What happens when all the air comes out of the balloon?

I talked to three different photographers who used to make good livings in recent years teaching workshops across the United States.  All of them say the same thing.  Basically, the air is almost totally out of the balloon.  The current expression of the photographic workshop is being killed off the same way bacteria in a petri dish die out when the food in the dish is all eaten up. 

I thought about making workshop teaching part of my pie chart of doing business but I could never figure out how much of my life I wanted to give up traveling and pontificating/teaching when all I really want to do is to take photographs. Every once in a while I teach one for the guys at Precision Camera and it's great because they handle the registration and all the details.  But I'm careful to only commit to one day workshops because I know I can make it through one day and deliver a certain amount of value to students but two days always seems like a stretch.  A full week would seem like a prison term.  To me.  I can only imagine how bad it would be for the students.

My problem with workshops is that every student comes with a different set of expectations and levels of experience.  And what they think they want to know is so different than what I think would be best for them to know.  Most (not all) of the workshops I see and hear about, and most of the ones they want me to do are about technical stuff:  How to use small flashes.  How to use more small flashes.  How to use small flashes, part 2.  And of course, Using small flashes for a number of different images.  

While not connected to workshops my publisher recently asked me to do a revision of my first book, Minimalist Lighting, Professional Techniques for Lighting on Location.  But really,  I think the whole category or subject is played out.  Neil van Niekirk has two great books about the subject from the same publisher.  And there are ten or twenty more from that one concern.  When my book first came out in early 2008 the only competitive book was Joe McNally's but it wasn't so much step by step as it was photos with explanations.  Now the same niche has nearly 50 similar titles available at Amazon.  I'd probably make some money reprising the book, just from name recognition,  but I think that petri dish is well populated.  And so is the niche for similar workshops.

But there's a big ass niche that stands empty.  I think the next wave of workshops (and one I enthusiastically embrace and invite) will be workshops and books about "WHY PHOTOGRAPH?"  How to get in touch with "why" you feel compelled to spend the money on gear and why you want to take images.  Knowing the answers to these questions will be much more valuable in the long run to every photographer.  And it's the idea that knowing ourselves and our motivations will give our images their real power and their real meaning.  How do you learn inspiration?  I think it comes from falling in love with the subject....

The problem is that there are a lot fewer people out there who have the chops to teach something like this.  Don't look at me I wouldn't know where to start.  And that's why something like this would be so valuable.  The most valuable creative experience I ever paid for was a two day workshop by a guy named Ian Summers.  He did a series of workshops called, "Heart Storming" workshops and he really did a good job making you look inside yourself to see why you do what you do and how to excel at it. I went in as a skeptic and came out changed.  In a good way.  What did I learn?  "Be true to your own vision."  Find the thing you love.

But the problem is that there are lots of technicians who can teach you about lighting ratios and using one light or no light or ten lights, but there are damn few teachers who can take you to the next level of inspiration.  And even fewer who can teach you to have the courage to take the path less traveled but more in line to your own inner core.  If you find a workshop like that, take it.

Lately I've been seeing the typical, cyclical return of "Zen" and photography.  And the inevitable workshops that teach you how to be dispassionate about being passionate.  I understand but I don't understand.  How's that for a Zen koan?  These workshops might be useful to slow you down and make you more mindful.  But mindful of what?  Your unhappy childhood?  Surely you can find something you love more than that....

In the long run a good weekend spent sitting in a beach chair, staring at the ocean,  and clearing out your brain may be the best medicine.  Or it could be that you just need to stop reading blogs like this and go out with your camera and let your muse come to you.  After all, if you make yourself inaccesible to passion and inspiration how will it know where and when to strike you?  

Here's what I've come to believe about writing and photography:  The more you do it the better you get at it.  The less you think about it the happier you are.  The less you think about technique the better your art looks and reads.  The less you care about it the better and more sincere it becomes.  Put the brain on autopilot and shoot with your heart.

Wanna take a workshop?  Don't look at me.  I don't know what the hell I'm doing.  And that's okay with me.

These photos have nothing and everything to do with what I wrote up above.

I just like the way they look and I have a lot of respect for the art of four color printing.


Developing muscle memory and fluid technique is almost as important as developing a sense of purpose.

