Monday, April 26, 2010

The Beautiful Struggle Called Life

[Morning Bloom]
 - Shot at F2.8 with a 24-70mm. To do this right, I should have used a macro lens.

Recently purchased a little cactus. I like my plants the way I like most things in my life: no frills. A cactus is the perfect low maintenance plant. It only needs to be watered once a month. In fact, if you give it too much attention, you could wind up killing it. There is some relationship advice buried in there, but I don't feel like expounding or digging.

Despite my lack of interest in maintaining my new plant, I do get a fair amount of entertainment watching the flowers on my little cactus open up to the sun's rays each morning. The petals are only open for a few hours and then shut tightly again, seemingly designed to deny the daily displays of exuberance to those who miss the small window. Its beauty is for those who either get lucky or carefully and diligently chase it.

I am drawn to things that appear to be ironies. Why? Because those things that deviate from the ordinary and common logic make life worth observing. In the gap between the way things should be and reality lies an opportunity to explore and tell a story.

[the Edge]

I woke up before the sun during a short trip to St. Croix. While getting ripped up by mosquitoes, I walked along the rocky shore and took photographs. I remember being moved by this one plant living very close to the ocean. To me, it represents resilience. A plant is not supposed to be able to take root in rock, especially so close to the unfavorable salt levels of the ocean. Despite regularly crashing waves that threaten its existence, this plant was stubbornly refusing to die and even defiantly showed off a few yellow flowers. I was moved then, and I am still inspired now.

While there is no inherent glory in the struggle, there is beauty in survival.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Strike a Pose

[Pastry Chef - August Sanders]

[Sanders was a German photographer who embarked on a project to document people in German society from all walks of life. Ironically, the Nazis didn't like his depiction of the Aryan race. Go figure. I love this photograph. It is my favorite Sanders portrait. The subject is lit properly, but I am really in love with the composition. Using the kitchen as a backdrop, the round features of the chef's head, body, pudgy hands, and mixing bowl come together to create an interesting pattern. There is a sense of wholeness when I look at this picture.]

Recently browsed through an interesting pictorial book at the bookstore. It was a book on portraiture but with a very unique twist. Because the author reasoned that portraits can only truly be objectively critiqued when we have absolutely no emotional attachment to the subject, he collected random photographs of people and published a book. Brilliant.

I tend to agree with the author. What are the two main sources of attachment to a photo that render us practically useless to critique an image for its merit? We either know the subject or took the photo. People fall in love with their images all the time. People fall in love with pictures of their children all the time (Mediocre photographers use this to their advantage when showing pictures to doting moms...). Objectivity goes flying out the window. Regular review by other photographers (hopefully skilled and qualified) is the only way to get out of the mud.

I recently came across a random photographer's website, and saw something along the lines of the following in their bio:

I am NOT classically trained.

It is one thing to be truthful, but I found it quite odd that anyone would wear this as a badge of courage. Since when is ignorance something to be proud of? It is one thing to get out there and work for what you want, but it is another thing entirely to flaunt a lack of dedication and seriousness to one's alleged craft. To be totally truthful, I could tell this photographer was not trained just by taking a quick look through their portfolio. (I am trying hard not to be too critical of other people's work, but it is very difficult given how much crap there is floating out there.)

There are no shortcuts in life. And what we think are shortcuts are actually roads leading somewhere we probably don't want to go. I don't exactly know where I want to go, but I know where I don't want to go. That's good enough for me at the moment.

Random thoughts at 5 AM on a sleepless night.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Breaking Down My Favorite Cartier-Bresson

This is my favorite Cartier-Bresson photograph. My love affair with black and white photography continues. The more I study photography, the better I am able to articulate why I like or dislike certain photos. While I generally despise art critics (most of whom tear down things they couldn't create in a hundred years), I do think one can learn a great deal from listening to work being judged or critiqued by qualified artists.

So why do I love this picture?

Perfect Exposure
Nothing is blown out. From foreground to background, the image contains all the detail the photographer intended to show. Look at the detail and contrast on those bricks, just lovely. While the subject is somewhat silhouetted, the exposure is just right so that the man in the hat isn't completely dark. On somewhat of a tangent note, I don't understand so-called photography purists, who rail against post-processing. Post-processing took place even in the film days. It just took much longer and happened in the darkroom. Photoshop actions are generally derived from old film developing processes. While I tend to generally agree with photography right-wingers on most issues, on this point, I must respectfully disagree.

Great Use of Natural Light
Through his genius choice of location in an open alley, the photographer introduces light from the back, sides, and even ever so gently from the front. Though the man is wearing a hat, there is even a little bit of hairlight coming from the sky. The subject is sitting in the perfect spot to be hit by all that muted light. I would guess that this photo was taken on a cloudy day, which essentially provided a huge softbox in the sky. A softbox that was channeled perfectly onto the subject to create a semi-silhouette.

