Nicaragua Notes: Quality of Light

Remember the day you first picked up a camera? What were you thinking about? I’m guessing the camera. I did. I remember thinking if I could just understand the buttons I would be on my way to becoming a photographer. I remember thinking about my vest. Yes, I had a vest. Didn’t everyone at one point in time? I also remember thinking if I just had the right film, the right strap, the right tape in the right place THEN I would be on my way to being a photographer.

I had no real plan in terms of what I was going to photograph. I remember a landscape shot from the roof of my parent’s house, directly into the setting, South Texas sun. I remember a long exposure night shot from a strange Austin neighborhood with only the moon for illumination. I remember a motor drive sequence of my father who was a competitive shooter at the time. (Pistols not cameras.)
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Typical scene from where the kids were completing their daily assignments. This was a school in El Cua, Nicaragua.

What I don’t remember? I don’t remember ever thinking about any of the things that are truly important when it comes to actually being a photographer. Things like light, timing, composition and perhaps most importantly meaning. Why am I doing this? What am I trying to say? Why should people care?
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Our classroom in the mountains of Matagalpa, Nicaragua.

I, like many, was distracted by all the trivial gadgetry of our photography universe.

Over the years I began to understand the bones of what comprised great photography, and for me it all begins with light. I can’t stress this enough. I’m serious people, don’t make me threaten you. LIGHT is the catalyst for my movement in the field. The SECOND my mind flips to “photographer mode” the first question I ask is “What is the light?” If the light isn’t great, I’m not moving. At least not to actually work. I might scout, interview, wander, sit and watch, speculate, articulate or attempt to be productive in another way, but unless the light is working for me I don’t burn film.

Quality of light is a phrase that gets tossed around these days, like passion and storytelling and all of the other catch phrases of our time, but I actually think “quality of light” is worth repeating to yourself at least twelve times a day. Even when you aren’t shooting you can practice by asking yourself about the conditions you are in and whether they would work if you had to make pictures.
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Managua cemetery, midday, and not a photo I would normally take.

Here is the fun part. Quality of light various tremendously. State to state, country to country, season to season and second by second. Noon in New Mexico isn’t the same as noon in Los Angeles. Your style can take advantage of certain light while ignoring others. Light is a language, a nuanced language of the most intense beauty you can possibly imagine, and when the good light hits it can and will stop you in your tracks. Ever been with another photographer when great light happens? Suddenly everyone is frozen. “Oh God, look at the light,” as people fumble for ANY recording device. Sometimes when the light is good enough it can carry a picture on it’s back. Moments of great light carry with you, the same way your “life” images do.
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Near sunset, shot wide open and into the light to accentuate the flare and beautiful light. (Flemming, that IS a spaceship in the sky. FYI)

Nicaragua and the workshop presented moments of wonderful light. We were stationed in Matagalpa, in a coffee rich mountainous area, and were greeted by a range of weather from intense sun to torrential rain. There were clouds. Often times the sky worked as an enormous, broad source, lightbox style diffusion system. The kids were on assignment, so picking and choosing shooting times wasn’t possible. They shot what they needed to shoot when they needed to shoot it. Thus, they had to learn how to spot the moments happening in the light that worked for them. Imaging putting together a puzzle while someone sat next to you with a timer. That’s what this reportage life is all about.
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Arguably the coolest and funniest translator in the history of the world taking a short, afternoon, backlit break.

All of the images in this post reflect what I consider to be a good quality of light. This is the light I continually hunt for when I’m navigating the world with a camera in hand. Once you set a bar for yourself you get greedy with light. When it’s good nothing else matters. And when the light is bad you have plenty of time to reflect on all the lacking portions of your life. That’s what I do.

