Pismo Beach Workshop: From the Technical to the Visual

Climbers bouldering along the shoreline in Newport Beach.

I’ve been teaching for several years now. I taught sporadically before that, but a few years ago I began to be asked to teach at several of the best photography schools/workshops that exist in the United States.

I had been around in the area for an extended time, had met many of those in charge of the schools and also suggested I would be interested in teaching.

Looking back at my photography life, there were key players in my development, no pun intended, and I thought it would be great to teach, and perhaps be one of these people to a younger, up and coming photographer.

I normally teach two different kinds of students, perhaps three. I teach fellow professionals, which is probably what I do the least, just because the class strategy is not what I’m most interested in, and the classes tend to be about the business of photography, which is hugely important, but perhaps not the most thrilling of topics. And for me, business is so personal it is difficult to make statements that would apply to every person in the class. Even if the entire class was about running a portrait business, there are so manys of going about that it is really about giving the basics and then forcing the students to figure out WHO they really want to be. Glamor Shots? Factory? Boutique? Working under another studio? So many options.

I also teach beginner level photographers. And finally, I probably teach more advanced amateurs or “weekend warriors” than any other group.

I love teaching beginning level students because they are total sponges when it comes to information, and in most cases, improve rather quickly, which is great fun for them and me. And the AA crowd, advanced amateur, is also fun because they typically have ideas as to the photographer they want to be, and I can help fine tune their path.

I’ve noticed a few things over the years.

First, the cameras today are far more complicated than ever before. Yes they have automatic features, but in most cases, the sheer numbers of buttons, drop down menus, etc, are enough to stump the best Jeopardy contestant. Not to mention lenses like 18-200 zooms with moving apertures and camera bodies with lens magnifications. YIKES. For most of my students, this is, and rightly so, very confusing.

And what I’ve found is that these cameras, although they are incredible tools, sometimes act as a near complete barrier to the learning process. I think this comes from the advertising(and our assigned hope to it), but also the belief that we want these machine to make us into photographers. “If I just let the machine do what it does, I know I’ll improve.” Wishful thinking, but far from the truth. The brain and eyes of the student are what matter and the development of these critical organs takes…….takes……the dreaded “T” word…..TIME, something in horrendously short supply these days.

I’ve seen a lot of students spend far, far, far too much time staring at these magical machines while they try to work in the field. For that matter, I’ve seen far too many professionals doing the exact same thing. Ever seen an sporting event? Ever seen the cameras pan by the sidelines and all you see are row upon row of photographers staring at their preview screens? That is just what I’m talking about.

Climber reaching for the next hold, the moment they must rely on their footwork and make the gamble they can stick the next move.

There is a question I hear a lot, or a series of questions I should say. They go something like this.

STUDENT: “Hey, what did you shoot that with?”
ME: “Hasselblad and 80mm.”

…a few slides pass by….

STUDENT: “Hey, what did you shoot that with?”
ME: “Hasselblad and 80mm.”

…a few slides pass by…

STUDENT: “Hey, what did you shoot that with?”
ME: “Hasselblad and 80mm.”

(You could insert “Leica and 35mm” as well.)

Okay, you get my point.

I get the “How did you do that?” question a lot. In the general scheme of questions, it’s a good question. But you see, I’ve been at this a long time, and I learned very early on, the machine in my hand, while important, is not what I need to be thinking about. In fact, any second I’m thinking about my camera is a second I’m not thinking about what I need to be thinking about to make great images.

So, what that tells me is, I’ve got to know my gear, inside and out, front to back, top to bottom, and need to be so familiar with it that I don’t ever have to think about it.

Look at the history of photography. Many of the greats used the exact same camera for their entire career. This is the polar opposite of what we are doing today. In fact, spoke with someone the other day, someone who reads this blog, who said that he was on his fifth camera in seven years, or maybe it was seventh camera in five years. Hey, and I’m guilty as well. Over the first ten years of my career I used about three different cameras. The past ten years I’ve used DOZENS. But I realized that was not a great way for me to progress as a photographer. I needed to settle down, realize it wasn’t the gear but rather what I was trying to show.

