What it Takes

Stormbelt Cover

This post just hit me out of the blue, but I think it is a very important read if you are new to photography or thinking you might want to make the jump to actually being a photographer. But before I get into this post I need to clarify something. When I say, “be a photographer,” I mean a REAL photographer. I recently read a wonderful description of the modern photography world and I realize I can’t describe it any better. I read the photography world described as two worlds, the one on Earth and the one in Cyberspace, and the two worlds DO NOT KNOW EACH OTHER. I think this is one hundred and ten percent true. This is how you can have someone with literally a million followers on social media yet the person remains entirely unknown in the “real” professional photography world. I know this comment and description will rub some people the wrong way but I can’t stress to you how real this situation is. The definition of “real” can be debated, but those in the industry, those working photographers, agencies, editors, reps, consultants and art buyers all know who is real and who isn’t. However, this is NOT to say that those in the cyberspace world aren’t working. Some are, but as we all know the playing field, industry and future of this business is VERY much up in the air. All I will say is people get jobs for different reasons. And yes, this last sentence should be read into….in GREAT depth.

Nevada California Border 2009, Stormbelt Robert Leslie

About a year and a half ago, perhaps a bit longer, through my Blurb duties, I met and was able to work with a photographer named Robert Leslie. Robert is a maniac in all the right ways. He is driven, really driven, and is also well connected through his years of work, travel and personality. Prior to meeting, Robert had found himself in Miami with a gig booked in California roughly four weeks later. In a subtle twist of fate he decided to drive to California, choosing to head across the southern part of the United States, an area that until this trip had escaped his prying eyes. Born in the UK, raised in Canada but based in London, Robert like many folks from other parts, had spent most of his US time in the larger, coastal cities. In short, his drive exposed him to an entirely different United States, one far from the headlines, glamour and style of the big cities.


Robert made an edit from this first trip, and doing what photographers do, he made a small book. The book made the rounds, took on a life of its own and a tiny ember went from spark to flame.

Suddenly a merger was formed. Robert, myself and the Blurb super-crew decided to create something. A plan was hatched, a second trip devised and thus it began. “Stormbelt” was born.


Robert made a second trip across the US, retracing his original route. His first trip had coincided with Obama’s inauguration and the second trip was roughly three years later and served as a bell weather or sorts. Robert made more images, recorded audio, created an original soundtrack and also shot video. He expanded on what he had done in the past because he knew that three years down the road he had a bevy of other tools at his disposal. Books, magazines, PDF’s, rich-media, etc. In addition to this he also connected with a few others who he thought might be able to shed some light on the story, asking them for essays which would help lend their perspective to this important look at America. He didn’t just ask anyone. He asked Edward Burtynsky and Cameron Sinclair.

For those of you still with me, you will begin to see what I’m talking about when I say “real photographer.” And people this doesn’t mean you have to like Robert’s work. That is personal, subjective. There are plenty of heavyweights who make images that don’t interest me. That’s okay. I happen to like what Robert does, for a variety of reasons, which I’m not going to list here. Think about this. A significant body of work already completed (1st trip). A multi-pronged attack plan combined with a merger/partnership with Blurb. A second trip across the United States. Essays from two heavyweights. Oh, and I forgot to mention the editing of work. The edit for the final book was done by Chris Boot of Aperture Foundation. And let me say this. If you are new to photography then you might not think twice about this last sentence, but let me save you from yourself. Chris Boot is a real editor, in addition to being a publisher. When I saw the edit he did with Robert’s work I was alone in my office fielding a barrage of emails from Robert. “Have you seen the edit that Chris did?” Robert asked. “No,” I said. A few moments later it arrived and I almost cried. It was both that good and also a reminder that I would not have been able to do what he did. THAT is what good editing does. It allows the work to become MORE than it actually is. Consequently, the book becomes more than it actually is, which is what good books do. Good books become living, breathing things that haunt our subconscious.


Fast forward. The work is done. (And it wasn’t shot in a weekend and hyped as a “long-term” project.) The essays were done. The edit was done. The book was done. Now what? Robert did not relentlessly barrage the random world with his project. There was another plan. It was decided that we would launch the project at the Contact Festival in Toronto in May, which we did. With this came the media from Robert, from Blurb and from the kind folks at the festival. There was an exhibition with prints as well as a variety of multimedia from the project. And this was just the beginning.

In 1992, after I graduated with a degree in photojournalism, my life consisted mostly of making pictures. I had few options in terms of marketing and promotion. I could do print mailers, but this was prior to email, texting, websites, social media, etc. In some ways it was a far kinder and more civil world, but that is another story. Robert did have these modern options, as well as the options of knowing people in the right places based on his years in the field. I hear so much hype about hype about hype that it drives me crazy. Again, within the REAL photography world there live the real players. These are people and entities like The New York Times, Occupy, Le Journal de la Photographie, , etc. If you follow these links you will see that Robert is featured in all of them. During this time, Robert was also doing interviews with the British Journal of Photography, and Polka in France and the French journalist asked if there was information on Stormbelt available in French. Robert replied, “I can do a French translation!” So he did, then Spanish, Italian & German in both ebook & print book, all before Christmas.

