Five Minutes in Miami

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This is the kind of shit I take when I don’t have enough time. Random. It’s fun. What else is there to do anyway when all you are doing is driving around thinking about Miami Vice. Legba was on these streets man until Crockett put a slug in his ass. Crockett killed almost everyone in the city, but new people, bad people, kept showing up and now we have this. Abandoned arts complexes and lost dreams. Shattered like glass during the World Trade party that happens once a year. All I could think about was the black Daytona and the chrome plated .45. Two extra clips in the shoulder holster. F%$# backup.
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Sick as a dog. Barely able to keep my eyes open, my lungs working yet there is a pull to make sense of it all. Where did they film here? Who died on this corner? Was it Tubbs with the sawed off shotgun under his silk jacket? You never saw Tubb’s crib because the guy was slaying a different woman each night. Ricardo.
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These things don’t add up to anything concrete, but over time, if you do enough of them they oddly do have value. Like Castillo. A man of few words but when he spoke you better polish your buckle or he will go Golden Triangle on you. The scene in the Speedo is like a scar on my optic nerve. Wander, wander, keep wandering. Thank God it’s cloudy or we would all be dead. Fizzle and smoke outlines on the sidewalk. Overlapping all the chalk outlines of the past. We almost lost this place once. For realzy. That’s why it’s interesting.
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You could come here and disappear. As they say “If Miami doesn’t have it, they haven’t invented it yet.” True. Maybe. Or not. You come here to be somebody else, or to make that ONE score that will set you up. Smugglers Blues. Miami-Bogota-Miami. Dade County lockup or Scarab and honeys. It happens all the time. I look for it but only a little. I keep my eyes just above the horizon line. Palm Trees through dark tint. Ceviche. Spanish feels like a chore. Just keep the blood flowing.
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Looking up, always up. The lazy way. Or maybe down too. It’s the middle part where we find the gray and the difficulties. Complicado. Back pain. Head pain. Sunglasses inside and it’s still too light. Voices, I hear voices. Man, if Calderon was here I’d totally go out on his yacht. He seemed like a good guy. Till, ya, you got it, Crockett smoked him in his own house. What happened to the boat? Is it still tied up in some harbor growing mold and waiting for someone to inflate the dingy? We never looked for it. Even after Cuban coffee. Throat like needles. Glass. Did I eat a lightbulb? I’ve threatened to.
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Do these parts connect? Probably. But it really doesn’t matter. That little rectangle. So silly. Is it time for a show? Just kidding. Talk about head pain. And besides, you are SUPPOSED to shoot color here right? I mean that’s what the tour guide says. I never saw a sign for scenic view. “Hey, you can’t take pictures here.” “What?” “Says who?” Where do these people get it? Is there a memo circulating around? Am I under surveillance? The bug van? Man, I’d kill to have Switek’s white pants. Is it too late?

Nicaragua Notes: Quality of Light

Remember the day you first picked up a camera? What were you thinking about? I’m guessing the camera. I did. I remember thinking if I could just understand the buttons I would be on my way to becoming a photographer. I remember thinking about my vest. Yes, I had a vest. Didn’t everyone at one point in time? I also remember thinking if I just had the right film, the right strap, the right tape in the right place THEN I would be on my way to being a photographer.

I had no real plan in terms of what I was going to photograph. I remember a landscape shot from the roof of my parent’s house, directly into the setting, South Texas sun. I remember a long exposure night shot from a strange Austin neighborhood with only the moon for illumination. I remember a motor drive sequence of my father who was a competitive shooter at the time. (Pistols not cameras.)
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Typical scene from where the kids were completing their daily assignments. This was a school in El Cua, Nicaragua.

What I don’t remember? I don’t remember ever thinking about any of the things that are truly important when it comes to actually being a photographer. Things like light, timing, composition and perhaps most importantly meaning. Why am I doing this? What am I trying to say? Why should people care?
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Our classroom in the mountains of Matagalpa, Nicaragua.

I, like many, was distracted by all the trivial gadgetry of our photography universe.

