A few weeks ago I was fortunate enough to speak to a class at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. The chair of the photography department, Dennis Keeley, is a very cool cat, and in addition to his life as chair he has lived several other interesting lives, including photographer and musician. A few years back, Dennis paired me with another photographer, Patrick Hebert, and we taught a class about photographers working with NGO’s. To say that Patrick is a good teacher just doesn’t go far enough to describe what he does or how we works. In short, he’s wicked smart.
So, when Patrick, who goes by Pato, as me to come and speak to his class, I did.
We discussed photography, styles, techniques, history and of course, books. Overall, this was a fun night, but there was one thing that has been lingering in my mind. One thought. One question actually.
I showed a brief slideshow of my work from Sicily, something I do because I use that work to describe books, marketing, portfolios, etc, and not just as “Look at how good I am.”
Shortly after the slideshow a student asked me why my work looks the way it does.
“I don’t know,” I answered.
Now, saying “I don’t know” isn’t a great way of making a point, and Pato being Pato he added, “Well, it’s not that he doesn’t know….” Then proceeded to talk about style and how these things come about.
But, for a second, I really didn’t know. I didn’t have an answer, but what I did have was a feeling.

Earlier in this same exact day, another photographer sent me a PDF of a book he made from a recent trip to India. This photographer shot all color, 35mm, and as I perused his book something very odd happened. One image depicted a middle-aged man inside a house with blue walls. The image was cropped into a square. The man was wearing a red turban and had an open fire burning near him in the center of the room. Again, the walls were blue, the turban red, the man had a great color to his skin and the fire projected orange light all throughout the interior. Only I didn’t really see any of it. I stared at that image, in real time, with my eyes open and what I saw was a horizontal, black and white image that wasn’t color but was about the rim of light that lit the man from behind. My mind literally took the blueprint my friend projected on the screen morphed it into something that my brain either wanted to see or needed to see. I kept staring and literally had enough time to ask myself, “Is this really happening.”
Okay, so maybe I was Indian in past life, or maybe that magic marker I inhaled during my lunch break had lingering effects, but I don’t think so. I think I’ve either learned to see this way, or perhaps, even more interesting is that this is what my vision really is.
So when those students looked at my dark, grainy, contrasty work from Sicily and innocently asked, “Why does it look like that.” Well, maybe because that is how I see. Not how my camera works or how I prepped the files to look. Perhaps this is how my brain interprets the world?
I’ve read that many male of our species are color blind and I’m wondering if perhaps THAT has something to do with it? Trees are kinda orange right? Okay, all on the same page here.
Seriously, this has been lingering in my mind for over a week now and I’m still not sure how to explain it. My eyes were open, they were glued to this image and yet I saw something entirely different. And the image I saw was dodged, burned, highlighted and emphasized precisely what I found to be most important, the direction and quality of the light.
I think the term “vision” gets thrown around like single bills on a Friday night in Vegas, but in many cases, this is just horse%$%^ thrown around to sell something. And folks, I’m not saying I’m a visionary, or that my vision, if I have one, is incredible. What I’m saying is perhaps I HAD a vision, and this vision was reminding me of something, or filtering something for me. I for one think this is entirely real.
When I’m in the field and I enter a scene where I KNOW there are images, a place or time when I can FEEL those image forces around me, this type of vision is what I try to draw from to find my sense of clarity in the clutter of the world. (Stolen from Peter Schwepker) This internal filter takes over and I either naturally, on a good day, apply this, or on a bad day, fight to find it.
I know there could be many reason why this happened, reasons like short attention span, not paying attention, learned behavior, selfishness, etc. Again, not sure.
I’m not sure this has happened to you or you think I’m entirely full of $#$%, but I’d be curious to know.

Who Am I?

Wow, talk about a sobering reality.

In short, I’m not sure I know what I’m doing anymore. Commercially yes, I know, but personally, with my work, I’m really teetering on the brink of I don’t know what.

I’m looking at starting this new project. In fact I’m here, right now, starting the damn thing, and I realized I REALLY don’t know what I’m doing.

This was never the case before. Ever. But is sure is now.

I can do anything I want, in any fashion, or at least what I can afford to do, and like I do with my students I presented myself with the question, “Okay, now what, what are you going to do?” And, I don’t know.

I’m not even sure what format I’m going to shoot. 35? 6×6? 6×9? Both? All three?

This might seem trivial but it isn’t when you consider I must have a consistent theme and style to what I’m about to produce. I spoke to another photographer yesterday who cautioned me about this, and explained that his only project of mixed formats was never published. All the rest, single format, were published.

I’m sure it was because it was more difficult to figure the style, to place the work under one description. Doesn’t mean he, or I, shouldn’t do this, but I understand the idea of complicating matters.

I would love nothing more than to do the entire thing with Leica and 35mm, and I might. But the 6×6 is also really nice, and I have been using a lot lately. But, each format creates VERY different pictures, and I’m not sure at the moment which is best.

Again, I knwo this sounds like it isn’t a big deal, but I find when I, or most others, do two things at once, we do them half as well. And, the type of picture I make with a Leica is FAR different than with a 6×6 camera. So, it makes it difficult to put both bodies of work together. Then, one body is typically stronger than the other, and here is where things get tricky.

This isn’t a small story, or one that I can do in a short period of time. We are probably talking several years to even come close, but that is what I want. That is what documentary work is all about. It ain’t a quick fix.

I think part of why I’m having this problem is from doing much of my work for other people, people who need specific things in a specific style, and consequently you ofter work in a style that may or may not be your own. That’s commercial photography for most people. After a while, it’s more difficult to quickly fall back into the “your” style, and this is where I find myself.

Over the past few days, as I begin this project, I find myself so out of sync. I fumble with my gear because it isn’t comfortable in my hand. I’m thinking too much and not reacting, and that never works.

I feel like a marathon runner who hasn’t trained in several years.

I’ll figure it out, eventually, but it sure does feel odd. Years ago I was crystal clear. I never doubted anything. I had one choice and I just stuck to it. Perhaps it is time to try that again?