If You’re Gonna Be a Bear, Be a Grizzly

I don’t remember where I first heard this expression but I’ve known it for years and think it can be a good philosophy.

As you know, I’ve been shooting portraits for several years now. When people ask how long I’ve been shooting kids I always reply, “Hmm, two or three years.”

But I realize now that isn’t accurate. I’ve been shooting kids for five or six years, almost double what it feels like in my mind. I’m not sure what happened, where the time went, but it surely went and I can’t get it back not even with Richard Branson’s money.

When I make portraits I’m not thinking about electronics. I don’t think about blogs, sites, web galleries, iPad, laptops or slideshows. Nope, not at all. When I make portraits I think of two things, books and prints. And I’ll go one step further. When I think about prints, I don’t think about wallet size. I think about large prints for the wall.

That is my goal, to get something good enough to not only make the wall, but LAST over a period of time, preferable years. After all, I’m there, not only as a photographer, but really as an on loan anthropologist/historian. We live in the age of parents documenting with the cell phone, and if you know anything about history, archiving, databases, etc, you know that next to NOTHING of this documentation will exist in the future. This is where Uncle Dan comes in.

So what you are looking at is my goal played out on the walls of a California home. There it is, as wide as a 35mm lens at about 15 feet away. An entire wall of the family history played out in large prints. THIS is what I’m talking about. THIS is what my dream is, my goal, my idea of how people should use me. And yes, I said “use.” That is the idea.

And to continue the “use” theme, I thought I’d use myself for some scale. I’m about six feet tall, so this wall is..well, larger than me.

The images are from the first shoot we ever did, all the way through our most recent shoot. Editing was tricky but fun, and could have gone in a variety of directions. I ultimately went with a combo of color, black and white, timelines, numbers of each person, etc. My first two prints were 11×14 and 17×22, but we realized quickly the wall was too big.

So, I went back to the Milnor Pictures Underground Command Center Complex, in the Mojave near Barstow, and churned out a new set of images, this time in the 24×36 to 22×22 range. Then, the small prints became the 17×22 size, which I initially thought would be the big prints. Are you with me on this? Okay good, let’s proceed.

So suddenly the wall began to take shape. A trim here, a reprint there. Oh, and before all this began, let’s give credit where credit is due…the wall. The idea of doing the wall. The preparation of the wall, etc. Mom gets the credit. Mom prepped the wall. Mom came up with the idea. The wall of prints was probably the both of us, but it takes two to tango. So, it was the perfect match. And you will notice there are no frames. Yes, we noticed that too. Planned it that way actually. Lo-fi. It’s the new cool. You should get on this bandwagon. Oh..wait…it passed….it isn’t cool anymore. Sorry. Wait, it’s coming back…okay, it’s cool again. Go, go, go, go!

I wish more people would do this. And just so you know, independent verification of the brilliance of this wall was provided by the pizza delivery guy. Based on the story I was told, let’s just say he liked it.

I really mean it. This is my goal with all of my portrait shoots. Over a five year period we’re looking at about fifteen prints. At some point before I die, IF and that is a big IF I stay in California I’ll build a new office. The entire damn space will be covered with prints, and ALL MINE. Forget everyone else, I’m building a shrine to me and only me. Large prints, really large prints and obscenely large obnoxious prints. And maybe I’ll charge admission to get in, or make you sign a nondisclosure statement.

Over the past few weeks I’ve realized I need to change some things if I’m going to continue to work with kids. I feel I’ve been pulled in a direction I’m no longer happy with. So, I’ve begun to make a plan, and this plan involves prints like these, and really nothing else. It’s all or nothing, or in other words, choosing to be a grizzly. The other bears are cool, and my five-year-old nephew is running around my office at this very moment with is new black bear stuffed animal which he oddly named “Brian,” and sure, it’s a cool stuffed animal. BUT IT AIN’T A GRIZZLY.

I’m hoping to utilize this wall, these photos, to show the rest of my families the power of the print.

Story Behind the Photos: Kman Does Texas BMX


The infamous Kman, not happy at having to stand still for this picture.

