Repeat Offender

hangin0

I realized I had over 100 posts that were created and never posted. They cover a RANGE of topics, they are of varying age. This is one of these posts.

I was asked to write a post about switching from film to digital This request made me look back on when, how and why I made this move, and back on all the strange things that happened since then. I admit this is a strange look at the photography world, but the post is true, so that’s all the reason I need. This topic, even after all these years, seems to really get people going. What I want to make clear is I don’t care. I really don’t. I actually think what you are about to read is really funny because it was really funny at the time.

Now I use mostly film, but I love things like about digital. Digital photography is a powerful, fun tool and the “how” doesn’t interest me that much. It’s all about creating. Just go do it. Don’t ask permission. Just go. If you have something to say it will show in your work. Creating unique and recognizable content is not easy, even with the latest technology. Great work takes time, thought and focus. Digital gave a voice to hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people who otherwise might not have ever engaged with their visual side. Good luck, keep pressing.

Over a year ago I shot what was potentially my last commercial photography assignment. Photography has taken on a new direction for me, and working for other people, in essence shooting other people’s images, is no longer what I want to do. (Save the comments about “I shoot my own images,” I’ve heard it all before.)
During this last shoot, which was very enjoyable, a strange thing happened. This thing was not strange for me but it certainly was for those around me. I shot film, all black and white film to be exact.
Around me were four other photographers, all shooting digital(Two because I asked them to). I clunked around with my Leica and Hasselblad, waist level finder and all, looking at the world with my head pointed at the ground. I worked slowly and in constant reminder mode, urging myself to forget everything I knew, everything I’d learned about “being a photographer.” I tried to work free of expectation, free of the poison of industry trends, popular themes and especially free of what the masses were doing.
The clients were young, relaxed and accommodating, as were their friends. I once spent a fair amount of time studying anthropology, so for me to be able to spend time with this group, hearing their conversations, listening to their music, learning from their style was a great thing. Clunk, clunk, clunk I began to connect with the event and with the people.
Not long after beginning the shoot I was approached by a gregarious, young guy in his early 20’s who said, “Oh man, I really love your cameras.” We chatted while I worked, and then he made the realization I was not only using old cameras, but I was using film. “That is incredible,” he said. “Film is so much more interesting.” “Digital is okay because sometimes I want to see the images right away, but film looks better and is more interesting because you can’t see the images.”
Believe it or not folks, this happens to me ALL THE TIME, and this event was no different. All though the day, and into the night, people approached and offered their support of film, the “old ways” and the casual, visual nonchalance of working in digital. I would guess that I’ve head this same sentiment during every single event I photographed since that fateful day in about 2001(or2002, can’t remember exactly) when I switched back to film from my beloved digital. Yes, you read that correctly, when I SWITCHED FROM DIGITAL BACK TO FILM. I was an early adopter of digital. Yes me, the same guy who has been labeled “anti-technology, a luddite, backwards, stupid, behind the times,” and the guy once told he was “going the wrong way on the highway.” Me. Same guy.
Brace yourself, I was using digital, potentially long before you were.
Now, I had an advantage. I had just been released from serving four years with the Eastman Kodak Company. Ha, get it? Released from a four-year stint………Kidding, Kodak was a blast actually, and taught me a tremendous amount about the industry. I just knew I wanted to be a photographer again so I left.
What gave me an advantage was that Kodak had been a major part of the first high-end cameras to land in the professional market, namely the DCS 520 and 560. These were $15,000 to $30,000 dollar beauties that gave us a first look at what was possible with a decent file. So when Canon came out with the D30…I was ready to go. Plus my wife worked for Canon. Wink, wink.
Within a few short months I was standing on a golf course in Flagstaff Arizona, shooting a “destination wedding” and the groom gathered his groomsmen, looked at me and said, “Check this out, this guy is super-high-tech, and he’s not shooting ANY film.” I did manage to fire off a few 4×5 Polaroids during that event (foreshadowing?) but for the most part he was right on the money. I was booking jobs because I was fully digital.
And then, a short while later, it all changed. First of all, I grew tired of spending my life in front of the computer. Coming from the documentary world, the idea of turning over my post production and edit to someone else was so counter to how I viewed my work that it was never even a remote possibility. Turning over the post, to me, seemed like blasphemy, a sign that the photographer was either completely unattached to their work, or was shooting the exact same pictures every time. Neither described my methods. I began to feel like I wanted to hold my Leica again, something small, light and void of the electronic umbilical cord.
