in a unique way but you have to learn how to make YOUR images.”

Maybe, just MAYBE, there were two or three images in the entire book that would prompt someone to say I saw the world in a unique way, so I figured she was being polite, which she had already proven by writing me back! What I took from her advice was the last part. I had to learn to make MY images. This is easier said than done. I see so much work today, so much, and the overwhelming majority is work I’ve seen before. Finding vision, as I’ve said many times in the past, isn’t easy. And you can find it only to lose it just as quickly as you found it. I know, I’ve done it. Several times.

But let me break this down with the wedding thing in mind. It is a challenge to bring up weddings and Susan Meiselas in the same sentence, but it’s my blog and my soul died a long time ago so I’m gonna go ahead and do it. I’ve written about this for years and normally get crucified when I bring it up, which is reason enough to do it. The wedding photography industry is filled with photographers who aren’t really photographers in the traditional sense, but that’s okay(They approach from a different angle). If someone finds joy in working in an industry then more power to them. However, there is a downside to this little tale if you have wider plans. If you have “other plans” in photography it can be difficult to be associated with the wedding industry, fair or unfair that is the truth.(Just had this conversation again, last week, with another photographer who said he was not getting commercial work due to being known in his area as a wedding photographer.Much to the chagrin of another photographer who didn’t think this could be possible.) One of the ways this can go away is if wedding photographers learned more about not only photography but about themselves. You GOTTA study, work, toil and fight to figure out who you are with a camera in your hand, and frankly most people don’t do it and the industry doesn’t put ANY pressure on them to do so. There is also an unfair stigma associated with wedding photographers. “If you can’t do anything else, you do weddings.” This just isn’t true anymore, not by a long shot, but the IDEA remains and sometimes this can be a real issue requiring educational skills on the part of the photographer.

The wedding industry was the first industry where I listened to photographers tell me they learned the business by going online, in 2005, and copying who was hot. This isn’t good. That might get you a business but it doesn’t make you a photographer. There is one photographer in particular, someone I first heard about years ago, who has been cloned by an entire generation of wedding photographer, right down to his camera and lens. I see dozens and dozens of wedding snaps that all look EXACTLY like his…only not quite as good. But guess what, it’s good enough. The bar is low so people can get away with this. And also, a lot of wedding snappers base their work and credibility on their clients who are mostly people who DON’T look at imagery. They like most things. This doesn’t lend itself to developing a higher standard.

I’m not gonna show you the bulk of the work I did on this wedding(Private), which by the way was the final wedding I will ever do. It’s over Johnny. The vault has been sealed and dropped overboard. I did this wedding for several reasons, but most importantly I did it because I really like the people involved. That’s all I need. Yes, the location was great, I had freedom to do what I thought best, and even though I was the official photographer I was also part of the gang, which makes things far more civil and enjoyable. The images you see here, with the exception of two, were all made with a plastic, discontinued underwater point-and-shoot. The rest were taken with a 43-year-old rangefinder. Why did I use these old tools? Well, I like them, but they also give me the STYLE of image I was going for. And when I say this I mean for THIS particular shoot. I had a very concrete idea of what I wanted the final product to look like the DAY I accepted this job, which was months and months before the shoot. I didn’t just apply my “wedding photography” to this event like all the rest. I’ve done weddings where I shot a grand total of 20 images THE ENTIRE DAY(665 Polaroid), and I’ve done others where I shot digital and shot literally thousands of photographs. I’ve done weddings in black and white only. I’ve done 6×6 weddings, 6×7 weddings, 6×9 weddings, and even used a 4×5 once or twice. I’ve shot Lomo, Holga, Pentax, Fuji, Canon, Leica, Polaroid, Zeiss, Voigtlander, Contax and a homemade pinhole. I used this messy range of clunkers because I had a vision for what the job not only required but how I envisioned the final product. I had this vision because I had experimented enough to know what worked and what I could expect to walk away with, and I was fine tuning my approach and technique to fit each job individually. This is a doable thing when you are doing a total of ten shoots a year. It becomes REALLY difficult when you are shooting 20+ events per year and suddenly conformity becomes a part of the equation. If someone else can do your editing you might be on the path to assembly line.

The goal is to be able to see the final project, which in this case is a book, and say, “I know who did that.” Call it style, vision(overused) or point of view, doesn’t matter. What matters is HAVING ONE. Wedding photographers should demand more. They should rally around those who take chances and set a tone that borders on chaos and failure, not volume and year-end-sales. Could we possibly take anymore of the mystery and experience out of it?

To be fair, working as a photographer these days is not what it once was. There are different pressures and the value of photography, especially in the mind of the general public, has changed and not for the better. There is less appreciation for the process and also less concern with the longevity or impact of the images. But, this doesn’t mean you don’t fight the fight. If you are a wedding photographer you have to educate yourself and your clients to what it is you do, SPECIFICALLY, and why you do it that way. In the long run, it’s all you’ve got. And don’t go thinking this is a rant against wedding photographers because this level of operation is happening in almost all genres of photography. Having an online following or filling a workshop doesn’t make a good photographer. These aren’t bad things, not by any stretch, but what I see happening is people associating these abilities with photographic talent. In my opinion, the best photographers in the world aren’t on social media and they surely don’t teach a lot of workshops. Why? Because they are making their work instead.

