Sunday, February 07, 2016

A Week of Wondrous Celebrations

This week marks several wondrous celebrations. For starters, tomorrow is Chinese New Year. Welcome, my friends, to the year of the monkey. If that were not enough, Tuesday is Fat Tuesday or the height of carnivale in New Orleans and other points. This year, I would be remiss if I did not send a special shout out to Bobbi Lane and David Nightingale (aka Chromasia) who are off photographing the Carnivale in Venice. Following these two on Facebook and social media has really demonstrated how lovely the celebrations in Venice can be, as they are producing some fantastic work documenting the festivities. I really wish I were off shooting with them and love seeing the subject in these very capable hands.

What is it about celebrations such as the ones this week that make us take out the cameras? There's something very appealing about pageantry and costumes. They allow us to both hide parts of ourselves and to reveal plenty. In this image, you can tell there is a man inside that puppet. There's a man in there and, quite frankly, he's almost frighteningly familiar with a cigarette lighter (of sorts) as he was able to make lots of fire on short notice. All well and good, as I did not get too close, but you can guess a few things about him, even without being able to see his face. For starters, you can probably guess he is either Chinese or of Chinese origin, as he was participating in a Chinese new year celebration in Austin. Next up, tradition is import to him-you can tell by the way he works the puppets. There's just so much revelation under that puppet and yet you have no idea what his face looks like.

In some ways, you don't have to know. I think it's more powerful to not know, to actually imagine what he might look like or what his life might be like. Can you imagine him going to work or to school? Do you think he has children? Do you think he practices his puppet working skills (I can tell you for certain, he does in fact do that but then, I cheated and actually spoke to him.) Even without me telling you the details you can fill in the blanks.

Celebrations do this. They give us our heritage, our history. It's the same history that helps forge us, helps make us who we have become and defines who we might be. We get a lot of traits from our upbringing, from our family, from our culture, and celebrations put this on display. It's little wonder they are photographed so much, as they help define who we are, who we might become, who our children are going to be, and the like. Family, traditions, heritage, culture, it's almost too easy to commit these things to film (or digital camera sensor as the case may be, though that does not sound nearly as romantic.)

So, yes, this week we mark celebrations of all sorts. I hope you have your camera ready and make the most of these treasured celebrations.

Until next time...

(This image from the archives.)

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Portrait of a Swimmer

Do you find it interesting how I tend to photograph a lot of swimmers but I don't know how to swim very well myself? I must confess, I'm not a very good swimmer. In fact, in the swimming department, I'd have to say I rank right near the bottom (and, by bottom here, I do actually mean bottom of the pool! I don't know if I could stay afloat long enough to make it more than arm's length from the ladder. Not exaggerating when I say I'm really not a very good swimmer at all.)

I think it's an interesting thing about portraits. Some people tend to shoot what they know. That's good. I mean, that's one way to make great images, right? But, myself and maybe some others out there, why, we tend to shoot not what we know, but instead how we want the world to be. I've never been all that hindered with the whole "reality" business. Instead, I tend to focus on the world the way I would like it to be. In my world, in my own little world? Yeah, I totally swim with dolphins. And, sharks, but, you know, mostly dolphins (I believe they are better swimmers and, heck, if I have to dream, I want to dream big. Only the best for me, right?) I swim and I see things underwater, I dream, I fly, heck I've traveled to mars already, in my mind. In my mind, I'm lots of places, lots of people, and I do lots of things. I must confess, I have a wild imagination. I think that goes a long way in the arts, although it can be a bit tricky to wrangle it around in real life, I suppose. I can't let it get the better of me but it can make for some, shall we say, interesting images.

The nature of a portrait, a true portrait, is that we reveal many facets of ourselves to the camera. There is who we are, who we want to be, who the photographer sees, who the photographer doesn't see, who the photographer wants to see. I've always said that, when you shoot a portrait, even if it's only one person in front of your lens, there are a lot of people there, in that room, working alongside you, slowly coaxing the truth out, whispering in your ear. Our camera is a magic box, it's always real, it always reveals, but it doesn't always speak the truth, at least not until we let it. Strange how that works.

