Two Takes

I’m not sure how well this post is going to go over but I thought I would give it a go. I think this topic is important, but I’m wrong about 77% of the time. Approximately. Now lets forget the fact I’m shooting on the beach in Laguna, which isn’t my favorite place in terms of subject matter. I arrived in Laguna right at sunset and was so excited about the light that I ran around like a crazy person. I was almost going to shoot some self-portrait reflection when I looked down from parking lot level and noticed a woman by the water’s edge. This particular woman had a cat on her back. The cat, obviously, wasn’t real happy about being there and was consequently trying to climb off this woman’s back. It looked interesting, so I ran through the crowd of out-of-towners wearing board shots and tank tops in the 50 degree weather. (I know you WANT it to be warm but it’s not, and the water is ice cold damnit. Googling this stuff can save you some pain.)

These images you see below were shot within seconds of one another.I think one of these images is more modern than the other, and I also think one of these images is better than the other. Here’s why.

This image is what I would consider a “modern” or 2013 style image. I’m using a 1.4 lens at 1.4 even when there is plenty of light to use a smaller aperture. We live in the age of the 1.2 or even the .9 lens, and it appears as if a lot of folks using these lenses are using them at these apertures ALL THE TIME. One look at modern photojournalism is enough to tell me that. In that case it’s the 35mm 1.4 and the 50mm 1.2 Canon that seem to dominate the landscape. No doubt, these are impressive optics, but there is more to life than a soft or “blown out” background. Now in this particular case I’m focusing on the couple in the foreground, with the rest of the humans adding to the layering of the background. Even at 1.4 you can still see location, landscape, etc, and perhaps if the moment in the foreground, the couple, was more specific I would like this photograph more, but it’s not.

This photograph to me is less “modern” but more interesting. This image was shot about f5.6 and has a lot more information to deal with, which means, at least in my normally wrong opinion, it requires the viewer to spend more time with it, which in the age of ZERO attention span is a good thing. Now it works for me for several reason. First, the light is good. Second, the layering is good. Also, the guys third from the left and second from the right are both looking back in my direction, which gives me the human connection I’m looking for. This photograph also gives me more detail about the location and landscape and also informs me that every single person in the image is male, which I can’t explain entirely and don’t know if that tells me something or if it is just a coincidence.

Now, before you go complaining about NOT seeing the cat photograph, don’t get yourself in a tizzy. I’m going to post ONE of these images again, in context with the rest of what I shot in those precious few moments, so don’t get estranged on me. Look, I like a fast lens as much as the next gal, but I’ve never understood the concept of wide open all the time. Remember, as a documentary photographer your goal is to document, education, inform and influence, and sometimes that requires a lot more than 1.4.

Philipp Scholz Rittermann: Emperor’s River

As many of you know, I go to a lot of exhibitions, but rarely do I get to go to one that is literally one mile away from my house. Two days ago I was fortunate enough to receive a call from long-time friend Philipp Scholz Rittermann inviting me to a tour of his exhibition at the Doyle Arts Pavilion at Orange Coast College. I have known Philipp since my Kodak days, but we typically go for long stretches with zero contact and then suddenly run into each other all the time.

Here is a little official news about Philipp and the show.

“Emperor’s River” represents a multi-year project Sholz Ritterman conducted in China. Large scale photographs from the exhibit were recently on display at the Museum of Contemporary Art in San Diego.

The photographer’s work is included in more than 100 public, private and corporate collections, from MoMA, New York to the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris, France. Scholz Rittermann exhibits in national, and international venues, and he was honored with a mid-career survey at the Museum of Photographic Arts San Diego, which published the monograph “Navigating by Light”.

Scholz Rittermann has been teaching photography for more than 30 years in the United States and abroad. He is represented by Scott Nichols Gallery, San Francisco.

