Poetry and Photography

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OVERHEARD CONVERSATION:

“Maybe real photography is becoming more like poetry,” he said.

“Most people write poems because they need to write something, not for commercial gain.”

“THAT, my friend, is a very interesting thought” the other said. “But where we are going to get killed is the “real” photography description,” I added. “There are so many people running around with digital cameras and websites who are now attempting to work as professionals.” “I don’t see that as “real” photography,” he added. “It’s content, but not to say it isn’t happening or going away anytime soon.” “In fact,” he said. “I think it is only going to increase in volume.”

“I don’t consider this situation as a bad thing,” one said. “Maybe we will get back to personal, thoughtful, solid work.”

“It’s not bad unless you are trying to make a living,” the other said. “True,” I answered.

Over the past few weeks I’ve, once again, come to the conclusion I don’t really have time to be a photographer.(Cue the broken record and violin.) Yes, I’m working as a photographer once again, at least in part, but it’s not documentary work in the classic sense. What I do now is documentary photography in the modern sense, which is limited time, maximum need. I shoot, record, write, print, design and publish, all in a very short amount of time. When I walk from a shoot today I am always left yearning for “what could have been” given more time.

It’s easy to dismiss this with “Well, what are you gonna do, that’s just the way it is.” Man do I detest this mentality. It’s like when photographers say to me, “I hate digital but that’s what my clients are asking for,” or whenever someone who dedicated their entire adult life to photography caves in to the idiotic demands of someone with little to no stake in the game. You HAVE to fight for what you need as an artist/photographer or whatever you call yourself. You HAVE to establish ground rules, and if they are not there then WALK AWAY.

So I’ve made a change. My current project, which I’ve written about here is entirely stalled. Why? Because I just don’t have the time. This work is fact based, unstructured by me, so I need to be in the field on a regular basis, going back to the same people and places, over and over again. And I have to be there when things are happening and when the light is right. Just don’t have the time. However, this past week I showed this magazine to a variety of people here in Santa Fe and got a variety of positive feedback. I took a good look at the contents and realized there was something there. Just coals, no fire. Smoldering. Waiting for photographic oxygen to give life.

So what I’m going to do is go back in time. When I first started this photography thing it was far more like poetry than a novel. I was content to venture forth in the world looking for ANYTHING resembling a great photograph. Not everything was project based. My work was really just life based. Whether I found myself in country, city or in between I was looking, hunting for singles. As I got better, and as I learned and refined, I began to understand my brain works in sequence, but life and my brain don’t always coincide.

This new/old way of working isn’t easier than long-form work, in fact in might be even more difficult because the truth is those rare, stand alone images are SO very difficult to find. Almost impossible. It can also be frustrating when you look down and the frame counter is on seven and that same roll of film has been in the camera for four weeks.

A friend here in town, wonderful person and good photographer and teacher told me she took three weeks off, traveling to a foreign land by herself and just worked, every single day for three weeks. Alone, focused. Perhaps a day or two off during the trip. Recoup. Rethink. Take notes. “I realized I need this a few times a year to really reengage with what I’m doing,” she said. “I can’t do multiple things simultaneously all the time.”

Now I’m fortunate because I’m a twenty-year journaling addict. I have a home for WHATEVER I shoot. This is a crutch of epic proportion because when you print something and paste it in a book, whatever it is it FEELS really good. Like my color square work. It FEELS like it’s good even when it’s not. These books are like my own private support system.
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The plan is this. Just shoot. Black and white, 35mm. Process myself, scan myself and print myself. (Except for journal prints.) Now, I can’t do this for my Blurb shoots. That film goes to the lab for processing, proofing and scanning, and I’m totally okay with that. But for the rest of my photo-life I’m going to return to the absolute basics. Oh, and no more color square.

I’m looking forward to a little poetry, and even thinking about this has forced me to recollect a variety of images I’ve made that are stand along images not belonging to any body of work, things I never did anything with for this exact reason. Now I have something to do. Write poetry, or attempt to take poetry. I’ve also got a head start on this because of my leap into sketching and painting. In the six months or so since I’ve thrown my hat in this ring I’ve made exactly ONE painting I like. ONE. Cue the action movie scene, “Failure is not an option,” only with me it IS AN OPTION AND ONE I’VE FULLY EXPLORED.

So in a way….I’m single again. Get it? Single? I’m here all week. Now, I just thought of something. This does NOT mean I am suddenly a “street” photographer. I’m not. Not even close. I actually don’t really like the vast majority of street photography I see because it looks detached. Now this is the point for some of it, I get it, but it’s just not my thing. I’m still going to put myself in places I feel images are living, breathing, waiting, but not random street stuff. Besides, I suck at those images anyway.