Each race teaches us something new.
If you've been reading the blog for a while you probably know that one of my other passions, beside writing and photography, is swimming.  Which seems like something quite different from the other two activities.  But it is and it isn't.  All three depend on technique.  All three require practice.  Daily practice if you are to really master the crafts of swimming, writing and photography.  And to do all three at the level at which I'd like to do them requires discipline.  But more than anything else they all require a sense of purpose.  Why do we do these things?
What do they mean to me?  I don't photograph because I love the feel of the industrial design icons in my hand, I photograph because I see things that are interesting to me in the world and I want to share them.  I see faces that have emotions in them and I want to make the faces visual touchpoints in my ongoing dialogs about human nature and cultural existence.

I don't photograph landscapes because they rarely inform my running internal dialog about what makes people tick.

                                                                             I photograph people to share a point of
view about our shared existence.  I find the human condition, and growing old within the context of a constant cultural evolution fascinating.

If you are in photography because it seems like a "neat" hobby where you get to play with "cool" toys and show off technical mastery of one sort or another then you may have chosen the wrong hobby.  Or maybe you've just chosen to read the wrong blog about                                              photography because I will gently and         not so gently chide you to focus on only photographing in the service of
that which really interests you.  If it's beautiful woman I will respect you more than if it's to show off how sharp your camera and lens combinations are at 100% on your monitor.  The first just means you are attracted to feminine beauty.  No great sin.  But the second category means you are boring and that's just inexcusable.  Because the world around you/us is so rich and well stocked with things to be passionate about.  I'm in the camp that believes in the practice of photography as passionate sharing.
 So what does this have to do with swimming?  Swimming, at its core, is the mastery of dozens of interlinked techniques, an integration of interdependent movements, the understanding (both viscerally and intellectually) hydro-physics and a commitment to both mental toughness and commitment. (No,  I didn't write that wrong).

To compete with the people in these photographs you also have to be committed to doing hard daily work.
 Exercise.  The only way to swim well is to practice all the mental techniques and physical techniques every day.  And if you want to use these techniques to swim fast then you have to practice swimming fast, everyday.

Just as photographers only get better when they find more profound intersections between risk and immersion.  Immersion and technique. What made Avedon one of my favorite image makers was his relentless drive not just to photograph
but to push the boundaries of known
photography and to bring his vast technique (honed daily) to bear on things that he feared not being able to capture.  In essence you see better by looking harder and in different ways.  And all of that takes discipline.  And as you get older and life gets ever more fractured it takes more and more commitment to discipline to keep moving forward because there is always a temptation to attempt too many other things and to rest on your laurels.

When I look at these photos of the 2008 Masters National Meet, held at
 UT I see faces frozen in concentration and resolve.  I see people who've gotten up every morning for a decade or two decades or, in some cases, six decades and gotten themselves to a chilly pool in the early hours while everyone else stands in line at Starbucks waiting to slurp down some candy coffee and maybe a big scone and then get in their "couch on wheels" and head to the office to settle into a soft chair and work through "processes" all day long.
These are the people who've never
surrendered to the idea that it's okay        just to give up.  To give up on finding new ways to juggle time and energy that makes it possible to achieve.

I recently watched several people in my swim team pound out five thousand yards of hard swimming on a typical saturday morning.  They were swimming at an aerobic level that might do in people who are out of shape and half or a quarter of their ages.  I watched sixty year olds swim practice times that would have qualified them for Olympic trials in games a few decades ago.

And they pounded out (I should say, "powerfully glided through...") 140 to 180 laps of the pool before hopping out and heading on to start the same full days as everyone else.

And, in the end what is the benefit?  Well, statistically, if they are still swimming in their sixties they will live at least eleven years longer than the general population.  While they are living they will be more mobile and more fit.  Better able to deal with physical and mental challenges and they will have manufactured enough of their own self-discipline to master just
 about anything they decide to do.  And with mastery also comes confidence.

Again, what does this have to do with photography? Plenty.  Pushing through to a daily practice means making technique second nature and seeing with more focus and discernment.

Commitment to a showing the rest of us the beauty of your vision allows you to distill your vision down until it gains maximum power.  And like most

pleasures in life the daily habit means it's easier to change gears from other commitments back to photography without everything being a big deal.

I shot commercially yesterday and I have another job booked for tomorrow.  Today I've been doing pre-production on a two day food shoot for next week, but all through this schedule the one thing I want to do is walk with my camera, meet people and shoot for my own pleasure.  It's not the same doing jobs.  It doesn't matter how much you like the project or
client.  And so I resent not being able to leave the desk and shoot today.  Because that's part of my daily practice.