It Was All So Easy

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It was all so easy. I didn’t know it at the time. There was no reason to know. There was only reason to want, to get and to experience. “Who was your greatest rival?” the driver was asked. “Well, if you go far back there was a guy, a pure driver, a complete driver, but this was before politics and money, this was pure racing.” It was the same for me. I just knew I wanted to be someone who made pictures. I had little. Two cameras, two lenses and a bag of 35mm, black and white film. I was “freelance,” which according to my father was “mostly free,” “little lance.” It didn’t matter. There was a simplicity, or purity of the drive. Not once did I think of fame, or fortune. They were fools gold, but further these things felt like poison. A slow drip of someone else’s idea of me, of who I should be. Who I should want to be. I never once thought, “What would so and so want from me?” I just did what came naturally, what felt natural and that was more than enough.
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Find story. Get to story. Shoot story. Compile. Repeat. That was the game. The hunt was and is what I am about. I knew it then and I know it more than ever today when once again I find myself free and easy. The early days were the way they were, perfect in their form. With success comes outside influence. A reluctance to put my work out, even from day one, because I just wanted to be in those places, meet those people and make those photographs. Lying in bed at night, staring a cracked fresco on the ceiling above while my parter breaths deeply, next to me but a world away. My exposed film lined up on the floor below the bed. Consuming my night. Reliving those fractured seconds where nothing else in the world mattered but becoming one with my surroundings. Feeling what it meant to really do this. This was never a hobby. It was part of the DNA. Born somewhere far back in history. A newspaper reporter, a school teacher, a searcher, a pioneer, all passing down threads they could never imagine.
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My energy then was all directed outward. Endlessly. I projected. I never wanted anything in return, other than acceptance and opportunity. I knew what I was doing wasn’t going to change the world, but I still felt the need. My world was so peaceful compared to today, to now, when peace is something our culture is slowly exterminating. Click and wind.
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“I don’t get you,” she said. “You shoot these things, you edit and make stories and then you put them in a drawer and never show them to anyone.” “Yes, that’s true.” That’s just the way it is, and no explanation will change it. It was never meant to be, me and this, at least as anything official. It’s not that I don’t care, because I do, but not in the traditional sense. Walking into a house I stare at images on the wall, mine, forgotten that I had made a transaction years ago. Walking into a hotel, staring at images on the wall and realizing they too were mine, forgotten as part of a past trangression. Erased from the front range, placed in the back row and dismissed. Embarrassed even. “Those aren’t really mine.” “You are confusing me with someone else.” I can’t go back, only ahead, but I can strip down, leave behind and reengage. When these memories come they come with an overwhelming force. They are reminders, indicator arrows where my past controls my future. Call this what you will, but I appreciate these little subtleties. Followed by smiles. Acceptance again. Strip down. Fall away and walk on.
Remember? Remember when? When it was all so easy.

Books I Love: Beyond the Fall

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The latest installment “Books I Love.” The concept is very simple. Find a book in my collection, photograph it, then share it with you. The idea being to share what I love about the book or why I have it. The books will range from traditionally published, POD and handmade. The only stipulation is that I love the book. Most of them have a backstory, which I will also share. Books and photography are forever linked, so why not explore the relationship through my bookshelf. Hope you enjoy.

In short, I don’t think you can find a better book of reportage. “Beyond the Fall” by American photojournalist Anthony Suau is a ten-year look at the former Soviet Bloc in transition. TEN YEARS for those of you who came of age in the “modern” photography world of weekend essays, isn’t an exaggeration or typo. He spent TEN YEARS working on this book, and one look at the images living on those pages and you will very clearly see what that kind of time does when it comes to the quality of reporting. Suau covers it all, politics, family, war, high-society and everyday life. When I think of documentary photography books, it’s publications like this that set the bar. You have to remember something very, very important. This is a book of moments. The vast majority of these images are one frame moments. Just think about that. Just think about how much time and focus that requires. Now think about doing that over a ten-year period. So many of the documentary books I see today are the “abstract urban landscape book” void of people(So no need for interaction or model release) or the “portrait series” documentary book which can be done VERY quickly(There are a few stellar books in this category however). Forget it, this book was like an ultra-marathon.

Now, books like this rarely get the credit they deserve because for whatever reason work like this is considered too reality based and the art world doesn’t seem to know what to do with it(Something that has been written about by a fair number of art-world folks), but for me this work is SO DIFFICULT, so RARE and so TIME CONSUMING it deserves it’s own wing in the museum world. Forget the gallery world, this work it more important than MOST of those spaces(There are worthy galleries.)

I KNOW there are so many of you out there living under the ultra-romantic notion of photographer. The loner walking the back streets of a crumbling empire, Leica in hand, pouring their life into their contact sheets. Well, in this case, that is in some ways what you had, but I will remind you of the DATE these images were taken, and the reality that this lifestyle is EXTREMELY rare today because the industry that supported photographers at this time is basically gone. Even during the time this book was made it was a supreme struggle to do this work. Today, nearly impossible. The time isn’t being spent, the work is made digitally now and it just doesn’t have the same cache or impact, nor do folks want to slow down and actually appreciate the work. The reason I’m telling you this is to slow YOU down when you consider a book like this. This is a treasure. A gem. Give yourself, and the photographer, some respect and sit down alone, sans mobile phone umbilical cord, TV, laptop, iPad, etc., and just look at the work, start to finish, front to back. Trust me, it’s worth it.

