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.

Color of Light

All three of these photos suck but I’m using them not for their content but for other reasons. First, most of the images I make pretty much suck, so these are a good “case in point.” The top one I thought was going to be gangbusters, but the sky just wasn’t working for me. The middle image was about motion but I just didn’t get enough, and the final image was made in an attempt to time someone out on the rock, someone who was using a strobe. I was trying to time it with a long exposure to get their flash going off, which I did in other frames but missed entirely on this one. Oh well, life is evil and we all turn to dust. Now that we have that out of the way, let’s keep moving.

These images are here because of the color of the light.


But before we talk color of light I want you forget a few things.
Your education, your photography studies, your camera, your lens, your laptop, your software, your filter sets, your camera bag, your gadgets and gizmos, your pixel depth, your megapixels, your fluoride elements, your aperture, your shutter speed, your tripod, your camera tape, your hard drive, your calibration device, your thunderbolt plug, your monitor, your iPad, your iPhone, your blog, your Facebook page, your agent, your rep, your website, your career and for sh%$ sake please forget about “being a photographer” and “doing what you are supposed to do.” Okay, I’ll give you a few minutes to prepare.

Ready?


You need to forget all those things because they just don’t matter unless you are in the right light.
Light. Let me say it again, “light.”

People ask me all kinds of strange photography questions, which is one reason why I love having a blog. Photography, at least to me, is a somewhat strange pursuit. You point a light tight box at something in an effort to preserve it or share it or put some HDR thing on it to make it look like something you puked up after eating too much fried food at the fair. We make photography seem complicated but it really isn’t, not at all. We’ve built an industry around it for some reason, and this further increases the complexity, but the actual photography part stays painfully simple. For me it can all be summed up in three things. Light, timing and composition, and those are in a very specific order. LIGHT, timing and composition.

These images were all made in basically the same spot. Yes, I was moving around and they are from different angles and distances but it is the same slab of rock and the same enormous hole. These images were also made, I’m guessing, within roughly the same hour. Yes light changes that fast and so does the COLOR OF THE LIGHT and here lies the point of this post. I get a lot of questions about gear, which in the long run really doesn’t mean much. Gear is romantic. The top forty photography sites, in terms of traffic, are all gear and technology related. A significant portion of the workshops I see being offered today are all gear related. I think the idea of things like light and timing and composition are REALLY getting overlooked these days. But, again, the reality is if you are not using the right light then you really aren’t being the photographer you could be, and it surely doesn’t matter what device you have in your hand. The vast majority of the time, when I’m in the field working, my entire agenda is dictated by the light. Seriously, I can’t stress it any more than that. The light dictates where I go, when I go and how long I’m there. I don’t work in high noon light unless something has gone wrong or I have no choice or unless something truly dramatic is happening and I HAVE to make pictures right then and there. I’ll sit in my car for eight hours in 110 degree heat….waiting for the light to get right. There is no other way. My shooting is like a cage fight, months of training, months of hype and then three rounds of all out effort. Sometimes I get knocked out and other times I do some damage. I’m a 50/50 fighter at best, even with the light working for me.

Near my house in California is a protected waterway that birds really dig. Where there are birds there are birding photographers, and this place is no exception. They have camouflage trucks. They wear camouflage clothes. They all have Canon 600mm lenses….wrapped in camouflage. They have tripods…wrapped in camouflage. And….they all go out to shoot at HIGH NOON. I’ve never understood this. Standing in the blazing sun and cooking down the buffer on their 1DS Mark III’s. Don’t they look at good birding photography? Don’t they know that early morning and early evening give you not only direction of light but also COLOR OF LIGHT? These guys are like quantum physics, yes I know they exist but I have no understanding of them.

These Grand Canyon images illustrate color of light. Going in reverse order, the bottom image was shot first and just LOOK at how blue that light is. The middle image is moments before sunrise and the light is shifting, a middle ground of warm edges, white center light and a soul that is still blue. And the third image, the top one, is shortly after sunrise and yellow/red is now the statement being made. Within minutes in the desert environment the light will be gone, and when I say gone I mean virtually unusable. When I worked in Arizona it was the 8:30 AM to 5:30 PM rule of might as well go take a nap during these hours.

I see a fair number of portfolios and the photographer will begin showing me work made in horrible light. They will begin telling me about the equipment used, their philosophy and their desire to get a show or book. All I see is imagery made by someone with zero understand of light.

So, next time you venture out on a photo expedition take one last look at that clock. Go earlier, go later, look for clouds, look for rain or anything else that will add color or drama to the light. Good luck.

Story Behind the Photos: Kman Does Texas BMX


The infamous Kman, not happy at having to stand still for this picture.

I did what I thought I was supposed to do. Yes, after all these years, I still do this.

My nephew, the infamous Kman, races BMX. In fact, he is a total badass with a room full of trophies to show off his 65-pound prowess.

So I go to visit the family and find out I’ve landed on race night.

I have options.

I think to myself, “This is racing action, I’ve got to get that peak moment, I need a motor drive, long lens, etc,” so I grab the digital body and long lens and toss it in the truck.

And then, more out of reflex than anything else, I toss in the Blad.

The track is easy. A small place, and being Texas people are relaxed.

“Hey, my nephew is racing, can I stand in the middle of the track?”

“Sure, go ahead.”

And with a smoking gun the races begin.

I’m hammering away, motor drive humming, mirror clanging up and down. But I’m distracted. Not by something around me, but by something inside me.

“What am I going to do with these images?”
I begin to ask.

“Do I really want to sit down and edit through all these motor sequences.”

“Ugh.”

“Why am I doing this?”