“Beyond” a film by Charlene Winfred

Okay Smogranch slackers, it’s film time. The players in this little skit will be all too familiar if you have spent any amount of time on this site. Flemming Bo Jensen is a friend, fellow photographer and Danish Star Wars expert. He is also prone to walking shoeless around deadly spiders and sleeping at global monuments most people spend their lives attempting to reach and explore. He would sell his family for a lone bottle of frosty Coke Zero. Flemming and I did a short film together. Well, he did the film. I walked around and made pictures, drove a lot and fed him a constant stream of Blake’s Lotaburger to keep his creativity churning.

Beyond from Charlene Winfred on Vimeo.

Flemming, although the subject of this film, takes a back seat to the filmmaker Charlene Winfred. Charlene is also a friend, but I don’t know her well enough to know her secrets. She does however snap a limb,tendon or vertebra at least once a week. I’ve never seen her NOT on crutches. How she managed to navigate the world long enough to make this film I will never know. This is her first time around the filmmaking block and I think you will agree she did a bang up job…get it…”bang up job.” I’m giving comedy lessons later if anyone is interested.

On a serious note, if you can push aside this pair’s filmmaking, the photographs and the other beautiful visuals, there is a more important morsel at the bottom of all this. Flemming, once a well respected member of the Danish working class, the IT world to be exact, decided that the life he was told to lead was in fact not the life he wanted to lead. So he changed. He sold off, kicked out, rebooted and set sail for unknown parts, and in fact is still roaming our little planet some FIVE YEARS later. This world is not for everyone, but it’s for more people than we imagine. There is a downside to nomadic life, both for the nomad (isolation, loneliness, money) and also for those of us who are still cemented to day jobs and mortgages. Remember, Flemming slept on my couch more than once, and hearing Yoda noises in the night will put the fear of God in just about anyone, and I’m still paying off his Lotaburger quota.
I actually know a fair number of people who have chosen life on the road, each have their reasons and their methods for surviving. It shouldn’t be a big deal to do this but it really is, at least in the minds of the mainstream. Nomads have the ability to inspire jealousy and rage, both good things in my mind. Personally, I live in a society which seems bent on little more than material gain, so running into someone whose entire life fits in one bag, a bag I’ve had to lift, move and transport more than once, is refreshing. I know for some there is an almost distrust of those who leave the bounds of tradition, but I will ask you this. How do we know someones real calling until they are set free? I always wonder about why our society forces us to conform. Return from college, “get serious” and then get a job where in some cases people are donating their forty most productive years to something they may or may not love. What if we set them free instead?
On the same note, I do hold people like Flemming and Charlene accountable. They must not conform or surrender, at least not while out in the world. They hold the torch for a lot more than themselves.

PS: Here is Flemming sleeping at some pesky little monument in Peru.
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Leica M9 + Super Dynamite

Leica M9 + Super Dynamite from Smogranch on Vimeo.

Okay folks, I finally had a chance to use the Leica M9 in a way that I feel really explores the potential of this camera. I thought I would get to connect with this camera on my Hong Kong trip but I never really connected with anything at the level I’m looking for. But, I was recently able to spend a few days with my nephew, Super Dynamite, and was able to really use the M9 like I would if I was working on a project. I have to say, it works. As you know, I’m very familiar with these cameras, so for me, I never skipped a beat. The only suggestion I have is to make the exposure compensation more accessible. Meter is good, quickness is good, it’s quiet. I also exported large files this time. Everything I’d done with this camera, up until this shoot, was small files for the web. This time, seventeen inch Tiff files. They look fantastic. The fallout, same as my M6, and the texture of areas outside critical focus,to me, look really good. In fact, I think they look like images that have been prepped to look like film, that small texture added in. So, take a listen and see what you think. By the way, when these images export to a Quicktime file when I do these voice overs…they really lose something. So, I’ve added two in here so you get an idea of how good these files look.

My Comment on The Melcher System

I just posted this comment on Paul Melcher’s blog, The Melcher System.

I really like his blog, and I think he tends to come up with topics that don’t get a lot of play. He looks more at industry trends and business tendencies. His latest post is about all the multimedia pieces regarding the death and dying of Africa, and how this is so overplayed. I think he has a valid point, and I’ve certainly had conversations with many photographers about this exact thing. He also touches on NGO work and how it seems to be what everyone wants to do now. Take a look.

