Speaking at ICA, San Jose

ICA

Hey Team,

I’m speaking at the Institute of Contemporary Art in San Jose on May 14th. This is rare for me. Turn me loose talking about artists and technology. Will probably mention the old Blurb sidekick, but it’s really more about using the existing tools to tell the story you want to tell while keying on the creation of original works, which in my opinion is the only reason to use any of the technology. So, if you are around hit me up and stop by.

The Experience of Experience

In 1995 I was living in Texas attempting to get my journalism career off the ground. I’d left the newspaper world and had returned to Texas to look for more work. I had A LOT of downtime. Newspapers were beginning to lay people off and I was not the demographic being hired. I also had no computer and was still typing my inquiry letters. I was doing a truly horrific assortment of freelance work, but was plodding along in my below poverty lifestyle. One of my brother’s friends had a house party, and seeing as partying was one of my special skills, I tagged along. While pounding more beer than thought humanly possible I met two more of my brother’s friends who had just retuned from a LONG stint in Guatemala. They had been traveling, mountain biking and taking Spanish lessons, all of which sounded dreamy to yours truly, and a lot more exotic than another long summer in the Texas heat. They gave me the name of a school in Antigua and the phone number of a contact they had in the city. That’s it. That was the grand total of my knowledge.

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Yes, that is me. Unknown village, Guatemala 1995. They wanted to wear my Leica and meter for some reason. I have NO IDEA what is under my shirt.

A few weeks later I bought an extremely cheap ticket and found myself on the San Antonio, Houston, Guatemala City route, a backpack full of gear and an oversized duffle bag of clothes. I really didn’t know what I was getting into, and this was what made the trip so interesting. This was adventure. Where are you staying? Don’t know. How long are you going for? Don’t know. What are you going to do? Don’t know. Do you know anyone there? No. Have you been there before? No. Oh. Oh my.

I landed in Guatemala City really not even knowing where Antigua was, or how to get there, and my Spanish was…minimal. I found the bus station and found the bus to Antigua by looking at signs and asking strangers. It came time to board and the guy driving the bus took one look at my duffle bag and pointed at the sky which meant, “This baby is going on the roof.” Up went my bag, and I boarded clutching only my backpack of Canon and Leica gear. The bus wound out of the city and I got my first glimpse of this incredible place. It was amazing to me that only three hours south of Houston I could find somewhere so exotic.

The bus arrived at the outskirts of Antigua and I still had no idea where I was going. I began asking people on the bus, “Hey, you ever hear of this place…..?” Nobody knew anything. About twenty minutes later I thought, “I think I need to get off the bus.” So I did. Only problem was the driver drove off with my bag on the roof. So there I was, backpack in hand, contact name and no luggage. I thought, “Well, I can probably wear what I’m wearing for at least a week before I begin to look like a homeless drifter.” I started walking. Slowly but surely I began to find people who thought they knew my contact, and I was finally pointed down a street where I came to a language school and made one final inquiry. There was my guy, standing there with a smile on his face. As we were exchanging hellos up drove the bus, empty except for my bag. The driver asked about the “wandering gringo” and he figured out where I was headed.

I spent the next month and half making my way around Guatemala, exploring new areas and even attempting to compile a few long stories. I had one paper map and an out-of-date guidebook that I would pull from time to time, but mostly I just went with the flow. Sometimes an eight-hour bus ride would become eighteen-hours, and lodging was a real-time roll of the dice. Nothing was ever certain until I could touch it, feel it, punch it, run from it or embrace it. It felt like real travel. I was at the mercy of fate, circumstance, luck and perseverance.

When I look back on this trip I don’t think much about the images I made. What I think about, and laugh about, was the voyage. At one point I got off a bus in a very remote, highland section of Guatemala and the locals turned on the only other foreigners on my bus and promptly began throwing stones at them until they ran back down the road we had just driven up. For some reason I was spared and found a dollar a night hotel made from plywood. As I asked around for a place to stay people began saying “You better hurry, there is only one hotel.” The only other foreign folks in town were UN workers. As I went to sleep a firefight started on the edge of town and I opened the window to watch tracer fire arc back and forth.