Allow me to translate. Philipp has his act together. He is a serious guy. I don’t mean his personality is serious because he is always smiling and laughing, but his career, his work, his planning and his ideas are very well structured, thought out and complete. I’d heard about this project long ago, and I’ve seen countless stories regarding China, but knowing Philipp as long as I have I knew his project would be different, and it is. My personal experience with China is limited. I’ve made two trips to Hong Kong and one short trip into Southern China, but my overall impression can be summed up in one word: overwhelming. So what I love about Philipp’s work and this particular project is that he managed to reduce the incredible scale of China into something I can get my head around. He did this by using the anchor of the Grand Canal as as viscous artery that winds it’s way through the soul of China and the cerebral cortex of the viewer. We see layer after layer of apartment buildings. We see hyper-modern, futuristic convention centers and seafood markets that stretch endlessly into the inky Chinese night. A world with thousands of years of history is being brought up to modern speed in a remarkably short period of time. We wonder when the dust will settle and the answer we see in Philipp’s photographs is perhaps “never.”

But there is more to this story. Philipp’s technique is to a photograph a scene with a multitude of exposures and compositions then stitch them seamlessly together. The result is an image incredibly rich in information, detail and exposure. And, to top it off, many of the images were done handheld! Images required days, sometimes weeks, to composite. Philipp’s prints are large but not crazily so, and after a brief overview I found myself being pulled in, FAR in to each and every print. I found myself studying and being completely content with tiny portions of each print. Ultimately, what I enjoy the most about Philipp’s show is that the images remind me how much of an enigma China really is. I’m left with so many questions. I find myself wondering how this China story will end. Good photography doesn’t always answer every question. Good photograph also creates mystery, and that is how I feel about Philipp’s work.

What’s Old is New: Return to Weddings

My wedding technique in 1999 and again in 2010

I began to shoot weddings for real in 1999. I had recently left my job at Kodak, wanted to return to photography full-time, and at the suggestion of another wedding photographer, had decided to try my hand in this field.

This was before the wedding bubble, before the days of over the top marketing, advertising, websites, blogs, social media, etc. The wedding world, at least in my opinion, was more normal, real and frankly more fun.

I was a novice, and amazed that anyone would want me to shoot their wedding, let alone allow me to do it. I was not the normal wedding photographer.

My practice was to take one camera, one lens and a few rolls of black and white film. That’s it. Nothing else. I never even brought a strobe. It was as streamlined as you can get, completely unlike most “real” wedding photographers, but for me it was completely normal. I’d been doing documentary projects like this for years, so I wasn’t doing anything I wasn’t very comfortable with.

I didn’t have any “packages.” I didn’t have a great website. I didn’t belong to a single wedding anything. I got work through word of mouth, and also by showing work to vendors. I’d visit hotels, planners, etc, and show them documentary work. Nobody else it seems was doing this.

But as the years went by, and the industry began to grow, so did I. The idea of going to a wedding with one camera became lunacy. The thought of not taking a strobe became, “unprofessional,” and before long I too was being sucked in to the modern wedding mentality.

Two years later, armed with Canon 30D’s, I was fully digital and blasting my way through locations from Europe to the Caribbean and all across the United States. People were hiring me because I was “fully digital” or “high tech” and I thought I was a total wedding stud.

I still didn’t fit the modern mold in my vision. The maximum number of weddings I ever did in a year was 10, and I never had one tad of desire to become a factory, or triple the number of jobs I was doing. I never thought of training and hiring anyone else to work with me.

One day I came home after a large wedding shoot and sat down at the computer to begin the great download and post-production marathon that had become part of my life the minute I had gone digital, and I just hit the wall. It was sudden and dramatic.

I looked at my wife and said, “For the first time in my life, I don’t want to look at my own images.” It was a terrible feeling.

I knew why digital photographers hired out their post and design. I knew why some of the top shooters never ever saw their images after the wedding was over. I knew why photographers randomly converted half their images to black and white. It changed everything for me. Again, I never once thought of farming my life out. I felt, and still do, that if I’m farming out my post, I must be shooting the same images over and over, otherwise how could someone else do my edit? Editing was sacred, not something to turn over to an intern.

I realized I needed to return to film. And return to film is what I did. But this time I went to the medium format world, choosing to shoot the bulk of my weddings with a Hasselblad and 80mm lens.

For about four years I did just this, and became known for this style of work. Other photographers thought I was somewhat nuts because using the Blad is slow and provides a puny 12 images per roll of 120. By then the insanity of modern weddings had taken full effect. Suddenly photographers were shooting thousands of images during a wedding, and then selling the concept of quantity to unsuspecting clients. I attended a trade show and listened to a speaker claim to have shot 12,000 images by himself during a wedding, and the audience burst into applause. I was shooting 200 images at a wedding.