Other things changed as well. Digital had become more of a mainstream part our lives and clients began to view photography in a very different way. Speed and quantity became the driving force while quality of images fell down the scale. Photography went from a historical, permanent record to temporary, disposable and free. Our collective attention span began to crack and peel.
It was over for me, almost before it really began.
Now let me back up. When I originally made the “jump to light speed,” my move was NOT met with positive feedback from the industry, especially the wedding industry. Does this sound familiar? I was called “unprofessional” and was flat out told by “experts,” “digital will not work for wedding photography.” No people, I’m not making this up.
Three years down the road, oh how the world had changed. Just as I was realizing digital might not be my future, the masses had discovered it in full force. Like an army, high on technology, not only were many of these folks steaming full ahead toward all things digital, they were simultaneously trying to condemn anything related to analog photography. It was, and still is, STRANGE.
Get ready for it…wait for it….I did a panel at a tradeshow and was called, “The most unprofessional photographer I’ve ever seen” by a 20-something marketer turned photographer who said that by me working alone, and shooting the dreaded film, I was committing an act of digital treason.
THE EXACT SAME PEOPLE who told me digital would not work for weddings were now telling me, “YOU WILL GO OUT OF BUSINESS IF YOU DON’T SHOOT DIGITAL.”
This transition, for me, proved just how many insecure people packed the photo-ranks. I began to hear countless discussions, COUNTLESS, about technology, and what I began to hear less and less about was the actual imagery being created. Entire marketing campaigns sprang from the lamest of lame premises…”I could have never done this before, but now with my Zupperflex 5000 I can blend margaritas and shoot countless images without even knowing I’m doing it.” Believe it or not, after all these years, I STILL see this campaign being used. Suddenly, photography became about the TOOL. Lame.
The wedding bubble began to build, the ranks filled with those adopting the “Spray and Pray” methodology of the terminally unskilled.(Harsh, but again…true.) By the way, whoever coined “Spray and Pray,” nice work, it fits perfectly.
I went to yet another industry tradeshow and heard a speaker say, “I shot 10,000 images at a wedding, by myself,” and the crowd burst into spontaneous applause. I’m not entirely sure but I think, at that precise moment, a rainbow formed over the stage with a band of unicorns riding the wave. I knew at that VERY moment my future was not long for this industry, although I do love unicorns.
So coming back to my final shoot. I had to laugh. I kept hearing, “I love your cameras.” “I love film.” One person even went as far as to say, “The other stuff doesn’t matter, I only want to see the film.” I only wanted to see good pics, regardless of how they were made.
But my friends, this story gets even stranger. Now in 2013, all these years later, well hasn’t film just become the belle of the ball. Many of these SAME people condemning it for years suddenly realized there was a marketing angle to film, and now it’s okay. In fact, WE ALL SHOULD BE USING IT. Come again. Did I hear that correctly? Dollars will do that to people.
So recently I’m back in the desert, poolside, dreaming up all the ultra-relevant and world shaping blog posts I can do, and my wife finds herself in a conversation with someone who happens to be an event planner. A very nice person, who also does wedding planning. She throws out a list of names of good photographers, all of whom are very familiar to me. She says a name, and I mentally say, “Yep, good choice.” All of them……wait for it…..wait for it…..FILM SHOOTERS. No, I’m not making this up. And then she drops this one.
“Some of these photographers now don’t even shoot film, they are just doing digital with color washes.” The same thing that FIVE years ago was all anyone was doing. Now, it’s not enough. Anyone can do it. It has no soul. There is no style behind it. It’s all button pushing.
So there I am, the castigated one, listening as the world creaks on its axis and comes FULL CIRCLE.
Now, it’s official. Film is okay again.
There is a moral of the story here folks. The only voice that matters, the only direction that matters… is YOURS. Not mine, not the industry voice, or the marketing voice. You can copy cat your way into this business, have ZERO to say and make a perfectly good living. But is that being a photographer?
I’ll let you decide.
For me, it’s simple. Film slows me down, forces me to think and doesn’t distract me by providing the image instantly. I don’t think seeing an image right away is helpful in the learning process. I don’t believe shooting as many images as possible is a good thing. I think digital has nearly destroyed our ability to edit. Film has cut my computer time by 80%. Film doesn’t require the perpetual upgrade, software, hardware, firmware, and it provides a feeling of permanence that doesn’t’ require a cloud of unknown electronic promises.
In short, film fits my lifestyle and philosophy. I’m a better photographer using it, and ultimately that is all that matters.