I also keep hearing a statement which I feel was more accurate in pre-digital photography, which is, “It’s not the gear, it’s the photographer.” Well, yes and no. Using a Hasselblad, 80mm and Tri-x will give you a certain look, so will using a Canon 5D Mark II. They are not the same look, and to get them to look the same, which I’m not sure why you would want to do, will take considerable time, time you could be in the field working. Your gear choice is a critical part of finding your style and finding the image you think you want to make.

Climber catches his shoes which were being thrown up to him by his climbing partner.

So here comes Pismo Beach, and a perfect opportunity for you to figure this out, answer these questions, and most importantly a chance to make new work.

The images in this post are here for specific reasons. As you can see by the captions they were not made in Pismo Beach, they were made here in Newport where I live. I made these pictures because I gave myself a “Pismo” assignment, or what I thought would be the exact type of situation we will be in Pismo. There comes a time when the lights come on, the projector shuts down, the door is flung open and we run from the classroom unleashing our knowledge upon the world. So one afternoon last week, I went out on a self-assignment.

I found the climbers, just a pair of kids bouldering and I knew I had my subjects. I approached, asked it I could shoot, they asked about my “old camera,” and we got to know each other in that way that people who just met but might not ever see each other again can often do. The light wasn’t great. I knew what I wanted. I wanted a small “picture package” that would sum up what they guys were doing. I wanted a man vs nature look and feel, and also wanted a sense of tension. I explained to them that I used to climb a lot, and that I still get sweaty palms when I watched other people climbing. I found climbing intense because I’m not comfortable with open heights, so even when I watch OTHER people climb I still feel that unease.

I knew IMMEDIATELY that most important shot for me was the hand on the rock with the entire face up above. I knew it before I even put the camera in my hand. It was a given. I also knew I could shoot it straight on because the light was coming from the side, which with film is a piece of cake. With digital I would have had to expose differently because I don’t like digital in side lighting situations. HOW DID I KNOW THIS? Trial and error folks.

In my opinion, light, timing and composition are the three most important parts of photography. So when I go in the field, I’m watching the world around me through the filter of those three things. If I’m thinking about anything else, especially what camera do I want to shoot this with, what is my lens magnification or how do I find my exposure compensation, I’m not really seeing with the clarity I need.

I had my Leica and 50mm, so I didn’t really have any gear choices, I just game myself that and said, “Okay, if you can’t make pictures with this, you are just not very good.”

I took a meter reading and started to shoot. I didn’t look at my camera, I didn’t look at the images I just shot. I just looked and worked, looked and worked. I knew that shooting the “reach” shot was a 50-50 thing because of how backlit the climber was, but I was only concerned with getting an image of the hand off the rock. I shot one frame and knew I got it.

I figured, at some point, one of these kids would make it to the top, which was probably about 40 feet up, and when you are climbing, or bouldering, without ropes, that is a good distance. Again, my palms were sweating.

So I looked up, took another meter reading and memorized what the settings would be when the got go to the top, so if I was shooting something else when he finally made it, I could quickly move to my “top of the climb” settings.

He made it, I made the switch, and then got lucky as his climbing partner began to try and toss his shoes up to him. I made two frames, but this one was the best. And in terms of exposure, I took the meter reading based on the idea that the climber’s face would be in shadow because he would be looking down. If I had just pointed the camera, the meter would have hit that sky and the kid would have been totally black. But, I also wanted those clouds, rare here in the Newport. So, I cheated my exposure a little bit toward the highlight.

If you are reading this and saying, “Holy cow, I have no idea what he is saying,” hey, don’t sweat it. THAT is what this workshop is all about.

The idea is to get beyond this technical stuff and go out, have fun and make your pictures.

If it makes you feel any better, I still make my share of mistakes. That is just part of being human. And some of those mistakes turned out to be good images.