How do swimmers do it?  They decide they want to swim strong and fast and they make time for swimming.  If they can't swim at the crack of dawn they find an evening program.  The really committed ones jot down a workout on an index card and head to the local lake, pool, river and go.  I swim at 7am.  But I cheat because I have to drop off my kid at
cross country practice at 6:45am and
the pool is just around the corner from his drop-off.  I only miss a swim if I have a job booked.  And usually I head back to the pool when the project is over and make up the lost yards.

Photography is even easier once you've settled on what it is you love to look at.  What it is you feel compelled to share.  You don't need to get wet.  You can bundle up against the cold.  You probably won't get and ear infection....
But it seems harder to get started.
Remember when you made a New Year's resolution and you decided you were going to loose those extra 25 pounds.  You did it by starting an exercise program.  And it hurt at the beginning.  Your muscles were sore and you were out of breath.  The only way to make it work was to go out every day and do as much as you could.  Then you came home sweaty and tired but you liked the results so you resolved to do it again the next day.

Photography is like that. So is writing.
People are always amazed when I turn out a seven or ten blogs a week but really it's all practice.  It's writing practice.  And I get to experiment with words and structure and pacing.  And the more I write the faster and (I hope) clearer I become.  The more direct and focused my messages become.

Enough.  What makes photography fun? Learning what you love to show and learning how to craft an image that really shares that love and reaches out and makes a connection with a viewer.
 And how do you get there?  Once you know what conversation you want to have you re-write and re-write.  If you are a photographer you work on shooting and shooting again.  If you are a people photographer you work on getting out of your shell and learning what makes people tick.  And then doing it again but getting closer this time.

Funny thing about swimmers.  They can't really be gear heads.  It's basically just a set of goggles ($20 max) and a
swim suit (men $25, women $50) and
 you're done shopping for the year.  So that part of the technique doesn't get in the way.

One camera.  One or two lenses and you're done.  The important thing is how you use them and how often you use them.

I'm going to suggest: Daily.

Intention?  That has to come from you.  But I would suggest that, as a functional person, you no doubt find things in life that spark you up.  Give you pleasure, satisfaction, happiness.  That inflate your will to live.  Distill down to those things and make them the base of your art.  Then the intention will drive everything else.

I intend to be swimming well into my 90's.  I intend to have a camera along with me for the ride.....

Daily practice.  After work.  Before work.  All you need is your intention and the simplest of cameras.
But every day, rain or shine, world class athletes practice their craft.  How
can you expect to gain remarkable vision without daily practice?
When you leave work you might grab your camera and go out to explore.
And when you do you might find the thing you love to shoot.  And then you
can spend your life joyously making your message more and more
beautiful and easier to transmit.  The camera is meaningless without a
focused passion.  Find yours.

If your pictures aren't fun enough then you lack a sense of humor.

I see stuff all the time that tickles me.  Makes me laugh.  Makes me happy to be alive.  And I try to photograph it.  This image is one of those vignettes.  And believe me, there was no way for me to sneak a subtle, voyeuristic street shot.  Nope, I was using a normal lens on a big medium format film camera and I walked up until I was about ten feet away from these gentlemen, I smiled, raised the camera and clicked the shutter.  They let it all roll past.  I was a tourist.  A mild annoyance.  Here and then gone.  And that's fine with me but I'll always remember the moment of joy when I first saw them posing at one of the many side streets leading into the Piazza Navonna.  It was visual love at first sight.  Was I embarrassed?  Nope.  I was too busy trying to fight my natural, cultural resistance to directly interacting with strangers in public.  Was I afraid?  In one of the last bastions of civilization?  Hardly.

Medium format camera.  Normal lens.  Black and white film.

Old Cameras. New Cameras. Old Pictures. New Pictures.

Belinda and I were talking about the emotional differences between film and digital workflows as we sat in the shade of a skinny tree, on the little bluff overlooking the starting line for Ben's cross country race in Cedar Park.  It was 10:15 in the morning and the sun was already warming everything up.  It's not as far fetched a conversation as you might imagine since my wife is a very competent graphic artist and was one of the first designers in Austin to buy a Mac, along with an early, early rev of Pagemaker (page design software)  and start doing electronic print production back in 1985....

