5.23.2010

The cloak of invisibility.

                              Paris Museum.


It's in the Harry Potter books and in super hero comics.  It's the cloak of invisibility.  And in addition to foiling rogue magicians and killer aliens from alternate dimensions it is also highly prized by photographers who would like to see without being seen.  Problem is the cloak of invisibility doesn't exist.  We have to create our own.  I've shot in many places and in the midst of many cultures and there are a few things I've learned about becoming invisible.  I think about this when I head out to shoot.

For a street shooter I'm blessed to be "only" five feet and eight inches tall.  This is pretty average for most of the world these days.  If you are very tall or very, very short it can be harder to blend in.  I am of average weight for my height.  Not rail thin.  Not too thick.  I don't stick out because nothing sticks out.  No jutting ribs, no belly over belt.  Nothing to take a second look at.

When I go out to shoot I try to think about the way most people dress in the city I'm shooting in.  I like to buy work clothes.  I try to never wear running shoes.  I tend not to wear shorts unless the city I'm in is routinely hot and most people wear shorts.  I tend not to look at people unless I am photographing them but I also try not to look away.  I don't wear sunglasses when I shoot.  People need to see your eyes to gauge your intentions.

I don't wear clothes with big logos or bright colors.  I'm interested in never attracting attention.  I even try to buy boring eyeglasses.

All of this would be undone if I dragged along a big camera bag and lots and lots of gear.  The reason I shot with Leica M cameras for many years is the same reason I like the new micro 4:3 cameras.  They are low profile.  Not showy.  Certainly not professional looking to the casual bystander.  Nothing like a Canon 1DS with a 70-200mm 2.8.  I want my camera to be as uninteresting as the aspect I'm trying to create for myself.  People are wary of your intentions when you bring the whole cyclotron array along with you.  You look intent on capturing something.  You distance yourself from the crowd by dint of inventory.  You move with a different cadence and a different demeanor.  You become "them" and not "us".

I'm spending more time street shooting in San Antonio.  I'm practicing my invisibility.  Why? Because if you can leave the ego in the trunk of your car with all the rest of your high end photo gear you'll have access.  And access beats glamor gear every time you go out to shoot.  One camera.  One lens.  One intention:  To look and to share.  Not to capture and harvest.

    Lottery ticket booth in Rome.  I've been spotted.  My cloak of invisibility was torn open by    the Nikon f5 and the 85mm on the front.   



Favorite Focal Lengths. I don't have many.

                             Shot near the Spanish Steps in Rome.  Nikon F100 and the
                             Nikon 85mm 1.4  Tri-x  Printed on Paper. 


Michael Johnston's been talking a lot about lenses lately, over at TOP and he got me thinking again about the "desert island" lens.  Which one could you live with forever.  But this time, rather than waxing romantic and conjecturing which lens yielded the best stuff for me, I decided to go through the collection of my prints that seems always float to the top of my attention, and actually do a quick rough count and see, realistically, what I end up using without thinking about it.

I presumed it would be one of the many 50mm lenses that I seem to take with me almost everywhere.  But after a bleary eyed stroll through the nostalgia laden Ilford Gallerie boxes it dawned on me that almost every image I've ever shot, that I like, was shot with a fast 85mm lens.  The one lens which I don't own today!!

                              Image taken in a Paris Apartment on a cold, rainy November
                              day back in 1992 with a Canon EOS-1 and the first iteration of
                              the Canon 85mm 1.1.2 on Agfa 400 film.  Paper Print copy.


If I remember correctly the first 85mm lens I owned was the original FD breech lock mount Canon 1.8.  It was big, heavy and very well made and I used it extensively to photograph my then girlfriend, now wife of 25 years, as we were dating.  I don't know what I traded it for or why I got rid of it but I remember what a delicious combination it was when paired to the almost forgotten Canon EF SLR body.

I used it to take photographs of Belinda when she was taking print making classes at UT and she looked like this:

                            Belinda at UT studio class.  Painting.  Canon FTB or EF with the 
                            85mm 1.8 FD.  Tri-x.  Probably bulk loaded.


I can't remember ever leaving my apartment without the camera over my shoulder and an extra roll of bulk loaded tri-x or HP5 (whichever was cheaper at the time) in my pocket.  We lived with our cameras in an almost fetishistic way back then.....but we knew them like the backs of our hands.....

