A few years ago I completed a four-city tour documenting dogs and graffiti. This project started out harmless enough but then snowballed into a full on project. Featured here is an image from the New York portion of the project. All four of these books are available online, however, I’m actually in the process of editing all four books into ONE magazine piece which I will release in the coming weeks. This entire project was made with the Leica and Tmax 3200. Since the four city project I’ve also added pieces from Panama and Peru, which I will probably feature at a later date. Enjoy.
This particular image comes with a story that will answer a question I’ve been asked a thousand times. “Has the lab ever ruined your film?” Short answer “no” but they came close. The Gods of the Salton Sea were with me.
I spend a fair amount of time around today’s photography industry. I travel to the trade shows, most of them, and I keep up on what is new, what is phasing out and what is rumored to be on the way. I also go to many openings, gatherings and lectures, encompassing a wide range of people and topics.
The further we go into this modern electronic game of photography, I’m always amazed at how much I hear about technology, both on the front end with digital capture devices, or cameras to normal people, and the back end, meaning workflow solutions, or software and computer stuff to normal people.
But what I rarely hear anything about is actual photography, the actual basics of making imagery. I guess that this information just isn’t flashy enough for the modern crowd, or the younger generation who have spent very little time learning photographic basics and have spent far more time on equipment, software, branding, websites and marketing. In some ways I can see the thought behind this. The business of professional photography is really in trouble, a reality that seems to get lost on many people, so creating a brand, marketing the brand, and trying to survive are important steps in being a photographer.
However, I also see the insanity in approaching the business in this direction. You can market and brand all you want, but in the end if you don’t understand the basics of photography you won’t produce a recognizable and unique product. My evidence of this is all around us, look at most publicly viewable imagery.
I recently went to a trade show and walked the entire floor, looking and listening to every speaker I could find. Without exception, every featured speaker spoke about what new piece of equipment had taken them to a level they could have never reached with last year’s version. Now I know this is bunk, and they know this is bunk, but many of those in attendance don’t, and that is one reason why we have the issues we have today.
Yes, you can buy the latest widget, and the latest software to go with it, but if you don’t have a basic understanding of light, timing and composition, it won’t matter what you have in your hand unless you are only trying to provide generic content……….
Well, a lot of people today are only trying to provide generic content, but for the REST of us, basic photography is what we must understand.
I would LOVE to go to a trade show and hear the truth from the speakers. I would love to hear the backstory of the work they are showing, or their real work, where they got up before sunrise or waited for the last feeble, fire-red rays of the day. But for some reason, this isn’t what sells today.
But for me, this is where it all begins and ends. Light. This post is simply about light.
Take megapixels, capture rate, color space, file format, lens magnification, file converters, actions, tweaks, the clone tool, layer masks, workflow, tagging, rating and watermarks and just toss them out the window. Take your machine with forty buttons and just put it on the floor and walk outside. Now look up. Look right. Look left.
Find the light. Be the light Danny. (If you don’t know this reference I can’t ever talk to you again.)
I’m AMAZED at the number of photo students who have never done this. AMAZED.
I’ve seen students work images on a laptop like a shuttle captain under pressure of a hull breach. Images shot at 12 noon on a cloudless day. I’ve seen portrait photographers, on the beach at sunset, in the most beautiful light you can imagine, shooting every single frame with direct, on-camera flash.
I just want to say, “Stop, please, let’s go back to the beginning.”
Figuring out and exploring light is one of the most entertaining aspects of photography, at least in my opinion. You know that feeling you get when you think you left your wallet or cell phone on the counter at the airport? THAT is how I feel when I’m out and the light is great and I’m not shooting. I feel freaked out because I know how important light is to the bulk of what I do as a photographer.
And when you are in the right place, at the right time, in the right light, there is no better feeling.
Light makes everything AFTER the photograph easier, like making prints. When the light is great, and you expose that piece of paper, it just comes up in the developer like it was meant to be. It seems that most of my best prints, and somewhat easiest prints, were done in great light.
Look, we all know that sometimes we can’t control the light. When you can’t you just do what you can do and live with the results. But many times we CAN control when we work, and that, for me, is critical.
And let’s not think we need vacation sunsets to have great light. Great light can be flat, diffused, dark, etc, It is the quality of light we are looking for.
Early and late light give us what?
Come on? What?
Color and direction. But flat light can also give us great things.
What it takes is practice seeing and being able to recognize what light we need or want to make the pictures we want.
So, the next time you are thinking upgrading your Zupperflex 5000 Doppler SLR, and the software that goes with it, just remember in one year you will probably have to upgrade again. But neither basic photography knowledge, nor light, needs an upgrade. Learn it once, use it forever.
“Is that someone in the lake?” I asked myself.
“No, it can’t be” I mumbled as I shifted my eyes back to the road.
“I’ve been out here a dozen times and I’ve never seen anyone actually in the water.”
My eyes shifted from the road to the water down below. It was summer and the light was harsh, hot and dusty. It’s always like this but summer brings its own version of harsh.
Down below the light bounced off sand, dirt and the surface of the lake which was dead, flat glass. You could smell it even from the road. Tree stumps, burned out and looking dead poked from the surface like post apocalyptic matchsticks snapped in half.
And then one of them moved.
I glanced back at the road, then quickly back at the lake. Two stumps were moving, and were leaving small v-shaped wakes in their path. Somebody was IN the lake.
I quickly surveyed my location. There was a lot of steep distance between myself and these two figures but I knew I HAD to get down there. Every possible scenario ran through my mind, including, “I’m gonna blow this if I don’t get down there right frickin now.”
If I pulled the car over and ran I’d never make it. Too far. Too steep. And the figures, whoever they were, would probably freak out seeing this crazed man running downhill directly at them. I didn’t see any vehicle near them which made me wonder just how they got where they were.