When I got up in the morning the only thing I knew for sure was that I was going to get dressed and leave my room. What came next was always somewhat up in the air. Traveling this way was about engaging with every aspect of the physical world around me. Where I went, what I ate, where I made pictures, etc, was all up for discussion and based on mood, feel and conversation.

The future of travel has been described as being able to open your phone on a foreign street corner and the phone will recognize where you are and then suddenly it begins to ping in with local stops based on your interests the phone has already compiled based on all your personal information. “You like hamburgers, well walk two blocks north and you will find a hamburger restaurant.” There will be a real-time connection with other travelers who would be pinging in with all their experience and where they were and what they were doing. The technology will provide you either the experience other people thought you would like or an experience that is…in a lot of ways…just like home. I know we already have some of this, but the future has been described as being like this but yet far beyond. I am so puzzled by this.

First of all, who wants to walk about the world with a phone or iPad in front of their face? I’m sure plenty do, but I still have a hard time understanding this. I recently spoke with a city manager who worked in a city I knew well. I explained I was disappointed in a section of the city that had been homogenized beyond recognition, and I felt like an idiot for taking a friend from out of town to the area to experience the “real” city only to find a gentrified tourist trap. The city worker said “People in Kansas want to come here and eat the same exact food they eat at home.” Is this really true?

As I sit here thinking about this technology I am hard pressed to find a way to take more of the EXPERIENCE out of travel. Just as I was about to find another viewpoint an Apple ad shows up on the web browser and it shows people…..interfacing the world….through their iPad. Okay, I lose. Game over.

Seriously? Do you want to travel that way? Experience the world that way? Look, when you land in London for a business meeting and have no idea where you are or where you are going and you have 47 minutes to get from Heathrow to your meeting it’s damn nice having a phone with GPS. But there is a HUGE different between business travel and real travel. I’m talking about real travel here.

Doesn’t travel with a device in hand actually limit the experience you are having? How can you be looking at an iPad and the mountain at the same time? And also, what are you doing with the mountain on your iPad? Who needs to see that mountain at the same time you are seeing it? Are you reporting on the mountain or are you sending a continual stream about YOU? I’m just asking. I honestly have no idea.

Now, before we go any further, I will be honest and admit that I am a guy who daydreams about inventing a way to actually disappear. Yes, I do. How great would that be. So when I go somewhere and put my phone down for a few days, I have a built in gene that allows my brain to completely forget about said device, so much so I find myself hinging on the idea of never turning it back on. I know I’m in the minority here. I could leave it all. The images, the phone, the music, the email, the text, if I never did any of it ever again you would actually be able to HEAR me grinning.

I know people who have apps out the wazoo on their phone. Apps for apps. Apps for breathing, thinking, chewing. Apps that count how many steps they have taken in a given day. Competitive apps about walking, cycling, traveling, etc. What is this about? Again, not sure.

The secret is the power of just being. That’s it. In a nutshell, being present in the moment in the specific location is an experience so far beyond the electronic interface it isn’t even close. Look, there are plenty of people who spend less than ten minutes at the Grand Canyon and never actually leave their car. No, I’m not joking,, and these people are doing their own thing and rightly so. And hey, at least they went to the Grand Canyon.

When I think about travel, guidebooks, technology, etc, I think of books like Bruce Chatwin’s “In Patagonia,” or “In a Sunburned Country” by Bill Bryson. One person’s LONG TERM take on a place. Why? Because these books allow YOU to create your own mental photography. These books allow you to guess, to imagine and to formulate. You can read them, fly to these places and still have your own adventure without a screen of “user generated content” taking every once of chance from the equation. Plus, the authors spent ENOUGH TIME to actually being to understand a place.

I think there is something to be said about using technology to do your research, and I know not everyone is comfortable with not knowing their day to day routine. But I think there is something to gain from allowing yourself to let go of the electronic, even paper, umbilical. I’ve found that most of the people walking this Earth are pretty damn fine people, and they will bend over backwards to take care of a stranger. Ya, I got robbed at gunpoint once by some kid with an AK(Cambodia 1996), but he only asked for a dollar and I had no problem making his dreams come true. Getting robbed was a rare experience in my book, and my book has a few pages.