    Same combo.  I love the OOF background.  Not an expensive lens but so much more fluid than 
    today's defacto zooms.  I can't think why I moved on from this lens and camera combo.....


Then there was the Leica M period and I have to say that the only lens that makes sense for me to this day with the Leica M cameras is the 50mm.  And the best expression of this was probably in tandem with either the M3 (100 % finder image) or the M6 .85  camera.  I wonder if I moved on from the M's because the 75 was to short and unwieldy while the 90's were just a hair to long.  Not to mention that dropping one's 75mm 1.4 on to pavement was horribly expensive and traumatic.

We'd all like to think of ourselves as fearless photojournalists but I doubt many of use are like James Natchway or Don McCullin, ready to dodge bullets and shrapnel to get in close to fierce fighters with a 21 or 25mm lens.  When I walk the streets I use the 50mm but sometimes, on a warm up day, while recovering from jet lag and still street shy, I found that I have a tendency to take......the 85mm because I can stand off a bit and take shots I might not be ready to take closer.  It's kind of a chicken thing and after the warmup day I make myself get a little closer.  But it's a comfort to start shooting with a little distance and work your way in......

                              Man carrying a loaf of bread home in the evening.  Low light 
                              long before the days of high ISO's or IS.  A quick shot.

                               Louvre.


I've been shooting with the Olympus system lately and the lenses are fantastically sharp and nuanced.  But here's a downside, there's nothing like an 85mm 1.8 in the system. There's the 50mm f2 but it's too slow to focus and it's a bit too long for my taste.  The 14-25mm only reaches out to a 70mm equivilent while the 35-100 covers the focal length but at 3 pounds is much too big and unwieldy for a street shooting lens.  If they want to capture/retain the serious shooter it's time to unleash those fast primes we've all been waiting for.  They were able to do it quite nicely with the Pen F lenses from the 1960's and 1970's, there's no reason they couldn't do a 42.5mm f2 lens for the e cameras today.  I know they'd sell a couple to me......

                                Just in front of Printemps, in Paris.  A blind man and his dog.


In the meantime I guess I'll snap up something from another system to make due.  Most of my photographer friends see the 85mm as a portrait length and I agree that it's a great casual portrait lens for loose compositions.  When I get serious about portraits I usually reach for a 100 or a 135mm but sometimes the 85 can be handy......

                             One of my favorite shots of Renae.  She was the world's absolute 
                             best assistant.  And not only because she was telepathic and charming.


That's my case for the 85mm.  Blame Michael Johnston for revving me up about lenses.  I do agree with him that they are the critical gear.  Cameras are fun, lenses do the heavy lifting.  I've used 85mm's from Canon, Nikon, Contax,and Leica R (actually an 80mm Summilux but I let it slip in....)   and I'd love to tell you which one is the ultimate optic.  But here's the problem, they're probably all better than all but the most recent high res cameras so they would all qualify as equally good.  The cheapest one I shot with was the old Nikon 85mm 1.8 ai I got used for $105 years ago.  The most expensive one I used was the Leica Summilux at around $1800 new when I got mine but if you want one today they are $4695.  The slowest one I played with the was the first generation EOS 85mm 1.1.2 which took several seconds to lock focus in good light and an eternity in bad.  The fastest auto focusing 85mm I've owned was the Nikon 85 1.4.  It focused fast in any light, and on an F5 it was peerless.  The one that shot the best images for me was the old FD 85mm 1.8.  It was new to me and very exciting.  It was the first lens I owned that did wonderfully shallow depth of field.


Okay.  I've talked myself into another one.  I'll get it figured out in the morning.  


      






A Public Examination of a Private Process.


I'm thinking thru things today, weighing a new venture and the new intersections on the great ven diagram of my life.  The process started me down the prickly path of self-exploration that we usually leave untrodden because we have to confront a topology that's at odds with our unexamined version of self.  And that implies making real choices based on our higher vision and against our default positions which usually represent the paths of least resistance around the more interesting rocks and boulders in the streams of our consciousness.  And sometimes just becoming very clear about the things we know we should be doing is a red flag invitation to nervous anxiety, stress and internal rationalization and pain.

