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.

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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.

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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.

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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.
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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.

Debbie Fleming Caffery: Facing Change

Just came across this while trying to find another video. If you don’t know Debbie Fleming Caffery then you have been missing out. Within ten feet of where I’m writing this post hangs an image of hers, a 20×24 silver gelatin, and I can tell you when you see her work you can identify it…right quick.
I met Debbie in Santa Fe several years ago and was blown away by she and her work. As she says in the film, she’s been called “art photographer,” “documentary photographer,” etc, but just know she is a photographer. All that matters. You gotta listen to this all the way, some classic lines in here. This video was created by Leica and Facing Change.

Random Snap

Mexico circa 1994

South of Nogales. A community living in old train cars. We stopped, got out, started walking about and shooting. People were great, fun, interested and living a tough existence. Leica, Kodachrome.

At the time, I totally took these moments for granted, heck, these trips for granted. Now, it seems like I never have the time to do any of this. So rare.

I’ve seen people living in train cars all over the world, Sicily, Mexico and in the Western United States.

In Sicily they have been living in government provided rail cars since the earthquake in the 1970’s. In the Western United States these things are considered art forms. Odd how this works.

This picture bugs me because I’m too far back and it’s tilted for no reason. Well, it’s tilted cause I’m walking fast and trying to bridge the distance to make another shot. I like how the one boy is framed in the window but the others are not right.

When I teach I often talk of the “picture within the picture” and this is a great example of a not quite there photograph. But, inside this, sure, there is a better image. Did I get it? Don’t know, have to look at my chromes.

What I do like is the memory, the color of the image, and the light, which for being overcast, still has a nice punch to it. Normally this light is “black and white light,” but I think color also looks great in flat light.

Kodachrome was unique in its pallet, which is partly to blame.

I don’t take these trips for granted any longer. They are far too precious. Heck, time to shoot is far too precious.