This photography business can open so many wonderful doors and windows into other places or spaces, and even into the world you are most familiar with, if we just get past our gear and start really seeing.


The Misfit

This photo sums up my entire life.

It does. It really does.

I don’t think I’ve ever fit in, and if this isn’t proof enough, I’m not sure what is.

First, this “peacock” hairstyle. I don’t recommend it. Sure, it might seem fun and dashing, but the reality is this style is a “red” haircut, meaning it takes more energy to produce than what you get from the actual thrill of wearing it.

Second, the outfit. Clearly my fashion sense never left the Indiana swampland. And to add insult to injury, I still have those same clothes, and still wear them from time to time.

Also, the fanny pack, bum bag, whatever you want to call it. No sane photographer would be caught dead in one of these, and yet I found a way to wear it in high-noon light, on the beach, in public, amid thousands of people who are mostly doing nothing other than “people watching” and making fun of people wearing stupid outfits. And for the slam dunk, I use the shoulder sling bag as well, just to emphasize my suspect attire choices.

I can’t remember what I was carrying in those bags, perhaps a roll of film or two, yo-yo, maybe a coloring book, but combined together, they complete my stunning get up. I dare you to follow me.

And the tripod…yes, I admit, I do use them from time to time, but it is RARE. This photo might be worth something. Probably not.

But perhaps most importantly, for those of you out there with a penchant for pushing the button, there is a lesson to be learned here. If you find yourself surrounded by a sea of conformity, it doesn’t mean you have to join the ranks. It’s okay to feel around in the dark, or the blazing sun, and find your OWN path. I’ve never quite understood this photographic lifestyle. I mean I do and I don’t. If you and I have the same camera, same lens, same vantage point, and same editorial choices, then what value does the image have. Jesus, did I just create a word problem? I detested those in school, and don’t think I ever got a single one correct.

“If Billy and Jane both left Anaheim on the 7:15 train, and Jane hadn’t slept the night before, but Billy blacked out at 3am from blunt head trauma, which traveler will arrive more refreshed?”Please show your work.

I could never wrap my head around these things, and my answer of “Ah, I wouldn’t know, I prefer air travel,” was never on the multiple choice options.

I remember when this was now, it was 2006, and I had dedicated my time there to making a very specific style of image, one that had no real home in the world in which the material was made. Does that make sense? What I mean is, I had a vision for what that place meant to me, and that vision had next to nothing to do with what was “popular photography,” regarding an event like that. The images I made were strictly made to satisfy some inner need I had to record this place in a certain way, with no real idea of where these images would live.

But, to end this post on a nice upbeat jingle, I’ll leave you with another image, an image of two of the photographs I made during that time, which are now framed and hanging in the house I am sitting in at this exact moment. The images went on to live in many shapes and forms, but long after the event was over. They were in a book. They were exhibited. They are being considered for another book as we speak. Did these things have to do with who I knew. Yes. In part. Did they have to do with luck. Yes, in part. But I think the most important thing was taking a chance and making the pictures I knew I needed to make and not what the industry might want me to make. And to also not get swayed by the “right now” mentally that is pervasive today, to slow down and look at what the life of an image might be, or could be, if it were different, unique or recognizable.


Austin Texas, 1990.

I was a second-year photojournalism student at The University of Texas.

Shopping for books, I found myself not in the textbook section of the store, but instead in the photography book section. All the usual suspects were there. The nature books, the celebrity books, travel books filled with stock, but then suddenly something caught my eye.
Shoving aside the enormous volumes, I found myself holding a book titled “Afghanistan 1980-1990,” by a photographer named Ed Grazda. Softbound, cover font in green, black and white lead photo, with the words “Der Alltag,” across the bottom.
Thumbing through the first few pages my heart began to race and I found my mind thousands of miles away, in the Hindu Kush and alongside the person who made the photos. I was hooked.

