I Like Old

68,484

(The number of views for Sebastiao Salgado’s TED Talk.) I’m just going to say this, Salgado is the best documentary photographer alive. You could argue actual composition and style, and there are others that are good, but when you boil down longevity, impact, scale and influence there is nobody even in the same range. Now, I’m lumping guys like Edward Burtynsky in another category of work, but that is my own personal preference. And I don’t put Salgado in the “conflict photographer” group either. Perhaps I should define Salgado as a “classic documentary photographer,” but that would be confining because he transcends the traditional outlets and the art world, but ultimately that is not what this post is about.

Can you guess what these numbers correspond to?

305,482
363,366
402,343
652,118

Yep, you guessed it. Camera reviews.

As you can see, these numbers are not even close, and oddly enough the geeks watching these reviews are planning (mostly talking) to hypothetically (Because most don’t actually make photographs.) do the kind of work that Salgado is doing only at an absurdly inferior level. Personally I think this is why people laugh at photography and our “geek” legacy. I also find this wildly depressing, and I think it’s been getting worse over the past decade. I think if the rest of the creative world actually cared they would feel sorry for us. Yes, I said “us” because I was spawned from the photography world. Multiple times per week someone asks me about gear, either what camera to buy or what I think of some new model. I have my standard, canned answers because frankly I detest talking about this stuff. “Whatever is small and whatever you are willing to carry,” is my number one response because I actually think this response is helpful and I truly believe it. When it comes to new cameras I have another canned autoreply, “I don’t know.” I should probably add, “I don’t care,” but that might sound a tad smug, so I’m currently holding back on that little caveat. Even if I wanted to keep up with the new models I’m pretty sure I would not be able to unless I quit my job, rid my life of all things meaningful and holed myself up with a case of Jolt Cola and some cheap hooch. But more importantly, WHY would I even want to do this? The absolute truth is your camera has so little to do with your images it’s almost irrelevant, but don’t tell that blasphemic tale to the masses sitting through unboxing videos. (There should be a minimal jail sentence for anyone caught hatching one of these devilish creations.) Heck, I did a test on my own YouTube page years ago with a “What’s in my Bag?” post and a “New Camera at Smogranch” blast. The “What’s in my Bag” video has almost 5000 views, which for me is massive because my mode of promoting my YouTube page is neglecting to tell people I actually HAVE a YouTube page. And to say the video is low quality is an understatement of supreme proportion.
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But something else dawned on me. I like old stuff. I like stuff that has been in my hands long enough to feel like it is actually mine. I like stuff I have a connection with. I’ve got a friend who buys almost every new point-and-shoot digital camera that comes out. No joke. All brands. Then he calls me and says “Okay, I’m serious this time, THIS IS THE ONE.” Then, two weeks later it’s on Ebay, and I get the follow up call. “Oh man, that piece of crap would’t focus and the skin tone was horrible.” I let him finish talking then I hang up on him. As you can see, I’m in need of new soles. I could buy new shoes, but I don’t need new shoes. I need new soles. These shoes finally feel like they are mine, and if anyone reading this knows me you know I wear these almost everyday. This will be my third set of soles for these particular babies. When I look down I know what I’m going to see, and more importantly I know what I’m going to feel.

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The same can be said for my camera. It’s the same boring model I’ve been using for twelve years. It’s not the only camera I have, but the rest, with the exception of one, have been with me for about the same amount of time and some much, much longer. (I did buy a new system in the last two years, but it was only new to me, and had already been discontinued roughly a decade prior to me acquiring it.) There is no guesswork. There is no awkward moment. There is no learning curve. In fact, the only thought I give toward them is choosing a format. That’s all I need. The burden of choice is lifted and I just going into the field to look and see.
As many of you know, I’ve taught a few classes here and there over the years, both here at home and along some distant shores. Many modern students are defeated by the newness of their equipment before they ever set foot on photographic ground. I look over to see them staring at new everything, their conversation filled with menus, buttons and custom functions, not to mention the software woes on the backend. It just doesn’t work, nor will it ever. Now, if you love the gear more than the actual photographs, yes it will work, and there is no shortage of all things new. I say this not being contrite, but I’m entirely sure that many of those watching these camera reviews have no actual interest in making photographs. This is a reality of the photography world.

My advice to you is two fold. First, get a camera, commit to it and put all the rest away in a locked compartment. Then give the key to a trusted companion under the promise that when you come to them in a sweaty frenzy claiming you REALLY need those other cameras because your Zupperflex 5000 is only good at street photography and your Zupperflex 5001 is the ONLY thing that will work for your softcore “poolside” glamour “work” your friend will, as promised, kick you in the teeth as hard as they possibly can. Second, use your chosen camera until it wears out. NOT until a new model is released, or a new software version flies down from the ether. USE THIS ONE CAMERA UNTIL IT WEARS OUT.

I know a few non photographers who have done this. People who love to shoot for the love of shooting who never went down the equipment rabbit hole. They ask me to look at the mirror in their battered FM2 or their 5D Mark II shutter with 500,000 exposure, the camera in one hand and the shutter in the other. These people know, the have seen the light and know the light comes from what it in front of you, not what is in your hand. Find something and grow old with it.

