Route 14

As many of you know, a few short years ago I was able to venture to Uruguay, a small country located nine-hours by air south of Miami. Uruguay is not on the radar in the United States, which is ONE of the many reasons I wanted to visit. I also wanted to visit because I had a friend there, an interesting chap named Martin Herrera Soler who I had initially met in Los Angeles back in the late 1990’s. Through Martin I met Diego Vidart another very talented storyteller and visual communications person. Also on the trip was Larry Hayden, aka “Alcatran.” The four of us, over a ten-day period worked on a project together, which you can see here, and here and here.

I just got off of Skype with Diego, and when I speak with someone like him it is VERY apparent I’m speaking to a real artist, a real storyteller and someone with a high intellectual knowledge of his industry, craft and history. I can’t tell you how refreshing this is, and how EASY it is to give someone like this my complete and total undivided attention. All of these guys are the same in this regard, so it’s not like I wasn’t prepared, but they are people you should know and pay attention to. Diego mentioned a project he just finished, Ruta 14 and after hearing the background details I knew it was something to share with you all. The film below will give you the basics.

Ruta 14 / explicación del proyecto from Diego Vidart on Vimeo.

Personally, it chaps my ass I can’t speak fluent Spanish, and this is yet another reminder I need to get off my ass and learn it once again. What I love about this project is the concept behind it, the tangible, physical requirements and the borders created by the story itself. For those you non Spanish speakers the essence is a return to the tangible of photography, of touch and smell, via the “Box Camera,” as well as the tracing of Route 14 for it’s entire length through Uruguay. This is an unfair synopsis, because there is much more, but it will get you started. There is much more to come from Diego, so stay tuned.

And this is just the best thing I’ve ever seen.

Proceso Fotográfico from Ruta 14 on Vimeo.

The man behind the mask.


Black and White

It dawned on me that I never posted these images to Smogranch. I made these books while I was offline and working only with my Tumblr site. As you know, I’m not a designer. I’ve never endured even a single class on design in my entire life. My early books were putrid in regard to design, and some would argue that all of my books still reek of inexperience. I would say “fair enough.” However, one thing I’ve learned from book people far more intelligent than I is that all rules can be broken if the overall design simply works. My first bit of advice for ANYONE making books is to go look at illustrated books. You would think this would be the logical first step, but many folks just blaze away without giving much thought to what has been done and what they can learn from our past. The truth is the history of illustrated books is rife with legendary movements, motions and risk-taking. From these pioneering publications came everything else. Book design is hyper-specific, and many of the pioneering current books are based, or designed as tribute, to something that came along years or decades ago.

For the first twenty years of my career I did little else than look at imagery. I poured over News Photographer Magazine by the hundred while holed up in the Harry Ransom Resource Center. I also poured over French Photo, which was far more interesting than the American version, and also gave me my first real understanding of things like editorial policy. I looked at all of the major work being done in whatever genre I was working in at the time, starting with photojournalism, then on to editorial, portraiture and fine art.
When I started to make books back in the early 1990’s everything I made was black. After all, I was a PHOTOGRAPHER, and everyone knows that photographers LUST after anything black. I had black clothes, black hats, black bags, black cameras. No other color existed, so the moment I sat down at my Mac Performa 630 to create the pages of my first book it was a “select all….BLACK” moment.
Then one day it dawned on me, after looking through the hundreds of traditionally published photobooks in my collection, that I had a very small number designed with black pages, and the subject matter of these small few covered topics like insane asylums, war, famine and a bevy of other heavy realities. I began to realize black was perhaps not the best option for every single book especially when the book was about something like children’s portraiture……
During my travels with Blurb I often run into photographers who look at the Blurb samples and make quick and lasting decisions. “I’m going to do black pages and I’m only going to print on Proline Uncoated.” The very next person will often times say something like “I’m only going to use white pages and I’m never going to print on Proline Uncoated because it is clearly inferior to Proline Pearl.” My advice is always “slow down,” and I also encourage people to stop drawing lines in the sand. Each project lives and breaths on its own, same for books. What is your subject matter? How do you want your images to print? What level of contrast and saturation is required for your specific body of work? Do you want or need all of your books to have the same look and feel, or perhaps you are doing a series of books? Do your images have white space with little detail that might blend into a white page? These are just a FEW of the questions you should ask yourself before making design decisions. There are no absolutes, so don’t create them for no reason.
So this leads me to the images you see here. This is not a complex book, nor a particularly great book. What you are looking at is simply the same book printed black and also printed white. You might not think that such a seemingly simple change would make all that much difference but it actually does. One look at these and you will not only see but FEEL the work in a different way. This is what is so much fun and so challenging when it comes to making books. For me a book is a journey, and one in which I want you to travel a certain way and see certain things. I want you to ride the emotional roller coaster while consuming something you may have never seen or experienced before. Great books do this and do it without you even noticing. I’ve always been a believer there are very few transcendent creatives in the world, and consequently few truly transcendent things like photobooks, novels, paintings, etc. When you encounter one of these people or things, you know it because suddenly you see the world with a new pair of eyes.
My last little piece of advice based on this post is to THINK about doing a test book. The first Blurb book I ever did was a test book and one that I still use six years later. There is nothing like seeing your own work on the pages, and on different papers, to fully understand what will work best for your particular situation. Oh, and the other thing. This process is supposed to be FUN, so don’t turn bookmaking into teeth pulling or in my particular case…KIDNEY STONE REMOVABLE. When you boil down what we all have to deal with in our lives, bookmaking is just icing on the cake.

