I Like Old

68,484

(The number of views for Sebastiao Salgado’s TED Talk.) I’m just going to say this, Salgado is the best documentary photographer alive. You could argue actual composition and style, and there are others that are good, but when you boil down longevity, impact, scale and influence there is nobody even in the same range. Now, I’m lumping guys like Edward Burtynsky in another category of work, but that is my own personal preference. And I don’t put Salgado in the “conflict photographer” group either. Perhaps I should define Salgado as a “classic documentary photographer,” but that would be confining because he transcends the traditional outlets and the art world, but ultimately that is not what this post is about.

Can you guess what these numbers correspond to?

305,482
363,366
402,343
652,118

Yep, you guessed it. Camera reviews.

As you can see, these numbers are not even close, and oddly enough the geeks watching these reviews are planning (mostly talking) to hypothetically (Because most don’t actually make photographs.) do the kind of work that Salgado is doing only at an absurdly inferior level. Personally I think this is why people laugh at photography and our “geek” legacy. I also find this wildly depressing, and I think it’s been getting worse over the past decade. I think if the rest of the creative world actually cared they would feel sorry for us. Yes, I said “us” because I was spawned from the photography world. Multiple times per week someone asks me about gear, either what camera to buy or what I think of some new model. I have my standard, canned answers because frankly I detest talking about this stuff. “Whatever is small and whatever you are willing to carry,” is my number one response because I actually think this response is helpful and I truly believe it. When it comes to new cameras I have another canned autoreply, “I don’t know.” I should probably add, “I don’t care,” but that might sound a tad smug, so I’m currently holding back on that little caveat. Even if I wanted to keep up with the new models I’m pretty sure I would not be able to unless I quit my job, rid my life of all things meaningful and holed myself up with a case of Jolt Cola and some cheap hooch. But more importantly, WHY would I even want to do this? The absolute truth is your camera has so little to do with your images it’s almost irrelevant, but don’t tell that blasphemic tale to the masses sitting through unboxing videos. (There should be a minimal jail sentence for anyone caught hatching one of these devilish creations.) Heck, I did a test on my own YouTube page years ago with a “What’s in my Bag?” post and a “New Camera at Smogranch” blast. The “What’s in my Bag” video has almost 5000 views, which for me is massive because my mode of promoting my YouTube page is neglecting to tell people I actually HAVE a YouTube page. And to say the video is low quality is an understatement of supreme proportion.
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But something else dawned on me. I like old stuff. I like stuff that has been in my hands long enough to feel like it is actually mine. I like stuff I have a connection with. I’ve got a friend who buys almost every new point-and-shoot digital camera that comes out. No joke. All brands. Then he calls me and says “Okay, I’m serious this time, THIS IS THE ONE.” Then, two weeks later it’s on Ebay, and I get the follow up call. “Oh man, that piece of crap would’t focus and the skin tone was horrible.” I let him finish talking then I hang up on him. As you can see, I’m in need of new soles. I could buy new shoes, but I don’t need new shoes. I need new soles. These shoes finally feel like they are mine, and if anyone reading this knows me you know I wear these almost everyday. This will be my third set of soles for these particular babies. When I look down I know what I’m going to see, and more importantly I know what I’m going to feel.

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The same can be said for my camera. It’s the same boring model I’ve been using for twelve years. It’s not the only camera I have, but the rest, with the exception of one, have been with me for about the same amount of time and some much, much longer. (I did buy a new system in the last two years, but it was only new to me, and had already been discontinued roughly a decade prior to me acquiring it.) There is no guesswork. There is no awkward moment. There is no learning curve. In fact, the only thought I give toward them is choosing a format. That’s all I need. The burden of choice is lifted and I just going into the field to look and see.
As many of you know, I’ve taught a few classes here and there over the years, both here at home and along some distant shores. Many modern students are defeated by the newness of their equipment before they ever set foot on photographic ground. I look over to see them staring at new everything, their conversation filled with menus, buttons and custom functions, not to mention the software woes on the backend. It just doesn’t work, nor will it ever. Now, if you love the gear more than the actual photographs, yes it will work, and there is no shortage of all things new. I say this not being contrite, but I’m entirely sure that many of those watching these camera reviews have no actual interest in making photographs. This is a reality of the photography world.

My advice to you is two fold. First, get a camera, commit to it and put all the rest away in a locked compartment. Then give the key to a trusted companion under the promise that when you come to them in a sweaty frenzy claiming you REALLY need those other cameras because your Zupperflex 5000 is only good at street photography and your Zupperflex 5001 is the ONLY thing that will work for your softcore “poolside” glamour “work” your friend will, as promised, kick you in the teeth as hard as they possibly can. Second, use your chosen camera until it wears out. NOT until a new model is released, or a new software version flies down from the ether. USE THIS ONE CAMERA UNTIL IT WEARS OUT.

I know a few non photographers who have done this. People who love to shoot for the love of shooting who never went down the equipment rabbit hole. They ask me to look at the mirror in their battered FM2 or their 5D Mark II shutter with 500,000 exposure, the camera in one hand and the shutter in the other. These people know, the have seen the light and know the light comes from what it in front of you, not what is in your hand. Find something and grow old with it.

And people this is the FUN part, and I guarantee your imagery will IMPROVE. Less distracted photographer equals better photographer every damn time. And what’s so great about this is WHEN you imagery improves it illuminates the reality that the rest of the nonsense really doesn’t matter. Slowly your gear will become just a distraction because you will be consumed by your imagery, by the light at 3:43 PM, by a location or by something you haven’t quite put your finger on yet. Your gear will become a reflex used to scratch a creative itch and the thought of taking time to watch a YouTube clip about something new will finally strike you as absurd. It’s a learning process that has nothing to do with technology or screen time. It is about an ongoing conversation with good friends.

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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.