I spent part of my week with a very interesting artist. Take a look at Marja Spearman's latest project: The Forget Me Knots.

I got an e-mail a week and a half ago from Marja Spearman. She introduced herself as a sculptor looking for a photographer to document her project. We exchanged a few e-mails and I decided that I'd be delighted to meet with her and help document her project. The project involved making 1,000 ceramic Forget Me Knots, painting and glazing them different shades of blue and purple and then creating an installation that weaves across three properties in west Austin. Each ceramic piece is a wonderful and visually alluring metaphoric knot. The pieces seem to have different meaning for every viewer. One person who as driving by as the pieces were being installed stopped to look. She shared a quick story with us. She had a knot in her colon that had to be repaired surgically. She wanted to know if she could buy one of the knots. 

Marja insisted that she just take one. In talking about the project she shared with me that she still has a relative in Holland who carries a rope around with him just for tying "forget me not knots" to help him remember things that he has to do. That was part of the germination of this project which I think deal with memory and loss. 

Documenting this project called for making photographs of the installation from a number of angles and at a variety of scale. From close up clusters that really show the form of the individual ceramic objects to wider shots that show the scope of the installation. Of course, effective documentation has nothing to do with camera capability beyond that the camera needs to have a relatively decent wide angle to short telephoto range and that the camera be able to handle the range of colors and textures. Most modern digital cameras would qualify.

A second part of the project, which just seems like a natural adjunct, was to do a video documentation in much the same way. I documented the same range of scales but introduced movement and sweep to the coverage. Video also allowed us to interview Marja and her assistant, Christina. Our edit will be very straightforward: A few title slides to open, a few interviews and then intercuts of the installation with a continuation of the sound track from the interviews over the top of the images of the knots.

To make the video interviews I worked with a Sony a99 camera (but any of the equivalent Canon, Nikons, Panasonic or Olympus cameras with video would do equally well. For me there were two big considerations. One was that the camera be able to accept external microphones while giving me real time controls over audio levels and, second, that the camera have a headphone jack so I could monitor the quality of sound we were getting. 

For the interview I worked on a tripod and used a manual focus 85mm lens. I used a set of Sennheiser wireless microphones. I would pin the microphone onto the person I was interviewing (or fallowing around during the installation) and they would be free to move around while they spoke. We got some good material by keeping the microphone attached to either Marja or Christina while they were engaged in installation. Their remarks about why they were placing the objects in such a way illuminated my understanding of their vision. 

While the process of documentation was very straightforward I think there is so much that could be done in the video edit that I'm feeling a bit intimidated about it. I'm torn between how much could be done and how much I'll be able to do under my time and budget constraints. We'll make something good for now and pass along the raw video to Marja in case she wants to push the program further or cut it in a different way.

Working with other artists engenders a good feeling of sharing and opening one's eyes to a different angle and a different perspective. I love that this artist, Marja Spearman, had a singular vision and combined her art, her management skills and her ability to build a collaboration into a overarching project of making art. There is no discernible business return. The knots required months of hand production, and because of the variations in color and glaze there was a high failure rate. Her team experimented over and over again with different glaze formulations and different firing parameters. In the end she understands that some of the objects will be stolen, other broken and many given away. That's what makes documenting the project so important.
The installation itself is temporary and will only exists in the collection of images and video that we capture during its short tenure.

This is a busy time in Austin. This weekend and next are the West Austin Art Studio Open Houses. You can drop by and see the installation, and speak with the artist. A direct connection with an accomplished artist. You can also make your own documentation of her work. Just go this afternoon or the afternoons of next weekend to the intersection of Lamar Blvd. and 31st St. The installation starts just a few feet from Lamar on the west side.  You can turn into 31st St. and you'll probably find a bit of parking along the street. Next Saturday Marja says there will be a bit of catering for people who drop by. Go see a fun installation. If you aren't in Austin, don't worry...I'll post the video as soon as I finished editing. Hope you are having a fulfilling and artistic Sunday. Best, Kirk

Interesting angles. A black and white Eeyore's Birthday Party.

I try to go to Eeyore's Birthday Party at Pease Park in Austin, Texas every year. It reminds me of the Austin I loved when I came here in the 1970's to go to school. Janis Joplin sang in a local club and you could pretty much ride across town on a bicycle. The city has grown up a lot since then but the people who come to Eeyore's do a great job channeling that old spirit.

I usually grab a camera at random, stuff maybe $20 in the pocket of my jeans and head over to Clarksville to park as close as one can and then I walk an easy half mile to the park. I didn't stay too long. I didn't need to. I soaked up some good feelings, watched the drum circles and the unicycle football games. Saw the kids decorate the Maypole and watched everyone and their mother snap away with their smartphones. And that was fine by me.