First of all, I think there are plenty of good photographers doing valid and important NGO work, and in fact I have friends who do. Their heads are on right and their hearts are also in the right place. They are professional, get paid for their work, and are constantly reassessing what they are doing and if there is a way they can do it better. They are respected by the people they work with, and for, but earned this respect by being real photographers, and by not just doing what is expected. They supply more than just images. And…you have probably never heard of them.

But, I think there are also a lot of photographers who gravitate toward this work for a variety of other reasons, and I’m not sure how many of these reasons are often talked about. First, I think this work is easy. I know that might sound odd, but when you shoot things of this nature your subject matter is right there in front of you. I’m not saying it’s easy to get to, easy to look at or easy to stomach, but the contents are provided. It’s a lot different coming up with projects in your neighborhood in Brooklyn, or Boise or wherever else it is that photographers live, and there are plenty of people in these places that also need help. I’m not sure how skilled the photographer needs to be to get this imagery, perhaps you need to be a more skilled traveler, to get in and out, than a skilled person behind the lens.

I also believe that this work is as much about lifestyle as it is about the work. Hey, I think we have all had romantic notions about being photographers, and typically when we do, these notions don’t come in the form of running a portrait studio in suburbia. Most of the time these notions revolve around travel, major events, etc. I think this is natural, but again, we don’t seem to want to talk about this. Ever seen a portrait photographer in a scarf? How about photojournalist/documentary photographer? I’m guilty. After my first trip, many years ago, I came home with a scarf. A few years ago I was in a gathering of photographers in New York and we were all introducing ourselves. As my turn came I introduced myself and added, “I shoot weddings.” You could feel the air come out of the group. Photographers scattered. A friend of mine in the group asked, “Why did you do that?” I told her I just wanted to see the reaction, and a reaction there was. I do shoot a few weddings a year, and many portraits and documentary work, and I have an interesting observation. When I meet someone new and they ask what I do, if I say, “I shoot weddings,” I NEVER get a follow up question. When I say, “I shoot portraits,” I will occasionally get a follow up question. But when I say, “I’m a documentary photographer,” I get a follow up question, typically many, every single time. I don’ think there is anything surprising about this, but I think this is, again, about lifestyle. For every Elliot Erwitt, there are hundreds of photographers focusing on death and dying.

I also think that this work shows up on industry radar, Brooklyn and Boise are less likely, and can afford the photographer name recognition in the most macho of photo-circles. This is, after all, the genre that presented us with the “concerned photographer” title, which I’ve never really understood. Again, there are great photographers doing this work, but I’ve also run into a fair number who don’t really seem to be concerned about what I think we have been led to believe they are concerned about. We are all concerned about money, getting work, getting published, getting more work, doing the right thing, having those we photograph represented in the most accurate way, etc, but this seems to bounce off this crowd, masked by the “concerned” label. I think being a “concerned” photographer can also be used as a crutch for asking for more things, whereas a portrait photographer or commercial photographer maybe just has to work more to get where they are going. Anyone who does journalism, documentary, or most any other genre of photography is a “concerned” photographer. I think PDN recently did a piece titled, “Photographers Making a Difference.” I think this is a far better way of labeling these photographers and their work. In the end that is what matters. Are the images incredible? Are you making a difference?

I have also found there are huge numbers of these young, and sometimes not so young, NGO photographers who are working for FREE. Is doing volunteer work a good thing? Yes, it can be. Again, I’m not saying there isn’t a time or place. But, I’ve found many of these photographers think that “nonprofit” means the company doesn’t make money. I’ve found photographers that don’t realize many NGO’s have a budget for photography. NGO’s are in business, so if they can get images for free, they do it. It’s not a malicious thing, it’s financial. Working for free, for me, isn’t sustainable, and frankly I’m not sure how anyone else does it.

A while back I was at an NGO gathering in Los Angeles, a fairly large gathering, and was introduced to an NGO coordinator from Latin America. Finding out I was a photographer she said, “Oh, I take advantage of you guys all day long.” I was a little surprised and when I questioned her further she said, “Photographers just don’t know the business, so we get them for free every time.” This might be an extreme example, but I think the message is true. How many times has a photographer heard, “Well, so and so is way better but so and so will do it for free.” In the end, everyone suffers, most importantly those in the photographs. We are bombarded by so much of this work, that continuing to rapidly produce the visual overload we are creating will only contribute to the image fatigue regarding places like Africa. Our technology has allowed us to mass produce incredible numbers of images, and then instantly load them into the information pipeline, flooding the world with work that frankly should have never been released. I think it would benefit everyone to slow down and create work that is top-notch, thought out and presented in ONLY the most critical of ways.