Keep searching. Keep asking questions. Use whatever you want. There is no reason not to, no matter what anyone says.

Ten to One

Completely unrelated image, but for anyone taking offense to this post….have a beer. Relax.

I recently had dinner with a friend who is a “creative.” My friend makes things for people, creative things that blend several disciplines. As usual, we got to talking about work, about jobs and the industry. Probably not a good idea….He gave me the lowdown on a recent project, a complex, multi-layered piece, which is the backbone of what my friend creates. He has a long track record, a good education and much work to prove these things. The kicker…..the total fee was $2500. This got us talking even more and my friend went to his office and retrieved a similar product only THIS product was from a job he did in 2001. Same multifaceted, layered piece only better. The design was better, the materials were better, the images were better and the overall piece was just better. The kicker….the total fee was $20.000. Now you might be having convulsions after seeing that fee but people that is how it USED to be. Not always but often. Was this fee inflated? Perhaps, but what if afforded, ultimately, was better work. And what it afforded was for the creative group to be, well, creative. I find a fair number of people today who never knew this kind of arrangement, or fee for that matter. Today, we have a different story. In today’s creative world, budget is often times the number one concern, and speaking only from the photographic angle, the actual work has become far less important. Far less important typically means far less good. But, many clients are not looking for great work, they are looking for inexpensive, temporary images. I’ve heard clients refer to online images as being “mature” after two-weeks of life. So the mentality is, “Why spend money and make something great when we are going to replace it in two weeks?” Consequently, photographers, designers, etc are finding themselves having to do, literally, ten times the number of jobs for the same amount of money. This method of work typically doesn’t lend itself to making great work. And, the artist is so busy searching for the next job, or balancing several jobs at once, they don’t have the time that allows for critical thought needed for creating lasting work that matters. Because this has been the reality for a while now, what I’m finding is an entire generation of young creators who not only don’t know the possibilities of real budgets and times, they are simply thrilled to be getting work at all. Wait! For those of you thinking I’m bagging on the whipper snappers, save the hate mail. I’m only 42 and I might be the same way if I was 25. This is a very difficult position for anyone. Is it right to tell a 25-year-old “Don’t take that job” when you see them taking a commercial photography job for $2500 that requires to them sign over their copyright, spend three days in post, something that ten years ago might have fetched them a $15,000 or $20,000 fee? I don’t know anymore. A few years ago I would have said, “Yes” to saying “No.” But again, today, I see so many people who are seeing a $2500 fee and saying “Wow, that’s great.” People who have never been paid a “real” rate in their entire career. Oh, this is probably a good time to mention video, motion, hybrid, fusion, or whatever else you want to call it. Ouch. But what is churning in the background, what is truly important here…..the quality of the ideas and work. People tend to get touchy when I talk about this. I don’t see current work being better than it was ten years ago.

There are a lot more people doing it.
There is less grain.
There is more sharpness.
There is a lot more talk about it.
There is a lot more promotion going on.
There is a lot of new things that are supposed to be making it better.
There is more technology.
There are more viewing options.

But the concepts, the thought, the ultimate image…well, I’m not sure. Everyone wants to believe we are better today, just like we want to believe we are better informed and best of all, more efficient. But, I’m writing this on a plane with a pen and paper, YES A PEN AND PAPER, because when I write this way it slows me down and makes me think.

Do I write as much? No.
Do I write faster? No.
Can I send it out immediately? No.