And people this is the FUN part, and I guarantee your imagery will IMPROVE. Less distracted photographer equals better photographer every damn time. And what’s so great about this is WHEN you imagery improves it illuminates the reality that the rest of the nonsense really doesn’t matter. Slowly your gear will become just a distraction because you will be consumed by your imagery, by the light at 3:43 PM, by a location or by something you haven’t quite put your finger on yet. Your gear will become a reflex used to scratch a creative itch and the thought of taking time to watch a YouTube clip about something new will finally strike you as absurd. It’s a learning process that has nothing to do with technology or screen time. It is about an ongoing conversation with good friends.

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What it Takes

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This post just hit me out of the blue, but I think it is a very important read if you are new to photography or thinking you might want to make the jump to actually being a photographer. But before I get into this post I need to clarify something. When I say, “be a photographer,” I mean a REAL photographer. I recently read a wonderful description of the modern photography world and I realize I can’t describe it any better. I read the photography world described as two worlds, the one on Earth and the one in Cyberspace, and the two worlds DO NOT KNOW EACH OTHER. I think this is one hundred and ten percent true. This is how you can have someone with literally a million followers on social media yet the person remains entirely unknown in the “real” professional photography world. I know this comment and description will rub some people the wrong way but I can’t stress to you how real this situation is. The definition of “real” can be debated, but those in the industry, those working photographers, agencies, editors, reps, consultants and art buyers all know who is real and who isn’t. However, this is NOT to say that those in the cyberspace world aren’t working. Some are, but as we all know the playing field, industry and future of this business is VERY much up in the air. All I will say is people get jobs for different reasons. And yes, this last sentence should be read into….in GREAT depth.

Nevada California Border 2009, Stormbelt Robert Leslie

About a year and a half ago, perhaps a bit longer, through my Blurb duties, I met and was able to work with a photographer named Robert Leslie. Robert is a maniac in all the right ways. He is driven, really driven, and is also well connected through his years of work, travel and personality. Prior to meeting, Robert had found himself in Miami with a gig booked in California roughly four weeks later. In a subtle twist of fate he decided to drive to California, choosing to head across the southern part of the United States, an area that until this trip had escaped his prying eyes. Born in the UK, raised in Canada but based in London, Robert like many folks from other parts, had spent most of his US time in the larger, coastal cities. In short, his drive exposed him to an entirely different United States, one far from the headlines, glamour and style of the big cities.

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Robert made an edit from this first trip, and doing what photographers do, he made a small book. The book made the rounds, took on a life of its own and a tiny ember went from spark to flame.

Suddenly a merger was formed. Robert, myself and the Blurb super-crew decided to create something. A plan was hatched, a second trip devised and thus it began. “Stormbelt” was born.

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Robert made a second trip across the US, retracing his original route. His first trip had coincided with Obama’s inauguration and the second trip was roughly three years later and served as a bell weather or sorts. Robert made more images, recorded audio, created an original soundtrack and also shot video. He expanded on what he had done in the past because he knew that three years down the road he had a bevy of other tools at his disposal. Books, magazines, PDF’s, rich-media, etc. In addition to this he also connected with a few others who he thought might be able to shed some light on the story, asking them for essays which would help lend their perspective to this important look at America. He didn’t just ask anyone. He asked Edward Burtynsky and Cameron Sinclair.

For those of you still with me, you will begin to see what I’m talking about when I say “real photographer.” And people this doesn’t mean you have to like Robert’s work. That is personal, subjective. There are plenty of heavyweights who make images that don’t interest me. That’s okay. I happen to like what Robert does, for a variety of reasons, which I’m not going to list here. Think about this. A significant body of work already completed (1st trip). A multi-pronged attack plan combined with a merger/partnership with Blurb. A second trip across the United States. Essays from two heavyweights. Oh, and I forgot to mention the editing of work. The edit for the final book was done by Chris Boot of Aperture Foundation. And let me say this. If you are new to photography then you might not think twice about this last sentence, but let me save you from yourself. Chris Boot is a real editor, in addition to being a publisher. When I saw the edit he did with Robert’s work I was alone in my office fielding a barrage of emails from Robert. “Have you seen the edit that Chris did?” Robert asked. “No,” I said. A few moments later it arrived and I almost cried. It was both that good and also a reminder that I would not have been able to do what he did. THAT is what good editing does. It allows the work to become MORE than it actually is. Consequently, the book becomes more than it actually is, which is what good books do. Good books become living, breathing things that haunt our subconscious.

