Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Published 1:58 PM by with 0 comment

Fifty Female Faces, the book

As I write this on the last day of 2013, I feel a great sense of accomplishment as a photographer. Back in January, I decided to take on a significant challenge; shoot fifty portraits and publish a book. That was the basic idea but I wanted to go much deeper than that.

For years I have loved finding paintings and photographs that convey deep emotions beyond their two-dimensional limits. I have seen portraits where I felt like I knew the total stranger in the frame. The artist and the subject, I thought, were fused in perfect synchronicity.

I wanted to capture some of that feeling when I conceived of my book of portraits. What better subjects than women? They are wonderful, beautiful and complicated and I wanted to boil all of that into one essence, one picture. I couldn't have predicted what followed. I was pleasantly surprised by how generous and giving each person was. I believe the end result speaks for itself. Each portrait jumps off the page and demands attention and what emerges is an inner beauty, not the shallow prettiness of many of today's media images.

This is the first substantial photographic project I have taken on and I'm glad I made the journey. There will be more projects in the future, but for now, I will quietly go back to my normal life and be proud.

If you are interested in purchasing a copy of the book, you can order it directly from Blurb by clicking here. If you would like to order the eBook for immediate download, contact me via email using the link at the top left of this page and I will send you details.

Thank you for your support and have a great new year.
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Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Published 6:36 AM by with 1 comment

In Search of Imperfection

I read a story in the New York Times about British photographer Terrence Donovan this morning that got me thinking about a whole lot of things at once. Donovan's work was and still is vibrant, fresh, experimental and spontaneous. Although he dabbled in many genres, he was most well known for his fashion work. While browsing some of his photos, I noticed a stark difference in the style of his photography compared to what I see today. Donovan's photographs are full of flaws; his own shadow sometimes appears in the bottom of the frame, lighting is sometimes uneven on the models, compositions are sometimes unbalanced, etc. but I love each and every one of them.

Virtually flipping through my iPad version of the latest issue of Vogue did not yield the same satisfaction. Each picture in the esteemed tome was perfect, not a hair out of place not a single misplaced shadow. Flawless and frankly, lifeless.
Over the years our idea of beauty has changed, particularly with regard to women. Back in the sixteenth century when Peter Paul Rubens was painting huge canvases of the fairer sex, they were not waif-like and angst-ridden rather, they were curvaceous and unencumbered. In fact, what we regard now as overweight was indicative of health and prosperity back then.

So what happened? Why is it that nowadays the idea of beauty and perfection is tied into unblemished skin, chiseled features, and bodies that appear to be on the brink of starvation?

When I shoot portraits, one of the things I discuss with my subjects is the idea of symmetry or lack thereof. I'm not attracted to perfection, I never have been so the idea of a face with almost perfect symmetry is not appealing to me. In fact, having now shot countless faces, I can say with confidence that a perfectly symmetrical face simply doesn't exist. One eye maybe smaller than the other, the right one may sit higher than the left, our lips maybe too big or too small, our nose may lean to the right or left, etc. but this is what makes us who and what we are.
I've certainly gone too far in Photoshop once in a while, ironing out this wrinkle and that wrinkle and how about if I just push the neck in like that and maybe elongate it to accent this or that? At the end of a process like this, I actually feel like I've betrayed the person I have photographed.
To me, those little "flaws" are what attract me to my subjects in the first place. There's nothing more thrilling to me than capturing a person's essence while maintaining all of their physical idiosyncrasies.
So close up that copy of Elle and Vogue and Mirabella and embrace the person you are. Don't long to be someone else or compare yourself to a two-dimensional mannequin, because all the beauty you seek is already in your heart and, once you find that, it will transform your outer self into something entirely beautiful and authentic.

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Wednesday, May 08, 2013

Published 7:05 PM by with 3 comments

Analog and Digital and the Meaning of Life

By the time I realized capturing pictures was what I was meant to do, the digital age was already maturing. For me it began with a video camera. Super 8, the last consumer film medium, had long passed. Even analog videotape was near death. Instant gratification was the first thing that thrilled me about digital video. I was lucky enough to be able to afford a fairly sophisticated video camera at the time and, although the myriad buttons, sliders and switches was intimidating, I vowed to learn about every function.

In my younger days I played in a rock band. Back when I started in the eighties, everyone was playing synths so I decided I was going to be a keyboard player. There was an immediacy about the sounds that could be produced on a synth without me having to be much of an actual musician. Cool. When I saved up enough money and bought my first Casio keyboard, all I had to do was press down two or three fingers on the keys and, voila, it sounded like an orchestra. As I progressed in my musical "career" however, the challenges presented by being self-taught became all too obvious. I was now in a much more sophisticated band and was having a hard time keeping up. I found myself wishing I had taken formal lessons. Still, there is an argument out there that a different kind of creativity can emerge when you are faced with limited resources. Maybe I wouldn't have played that note here or that chord there had I actually known what I was doing. As a result of this lack of training, I was never a confident musician. I was happy to be in the back of the band onstage behind my banks of keyboards while escaping the spotlight both literally and metaphorically.

So when I first picked up a video camera, I promised myself I would do it right this time around. I would immerse myself in the theory of making pictures and really understand how to rely on manual control rather than the universal auto button. Fortunately I had a voracious appetite for knowledge. The more I learned, the more I realized I didn't know. It was like I was looking at distant mountains and the peak of that one right in the center was my penultimate goal. When I finally reached it, I found there were more mountains twice as far off in the distance. I actually loved this. I love discovering that, after investing huge amounts of time learning about something, I realize it's only the tip of the iceberg. Learning about photography is a lifetime pursuit. You can never know everything about it. Ever.