She's been figuring out the quirks and treasures of computer since long before many of her competitors were born.  And, interestingly enough, in early times there were no websites to consult.  No Lynda.com for training wheels and no online support for the relentless software and hardware conflicts.  Fast peripherals were SCSI, etc.  I remember that her Mac SE30 had four megabytes of RAM and a 30 megabyte hard drive.   It was pioneer days.

I was trying to work through my guilt at re-embracing medium format film and since she's the smartest person I know  (makes me look like I'm playing chess with only pawns....) I was bouncing my quandary off her.  Spending money on consumables in a down economy.  Trying to re-invigorate old tech instead of moving ahead....

Young people who were raised on digital can deal emotionally with: How ephemeral digital files can be.  How hard old files can be to find.  The reality that the work you did on a digital camera five or eight or twelve years ago can look and feel primitive compared to the model you are working with today.  And, finally, the ease of slamming stuff out and the lack of financial skin the game with each shot seems to relentlessly devalue photography.  You can see that in falling prices and the wholesale commodification of the industry.

By comparison, film has a permanence that's undeniable.  No need to migrate and migrate and migrate your work in order to preserve it.  A good filing cabinet and well ordered folders are all it takes to be able to access your work in minutes.  And if film decays during your lifetime it will do so gracefully.  Finally, the images we shot on black and white film in the 1970's, 1980's and 1990's still look as technically perfect as they always did.  They are still, for all intents and purposes at least the equal of most modern digital cameras (excluding the highest res medium format machines).

Now none of this will matter to a generation that never savored the magic of film and the peace of mind that comes from knowing that it's safe and sound and insoluble in the filing cabinet.  That, if a scanned file becomes corrupted at worst it means a trip back to the filing cabinet and back to the scanner...And I know the IT people who entered this field WHEN it became digital will have all sorts of counter rationalizations.  Be forewarned, I'm not a zealot looking for converts I'm frankly explaining my gut level dissatisfactions.....

Subconsciously, when I shoot digital cameras all the limitation of storage and retrieval, the need for computers and hard drives, the ambiguity of whether what I shoot today will be acceptable in ten or fifteen years (technically) all conspire to make me shoot with a ton of baggage heaped on my rational shoulders.

Belinda said it like this:  "I learned how to work in Premiere and a bunch of different programs to make websites and other web based advertising but the realization that no two screens share an objective point of view, that type invariably looks different on different browsers and different operating systems take away the purity of my design.  The uncertainty of presentation ruins my enjoyment of design.  I'm dedicated to being a print designer for as long as there is print.  I'll do websites and what-not but I don't have the passion for that medium which I do for print.  I can hold a print piece in my hand and share it.  But I can't send out a website or an e-mail ad and know that it will look the way I intended it to on someone's phone, a non-Apple pad, a poorly calibrated or uncalibrated monitor or on someone's 6 bit laptop screen and that bothers the artist in me."

By the same token, as I've said before, the intention for most film projects was to hit paper as a final destination.  That paper could have been a luscious sheet of double weight, fiber paper with a luxurious surface and an endless mix of subtle tones and colors or a post card or an annual report, but when it hit paper it had an objectivity that can't be matched and a permanence that seems emotionally and practically unavailable on the web.  When you add the hundreds of ways it can be compressed, re-profiled, re-sized and generally fucked up you cease to have the same pride of ownership and presentation and you quickly find that intended presentation on the web IS the thing that lowers all of your images to their lowest common denominator.  It's like making a beautiful prints and the putting it under four or five layers of imperfect plastic and then looking at the melange through tinted sunglasses in a badly lit bathroom......

If you haven't practice technique at the highest levels you can::  Locked down on a tripod.  Well lit and exposed.  With medium format film or an extremely high res sensor.  And then printed it out or had it printed out as large (20x20 inches and larger) premium quality prints you really can't imagine the difference in seeing images in print versus seeing them on even the best monitors.  

So, what do we do?  We can slow down, improve our techniques and aim for big print presentations.  Film or digital origins don't matter.  But until we work for objective metrics of perfection it's all just a crap shoot.