Afghanistan had been a subject of my fascination since the Soviet invasion, but I had never really found, or read, or discovered anything that took me to this foreign place. Until I found this book.

I purchased the book, took it to my tiny apartment and spent far too many hours pouring over the images. The book design was simple, black and white images accompanied by English text on one page, and the same text in German on the facing page. The book was exotic. The images, the foreign language, and most importantly, the idea that this man, who I knew by then was American, had gone to Afghanistan and lived amongst the war, the tragedy and the tribes to make these images. The pictures were not of war, which is what had really become associated with Afghanistan, but rather the images were about life. Daily life, tea houses, street scenes, and secret trips into the countryside with the mujahideen. Wide angle to normal lenses, black borders.

In some ways I found the book difficult to look at because for me it was evidence of what was possible, and of what I thought MY path would be. The book was a reminder, a haunting reminder that there were photographers out there doing it, devoting their lives to make pictures that were important to them.

Ed signing books in his New York apartment.

New York City, 2009

I need to find Ed Grazda.

Much time had passed since my days in Austin. I still own Grazda’s first book, and knew now there was a follow up book, “Afghanistan Diary 1992-2000,” which chronicled the following ten-year time frame in the life of Afghanistan. And there was also a book regarding the Masjid in New York. Doing what we do today when we try to find something or someone, I Googled Ed, and low and behold there he was. An email address. I wrote to Ed, he wrote back, and a few short days later I was sitting in his apartment with a tentative list of questions and slightly sweaty hands. Yes, I was nervous, but perhaps not for the reason you think. Earlier in the day I had been on a panel at the Javits Center, in front of a crowd of people, and my heart never went a single beat above resting, but sitting with Ed, looking around his apartment, which was filled with small stories of his life, I came to a realization. Interviewing someone like Ed isn’t easy. It isn’t easy because Ed has done a lot of important work, and no matter how many questions I asked, I was probably only going to scratch the surface.

A rug portrait portraying Ahmad Shah Massoud.

I found myself quietly thinking, “Maybe I’m not really qualified to do this?” but the door was closed. I was inside and there was no turning back. I was able to spend about an hour with Ed, and the result is the following interview. He was also nice enough to allow me to make a few images, which I think help to set the scene.

When I read this interview I realize I have many, many more questions for Ed, and perhaps one day I will get a chance to ask them. Since the interview, I ran into a student of Ed’s who said to me, “Ed just does his thing.” I know what this person was talking about, and I have a tremendous amount of respect for this.

A street camera from Kandahar.


DRM: You’ve done a wide range of work over the years, but considering current events, I’d really like to focus on your work from Afghanistan. I know you have been traveling to Afghanistan for 25 years, but what was it that first prompted you to venture there? And, how difficult was it to even get in the country?

EG: I was travelling in Asia in early 1980. In a guest house in New Delhi I met some travelers who had been in Kabul when the Soviets invaded (this was only a few months after the invasion), also some young Afghan refugees – the first of millions. So I went to Pakistan – Peshawar. One could go up to the Afghan border and go to the tribal areas easily and relativelY safely. A great place to photograph. Still is. Only now you would not survive.
In 1982 I made my first trip with the mujahideen, they would take you across the border, most times in worked, but a few times I was caught.


Taliban at Jadi Maiwand, Kabul, Afghanistan 1997. Ed Grazda

“The Afghans are everywhere in Peshawar…they drive rickshaws, buses and trucks. They open restaurants. They also fight the Russians.” from Afghanistan 1980-1989

DRM: A few weeks ago I saw a quick video in regards to Kabul in the late 1970’s and people were wearing western clothing. It was surprising to see this, and reminded me of just how many transitions this country has been through in recent years. When you first arrived, what was happening in country?

ED: My first trips in the early 1980’s were with the mujahideen, but we were only in the country side and small villages, where life has been pretty much the same for generations.. I didn’t get to Kabul until 1992. In the 1970’s Kabul was the Paris of the East.