Usually I wander around directionless but today was different. I was drawn toward a different end of the park where I came across this young woman and her partner doing aerobatic yoga and I just stopped. I love people who defy gravity. I love photographing beautiful people who are turning upside down. Who doesn't? So I photographed their improvisational routine with delight.

Then, rather than stay and look for more stuff, I decided to leave on this high note. And I am completely satisfied with my experience at the celebration. In the past I would have hung around hoping to find more, more, more. But I've learned that it's almost self defeating to keep going after a certain point. And that point is a moving target.

The camera I took today was my Sony a850. It's a throw back to the same look and feel of my old film SLRs from the dark ages. Big and heavy in the hand. A big, optical finder and a mirror that goes "boom, boom, boom!" when you hold down the shutter button. But I now get why I am partial to that camera. The longer I shot with it today the more it reminded me of those days of shooting Tri-X in a Nikon F3 or a Canon F1 (original). Big, brawny cameras that felt like they'd outlast your car or your house. That association, coupled with the fact that I shot so much black and white back then must have triggered some sort of mental muscle memory.

I set the camera to shoot black and white jpegs and I shot without looking at the indecisive consideration screen on the back of the camera. In this way I could shoot and move on. I removed the step where I reflexively stop after each flurry of activity to check the screen.....As though I'm so inexperienced that I fear I may have missed the shot or mis-set the important controls and screwed up everything. It was purging not have the instantaneous feedback loop engaged at all times. And it felt great to start looking for the form of a shot instead of the emotional triggers of color.

I used an old lens today. I selected it because I found it sitting on my desk this morning when I came back from an early Saturday morning public relations assignment for the regional gas company. Maybe Ben borrowed it and put it on my desk to return it to me. Maybe I put it there yesterday to get it out of the way of our video shoot. It doesn't matter. I grabbed it and put it on the Sony on my way out the door. It's a cheap, old Minolta 24-85mm 3.5-4.5 zoom lens. Very old tech. But a nice look, on sensor, when used as a black and white translator.

I had a long talk with my friend, John, this morning over our after-swim-practice, decaf coffees. We were talking about the need to keep adapting to and understanding the advances in technology as it relates to culture. Neither of us needs to understand dynamic power management of redundant web servers but we both feel like any knowledge that is diffused into the mainstream creates a cultural dialogue and that to be left out of this dialog is what separates and isolates generations. My friend doesn't need to use Twitter all the time (for example) but he needs to understand the twitter basics and how they mould the prevailing cultural structure. It's vital as we grow older to continue to embrace the translation of technology to culture to remain relevant and engaged. The alternative is a separation from our clients, our potential future clients, and a whole number of generations that will inevitably launch themselves into the world and inadvertently change our lives.

But continuing education doesn't mean everything changes completely. It's good for me to check in at things like Eeyore's Birthday Party or to make black and white prints that I really like so that we don't lose our personal relevance, which may be anchored at the other end of the progress paradigm. Know the future. Raid the past. Embrace the fusion.

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How did you really intend to have your images seen? Who would you like you ultimate audience to be?

When professional photographers go out to shoot they always have an audience and a venue in mind. The acknowledgement of this audience and venue inform the way they shoot technically and, if they are smart, it also informs the way they take the images. If they know that the highest and best use of the material will be a point of purchase display they take special pains to use the highest resolution camera and lens system they can in order to make a product that withstands inspection from as close as you (the consumer) want to examine it.

If the work is for the web and needs to be delivered and used quickly the professional photographer may dial back the promise of ultimate quality and use jpeg files at medium resolution settings to deliver a product that's quick to use and still has oodles of quality for the intended medium. The audience still informs his aesthetic intentions.

But what happens when the professional photographer takes off his "pro" hat and settles into making art for his own enjoyment? What is his target then? And as an amateur or hobbyist (or full time artist) who isn't constrained into hitting a specific, final target what is the way you want your images to ultimately be viewed? How do you want your audience to savor those images that you spend so much time and effort on? What is your highest and best display aspiration?

Most of us have a choice. We can aim for the widest audience imaginable and put our wonderful work up on the web. Potentially millions of people will have a chance to see it...but what are they seeing? At the other end of the spectrum we could go for the highest intrinsic quality but we'd have to be content with a tiny (by comparison) audience. In this scenario we'd capture our images as raw files and we'd practice our best techniques and our most present attention. We'd print as large as the image wants us to and we'd choose a medium that insures the integrity of our work.

