Archive for the ‘Rambling’ Category
I’ve been corresponding with a young photog, currently in the military, and about to take steps in civilian life. He’s been writing me articulate letters, filled with questions, trying his best to sort out the ongoing mystery of why we do something we continue to suck at most of the time. Not just do it, but love it. He’s had a couple tours in Iraq, and is currently stationed in Asia. A new life is looming, and he’s trying to make a sensible plan for a future in photography, which of course is a future that will defy logic and any measure of common sense. He’s passionate and talented, and wondering which way to go.
I said I’ve been corresponding. That’s quite generous. I’ve been a lousy letter writer. So many times I’ve wanted to respond, and events, an airplane or just plain sleep overtook me. I finally made a stab at a mildly complete answer to his archive of letters, and below is a piece of it. His persistent, thoughtful questions brought me back to a day when I might have made my first successful picture.
You made the choice to follow a photographic path sometime ago, and have followed that path with zeal and passion. That pursuit is something we share, to be sure. When I “found” photography, it drew me like nothing I had ever experienced. Up to that time, I was completely non-committal in all aspects of my life. Indifferent in school, a so-so athlete, just another beer drinking college kid, out there on Marshall St. Never thought about logging the 10,000 hours with anything and certainly hadn’t encountered one thing at that time that seemed to warrant that kind of effort.
But photography! Now this was something that involved the head, heart and hands in equal measure. This was balance. This needed no explanation or defense. It needed to be done. It required work. It became the focus of my life. And, a bit like a big rock blocking the way of the stream and roiling the waters, it has stayed there, in my consciousness, day and night, mocking me, taunting my relentlessly puny efforts. Day after day, year after year, I have gone after that rock, methodically, but sometimes with a vengeance, using the camera in my hands as one would wield a sledge, hoping to break it to bits, crack it open, find the gleaming secret within and thus finally obtain smooth portage.
You know what? After all my blood, sweat and tears, it still sits there, smiling at me. My encounters with it now are more conversational than rage filled and intense. We’ve come to an understanding, I think. I will pass from this earth and it will still be there, ready to taunt the next young pup with a camera in his hands and some big ideas. But there’s an unspoken agreement between the two of us that there were days I hit it hard enough to break off a couple of decent size pieces. I gave it a decent go, in other words. It’s all we can do.
Part of the pull of course is that photography involves an all out effort. You have to be at the top of the ladder for the best angle, not the middle. You don’t do it from the side of the road. You leave the car behind, climb the guardrail, and go out there to get in the middle of whatever you’re looking at. You walk into the village or the farm or the life of those in question. You get off the interstate, and, as Jay Maisel says, you walk—slowly. It’s a credential to life’s events you put around your neck that gets you past the barriers that hem in and corral the others. In return, it demands that you risk things—life, limb, emotions, embarrassment, failure, sometimes all at once. It seeks only the most ardent, passionate of suitors, and even then this fickle art and craft turns veiled eyes and offers the barest wisps of approval and acceptance, and those, only occasionally.
And I accepted that slim invitation, long ago, sometimes to my regret or comeuppance. I have failed, been broke down and wept for my own ineptitude. I have given up and given in. I have railed against the apparent injustice (to me) of others, be they editors, subjects, readers, friends or family that they seemingly don’t take this as seriously as I do. I have tired of explaining myself. I’m exhausted from imploring for just a bit more of an open door, just a bit more time. I mean, don’t they see? Don’t they know this is important? If you let me just do this, together we then create something that will outlast us, and isn’t that the fucking point?
Strangely enough, lots of folks out there have found my insistence and persistence odd, or even irritating. Put smiley face here.
You asked me once what photo started it all for me. For you it was your Auschwitz photo, the reflection on the floor. You also noted other high moments. The giraffe in Tanzania, and the soldier by the sunlit doorway. Those are all far more eloquent than anything I shot in my early years. My canvas was small as a photo student. Syracuse, NY, not the savannas of Africa. I turned, as a spectator at a football game, and saw an acquaintance about to go full throttle with a yell. I took my Nikkormat, loaded with Tri-x and a 135mm f2.8 lens and put it to my eye, and swung the focus to critical and hit the shutter at the absolute crescendo of whatever verbal abuse he was hurling at the opposition. It was the first time my camera felt like an extension of my hands. My fingers had flown (for once) to the right places, and moved the infernal dials and buttons in exquisite concert. It was one frame. I sat down and stared at the camera. And I don’t remember a single thing about the rest of that day.
