Why?

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.

Wedding Photography

You might be wondering what the title of this post and this image have in common. In short, everything.

Over the past few years I’ve really avoided writing much about the wedding business, industry or even the photographs that I have made in this field.

I’m involved in a lot more than just wedding photography, so for me, when it comes to writing, I typically have MORE to write about than I know what to do with. Consequently, weddings fell down my list.

But there is something very important that I wanted to bring up.

I’m forty-one-years old. It feels odd to say that because I still feel like I’m twelve, but the mirror tells me otherwise. I guess you could call me old school. Again, I don’t feel old school, but I could see you putting that label on me.

My background is varied, which I think is a good thing. Before I studied photography, I worked as a photographer. That might sound odd but it’s true. I worked as a newspaper photographer before I ever took a class in photography. I shot, edited, printed, did the half-tones and paste up and watched as the presses churned out the efforts of my labors. I heard the good and bad from people on the streets, and felt the power of a strong image as it reverberated through a community. I was NOT a good photographer, far from it. My portfolio consisted of horrendous self-portraits, high-noon landscapes and the creme de la creme of my lineup was a photo of a deer shot with a 500mm mirror lens out the door of my car. I had no trouble getting a job in photography, but I KNEW I wasn’t yet a real photographer.

After figuring out photography was what I wanted to do with the rest of my life, I realized I wanted to study photography and more importantly I NEEDED to study photography. So I did.

I got a degree in Photojournalism, worked for my college paper, freelanced, assisted and studied photography full time, diving in like there was no tomorrow. I also studied how to write, how to edit, how to design, at least to a certain degree, and also dove into the art world, studying intensely and suffering through actually trying to make art myself(Life drawing was my worst class ever). Those were some of the best and worst days of my life. You see this was about so much more than nuts and bolts, so much more. It was about finding myself, my vision and my voice.

Today I run into dozens of “photographers” that are “self-taught,” and some of you are remarkable image makers. Being self-taught has always held a certain allure or charm, but never more so than today.

But I have to say, I’m somewhat skeptical about many of the modern “self-taught” photographers because often times, when I see their work, I realize that many are mostly self and very, very little taught. In the past 24 hours, all within biking distance of my house, I’ve seen THREE, “professional” photographers undertaking shoots with NO idea what they were doing. How do I know this? Because I stopped and watched. I saw a clear photographer/client relationship, and three photographers with zero understanding of basic lighting conditions. All three photographers were using digital body and 24-70 lens. All three shot FAR, FAR, FAR more images than they needed to, using the camera as a type of pacifier to make themselves, and probably the client, feel as if real images were being made. I could tell just by watching that none of these photographers had a style or real clear vision for what they were trying to produce. At times they would shoot the same person by moving around them in a circle with their lights in tow.

I realize that life has many challenges, and going to photo-school full time isn’t within the realm of many people. I get it. I got lucky. I had parents who helped with my college tuition, and I chose a school right down the road, so in-state tuition, at least at that time, was next to nothing. I lived in an efficiency apartment, with a roommate, and we split most everything. I assisted for the local fire department photographer and he helped me with supplies and let me use his automated color printer when I was on deadline. I bulk rolled my film, used whatever free chemicals I could get my hands on and I lived in the school darkroom. I assisted for a still-life photographer who shot medical parts, sometimes taking eight or nine hours to make one image. I survived on cheap beer and Carnation Instant Breakfast drink(I was partial to the Strawberry). And I was very aware that many folks were having a far more difficult time making it than me.

This time of learning, of study, was invaluable for me because it was what allowed me to BEGIN to find my voice, my vision, which in my humble opinion is the most important, most valuable thing I have. Why? Because it is mine, and it is unique, just like your true vision is.

I made so many mistakes, so many false starts. I thought I was one photographer, but in reality I was another, and there was no way for me to realize this until I made those mistakes, those jumps off the photographic cliff.

Even after four years of study, I was only beginning to understand who I was with a camera in my hand. I ventured into the professional world, thanks to the help of many other people, but struggled with how to make it and how to keep true to goals. I worked in the newspaper world, I did freelance editorial work and basically shot ANYTHING that came my way. After a few years of doing this I realized that being all things to all people was not only NOT helping me find my real style, but was in many ways holding me back. So I quit. Yep, I quit and took a job with Kodak.

The first piece of paper I signed when I accepted the job was a conflict of interest letter stating I would no longer do assignment work. I signed it without a second thought. I realized then that the mainstream photography world was not where I was headed. The mainstream world didn’t offer me what I needed. I began working for Kodak, sold off all my equipment except a Leica M6 and a 35mm lens and went into temporary retirement. I visited with hundreds of photographers across the nation, spent time talking about photography, about printing, galleries, magazines, creativity, personal work, and a strange new perspective began to build in my mind.

Before long I had my camera in hand and I was making pictures yet again, but THIS time, the pictures were ONLY for me. I went into the field on my projects and made my pictures and suddenly, through the layers of my past and the stimulus of the day, I began to see the photographer I really was. Jobs couldn’t show it to me. Clients giving me their demands didn’t do it for me. School had opened the door but it wasn’t until this time at Kodak, and the shooting entirely on my own, that I found my vision, my style and my voice.

If I had listened to the industry I would have NEVER found it. Not even remotely close. The industry was telling me to go in an entirely different direction, heck the industry was telling EVERYONE to go in that direction. I knew I had to follow a different path.

So when you view the image at the top of this post and I tell you that this photograph, and many, many others, are critical to my wedding work I’m hoping that you now understand. Pictures like this are a reflection of who I am as a photographer. I don’t listen to what the wedding photography industry wants to me be. I don’t pay attention to what the wedding magazine lists are telling me I have to do, to say, to be. None of the applies to me. My goal is to put my stamp on the wedding, not the other way around.

We are a product of our past, our environment, and LEARNING photography, actually studying it, from the basics of light, timing and composition to more advanced studies of the history of our craft was critical to me finding the path I’m on.

If you are a photographer who is waiting for clients to dictate how you work then I think it might be time to reconsider why you are doing what you do. And if you haven’t ever studied photography, think about giving it a go. I think real study could be what unlocks the photographer inside you.