Strange and, well, kind of filled with sharks (and dolphins. Mostly dolphins but there are some sharks in there too.)

Until next time...

Thursday, January 28, 2016

The Eternal Frustration of Being THIS Close

One of the things, and there are a few, I hate about photography (like I said, "a few." Well, OK, really not all that many, but work with me here) is the external frustration that stems from being *this* close. What do I mean by that? Allow me to explain. Often, when we shoot, we come back with a pile of "almosts." Shots that were "almost" good enough, but don't quite make the cut. You know what I'm talking about here. This close. If only I had moved just a smidgen to the left or, gosh, had I watched that corner, filled in that blank spot over there, if only I had a little bit better of a sky to work with here...It's very, almost way too, easy to generate a pile of shots that are almost but not quite good enough. This can be maddening at times.

Unfortunately, this feeling is not isolated to the single frame either. Just the other day, I was looking over some work that had been submitted to an opportunity: 22,000 images, all really good. I looked at the best ones, of course, and I thought to myself, "Damn. I'm so close but not quite that good. My work just isn't good enough!" It's frustrating as all get up, that feeling is.

You hear about this a lot in the arts. There are places like American Idol where you can watch it play out in real time. Yes, they have people who audition dressed up like chickens and, frankly, you can tell before they even open their mouths to sing how they are going to blow the audition. I don't feel sorry for those people, as most people don't, no we just sort of laugh them off all the while thinking, "Get the hook!" as they used in the old vaudeville days to quite literally drag people off stage. That's all well and good, everybody gets a laugh and it's entertainment. Once in a while though, a singer comes along and, why I actually feel sorry for him or her. They are not horrible, not chicken costume material by any stretch of the imagination, but they aren't the best either. Still working the craft, maybe could use a few more lessons, that sort of a thing. They are the "almosts." And, I really do feel sorry for them. They want it so bad. They've worked for it. They've tried. They made an effort. You can't help but feel sorry for them, on some level, I mean they are being honest and giving it the old college try, right? Unfortunately, they sometimes just don't make the cut. Life is cruel like this, in some ways. The arts are a cruel mistress and, why, sometimes, it seems like she takes more than she gives. It's almost enough to make me want to wave my fists in the air and curse the universe, that is.

I talk a lot about the "myth of talent" and I do firmly believe that the entire concept of talent can be a myth if you let it. There is really a lot to be said for hard work and tenacity. It goes a long way. Unfortunately, for the "almosts" it doesn't always go all the way. A lot of times success in the arts is working hard, yes, but it's also finding opportunities that are right for you, for where you are at in whatever stage of the game you are in your artistic development. It might mean opening up a door that just reveals more hard work is needed. It might mean you have to stand there before some judge in California who bites his lower lip and says, "I'm sorry. It's just not working for me." Art is a wonderful thing. I love being an artist, making things with my hands, sharing my stories with the world but, I'd be the first to admit here, that kind of rejection can be hard to take. On some levels, it takes a thick skin to do what we do. A really very thick skin to hear that kind of rejection over and over and over again. It can be hard to swallow. It's especially hard to hear this over and over again and just try to press on, to keep going, to keep practicing the craft, after all of the rejections.

There is an old saying that "close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades." I suppose that is true. I've always felt that there is not really a market for mediocre art and that, while our work may look glamorous, there is a lot of hard work that goes into being an artist, any kind of artist, be it a contestant on a singing competition or an exhibiting photographer. We have to work hard just to make it, then we have to work hard to stay there, and opportunities sometimes only bestow upon us more demands. It's a vicious cycle and one they don't always prepare you for in art school. (There's a reason Georgia O'Keeffe went mad and had to be institutionalized at one point, and she's not the only artist out there to suffer this fate.)