Ever really get to know those guys and gals behind the counter at photo stores? I think every photographer out there has either been saved by, exasperated by, befuddled by, informed by, counseled by….those folks behind the counter. Part priest (or minister, or rabbi), part bartender, part technician, those fellas (mostly) wait for us behind glass bins that contain vast troves of pornographically delightful gadgets, all gleaming brighter than the right side of the histogram. We swoon as we approach the altar of gear.
We are impulse buyers, often times, near keening in our desire to possess the latest newfangled widget which will catapult our photography to the next level. Just one more light modifier, the one that bends photons into the darkest, truest corners of our subject’s souls, or one more ultra-smooth, chromium coated, bi-pixelated, extra dispersionary piece of glass that is faster than light itself–that’s all that’s needed. Once in possession of these treasures, the road will be smooth, and the assignments will be plentiful. The next phone call indeed will not be from someone we owe money to, but rather it will be from the National Geographic Society, sending us packing to places of unspeakable wonder. We of course are snapped out of this delightfully implausible reverie by the voice behind the counter reminding us that there’s a special on if we buy the camera with the lens.
Given our tendency towards rapture when we enter a camera store, we could easily be led astray. That’s why, when you find good people behind those gleaming counters (or on the other end of the phone), you stick with ‘em.
My first major camera purchase was in 1974 at Willoughby’s on 5th Avenue, and it was enabled by enduring physical harm and mayhem. (Hmmm. Has anything changed?) During my first job in journalism, as a newspaper boy, I was bitten by a dog. Badly. Put me in a wheelchair for 5 weeks, and it took two operations to put my left calf back together. Turns out the family was beating the dog with the newspaper, so I’m sure to the pooch, this was a very logical move. It resulted in a payout of ten grand, available to me at the wise age of 21. Did I invest it? No, of course not. I turned it into a car and a couple cameras. Made the deposit, and went to Willoughby’s. Back then, the store would actually make a phone call to the bank to check your account. (How quaint!) The check hadn’t cleared. The camera salesman turned to me with a knowing look, and said, “You’re a little short in the bank, kid.” (How was I to know he was also a prophet, and this would remain a perpetual state of affairs?)
If you told me back then I would have a relationship with one of these shops, I would have looked at you like you were off your nut. But, turns out, after purchasing many photographic talismans from many, many places, I’ve come to be part of the family at Adorama. The folks who run the place decided to partner with me to support the Faces of Ground Zero giant Polaroid collection a number of years ago. (I had gone it alone preserving and storing 24,000 pounds of photography in museum quality storage for a number years, and it damn near broke me. Then, Harry Drummer, he who makes all things happen at Adorama, shook my hand and said, “We’ll help you.”) I’ve done all my business with the store ever since.
And hence have gotten to know the guys in the Adorama Pro shop pretty well. They are equal parts characters, soothsayers, geniuses and camera-wise counselors. After a few years in the business, it’s pretty easy to get dismissive about the “camera salesman,” right? “I know what I want, here’s my money, and how long is this going to take?” can be the dialogue in your head when you’re at the counter purchasing, and that’s understandable. But, over time, I’ve come to regard these guys not only as friends, but as resources. Because, in short, they know more than me.
Let’s start with Daniel Norton who describes himself as “a Springsteen tune sung by Tom Waits. And he knows stuff about light bulbs.” A fine photog in his own right, he knows more about lighting than, well, just about anybody I’ve encountered. His expertise crosses a vast array of systems, and he can tell you what works with what and why more easily than a kindergarten teacher reciting Dr. Seuss. Which, given his clientele, he might often feel like. He’s able to quickly suss out the essence of what a photog really needs to get a job done, and it comes from the depth of his experience shooting on location in places like NY and Miami. He’s also always got a perpetual, slightly bemused, knowing twinkle in his eyes as yet another photog recites a fevered litany of what they will try to accomplish with this newly purchased magic box. Think of a cop at the driver’s window while someone nervously babbles what they perceive to be a perfectly defensible rationale for doing 75 in a school zone. Daniel knows his stuff, and I have personally witnessed him saving a photographer from himself. Which is actually very cool, considering there are some guys behind the counter out there that are the camera store equivalents of Hannibal Lecter…”Closer, Clarice, closer…..”