I just keep wondering where all this tech is leading us? Are we smarter? Better? More caring? Are we actually communication better or just more frequently?

All this technology is great, yep, for sure. But guess what? Kilimanjaro still lost its glacier. I don’t need an iPad to look up and see the bare stone. I don’t need to know that you saw it and told everyone you saw it, or even that you had a coffee on the way up. I think sometimes we miss the message because we are in love with the messenger.

Look, I’m writing this on a laptop and I just plugged in an iPhone and a Kindle. Guilty. I’m just asking questions here because I see our new path being painted as an improvement, a more profound experience, but I’m not sure it really is. This stuff is here, and here to stay, but what I’m wondering about is, as always, BALANCE.

Dosage

I WROTE THIS POST, AND THE FOLLOWING POST, BACK IN JANUARY. ONCE AGAIN, I FORGOT ABOUT BOTH OF THEM.

I was just on Twitter and I looked down in the “Hey silly, these are the people you should follow” area. I rarely ever go to this little spot because I’m trying to EXPAND my digital horizon, not build a staggering mound of similar people, and it dawned on me how much THIS exact scenario is a part of the social world.

In other words, preaching to the choir.

On Twitter’s list, made special for me, was a photojournalist. I clicked on his name, and found post after post of mobile phone images. Under each image was the list of those who “liked” what the photographer posted, and there were many. There were SO MANY posts I just immediately killed the Twitter tab and tried to forget about it, because here is the reality. That photojournalist, he is capable of good work. He really is. He isn’t new, or crazy young, he’s got a track record. Now, that track record was FAR better before the advent of the mobile phone(in my opinion), and I really don’t want to engage with him in his new incarnation of “please follow and like me.” The work being liked, relentlessly, isn’t great work, but it comes with the “preaching to the choir” aspect of this charade. He could post photographs of his feet and a hundred people would tell him “great photo,” “amazing,” “incredible,” “awesome,” all the telltale vocabulary associated with social.

Ever wonder what would happen if someone said “Sorry man, this one just isn’t good enough.” Blasphemy!! Ban them! Burn them! How dare you invade the flowery world of the social following with ANYTHING deemed remotely negative. How often does someone in the choir yell “This song sucks…… we either sing FREEBIRD or I’m WALKING!” How often? NEVER.

I’m WAITING for these photographers to realize this little game has blowback. When someone shares their work at an unsustainable rate it actually diminishes the value and the power of what they are doing. Consider the micro-seconds of time many of these folks offering up the “likes” are spending with the imagery. Here today, gone tomorrow. In short, we are OVERSHARING at a deadly rate. Well, some of us are.

I’ve always felt that there have only ever been a few truly elite photographers in the world. This was true fifty years ago and it’s true now. The truly elite in my mind are NOT sharing every moment of every day and begging for attention. The elite are making work; real, honest, deep work and they are waiting like a visual virus. They are waiting for that work to be complete. They are editing, they are sequencing and they are packaging. They are waiting for the moment when humanity, NOT just the choir, is ready is receive and then they make their move. When they move, people stop what they are doing and they PAY ATTENTION. Real, undivided attention.

Certain photographers transcend photography. I have a game I play with my mother(75-years_old), who has always been supportive of photography but doesn’t have any interest in actually following photography, outside of the images I make of her grandchildren. I ask her if she has ever heard of certain photographers. Anyone who knows this site knows about my Salgado man crush, and Salgado is someone who transcends the choir. He, and his work, have become part of the vernacular of our culture. If he was buzzing around my ear EVERYDAY with post and after post after post I would toss him aside like I do the rest simply because there is NO WAY I have the time to actually consume that level of interaction. What I like about Salgado is that he pops up on my radar about once every ten years, and when he does I know I need to pay attention. His methods, his projects and his legacy are unrivaled in documentary photography, and just so you know, I don’t like everything he does. I think certain projects are better than others, but I pay attention, real attention, to all of them.