Some nights I sit, looking over my pile of "almosts" and just force myself to think about how I can craft them from "maybes" or "could have beens" into "yeses." On some level, the only thing you can do is to focus on the work, keep going, keep driving yourself, pressing yourself to do new and better work. Always improve, I believe that's the key. And, respect that fact that, a lot of times, this sort of frustration comes just before a breakthrough.

Gosh, I know I sure could use a breakthrough right about now, couldn't you? Man, I'm so overdue for a piece of that action. Here's hoping, right?

Until next time...

This image shot at the water gardens. Canon 5dS with a Canon 100mm macro lens. I love the bright linear feel to it and hope you like it too.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Swan Song

Recent news of David Bowie's passing and subsequent uncovering of what can be labeled his swan song "Lazarus" has me reflecting upon the artistic concept of the swan song. Swan songs have been witnessed throughout history. Leonardo da Vinci spoke of a swan song. Shakespeare wrote about one in The Merchant of Venice. Nevertheless, many people were surprised at the uncovering of Bowie's "Lazarus" which is, by all accounts, a swan song, at least it has now been described as one last great act performed as the artist understood his upcoming passing, although the jury is still out on how "official" a swan song it might have been. (I shall leave the questions regarding "Did Bowie know he was passing?" for wiser pundits to ponder.)

While familiar with the concept of a swan song, working as an artist changes one's perspective of the entire process. The drive to make, to create, to act one last time, to sort of "go out in a blaze of glory" is an ever present force. It's something we all tend to think about but nobody wants to really acknowledge, kind of like the elephant in the room everybody tries to hide with an inconvenient lampshade. The pressure an artist puts on one's self - we all want to create that one great masterpiece - so knowing this is your last shot at it, often serves as the impetus for an artist to dip deeply into the well, as it were, to really push to complete masterful work. The great photographer Diane Arbus once said, "the best photo I take will be my next one." Knowing on some level you don't have a next shot at this, accepting you are out of ammo so to speak, is a forceful but cruel motivator. It forces compelling work though it seems to do so at an exorbitantly high cost.

The relationship between art and death is a strained one. On some level, artists are fascinated with death and dying. We are, by nature, a brooding lot. The concept of doing one last great work, be it a play, a painting, a photograph, scoring a musical piece, or even an act of heroism is not lost on the artistic lot. There are many forces that can drive an artist, certainly death is not the only one, but it somehow manages to solidify some significant work. I've written about death before, of sorts, I even did an entire online project where I described my funeral to some detail (see my project on Utata called "Just Shoot Me" for details on that one) at least how I envisioned it, but the swan song adds an entirely new dimension to the entire dying business. The very idea that you will make one great piece, one last piece that the world will use to immortalize you, adds an entirely new spin to the whole death thing.

The concept of a swan song refers to the belief that "swans sing a beautiful song in the moment just before death, having been silent (or alternatively, not so musical) during most of their lifetime." (According to the Wikipedia.) This notion that we all have pent up artistic relevance, that we burst into artistic validity mere moments before our passing is a bit stressful to process on some levels. In the very least, it begs the question, where was the song hiding all this time?

I think the notion of the swan song should serve as a reminder to us all. We need to be present, in the moment. We need to strive to make great work now because, let's face it, there might not be another tomorrow. The work that we do is important, even if it sometimes seems like everybody is ignoring you on Flickr or your Instagram is not getting all that much love these days. I've always tried to live my life in appreciation of the craft so it's especially difficult for me to come to grips with the entire notion of a swan song really. I mean, I like to think my best work is out in front of me, always in front of me, and that I'm always growing, always pushing it, always getting better, even if sometimes it feels like I am being dragged sideways. That's just how this whole "art" thing works. I try to focus on the work and let the chips fall where they may but this can be hard to do, maybe impossible, when confronted with your own mortality. Death is a hard thing but, heck, life sometimes is even harder, right?

A swan song by any other name...

To see a video featuring David Bowie's swan song, aka "Lazarus" please see this link. 
To see my conversation project, Just Shoot Me! (A Conversation between Life and Death) you can visit this link.

Until next time...