But maybe that is the point. You’ve heard the expression, “speed kills.”
A few days ago a young photographer said to me, “I love the darkroom but it just takes too long to make a print.” I said, “Well, why do you think collectors value them so much?” You could see the light bulb going off. I’ve brought this idea up before, in mixed company, and there is always the person who gets ultra defensive, the premature aging lines around their eyes drawing down as they blast me for being a lazy, slacker who doesn’t want to work and wants everything to be like it was “back in the day.” No, sorry. I’m just old enough to have known something better. That’s all. At some point, certain things will return to a likeness of what they were, at least for CERTAIN people who have the sack to actually force these things to happen. And, I know how much more creative many of the younger creators will be when they get a taste of how good they can be given the time and access. This will take some doing. Clients. Clients aren’t stupid. If they can get ten things for the price of one, they will.

How great would it be to have some type of financed foundation that sought out great creators, gave them the time and access they needed to actually work in a way that produces a lasting impact? I imagine a space, New Mexico of course, out in the sticks, off the grid, except for water, where the artist could go for six months to a year and create, finish, dream, etc.

So, my flight is angling down toward the ground, so I must go. We have everything at our fingertips today, but what we do with it, well, that is what counts.

The beer shown at the beginning of this post is no longer available.

INTERVIEW: John Bilderback

John, pre-shoot on Oahu’s North Shore.

PREFACE:

I was first introduced to the world of surf photography, years ago, when I worked for Eastman Kodak. I was living in Southern California and was hired by Kodak to be the liaison for photographers in my region. After having moderate success, I convinced Kodak to send me to Oahu for the Pipeline Masters surfing event. Not only did this event attract surfers from around the globe, it also attracted surfing photographers from around the globe. Photographers came from France, Australia, Japan, England, Indonesia, New Zealand, Portugal, South Africa and all over the United States mainland. Digital had yet to arrive and film was the name of the game.

Looking back on those first few years I didn’t realize just how good we had it. There was a small town atmosphere to the North Shore and to the gaggle of photographers that lived there during the winter months. I wasn’t a part of this small community, just an interloper that came once a year with the new wares from Kodak. Leaving California, and the corporate bubble, and landing on the North Shore was like leaving this world and arriving in an alien land. Oahu is the most remote landmass on Earth and the surfing culture personified a modern, nomadic tribe filled with energy from competition, territorial attitude, cultural clashes, history and tension derived from those attempting to look deeper into the limits of their skill and courage.

After a successful first trip I was to make many more, and over the years I got to know a few of the photographers fairly well, some of whom I’m still friends with today.

One of those photographers was a lanky New Jersey born photographer named John Bilderback.

A few months ago I had the good fortune of having a shoot on Oahu, and my wife and I decided to stay a few extra days to relax and check in with some old friends. I’d mentioned to John a few months earlier about potentially being on the island and thought it might be a good time to fire up an interview or photo-shoot. Oddly enough he agreed. He also agreed to let me follow him on an afternoon shoot so that I could make a few pictures to go along with this interview.
So much has changed since we first met, but as you will read, John is still making pictures, and films, and has adapted to new technology, new subject matter and new clients.

Before we go any further there is something you should know. In all my years of being around photography I don’t think I’ve encountered a group of photographers more misunderstood than surfing photographers. Their industry, rife with cliche, isn’t viewed in the same way of mainstream sports and we all have bad surfing movies and characters in our mind. Don’t let this nonsense fool you. There are a handful of people in the entire world who can do this work at this level. Standing on the beach is one thing, swimming and shooting in monster waves is a risk each and every time. It’s humbling as a photographer to look at work and realize there is no way you could match it. I feel this way when I see John’s work. Plus, he’s just a cool, humble guy and that is a great combo. This interview and selection of images is just a TINY window into his world.


Trying to predict the oncoming storm.


-A guy from New Jersey shooting surfing? How did that happen?

I grew up in a house on the beach, in a little fishing town called Barnegat Light. We lived within earshot of the lighthouse’s foghorn, and right on the inlet to Barnegat Bay. Everyone was either a fisherman or a tourist. I came from a family of fisherman, but my friends and I preferred to hang out with the tourist girls. I took up surfing around 1972 and I couldn’t even carry my own surfboard. When I was seventeen, my father died, and the only way I could react was to try to fill my life with as much adventure and surfing as I could possibly fit in. I went from an all boys prep school in New Jersey, to the University of California at San Diego, where I could surf Black’s Beach every day and surf and camp in Baja on the weekends. My good friend Rob Gilley, another surfer whom I met at prep school, also went to UCSD and we began taking surfing pictures together. We shared the costs of the equipment and learned from each other, and from our numerous mistakes. Before too long we began getting photos published. Eventually we both went on to become senior photographers for SURFER Magazine.