Mujahideen at Wageeza, Afghanistan 1983. Ed Grazda

“Almost any Afghan you meet on the street or in the bazaar will offer to take you to their “front” inside Afghanistan if you are a photographer or journalist. Or look like one.” From Afghanistan 1980-1990

DRM: Looking at your work from “Afghanistan 1980-1989” and also your second book “Afghanistan Diary 1992-2000,” it’s clear you are not really focusing on working as a war photographer, but more as a documentary photographer, covering daily life and quiet moments more than front line action. Was this a conscious decision?

EG: yes, I was interested in the culture, landscape etc. not the war per se. I leave war photography to the professionals, with health insurance.

DRM: I’ve never been in a war zone, and when I see imagery from these places I find myself wondering not only about the images, but also about the logistics of how the images were made. What was your mode of operation, both getting in and getting out? How long would you spend in Afghanistan per trip?

EG: in the 1980’s I would go to Peshawar, Pakistan and hook up with a mujahideen group and make arrangement with them to take me into Afghanistan – illegally – sneaking across the border. They would escort me in and out of the country and I would travel with them. A trip was usually 3 weeks to a month.

DRM: The bulk of your Afghan work was done before the days of digital, so what were the logistics of your actual photography? What equipment did you use and how much planning did it require to figure this out?
International press corps at Tora Bora, Afghanistan, early Dec. 2001. Ed Grazda

EG: I always use the same cameras leica M4 & M6, 400ASA film. Travel light, as you had to carry everything your self. If you trusted you gear to a pack animal you might be separated from it for days.

DRM: I can’t imagine being more isolated while working than being in Afghanistan during the war. Your first book also details a few close calls you experienced. Did you ever have illness or injury to deal with and how much a part of daily life was living in fear?

EG: When traveling with the mujahideen you didn’t really have time to worry or be scared, just keeping up with them took all your energy. There were the usual stomach problems and some minor infections, nothing major. I was lucky. If you got appendicitis or were wounded you were in trouble. I was once helped out by Medicines San Frontier people in Afghanistan. Great people.

“Now the problems started. Nobody spoke English. Nobody could read this document that the army sent concerning my case. And nobody wanted to go to the man in charge. Things only got worse. I was sick, my air ticket home was a few days from expiring, my exposed film from the trip was somewhere in Peshawar with some Afghans. My visa was about to expire. That night I slept in the barracks. The next morning I was still covered with huge bites and blisters. Still no one who spoke English: this was hell. The outhouse was two bricks-no hole. In the afternoon I started to yell and demanded to call the American consulate. They brought out the shackles and chains. I challenged them to put them on me. They did.” from Afghanistan 1980-1990

DRM: What was your goal with these images and did this goal change the more time you spent in Afghanistan?

EG: Basically to document the place during those unstable times. In the early 1980’s I really did not have a goal for the pictures. for me it was an interesting place to be and photograph.
I made some good friends who let me into their world and I got some good pictures. Peshawar was a very interesting place then, and safe and cheap. After a few trips my aim was to do a book.

DRM: When you put your first group of images together from Afghanistan what was the reaction to the work, and did the reaction and demand change the longer the war went on?

EG: The only time there was a “demand” (slight) was right after 9/11. Financially it was always a loss, but it was just something I wanted to do. if there had been”interest” from the general
public, perhaps america would not be in the place we are in now in Afghanistan.

DRM: How much of this work ended up in the editorial world? What other outlets did you find for these images?

EG: Many of my photos from the 1980’s were published in The Christian Science Monitor. A few in Time, Newsweek, Soldier of Fortune.etc. But no major assignments.

Jalaladinne Haqanni (white turban) heads to a bank in Peshawar with suitcase. 1986. Ed Grazda

DRM: When was the last time you were in Afghanistan and what impression where you left with as you departed?

EG: I was last there in 2004 for the first presidential election. At the time I thought things might work out. The country was relatively peaceful and safe. Most afghans were very pro American and the election process had seemed
to work.