This image taken with the Canon 5dS camera and the Canon 100mm macro lens. From the water garden/Koi shoot I did last weekend, I call it "Whisp." 

Thursday, January 07, 2016

Branches and Leaves and...Spiders, Oh My

Just a note that, in case you have not heard the news, some of my black and white work was up for a B&W Spider Award. No, I did not win, but, as they say, "it was an honor just to be nominated." In case you have not heard about the B&W Spider Awards, they are an international award honoring black and white photography. This year, they had almost 8000 entries and I was three of 900 or some nominees. You can see my work in the following categories: Abstract, Architecture, and Fine Art, on the website here: Black and White Spider Awards

The judges for this are some high powered camera type people, including some of the folks who bring us the Cannes Film Festival and some editors from Random House publishing, just to name a few. The best part of the entire process is not that I was actually up for such an honorable award (though, let's face it, that was kind of nifty) and not that these fabulous judges actually considered my work, no, I'd have to say the best part of the entire award process is that the entries are really fantastic. I'm truly honored to be among such great work. Really, this is a website you will want to spend some time with if you have any interest in black and white photography at all. There is some spectacular work included, for example, check out the nature category if you want to be stunned. Really amazing work under the covers over there, and I was so happy to be included in with this year's batch.

Until next time...

Monday, December 28, 2015

The JPEG Zombie Apocalypse

There's been a lot of talk recently about the recent Reuter's ban on RAW files. What will this mean for photography? Will it really make a difference? Do people care? Will photographers follow the directive? Lots of interesting questions coming out of the wash on this one, I'd have to say.

For starters, most of the "general population" doesn't really get all of the hoopla. I would venture a guess that probably 70% of folks out there really don't know (and don't care) what a RAW file is. That's fine, that how specialization works, right? I mean, you don't have to be an automobile manufacturer to drive a car, right? So why should we expect Grandma reading the Sunday paper to care all that much about RAW files? All well and good, I suppose and, you know, she probably doesn't care all that much (most of the time.)

When digital photography started, many photographers were trained on the beauty of RAW files. They were the "direct from camera" equivalent of shooting a good negative. Many photographers (and I must confess, in the interest of full disclosure here, to being one of them) feel that it's best, it's always best, to try and get things right "in camera." By that, I mean, sure we use Photoshop, just as we used to correct things in the darkroom but the goal, the object of the game, you would start out your day in the field, trying to shoot the thing right when it was in front of you. Yes, you could always try darkroom heroics but really the universe was a better place, and we were all really better off, if you could just shoot it straight from the beginning. Many, many, probably almost all were trained on this at some point, even if we look like we spend hours a day with our collective thumbs on a clone stamp icon (trust me on this one.)

OK, so we've established RAW is good and most people don't care. Ah, life was sweet for a while there, wasn't it? We were living in the glorious land of the RAW file, where pixel dumps were kings and everybody could play all day in fields of magenta, cyan, and whatever other color correction they felt like at the time. Of course, there had to be a wrinkle in all of this and the wrinkle started during the Iraq war. Some photographer, you see, shooting in wonderful fields of RAW and army grit decided to upload an image of Baghdad all covered in smoke and that smoke, you see, was changed in the land of JPG. No more was smoke light and fluffy, no, it was now dark, black and sinister and no more was the photographer reporting "truth" no, this was evidence that the word had been "altered" somehow. Oh that evil clone stamp, how you've done me wrong! And, please, don't even get me started on those curves and levels. Surely, there must be some ulterior motive behind all of the evil in the world today, no? Who knew all along that curves and levels were really some kind of communist plot attempting to take over the world one histogram at a time?

If that were not bad enough, there was once a photo contest. (Oh the horror! Bear with me on this one.) Now, it wasn't just any old photo contest, no, it was one of those "nature as you see it" kind of contests, one of the ones where you are supposed to show us your world, warts and all, and we were supposed to find beauty in the mundane or at least, you know, some old crappy couch somebody saw fit to drag to the curb because, like, isn't that what everybody always photographs for those silly contents anyway. Yes, you can almost guess how this story ends. Somebody put a photo in a contest that had been, gasp, doctored, and this, why this, was a game changer. RAW files, once king of all the land would now be banished. Truth, it seemed, lies only in a JPG.