For you newbie wedding photographers out there I’m going to cut you some slack. Keep learning, keep expanding your knowledge base. The people I want to direct this post at at the “pros” who have suddenly found themselves in the wedding world. This really started happening about fifteen years ago, based mostly on economic pressures. YOU folks have a responsibility. YOU have the knowledge and experience which makes it truly painful when I see YOU conforming to what the industry is subscribing. When you homogenize your photography to meet an industry with seemingly no quality bar it really has devastating effects and not only on the wedding market, which is some ways is impervious to impact. How many times have I see or heard a photographer from another genre land on the wedding market and make some bold proclamation about “doing things right” only to see the same person six months later churning out the same generic content under the fateful statement, “Well, the clients aren’t complaining.” Weddings offer certain photographers, very good photographers, their FIRST real chance to make decent money, and ultimately for some that becomes overpowering. I get it, but ultimately I don’t get it. It just makes me sad. These folks tend to stop making good imagery, and not just within the borders of their wedding work. They just stop creating or thinking or whatever it is that made them photographers in the first place. This in turn drags the industry down ever so slightly. And then someone else does, and it happens again and again and again, and suddenly the slight variant is a deluge of brain drain. The truth is these people don’t need to do this. Many of these folks came from genres where the photographer has lost all rights, all ability to work in a pure sense, and where they have had to conform, sign contracts and give up on working in the style they dreamed of working in, but in the wedding world you can do ANYTHING you want to do, so when someone gives up, conforms, caves in, it makes it that much more difficult to watch. So if by any strange change ANYONE actually reads this post, take this ONE thing away which is to find that inner photographic kid once again. Stop doing what you think you have to do and start doing what you WANT to do. I guarantee your work will improve and photography will be a lot more fun once again. Photographers have an inherent power I wish they would take more advantage of. Not everyone can do what we do. I’m a firm believer there are the SAME number of photographers there always has been. There are millions of people with cameras, but they aren’t photographers. When you make a unique style, or recognizable style of image, there is a power you can harness and your clients will know and respect this. Your images might not fit every job, but you don’t really want every job. You want the right job.

And stop talking about new equipment. It won’t help and has no bearing on your imagery. I’ve been having conversations with photographers who tell me they are worried about showing up at a job with a 5D Mark III because they are afraid the client has the same camera and won’t think of them as a professional. This is incredible. If your client can make the same image you are making they maybe you AREN’T a photographer? (Buy a 40-year-old camera and you won’t have to worry about this!) Your photographs should be about light, timing, composition and your visual history, but if these items started in 2005 by you copying someone online…you might have a problem.

If you are offended by this post just know….I’m by no means a perfect person or photographer(OBVIOUS), but what I am is a pretty decent witness to the times and to photography. I’ve made plenty of horrible images, some for myself and some for clients. I’ve had successes and failures and this post is simply my opinion. Take it or leave it. I walked away from working as a photographer so that I could work on purely my own work. I fought the downward slide of “professional” photography for the past ten years. It’s doable, but it’s all about education of the client. To do this you need the kind of work that educates. You don’t need a standardized test that EVERY OTHER photographer has.

My advice for wedding photographers? My advice to young photographers?
It’s all the same, and I’ll go back to what Susan told me all those years ago….make YOUR photographs, whatever those may be. In the long run, it’s all you have. You have to get outside of the wedding world and look at the full range of photography being made. Perhaps your images will be more influenced by Sternfeld, Steber, Shore, Smith, Salgado, Seliger, Stanmeyer or Strand than someone in the wedding field. If you don’t know these names(Please, please, please don’t tell me if you don’t know.), start there, look them up and see how you feel.

I walk away from this industry with overwhelmingly positive thoughts because I walk with memories of the people and the true moments that happened far from the glitz and glitter of the reception, those moments when hearts beat fast and the honest decisions were made.I walk with the truth of knowing that I was chosen to be the witness.

PPS: The images you see are the images I printed for MY book of the wedding. A snapshot book. 6×9, 300-pages .

Picture Perfect: Chloe Dewe Mathews

Came across this video online and thought I would give it a share. I love looks into the creative process and mindset of other creatives walking the streets of the world and this film is a good example of such story. Her projects are intriguing, her work is intriguing and the filmmakers do a nice job putting it all together. Hope you enjoy.

Picture Perfect: Chloe Dewe Mathews from Incase on Vimeo.

Print em Danno

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You HAVE to make prints.