Great Lines/Composition
While there is a lot going on in this photo, the lines in the image all bring the focus back to the subject. Strong powerful lines bring your eyes right back to the mysterious man in the hat (more on him later). I particularly love the line that perfectly intersects the bottom left corner. Did that happen by accident? I think not, artfully, thoughtfully, and masterfully executed. Since I've been going on tangents, I will veer off on another one. Art certainly does have a spontaneous element to it. However, photography definitely requires technical competence. Even beginners might stumble their way to a decent image once in a while, but knowing what you are doing will increase the percentage of keepers and good images. And I don't think "great" images happen purely by accident, though certain elements are definitely out of our control.

This is always the X-factor for all great images. Where to begin? So who is the guy in the hat? Why does he have that particular hat on? His body language also seems to be saying something. And what is the deal with the cat? There is a story here, and much of it is left to the imagination. And why is it all taking place in a random alley in New York City? The great thing about this photograph is that it spurs many questions. And there are no real answers to those questions. And that, I believe is the diving board into a sea called art.

As my photography improves, I like to take an occasional look back at my old photographs. After my first burst of improvement, I couldn't stand looking at the products of my initial foray into photography. It all just looked like crap. I literally had to turn my eyes away, because it was so painful to look at images that I had once thought were good. I was ashamed. Now, I take a little more time to look at my old photos, because I think it is helpful to break down exactly why they suck. Yet, it does tickle me that I would still consider a few of my old photographs to be decent. The difference is that now I can actually tell you why I think they are alright, even though I was pretty much stumbling around in the dark.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Black & White

[The Decisive Moment - Henri Cartier-Bresson]

There is no better way of coming to be aware of what one feels than by trying to recreate to oneself what a master has felt. - Marcel Proust

I decided to take the French writer's advice and reclined in a comfortable chair with a small book containing the words and photos of Cartier-Bresson. As an American, I have an inherent allergic reaction to the French (except for their fries), but I see ample wisdom and appeal in trying to learn from the images and thoughts of great photographers past.

So I flipped pages. I stared. I thought. I was moved. I was inspired. I really enjoy black and white photography for the timeless quality it exudes. To me, black and white and all the varying shades are what photography is at its core. The play between light and dark in an image seems to mimic another characteristic of life- the dynamic between good and evil.

I also enjoyed reading Cartier-Bresson's thoughts and philosophy on photography. In particular, the following definition of photography really struck me:

"It[photography] is putting one's head, one's eye, and one's heart on the same axis."

That line is going to have to marinate for a while, but it is one of the best descriptions of photography I have come across. Albert Camus said, "If we understood the enigmas of life, there would be no need for art." If we adopt Camus' definition of art and Cartier-Bresson's definition of photography, photography definitely meets the criteria of being art. The intersection of head, eye, and heart seems to qualify as an enigma, and an elusive one at that. The central theme of Jerry MaGuire also seeks to reconcile the conflict between head and heart, so congratulations Cameron Crowe. Your film is also art. Take your place next to Cartier-Bresson, albeit only on this blog.

After soaking in some more imagery and insight, I found myself wondering how Cartier-Bresson would photograph himself.

[Portrait of Cartier-Bresson]

What a fascinating and intriguing photograph. While Cartier-Bresson didn't take this picture, I am certain he had a hand in setting it up. I wish I saw this bad boy before I completed my self-portrait a few weeks back.

A portion of Cartier-Bresson's thoughts about a trip he made to Cuba had me laughing uncontrollably. While it was interesting to read about the opportunity he had to photograph Che Guevara and meet Fidel Castro, this next bit made me like the old chap just a little bit more. He seemed like less of a legend and more of a human (almost like someone at the studio...).

"I confess that I am French and like to look at the ladies. I was much aware that Cuban women have curves but on the opposite end and the opposite side from where they are situated on, say, Miss Jayne Mansfield.

Since curves are curves and not politics, I sometimes made errors."

And in case you are not familiar with Miss Mansfield, here is a photo:

It should be pretty clear what Cartier-Bresson meant about the Cuban women he came across. Baby got back.

Taking in the work of master photographers of the past is very humbling. Never mind the lack of image stabilization, 25,600 ISO, etc., there were no viewfinders for instant digital review or enormous CF cards. And yet, the photographers of old were able to capture breathtaking images that continue to inspire decades after they were taken. How? Those answers aren't likely to come easily, but I am content to keep digging. I look forward to reviewing the work, philosophy, and approach of other great photographers.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Ready, Set, Click

[Photogs get younger and younger...]

As I delve deeper into photography, I am growing more aware of the overall shape and state of the industry.

On one hand, I am in awe of the work that is being produced by top-notch photographers. As I grow more aware of the subtle differences that separate the best from the pretty good, I see the huge mountain in front of me that I need to climb even just to get to good.

On the other hand, I see countless numbers of clueless people with cameras and websites out there moonlighting as photographers. I feel really bad for the clients who are booking these people, even if they are looking for budget photography. (Might as well get the kid I shot in the photo above to take pictures- at least he's framing his subjects by the rule of thirds.) The hoards of bad/mediocre photographers out there make me wonder if my old-fashioned roll-up-your-sleeves approach is applicable in today's market. Am I just being an idealist?