Stormbelt_Leslie 008 (VIDEO STILL)

Folks, this isn’t easy. This takes a level of pursuit and commitment that many people are just not willing to endure. You got 5000 “likes” on Facebook. Really? I don’t care. Sorry. I know that means something to someone, but in many cases, not really. What doesn’t get 5000 “likes” on Facebook? Inside the “real” photography world a significant number of people are vying for these same high-end outlets. So how did Robert do it? THAT my friends and Smogranch family is the question you should be asking yourself. Again, it ain’t easy, and the fact he did get placement in these outlets means that that ball began rolling YEARS ago as Robert was building the foundation of his business and frankly building the foundation of the ENTITY that is Robert Leslie. Yes, I said “entity.” That is a reality folks. You aren’t just your images, you are this other “thing.” This “thing” is really important and is what, in many cases, actually gets the right attention from the right people who work at the right place. You hear me?

Now, this is a real treat and a real inside look at how the world CAN work. I sent this post to Robert, before I hit “go” and said, “This is what I’ve got.” He wrote back with the following “conversation.” I being a blogger asked “Can I use that?” He said “Sure, go for it.” This is how ONE of these little connections came to be.

– ROBERT SPEAKING I was thinking there’s a great quote from James Estrin (NYTimes)….. when I saw him in Perpignan in September (I pitched him…yes…. in an elevator while I was there…)…. I was talking to him about 1000portraits, & he said, “No… there’s another project of yours yes..?” I said, Yes, Stormbelt.
The next morning we met for 5 minutes (….there was a line of 5-10 hopefuls with their portfolios….at his hotel…during his breakfast…..). He glanced at a couple of the shots & says, “you know, I remember this, we passed it around the office when you submitted it (in May at the time of the Contact exhibition) & we really liked it. I don’t recall the concept or story, but the images really stayed in my mind”.
I turned to him & asked, “Jim, isn’t that the important part ?”
He laughed & agreed.

These subsequent images are a smattering of the other outlets where Robert’s piece found a home.

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Now, I’m also including an audio interview Robert did with the World Photography Organization. This interview is part of the “premium” part of their site, which you can’t normally see unless you are a premium member. However, they agreed to allow me to use this film for this post. If you don’t know these folks, or know what is on that site then you should take a look. Their features are solid, informative and hit a range of people well beyond the standard photography site or organization.Sue Steward, WPO’s critic in residence, selected Stormbelt as the best Ebook of the year in her annual review of best photography books of 2012.

To see a slideshow and listen to Robert describe the project please use the following link.

Robert Leslie 3 – Small

I need to get back to my scolding self before I end this little piece. You want to be a photographer? Okay, great. Step one, learn how to make great photographs. Wait, don’t pick up your phone to text that out. Don’t sign on to Facebook to add that to your status update. Don’t tweet it either. In fact, do me a favor. Turn off your phone, your computer and pick up your camera. Go into the world and find something you FEEL something about. And I mean the REAL world not Cyberspace, the Discovery Channel or some other alternative universe. I mean outside the front door of the structure you are in right now. Go out and go feel. When you have found something spend the next few years really getting to know it. Study it with your camera and your feelings. BUILD something. After a while show it around and see if your feeling is felt by those looking at your images. If so, you are on the right track. And let me say one more thing. This isn’t something that happens quickly. It takes what we are all so horrified by today. It takes time. In some cases it takes years. In other cases it takes a master plan, two trips across the United States, essays and exhibitions.

I’m sorry but I’m putting the screws to photographers for a reason. We demand more. Being a photographer is about a lot more than the latest widget, the things that seem to dominate much of the modern industry. We are the storytellers, the holders and revealers of the truth and it’s about time something is said about the modern state of affairs. You don’t just say “I’m now going to be a photographer.” It’s about far more than that.

Let me end with this. Being a photographer is doable and something well worth pursuing. The odds of being a legendary photographer are not good. The odds of being great are not good. But the odds of making a difference in some strange way are very real. That’s enough. If you work with feeling your work can land in the place it belongs. It adds to what has been done and influences what is being dreamed up. Again, that’s enough. So this message goes out to the brave ones. Don’t be afraid, make the first step. Good things will follow.

Portfolio Reviews: Fotoweek DC

I rarely get a chance to review portfolios. In the past year I’ve only had one chance, so this coming opportunity at Fotoweek DC is a gem I’m very much looking forward to. What I like about reviewing is seeing how someone will take something they love, something that is so important to them and encapsulate all of it into a very small, edited, edible size. It isn’t easy, but that is the point. HOW someone does this is also very interesting. What do you present? How much? And in what form will you deliver the work?