For me?  Portraits and art for me come in squares. Whether shot with a Pen or an Hblad on film the out put is the measure of success.  I'll shoot film when I shoot portraits for myself.  I'll shoot digital for things that go to the internet and I'm sure it will all cross over from time to time but......all these things are ideas we should examine.   At least when I pull a negative from 1979 it still has all of it's technical promise intact and can be scanned to breathtaking sizes, with high sharpness and quality.  I can't say that about a file from a Nikon D1 from just ten years ago.......

In the end I haven't solved any of the issues.  I've probably confused myself even more but the first step to resolving this kind of discord is the understanding that it exists.


Making the most of your time.

When I finish writing this blog I'll toss my cellphone in the top drawer of my desk, grab a camera and head out the door.  I don't always have a destination in mind but I know that just about anything I find outside my door will beat time wasted searching for the holy grail of technique on the web.

It may be that my life is too isolated.  As an advertising and corporate photographer there are blocks of time spent with groups of people making projects work and then blocks of time where nothing happens.  A few days into a period of inaction and I'm always presented with a choice.  On one side is the path of least resistance:  Let's see what Michael Reichmann says about the new Phase One back.  Let's see what Michael Johnston says about the new Koudelka book.  Let's see what the people on DPReview say about the new Nikon.

On the other side is the path of most resistance.  On this path the choices are:  (the bane of all creative people) Pick up the phone and schedule some portfolio shows.  Pick up the phone and call someone and beg them to come over and sit for a portrait.  Grab a camera and go out looking for something wonderful and interesting to shoot.  This path is much harder but in the long run it's a lot like weight lifting.  If you keep doing curls with a five pound weight it's hard to see much progress down the road.  A bit of heavy lifting and you can feel it the next day.  To build muscle you have to overcome the resistance.  To build creative muscle you have to leave the safety of the creative den.

I took some time off from blogging last week.  Too much seat time.  It only takes you five minutes to read one of these but it inevitably takes me forty minutes to think and write one.  I did client jobs and I did portfolio shows but mostly I walked around, met people and took images.  And it re-energized the way I feel about my work.

The one important thing I did for my art was to find this image (above), have a large print framed, and hang it over my desk.  It reminds me that I'll never find what I'm looking for in my own work if I'm glued to the computer.  Nice.

It reminds me to unplug and move.  Because at the core, photographers are like sharks.  When we stop moving we stop breathing.  And that's when we die.

Above image shot in Rome with a Mamiya Six MF rangefinder camera (square format), 50mm lens, Kodak T-max CN.

There are times when the EP3 doesn't do what I need from a camera.....

 All last week I had a wonderful crush on my EP3.  Right up until I used it to shoot some theater stuff at ISO 1600.  I also packed an old Canon 1dmk2n in the bag, along with a 70-200 L lens.  The focus wasn't an issue but getting really clean, sharp files from the EP3 at 1600 was.  (And I didn't expect them to be....).

The EP3 does lots and lots of stuff right.  The images, from ISO 200 to 800 are nice and clean and saturated but at 1600 they don't really stand up to the larger pixels on the larger sensor in the Canon.  That was my first incidence of dissonance.

This morning (Sat. Sept. 24) I had occasion to wake up my kid at the way too early hour of six a.m. to get him ready and deliver him to a cross country invitational race in Cedar Park, Texas.  I packed the EP3 and the same Canon rig again.  In bright morning sun both cameras are superb.  The Canon is a giant brute of a camera and, with it's white lens on the front, it weighs a ton.  The Olympus fits in my hand perfectly and is nearly weightless.  But a few minutes of trying to track runners running at speed, coming toward my camera, had me tossing the weightless wonder back in the bag and grabbing for the 2005 vintage sports camera.
The Canon 1d series has three attributes that make it a top choice for photographing your kid running cross country:  1.  It focuses incredibly fast.  Maybe faster than it's descendant, and with a high degree of accuracy.  Even when you are in AI autofocus and tracking.  2.  It can shoot at 8 frames per second which gives you options for framing and foot placement of your subject.  3.  It has an inherent color palette that works well for sunny and shaded scenes.

This is not some sort of "mea culpa." I am not "wrong" to sing the praises of the Olympus EP3 because it's a very capable camera.  But it is a cautionary blog to remind you that, when I buy a new camera I don't usually divest myself of all the other cameras in the studio.  Each one is a different mechanism for seeing.  Each has its own personality and its own set of strengths (and weaknesses).  I would not select the Canon and a few L lenses for a fun walk across a city.  I'm not into recreational weightlifting.  The EP3 is the perfect camera for that kind of work.  But it's good to acknowledge the weak points of the gear as well.  But I've been repeating, since I got my first EP2, that these are not sports cameras.

