Purity

I just might be the photographic antichrist.

Earlier today I was searching through seven years of images, all of the same kid, in preparation for a book I’m making. I’ve got eight hard drives sitting in front of me, and during this process I stumbled across a variety of older images that prompted me to reflect. Maybe not such a good idea……
The images were everything from documentary snaps, weddings snaps and portraits. Just like everything else in my digital life, folder names, image titles, all changed over the years as I learned “better” ways of conducting myself in the electronic world. So, certain folders were filled with surprises, both good and bad, and I heard myself say more than once “Wow, I forgot about that.”
Well, something else happened. I found these images. All those years ago I was plodding along as a wedding photographer doing documentary on the side, a practice I found never worked that well. I wanted it to work, it just never did. The weddings were fine, it was the documentary part that took on the limp, damaged feel of someone with not enough time.

And then kids came along, by accident really. “Hey, do you shoot photos of kids?” my neighbor asked. “NO, I don’t photograph kids, sorry.” “Great, I’ll bring them over,” she said. That was it. One shoot. Changed everything. Soon, I was a “kid photographer” a title that strikes a cringing fear in anyone in a “serious” category of photography like documentary, photojournalism, fashion, editorial, commercial, advertising, product, still life, fine-art, conceptual, experimental, etc. Suddenly my wife was introducing me as “my husband the kid photographer.” Gone were the days of “my husband the super-cool, studly, macho, documentary photographer who travels the world and pours himself into his projects.” Gone. The “kid photographer” intro, in most cases, was like casually mumbling, “I have the Hanta Virus.” People would flee in search of more interesting to people to drink their warm, foamy beer with. “Hey honey, that guy works in the dead-letter department at the Post Office, let’s go talk to him.” Me, I found a sick fascination with this, and used it to my advantage making proud announcements for no reason at the hippest of events or parties, just to see the cool people run from my path. “Hey, you wanna see me make balloon animals?”

But you seen now I have the golden opportunity, the 20-15 hind site to look back. I look back on these early days kid snaps and I marvel. You see I was still pure. I wasn’t REALLY a kid photographer yet. I had inherited the title, but I was still pure in that way that comes with first experiencing something. I didn’t have packages, pricing, online crap I didn’t need, business cards, letterhead, newsletters, promos, stock sales, blah, blah, blah. I was just a guy with a camera aiming it at strange kids. All locations were still new. People would call, I would answer. A plan would be made. I would go and shoot. I had no style in mind. I had no preconceived ideas as to what kid snaps were supposed to look like. I had ZERO tricks up my sleeve like “I’ll shoot backlit,” or “I need such and such an image.” It was so simple. It was so pure. And it was so much fun. It was so damn good. And then it all began to change. It all began to be molded, shifted, squeezed, controlled and manipulated by the simple IDEA that I was now OFFICIALLY A KID PHOTOGRAPHER. “Damnit, you’re a kid photographer, why don’t you act like it?”

The mass exodus of photographers from other genres had yet to descend on the poor unsuspecting kid market. Digital cameras had yet to land in the hands of every parent in the first world, and there was ZERO expectation other than “make something interesting that pleases me…the kid photographer.”

The work was good. The work was simple. And then it wasn’t anymore. It’s not that the work got bad, or I stopped being able to make good images of kids, in fact I went on to make many pictures I consider good even recently, but the forces around me began to change and I began to conform. Sales and profits became a larger focus. Margins, print prices, workflow, online marketing and promotion began to take up more time than the actual photography. It was supposed to be this way right? You get good, people find you and you build a business. Yes. That’s right. But as I sit here all these years later, looking back, I have feelings that flow contrary to this learned behavior.
I’ve spoken about this before and each time I do I brace for the fallout. Can we work as artists and make great work. Yes, I used the word “artist” but more to see if you were sleeping. Can we as photographers work and make great work? Short answer. “I’m not sure.” The deadly part of all this is that I see what happened to me happening to many, many other photographers. I meet a young snapper and their work is pure, it’s original and it feels good, and suddenly they find success. In many cases success today comes with IMMEDIATE COMPROMISE. You hear things like “Well, I used to shoot film, but now the client wants digital.” Or, “Well, I used to take my time and work this way, but now I have to have images in by the end of the day.” What I’ve learned is that “convenience” is DEADLY when it comes to photography. If you are allowing CONVENIENCE to dictate your imagery you are on a path that is heading in the wrong direction. CONVENIENCE is based on ease, and that folks is going to get easier. Easier doesn’t always translate to “better.” More people do it, more people think they can do it. More people think they can tell you how to do. Less people pay attention.