If you haven’t had your work reviewed I can’t emphasis how important this is. What is the difference between showing your work on an iPad and showing a box of prints? What about a book? How many images do you show? What if someone sees something they like? Should you have extra work in reserve? What should you leave behind? Are you prepared for rejection? All of these questions are a starting point for being reviewed. Also, choosing the right reviewer is a key element.

The last time I had my work reviewed, for real, I was completely and utterly unprepared. Completely. I was showing the work you see here to book publishers, and beyond being able to answer the question, “What is your name?” I was unable to answer a single question in relation to this work. Who is the audience, Italians or Italian Americans? Where should the book be printed? How many copies? What size book are you thinking of? How many pages? What paper? Who is going to write the forward? Are you prepared to have shows in NY and LA entirely on your own? Etc, etc, and perhaps most importantly, do you have “X” amount of money upfront?

This was me…”Ahhh, I don’t know?”

My advice, learn from my mistakes.

The reason I included these particular images is that they are all portfolios from the exact same body of work, but each portfolio was designed for a certain type of review, or a certain situation where I might end up showing the work. And these are ONLY the print versions. Let’s not forget I have these images on my phone, website, etc. After having created these different versions there were a few that immediately began to stand out. The large print box (13×19),the smallest print box(3.5×5) and the smallest book(7×7) were the items I used the most. The iPad was, and is, the version I use the least. For some reason I don’t think work is considered the same way with the iPad that it is when showing prints or a book.
However, the phone has worked very well because the size actually brings people closer to work. The phone is like printing tiny prints which force the viewer to get close, as opposed to wall size images that actually physically make people back away. All of these dynamics are changing with the current explosion of viewing options. This is a good thing.

There are several things I would advise. First, you don’t need massive prints. I see this once or twice every time I’m at a review. Occasionally this can work but in many cases the idea of handling massive prints becomes an obstacle, and with twenty minutes total, most of the time it doesn’t work that well. And, if you are going to make massive prints make double sure your imagery requires this size print. I see a lot of work printed huge for no particular reason other than we now have the capability of doing so. As a reminder, my box of 3.5×5 prints has been as well received as anything I’ve ever done.

You also don’t need to show a huge number of images. Most of the time I’m going to see what I need to see within about ten images, twenty maximum. It’s great to have work in reserve, so if something strikes someone you can pull out the backup.

Finally, I think it’s best to have a user friendly portfolio. I know there is something museum like about white gloves but I don’t want to wear them and I surely don’t want you to have to sit there and turn the prints for me. At my last review I was approached by several people with white gloves and STACKS of prints. STACKS. Once they began turning prints, without me touching or feeling anything, I was so ready to say, “Okay, DONE,” but I’m too polite and endured the print onslaught. However, after about ten prints I was only thinking about how to get out of the review. And people I’m a “build you up, look for the positive” type reviewer, not the “break you down, focus on the negative” kind of reviewer.

Ultimately, in addition to all these physical or electronic options at our fingertips lies the all important reality that as an “artist” we MUST to able to TALK about our work. Did I mention how important this is? I might look at a body of work and think, “Not my thing,” or “Not sure what to say about this” but when the photographer can clearly state their intentions their goal and their influences, feelings, reason, etc., it allow me to sometimes see the work in a new way. When I learn the “why” I can sometimes aim the photographer in a direction I might not have otherwise been able to do.

And just to emphasize my obsession, I’ve included this image of me TALKING about this same work. Don, if you are out there, I think you shot this but let me know if I’m wrong about that.

Enjoy the review process, it’s one of the most interesting things we can do with our work. Take the lows and the highs and chop them off. Most will walk away somewhere in the middle, which is my experience isn’t such a bad place to be.

Nine Lives

Old School, 20-dupe slides

I’m not sure who this post if for. Young photographer maybe. Old photographer maybe. Curious photographer? I don’t know. But, I was cleaning out my office the other day, something I find intensely satisfying, and began to uncover A LOT of strange things. Odds and ends. Tidbits. Scraps. Failings. Creative tailings. One of the things that began to emerge was a variety of things all related to the same work. I did the project in Sicily. I like it. It’s one of the things I hope I’m never done with because I can’t imagine not wanting to go back to Sicily or not wanting to keep working on this piece. However, I have enough images where I can say, “I’ve got a project here.”

My second ever Blurb book and first on Sicily. Also the best selling Blurb book I’ve done.
I realized what I had, in the pile of debris from my office was an assortment of portfolios all relating to the exact same work. At first I thought, “Jesus, what was I thinking?” but after deeper consideration I realized these portfolios, in all their incarnations, served a variety of uses and purpose. And I figured that a lot of other photographers probably did the same.