The Canon 1Dmk2n is a wonderful sports camera and built to a price point of around $5,000-$6,000.  It was almost custom made to do exactly the kind of work I put it to above.  The focus is better than anything else I've ever owned, from Nikon, Canon or Olympus.  But it's not nearly as much fun to shoot on a downtown street or in a crowded club.

If you only have one camera you'll need to make some practical choices.  If you buy some previous generation cameras that are specialized, along with current cameras in other niches, you might end up with the best of all possible worlds.  Just not at the same time.


Light and dark. Sharp and soft. The palette of expression is personal.

I have a photographer friend I'll call, "Andy."  He makes magic with his cameras.  Every one of them.  At least I think it's magic because his look is so different from mine.  His images are perfectly exposed but they seem airier and lighter than mine.  The shadows and highlights are crisp as cold celery and open.  And everything in Andy's images seems sharper than the content in my images.  So much so that I finally pressed him about his secret sharpening formula.  He walked me through an explanation that sounded so much like something I already knew and we both walked away feeling a bit baffled.  (At least I did....).  At another time a photograph whose work I really like was looking at two prints (not dissimilar to the ones I'm showing in this blog) and he asked me how I got such a feeling of gravity and substance into my prints.  But I couldn't answer any better than Andy answered me.  And then it dawned on me that we saw the world, physically, in a very different way.  That our prints are reflections of our own unique vision of the world.  And I realized, at that moment, that we all sing with a different voice and with a different timbre.  And it's not being able to reproduce exactly what Andy does that makes me so interested in the work he produces.  Because when I look at his work I have a visceral glimpse into how he sees the world.  It's degrees different than my vision.  And vice versa.  

And that's how art is supposed to work.  If everything could be reduced to formulas and spreadsheets we could program photo robots and never have to lift a finger to photograph again.  And how sad would that be?  (Note to self:  reject all creative formulas.   Additional note to self:  Is "creative formula" an oxymoron?).

This photo was taken for Primary Packaging in NYC.   I used a Hasselblad 500 CM,  150mm lens and Tri-X film.  The image above is a scan from a print on double weight,  fiber based, Seagull Portrait paper from Oriental Paper.  The print was toned in a very dilute solution of selenium.

Portraits. What really happens in a good session?

There's portrait photography and then there's personal portrait photography, and though the two undertakings use the same kinds of cameras and lights the outcomes are worlds apart.  Is one better?  Is one worse?  I wouldn't presume to tell you because they are two different products and they are world's apart....

I've read many, many books about portrait photography and they follow several threads.  On one hand we have handbooks that walk you through the entirely technical process of "manufacturing" a portrait.  You know the drill:  "First you establish your main light looking for a small triangle of light on the opposite cheek.  Then you add a fill light and establish a ratio of 1:2 for portraits of women and 1:3 or even (horrors!) 1:4 for men.  Once your main light and fill light are established you can move on to your 'kicker' light and rimlight the subject's hair.  Be sure to back off the exposure by 1.5 EV if you are rim lighting blond hair........"  The process goes on with advice on cameras, focal length, and optimum camera to subject distances.  It can be the formula for generations of remarkably boring and eerily similar portraits.  No doubt that a few gifted artists use the same formula for lighting and camera specs and still make dynamic and eminently beautiful portraits.  But most technically driven workshops, books and approaches tend to lead to portraits with no more differentiation from the mean than a random sampling of McDonald's hamburgers.  And the output is equally bland.

But portraits done in this way are comforting in the same way a Big Mac is comforting:  You know what you're getting.  You know what it will cost.  You know it's not going to be too spicy (interesting).  Working to a formula is a dangerous way for artists to proceed because you quickly move from experimentation, and the thrill of possible failure, to an assembly line approach to producing a product which can be.....reliably produced.  Good for production and efficiency.  Bad if you got into photography to pursue and be seduced by your muse (the goddess, not your subject!)  or because you already had a unique vision to ply.

This technique-driven approach also spills over into posing.  And here it's even more egregious.  Several publishers here in the U.S. publish books on posing.  There are workshops about posing and some marketing genius has also created a line of posing flash cards for the aesthetically deprived.  "Have the girl tip her head forward to show subtle submissiveness...." (Yuck).