I did what I thought I was supposed to do. Yes, after all these years, I still do this.

My nephew, the infamous Kman, races BMX. In fact, he is a total badass with a room full of trophies to show off his 65-pound prowess.

So I go to visit the family and find out I’ve landed on race night.

I have options.

I think to myself, “This is racing action, I’ve got to get that peak moment, I need a motor drive, long lens, etc,” so I grab the digital body and long lens and toss it in the truck.

And then, more out of reflex than anything else, I toss in the Blad.

The track is easy. A small place, and being Texas people are relaxed.

“Hey, my nephew is racing, can I stand in the middle of the track?”

“Sure, go ahead.”

And with a smoking gun the races begin.

I’m hammering away, motor drive humming, mirror clanging up and down. But I’m distracted. Not by something around me, but by something inside me.

“What am I going to do with these images?”
I begin to ask.

“Do I really want to sit down and edit through all these motor sequences.”

“Ugh.”

“Why am I doing this?”

“Do I really want to archive these, label these, tag these, etc,etc?”

“Ugh.”

Don’t laugh, this is how my troubled mind works.

I began scrolling through the images on the camera, something I HATE doing. I know hate is a strong word, but it fits here. I DETEST looking at images right after. I think it completely KILLS the idea of being a photographer, BUT I CAN’T STOP MYSELF.

I’m like a total crack monkey with the preview window. I can’t stop. If I turn it off, I just turn it right back on. Hopeless.

I suddenly realized, with slight sadness, I had no interest in even looking at the images I was making. The images didnt’ feel like they were mine.

There were a dozen parents in the same area, all with similar gear, banging away. They probably had the exact same stuff, only of their mini-warriors. And I think there was even the dude that shoots every kid and uploads every single image online so that the one parent without their camera can buy a print.

“Well, I know my brother will like these, or my mom,” I said to myself, making excuses for the images, while I took a quick peak at the refreshment stand wondering what delicious treats they had hidden behind the counter.

I packed up the gear and headed for the car.

Right before burning dust in the parking lot I saw the Blad.

I loaded the relic and grabbed my dreaded tripod. Yes, my tripod, and headed out into the world I had just retreated from.

At least 10% of my mind was still thinking of the refreshment stand. I have to be honest.

Suddenly there were whispers around me.

“Honey, look at that guy with the old camera.” “What is he doing?” “Is he allowed in there?”

“Hey, dude, what the f%$# is that thing.” “Holy S%@#, haven’t seen one of those in a while.”

And suddenly I was in my own world. I could see again. I grunted and shuffled around the pit area like a deranged ape.

Things were clear. I dissected with my eyes, and then framed the pieces. A story began to build.

The kids in the pits were like ants invading an empire, merging in lines and shadow, with harsh artificial light painting their movements with razor sharp shadow. The sky was glowing.

Insects pierced the night. Colors were bright. The wind picked up. Darkness and light. Passion.

I don’t remember much of what was around me. I was “involved” let’s say. I was involved in a 6×6 space that started in my medulla oblongata and ended at the tip of an 80mm.

Clunk.

Minutes later.

Clunk.

This was MY work. My mind. My vision. My moment. This was the work I need to be doing ALL THE TIME. All supplied by following the Kman.

I thought about history. I thought about family. I thought about the light. I thought about what these pictures would mean. I thought about who would have them in 100 years. I thought about Kman and what must be going through his mind.

I was away in that place that photographers go when they are working.

And then. Clunk. It was over.