The sad thing is I believe there could be more Salgado’s out there, but too many people who have the talent have become sidetracked by staring at screens all day long and feeding their empty calorie lifestyle of the social following. At some point it’s going to dawn on these folks that change is in the air. Artists today have more control and more options than ever before, but it takes nerve, focus and a fearlessness to blaze a new trail. Artists have a permission slip, something I’ve harped on endlessly. A permission slip to be eccentric, to take chances and to be entirely original, but in doing so run the risk of NOT being “Mr/Mrs Popular.” Heck, sometimes I post things on Twitter to see how many people I can LOSE in one, 140-character blast. I do, and it’s a game I highly recommend because the MOMENT you begin to shape an artificial version of yourself in an attempt to gain more anything THE GAME IS OFFICIALLY OVER.

I hold out hope. When I see the name of the photographer I mentioned above, the one I noticed on Twitter, I see images of his in my mind. I see the OLD images, the ones that made him who he is before this charade began. This is true of many of these folks. I see their images because they were GREAT images. Signature, historical images but there were ONE or TWO from an entire story. THIS, for me is what photography is truly about. Great moments don’t happen everyday no matter how many filters you apply.

I SAT ON THIS POST FOR A FEW DAYS, CHEWING ON IT. THERE WAS MORE. SEE FOLLOWING POST

I Like Old

68,484

(The number of views for Sebastiao Salgado’s TED Talk.) I’m just going to say this, Salgado is the best documentary photographer alive. You could argue actual composition and style, and there are others that are good, but when you boil down longevity, impact, scale and influence there is nobody even in the same range. Now, I’m lumping guys like Edward Burtynsky in another category of work, but that is my own personal preference. And I don’t put Salgado in the “conflict photographer” group either. Perhaps I should define Salgado as a “classic documentary photographer,” but that would be confining because he transcends the traditional outlets and the art world, but ultimately that is not what this post is about.

Can you guess what these numbers correspond to?

305,482
363,366
402,343
652,118

Yep, you guessed it. Camera reviews.

As you can see, these numbers are not even close, and oddly enough the geeks watching these reviews are planning (mostly talking) to hypothetically (Because most don’t actually make photographs.) do the kind of work that Salgado is doing only at an absurdly inferior level. Personally I think this is why people laugh at photography and our “geek” legacy. I also find this wildly depressing, and I think it’s been getting worse over the past decade. I think if the rest of the creative world actually cared they would feel sorry for us. Yes, I said “us” because I was spawned from the photography world. Multiple times per week someone asks me about gear, either what camera to buy or what I think of some new model. I have my standard, canned answers because frankly I detest talking about this stuff. “Whatever is small and whatever you are willing to carry,” is my number one response because I actually think this response is helpful and I truly believe it. When it comes to new cameras I have another canned autoreply, “I don’t know.” I should probably add, “I don’t care,” but that might sound a tad smug, so I’m currently holding back on that little caveat. Even if I wanted to keep up with the new models I’m pretty sure I would not be able to unless I quit my job, rid my life of all things meaningful and holed myself up with a case of Jolt Cola and some cheap hooch. But more importantly, WHY would I even want to do this? The absolute truth is your camera has so little to do with your images it’s almost irrelevant, but don’t tell that blasphemic tale to the masses sitting through unboxing videos. (There should be a minimal jail sentence for anyone caught hatching one of these devilish creations.) Heck, I did a test on my own YouTube page years ago with a “What’s in my Bag?” post and a “New Camera at Smogranch” blast. The “What’s in my Bag” video has almost 5000 views, which for me is massive because my mode of promoting my YouTube page is neglecting to tell people I actually HAVE a YouTube page. And to say the video is low quality is an understatement of supreme proportion.
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But something else dawned on me. I like old stuff. I like stuff that has been in my hands long enough to feel like it is actually mine. I like stuff I have a connection with. I’ve got a friend who buys almost every new point-and-shoot digital camera that comes out. No joke. All brands. Then he calls me and says “Okay, I’m serious this time, THIS IS THE ONE.” Then, two weeks later it’s on Ebay, and I get the follow up call. “Oh man, that piece of crap would’t focus and the skin tone was horrible.” I let him finish talking then I hang up on him. As you can see, I’m in need of new soles. I could buy new shoes, but I don’t need new shoes. I need new soles. These shoes finally feel like they are mine, and if anyone reading this knows me you know I wear these almost everyday. This will be my third set of soles for these particular babies. When I look down I know what I’m going to see, and more importantly I know what I’m going to feel.