Last night at dinner, a casual conversation and a photographer explains where he was working on a recent project. He talks personally of his personal work. “Were you on assignment?” “Yes, a self-assignment.” There is no speech required. Those words come with the meaning of working on a self-assignment because that is where the real work is made, and that this simply would not have happened had he actually been on assignment, something we are all trained to believe is how we should work. I reflect once again on these photographs of kids and I had nothing but warm regard for how I made them and what they meant to me both at that time and now all these years later. My wife no longer introduces me as a “kid photographer” so I’m struggle with a new title that creates the same shock and awe. “C-student” might work, “Recipient of a Class-C misdemeanor” but that might strike a bit TOO much shock and awe. All I can leave you with is the idea that we don’t really have time to screw around. We, as photographers, have to shoot for us. There is no other way. “Yes, but we have to pay the bills.” No, you don’t. You just convinced yourself of that. You can do it, and pay the bills, but you can’t then complain of not making good images. I know cause I did just that. I don’t anymore. For me, there is no better feeling in the world that working on something I believe in and finding success at the purest level. When I look around me at the creative world, at places like literature, photography, art, I see the best work being done, the last working, by creators with a clear mind without limits. When we find commercial success, often times, this comes with boundaries, limits, requirements and expectations that simply don’t allow for moments of greatness. I just finished reading a book, a book by an author I truly admire. He talks about being hired to create a project then coming to realize he can’t complete it under the requirements of his position. He is fired. Then he creates the book I just read. I think beneath this little story is the story of truth, of purity, of working without questioning your motivation and rationale. We simply do what we feel we have to do and not what we think we are supposed to do.

XXL

Me, six foot, 166 pounds for scale.

So a few months ago I posted something about a portrait client who had devoted an entire wall of their living room to half inch cork and twenty-five feet of prints. It was, and is, grand. It is what photography is all about. Spending the time to get good work, in that case over seven years of images, and then give it the space to breath.


Well, it happened again. This work, 40×40 prints, four of them, hang in a house here in SoCal. It wasn’t from me making suggestions either, it was from the client who just wanted to live with the images in more than small framed prints on a counter. As you can see, they are huge. The last image is of a test print which BARELY fit in my car. The framed images had to be delivered in a van. I have to say, this is what I live for when it comes to doing work like this. This is, after all, kinda the point with all this, or ONE of the points.

Make the best images you can, save them. Repeat. Then, at some point. do an edit. A real edit. Make small prints, live with them. Arrange them. Live with them a little more. Then make the decision. Make a test print. Take it to the space. Live with it. Then make another decision, edit. Make the prints. Hang the prints.

It sounds simple, but in some ways it isn’t. It goes against modern trend of keeping the images in electronic form only. Don’t print. Share on Facebook. But this is so much more. This is making a statement. I applaud the client. Commit. Print. Enjoy.

Basic

Sometimes I think too much. Sometimes I look too much. And sometimes I expect too much. What can I say, I’m flawed.

I realized the more attention I gave to the “World of Photography” the more I began to realize what this world did in terms of creating what was “expected” of me. I don’t think I’m the only one. Why do so many images look alike? Who does one style of image, or post production method arrive and suddenly everyone is using it? Doing it? Well, it’s the same thing really.

So as you know, I make pictures of kids from time to time. The great thing for me is that many of the kids I photograph are the same kids i was photographing five, six years ago. I’ve seen the bike wrecks, the missing teeth, the arm in a sling and many other rites of passage over the years. THIS for me is so very important. For me as a person, I need to know someone. I want to know someone. Kid, adult, animal, etc. I wanna grow with them.

Now the good thing is that when you photograph someone over a period of several years you tend to end up with a variety of imagery. These two kids are a perfect example. Now they are bordering on not being kids anymore, but for me, they will probably always be kids because I’ve now known them for many years. I remember very clearly my first shoot with them, and how similar it was the last shoot I did, which is partly represented by these images I’m posting now.