In front of the monster, shark diving.

-When did you land on the North Shore?

In 1988 while working for the legendary photographer/photo editor Larry ‘Flame’ Moore at SURFING Magazine, I was offered a one way ticket to Hawaii and a raise. It took some consideration, maybe thirty seconds, and I was off to face the biggest surf in the world. I took everything I had and put it in a box.

-You had an assisting career as well correct?

During my college years I worked for most of San Diego’s best commercial photographers. Dean Collins, Jim Coit, Aaron Chang, and many others. It was an awesome education that really added to what they taught me in school and showed what a real photographer’s job was like. Dean is a genius, but from him I learned that technique was not the only thing you needed. Jim is also a genius, he has a way with people, any people, in any situation. He taught me about the things you need to be able to do that had nothing to do with cameras. Aaron took me under his wing when it was time to swim in the big surf, he taught me how to manage hairy situations.

-For me, photography was about the need to record. Why do you think photography became your life, not just a hobby?

The beautiful scenes that you are a part of when you are in the water motivated me most. I’d swim with the waves and the dolphins and surfers at dawn at Black’s Beach before heading off to sell cameras at Point Loma Camera and I’d have this buoyed, indestructible feeling. I could handle any little problem, because I”d already filled my tank with beauty, and awe and stoke. It seemed that I’d found a little secret energy source and I could share it somewhat if I brought back good enough images. It was a perfect blend of my loves, surfing and shooting.

Backlit kiteboarding.

-There is a big difference between enjoying the water and making it your life and career. What is it about this culture, sport, etc, that brought you to it? Can you see yourself ever doing something else?

I’ve always felt as surfers we’re blessed by trying to be in tune with the ocean and nature. You are, by necessity adapting to the conditions around you, and I’ve come to believe that a quest, especially one that takes you out of your comfort zone is a centering experience. When a ten foot set comes out of the horizon, there’s no one to help you; you face it entirely by yourself. Your attitude, your resolve, your fear, are all tightly wound up in who you are. And if you aren’t humble, alert, and thinking ahead, you get beaten. Lessons come from everywhere. When its really big and you’re going to get licked, you need to look inside for the confidence that is essential to staying calm and getting past the next few minutes safely. And when you succeed where your fear said you wouldn’t, nothing is better. After a few years of scaring the crap out of myself, I was hooked.


-I noticed early on there were a lot of folks shooting from the beach, but not nearly as many in the water. And on big days, even less in the water. It seems in the age of the 600mm and autofocus a lot of folks could shoot from the beach. What are your thoughts on this? And how did autofocus change your industry? How about digital?

We’ve seen technology come in waves. In the beginning of my career we were all shooting Kodachrome 64, manually focusing slow Century lenses, and we were lucky to get anything tack sharp. My photo editor used to advocate sitting on the side of the road practicing focusing on cars as they sped by. It wasn’t easy. Then we got auto focus lenses and nearly anyone who bought gear could stand behind a tripod and produce sharp images their first day. Digital photography has further relaxed the qualifications needed for shooting surfing. We used to spend hundreds of dollars a week on film and processing, or have a relationship with a magazine that paid that bill for us. As a result the magazines invested in us, and our future. Now anyone with a CF card, and a thumb is a surf photographer, and the mags get images for free. And that’s fine, there are some incredible shots being taken. But the dream of being able to survive making surf images is gone. The change has been to photography as a whole, not just in our industry. We photographers used to be like wizards. We mixed potions and worked under dark cloaks and in mysterious darkened rooms. Now cameras are literally everywhere. There are 1.3 cameras per person in the United States. There went the wizardry – and now we’re paid accordingly.

A lighting setup unlike any other…….

-When did you get comfortable shooting in big surf? What is your mindset when you go out on big days? Carrying a housing, etc.