I punched the accelerator to the floor, and the tiny hybrid engine whined and moaned as the complicated little motor did what it could to get me where I needed to go.
I only had one camera and lens with me, Leica and 35mm. I kept my eyes on the road, but my right hand reached over to find the body, which I knew was loaded, but I wanted to make sure I had at least four or five frames left. And then I saw the road.
Just ahead, a small paved road off to my left, heading down towards the waterline. My eyes kept darting from the road to the figures, road to the figures. They were on the move and were heading to the shore. I had maybe a minute at best.
The road led into an abandoned park of some kind, leftover parking spaces, dead trees and emptiness. I swerved and weaved around rocks, palm fronds and glass as I finally reached lake level. Camera in hand, unbuckling my seat belt. My heart was pounding.
It wasn’t like this was a grand moment of moments in the scheme of life, but it was for me because my brain had already assigned a “high priority target” to this image and there was nothing in the world I wanted more at that very moment.
I flew down the beach, still in my car, as I could now see two figures wading in the lake, one wearing a conical, Vietnamese style hat. Even better.
I angled my car toward the pair and jumped out, camera to my eye as they waded directly at me. It was dead calm. I could hear them talking.
I just shot, two frames, three, four, five and I knew I had it. I began talking to them, but never took the camera down. “I can’t believe your in the lake,” I said. “I’ve never seen anyone in the lake.”
If you have never been to the Salton Sea, all I can say is, it’s not a normal lake. The water is thick, dark brown, sometimes red and can smell like you can’t believe. It’s not exactly inviting.
“I used to come here as a kid, and we would do the same thing,” one of the men said. “And there were so many fish you could feel them swish around your legs.”
Those days are gone, as the salinity level of the sea rises and massive fish die offs occur. It was rumored a few years ago, during August, the hottest month, seven million fish died in a single month.
As the men drew near I walked closer to the water, the land crunching beneath my feet. Looking down I realized the beach I was on was made entirely of bone, fish bone, decomposing.
We talked for a few minutes, I thanked them for allowing me to photograph and then it was back in the car. The light was slowly getting better, and I knew there might be another photo or two, but I knew I wasn’t going to get anything better than these two guys in the water. Not unless an alien landed the road.
The sea area is photographed a lot, but the bulk of the images are void of people. There are many odd landscape features, abandoned buses, buildings, etc, but I’m always saddled with the issue that I’m a people photographer. Those other items only do it for me when I’ve got people in the image. Not sure why, that’s just the way it is for me. I think adding people increases the photo-difficulty exponentially, in fact I know it does, so for me I have to hunt a little harder. There are places at the Salton Sea loaded with people, a beach town and another place called Slab City, but unless you have the time to spend with people you have no business going there. I’d been to these places before, spent time, talked with people, explained who I was, what I was doing and made a few images, but this day I was hunting something else. I wasn’t sure what it was at the time, until I saw the figures.
I worked my way around the north side of the lake and then eventually headed for home. I don’t remember exactly, but I think I shot two rolls of film that day. When I told another photographer, younger photographer, this fact they just sat there looking at me. “What do you mean you mean you only shot two rolls?”
“Two rolls, so what?” I asked. Think about it, 72 frames can potentially mean 72 different images. In this case, I’d burned four or five on the figures, so okay, I’m down to high 60’s in terms of potentially different pictures.
This isn’t the modern way. The modern photographer might shoot 72 pictures before leaving the car, and in a day like this might shoot several thousand images. I guess that’s just another method, style, philosophy. That’s just not how I work. I’m looking for moments, real ones, that only exist for a brief time and then disappear forever, and they are few and far between.
I’d been to the Salton Sea a dozen times before and had probably made a few hundred images.
The lab I used was in Los Angeles, and at the time I made this image I’d used them forever. But a friend in Orange County said, “Hey, you should try this local lab.”
I did, and it almost cost me the entire enchilada.
The next day I drove to this local lab, one that still processed film by hand, which I really love because you can really fine tune your process, as well as use many different chemicals. Film, chemistry, temperature, etc, are like a painter choosing colors. You have an almost infinite number of looks.
I gave my film to the lab and was told to come back the following day.
When I walked back in I knew something was wrong. The same guy who had taken my film the previous day was there behind the counter, but he didn’t look happy. I walked to the counter, he looked at the ground.
“I had a little accident,” he said.
“Really, what happened?” I asked.
“Well, I was processing your film, forgot I had my cell phone on my hip and right in the middle of the development, my phone went off,” he admitted. “I fogged your film.”
For a second I was deflated, but the ONLY thing I could think of were those figures in the water. How rare that had been, and yes, how bummed I was that it was gone forever. But, a part of me laughed inside, thinking, “Okay, this is the way it is gonna be, just means I’m supposed to go back to the sea because something better is waiting for me.”
I could see how crushed he was. I felt bad for him, and frankly I didn’t think it was that big of a deal. I had never, in all the years of shooting, ever had film ruined at a lab. I’d ruined my own film, I’d had digital cameras corrupt, drives fail, cards fail, etc, It was just part of the job.
“Did you save anything?” I asked.
He reached behind the counter, handed me an envelope and I pulled the fogged negatives into the light. And there it was.
The film was BLACK right down the center of the contact sheet, totally black. But at the edge of the negatives, two figures were staring back at me. There they were. And the smell of the sea came racing back.
The fog crept right to the edge of the frame, probably a little over, but the sea of grain, shadow and form was still there. My figures were still there, burned into the grains of silver.
I’ve been to the sea many times since then, but this is still my favorite image, and I’ve never found anyone else in the lake. I’ll keep going back, adding to my work, but a small part of me feels content about this place.