Over the years I began to understand the bones of what comprised great photography, and for me it all begins with light. I can’t stress this enough. I’m serious people, don’t make me threaten you. LIGHT is the catalyst for my movement in the field. The SECOND my mind flips to “photographer mode” the first question I ask is “What is the light?” If the light isn’t great, I’m not moving. At least not to actually work. I might scout, interview, wander, sit and watch, speculate, articulate or attempt to be productive in another way, but unless the light is working for me I don’t burn film.

Quality of light is a phrase that gets tossed around these days, like passion and storytelling and all of the other catch phrases of our time, but I actually think “quality of light” is worth repeating to yourself at least twelve times a day. Even when you aren’t shooting you can practice by asking yourself about the conditions you are in and whether they would work if you had to make pictures.
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Managua cemetery, midday, and not a photo I would normally take.

Here is the fun part. Quality of light various tremendously. State to state, country to country, season to season and second by second. Noon in New Mexico isn’t the same as noon in Los Angeles. Your style can take advantage of certain light while ignoring others. Light is a language, a nuanced language of the most intense beauty you can possibly imagine, and when the good light hits it can and will stop you in your tracks. Ever been with another photographer when great light happens? Suddenly everyone is frozen. “Oh God, look at the light,” as people fumble for ANY recording device. Sometimes when the light is good enough it can carry a picture on it’s back. Moments of great light carry with you, the same way your “life” images do.
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Near sunset, shot wide open and into the light to accentuate the flare and beautiful light. (Flemming, that IS a spaceship in the sky. FYI)

Nicaragua and the workshop presented moments of wonderful light. We were stationed in Matagalpa, in a coffee rich mountainous area, and were greeted by a range of weather from intense sun to torrential rain. There were clouds. Often times the sky worked as an enormous, broad source, lightbox style diffusion system. The kids were on assignment, so picking and choosing shooting times wasn’t possible. They shot what they needed to shoot when they needed to shoot it. Thus, they had to learn how to spot the moments happening in the light that worked for them. Imaging putting together a puzzle while someone sat next to you with a timer. That’s what this reportage life is all about.
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Arguably the coolest and funniest translator in the history of the world taking a short, afternoon, backlit break.

All of the images in this post reflect what I consider to be a good quality of light. This is the light I continually hunt for when I’m navigating the world with a camera in hand. Once you set a bar for yourself you get greedy with light. When it’s good nothing else matters. And when the light is bad you have plenty of time to reflect on all the lacking portions of your life. That’s what I do.

Nicaragua Notes: Love Thy Bus

There is something so fascinating and fantastic about the Latin American bus. ANYONE who has ever spent ANY time in Latin America has surely, at one point or another, spent time on some type of bus. In my experience, the lower level the better they are. Not to say safer, or more comfortable, just more interesting. I’ve spent considerable time on these babies, but Nicaragua was another story, one that involved lack of time and great distances, so our required mode of transportation was the Land Cruiser.
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During a workshop shoot in El Cua I was loitering around a small recreation center where the kids were assigned to photograph group activities. From a great distance I heard the roar of a metallic beast, one that was ALL TOO familiar. My heart began to race in anticipation. Would it be a “normal” bus, standard yellow, maybe a roof rack, or would it be the heart and soul of a risk-taking nomad? What turned up was something in the middle. The overall look was standard yellow, but the owner had spent considerable funds on better suspension, heavyweight tires, and luckily for all us, chrome grill work. But people, there is so much more. So much. The sound. You HAVE to know the SOUND.

The one thing you can’t know is the smell. These babies are ALL diesel and pollution control isn’t a top priority. I grew up on a ranch, surrounded by a bevy of diesel things. Heck, I even drive a diesel now, but theses buses are an entirely new level. I also wanted to include another view of these buses, one that you will surely experience if you find yourself on the roads of Latin America. When you add the smell, dust and crawling speed it adds up to a memorable, extended moment. Trust me.
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Finally, I want you to notice, in the color photograph, the guy standing near the door with his head down, leaning against the great beast. This is a common look when surrounding these beasts because they do more with these machines than you can possible imagine. This photo doesn’t look particularly scary or risky but that bus is at a nice angle and the rear end is backup against the Earth itself. The bus is also twisted, and with each millimeter the beast groaned and strained. A serious “pop” would impact a significant number of people.