“Do I really want to archive these, label these, tag these, etc,etc?”

“Ugh.”

Don’t laugh, this is how my troubled mind works.

I began scrolling through the images on the camera, something I HATE doing. I know hate is a strong word, but it fits here. I DETEST looking at images right after. I think it completely KILLS the idea of being a photographer, BUT I CAN’T STOP MYSELF.

I’m like a total crack monkey with the preview window. I can’t stop. If I turn it off, I just turn it right back on. Hopeless.

I suddenly realized, with slight sadness, I had no interest in even looking at the images I was making. The images didnt’ feel like they were mine.

There were a dozen parents in the same area, all with similar gear, banging away. They probably had the exact same stuff, only of their mini-warriors. And I think there was even the dude that shoots every kid and uploads every single image online so that the one parent without their camera can buy a print.

“Well, I know my brother will like these, or my mom,” I said to myself, making excuses for the images, while I took a quick peak at the refreshment stand wondering what delicious treats they had hidden behind the counter.

I packed up the gear and headed for the car.

Right before burning dust in the parking lot I saw the Blad.

I loaded the relic and grabbed my dreaded tripod. Yes, my tripod, and headed out into the world I had just retreated from.

At least 10% of my mind was still thinking of the refreshment stand. I have to be honest.

Suddenly there were whispers around me.

“Honey, look at that guy with the old camera.” “What is he doing?” “Is he allowed in there?”

“Hey, dude, what the f%$# is that thing.” “Holy S%@#, haven’t seen one of those in a while.”

And suddenly I was in my own world. I could see again. I grunted and shuffled around the pit area like a deranged ape.

Things were clear. I dissected with my eyes, and then framed the pieces. A story began to build.

The kids in the pits were like ants invading an empire, merging in lines and shadow, with harsh artificial light painting their movements with razor sharp shadow. The sky was glowing.

Insects pierced the night. Colors were bright. The wind picked up. Darkness and light. Passion.

I don’t remember much of what was around me. I was “involved” let’s say. I was involved in a 6×6 space that started in my medulla oblongata and ended at the tip of an 80mm.

Clunk.

Minutes later.

Clunk.

This was MY work. My mind. My vision. My moment. This was the work I need to be doing ALL THE TIME. All supplied by following the Kman.

I thought about history. I thought about family. I thought about the light. I thought about what these pictures would mean. I thought about who would have them in 100 years. I thought about Kman and what must be going through his mind.

I was away in that place that photographers go when they are working.

And then. Clunk. It was over.

A Sense of Place

My aunt and I share the same birthday, so I always try to call her on the day.

She recently had a book of poetry published. The poems came to her in a “moment of clarity” and suddenly began to flow through her. She wrote them down, thought of self-publishing, but decided to try one mainstream publisher who quickly gobbled her up. I am thrilled for her.

But something from our conversation really hit home. It was that “moment of clarity.”

You see her moment happened when she was holding her granddaughter, and watching her grandson as he roamed and ran. It wasn’t as if she was sitting alone in a darkened room, meditating with flute music. She was in the midst of things, which is what made me stop and think.

They say we all have a “powerspot,” or a place that we subconsciously relate to. “They” being educated people like the college professor that explained the “powerspot” to me.

I agree with this. I have several. One happens to be the drivers seat of my car. Another is the seat of my bicycle. And my other “powerspots,” they vary, move around.

But when I land on one, my best work emerges. Always.

It is during those moments of pristine clarity when, I think, our true creative being emerges. We find the focus we need, we find the second layer of the project, or the third, fourth or fifth. And suddenly, your vision becomes as clear as your moment.

Currently, one of my “powerspots” is where my mom lives. I only get there once, maybe twice a year, but each time I’m there I always manage to find a moment of clarity. And when I do, I make pictures. I make these pictures for no reason other than to make them. I have to.

And what these particular pictures seem to do is give me a sense of place, of being, without really showing where I am. They are like fingerprints, inspired by nature, perhaps a return to my youth. I make them each and every time I go, and I’ve found them more and more interesting over time.

I feel an energy in these images, a respect. I’m not sure anyone else would feel it, or should feel it, but I’m curious about that.

I actually printed one of these, large, roughly 30×30 and it sits framed on my mom’s mantle, above the fireplace. It’s odd to see it, then look out the window and see the real object. There had to be something that alerted me to photographing this object, and then print and frame this object, and then have my mother hang it. There had to be an unknown force. At least it feels that way.

I think the key to these moments is not necessarily the work that is made directly from the experience, but rather the realization of what happened, that you had this moment, you could feel it, and in some ways experienced a creative breakthrough.

At first I thought these images were not really “mine,”, but now I think, perhaps they are “my” work. Maybe they are leaving tracks for me to follow. A warning? A suggestion?

Smogranch Featured in Flash Flood

Recently I was alerted to the fact there existed a new, online publication regarding contemporary photography in New Mexico. Checking the list of founders, I was pleasantly surprised to see a familiar name or two, so I sent off an email of congratulations.

I began to think about my photography, about New Mexico, and wondered what I had from the region. This place, the “Land of Enchantment,” is one of my favorite places in the world. If you have never been, you must go. That is all I can say.

In fact, I recently did a radio interview and was asked about my favorite location I had traveled to, and without hesitation I replied, “New Mexico.” When I’m in New Mexico I feel different. I feel more connected, to both the land, and those around me. There are tensions there, both man made and the natural kind, but these tensions are what gives the region its flavor.

This image is active, so it will link you directly to the site. This feature was on the Flash Flood Blog, so don’t forget to check out the main site.

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The story relates to my move there, and a trusty pickup that is no longer with us.

www.flash-flood.org