Death and the dying will always be covered, more so today than ever before, but perhaps photographers should also focus on the humanity and the glimmer of hope. I’m sure it will be a harder sell, and perhaps not viewed in the same daring regard, but you just never know. And, the outlets for this work should also widen their coverage…….I know, I’m crazy.

Writing this email made me think back to the recent Africa stories, those I can remember, and most are as you point out, war, famine, but I can also think of an education story or two . What I wonder about is farming, agriculture, transportation, commerce, the elderly, debt, the residue of colonial times, etc, and wonder where all the stories are about these topics? Maybe there out there and just not getting the chance?

Maybe the answer is that you can’t win awards with these stories?

The Documentary Life



People ask what type of photography I do. Sometimes I answer, “documentary work.”

People seem to be interested in this. The idea of this. But, I’m not sure how the reality, or thought of documentary work actually meets up with the nuts and bolts of actually doing it.

What I’m about to list is not a complaint, quite the contrary. This is what makes this work so fantastic, but it does come with a price.

So, the last twenty four hours of my life….

Caught in monsoon storm near midnight, run for cover but drenched, soaked, muddy, covered in bug bites.
Get stuck in car for one hour as flooding shuts down escape route.
Up at 5.
Drive for one hour.
Stumble on ultra-small rodeo, stop to shoot.
Shoot two rolls, make contacts for further shoots, including guy who chews 12 bags of tobacco per day.
Cow barfs up snot ball down my pants right before being sent out squeeze shoot.
Drop base plate on rock while reloading, bending it. Bend back with car key, keep shooting.
Back in car. Drive for one hour.
Stop horse racing track to shoot and scout location. Shoot one frame.
Back in car. Drive for one hour. Eat jerky and dried mango.
Stumble upon Mescalero Apache annual rodeo.
Stop and shoot. Light SUCKS. Can’t shoot anything.
Back in car. Drive for one hour.
Stop to shoot and pull info for upcoming shoot in August, BTK info center.
Back in car. Drive for one hour.
White Sands National Monument.
Shoot for three hours, while hiking through park, 100 degrees plus.
See guy with camel in distance.
Run over dunes to catch him, leaving water behind to save time and weight. Stupid.
Shoot two rolls.
Back in car. 4pm
Drive for 1000 miles.
Get caught in monsoon of epic proportion which closes interstate, forcing me off highway.
Get caught in dust storm forcing me off highway again.
Hit enormous black object in middle of freeway, going 75 miles per hour. Somehow manage to avoid ANY damage to car.
Begin to see things. I think.
Stop for truck stop coffee, getting stuck behind meth user paying for combination of gas and snacks with coins, making small piles on counter of gas station.

Arrive home 4 am.

23 hours of straight doc mayhem.

Up at 9 to begin client dealings.

Again, not a complaint. This is what, for me, it takes to do this work. I have limited time, limited resources, so you KNOW that at times, life is going to really suck, but it’s all self-inflicted. I could have stayed home. Waited. Waited until I had more time, resources, but chances are I would have never left.

And, what I left out was sleeping in the car, due to lack of hotels where I was, with windows up, in 90 degree nights, due to security concerns. Six homicides in last month in this area.

And in the end, what do I have? The last image. This tiny bag of film. That’s all. Nothing yet. No guarantees.

14 rolls total. 14. 504 clicks of the shutter, which on paper sounds like a lot. It isn’t. And what will I “get” from this?

MAYBE a few images. But how many will make the grade? One? Perhaps two? Yep, this is the reality.

What was so great about this was everything I just listed. Getting back into the field and making pictures. It had been a long time since I had done this, far, far too long, and I realized immediately how much of these skills I had lost. Atrophy. But, it came back, slowing but surely.

I had grand plans, but realized it was essential to do less to get more. Leica, 35mm, Tri-x. ONLY. Nothing more. Could have shot medium format color and shot “strangely” and compiled a huge body of work, but I knew in my heart that was only a short term remedy for what is really a lifetime sickness.

Waiting, watching and having the experience to know I can kid myself, or anyone else. That GREAT pictures are rare, and I have to be ready at all times, but also ready to accept the fact, that on this trip, or any other, I might not get anything. Honesty can be ego bruising and painful, but refreshing nonetheless.

So, as I sit here, thinking about processing this stuff, by hand, I am thinking of only one thing. When can I go back? When can I do this again?