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.

Wedding Photography

You might be wondering what the title of this post and this image have in common. In short, everything.

Over the past few years I’ve really avoided writing much about the wedding business, industry or even the photographs that I have made in this field.

I’m involved in a lot more than just wedding photography, so for me, when it comes to writing, I typically have MORE to write about than I know what to do with. Consequently, weddings fell down my list.

But there is something very important that I wanted to bring up.

I’m forty-one-years old. It feels odd to say that because I still feel like I’m twelve, but the mirror tells me otherwise. I guess you could call me old school. Again, I don’t feel old school, but I could see you putting that label on me.

My background is varied, which I think is a good thing. Before I studied photography, I worked as a photographer. That might sound odd but it’s true. I worked as a newspaper photographer before I ever took a class in photography. I shot, edited, printed, did the half-tones and paste up and watched as the presses churned out the efforts of my labors. I heard the good and bad from people on the streets, and felt the power of a strong image as it reverberated through a community. I was NOT a good photographer, far from it. My portfolio consisted of horrendous self-portraits, high-noon landscapes and the creme de la creme of my lineup was a photo of a deer shot with a 500mm mirror lens out the door of my car. I had no trouble getting a job in photography, but I KNEW I wasn’t yet a real photographer.

After figuring out photography was what I wanted to do with the rest of my life, I realized I wanted to study photography and more importantly I NEEDED to study photography. So I did.

I got a degree in Photojournalism, worked for my college paper, freelanced, assisted and studied photography full time, diving in like there was no tomorrow. I also studied how to write, how to edit, how to design, at least to a certain degree, and also dove into the art world, studying intensely and suffering through actually trying to make art myself(Life drawing was my worst class ever). Those were some of the best and worst days of my life. You see this was about so much more than nuts and bolts, so much more. It was about finding myself, my vision and my voice.

Today I run into dozens of “photographers” that are “self-taught,” and some of you are remarkable image makers. Being self-taught has always held a certain allure or charm, but never more so than today.

But I have to say, I’m somewhat skeptical about many of the modern “self-taught” photographers because often times, when I see their work, I realize that many are mostly self and very, very little taught. In the past 24 hours, all within biking distance of my house, I’ve seen THREE, “professional” photographers undertaking shoots with NO idea what they were doing. How do I know this? Because I stopped and watched. I saw a clear photographer/client relationship, and three photographers with zero understanding of basic lighting conditions. All three photographers were using digital body and 24-70 lens. All three shot FAR, FAR, FAR more images than they needed to, using the camera as a type of pacifier to make themselves, and probably the client, feel as if real images were being made. I could tell just by watching that none of these photographers had a style or real clear vision for what they were trying to produce. At times they would shoot the same person by moving around them in a circle with their lights in tow.

I realize that life has many challenges, and going to photo-school full time isn’t within the realm of many people. I get it. I got lucky. I had parents who helped with my college tuition, and I chose a school right down the road, so in-state tuition, at least at that time, was next to nothing. I lived in an efficiency apartment, with a roommate, and we split most everything. I assisted for the local fire department photographer and he helped me with supplies and let me use his automated color printer when I was on deadline. I bulk rolled my film, used whatever free chemicals I could get my hands on and I lived in the school darkroom. I assisted for a still-life photographer who shot medical parts, sometimes taking eight or nine hours to make one image. I survived on cheap beer and Carnation Instant Breakfast drink(I was partial to the Strawberry). And I was very aware that many folks were having a far more difficult time making it than me.

This time of learning, of study, was invaluable for me because it was what allowed me to BEGIN to find my voice, my vision, which in my humble opinion is the most important, most valuable thing I have. Why? Because it is mine, and it is unique, just like your true vision is.

I made so many mistakes, so many false starts. I thought I was one photographer, but in reality I was another, and there was no way for me to realize this until I made those mistakes, those jumps off the photographic cliff.

Even after four years of study, I was only beginning to understand who I was with a camera in my hand. I ventured into the professional world, thanks to the help of many other people, but struggled with how to make it and how to keep true to goals. I worked in the newspaper world, I did freelance editorial work and basically shot ANYTHING that came my way. After a few years of doing this I realized that being all things to all people was not only NOT helping me find my real style, but was in many ways holding me back. So I quit. Yep, I quit and took a job with Kodak.

The first piece of paper I signed when I accepted the job was a conflict of interest letter stating I would no longer do assignment work. I signed it without a second thought. I realized then that the mainstream photography world was not where I was headed. The mainstream world didn’t offer me what I needed. I began working for Kodak, sold off all my equipment except a Leica M6 and a 35mm lens and went into temporary retirement. I visited with hundreds of photographers across the nation, spent time talking about photography, about printing, galleries, magazines, creativity, personal work, and a strange new perspective began to build in my mind.

Before long I had my camera in hand and I was making pictures yet again, but THIS time, the pictures were ONLY for me. I went into the field on my projects and made my pictures and suddenly, through the layers of my past and the stimulus of the day, I began to see the photographer I really was. Jobs couldn’t show it to me. Clients giving me their demands didn’t do it for me. School had opened the door but it wasn’t until this time at Kodak, and the shooting entirely on my own, that I found my vision, my style and my voice.

If I had listened to the industry I would have NEVER found it. Not even remotely close. The industry was telling me to go in an entirely different direction, heck the industry was telling EVERYONE to go in that direction. I knew I had to follow a different path.