In the background the kids worked the scene like pros. Ducking and dodging in and out, working on their backlighting skills, panning skills and just the interaction and dialogue required by entering an unknown situation with the goal of emerging with top level imagery. Also remember that many of these kids hadn’t touched a camera until the day before they were standing here.

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And just to show you what “left of camera” was offering up. There was much going on.

All Things Old are New

Roughly two years ago I was falling out of love with Leica. There were a variety of reasons, some valid, some perhaps not. Regardless I culled my rangefinder heard down to one remaining body, two lenses and moved on in the world. I discovered the Nikon F6. In fact, I discovered two of them, and two lenses to go with. The F6 is the most advanced 35mm, film camera I’ve ever had. It has the best meter, the best autofocus, the best viewfinder, feels great in my hand and is built to last longer than I am. Everything about it is right. It’s nice to hold a roll of 35mm to the light and see nothing but PERFECT exposures staring back at you, and anyone who darkroom prints knows what this means. And the F6 is FAST. It’s also routine to hold a roll to the light and have 36 tack-sharp images staring back at you.

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But there is ONE problem. The images. I simply do not make the same images with the F6 that I do with the Leica. I thought I did, and thought I would, but I don’t. Now, this is ME talking here, and I did, after all, use the Leica for roughly twenty years so it’s not like this is an accident. The Leica became a part of my photography, more than I ever imagined. I figured all this out about two months ago while shooting at The Palm Springs Photo Festival, something I do on a yearly basis. For the first time I carried two F6 cameras and not the Leica. Okay I lied, there are TWO things about the F6. They are SO heavy in comparison to the Leica. As you know, I’m not in great health at the moment, and this difference between the two, after ONE full day of carrying was substantial enough to include back pain, even with carrying everything else on my hips.
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Then during the nightly presentations I watched a VERY good presentation from a New York based photographer who shot black and white, 35mm. I looked at the work and thought, “That is what my work USED to look like.” It was not only the weight, but also because Leica allows for a certain TYPE of image. Let’s be honest, if you are going to shoot runway fashion or a football game the Leica is going to suck, but if you are after a certain type of image there is no better camera in the world. I happen to want that exact type of image.
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I’ve also come to realize something else…for the LAST time. Most of the great work I see, and what I’ve seen from the past, is all ONE style of work completed over a long period of time. Almost all of it. My way of working, color 6×6 and 35mm black and white, isn’t really working. It never has, but it’s EASY with the 6×6 and for a lazy photographer or someone with little time, I’ve been both, it’s the crutch I felt I needed. I need to stop this and just shoot ONE thing. This WILL not apply to my Blurb shoots however. Those will remain a mixed bag, understandably. Would I love nothing more than to descend on a Blurb shoot with two Leicas, one with color and one with black and white? YES. YES. YES. And it would make my life logistically superior but it ain’t gonna happen.
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There are also a few new/old constants that have cemented themselves further into my life. I wasn’t sure that was even possible but it is. The journal is a DAILY must. This damn thing is maybe the most important thing I do. After all these years I’m still a bit afraid of how powerful this book is. Not the content, but what it sparks in me, how it opens doors, works as a companion and allows for truly flushing things out. The written word has always been a serious thing for me, something I give tremendous respect to, and this book is the anchor of it all. I also have to throw in audio here. I’ve dabbled in the past, but I now realize just how much I love the power of sound. On the contrary, after doing more video, I have LESS interest in video than ever before. But audio, oh my lovely audio, we are headed toward a serious courtship.
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Finally, I’ve realized a few other things. I want to continue to explore art. Sketching, painting,etc. Just for fun. And fully understanding, learning Spanish is a must. There is NO WAY around it any longer. Where I live, and where I want to work, Spanish is the only way. I’m tired of not being able to really speak with people, in depth, with meaning, and until I can do this I can’t really make great work in these places.

To recap my current systems check….

Leica(s)
Dan Bag(s)
Film
Audio
Art
Spanish
Focus
Peace
Patience