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Fast forward. The work is done. (And it wasn’t shot in a weekend and hyped as a “long-term” project.) The essays were done. The edit was done. The book was done. Now what? Robert did not relentlessly barrage the random world with his project. There was another plan. It was decided that we would launch the project at the Contact Festival in Toronto in May, which we did. With this came the media from Robert, from Blurb and from the kind folks at the festival. There was an exhibition with prints as well as a variety of multimedia from the project. And this was just the beginning.
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In 1992, after I graduated with a degree in photojournalism, my life consisted mostly of making pictures. I had few options in terms of marketing and promotion. I could do print mailers, but this was prior to email, texting, websites, social media, etc. In some ways it was a far kinder and more civil world, but that is another story. Robert did have these modern options, as well as the options of knowing people in the right places based on his years in the field. I hear so much hype about hype about hype that it drives me crazy. Again, within the REAL photography world there live the real players. These are people and entities like The New York Times, Occupy, Le Journal de la Photographie, , etc. If you follow these links you will see that Robert is featured in all of them. During this time, Robert was also doing interviews with the British Journal of Photography, and Polka in France and the French journalist asked if there was information on Stormbelt available in French. Robert replied, “I can do a French translation!” So he did, then Spanish, Italian & German in both ebook & print book, all before Christmas.

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Folks, this isn’t easy. This takes a level of pursuit and commitment that many people are just not willing to endure. You got 5000 “likes” on Facebook. Really? I don’t care. Sorry. I know that means something to someone, but in many cases, not really. What doesn’t get 5000 “likes” on Facebook? Inside the “real” photography world a significant number of people are vying for these same high-end outlets. So how did Robert do it? THAT my friends and Smogranch family is the question you should be asking yourself. Again, it ain’t easy, and the fact he did get placement in these outlets means that that ball began rolling YEARS ago as Robert was building the foundation of his business and frankly building the foundation of the ENTITY that is Robert Leslie. Yes, I said “entity.” That is a reality folks. You aren’t just your images, you are this other “thing.” This “thing” is really important and is what, in many cases, actually gets the right attention from the right people who work at the right place. You hear me?

Now, this is a real treat and a real inside look at how the world CAN work. I sent this post to Robert, before I hit “go” and said, “This is what I’ve got.” He wrote back with the following “conversation.” I being a blogger asked “Can I use that?” He said “Sure, go for it.” This is how ONE of these little connections came to be.

– ROBERT SPEAKING I was thinking there’s a great quote from James Estrin (NYTimes)….. when I saw him in Perpignan in September (I pitched him…yes…. in an elevator while I was there…)…. I was talking to him about 1000portraits, & he said, “No… there’s another project of yours yes..?” I said, Yes, Stormbelt.
The next morning we met for 5 minutes (….there was a line of 5-10 hopefuls with their portfolios….at his hotel…during his breakfast…..). He glanced at a couple of the shots & says, “you know, I remember this, we passed it around the office when you submitted it (in May at the time of the Contact exhibition) & we really liked it. I don’t recall the concept or story, but the images really stayed in my mind”.
I turned to him & asked, “Jim, isn’t that the important part ?”
He laughed & agreed.

These subsequent images are a smattering of the other outlets where Robert’s piece found a home.

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Now, I’m also including an audio interview Robert did with the World Photography Organization. This interview is part of the “premium” part of their site, which you can’t normally see unless you are a premium member. However, they agreed to allow me to use this film for this post. If you don’t know these folks, or know what is on that site then you should take a look. Their features are solid, informative and hit a range of people well beyond the standard photography site or organization.Sue Steward, WPO’s critic in residence, selected Stormbelt as the best Ebook of the year in her annual review of best photography books of 2012.

To see a slideshow and listen to Robert describe the project please use the following link.

Robert Leslie 3 – Small

I need to get back to my scolding self before I end this little piece. You want to be a photographer? Okay, great. Step one, learn how to make great photographs. Wait, don’t pick up your phone to text that out. Don’t sign on to Facebook to add that to your status update. Don’t tweet it either. In fact, do me a favor. Turn off your phone, your computer and pick up your camera. Go into the world and find something you FEEL something about. And I mean the REAL world not Cyberspace, the Discovery Channel or some other alternative universe. I mean outside the front door of the structure you are in right now. Go out and go feel. When you have found something spend the next few years really getting to know it. Study it with your camera and your feelings. BUILD something. After a while show it around and see if your feeling is felt by those looking at your images. If so, you are on the right track. And let me say one more thing. This isn’t something that happens quickly. It takes what we are all so horrified by today. It takes time. In some cases it takes years. In other cases it takes a master plan, two trips across the United States, essays and exhibitions.

I’m sorry but I’m putting the screws to photographers for a reason. We demand more. Being a photographer is about a lot more than the latest widget, the things that seem to dominate much of the modern industry. We are the storytellers, the holders and revealers of the truth and it’s about time something is said about the modern state of affairs. You don’t just say “I’m now going to be a photographer.” It’s about far more than that.

Let me end with this. Being a photographer is doable and something well worth pursuing. The odds of being a legendary photographer are not good. The odds of being great are not good. But the odds of making a difference in some strange way are very real. That’s enough. If you work with feeling your work can land in the place it belongs. It adds to what has been done and influences what is being dreamed up. Again, that’s enough. So this message goes out to the brave ones. Don’t be afraid, make the first step. Good things will follow.