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The same can be said for my camera. It’s the same boring model I’ve been using for twelve years. It’s not the only camera I have, but the rest, with the exception of one, have been with me for about the same amount of time and some much, much longer. (I did buy a new system in the last two years, but it was only new to me, and had already been discontinued roughly a decade prior to me acquiring it.) There is no guesswork. There is no awkward moment. There is no learning curve. In fact, the only thought I give toward them is choosing a format. That’s all I need. The burden of choice is lifted and I just going into the field to look and see.
As many of you know, I’ve taught a few classes here and there over the years, both here at home and along some distant shores. Many modern students are defeated by the newness of their equipment before they ever set foot on photographic ground. I look over to see them staring at new everything, their conversation filled with menus, buttons and custom functions, not to mention the software woes on the backend. It just doesn’t work, nor will it ever. Now, if you love the gear more than the actual photographs, yes it will work, and there is no shortage of all things new. I say this not being contrite, but I’m entirely sure that many of those watching these camera reviews have no actual interest in making photographs. This is a reality of the photography world.

My advice to you is two fold. First, get a camera, commit to it and put all the rest away in a locked compartment. Then give the key to a trusted companion under the promise that when you come to them in a sweaty frenzy claiming you REALLY need those other cameras because your Zupperflex 5000 is only good at street photography and your Zupperflex 5001 is the ONLY thing that will work for your softcore “poolside” glamour “work” your friend will, as promised, kick you in the teeth as hard as they possibly can. Second, use your chosen camera until it wears out. NOT until a new model is released, or a new software version flies down from the ether. USE THIS ONE CAMERA UNTIL IT WEARS OUT.

I know a few non photographers who have done this. People who love to shoot for the love of shooting who never went down the equipment rabbit hole. They ask me to look at the mirror in their battered FM2 or their 5D Mark II shutter with 500,000 exposure, the camera in one hand and the shutter in the other. These people know, the have seen the light and know the light comes from what it in front of you, not what is in your hand. Find something and grow old with it.

And people this is the FUN part, and I guarantee your imagery will IMPROVE. Less distracted photographer equals better photographer every damn time. And what’s so great about this is WHEN you imagery improves it illuminates the reality that the rest of the nonsense really doesn’t matter. Slowly your gear will become just a distraction because you will be consumed by your imagery, by the light at 3:43 PM, by a location or by something you haven’t quite put your finger on yet. Your gear will become a reflex used to scratch a creative itch and the thought of taking time to watch a YouTube clip about something new will finally strike you as absurd. It’s a learning process that has nothing to do with technology or screen time. It is about an ongoing conversation with good friends.

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The Photographer Drone

This post is really a continuation of the last one because I forget something I wanted to mention. Where we are today with all this technology is actually slightly back from the brink of where we were once headed. Believe it or not.

In 1996 I covered one of the United States political conventions. At least I think it was 1996. San Diego. This was not my first convention. In 1992 I covered the Houston event and made some of my first wire service images, photos that were picked up and used in varying outlets around the world. 1992 was all film, not just for me, but for everyone I was working with. We shot color negative, then breached the protest lines to enter the convention center where the wire services were processing film. A quick edit, one frame chosen, a caption written and boom….you were golden.

By 1996 everything had really begun to change. Digital was the special of the day and the first real digital machines were landing on the news industry. Not many people had these beasts, and when I say “beast” I mean it. These cameras were unwieldy and were about the size of a small child but much harder and lacking in any human features. I remember seeing the cameras, mostly on wire service photographers and thinking “God, my back hurts just looking at those things.”