Countdown to Peru 2013: iPhone Three


Since my last post about the upcoming Peru trip I am holding fast to my goal of black and white only during the 2013 trip. However, something else just creeped into my mind………………………………………………………………………………………………………………..

Okay, by now you should be getting a good feel for just how INSANELY good these Peru trips are. These are simply phone images, but they will describe to you the route and trajectory of our time together. And when I say, “simply phone images,” as I’ve stated before, I don’t mean that in a negative sense. Remember, if the phone is what you carry then just commit to that. You could create something pretty darn cool and wouldn’t even need to complain about a sore back, tired shoulders or pinched nerve. Power on.

It’s odd, when these trips happen I get wrapped up in the logistics, the conversations and I forget what all we did.

You can’t imagine what it does to me to see these images. The pull of places like Machu Picchu and the Amazon are so overwhelming it’s hard to deal with. Heck, South America in general is so stamped on my brain I’m ruined forever.

Last time I checked we had a few seats left for the 2013 voyage.

Countdown to Peru 2013: iPhone Two

Round two of Peru iPhone snaps. What I think is important is the range of moment and location. Imagine having the time to work these scenes, these places, etc. Slowly, building the days and weeks, image by image, moment by moment. I’m sitting here foaming at the mouth in anticipation. If I could leave right now I would.

In 2013 I’m going all black and white, all 35mm. No color on this trip.(This is what I’m saying right now, today, but tomorrow I might tell you something different.) Going to just streamline even more and focus on making the best black and white snaps I can. Oddly enough, what is making me okay with this is the fact that I am contemplating a portrait lens for 35mm, meaning something in the 85mm range. I haven’t had a longer lens like this in several decades, but I’m thinking about getting one now. I don’t want to continue to work in both color square and black and white 35mm. It’s just too much and what I end up with is too easy, to predictable and too fractured. I’ve written about this in the past but color square is a VERY easy way of working because everything looks great. The great medium format falloff, the ease of the lack of composition using the square, etc. Working with the square is a crutch, unless in my opinion, you just entirely devote yourself to that format, which oddly enough in the age of digital has really seen a resurgence. When you work with the square it FEELS good because again you know you can snap a garbage can at 2.8 an it will look great(I actually did this last year in Peru). Black and white 35mm isn’t exotic and it sure as Hell isn’t easy. It takes far more time, more effort and more concentration. It is also, at least in my experience, a far lower success rate. It’s a very difficult decision to do this, believe me. We are surrounded by an industry that screams DON’T DO THIS. I just looked through a catalog from an art-photography fair and there was exactly ONE black and white reportage image. It’s not like there is a huge demand for it.

The industry screams shoot digital so you don’t have to travel with film. Shoot digital so you can have an endless amount of imagery. Shoot digital so you can have color and black and white on every image. Shoot digital so you can see those images at night in the hotel. Shoot digital so you can share your moments with the world as you go.
These are all valid points depending on who you are and what your goals are. The vast majority of my workshop students will be, and are, digital, but for me I like chipping away with a visual chisel. I would not, and am not, suggesting everyone do this. Just me talking here. But let’s move on.

I will no longer have an iPhone. I switched to a Samsung phone, which I feel has advantages over the iPhone, but again this is me talking. There are a bevy of reasons why I like the Samsung/Google pairing more than the iPhone world, but again, this is like debating Nikon vs Canon. Use what you like.

The images here were all iPhone from last year, and as you know if you follow this blog, I’ve done one post already about this work and have another on the list after this. Nothing wrong with these images, but when I studied what they REALLY were, I realized they were simply not good photographs. These images were about software more than photography, moments, light, timing, etc. When you strip away the Snapseed filters you are left with images that simply aren’t great. I feel this way about many of cellphone images I see, but I actually don’t think that is entirely bad, and I also feel this same about the vast majority of photographs I see for that matter. I think these mobile-images, for most people. serve a certain purpose. I think at this point when I see a project being sold as a “cellphone project” I just wonder why we still need to highlight that? Maybe I’m missing something but didn’t Robert Clark do a cellphone book back in the 1990’s? Once I saw that project I was under the impression the genie was out of the bottle, but again, I’m probably missing something. They are what they are. I think we should simply judge them like the rest of photography. Are they good photographs or not?