But when I chug my way through the contents of the thought process and then examine the dregs at the bottom of my cranial container, in yet another attempt to read my own tea leaves, I'm left with the same old questions:  What am I doing?  What do I know I would rather do?  Why aren't I doing that?

I'm pretty well convinced (and I'll admit it's easy to sell myself on ideas and rationalizations.....) that, on some level, I'm trying to do what I consider my art.  But I feel like a baker whose core business is mixing the cake batter and baking the cake only to find that I can't concentrate on, or finish with any panache, any part of the baking process because I'm too busy answering the phone, meeting the flour delivery at the back door, rushing a check over to the gas company to prevent the untimely interruption of my fuel supply....and just as my cake mix hits the perfect consistency and needs to be hurried into the greased pans and married up with the ovens the process is interrupted by the metaphoric tinkling of the bells over the front door and in comes that customer who always needs more than just a cake.  They need a tangible, fungible affiliation and bond with the artisan baker.  Then I'm torn between batter separating and the necessary massage of the littered, languid egos that also need artful attention.

In the end the resources that promise an ultimate confection are squandered and diluted.  The timing is off.  The resources misallocated.  The cake is "okay", the frosting "serviceable".  And the customers, who were partly culpable, overlook the mediocre product because they've convinced themselves that they are part of the process and that, by extension, we are all bakers and all part of a confectionery team.

The emotional need to defend the choices of their patronage assures that the doors stay open so we can go another round and the ragged process will continue....but always at a level of distraction and dilution....until the only time I can really make a cake is when the shop is closed.  Where there is no customer for the cake but me.  Baking in the early hours of the morning before the heroin-like cellphones compel my patrons to share into the process and keep me multi-tasking while the milk curdles and I ask myself "why the hell did I open a bakery in the first place?"

Most of us have too many choices.  Too many ways to communicate.  And face it,  if you are paying hundreds of dollars a month for your smart phone don't you feel guilty about wasting the money you pay if you don't use it?  And we have so many choices in PhotoShop.  Don't you always try working with an image in two or three ways before you finally commit?  Just because you can?  You could eat a sandwich on the loading dock of your studio and then get back to work on that project or you could break up the momentum and rationalize that lunch with the intriguing but long-winded colleague.  Of course you need to run out for coffee.  Of course you need to compulsively check messages and e-mails and "research" that next camera, on the web.  You could also write a novel while you are at it.  Or bake a cake. Or climb Mt. Everest.  But the reality that really bites you on the ass when you reach your 50's is that you can't do all these things and do them well.  In fact,  I've met very few people who can really do more than one thing at a high level.  I mean a really high, kick ass, level.

Where do we get the hubris to think that we can do so many things and keep any proficiency at all?  So, why am I writing all this?  I told you in the title that I'm making a public examination of a private process.  How do I decide what to do and what not to do?  Everything sounds pretty cool when it's presented.  All invitations are both a logistical communication (where and when and what) as well as a gentle, seductive touch on the ego (they really want me!).  A manipulation. But if you are the least bit presentable and sociable the invitations and opportunities to fragment and dilute are nearly endless.  So how do you choose?  What to do and what to leave?

You need some quiet time to figure out your priorities.  I recently turned down a book project.  It sounded fun.  But it didn't move my process forward.  Didn't have anything to do with MY art.  It was another project that was really an attempt to monetize a knowledge base.  To squeeze some extra profit sharing stuff I found out the hard way.

I know that some people can compartmentalize stuff so they can have their cake and eat it too.  But I'm way too linear. I can't just do a project for the  money anymore.  At least not projects that will take four to six months out of my life.  If I'm not shooting for clients I want to write stuff that I'd love to read and I want to shoot images that I love to look at.  I may be out of touch with the times but the idea of monetizing everything is as appetizing as cake frosting from a can.  But every time I accept a project that branches off from my core I resent it, I regret it and I vow never to do it again.  Until the next time someone tells me that I am smart and creative and we should do a project together.

New rules:

1.  Projects should be an extension of your long term artistic goals or you should leave them on the ground for the person you are not.

2.  Life is short.  Do real work.  Not work about work.

3.  Photography is about the creative process.  Teach that and stop teaching the plumbing side of it.

4.  Money isn't everything but creative freedom almost is.

5.  Time is more precious than anything but love.