So, we've gone from JPG's being bad, to JPG's being bad, bad, bad, to RAW being bad, to RAW being banished. Reuter's recently issued a decree telling us to "phase out" RAW format files, opting instead to go with "straight from the camera" JPEG files instead. Now, again in the interest of full disclosure, I'm not a photojournalist (never have been maybe never will be) and I don't shoot or speak for Reuter's, but this war on the JPG file format, is it really justified? Should I even chime in on this really? Well, since I do shoot a lot and, of course, I have an opinion about this, I thought I would pass along my two cents. Take them for what they are worth, two pennies here, no more no less. So, here goes.

For starters, there is nothing "evil" or inherently "untruthful" about a RAW file. It's not the file format that speaks the truth, for crying out loud, it's the photographer. If you don't trust the photographer, what difference does it make if the file format is RAW, JPEG, or, heck, even a sketchpad and a crayon?

Next we have Reuters itself. They are a news agency. They make the rules for their agency. If they want to make a rule banning socks on Tuesday and RAW files all week long why, it's their right isn't it? Nobody is forcing you to shoot for Reuters. If you don't like their rules, you can always take your work elsewhere. They are free, at least they should be, to control their workflow if they see fit to do so. I don't begrudge them for this. If JPEG makes more sense for them then, hotdogs! Go ahead and use that. I'm a big fan, always have been and always will be, of using what works. It makes for better images in the long run.

Some folks are getting crafty out there and saying, "Well, this hoopla doesn't matter really, because you can make a JPG from a RAW file." Yes, you can. But, it's my understanding (and I may be wrong here, recall I did say I do not work for Reuters) they haven't only banned RAW files, they want photographers to shoot in JPG. The theory is shoot in RAW and JPG and submit the JPG to them for news coverage, so the little "I can just Photoshop it into a JPG" trick won't work (at least that's how the initial announcement was interpreted.)

Still other folks have commented that the entire discussion is ironic, seeing that RAW files are actually closer to straight from camera dumps than their JPG counterparts. While this may hold true, the news agency feels that RAW files require processing, which can both open the image up to interpretation and provide an extra time commitment to get to press. Again, their agency, their rules, possibly even their truth, make of it what you will.

The bottom line for me is that, if you have photographers working for you who are going to "doctor" images, they will "doctor" them even if you remove a file format from the bag of tricks. The discussion reminds me a little bit of a factory that doesn't trust their employees not to steal so they put up mirrors in the men's room. The entire thing begs the question, why do you need security? If you don't trust your employees, why did you hire them in the first place? It's like missing the forest for the trees, really that is.

As for myself, I am also reminded of the inconvenient truth that processing files did not begin, nor will it end with Photoshop. Remember Edward Curtis and the manipulated image? To put it another way, is an image more doctored if you ask somebody to "smile for the camera," if you clone stamp out a blemish on their nose, or if you shoot them in RAW and bump the curves and levels? Sorry folks but there just is no right answer in all of this.

As for the JPG file format, much like bell bottom pants, I'm almost happy to see it sprout up, be killed by the RAW format sword of justice, then rise up in the zombie apocalypse only to eat all of our collective brain cells in the end. Heck, at this point, I'd have to confess, the way I see the scoreboard from where I sit is about JPG file format: 1 human race: 0 but it's early yet and we could still screw this one up even more than we already have. Oh, and in case you are really wondering and it's not obvious by now, yes, I am still shooting in RAW format. Why not, right?

Until next time...

This image taken in Salado, Texas, with a Canon 5D Mark II and the walkabout zoom lens. Mmm. Big empty rooms, more empty than JPG files and I hope to keep them that way. 