5×7 print box, perhaps my all time favorite way of showing images.
I’m not sure which of these portfolios came first. Could have been the slides, or the small, initial prints, but I have to say, this small box is perhaps my favorite. I do this with much of the work I do. I do a shoot, a real shoot, like a long-term project shoot then I come home, edit. Then, I print the best few images in small size, either 5×7 or 4×6. Those go in a small box like this. That’s it. I keep doing this. Eventually, that little box is full and I’ve got a good start on the project, book, essay, etc.

Inkjet prints with metal, spiral bind.
I think I used this little baby at a portfolio review. Made some inkjet prints, not great ones by any stretch, then bound them in sequence to show at a portfolio review. It has been YEARS since I’ve done a review so I can’t remember all the details.

Camera Arts and Black & White Magazine
The work was also published at least twice, once in Camera Arts Magazine and once in Black and White Magazine. These too became part of the show process that I added in for this work. At the same type portfolio reviews I would first show them the work, then see if they were really looking or paying attention. Then, depending, I would bust out the publications and say something like “Oh ya, these guys ran this work,” very casually. For some reason this old idea still holds water for some folks, the idea that a magazine would run your work. It’s the old adage, “Well, if they found something interesting then maybe I should to.” I’ve never believed in this, simply because of the work I’ve seen published and knowing some of the reasons WHY it was published. But, alas, I was not immune to playing that game.

A second Blurb book that just wasn’t good. But, I made it anyway.
So over the years I kept coming back to this work and making new books of the material. I’m not sure why but I did. Some worked, others didn’t. But, those that didn’t taught me some good lessons. Printing, cover choice, typography, design, etc.

Another incarnation of the book that was too expensive and took to long.
You might be wondering if this kind of thing is excessive. I don’t know. Maybe. Or maybe not. Maybe ultimately it will lead to the “mega-book” or mega-portfolio.” I’ve not done anything quite so extensive with work since this time, and I think I’ve done work that is equal to or greater than this work.

Large print box, 13×19 prints.
I think this final installment is important. The large print box. These prints are large enough and expensive enough to really make you think before hitting “print,” which means I really had to edit before I hit the button, something I think is being lost in the modern photo-world. I love editing. Not saying I’m good at it, but I do like it. A powerful, talented editor can take a semi-lame duck and turn it into a nicely marinated, slightly crisp on the outside, duck dish of dishes. I know cause I’ve had it happen.
My point with all this. Don’t know. Just thought it was an interesting find.

New Release: Peru

When I was first asked to go to Peru and teach a workshop one of my first thoughts was about the book.

I knew I would make a book, or several, but really didn’t know what it would be. Most of the time I’m working with a very specific goal in mind, but when I’m teaching my focus is not only myself, but rather on the class and making sure THEY get what they are looking for.

So when it actually came time to make a book from this material I had a different kind of decision to make. At first I envisioned a book with chapters, a table of contents page explaining those chapters, and very concise lines and angles. In fact I began to design a book just like this.

But then I realized it just wasn’t working. I realized what I had was a random set of images, pieces of a puzzle, but not that overall picture. So in the end I decided to create a portfolio book, something I hadn’t done for a long, long while. I found the experience rather liberating.

The only thing I decided on was to make two styles of page, competing 6×6 and black and white. I realize these styles of work are entirely different, but that was really my point. The book has an introduction titled, “Split Personality” which describes this pairing and why the images look the way they do.

Most of the time an editor will tell you to keep your theme to similar images, and I agree, but with a portfolio I felt I had slightly more flexibility to experiment.

My goal is to refine this work, and add to it, hopefully next year when we are planning a follow up workshop. I’ll keep you posted on the details.

Finite Foto Feature

New Mexico has a long lineage of art and photography. This continues today in the form of book publishers, galleries, collectors, workshops, etc. We also have New Mexico based online photographic outlets like Finite Foto, formerly known as Flash Flood. I’ve written about these folks before, and even had a piece featured a while back.
A few weeks ago I ran into Melanie McWhorter, one of the masterminds of this organization, and she asked me if I was interested in writing something about photojournalism.
Now I don’t consider myself a photojournalist, but at past points in my life I had done work in this genre, so I thought I’d give it a go. At the same time I had received several requests from blog readers to write something regarding my projects, why I do them, how I do them, etc.
I had just penned this little story when I ran into Melanie. So, here we are.

Now I don’t think this is going to answer all the questions, and this is also rife with my opinion about several things related to the modern documentary world, but I think it will be relevant to many of you, and might surprise or confuse a few others.
Also, I’m just one feature of several in this particular issue, and if you are interested in the doc/pj world, then have a look and bookmark this site.
Any thoughts, notes, feedback, drop me a note and I’ll give you my two cents.