And taken together these obsessions with formulae conspire to convince compliance with the general mythology that taking a good portrait is nothing more than "excellent" lighting and "good" posing.  And nothing could be further from the truth.

The single most vital component of getting a great image of a person is to establish a collaborative rapport. An emotional and intellectual understanding of each other's intentions.  And there's no book or workshop that will help you to do this because each person you meet is so different.  It's suggested that you make small talk.  Find out about their hobbies.  Play their favorite music. Give them a glass of wine.  But each of these approaches, or mixed matrixes of approaches, is shallow and fraught with the very limitations you bring with you and your client brings with them as human beings.  A deep and revelatory rapport is rarely possible to establish in the first meeting and even more so in the first fifteen minutes of a session with a stranger.  And I speak from experience.  I've done thousands of rushed corporate portraits that have failed, in my eyes, miserably and yet; since the client and I both understand the limits of that commercial intersection we soldier on, use the images and don't look back.

But from time to time I am really driven to make portraits because I find the person interesting.  Because I find a gesture or expression expressive and compelling.  But mostly because I want to see the person portrayed in a style I like and with an emotional frame of reference that transcends the process, even if just by a little bit.  I want my light to work a certain way that isn't "right, proper, standard" and I want an expression born of shared sharing and not banal manipulation coupled with resignation.

So, in the few instances that I've been successful, what is it that happens in a session that makes everything come together and actually work?  Little more than patience and listening.

When a beautiful woman comes into my studio, especially someone over say, 25, we have to work our way through the poses that every photographer who ever convinced her to sit attempted. In this way we cover, or break down, the past.  Then we slow down and get quiet.  We talk about what I'm trying to do with this time together.  We talk about what we really love to see in photographs and portraits.  Usually we both agree that black and white portraits are more interesting, more visually sensual, than color.  Then we share about how we like the shadows.  Darker and contrasty?  Open.  Mostly people have never thought about it but when we look at samples they seem always drawn to the mysterious nature of a rich, dark shadow setting off their face.

Then we work slowly.  One shot at a time.  I usually have to explain that constantly moving is the antithesis of what I want.  For some reason all the fashion geeks have "trained" beautiful girls to constantly move around, change expression, adapt "sexy" poses, etc.  But I explain that I'm shooting and looking and finding what I like about their face. And to do it right we need to move in small, small steps and when we find a position where the light kisses them with passion they need to hold that position so we can play with expression and subtle nuances of gesture.  We hold the position that provides a beautiful frame, and then we try to light up their eyes with curiosity and passion.

The talk becomes quieter and more sporadic.  Suggestions become one or two words.  "A tiny bit left.  A bit more.  Right there."  And once we find the spot where the light plays across lips and cheek bones and eyes just right we dig in and talk about what sorts of emotion we want to see in the final, ultimate photo.

I usually suggest that a smile isn't what I have in mind.  If I'm looking for a smile I want to see it as a twinkle in their eyes.  But what I really want is a look of anticipation and deep interest.  "What will we talk about next?"

And an hour later, after we've cleared out the weird poses and the fashion frenetics and the beauty queen smiles, we finally dig down to a calm and serene expression that works.  For a few moments I feel deeply drawn toward the subject.  As though we're thinking the same thoughts.  As though we have all the time in the world to get the image we both want.  And we work slowly through a process that's more flirtation (on their part) and an admiration and appreciation of the beauty they've chosen to project, in our session, on my part.

And just like a movie or play or even a tryst there's a single second, a single frame where it finally all comes together and we both know it.  We stay at it a bit longer to see if there's more or better but there never is.  The mystery's been solved and committed to film or sensor.  And we slowly close up shop and make some more small talk and the session is over.

Cost effective?  Not hardly.  Satisfying?  Like the best meal you've ever eaten.  You both walk out of the studio confident that you created art together that will be different from what any two other people will do.  And in this cookie cutter world it's the best feeling.  You've made something "one of a kind."

And it's that mutually supportive give and take that makes a real portrait work for me.  Everything else is one sided.  On one hand, the traditional retail portrait formula manipulates the sitter into accepting a "standard" iteration of the modern portrait product.  On another hand, in the example of a quick celebrity portrait, the celebrity uses the portrait photographer as a mechanic and causes him to project the celebrity's practiced image onto the photographer's canvas, nearly complete and inviolable.