Friends in Front of Me

I don’t often post my “work” images, but perhaps I should. I’ve gone over this before, but I’m always careful not to make this avenue of communication into a full-on sales assault on your senses. I do a lot of portraits, but rarely do they make it up on the ranch.
But, every so often, I shoot something that I think has a specific meaning that might be interesting to contemplate. These pictures are from a recent family portrait, which in itself isn’t anything novel, but the folks in these pictures happen to be long-time friends. I’ve known Paul since the early 90’s, and his family as long as they have been a family. You can search the Earth for a better dude, but you won’t find one. Well, maybe Hugh Hefner, or some other guy that gets to spend his entire day in his pj’s, but other than that you won’t find anyone better. When Paul called me and asked me to do this shoot I of course said, “Sure,” but I have to say, a shoot like this comes with a different feeling. First, they are friends, and you want to rack your brain to make something special for them. Not that this doesn’t happen with people I don’t know, it does, but with friends there is on one hand LESS pressure, because they are friends, but on the other hand there is MORE pressure because they are friends. Add to this the fact that Paul is a photographer. A really good one. And I know as a photographer what it feels like to make something good, and I know what it feels like to fall short. So making pictures of a fellow photographers ramps up the internal demand even higher. Now this is one of the great things about being a photographer. A shoot like this is like working out because your heart races, your mind races and the list of “what if’s” goes on and on. Shoots like this are over before you know it, and cause me to suddenly wake, as if in a dream, as I’m packing my gear, thinking to myself, “Wow, what just happened?”

I think this first image is perhaps my favorite. For some reason it feels natural. At first I thought the spacing was wide, but the more I look at this picture the more I like it. I don’t think I could have posed them any better. I’m not sure what was happening at this exact moment, but I remember the light going in and out and in and out and me trying to figure out what to do, in what light, in what direction, etc. I had never been to this location before, and frankly it was complete and total overload in the best possible way. MOST of the time I’m working with locations that are nothing like this, locations where I’m struggling to find a place to shoot. This was the exact opposite, there were too many places to shoot, and having this happen really does create it’s own issues. Ahh, if only we always had to deal with issues like this……

This image might be a little odd, or dark, or whatever, but I like it, and knew I would like it when I saw the cross. This sky is RARE in these parts, so knew that I had to someone use the darn thing. Family portraiture comes with history, tradition and baggage, and I know their faces are out of focus. Just deal with it. I promise it will all work out. I know what they look like, so I don’t need to see them! If I had my way, I’d print this for the sky and let them go completely black, but hey, that’s me. I’m having flashbacks of a young photographer telling me I was “unprofessional.” A great compliment in my book.

Father and son. You gotta have it. I have it. I remember pictures of me in a duck blind in South Texas, golden mullet flaring from my trucker hat as I waded from the blind to retrieve our downed birds. Dad was there, his disc camera whirling, his fat fingers fumbling with the odd buttons as he cursed under this breath, “Damn this damn photography thing.”He knew he wanted to cement the moment, but the technical task was not his strong point. This image to me is simply about foreshadowing. This image is about me and Paul playing with this little man for years into the future. I see the first football game. I see hanging around the high school trying to score chicks. Okay, just kidding about that part, but I do see it as the future, as the beginning of a lifetime of images.

Imagine trying to photograph a spider monkey just released into the wild. Imagine trying to photograph a spider monkey just released into the wild with a camera that you have to look down into. Imagine getting dizzy, blacking out and falling over. That’s what it was like trying to pin down this little firecracker.
I figure when I’m 108, she might be at an age when she’s slowed down enough for me to photograph, but in the interim, I just get what I can. This hot light shot was something Paul mentioned when we got there. I thought it would be easy. I’m a slow learner.

This shot is simple but I like it. You might be thinking that my focus was the hair or the eyes, but actually that’s not the case. For some reason I think kids teeth are really funny. I think seeing teeth in kids is proof we are born to be carnivores, and I can’t see a kids teeth without laughing. Also, this was a great chance for dad to pin her down for .2847584566349934 of a second. Don’t worry, she was only upside down for less than an hour.

And finally, I had to put this in. That sky. It’s rare folks. And this location, it’s rare as well. I’ve been thinking about this place a lot, and thinking about how great it was. I could go back with Paul and the family, over and over and over and never really tire of this place. In fact I think that is probably a good idea. To go back every year and just keep creating pictures as the family grows and the years pass by. I see a book about Paul’s family on the horizon, with this image on the contents page. At least 700 pages, printed on virgin, Redwood timber paper and the world’s most expensive ink. It would totally be worth it.
In all seriousness folks, I like this shoot, but it only wet my appetite for more of the same. I want more of my friends. I want more family. I want more time together. I want more time to dream and create. I want more time to record history.