Over the short, few days the convention unraveled I spent the bulk of my time OUTSIDE the San Diego Convention Center. Shooting inside was okay, buttoned up tight in all the right political ways, but outside was where the chaos was, and being a young photographer that I was I thought I needed for great images. There were many other photographers around, both well established and others like me, completely unknown. I met Philip Jones Griffiths walking on the street, and he and I had a wonderful, in depth conversation about photography and things like Magnum, which at the time I viewed as being the Holy Grail of photography. He told me what I am always harping to you, “Shoot your own pictures.”

Late in the day I looked west into the setting sun and walking toward me was the outline of a guy I knew all too well, a wire service photographer who I had spent some time with in other locations. I not only recognized his shape, but also the shape of two, brand new, digital beasts hanging from his shoulders. As he walked up I began to speak but was met with his raised arm and a tilt of head, his index finger pointing at the sky as a warning for me wait before I continued my communication. At first I was puzzled but then I noticed a TINY headset wrapping around the back of his head with tiny earbuds nearly invisible to anyone not searching for them. He was talking to someone.

Minutes passed as he continued his “That crazy guy is talking to himself” cellphone-like conversation with an unknown caller, something that is so common today but not common at all in 1996. Finally he turned to me and said something along the lines of “I can’t believe this is happening.” “What are you talking about?” I asked. “What is going on?” “He’s telling me what to shoot.” “Who?” I asked. “My boss,” he said. “I don’t get it,” I said.

“I have this little headset and he’s in my ear asking me what is in front of me, what I’m seeing, and then he’s telling me what to shoot and how to shoot it.” My first thought was “Geez, what if that little headset was a little camera and his boss could actually SEE what he is seeing?” A virtual, real-time photographer being controlled by some dude in an office somewhere.

You know what this was people? This was our brush with………THE PHOTOGRAPHER DRONE. Remote controlled. Kept alive on fast food and bad coffee and sent into the most insane or mundane locations the world has to offer. Make him, or her, sign a contract, own their rights, underpay them and on top of it all you get to constantly tell them what to do. Perfect. Unless you happen to be the photographer.

I wish I was making this up, but unfortunately this is a true story. The good news is we pulled back from this brink. Remember, at the time we were hearing all the same shit we hear today about this technology. “It’s better than oxygen or gold.” “Women swoon for it.” The talk reminded me of the snake oil salesman in The Outlaw Josey Whales who is promising his elixir will cure all diseases, depression, a hangover and hunger and Josey spits a huge glob of tobacco on the guy’s pristine white jacket and asks “How does it work on stains?” I’m not sure who it as but someone spit on someone else and slapped people to their senses.

We need not look long or hard to find these things in our history, and ten years from now we are gonna look back and CRINGE as some of the things we are professing. Um, like “You won’t survive if you aren’t on social media.” There are many, many more I will skip for now.

Our industry is filled with bat shit crazy people, which is what makes it so interesting an so much fun, but these bat shit crazy people can work for you or against you. Sometimes it’s difficult to recognize in real time, but just go with your heart and your gut. Look, my dad once took me to a underground shooting sport when I was very young. I could really shoot, still can, and he knew it, so he took me to this underworld go round and BET ON ME. I was in middle school and was thinking “This feels like something I can never tell anyone about.” Just the feel was enough to tell me this was not PTA night material.

So when I look around today and see former stills only photographers juggling multiple duties I feel sorry for them…kinda. There are those who LOVE it, and power to the people, good on ya and have fun, but I know for a fact there are A LOT of miserable, frustrated photographers out there. And for those of you wondering how I know this, I get emails from these people EVERY SINGLE WEEK. Their frustration trickles down to me, and then I burden all of you with it! My blog, my rules! There is no shame in “only” being a still photographer, and there is no shame in NOT being a photographer, or being someone who loves photography and makes photos because they enjoy it. In fact, these folks have A LOT of advantages, but I will leave this for another day and another post.

Now the truly epic news is that my friend, as far as I know, is STILL with the wire service and that makes me intensely happy. He’s made a true career out of it, and I have great appreciation for that.