In some respects my way is the middle way.  We both come into the studio as equals and wait quietly to see where the conversation will take us.

Is the print dead? Was analog photography really about print? Is digital a different medium altogether?

A number of years ago Steven Ray hired me to go to New York and shoot in a printing plant.  The company specialized in printing the boxes that exquisite perfumes come in.  The printer in the photo above is holding a thick sheet of glossy black that will eventually become a Chanel box.  The printers were masters as foil stamping which imparts a metallic design element to the printed product.  Their presses were also works of art.  We shot all day long with a Hasselblad camera and three lenses, the 50mm the 80mm and the 150mm.  All the film was Tri-X.  So what I ended up with a few days later was a box filled with sleeved slivers of negative film and sheets of black and white contact images.  Each one a delicated 6cm square with the frame numbers and edge information as a diffused and diaphanous ribbon against the black edge.  To a non-photographer the film was unintelligible.  It needed to be interpreted and applied before it had meaning.  From the  beginning of the project there was always the intention that the film would be printed.  The secondary intention was that it would be printed large.

The end result was large black and white prints in a display at the Jacob Javitts Center for an industrial graphic arts trade show.  The images were almost twelve feet tall.  And they were wonderful.  No one walked by the prints, which formed the boundaries of the companies large display area, without stopping to stare.  

And thinking about this made me reconsider what I think about photography and its transition from analog to digital.  Somewhere along the continuum we traded the idea that our work was destined for print (whether the fine art print, the magazine page, the poster, the package or the work print) for the idea that it was satisfactory for people to view our work on computer screens, telephone screens and as very low resolution projections.  We talk about losing the magic of film but perhaps what we are really saying is that we lost the magic of the print.

While the iPad screen is seductive in it's immediacy, and the flat screen TV in the living room seduces us into a certain relaxed passivity, neither is a good substitute for a well made print, well seen.  But what the electronic displays have done is to make it implicitly "okay" to not follow thru and make the print.  And without the print as the final step photography is transformed from something that could always be objectively viewed and talked about into a medium that presents your work differently from house to house and computer to computer.  Every screen is different and the proficiency of the viewers in preparing their screens is boldly distributed across the Bell Curve.  The ultimate in subjectivity.

How can we talk about images if green here and green there are not the same?  If the gamma is different from device to device?  And how can we take our fellow artists seriously when they insist on showing us their work on 5 square inches of telephone screen space?

When I pause to think about all this I come to understand my nostalgia for medium format film cameras better than I have in the months gone by.  It's really a nostalgia for the entirety of the process, including and culminating in the print.  The print is the gold standard.

Screens both hide and reveal many flaws of technique and visualization.  Sometimes with a mercilessness that precludes the idea that "loose technique" can also be evocative art.  The print is my interpretation.  It doesn't matter if the image started life as a digital Pen file or a scan from a twenty year old Tri-X negative, it's the interpretation into print that gives it the final step of life.  

When I made the images above PhotoShop had just been on the market for several years and was no where near as sophisticated (and culturally intrusive) as it is today.  Any effects I wanted in my prints I did by hand.  Done over and over again the eye and the hand (burning, dodging and softening) worked in close concert to draw my intention from paper and chemicals.  And, like snowflakes, no two darkroom workers work their process of interplay with prints in exactly the same way.  This gave both the image and the print (as a separate part of the equation) their own primacy and singular style.  And, try as I might to be uniform, each print that was burned and dodged and toned and nurtured was different, even if only microscopically, from the ones before and after it.  That made each print unique and surprising.

In all things artistic, and in all attraction between the sexes and between people, it's not the perfection or repeatability that inspires, intrigues and invests us, it's the imperfection. The thrill of discovering singular nuance.  Of savoring something that can't exist in exactly the same way somewhere else.  Each finished print was special.  PhotoShop, Inkjet printers, actions and all the rest of the new methods rob us of the genuine thrill of discovering and savoring imperfections.  The imperfections inform beauty.  And the unveiling of beauty is what drives my photography.  

My practice is not akin to a printing press where we stamp out identical products.  It's about constantly changing and challenging and experimenting.  And chance helps us fail better than perfection and by failing reveals a new path to art.

All of this to say:  We need to make and share more prints.  That's where the rubber meets the contextual road.