I don't know what it is about photography that makes people think they can jump right in or believe they don't need to pay their dues. Owning a DSLR? Hypothetically, even if you had the same clubs as Tiger Woods, you sure as heck are not going to get out there and golf like Tiger out of the gate. Sorry Nike, it's also not the shoes.

At the end of the day, the only person I should worry about is me, myself, and I. So I still want to do this the right way. Yet, the right way requires lots of patience. Some days, I wish I could just get out there, set up shop, and just start doing my thing. I get antsy when I haven't shot anything in a few days as well. I know it's not 100% right, but my mentality has always been if I am not moving forward, I am moving backwards- even if I am standing still. Being still is something I have had problems with in the past. Being still gives me too much time to think...

While photography has a technical component, at its core, photography is art. Art doesn't happen overnight. Art doesn't even happen in weeks or months. Art takes dedication, sacrifice, emotion, passion, and at least a smidgen of talent. I need to keep that in mind as I continue to learn and hone my skills. I am not competing with anyone else. I am just trying to be the best that I can be, maximizing my own unknown potential.

I hope to never forget where I came from. When I first asked to join the studio, I remember agreeing to even carry bags and equipment. I hope that hunger never gets satisfied. Pride is a detriment to progress. An ample amount of hunger a day, keeps pride away.

Friday, April 9, 2010

My Canon Can Fly

HD video capability on DSLRs was a huge add-on. Unfortunately, it is technology that most traditional photographers will not take advantage of. However, looking forward it is bound to play a huge role in the world of photography. You can be one of the people who refuses to acknowledge that we have a potential game changer on our hands, or you can maybe set sail for the West Indies because the world just might not be flat.

Will traditional photography ever die? Doubtful, given how it has survived for centuries, but it would be prudent to embrace anything that might enhance what has stood the test of time. We may not be giants, but we can always stand on the shoulders of the past. Free R&D, why not?

In any case, check out what this guy is doing to capture aerial shots with his Canon DSLR. This is pretty creative, though I don't like the idea of $5000+ worth of gear flying around like that.

I won't be trying this anytime soon, but I do want to start messing around with HD video.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010


When the "self-portrait" project was first assigned, I knew it was going to be a difficult one for me. For starters, even though I love photography, I do not like being photographed. Women tend to have an easier time with self-portraits, because I believe deep down inside, all women love to be photographed. Regardless of age, size, and shape, a good majority of women enjoy having their photo taken, especially if the photographer is skilled enough to capture them in the most flattering way. As for me, I believe what some abodiginals believe, that a photograph may in fact steal a part of my soul. = )

Though the project was difficult, I believe completing it helped me test some of my new knowledge as pertaining to lighting, posing, and composition. It also got my creative juices flowing. How does one capture the entire essence of a human being in one frame? The answer in short is that it is not possible, but certain aspects of our being can be represented in a single photo.

I love my alma mater. And I love the football team. However, there was a point in my life where attending Rutgers seemed like the plague. Today, I can say it was an amazing 4 years, and I left with great experiences, friendships, and a respectable education. The resurrection of the football program is just icing on the cake. In high school, I could have never imagined a world in which I was more proud of my Rutgers degree than the one from Harvard.

[This photo was backlit by windows, and I bounced a 580 speedlight off the ceiling to provide some fill from the front. Using the self-timer and getting into that position in 10 seconds without knocking anything over was a challenge.]

Before photography, my first creative love remains writing. Words have a certain power and timeless quality that I enjoy. I love the occasional opportunity to merge my passions in life. Oftentimes when shooting details at a wedding, words will jump out at me. I love highlighting those subtle moments. This photo was framed to show the titles and subjects of some of my favorite books. My tastes have always been eclectic, but as with all things I am into, I delve deep and with passion into topics of personal interest. I think I could be one of the world's foremost experts on Peanuts. = ) With any sort of art, I love learning about the general experiences and specific instances that led to inspiration and ultimately creation.

So why is a self-portrait important for photographers? On a macro level, I think it gives you a little more respect and appreciation for the subjects you are photographing. Not everyone is comfortable in front of the lens, and a little empathy never hurt a photographer. On a micro level, setting up your own shot, moving into the frame, and getting everything exactly the way you want it, is quite the challenge. However, going through that tedious agony can only improve your flow when photographing someone else. (If you run with 25 lb weights attached to your ankles, it should feel like you are flying when you take them off.) While I was setting up my shots and trying to execute them, I constantly longed to work with someone else as the subject. Though I've seen my mentor do it on a pretty regular basis, I now have a slightly better idea of how to give someone else direction. As always, I await what this new experience will contribute to my photography when on a real gig.

As for photography in general, I now feel comfortable enough with my gear and able to quickly find the right settings in a given situation. That has opened up more opportunities for creative energy to manifest itself. I still love every chance I get to shoot, and I love being able to pick my mentor's brain with the random questions that surface during the course of a shoot.

Shoot on. Live on.