DRM: Another photographer told me you have one of the few images ever made of Mullah Omar. True? And if so, what is the back story on how that image was made?

EG: I wrote a story for Vanity Fair about the Mullah Omar photo (Feb 2004.) it is on line at VF.com. (Here is the link: Vanity Fair)

DRM: Your second book, “Afghanistan Diary 1992-2000” covers a time frame when the Taliban were first coming to power. We all know the Taliban views on photography, so how were you able to work?

EG: I went to Kabul in 1997, under Taliban rule, at the time photography was frowned upon, but not yet banned. One could work, but not easily. When I went back in 2000 it was almost impossible to photograph anything.

DRM: Looking at your books it is clear to me you developed a genuine friendship with the people you photographed. Have you been able to keep in touch with any of these people, and were they ever able to see the books?

EG: I always sent photos back to people I knew and later the books. I am still in touch with some of the people from the 1980’s. Afghanistan Diary was for sale in Kabul – and may still be. Afghanistan Diary 1992-2000 was for sale from about 2002 at the book shop in the Kabul Intercon hotel by the man who was written about in the dreadful “Bookseller of Kabul” Also, many friends from the 1980’s kept photo albums that still have my photos in them.

DRM: What is your feeling about what is happening in Afghanistan now? Do you see any hope?

EG: Basically the US government has done nothing to help the Afghan people, everything the Bush
goons did was wrong and self serving. They should be handed over to the Afghan people to be tried as war criminals. I have little hope for a good outcome.

DRM: It seems impossible to do your style of imagery in modern Afghanistan, just due to it being nearly impossible to get out and live with the population. What do you think of the photography coming out of this region today?

EG: I see a lot of dramatic war stuff from “imbeds” but after a while wars seen close up all seem to look the same. And don’t tell me much about the place. I don’t like the idea of working in a situation where I need a government I.D. Etc.

“No one really expected Jalalabad to fall, and the hands of the foreign powers – USA, USSR, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan – were becoming more noticeable. There was not going to be a simple ending. As I spoke to people in Peshawar I realized that it was going to be a long time before things would be settled.” from Afghanistan 1980-1989

DRM: Do you have any plans to return to Afghanistan?

EG: Not at the present time.

If anyone who reads this post has comments or thoughts, please feel free to share them here or email me at milnorpictures at gmail.com

Also, if you are interested in Ed’s books you can find them here.

Grazda Books

Leica + Guatemala: An Introduction

The shot that made me feel I had found my path, Nebaj, Guatemala.

Cemetery, Antigua.

Streets of Antigua.

Local family in the mountains above San Antonio Aguas Calientes.

View from the rear of a surplus WWII Jeep Willy, Santa Cruz del Quiche.

Dateline 1995:

I’ve graduated from university with a degree in photojournalism.
I’ve interned at a major newspaper, on and off for over a year.
I’ve returned to Texas and am somewhat floundering, and not floundering in a good way like John Belushi in Animal House.
I’ve sent out dozens of portfolios to newspapers all over the United States, large, small, strategic and the truly awful.
Nothing. Not a single response.
I’ve visited the local papers, in at least three major cities, and was met with “not a chance.
It wasn’t just that my portfolio wasn’t superb, it was a combination of things. Changes beginning to happy in journalism, etc.
I hadn’t thought about going to New York at this time, didn’t think I had the work.

So I went to Guatemala.

I studied Spanish in school, loved it, and ran into some friends of my brothers who had just returned from an extended period in this Central American land. They were raving, talking about selling everything stateside and were moving back to Guatemala.

They suggested I go so I went. I had a name, an address and nothing else. Got off the plane in Guatemala City and looked for the bus to Antigua, where I was enrolled in a language school for one month. My plan was to study three days a week, then travel for four days each week, shooting random things, but also working on a list of projects I had researched, some as grand as repatriation of refugees from Mexico.