I’m never ‘comfortable’ I don’t think. I’m always in a heightened state of awareness. Where’s the good spot? Where’s the wrong spot? When is that next massive closeout coming? Really, its problem solving, like most of photography. It varies from spot to spot and day to day, but you need to have a strategy that will keep you safe, while still allowing you to bring home something that’s worth maybe risking your life for in the first place. The shooting itself is a rush, yet the feeling of successfully getting back to the beach on a big day, potentially holding a box full of gems is so powerful, that it is also a reward unto itself. Its far more motivation than the small money involved. I think I never feel more alive than when I finish a day shooting in big surf.

-Any close calls over the years?

Yes, sure, tons. I’ve been run over by surfers, and landed on. I’ve literally been reduced to tears at Sunset Beach. “Mommy, I don’t want to be a surf photographer anymore!” Once, I barely squeaked over the back of a closeout wave at Waimea Bay and pretty much saw my life flashing before my eyes. There were a few seconds where I swore if I got to the beach I”d never do this shit again. I’ve seen broken backs, broken pelvises, broken femurs. I’ve seen huge sharks. I’ve seen boats go over the falls and sink, and I’ve watched bravery beyond anything I’ve ever seen on land. My inspiration I draw from the athletes; and it always keeps me at the waters edge wanting to swim out.

-Can you feel when you are about to get something great? When the ingredients are there for something beyond the normal? What does that feel like? (This goes back to something I have said about feeling a picture before you actually see it.)

I”m not sure I can. I can feel when the conditions are coming together, but I have so little control over anything, and the moment often goes by so fast, its impossible to be one hundred percent confident that I got it.
However, when someone takes off on a giant wave, and time slows down, and you are fighting your heart rate, you feel the potential energy right through you. Back in the film days when we’d leave the beach with just thirty six precious frames to shoot, we’d agonize over every shot we’d fire, and we’d have to be very picky. Now we blast through four hundred or more shots, covering everything that moves, and its different. We almost expect to bring home flawless images.

-When we first met you were, I think, only shooting surfing. Now you branched out into kite boarding. Was this serendipity or planned?

Living on the North Shore for over twenty years, I’ve seen the number of surfers in the water go off the charts. Even our ‘fringe’ spots are packed with surfers now. Getting stink-eye while surfing at the spot in front of your house gets old after a while. So one summer Darrick Doerner, a proper big wave legend, told me I should learn to windsurf. ‘If it’s good enough for Darrick and good enough for Laird Hamilton, it’s good enough for me’, I thought. And blam, my eyes were opened! I rode bigger waves faster, and further, without any of the crowds, or small-mindedness of the surf scene. I’ve had some of the best experiences of my since that moment, and I promised myself I’d always be open minded to other ideas. So when Dan Moore and a few of the early pioneers put big kites in the sky and got dragged downwind, it looked funny, but I couldn’t write it off. Now kitesurfers are matching, and in some ways even surpassing, what a surfer can do on a wave. And with the situation we’re in globally, wind power is something we should all be paying attention to. It has to be part of the solution.

Modern kiteboarding, a long way from where it began.

-How does your job changed from shooting surfing to shooting kite boarding?

Largely it hasn’t. I use basically the same equipment and skill set. I work closely with the athletes, and swim cameras into waves. The main challenge is that now I have to keep my port clear in twenty knots of wind.

-I see you not only incorporated motion, or video, into your work, but you also launched a real feature film project. Tell us about that.

Fundamentally, I find motion and sound to be so much fun to work with. In a photo you have to have anything two things you want to talk about in relative proximity. In a film, you can cut from one to another, and they can be separate in time as well as in space. Artistically the possibilities are incredible. I’m still in diapers in that field, but I’ve just finished my second film called Big Windy, which chronicles some of the frontiers of kitesurfing. Wind and alternative energies have to be part of saving the planet, and as people who get flung around by it we’re very familiar with its power. Over eighteen months of filming in Polynesia, Micronesia and Indonesia, we met a family on an atoll with a pet shark, we taught kids who’d never seen white people to fly, and enjoyed ourselves like we were surfers in the 1940’s, when everyone was still nice to each other, the frontiers were still expanding, and the sport was brand new.

-I would assume being a Canon guy you are using the 5D to make your films?