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Simply Holiday Time

You know that song, "Simply Having a Wonderful Christmas Time...?" Yes, Snowflakes, that's what I've been busy doing. Now, I know you were probably expecting me to drop in and expound upon some great minutia regarding the current status of all things contemporary photographic but, sorry to disappoint, I've been too busy off relaxing a bit and working at my day job way to hard these past few weeks. Now, I know too that I always manage to pop in here at the last minute with details about a grand new trip or an exotic jaunt I'm about to take, maybe some exciting new photographic project I'm about to start. Again, here, hate to disappoint but, yes I have been working on a bit of an art project but, frankly, I'm enjoying it way too much to stop doing it and actually try to market it. Simply put, I don't want to stop making it long enough to actually do something about selling it, so bury my head in the sand I will and make lots more is what I shall do. (I'm too lazy to even describe it to you at this point though, if you've been following along, you can probably guess it's abstract and leave it at that.)

If you've been paying attention, it's also the time of year when I'm supposed to pop in and tell you what a great success 2015 was and how, of course it naturally follows, 2016 is going to be even better. I'll save you the guesswork on that one too. Taken in its entirety, 2015 was a mixed bag for me. While I sold more work that I have in year's past, which is (by all accounts) a raging success, I had to cancel a trip (which I hate) and, upon further reflection, all of this year end navel gazing has made me realize that I did not, in fact, leave the continent in 2015. Oh the horror! I so want to go somewhere but, alas, situations did not allow so 2015 found me stuck at the ranch more, much more than I would like. Normally, back at the ranch is not a bad place for me (I've said it before, and probably will say it again, I'm sometimes at my best when I bury myself in studio work even if I do wind up feeling like a trapped rat in a cage while making it.) This year has found me so preoccupied I have not been able to create, I've just been busy, way too busy, trying to keep my head afloat. Stuck at the ranch can be a good thing if you're stuck in the studio but just being stuck at the ranch has its downside too.

Now, I can also make promises of "someday, someday," but this too is starting to feel a bit, shall we say, "elusive" and leave it at that. I'm starting to feel like I'll never come out from under the daily grind and that, yes, Virginia, maybe all of this fashionable life is just not for me. Ah, the horror of self doubt and the trapping of our day to day existence. It so cuts into making great work, doesn't it? I wish I could shake it off but these kind of doubts seem to follow me around like a lost puppy dog, only they aren't nearly as cute.

So, no, I'll spare you the gory details, the navel gazing, the year end retrospectives but end on a high note. The other day I popped up to Salado and points north, not for anything special, mind you, just more to get out of the house and into the field. While I'm pretty sure I didn't get any earth shattering results, I did manage to fire off more than a few shots and I feel like somehow, in the process, I managed to chase away my many-month-long loosing streak. Simply put, I *need* to take photographs or make some kind of artwork somehow and, if I go for too long without doing it (without doing *something* *anything*) I start to get a little stir crazy. At least, I'm happy to report, that now this clock has been reset and I'm feeling a bit better, even if I don't have the wonderful shots from Asia Minor to prove it to you.

Oh, and since I'm getting all happy on you and whatnot, I should also point out that this year I did managed to shoot something like my 4th most popular image on Flickr. I don't know how, frankly, I didn't think it the most earth shattering of shots but, I guess it goes without saying really, these days I have way more followers than contacts and (gasp!) actual friends so I guess the universe out in the wild blue yonder cared more for the shot than I had realized from my perch back behind the LCD panel on the baby mark. Hey, I'll take those kind of shots when I can get them, right? (Don't get me wrong, I love the perch from behind the baby Mark...I wouldn't trade that view in for the world although I do wish I could get the viewfinder more out into the world with me behind it.)

I hope you are having a wonderful holiday season yourself (even if you don't know me very well) and look forward to the photographic challenges (and opportunities!) facing us all in 2016.

Until next time...

This one shot in Georgetown, Texas on the town square with the Canon 5D Mark II and the walkabout zoom lens. Some rather nice shop windows up that way this year, I must confess, though I may have been blinded by my own stir craziness on that one.