However, this isn’t why I’m NOT using a phone while I work. I’m not using the phone to make pictures, any phone, while I WORK because I can’t do two things at once. I surely can’t do three, which is what I was doing last year in Peru. Actually, I was trying to do four. I was shooting color square, black and white 35mm, recording audio and using my phone. People, this just doesn’t work. Did I get some decent images? Yes. Did I make anything cohesive? No. Now, to muy credit, I’m teaching, which is priority one, but I wasn’t making it easy on myself, that is for sure. I’m left with the question, “What would I have made had I only done ONE thing?”

I want to make something VERY clear. If you are using, or want to use your phone to make images, than by all means DO IT. I know several people who have fully committed to this device and are making interesting images and then fully utilizing the real-time delivery methods the platform was designed for. My ONLY suggestion is that if you are going to do it then commit to it and don’t do what I did. Don’t multitask because it really doesn’t work, not for you, or me, or anyone else. The bottom line is that the mobile phone has contributed HUGE amounts to the visual literacy of the world, and it will continue to do so. And, the options for how you use it, print it, showcase it etc, will only get better. I just know I have to pick my visual battles, WHEN I’M WORKING, and when I say “working” I mean those rare occasions when I’m in the field with the singular desire to make the best images I possibly can.

I guess what all of this boils down to is decision making. I’ve had enough time, both in the field and away, that I know now what I need to do. I know I have decisions I HAVE to make that will dramatically impact the archive I’ll have when my bones turn to dust. For me, in many ways, it’s not about the NOW. But again, to each his or her own. I think it is really interesting to have a workshop class where there is a range of angles working in the background, someone on a laptop, someone building a fire to heat chemistry and someone scouring the Lima streets for flash powder. Come July it’s game on.

Countdown to Peru 2013: Lima Beach

It is official. We are returning to the high lonesome of Peru July 9th-23rd of 2013.

Once again I will be teaming up with Adam Weintraub and PhotoExperience to bring fellow travelers and students a journey they won’t forget. I hesitate to call this a workshop. Yes, we are there for photography, but we are there for so much more. Peru is many countries in one. You have the coast, the Andes, the cities and the Amazon, and they are all exotic in their own way. This trip will take us from the eyebrow of the jungle and Machu Picchu to the steaming mist of the Amazon. This trip is about culture, travel, experience, critical thought, companionship, group dynamics, cuisine, Pisco and the all powerful photographic release. This trip is for people who want to explore, both physically and emotionally.Chanting is optional.

In a two-week time period you will see and experience so many different things, so many different people and so many different photographic moments it’s difficult to put into words. I teach once or twice a year at this point, so when I take the time to do this I make sure I’m doing something that can’t easily be replicated. I am the primary instructor but Adam is the key in terms of finding the heartbeat of Peru. Adam has lived and worked in Peru for fifteen years and simply put, knows everyone. Being a photographer he knows where to be, at what time and what to do if things don’t go as expected. Adam and PhotoExperience are not a factory. He does a few workshops a year, trips that take an extensive amount of planning. Take a look at the names of the other instructors and you will see what I’m talking about.

Last year, after returning from this workshop, I was depressed for over a month. I kept wondering why I felt so bad. My wife and I were both in somewhat of a haze and traced it back to returning to our little world. Peru does this to you. Peru puts the hooks in you and won’t let go.

Over the next few months I’m going to start sharing images from my past trips to Peru providing a little background on what was behind the image or images.

Lima Beach, 2011

This image was made the first day of this year’s workshop. As a small group we had descended on a beach in Lima. In some ways we were all feeling out the situation, the workshop and getting our “Peruvian sea legs” if you will. When you leave all that is known and comfortable and you land in a place like this, a place so different in so many ways, it can take a bit of time to acclimate. I know for me it’s difficult to “get my eye” going.

We split up when we hit the beach, people splintering off in all directions. I walked with two other people talking about the light, what to do in harsh conditions and how to shoot backlit scenes. The beach was somewhat quiet but the spacing was good. When I say “spacing” I mean how the parts of the scene come together. Not too many parts to worry about, just a few ingredients that all seem to fit well together.

I noticed what looked like a video shoot being done and quickly walked toward the scene and made this picture. Music video Lima style. I made two exposures. The first was off a bit, and the man in the foreground on the left blocked one of the performers in the back, but this image worked. It felt good to get an image so quickly. I mentally filed it away(couldn’t see it because I was shooting film) and moved on.

These workshops are interesting and very much about being placed in a scene or location and being turned loose to do as you please, visually speaking. You can find a theme and carry it forward for two weeks, or you can treat each location, scene, moment, as it’s own destination. Workshops for me are not about making perfect pictures, or having a list of photo-demands. You never truly know what you are going to get until faced with it. Just react and try to take chances, make pictures you aren’t sure you can make. I typically make a range of work from snapshots to complete and total abstract experimentations. Some work, some don’t, but I learn from them all.