5D’s and 7D’s. Having a huge sensor, all my great lenses available, and the small form factor of these cameras, I can live with or work around all of their drawbacks. (Can I please get some lower ISO speeds though please?) We’ve just worked out a loupe-viewfinder solution for the Essex housings and I’m super excited about starting the next project with them.

Keeping the gear dry as rain invades our shoot.

-Is filmmaking going to be a significant part of your future?

(Isn’t it going to be part of everyone’s? Now some phones shoot and edit HD video, and can post it right away to the internet. Everyone is going to be an imager to some degree.)
I’ll be compelled to express myself always. What form it takes is fluid. Tomorrow, my wife Alexis and I are off to shoot a Kite Camp for twelve year old kids in Cape Hatteras, then a pro kite competition in the Gorge, and then its a month of filming wave riding in Indonesia for Oxbow. I guess that is a significant part of my future!


-There is much talk of the print world going away and the future being almost entirely online content. Do you agree? How do you feel about this? And how does being based in Hawaii have any effect on your feeling?

As a resident of an isolated island, the internet is the greatest thing in the world. It removes the thousands of miles of ocean, and makes things possible that required living in metropolitan hub before today. We can live detached, and still be as connected as we need to be. That said, I think there will always be a separate place for beautiful printed photography and art. There’s nothing like a great print on good stock, in good light. Many things though, are better delivered on the internet. News, especially today, changes far too rapidly for print media to keep up. And a magazine is no way to show video. And I believe trees don’t need to be cut down so I can check the stock market. But a glossy high quality image is something made to savor, not be dosed with, as if it were information. And there’s a permanence and robustness that also have value, so I don’t think the only things we’ll appreciate will be on a monitor. It defines what we believe is art, by the place we give it to occupy. And the internet is just another place.


-Where do you get your inspiration? What photographers do you look up to? Admire?

For my work, I get my inspiration mostly from the athletes. The things they do, their ability, and the endless variety of conditions you have to handle. A tennis player knows what the court will look like when he or she wakes up in the morning. A surfer has to be ready to face anything. Every day at the office is different. As for photographers, I look up to people outside my field, doing things I find difficult. Lori Adamski-Peek is a great example. She was a sports shooter turned people shooter and her work is amazing. I really admire her style.

-What is your dream shoot you haven’t yet been able to do? If you can share it?¶..

I’ve been working with a helicopter pilot friend for about three years getting ready for the next truly giant day of days. I was in a rented helicopter on January 28th 1998, the biggest day I’ve ever seen, and tow surfing was in its infancy. I could only afford to pay for about two hours in the air, and when the swell is that big, the sets only come every half an hour or so, so I only got to shoot a few sets. The jet-skis were under-powered back then and only a few people really had the skills to challenge it. It was an awesome sight that I couldn’t make the most of. Now there are super-charged skis, highly trained and motivated professional hell-men, and I have a friend who is gonna put me above the action till my arms give out. I want another day like that.

-How many times have you been told by a tourist that you have “The best job in the world?”

It does happen.

To see more of John’s work including his film “Big Windy” have a look at his site. http://johnbilderback.com/

The Numbers Game

I just found this post which I had written a WHILE ago. Thought I would throw it out there even though some of the material has been covered, some would say to death, in recent months. Don’t hate the player hate the game!

You don’t need to shoot each tree individually.

WARNING: I SWITCHED TO DECAF THE MORNING I WROTE THIS, MY APOLOGIES.

This post is aimed directly at wedding photographers.

Enough already.

Quantity of imagery has never been, until the past few years, a selling point of being a photographer. With the advent of digital technology and the subsequent ability to shoot unlimited numbers of images, came a style of photographer that blasted away with reckless abandon. Soon these photographers were using these insanely high image counts as a selling point, a selling point to clients who really didn’t know better. “More must be better,” the unsuspecting clients would think, as they were handed discs containing thousands of pictures, or online galleries that went on for miles. Suddenly, quantity over quality became a reality.

I just don’t get this at all. I really don’t.

First of all, if you are shooting 5000 plus images at a wedding, it is a CLEAR sign to me that you have no idea what you are looking for. It is clear to me you don’t have a style because if you did you would realize there is simply NO WAY your style of image happens 5000 times in any 24-hour period, let alone the duration of a typical wedding day.

