Failure as Friend

I’ve made a lot of mistakes in my photographic life.

I destroyed my first ever roll of film by rolling it on itself on the reel. When the lights came on and I pulled the roll from the water I was left with pink emulsion all over my fingers. There was the master print I was so sure was masterful I had to verify it’s brilliance by turning on the light with the print still in the developer. For those of you unfamiliar with the wet darkroom process just know that doing this will dramatically impact the quality of your print and not in a good way. And my mistakes in photography are not limited to the darkroom, oh no. There was the time I was assisting and dropped another photographer’s brand new Mamiya 7 on the ground. There was the time I was assisting and stepped on a huge rock ledge near South Mountain in Phoenix only to have the entire ledge break off. I slid downhill at warp speed until my slide was abruptly stopped by a four foot tall cactus with three inch black spines which all found a nice home buried deep in my shin. There was the subsequent trip to the emergency room.

There was the time I was standing too close to a crime scene and was warned by the officer in charge DO NOT under ANY circumstance cross under the police tape. Someone pulled on the tape and it snapped back, hit me in the middle of the face then flopped behind my head making it APPEAR as if I had crossed the police tape. It appeared to the officer in charge that I had purposely done exactly what he warned me NEVER to do. Imagine a large man three inches from my face with spit flying dressing me down in front of bystanders, other photographers and grieving family members. There was the time I was sent to photograph Al Gore, arrived late, and ended up in the dark, alone, behind two secret service men who had no idea I was there. In short, wrong place, wrong time. I coughed and was promptly placed in a choke hold of sorts(the gear around my neck saved me) then flung to the ground in front of an amused crowd of onlookers. There was the fight I got into while on assignment at a Rage Against the Machine concert.

I’ve opened the back of the camera without rewinding the film. I’ve shot half an assignment with no film in the camera. I’ve forgotten to change my ISO, shooting film AND digital files in daylight at 6400 ISO. Recently digging through negatives from 1988 it also appears I went out shooting while wearing a tank top, 1980’s style shorts and white high tops and allowed someone to photograph me doing so. I was called “unhireable” by another photographer. I must have applied for thirty internships and was denied all but one. I lost a fellowship to the Middle East. I was hired then fired from a photography job not even knowing I had been hired in the first place. I’ve been passed over, overlooked, denied, stopped, rejected and humiliated on a regular basis for over twenty years.

In short, I’ve done some truly idiotic things and seen my share of failures, and this doesn’t even take into account the thousands of terrible images I’ve made.

But this is the way things are. This is the way things need to be. This is reality. I believe if you are living the life of a photographer you will fail far, far more than you will succeed. But again, I think this is normal, or in other words the way it should be. For some reason I think today we have a real aversion to failure, as if it can’t be accepted or be a natural part of the creative experience. I think we have this strange desire for perfection in photography, which I don’t think is a reality, nor do I find “perfect” photographic things very interesting. Why is this? Why do we feel like reality isn’t enough and that perfection is the game we want to play? Why is failure so frowned upon?

Recently, I was scanning old family photos for a presentation and I came across this top image which completely and utterly blew me away. First, it’s gorgeous, and what makes it more incredible is that I THINK my father, the world’s WORST photographer made this image of my mother and brother in rural Indiana where I was born. I immediately emailed my family and asked, “Who took this?” “Did mom have a boyfriend with photographic skill?” The light, the moment, the expressions are real. I love the color, the falloff, etc.

And then I printed it………

And I forgot to take the printer off of “monochrome,” so the first print was black and white. Then I used the wrong profile and lost all my shadow detail. Then I finally got the color right and used a paper I can’t stand. Ultimately I never made a good print but something strange happened. The entire time I was printing I was holding the small snapshot in my hand, studying it’s every crack, crease and imperfection. I grew to love the little print and realized I didn’t need to make a large print. My failure brought me closer to what I should have seen and perhaps known all along. Then I tore up the print and realized I liked all the pieces. So I tore up another print, which I’ve also included here.

In the process of tearing up the second print I noticed a second copy which was utterly screwed up. The contrast was wrong, the negative was dirty, half of the image is tack sharp and the other half is completely soft because the enlarger I was using was an epic piece of shit. Again, something strange happened. I was suddenly daydreaming about the print. Everything came back to me as clear as if I was standing in the darkroom. I could see and read the negative. I could remember what I did to make the print. I could remember my sketch of the image for my print book “cheat sheet” I created. I relived the entire experience of making the image to processing the film and ultimately making my putrid print. I felt like this was like reading an important chapter in the history book of my photographic life. It would be easy to say, “I’ll learn from this and won’t make that mistake again,” but that would be a lie. I’ll do it again, and probably again because I’m a photographer and I’m human.

I think the Marines have a saying that goes something like “Love the suck.” I think this is a good expression and one that applies to life in general. Failure to a Marine means something entirely different but the IDEA is the same.

Don’t fear photographic failure, embrace it. Heck, enjoy it. My personal belief is that if you aren’t failing on a regular basis you are far to set in your comfort zone and are holding yourself back. Sometimes it’s fun to walk into the unknown and the results can be truly life-changing.

That Moment

I remember my moment. About to get married. Suddenly, I can’t remember anything. It just went right by. And then I was married. I look back on the images and have to relive what happened by running my hands over the paper and trying to put two and two together.