Then there’s Efraim Nussbaum. I don’t know too many geniuses, but he is well and truly one of a kind. He speaks a half dozen languages, and knows, by heart, virtually every SKU in the Adorama system, which, as you might guess, has more than just a few products. He has, literally, a photographic memory. He scans a page of figures, and then, simply, knows them. He is a wonder to watch, ball capped, scanning his computer, drawing on more than 20 years of camera store experience, spewing SKUs and manufacturer’s descriptions like he’s reciting poetry. Seriously. He can make a recitation of the tech specs on a lens sound like Yeats. I think this occurs because he does truly love his job, and this world of information bubbles out of a very decent, helpful place in his soul. I asked him once about an obscure connecting cord. He not only knew the cord, and the SKU, but he knew it was impossible to get and suggested another historical predecessor to that cord that works just as well if you hooked it to XYZ coupler, and there are two of those in the system! He did this without the aid of his computer.
And then (drum roll, please) there’s retail store manager Isaiah Wong. He went to Cardinal Spellman HS in the Bronx, and I went to Iona, and they used to regularly kick our ass on the basketball court, but I don’t hold this against him. A self starter nonpareil, he’s the young father of three and brings the obvious patience of parenthood to maintaining order and equanimity on the floor of a hectic NY camera shop, which at least occasionally rivals the tumult of Times Square on New Year’s Eve. To me, he is part of the vibrant soul of New York. Chinese and Puerto Rican, he put himself through Baruch College, and then climbed the managerial ranks through the clothing, wireless communications, consumer electronics and now photographic industries. Looking at his bio, it makes sense that he once worked at Prada and The Gap, as he still manages to pull off stylish, despite wearing the standard issue Adorama duds.
And then, of course, there’s the big guy, Jeff Snyder. I shot this picture of him down in North Carolina, and it’s pretty good, so he uses it as his Twitter pic. I haven’t had the heart to tell him that I only shot it because I was bored with the lighthouse I was looking at that morning. Now he knows:-)
Seriously, Jeff and I have been buds a long time, and my business followed him from Penn Camera to Adorama. Remember I said when you find good guys, you stick with them? He’s a fine shooter who’s out there in the trenches with us, so his camera advice is sound and grounded in reality. And his jokes aren’t bad, either.
Good jokes, good guys, and good camera advice. What’s not to like? More tk….
Was just at the WPPI convention in Vegas. I had no official duties or anything, I was just there basically stalking Annie:-) Been on the road a lot with this Geographic job (in Colorado now) so I just went to the show to hang out, see some friends and drop by the Adorama booth and stare at her occasionally. The fortuitous placement of the Ado counters facing directly into the Nikon stage makes it easy to see the whole gang, so it was a fun couple of days.
I had never stayed at MGM before, and sleeping there is kind of wild, with this green glow seeping in around the curtains. I’ve done a lot of chopper work in Vegas, it made me recall this shot I made a couple years ago. That emerald color is really the brightest thing on the Strip, which as we all know is a monument to understated taste and elegance. Reason for the flight was that I was doing a story on the electrical grid of the US, and I had to come up with a pic that addressed the issue of consumption. Vegas here we come! Nat Geo didn’t use it, going with a frame I made of the NY skyline.
But I do remember working this building, kind of an illuminated, architectural version of the Hulk, sitting there on the strip. Shot with a D3, lens at 19mm, ISO 1000, 1/80th at 2.8, Aperture Priority, minus one EV.
Geez. Some interesting commentary yesterday, ranging from feminine physiques to Photoshop to posing to pixels. In the interests of advancing information here’s a production snap from the lagoon, taken by our buds Rob and Jen Lace. There’s another version of the shot below.
Hopefully these snaps confirm a few things. A) Sara does have a left arm. B) She is on an island of sorts. C) The c-stand used in this picture is still sort of rusted out and has a hint of a sulfur smell. D) We are on location and I didn’t shoot this on a green screen. E) It’s only the combination of the lens and the angle of the above production picture that makes me look like Shamu wearing a cap:-)
Here’s another pose of her on the rock, sans, jacket. I didn’t like the pic nearly as well. In fact, for all the debate about her positioning, I have to say, I loved it. When she curled up, somewhat impossibly, on that rock, she balanced the frame and became a counterpoint to the lighthouse, graphically. It’s one of my favorite pics in the new book. This one below, not so much. But folks might like this. Or not. It’s okay. That’s the eternal beauty and damnation of photography. There’s no real right or wrong.
But there is passion, that’s for sure. Lots of people had interesting takes, and some advice, some of it even sort of medical. (Talk of extended or flexible hip joints and the like.) The fact is, I have often asked people to curl up, contort, or curve for a picture, for all sorts of reasons. There was Mary Ellen Clark, the famous diver. I shot her nude for LIFE, and this pose, a simulated tuck, was a good way of making sure, as she put it, nothing was hanging out.
Then of course, there was Pilobolus. But, this sort of contortion is cheating really, ’cause this is what they do.