Fast forward eleven years to the almost present. I realized sometime back that, although digital technology has given me a portal into my creative passions; music, filmmaking and photography, I still found myself going back to the roots of each medium. With music I went back to the original blues recordings of the early twentieth century. I also preferred to play organ and piano to digitally sampled versions of the same. I preferred vinyl over mp3s, film over video and finally film photography over the ones and zeroes equivalent. Digital was just too perfect to me, too clinical, too sharp, too....something. I craved the warmth of analog.

Although I grew up shooting snapshots on film, I never thought about adjusting buttons to change exposure. Why would I? The camera did it all. I only ever understood the word "manual" if it was coupled with "labor". I didn't even know it existed on cameras. Professional cameras were out of my league and my interest at the time. So now I found myself as a digital photographer trying to make everything I shot look like it came from a film camera. I would layer my photos with dust and dirt and various kinds of textures to give them an antique look. Hell, I became a Photoshop expert because of it.

One day I posted a photograph on Flickr of an antique camera I had just bought on eBay. I was attaching it to my digital camera so I could use the lens of the old camera to get a more filmic look to my photos. Rarely do I get any kind of comments beyond "cool!" and "awesome!" on Flickr but this one guy asked me why I just didn't shoot some film instead of spending so much time in Photoshop.

I didn't want to admit that I was kind of afraid of film. I was used to instant feedback and being able to adjust anything that wasn't right based on what I could see in the LCD on the back of my camera. To shoot film would mean I would have to really know what I was doing and, because it actually costs money to develop, I also had to be judicious about how many shots I actually took. I couldn't just fire off twenty shots and pick the best one. Well, I could, but my bank account would not be able to sustain that kind of behavior for very long.

My wife had an old Canon Elan 7 film camera that had been sitting around for almost a decade so I decided to dust that off and give it a try.

With film loaded, I remembered how I felt the first day I started shooting Super 8 film. Yes, I had done that too but after digital. I was a Super 8 late bloomer. Each cartridge shot two and a half minutes of film. I couldn't waste a second. I scrutinized everything. I second guessed what was or was not a good composition and got to the point where I didn't know what to shoot. My right brain was under siege. My left brain was making every decision resulting in a serious brain freeze.

Eventually, I learned to trust what I was shooting but it required a lot more preparation and much less spontaneity than digital. So as I stood there with my Canon still film camera, I had the exact same thoughts. I only had 24 shots on this roll and I wanted to make every one count. I didn't want to shoot duplicates of anything. Every photograph had to be unique. 

Thought paralysis is a horrible thing and it has plagued me my whole life. I had stage fright a lot when I was playing in my bands but my friend Jack would always calm my nerves. Daniels, that is. 

I had to do some serious gymnastics in my head to get everything to calm down and take the self-imposed pressure off. Let it flow, let it flow, let it flow, I would say over and over again. It's like a big highway with endless possibilities but think about it too much and it's like installing traffic lights as far as the eye can see.

I finally did get to a place where I became confident about shooting film because, armed with my trusty light meter and the knowledge I had accumulated, it really was fool proof. I loved not knowing exactly what I was going to get once I clicked the shutter. It kinda slowed things down for me. When I went out shooting in the early morning, instead of coming back with a hundred photos (as would be typical in my digital realm), I had only a handful of images to show for my efforts but I could remember every single one of them.

Even when I got the negatives back a few weeks later, there was something rewarding about each shot. Not all were great, most were not even good but the experience was a much richer one from start to finish.

Recently I have let my film camera go back to bed for a while. I have more pressing things I'm working on that require a digital workflow but I will once again return to film. It will help me to remember that capturing a worthwhile image is not a quick drag but a slow burn. If you don't take the time to appreciate what you are shooting then you've already missed a huge part of what photography truly is.

Here's a sampling of my film photos...

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Published 11:30 AM by with 0 comment

The Benefits of a Personal Photography Project

Although I've been capturing images in some iteration for about twelve years now, there's always something new to learn. But without some kind of driving force, it's easy to become static and churn out variations of the same photograph over and over again. I recently recognized this trend in my own work and realized I needed to put a defibrillator on the heart of my photography. I was not giving much thought to what I was doing anymore. I just went out and took photographs by rote, processed them quickly because I had a "formula" embedded in my mind and then I would go out a few days later and repeat the process all over again. That's not to say that I wasn't shooting good photographs. They were good but I was not challenging myself. It's common knowledge that finding a challenge and getting out of your comfort zone will help you grow as a person and artist.

My two great loves in photography are landscapes and portraits. I had my landscape work pretty well organized but my portraits were all over the place. Some were on this drive, others were on that drive...there were hundreds of those suckers. It felt like I was shooting wonderfully emotive photographs of people but they were disappearing into the ether. I also felt like I was kinda drifting with no real purpose to what I was shooting. So what to do?

I decided that I was going to commit to a project, something that would have clearly defined parameters and something I could plan for with a vivid endgame. I decided on a coffee-table book of portraits called "Fifty Female Faces".

What followed has been a revelation and rejuvination of my creative juices. Not only has my photography gotten better because I have been able to identify my weaknesses but I have also become much more adept at communicating with people during a shoot. For an introvert like me, that is truly significant.

Another added benefit is that my Photoshop skills have rapidly improved and my understanding of the program has allowed me a much greater expanse of possibilities when I'm feeling creative.

So I'd highly encourage you to find something that will inspire you in your own life and help open you up to brand new experiences.

This is one of my favorite shots so far from the project, featuring Janelle Winter

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