Got on the bus in G. City, got off in Antigua, bus drove off with my bag still on top. Not a great start. Got my bag back, found my address, met a mutual friend, settled in and began to work a foreign picture story for really the first time. My first time alone, no script, just trying to produce.

Several years back, during my time at the paper, I had switched from Nikon to Canon, back when the EOS had taken over the world. Nearly everyone I knew had switched, but I didn’t have the cash, so I grunted it out with my old gear for as long as possible. I finally saved enough for a EOS A2 and 20-35mm zoom, then eventually got an EOS-1 and 70-200mm. The 2.8 zoom had really landed at that time, and the newspaper world was filled with two lens shooters, and basically I was one of them.

These cameras were fantastic, still are actually, and were so practical for what you found yourself doing as as newspaper person. Press conference, feature picture, portrait, brush fire, high school football might be a typical day, so you needed something broad based and encompassing.

I lugged these large cameras to Guatemala, in my $25 dollar backpack and poncho, but right before I left I used what savings I had remaining and bought a Leica M4-P and 28mm lens. I had seen these cameras for a few years and were intrigued by their size, small, and weight, light. Nobody at the paper was using them, so I didn’t have a real chance to test it out, or ask around. I bought this thing in San Antonio, tossed it in my cheap backpack and flew south.

After making a trip or two, between clase de espanol, into the Guatemalan countryside, I realized something almost immediately. Big cameras meant big disturbance. I met an American with a pickup truck who was living in Antigua, someone with an interest in photography who said, “You teach me about photography and I’ll take you anywhere you want to go.” A deal was made. I also traveled a lot by bus, hours, sometimes days at a time, over crazy mountain roads.

Many of the places I ventured were void of gringos, void of foreigners, and I was a major attraction, in both a good way and a bad way. These were towns that had been hotspots during the war and people were suspicious, even more so of people snooping with cameras. When I would pull the big cameras out some people, grown men, would run away. I began to use the Leica more and more and the larger Canon gear less and less. For overall gear, the Canon was superior, but for this one select use, the Leica was the perfect fit.
I wasn’t shooting as much film, but what I was shooting was more diverse, and I was catching moments more and more. A single roll of film would yield twenty different images, scenes, and with the SLR I tended to have fewer takes per roll, using the motor more and making more pictures of the same scene.

The real moment for me was the moment I shot the first image on this post. I was in Nebaj, up in the mountains, traveling with a botanist, and were, besides a few UN people, the only foreigners in the entire area. There were two Dutch women on the bus with us into town, but for some reason had been stoned and chased from Nebaj by local townspeople. We never figured out why. There had been some sort of shootout the night before. We sat in $1 a night, plywood hotel room trying to figure out if the shooting was getting closer or further away.

The following day we went out and began to explore the town. It was very quiet, somewhat off in a way. It didn’t feel quite right.

Along came a procession, a funeral it turned out, and I turned to my travel partner and said, “There is no way I’m gonna be able to shoot this.”

I left my big cameras in my bag and just began shooting with the Leica. A snap here, a snap there, as I walked with the procession. No one said a word. They knew I was shooting. I was right in amongst them, but it just felt okay.

We angled up the mountain, went through the burial procession and then the mourners began to drift away. The head guy walked over to me and began speaking in his native dialect, Quechua or Kekchi, or something along those lines.

Guess what? I don’t speak either, so I answered in Spanish, and we went back and forth. Finally he just motioned for me to follow him.

We walked and walked, up into the mountains, and suddenly I was at the house of someone else who had died. An 80-year-old man had died the night before, was still in his house, and his neighbors were mourning/celebrating.

The head guy pointed at the doorway to the house and motioned his arm. I thought “Well, here goes nothing.”

Entering that house was like going back in time. I felt like I was in a museum that had come alive. I went in, very dark, took one step to my right and backed myself up to the earthen wall. I froze.

All around me people were moving, chanting, talking, smoking, drinking, eating, comforting each other. It was if I did not exist. Nobody looked at me. Nobody spoke to me.