When you sell quantity of images what you are doing, in essence, is trivializing the entire idea of photography. Why do you think that the public’s belief as to the DNA of photography has changed so much in the past ten years. Why do you hear so many stories of clients not having the same respect for what we do? Well, when you hear the photographers themselves operating under the method of, “If I shoot nonstop, something will turn out,” mentality, then why would the clients have respect for this? It’s no wonder people pick up a camera, have a high-school kid build them a website and go into business as a “professional photographer.”

I’ve heard photographers talking about “keeping their image count up,” and it drives me crazy. What are you talking about? So instead of shooting a portrait of the bride, shoot 100 frames of the bride in the same scene? Who does this benefit? You having to edit? The client having to weed through 100 frames in an online gallery?

Luckily, I think these days of quantity are about to implode. I’m beginning to see and hear from clients, planners, locations, etc, “enough already.” When a client is faced with an online gallery of 5000 images, they begin to realize that maybe this wasn’t such a good idea. Often times, when there is an issue they will go back to the planner, “What am I supposed to do with all these images?”

Photographers, let’s get real. Our job is to create unique imagery, edit that imagery and present that imagery. Our job is not to turn our brains off, keep our finger glued to the shutter, randomly convert a third of the images to black and white, then upload to an online gallery. I’m sorry, that isn’t photography, I don’t care how many jobs you are shooting. And if you use the “Well, my clients aren’t complaining” excuse….that is just sad.

It is very evident today that you don’t have to be a photographer to be a photographer. The days of having to know light, timing and composition have been replaced by slick marketing, advertising and the promise of Photoshop.

But when photographers trivialized the actual photography, regardless of whether they are taking a short-term step forward, as a collective, we all take a GRAND step back.

Learn how YOU see as an individual(Think about actually learning photography), make imagery that is unique to YOU and stop churning out hard drive after hard drive of generic photographs in an attempt to hit some photo-jackpot in the sky.

And before I go any further, I hear the cries of a few, “But my clients want as many images as possible.” Again, find your spine and tell them that is not how it works. If your client asked you to wear a Speedo would you do that to? What is the difference?

If you really edit a wedding, I mean REALLY edit. And you really focus on what you are doing, there are only a few VERY key moments of a wedding day. Very few. It is our job to see those moments coming and record them. You can shoot details of every single person at every single table and every centerpiece and all that stuff that really doesn’t mean much the day after, but it won’t help you create a document of what REALLY happened.

Working this way doesn’t happen by accident. Working this way requires you to deprogram a lot of clients who have fallen prey to this quantity over quality sales pitch. It takes time. Some folks are receptive, some are gone forever. You will not book every client. You shouldn’t book every client.

I’m going to do it. I’m going to throw out the “S” word again, so brace yourself. Is it time to find our collective soul again? Did we ever have a collective soul? I don’t know.

All I do know is that we have created a monster and it is time to put that baby to bed and get back to making photographs not production line nonsense.

For those of you who found this post insulting, rude, etc, that was not my intention, but I see the damage this charade has done and at the core of this is the belief that the CLIENT will be better served by photographers with clear objectives and clear vision.

I think if we are even discussing the amount of imagery we are going to create, it is a sure sign our photography-train is off the tracks.

Finite Foto Feature

New Mexico has a long lineage of art and photography. This continues today in the form of book publishers, galleries, collectors, workshops, etc. We also have New Mexico based online photographic outlets like Finite Foto, formerly known as Flash Flood. I’ve written about these folks before, and even had a piece featured a while back.
A few weeks ago I ran into Melanie McWhorter, one of the masterminds of this organization, and she asked me if I was interested in writing something about photojournalism.
Now I don’t consider myself a photojournalist, but at past points in my life I had done work in this genre, so I thought I’d give it a go. At the same time I had received several requests from blog readers to write something regarding my projects, why I do them, how I do them, etc.
I had just penned this little story when I ran into Melanie. So, here we are.

Now I don’t think this is going to answer all the questions, and this is also rife with my opinion about several things related to the modern documentary world, but I think it will be relevant to many of you, and might surprise or confuse a few others.
Also, I’m just one feature of several in this particular issue, and if you are interested in the doc/pj world, then have a look and bookmark this site.
Any thoughts, notes, feedback, drop me a note and I’ll give you my two cents.