This image is a friend of mine, who I think is having his moment. Getting ready. Blinding light. A hour before the ceremony. A new life outside that window. He just has to get ready for it.

Did you have a wedding “moment?”

I left with 3 and came home with 5

So I recently did a wedding in Hawaii. Turns out, the wedding was great, the weather held up and everything went as planned. After it was over, we decided to spend a few days snooping around the island and visiting friends.

Hawaii is a very unique place in my experience, so any time I get a chance to explore or spend time I do. Staying with a friend we hadn’t seen in some time, it was great to wake up and feel the damp air, see the fruit trees growing outside the window and hear the falling of dense rain. The friend we were staying with is a photographer, big surprise, a really good photographer, and someone who has transitioned away from film, into digital, and now into motion. He is a wicked smart guy and has been at it for a long while. Stay tuned, an interview with him is on the way to this blog.
Anyway, my wife mentioned that I was going to drive to the lab the morning we returned to LA and our friend said, “No way, you are still shooting film, that is great.”

About an hour later, in the middle of a conversation, our friend says, “Oh hey, I’ve got something for you,” and out comes what you see in this photograph. Two Voigtlander cameras, two lenses, two finders and a custom underwater housing. Now it takes a lot to get me really excited. This got me really excited.

I don’t know the first thing about shooting underwater, but I love being underwater, so I’ll learn what I can. But what I’m excited about is the idea that these new cameras will allow me photographs I can’t make with my existing gear. I don’t have a 12mm. Let alone a rectilinear 12mm. I can mount this thing all over the place, including my bicycle. I’ve been dreaming of having something like this.

So as I packed up to fly home, my trusty Tenba bag, the Ultralight, was no longer as light as it was when I left. Inside were five cameras instead of three, and for this I am truly grateful to my friend.

I’ll try to use these things and make something worthy.

Story Behind the Photos: Bush Sr. Blows the High Five

Digging through my archive is a lot of fun, and also reminds me of many experiences I’ve had over the past twenty years. Perhaps I’m feeling my own mortality? Nah. Just kidding.

Years ago, when I first decided photography was my deal, I ran into a friend of my dad’s. This guy was was from the Midwest, but felt more like Texas. Heavy accent. Heavy laugh. Former FBI agent. A GREAT guy. He always called me by my first AND middle name because we both shared same first AND middle names.

“Daniel XXXX,” he said. “I went to school with a guy who I think is a pretty big deal over at Time magazine.” “This buddy of mine lives in Washington, and I think he’s a top dog.” “I’m gonna call him for you.”

A few weeks later I was on a plane headed for Washington. Leica and Nikon FM2 in my carry on bag. The unknown waiting for me.

My dad’s friend was correct. His buddy was a big deal, had been for a long time, and more importantly, was one of the nicest people I have ever met in my photography career. It was instant access.

We hit the ground running.

“Drop your bags, we are on our way to The White House,” he said.

“You mean the place where the president lives?”
I said unsure if he was trying to freak me out. He wasn’t.

Over the following days we lived the lives of Washington DC photojournalists, during a time when this was a freakin great thing. I met tons of other photographers, all people I was in awe of, walking the streets in their tan jackets, Leicas around the neck, cigs dangling from lips.

We ambushed Ross Perot on the street, right after he announced his running for President. And NOBODY had these images! I banged and jostled with camera people and other snappers as we all pounced on the diminutive Perot(I also found this shot in my archive).

I felt like I’d landed in a movie about photojournalism and I was the unknown star.(Start crying now.)

We hit event after event, made the rounds into political offices, etc. I shook hand after hand, took copious notes and tried not to screw anything up. I think I even wore a shirt with a collar.

“I’ve got to go shoot the Navel Academy Graduation ceremony,” my new friend said. “And I got you a credential to stand on the bleachers in the back.”

Awesome. And then I realized my longest lens was around the 50mm length. “Don’t sweat it, I’ve got something for you,” my friend said as he produced a HUGE lens, Canon but with a NIKON mount.

Up early, stuck in traffic, battling for position and bingo things were set. He worked the entire area while I acted the part of sniper, using the long lens to pick off little moments here and there. I kept the wide angle around my neck, knowing the hat toss was coming.

Jets seared the sky.

Bush Sr. was doing the meet and greet handshake with each and every person graduating and I happened to snap the ONE TIME someone tried to high five him. As you can see, it didn’t work out.

And suddenly the hats were up.

We kept working the scene as the event ended. I was able to leave the bleachers and move around, long lens tucked under my arm, wide angle in my hand. I graduated from college but it was nothing like this.

For me, this time in Washington was decisive. This time was representative of a period I enjoyed, a time when the industry was still cloaked in a lifestyle I admired and strived to live.

I knew this was what I wanted to do with my life.

The industry has changed. My friend is still there. And photography is still what I want to do with my life.

This trip also inspired me to give back to younger photographers starting out. I can’t offer them Washington, but I can offer them my own version of it, and for this reason I try to teach three or four times a year. Being with my friend, for a four or five day intensive period was like getting on the photo-expressway and merging right into the fast lane, foot crushed to the floor. I learned so much, so fast it was remarkable, and came away with many images I still enjoy today.