Personally, I feel so strongly about this that I believe you aren’t actually a photographer if you aren’t printing your work. And when I say “Print” it doesn’t have to mean darkroom print. It can be any print. Photographic, inkjet, darkroom, wet, dry, moist, whatever. Just do it. I see a lot of work today, and I see a lot of portfolios and I see I lot of folks presenting on things like iPads, and I frankly do not see the kind of consideration I’m looking for. This doesn’t mean I haven’t seen solid digital presentations, I have, but they are few and far between.

I hear comments like “Well, I just left this in because ___________________.(Insert casual reason here.)” No, no, no, no, no. That is not how it’s done. I see galleries with HUNDREDS of images, which is the quickest way to alert the person reviewing your work that you are not ready for a review. I think making prints helps with this. In short, printing makes you think and forces you to make decisions. THAT my friends is a good thing.

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W. Eugene Smith: Photography Made Difficult.

I somehow managed to graduate from photojournalism school without ever hearing of one W. Eugene Smith. That, if you know anything about me, could be my most miraculous achievement. Still to this day I wonder how this was possible, but none the less, it was. Several years after graduation I was working for the Arizona Republic in Phoenix, hovering somewhere between photo-intern and “guy who just keeps showing up.” I picked up a chest cold but kept working, going out on daily assignments and also working on a story about Thai-style boxing that had just come to the Valley of the Sun. I got sicker and sicker and finally had to break down and visit the warzone that is county hospital, you know, the place we go when we don’t have insurance. After taking a chest X-RAY the doctor said, “First, I don’t know how you walked in here.” “And second, if you don’t go home right now and do nothing for ten days you will die.” Now I’m not an “A” student but that soundly relatively serious to me, so I went home to my rented room in downtown Phoenix and looked for sympathy. After about eighteen minutes, this was pre-internet “entertainment” people, I was so mind numbingly bored I began to dig around in the wooden box that held up the television. Inside I found this film. In short, my chest cold changed my life.
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I was alone when I found the film, slipped it innocently into the state-of-the-art, 174-pound BETA machine and sat back with a nice hot glass of Hawaiian Punch. Within minutes I had forgotten about everything I had ever learned because what this film presented was an alternative universe, a vision and power I had never truly seen before. I watched the film then I started watching it again. My housemate came home and I vomited an indecipherable mess of panic, happiness, confusion and maybe a little more panic. What this film unveiled was a level of photography and commitment, a level that went well beyond “healthy,” and a set of images that were simply the most powerful documentary images I had ever seen.

Actor Peter Reigert portrays Smith while the film slowly features over 600 of Smith’s images. And, as interesting is the dialogue which comes directly from Smith’s diaries and letters, which by the way are honest and very well done. The film is rounded out with archival footage and interviews with family, friends and industry types. Now you might be thinking this is enough to endure watching the film dissected into nine parts on You Tube, and if you asked me I would say “Yes, it is TOTALLY worth it,” but there’s more. You can buy this film. My advice, buy it. You are gonna want to see it over and over again.

Now, I know there are some folks out there who might find reason to spoof this film, and feel free to do so, but you cannot deny what you are looking at when you see those images. In my mind Gene Smith was, and is, the best documentary photographer in American history, perhaps world history. Considering his tools, how minimal they were, and his materials and lack of outlets, he did SO MUCH it is hard for me to wrap my head around. As you will see, Smith was not without his faults, and according to some he was a complete and total ass***, but again his work lives as a testament to just how good and how committed he was. A quick example. He was assigned a project on Pittsburgh, which is one of my favorites, and the project owner thought he would get about thirty images over a two-week period. After many months and 10,000 GOOD images, Smith felt he wasn’t done. His “Country Doctor” story saw Smith spend twenty-three straight days with the doctor, and his “Midwife” story saw Smith spend six-weeks straight, day and night, with his subject. You see where I’m going with this? For Smith there was nothing else. There was no end. There was no compromise. Because of this his battles with Life Magazine were legendary.

I’ll leave you with one more thing. I’m a heartless bastard at times. I’m not this way on purpose, I just have the ability to bury my emotions. My wife has seen my cry once in sixteen years(When Battlefield Earth was snubbed for an Oscar). I watched “Photography Made Difficult” again last night, when the moon was full and the air was cold and crisp. Twice I felt like I was going to cry. I feel an emotional attachment to his work that I simply don’t feel with ANYONE else. I recently saw footage of some guy clubbing a baby harp seal and was like “I wonder what’s on Oprah?” Flatline people, NOTHING. But with this film I was riveted and emotionally attached. Forget about his content, which is supreme, just look at the LIGHT and the PRINTING. And again, he isn’t working with anything remotely cutting edge even though it was probably considered so at the time. I sat watching and was reminded once again about the only things that matter. Desire, direction, time in the field, light, timing and composition. These days I go into the field with multiple formats, color AND black and white film and a “to do” list that is WAY beyond what I need. This film is something I can’t hide from, and just knowing that this work is out there is a constant reminder of just how high the bar has been set.

Una Pura Verdad: a film by Flemming Bo Jensen

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

Una Pura Verdad from Flemming Bo Jensen on Vimeo.