I don’t think I’ll be content until we go back. But when am I ever content?

Happy Trails.

Evasive Action: The Family Portrait.

MP_bessant_109
Not a single person looking at me, I must be doing something right.

I’m not really a family portrait guy. I shoot these images, and sometimes I like what I get, but I don’t do a lot of them, and I’m okay with that.

Photographing adults is an entirely different deal than photographing kids, and typically these shots bring to the table far more tradition, baggage, etc, than do my other images.

Here in Southern California we have a lot of traditions in the family portrait industry, white shirts and jeans on the beach being the first that comes to mind.

If you travel to other places in the country they have their own white shirt and jean style images, but for me, these traditions have never fueled my fire. I find them intensely interesting in terms of their tradition, but as for me shooting them, I always look to do something else.

Kids are loose, and often times don’t have the knowledge of a “good side” or “bad side.” They are not aware of their own image, and consequently, they are in most ways very easy to photograph.

Just look at how many “photographers” with little to no training launch their professional careers with kids photography. How many launch their careers shooting adults? CEO’s? Yep, an entirely different story.

“You have five minutes and don’t screw it up.”

This might be something you hear from the CEO portrait client which is a lot different from, “Oh isn’t he cute,” in regards to the kid you photograph. And, you mess up a kid shoot, you can go back. You mess up the CEO shoot and your toast.

Somewhere in the middle is the family portrait.

Family portraits are a little like weddings in the sense that a lot of people do what they feel they HAVE to do and not necessarily what they WANT to do. Or, they don’t have an idea, and the fallback is to conform.

I think getting a group of people to all look at a camera at the same time and “act normal,” is nearly impossible.

But more importantly, it’s boring.

I much prefer the fractured moment, the broken family gathering, where things have begun to fall apart.

My brother and I have been making the same faces for our family portraits for years, ruining every single one. My dad used to go mad knowing my brother and I would be secretly exchanging covert singles as to when to apply the faces. Dinner table, formal shots, casual shots, etc, always with the face.

Posed, stagnant images are just that, posed and stagnant. They have no feel or atmosphere, and most people in these images look like they are about to pass out. Frozen smiles, and that behind the scenes look of “Mother of God, when is this torture going to be over?”
is typically what you get.

My goal with a family portrait is one frame. One image. Yep, that’s it. What more do you need?

I’m looking for that one split second where the stars align and you find an actual moment.

I think a big misconception, especially in the digital age, is that shooting a lot of frames is a good thing. It really isn’t. Not only does it show you, as a photographer, that your brain has completely shut down, but it’s a reminder that great images don’t happen frame after frame after frame. They happen once and are never seen again. If there are seen again and again it means you are either setting it up, over and over, or it really wasn’t that great a moment to begin with.

And what is worse than sitting down at a computer and looking at an entire monitor of the same image with slight variations. UGH. This is the time when I’m thinking about the fifty gallon drum of cheap whiskey I keep in the garage, and what would happen if I shotgunned the entire drum. Please. This isn’t photography, but I know it’s happening night after night, day after day, all over this great world of ours.

I’ve included a photo of what happened to me the last and final time this occurred.
me_beer

It wasn’t pretty and I had to check myself into a brain reactivation clinic in Malibu.

So, back to the portrait. I just want a moment when the family is together. That’s all.

The image at the top, I like. Not one person looking at me, which tells me I did my job.

It also looks like these people were dropped into the image on a green screen, and look as if they are all in their own world, which is precisely what happens in NORMAL family life.

I think I like these because my background is in documentary photography, not portrait photography, so waiting and waiting to get one moment is what I have been doing for years, so it was only natural it would transfer over portraits.

Hey, look, I’m speaking on experience folks. I didn’t just come to this photography game last year, or with the dslr, and I’ve had my portrait made by portrait photographers, and looking back…it wasn’t always pretty.

The last time our family portrait was done I was wearing a plaid sportcoat and my dad thought he was Burt Reynolds.