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I simply can’t tell you the range of what this book offers. I’m not even going start with design or materials, which are both very good, because I still can’t get over the quality of the photographs. The alarming thing is that each photograph represents what has to be an archive of other work. You see an image of a destroyed downtown Grozny during the height of the Chechen War and you think “What ELSE does he have?” You realize to get that one image there had to be MONTHS of preparation and sacrifice. This work is “classic” in all the right ways, and could or should be used in photojournalism schools to illustrate the kind of work being done by one motivated individual with time and resources. Perhaps not as much as he would have liked, actually don’t know, but I’m guessing. This book gets better with age.

Don’t walk, RUN, and go by this thing.

Capture Episode 7

This is worth checking out. There are SO MANY subtle cues in this film I lost count after about twenty-five. I don’t know much about Helena, other than knowing her as a model, but she’s got some super solid work and probably knows as much about BEING photographed as any human on the planet. The other two are rightly considered legends. Oh ya, notice the prints….. Also notice the length…yes, this is an adult conversation.

The Social Photographer

This post was compiled via personal experience, observation and conversations with a range of other creatives. I posted yesterday and today simply to offer a differing opinion on the dominant current of the moment, a current centered around over-sharing, immediacy and the social media life.

The “Social Photographer” continued from the previous post….

The photographer I mentioned before began to haunt my thoughts. The BEST work he ever did, by far, was back when he could not see his images in the field. He would just work, work, work and then ship film, or travel back with it. There was the time waiting for the processing, the printing or proofing. His thoughts would be on the film, what he had or didn’t have. There was chance and the unknown and all of these things forced him to think about this work. Then there was the edit, the ALL POWERFUL EDIT. Sometimes he would undertake this on his own and other times he would work with editors. There was limited space in the publications he worked for so the images that made it were given thought, even though sometimes the best pictures weren’t used.

Then came digital and it’s immediate opportunities. But there was still time. He would shoot and shoot, coming back to his hotel at night to download, EDIT, and transmit a chosen FEW images. As the technology began to invade his world the timelines began to shorten. Sometimes he would shoot for minutes, transmitting from the field to save precious seconds. Suddenly, in some ways, TIME became the key element of his life. Perhaps lack of time.

And then came the mobile phone, with true immediacy, and absolutely no filter and no barrier between he and his audience, the world. The traditional outlets, like the magazines he worked for, are bottlenecks of information, operating in many ways like the calendar reads 1975. With the mobile phone and the Internet the barrier was gone. He began to shoot and share. Immediately. This new found ability was like a drug and the intoxication followed shortly thereafter with the soothing warmth of the “like.” “Wow, a lot of people like my work.” But financially things got worse. How could this be? The pipeline for “content” a word that slipped into the vernacular of the industry, was wide and growing wider. He needed to post more. Posting became a daily event, sometimes dozens and dozens of shares were needed to keep the “flow” of information going. If something wasn’t getting enough likes it was taken down and replaced with something easier, something more fashionable. Suddenly the statistics were what was driving the “content.”

He began to realize he needed to post ONLY a certain type of image, and certain times of the day or night were more beneficial than others. He loved his dog, really loved him, but knew if he posted anything of his precious companion he would lose a certain subset of his audience, watching as his Twitter following decreased forcing him to post “rebuilding” posts, or images, that would drive the count back up. There was the competition for followers with his colleagues. After all, people were watching those numbers, corporations, potential clients who would ask “What kind of social following does he have?” “Is he SCALEABLE as a photographer?” “IF we hire him, will he bring his own following?” But there is a hiccup here, a generation gap. Many of the clients asking about this stuff sounded as if they just discovered social media the week before. They are in their 50’s, or God forbid…their 60’s (although their account execs are in their 20’s and want to keep their jobs.) don’t have time for the “nonsense” themselves, but know their readership or potential customers seem to love the stuff, so the photographer they hire should have a following. “Let the photographer mess with that stuff, we just want to SELL.”

