If In Doubt, Always Shoot It

So as I’ve said before, my favorite thing in life is doing documentary work. Well, my favorite PHOTO thing in life is doing documentary work. That could be a wedding, a portrait shoot, but more directly, a long-term project of some sort.
I like to get out, alone and disappear into a place, a people, a theme and see what I come up with. I turn off all my electronic distractions, I tune out the rest of the world and I focus on what I’m in direct relation with.

Over the years I have noticed a trend with myself, as well as quite a few other photographers.

In short, if in doubt, shoot it.

We always think, “Oh, I can come back later and do this particular shoot,” or “I can come back when things are better and reshoot,” and suddenly the time is the up, the people are gone, the place burned down, the coup changed the name of the country, etc, etc. Again, if in doubt, shoot it. And I mean now. Right now.

These images are scanned contact sheets of crossed Fuji transparency film. I shot them several years ago, and after having a conversation with another photographer, I found out that this place is gone. I don’t know for sure, haven’t been there in years, but I heard it was true. Gone. The “Ace of Spades” the legendary club on the shores of the Salton Sea, reduced to dust. The sea has a tragic history, even beginning, and much of what was there when I first visited is gone.

Are these life-changing images? Was the light great? Are they great moments? No. But I have them, and in some cases, that is what matters. I have a record. It was hot, it was windy, the light sucked, etc, etc. always an excuse, but never a good one.

So next time you are out and you find yourself forming that excuse in your mind as you begin to lean backwards…stop yourself and try leaning forward. You never know what will disappear right before your eyes.

Story Behind the Photo: Salton Sea


Leica M6, 35mm, Tmax 3200 + fog

“Is that someone in the lake?” I asked myself.

“No, it can’t be” I mumbled as I shifted my eyes back to the road.

“I’ve been out here a dozen times and I’ve never seen anyone actually in the water.”

My eyes shifted from the road to the water down below. It was summer and the light was harsh, hot and dusty. It’s always like this but summer brings its own version of harsh.

Down below the light bounced off sand, dirt and the surface of the lake which was dead, flat glass. You could smell it even from the road. Tree stumps, burned out and looking dead poked from the surface like post apocalyptic matchsticks snapped in half.

And then one of them moved.

I glanced back at the road, then quickly back at the lake. Two stumps were moving, and were leaving small v-shaped wakes in their path. Somebody was IN the lake.

I quickly surveyed my location. There was a lot of steep distance between myself and these two figures but I knew I HAD to get down there. Every possible scenario ran through my mind, including, “I’m gonna blow this if I don’t get down there right frickin now.”

If I pulled the car over and ran I’d never make it. Too far. Too steep. And the figures, whoever they were, would probably freak out seeing this crazed man running downhill directly at them. I didn’t see any vehicle near them which made me wonder just how they got where they were.

I punched the accelerator to the floor, and the tiny hybrid engine whined and moaned as the complicated little motor did what it could to get me where I needed to go.

I only had one camera and lens with me, Leica and 35mm. I kept my eyes on the road, but my right hand reached over to find the body, which I knew was loaded, but I wanted to make sure I had at least four or five frames left. And then I saw the road.

Just ahead, a small paved road off to my left, heading down towards the waterline. My eyes kept darting from the road to the figures, road to the figures. They were on the move and were heading to the shore. I had maybe a minute at best.

The road led into an abandoned park of some kind, leftover parking spaces, dead trees and emptiness. I swerved and weaved around rocks, palm fronds and glass as I finally reached lake level. Camera in hand, unbuckling my seat belt. My heart was pounding.

It wasn’t like this was a grand moment of moments in the scheme of life, but it was for me because my brain had already assigned a “high priority target” to this image and there was nothing in the world I wanted more at that very moment.

I flew down the beach, still in my car, as I could now see two figures wading in the lake, one wearing a conical, Vietnamese style hat. Even better.

I angled my car toward the pair and jumped out, camera to my eye as they waded directly at me. It was dead calm. I could hear them talking.

I just shot, two frames, three, four, five and I knew I had it. I began talking to them, but never took the camera down. “I can’t believe your in the lake,” I said. “I’ve never seen anyone in the lake.”

If you have never been to the Salton Sea, all I can say is, it’s not a normal lake. The water is thick, dark brown, sometimes red and can smell like you can’t believe. It’s not exactly inviting.

“I used to come here as a kid, and we would do the same thing,” one of the men said. “And there were so many fish you could feel them swish around your legs.”

Those days are gone, as the salinity level of the sea rises and massive fish die offs occur. It was rumored a few years ago, during August, the hottest month, seven million fish died in a single month.

As the men drew near I walked closer to the water, the land crunching beneath my feet. Looking down I realized the beach I was on was made entirely of bone, fish bone, decomposing.

We talked for a few minutes, I thanked them for allowing me to photograph and then it was back in the car. The light was slowly getting better, and I knew there might be another photo or two, but I knew I wasn’t going to get anything better than these two guys in the water. Not unless an alien landed the road.