I raised the M4-P and starting shooting. I never moved. I just watched and waited. I was looking for ONE picture. THE picture. I had the light where I wanted it. I had the right lens. And the camera was so quiet it did not disturb anyone or anything.

The M4-P had no meter, and I didn’t have a hand held. But I had shot the same film, every day for one year, so I KNEW my exposure just by looking.

I did not at all feel like I was a part of what was happening, just too much distance between cultures, and too little time, but I also didn’t feel like I was disturbing anyone.

I felt like I was doing what I was put on the Earth to do. Regardless of what happened with the image, what happened with my career, with anything else, it didn’t matter. It was the experience of making the picture that I knew was my destiny. It’s not to say this is the world’s greatest image, or the best picture of Guatemala ever taken, but for me it was.

Not wanting to over expose myself…get it, overexpose? Okay, I’ll shut up soon. I left, walked outside.

My escort came out and handed me a piece of a partially cooked animal of some sort, with the idea being he wanted me to eat this thing. For the life of me I didn’t know what it was, and I could see it wasn’t really cooked, burned slightly on one side, but not anything I could eat and live to write this.

I had visions of what my 24-hour bus ride back would entail if I even sniffed this carcass. I was slowly learning about being a photographer and getting out of eating things like this was another step in my learning process. It ended well. I told him I was already sick, all through an amazing pantomime skill I had somehow acquired and he was cool with it.

Now, the guy in the red jacket in the middle of frame. He came out of the house, wasted, bombed, gassed, hammered, blottoed, slayed, tanked or whatever else you want to call it, and proceeded to wind up and throw his best right cross at me. He missed by a mile, luckily, and all those gathered around cheered him on as he reloaded, trying to send the evil interloper to Hell with his crushing blows. I danced and weaved, backpedaling the entire time, waving, throwing out dozens of “soy amable,” and “gracias, adios,” and his stamina sucked, so he soon pulled up, doubled over and panting at the side of the trail.

All I could think about was my moment inside the house, that image I knew I had captured.

For the rest of my trip it burned like a fire in my imagination.

Returning from Guatemala I found a lab in Austin to process my film. I remember driving into Austin with my parents, just blown away by my experience down south. It was hard to come back to a world of conformity and job hunting. I couldn’t think of anything but the film.

And I as I pulled out the plastic containers I raced to find the roll that held what I need would be my shot. And there it was. Not that you can tell by this crappy scan, but the image was perfect, exposure wise. And content wise it was just as I remembered.

Over the following months I placed this image in my portfolio, along with several others from Guatemala, all shot with the Leica, and began to show it around.

Another photographer bought this image, printing it 6-feet-wide and hanging it on his living room wall, where it still hangs today. This was long before the giant print craze of today, so it wasn’t as easy to get a 35mm to that size in those days.

Several weeks later, someone else bought the same image and also printed it this size to hang in their house.

I realized I had done what I was there to do. Even if I didn’t make another image the entire trip, this one moment in time was worth every sick moment, every 24-hour bus ride, every time of getting stuck in the jungle in a torrential downpour.

When I look at this image today I can smell that room. I can feel the isolation I felt and I can also feel the Leica in my hands. Not the same one, like an idiot I sold it, but another just like it. And still today, I know this work is what I’m supposed to do.


So I shot a roll, backed it out, left the leader out.

Gave the roll to Michael Napper. He loaded it, shot it, processed it.


I shot on the North Shore of Oahu. He shot in urban Los Angeles.



A strange brew of landscape, oceanscapes and the rigidity of the urban world. I might have posted a few of these a long while back, but was just uploading them to Flickr and thought I would share them here.



This is one of the great things about going through my archive and finding things to upload to Flickr. I don’t put most of my “major” work on Flickr, for many different reasons, but a lot of work I have, that I have never shown, is fun to get out there. It’s time consuming to go through it, and I don’t consider Flickr and archive by any means, but it is nice to begin the sorting process for the day when I finally come up with an idea of how I AM going to do my archive.