Is there anything worse than having a photographer standing in front of you saying, “Okay everybody, over here…look at me….ready….okay smile.” Your face crumpling in and out of the fake smile as the photographer chimps after each frame trying like hell to understand the hyper-complex metal and plastic beast they are wielding.

Oh God, and I’ve done this myself, as the photographer, and always feel like such a tool when I’m doing it, like a photo-mouse who will get a nicotine pellet if he runs enough on the treadmill. Calgone take me away.

I think these horrendous experiences helped hone my current skills, and also make me keenly aware of who the real photographers are.

When I was fourteen I had my portrait done, with brother and sister, and the guy spent ten minutes at our house. Bang, bang, bang, bang, bang, DONE, and a cloud of smoking tires and dust. It wasn’t because he was so great, it was because he was a machine stamping out a widget.

In short, if you are doing what everyone else is doing and don’t know why your doing it, then do everyone a favor who you are doing it to and with and stop doing it. Just do it, or don’t depending on how you translate this last sentence.

So onward I go, forging through portrait after portrait, hoping to find myself making a decent image here and there. But I know when it comes to the family portrait, I’ve got my work cut out for me.

But I’ll not go down with a whimper of conformity, oh no way my friends, I’m gonna put it on the line, waiting quietly for those split seconds when I truly am the fly on the wall and I feel like I’m watching the world from a bubble, and not like the “bubble boy” movie from the 1970’s with John Travolta.

That was a bad bubble thing, mine is good.

Fenmore 200909
Family #75657556575647464746 waiting in LA.

"Hey, do you shoot families?"



I get this question a lot, especially this time of year when the idea of the holiday card suddenly looms.

The answer is yes and no.

I do shoot families, but I’m not a “white shirts and jeans on the beach” person. Nothing wrong with that shot, and there are PLENTY of folks who go that route, clearly evidenced by the multitude of houses where I see this style of image prominently displayed.

This shot is tradition around these parts, so I get it, but as a photographer when I see that shot it just leaves me a little flat. It’s predictable. I’ve seen it, and I’ve seen it many, many times.

I think “white shirts and jeans” is sometimes the shot that people think they are supposed to do, but perhaps not what they WANT to do. But, any excuse to go to the beach is a good one, so whatever, just next time go for a zebra shirt or a mesh tank top. Or how about the entire family with those fake arrow through the head gags? Mix it up people!

These two images are from two recent family shoots, and I just heard something very interesting. I just spoke to one of the folks in these pictures who happens to have one of these images on their wall at home. Someone asked them today, after seeing the image hanging there, “was that a magazine shoot?”

Ahhhhhh. NOW we are getting somewhere. Not that a magazine shoot is the be all end all, in fact, in today’s world, most of the time, magazine shoots are less than sensational, but the IDEA is what interests me.

They also mentioned that it reminded them of pictures of the Kennedy family. Aahhhhhhhh, again, now we are getting somewhere.

As you know if you read this blog, I recently posted about Bill Eppridge and his monumentally powerful reportage of Robert Kennedy and his family, from his political race right up until the minute of his death. So when I heard this…I was pleased to say the least. THAT is what I’m going for.(No, I’m not BE, his work is unique.)

Yes, the family is there, and so am I, but I’m not really there. Know what I mean?

I want real. Plain and simple. I don’t always get it, and sometimes I don’t even try to get it, depending on what people want, but for me, it is always the ingredient that produces the best image.

And, these pictures are simple. These pictures are straight. A little dodge, a little burn, but VERY little. No need to even sharpen.

Quality of light, framing, layering, etc, that is all I’m going after, but it ain’t easy people.

You might look at these images and feel flat, which is fine, to each their own, but for me they are a success.

Not all shoots are a success, something I learned to live with a long time ago. Do documentary work a few years and you realize reality places it’s giant foot on your neck from time to time and you leave a shoot with less than nothing.

It’s okay. This is how we learn. Don’t fight it, it looks bad, and you can’t make up for it with layer masks, retouching or soul-glo filters.

Just wait and do it over again.