Then the photographer finds himself alone and wondering. Thinking back to the days in school when he was pure of heart. He didn’t have the skill yet, or the knowledge required to navigate the world as someone put on the Earth to tell stories, but he knew in his heart it was what he was chosen to do. Life at that time was a fog of ONLY photography. The rest of life went by like it was someone else’s story, an inconvenience because anything that stood in the way of the images wasn’t to be factored in, couldn’t be factored in. He didn’t expect anyone else to understand. This was HIS world.

And now it’s all changed. The electronic umbilical cord can’t and won’t be denied. He wakes up each morning and instead of looking for his loved one, or his dog, he reaches for his phone because the charade doesn’t sleep. Like King in Platoon said, “The Beast is out there tonight, and he’s hungry.” Take even a SINGLE day off and he risks being forgotten, trampled in the running of the digital bulls.

Well folks, I say ENOUGH . As you know, I left photography over three years ago(Now I’m back.), and from where I view things now, think 10,000 feet birdseye, I look back on the industry and can see things those mired in the trenches cannot. I not only SEE these things, I hear them on a weekly sometimes daily basis. I listen. A lot. And I watch. But most of all I wonder how people allow themselves to be sucked into all this? Yesterday it happened again. Someone contacts me and says they are going to dip their toe in the digital stream. No matter what I say they will take that fateful step. I warn of diminishing impact, of being lost in the Internet jungle, but it always bounces off. “I’m only going to do such and such for “x” amount of time.” And then, like a whisper, they are gone. Instead of reading or talking or browsing the world they find themselves sitting at a dinner party reaching for their phone to check their Facebook page.(This happened last night.) They mumble through their conversation. They seem distracted, agitated because they can’t focus on ANYTHING. Their thumb moves up and down, trained to flick at content like a nervous tick. Their vocabulary suddenly takes on things like “wow,” “amazing” and “unreal,” words now firmly planted in their brains from their social feedback, words used to deflect conversation because they weren’t really paying attention in the first place.

Someone called me the other day and asked about a certain photographer. My response was “You will never get his undivided attention.” This didn’t mean the client wasn’t going to call this photographer, it just meant their communication had to be tailored to FIT. If you think this is crazy, think again. I have to do this ALL THE TIME as I navigate the world as a Blurb faithful. It’s just part of the job now. And people, just know, I’ve dealt with almost all of these issues myself at some point in the last ten years. I was lucky. I saw these things happening to friends and colleagues and said “I gotta make changes…now.” And I did, further evidenced by my severing of all(almost) things social media.

Many of the photographers I know, if given time and peace of mind, will come up with the goods. In a perfect world I could change things, figure out a way to get this done, but the reality is, most of the time, when I even bring these things up, the response is attack. “Who is this guy?” “He’s a nobody.” “He’s a hater or a luddite.” Maybe.

I’m also a listener and a watcher. I’m a refined observer. And there is absolutely no way you are going to tell me this isn’t happening. But I’ll leave you with a question or two.

Where is this headed? What is the endgame? Can you take in more content than you are right now, right this second? Do you see a world where your mobile phone becomes MORE of a part of your life, and does this world seem like a place you want to live in? Do you see your life’s work getting more attention or less? Are real changes being made or are things just being tossed around more?

The reason I ask these things is when I ask real questions about today’s issues, it’s rare I get any real response other than bewilderment. Poverty in New Mexico, air pollution in San Francisco, NSA spying or financial world shenanigans and so often there is just NOTHING coming back at me. Everyone knows when the new iPhone is scheduled for release, but nobody can pinpoint what is actually happening with troop withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Now look, I waste my fair share of time. I can recite every line of “Step Brothers,” and probably will many more times before I die, but I’m starting to look around and wonder. Are we talkers and sharers or are we doers? I just bought a teen love novel by accident, on my Kindle, and I KNEW something was wrong ten pages in but I READ THE ENTIRE DAMN THING. Now I feel dirty and used. I make mistakes all the time, so not wanting to paint myself as a saint, or more worldly than I am.

Where does this leave us? Don’t know. I think there is a difference in bringing up poignant questions and being a contrarian. I’ve been accused of being a contrarian, but what I’ve found is that most of the people accusing me see the same holes in the narrative that I do, but they are trapped and pretending it’s only a flesh wound.

I tell you what I’m gonna do. I’m gonna close my eyes and I’m gonna think of this photographer one more time. I’m going to dream “best case scenario” and I’m gonna work backwards and see if I can’t find a path worth taking.