About halfway through this shoot I realized something. I realized I didn’t need fancy. I didn’t need cutting edge. Looking back on our history, I probably have that of these two, but I realized at THIS particular age, fancy and cutting edge was not what I needed and more importantly, not what I wanted.

Suddenly I felt like what I needed to be more than a photographer was an anthropologist. I realized those little kids in front of me were no longer little kids. I realized they were moving into adulthood and I was there to simply record this.

These two kids are at an age of transformation and all I need to do is get out of the way and make some clean, simple images that are more historical record than artistic statement. Maybe it was reverting back to basic documentarian? I also think that images like this are very easy to interpret and don’t rely on a visual sophistication that many people just don’t have the time to give in regards to imagery. When you have soccer and school and travel and life you want visual comfort food and not necessarily a micro-portion with a reduced sauce. No, you want turkey and mashed potatoes. When Miles sat down at the piano did he play Sketches of Spain every single time? Does Kobe shoot from three point land every time he spots up? Does Hugh Grant make a romantic comedy every time he sign on for a film? Well, okay, that was a bad example, but you get my point.

Feeling California

Every now and then I do something right, or at least I feel like I do something right.

This comes when I look at an image and I FEEL something. When I shoot I’m not looking for perfect. I’m not looking for over the top. I’m not looking for extreme. I’m just looking.

I look for moments, simple moments and their imperfections. I’m just the guy in the shadows, pressing a button from time to time, searching for something. A lot depends on what I’m photographing. I can only do so much, and then I just need to get out of the way and let things be. Sometimes this can be difficult because we fill our heads with all kinds of photographic nonsense in an effort to satisfy our business needs. Well, I’ve learned that often times good imagery and business don’t always go hand in hand. They struggle with each other and sometimes forcing their way on the other.

When a picture works it triggers a chemical reaction inside of me. I can feel it in my eyes, my heart and and my brain as I try to put the puzzle back together in my mind. For me, the particular picture really works. The color, the light, the bubbles, and most importantly, the expression and body position of the girl. I could have never posed her that way. I could have never asked her to do this. I could have never crafted these parts. They just happened. And I was there, holding my breath, trying to frame it all up.

When I look at this contact sheet I see a sea of deep blue. The entire sheet makes me feel. And I think people that is what this entire photographic idea is really all about. Feeling. When you reduce all the labels we create, all the definitions we love to use, etc. It’s just about feeling.

Film + Portraits 2

The last time I made a post about this subject it developed into a lively debate. A good thing in my mind.
These images were from a recent camera test. This entire shoot took less than five minutes, and I shot exactly ten images, of which six are totally usable, marketable kinda thing. 6×7 color negative. I’m not really sure what to say other than it just flat out works.


Is working this way faster than digital? No. Not by a long shot. But, it offers me a different looking image, a film looking image if you will, and as you all know, that is the type of image I prefer. I think one of the key things to notice is how film handles backlit, high-key imagery. It works REALLY well, with far less attention than what digital requires. I end up shooting a lot of work in high key. I like the way it looks. I think it adds depth, etc. so having this ability, right out of the can so to speak saves me tons of time. With digital files, depending on your application, you must address purple fringing, red fringing, chromatic aberration, banding, etc, all of which happen on most digital cameras when you shoot high-key imagery. If you are asking yourself, “What is he talking about?” “I don’t have to deal with those issues,” well, take a closer look at your files.


For many years I didn’t think I had to deal with those issues either. And then someone who really knew about the technical side of a digital photograph took one look at my images and pointed out all these flaws. Many photographers, even many pros, don’t even know they have these issues because they are not looking that closely at their files, and their clients aren’t looking at the files. I’ve had many strange looks when I discuss these problems, photographers looking at me like I must be doing something wrong. Now when I look at digital files I find myself seeing these flaws in ad campaigns, commercial work, portrait promos, etc. It’s just accepted now. Like embalmed skin tone.

But with film I don’t deal with this stuff. It just works.

Here is my entire workflow.
1-open file
2-function key one resize to 17 inches long dimension
3-function key 5 applies midtone curve
4-dodge + burn
5-hit save action, saves four different size versions of image into four different folders
6-apply base metadata stamp

That’s it people.

Less prep time. More time to do really important things like watch television. I mean seriously I just saw CNN doing a critical piece about Britney on Glee. I’m so glad CNN devoted international air time to this important issue. Had I been prepping digital files I might have missed it.