The sea area is photographed a lot, but the bulk of the images are void of people. There are many odd landscape features, abandoned buses, buildings, etc, but I’m always saddled with the issue that I’m a people photographer. Those other items only do it for me when I’ve got people in the image. Not sure why, that’s just the way it is for me. I think adding people increases the photo-difficulty exponentially, in fact I know it does, so for me I have to hunt a little harder. There are places at the Salton Sea loaded with people, a beach town and another place called Slab City, but unless you have the time to spend with people you have no business going there. I’d been to these places before, spent time, talked with people, explained who I was, what I was doing and made a few images, but this day I was hunting something else. I wasn’t sure what it was at the time, until I saw the figures.

I worked my way around the north side of the lake and then eventually headed for home. I don’t remember exactly, but I think I shot two rolls of film that day. When I told another photographer, younger photographer, this fact they just sat there looking at me. “What do you mean you mean you only shot two rolls?”

“Two rolls, so what?”
I asked. Think about it, 72 frames can potentially mean 72 different images. In this case, I’d burned four or five on the figures, so okay, I’m down to high 60’s in terms of potentially different pictures.

This isn’t the modern way. The modern photographer might shoot 72 pictures before leaving the car, and in a day like this might shoot several thousand images. I guess that’s just another method, style, philosophy. That’s just not how I work. I’m looking for moments, real ones, that only exist for a brief time and then disappear forever, and they are few and far between.

I’d been to the Salton Sea a dozen times before and had probably made a few hundred images.

The lab I used was in Los Angeles, and at the time I made this image I’d used them forever. But a friend in Orange County said, “Hey, you should try this local lab.”

I did, and it almost cost me the entire enchilada.

The next day I drove to this local lab, one that still processed film by hand, which I really love because you can really fine tune your process, as well as use many different chemicals. Film, chemistry, temperature, etc, are like a painter choosing colors. You have an almost infinite number of looks.

I gave my film to the lab and was told to come back the following day.

When I walked back in I knew something was wrong. The same guy who had taken my film the previous day was there behind the counter, but he didn’t look happy. I walked to the counter, he looked at the ground.

“I had a little accident,” he said.

“Really, what happened?” I asked.

“Well, I was processing your film, forgot I had my cell phone on my hip and right in the middle of the development, my phone went off,”
he admitted. “I fogged your film.”

For a second I was deflated, but the ONLY thing I could think of were those figures in the water. How rare that had been, and yes, how bummed I was that it was gone forever. But, a part of me laughed inside, thinking, “Okay, this is the way it is gonna be, just means I’m supposed to go back to the sea because something better is waiting for me.”

I could see how crushed he was. I felt bad for him, and frankly I didn’t think it was that big of a deal. I had never, in all the years of shooting, ever had film ruined at a lab. I’d ruined my own film, I’d had digital cameras corrupt, drives fail, cards fail, etc, It was just part of the job.

“Did you save anything?” I asked.

He reached behind the counter, handed me an envelope and I pulled the fogged negatives into the light. And there it was.

The film was BLACK right down the center of the contact sheet, totally black. But at the edge of the negatives, two figures were staring back at me. There they were. And the smell of the sea came racing back.

The fog crept right to the edge of the frame, probably a little over, but the sea of grain, shadow and form was still there. My figures were still there, burned into the grains of silver.

I’ve been to the sea many times since then, but this is still my favorite image, and I’ve never found anyone else in the lake. I’ll keep going back, adding to my work, but a small part of me feels content about this place.

Crossing Over

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I think I first heard about cross processing back in the late 1980’s. This trend, or style, was based on using one type of color film, such as color negative, and processing it in chemistry designed for another style of color film, such as color positive. Each film responded differently, with the older films tending to be better options, due to their profound change when processed in a chemistry not native to their original design. Newer films were more technically advanced and could handle the changes in chemistry, exactly what the cross-processing photographer didn’t want.

Kodak EPP was the film of choice for many crossers, and in fact, there were many photographers, who for certain periods of time, seemed to do nothing else. Cross-processing, was and is, a fad, but for a time had a significant place in the photo-industry.

Cross-processing was also the first time I heard the term, “One tricky pony,” describing these photographers who shot everything with this method. For some reason this look was popular with young, fashion, portrait, celebrity style shooters, but eventually became accepted in genres as traditionally conservative as the wedding and portrait world.

Crossing faded from view after editors and like began to tire of the look, but in the 90’s crossing returned with a vengeance. But, at the same time digital imaging land, full-scale on the scene, and suddenly anything could be a “crossed-look.” I can remember clients saying, “Let’s just do digital and play around with it to get that crossed look.”

And now, for many folks, there is no reason to even do cross-processed imagery. Nowadays, many images for commercial use are processed far beyond anything crossing a film could produce. I routinely see images in contests, images featured in magazines, that are processed almost beyond recognition.

And so with the new age of over-manipulation, I’m thinking the cross is a great symbol to usher in the death of cross-processing.

These images were done a few years back, with a Fuji transparency film, processed in C-41 chemistry. Not sure I like the look at all.

I was never a big cross guy, but did see some beautiful EPP crossed photography that was done very well. I’m not even sure EPP is still around, but this film, even in it’s original state, was a LEGEND of our industry, and is one of the most significant films ever produced. I have many stories of this film, but those I’ll leave for another time.