I asked Jada Pinkett Smith, somewhat improbably, to hug a wall.
And Michelle Yeoh to crawl across the desert floor.
And the basketball giant Greg Oden to bend way over to fit into a frame. And then I gave him a tiny basketball to make him seem even more outsized than he is.
Also, the whole idea of incongruity is one I’ve been in love with since momma dropped my on my head. I like taking disparate physical elements and placing them together, in unlikely context to each other, in hopes of creating something serenely surreal and beautiful. Or just plain odd. (Why is she on a rock in a lagoon? I don’t know.) The idea is to arrest the eye of the viewer. I took, for instance, this homespun clad, magnificently voiced trio from the New York City Opera into a Japanese pachinko parlor during the opera’s historic tour of Japan. They were styled for “Little Women,” a quintessentially American opera. So, I took them someplace quintessentially Japanese. The fun thing? These folks are in full throttle, singing beautifully in the parlor. Not a single person even looked up from their game.Wonderful.
This whole thing is about having a restless eye, one that is never patient, or self-satisfied. One that keeps pushing, and is happier thinking about what it will see next than it is dwelling on that which it has already seen. Win, lose or draw, the eye has to be an ever hungry hunter.
There was lots of talk, as there always is, about the pixels and the PSD and various digital whatnot. That’s okay, too. It’s important to discuss and assimilate the mechanics of all this. But it’s important to remember that the how exists only to serve the why. The how addresses the infernal machine, and the bells, whistles and dials. But the why is the real deal. Why pick up a camera at all? Why do we let ourselves in for all this frustration in the first place? Why go to the lagoon in the freezing cold? (That coffee house was much more comfortable.) There’s a ton of “how to” in Sketching Light,” but the larger, more important discussions dwell on the why of all of this.
It’s important to dive into the mechanics, to be sure. But not too far. When we pick up every pixel, and hold it up to a magnifying glass, looking at it every which way, like a precious bauble we just found during a walk on the beach, it is self defeating, not to mention boring as shit. There’s an old phrase that describes that type of discussion and examination. I can’t remember it exactly, but it has something to do with the forest and the trees.
Laughter comes easy to Donald and I. We’ve know each other for ten years or so, and to me, it’s just one of the small but rich gifts of this nutty business that he ends up on the cover of this new book. He’s a decent soul who takes his honey out for several spins on the dance floor every Friday night, sips Cuervo like it’s medicine, and always has a bit of a twinkle in his eye. As he said to me once, “The day they put me down, all the music in the world’s gonna stop.” I think he’s right.
Home. Feels good after a tumultuous year. For the rest of the year on the blog, I’ll be focusing on some of the highs and lows of another year of survival as a shooter. I looked around my tiny apartment in NYC in 1979, and realized I was paying all of my meager bills with a camera, and knew right then that I was a professional photog. At that point in time, being called a pro was high praise indeed. It was a mark of distinction that acknowledged the fact that your pictures were not only being consumed by people and influencing them every day, but that your livelihood flowed through a lens. It was a stamp of approval that only a hardy few could merit and sustain. So, as we approach 2012, 33 years with a camera in my hands and counting. Sheesh. I get points for stubbornness, anyway.
But, lots of highs and lows, as always. The new book is one of the highs, and it’s a fun read. Lots of survival lessons in there, right next to the lighting diagrams and production shots. Having my friend Mr. Blake on the cover of Sketching Light is one those wonderfully odd pieces of serendipity that occasionally come a shooter’s way. Donald looks a bit stern and forbidding on the cover for the gentle soul that he is, but I know he likes the picture.
Shot this during a workshop demo, when the sky and the wind just gave me a feeling I could find my way to a picture.
On the other hand, one of the more notable lows occurred this year aboard Flashbus, when a hard turn ended me up in bed with David Hobby. He reported on this incident thoroughly in his blog of yesterday:
Also, if anyone woulda told me five years ago that one day I would be traveling in a tour bus with Joe McNally, I woulda told them that they were nuts.
And if anyone woulda told me five years ago that one day, I would suddenly and unexpectedly find myself in my underwear, sharing a bed with McNally, I woulda punched ‘em in the mouf.
Suffice to say you never know what turns life has in store for you. Especially an unexpected hard left-hand turn by a bus, resulting in the above. After that, I slept in full clothing.
Lots of laughs, twists and turns out there on the road.
The picture up top was shot by Kent Skibstad who attended a workshop and who wrote to me that the workshop “really kickstarted my photographic career, thank you!” It was a wonderful note to get as a teacher.