Times had really changed.

But about two years ago began to feel as if I had done enough weddings. Like I do every four or five years, I felt the need to change my life once again. So for the past year and a half I really didn’t do any weddings. I spoke with my favorite planners, locations, and said, “You know, I’m done for a while.”

It was just what I needed. During this time I instead focused more on my portraits, and had a great time doing this. Portraits are still a big part of my life, shooting again today actually, and I hope they will continue to be a part of my life in the future.

But a few months ago I began to think about weddings again. I ran into one of my original clients and was able to look at the work I produced for him. Looking at those prints took me right back to that day, those moments. It also reminded me how simple and clean what I did back then really was.

His entire wedding was shot with an Leica M6 and 35mm. There were no proofs, online hosting or book involved. I simply processed the film, by myself at that time, and then went into the darkroom and made 20, 11×14 prints. I then made an envelope, also by hand, added the prints, then sealed it with wax.

That’s it.

The client not only still had it, but said they viewed it on a regular basis. I was stunned.

Suddenly things made sense again. I realized that one of the reasons I needed a break from weddings was that the wedding industry had sucked me in a direction I didn’t want to go. Now, to defend myself a little bit, the wedding industry had exploded to a never before seen level. With the demise of many other photographic genres, the wedding world had become the refuge for many photographers, who a few short years before, would have NEVER stooped to shooting weddings. The industry, due to reality television, editorial explosion, had become a HUGE business. By the time many clients got to me their personal, boutique events had become super structures that were over the top in every way.

The industry was racing upward and I was sucked into the vortex.

But taking a year and a half off allowed me to fall back to Earth, and also allowed me a fresh look at who I had become, and what had become of the industry.

I realized that for me to return to this field, I had to make some changes.

So, the Hasselblad and digital bodies will remain in the locker, and once again, I will return to my original pursuit.

This weekend I will shoot a wedding, and my entire rig is highlighted in the attached photo. That’s it. Two bodies, two lenses, black and white film, and yes, this time around, a strobe. What can I say, I’m splurging.

My entire setup fits in one small bag which I will leave behind once I get to where I’m going. I don’t envision back pain. I don’t envision working with someone else, second shooter, and having to be aware of their needs and content.

Now, I realize something. This return to the past is not for most clients. In fact, I would go so far as to say that this ONLY fits one small niche of client. But that is what I’ve always been. That is what I’ve always looked for.

Weddings are in interesting event. There is so much tradition and history that many people do what they think they are supposed to do, and perhaps not what they actually want to do. I need those folks that say, “You know, we just want a core group of great images and the rest falls where it may.”

Because of this I have to work harder for my jobs. I really do. The way I look at it, if the industry gets to the client before me, I don’t stand a chance. The industry tells the client, digital only, quantity, teams of photographers, high-tech, slideshows, etc. Speaking of that, I was at a location once, staying for fun, and there was a wedding going on. The wedding photographer was times three, and all three were wearing black head to toe and were also wearing headsets. It was really over the top. I ended up talking to the bride who said she felt like she was surrounded by the mafia when the photogs were around, and even the location had to tell the photographers to “tone it down.”

So recently, I visited a location I used to shoot weddings at. When I mentioned to the manager I was thinking of shooting weddings again I really didn’t expect any reaction. This person said, “Oh, that is so great, you really understand this place and now I have someone I can refer that I really believe in.” It was surprising to hear but also made me feel like I was doing something genuine if you will.

My new/old style of working provides a certain type of image, and regardless of whether you like it or not, it stand outs from the modern wedding world. The 70-200mm 2.8 is the lens of choice it seems for modern folks, although it seems that one person finally discovered the fixed lens and now everyone is using fast 50’s and 85’s, but my longest lens will be a 50mm. This work stands out. Again, you might not like it, but it does, and my best selling point over the past few years has been to ask clients, “Can you choose the other photographers work out of a lineup?” Frankly, in most cases, with modern, digital shooters, you can’t. The bulk of the work looks exactly the same.

So, I’m not choosing this old route to be different, not at all. I’m doing it because I love it. It rekindles the relationship I had with my work all those years ago. And a happy photographer, in my book, typically is a good photographer.