So when you view the image at the top of this post and I tell you that this photograph, and many, many others, are critical to my wedding work I’m hoping that you now understand. Pictures like this are a reflection of who I am as a photographer. I don’t listen to what the wedding photography industry wants to me be. I don’t pay attention to what the wedding magazine lists are telling me I have to do, to say, to be. None of the applies to me. My goal is to put my stamp on the wedding, not the other way around.

We are a product of our past, our environment, and LEARNING photography, actually studying it, from the basics of light, timing and composition to more advanced studies of the history of our craft was critical to me finding the path I’m on.

If you are a photographer who is waiting for clients to dictate how you work then I think it might be time to reconsider why you are doing what you do. And if you haven’t ever studied photography, think about giving it a go. I think real study could be what unlocks the photographer inside you.

Out of Bounds

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So a few years ago I went back to Sicily for the fourth time. I went during Easter, which was the time I had visited on my earlier trips, so I was returning to look for a specific thing, a specific time, etc. The work I’d made on the earlier trips is some of my best, not solely based on what the pictures look like, but also on the experience of making the images. Sicily is a wonderful place. Unique to my experience. And the folks I and spent time with are wonderful as well. All around, the kind of experience that we photogs dream about.

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So I went back, but instead of doing what I had done in the past, shoot 35mm, Leica with Tmax 3200, I instead added another style to my holster. 645, Tri-x, black and white. In hindsight, I shouldn’t have done this.

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These are a few of the images I made with this new approach, and some of them I like, but in the end it just watered down the look, and in my mind watered down the work I had done before. Again, it’s not that I don’t like these images, but they aren’t as good as my other work, and they are also not in the same vein as my other work. You can’t use a 645 camera in the same way you use a Leica. It just doesnt’ work that way. It’s like trying to use a Mamiya 7 or 6 in the same way you use a Leica. It doesn’t work. I love the Mamiya, but it’s slower, and larger, and bulkier, and you have fewer frames per roll, and all of that effects the outcome. One isn’t better or worse, just different.

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The Leica is like a gray t-shirt. Nobody notices. You wear a gray t-shirt and you are just part of the background. You carry a Pentax 645 and people see you coming a mile away. I think what happened was I got enamored by what I was seeing around me in the photo world. I look at a lot of work. I go to a lot of galleries. Much of what I was seeing was medium format, low grain, portraiture. I bought into the charade.

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I also shot color 645, which was a complete waste of time. I haven’t even SCANNED those images, and probably never will. At least I can’t remember scanning them??? It’s not to say the trip was a waste, they never are. Even if my gear had been stolen and I was unable to make a single frame, trips are always worth it. I can always make something from it.
But this trip taught me something. This trip taught me to forget what I know and do what comes natural. It always seems as if finance is a key issue when you first get started in photography. You are restricted to minimal equipment, so you just make do. You learn to make what you have work in all situations. Sometimes your rig works great, and other times not so great, but you truly learn your limits. It’s like wanting a road bike, a mountain bike, a beach cruiser and a time trial bike, but you only have enough money for one, so you buy the hybrid and make it work. In my Sicily situation, from now on, when I venture back, and I do plan on going back, I’ll know for sure what my rig will be. Leica, TMZ.

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And when I write this I feel a sense of relief because I know how great it is to work this way. Small and quiet. Regardless of what is hot in the gallery world, or editorial world, or photography world in general, I’ll do what I do. And speaking of that, you can’t find anything LESS popular at the moment than grainy, 35mm. HUGE color portrait series are the “new documentary” so what I’m doing might not have a home at all in today’s photo world, but I’m totally fine with that. Things change. Slowly perhaps, but all it takes is for a few, and I mean very few, key players to suddenly shift their view, and the entire industry will change. How do I know? I’ve been watching it happen for 15 years.

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I don’t even own the 645 gear anymore, but I wish I still did. I wouldn’t use it for my doc work, but for stock it works great. Oh well, live and learn. So nowadays when I think of new projects, I often ask myself, “Okay, how are you going to do this?” There is always the urge to do too much, to use too many looks, to get too complicated. All those voices in your head, and all those features in the magazines, which all seem to look the same during their given time, pull on your inner strings. Today’s feature of choice is the color portrait paired with the urban landscape void of people. Check out most doc outlets and you’ll see this style over and over. Frankly, it’s an easy style, allowing the photographer to craft a body of work in a very short time. Perfect for today’s’ “right now” market. But that’s not what I do. I spend more time, get less, and make pictures that many people might consider odd. Isn’t this a strange world?

So when I look at these images, I’m left with little passion. It’s odd to feel that way about your own images, but it happens, and it has taught me another valuable lesson. Sometimes you DON’T get what your looking for. I’m okay with that. A lot of photographers are not. It’s why newspaper photographers get fired for setting up images. It’s why photojournalists get in trouble for manipulating their images. It’s why magazines get in trouble for manipulating their cover pics to add impact or enhance corporate policy. Sometimes you just don’t get what you want, and this reality is really hard for some folks to handle. Photography as a profession can be brutal, and your typically judged by your most recent work. Win a Pulitzer on Monday and shoot pet of the week on Tuesday, and a lot of photographers will be talking about how lame your dog shots were. That’s just the way it is. But for me, when I don’t get something, I don’t feel down, I actually feel more driven. In fact, the drive can completely take over. Fixate much? And until the day I return to the scene of the crime, my mind is thinking about what I missed, about what I could have had. And this is what I feel when I see these Sicily images.

Next year I’ll be in Peru during this time, perhaps with a few people who are reading this right now, so it won’t be until 2011 before I return to Sicily. So now I wait and wonder.

Oh, if you want to see my original work, look here www.milnorpictures.net The first story.