For many that might mean shooting with a full frame camera at its lowest ISO and using a well made lens at its most effective aperture. To take it a step further it would mean being locked down on a tripod. The resulting image might start life as a 14 bit file and be meticulously post processed and then optimized for a well profile printer. We'd print it on the paper that matched our original intentions and then we'd matte the print and frame it appropriately. The final step would be to put the print into a gallery environment that allows our audiences to view the work without distraction. This would require attention to the height of the work, the angle and distance of the illuminating lighting and even the ambient light of the gallery space itself. If we are really meticulous we would carefully regulate the temperature and humidity of the space for the optimum viewer comfort.

How incredibly different that viewing experience would be, in terms of experiencing the work, than flipping open a 13 inch laptop screen at a noisy and frenetic coffee shop and trying to see work at 1,000 pixels wide while mixed light sources bounce off your screen. Even worse...imagine that you spent months researching a venue. You traveled and spent a fortune. And then, after days of waiting and looking you shot a really wonderful image with lots of energy and layers of meaning....and then you had to reconcile yourself to the idea that most of your audience was looking at your Pietá on the fingerprint swirled screen of an older iPhone. Or worse.

All that work and intention smashed into the never ending blender of images coming directly to your audience tiny, compressed, unprofiled, and, well.....just a mess.  Yes, you may reach millions but with what? 

I come from a generation to which the finished print, hanging on a wall, or the printed page in a book or magazine in front of you, were our ultimate aesthetic targets. We wanted to always share the highest and best representation of our work with you. And it seems that in art circles that presentation imperative has never gone away. The exodus toward all content being solely on the web is being undertaken by the masses but not by the chosen few, the artist. In the realm of fine arts the paper print still reigns supreme as the Lingua Franca of the collectors, gallery owners, museums and enlightened viewers.

Two years ago I was on a photographic assignment and a fellow photographer joined me. We knew each other from the web, from seminars and from casual coffees. His exposure to my own work had been, up to that point, exclusively here on the blog or on my website. Perhaps also in projected images at talks and lectures. That day, when we ended up my work for the client at hand we walked back to my car to pack up. I also wanted to show my friend a printed book of 10 by 10 inch black and white portraits that I'd carefully printed. He was shocked. He was absolutely shocked by the presentation. He took the book and wandered back into the country club we'd been shooting at and sat in a chair and looked through the book several times.

"It's so different to see this work in print." He exclaimed. "There's a sensuality to the images that's incredible in the prints." And at that moment I knew I would never abandon the printed image. Because while authorship on the web is efficient and empowering by dint of sheer numbers it loses something real and vital in the translation. Maybe when we're all looking at 30 inch Retina ™ screens it will all be different. But right now? I don't think so.

I'm not saying that anyone needs to make a choice and certainly they don't have to make my choices. I share images with you on the web because, effectively, that's all I can do to stay in touch with most of you. But in the back of my mind, with every frame I shoot I find myself thinking, "Would this be worth printing? Would this shot merit my time spent working the files and making a large paper print?"  I'd like to say I never push the the shutter button unless I can answer "Yes!" but we all know it's not true. But that doesn't keep me from aiming at the ultimate quality or making files that can stand up to the technical tests. I think photographers and artist should have an intimate show of their physical work about once a year. 

In this way you have to have yourself and your resources invested in the process. And instead of typing and uploading in a dim room you stand, nervously, in the middle of a room full of people and await their judgement of your work. 

On the other hand if you look for other people's approval you put yourself under their control. Better to enter the whole idea of a show as a sharing instead of a judgement. So the question really becomes, "Do you have the balls to share your work directly? Face to face with your audience?" If you do I think you'll find ample new energy to create your vision. And refine it. And create again. An intimate show with a real and present audience beats yet another dropping into the cavernous and insatiable jaws of the anonymous web. At least in your physical gallery space a nasty critic will have to really summon their courage and spleen in order to even try and make a nasty remark. And if the wine is really flowing you can answer their irreverent critique with a kick to the seat of their pants as you propel them out the door. That's got to provide some satisfaction... But seriously, a good show is one of the best highs an artist can get. And each showing raises the bar for the next one.

In fact, 
I don't think you'll ever know just how good your work is until you 
print it large, frame it and put it in front of 
a real human audience.

They (the audience) won't tell you. 
they won't need to.

You'll know.

Images from 2013 Eeyore's Birthday Party. Camera: Sony a850
Lens: Minolta 24-85mm 

Intention? To share.

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Street shooting in Lisbon

Do you shoot out in the streets? It's hard if you live in one of most American cities, for a number of reasons. There are really very few places to shoot. People live in their cars and at the malls. And people in American tend to dress down. Cargo shorts and white t-shirts with logos on them. Comfortable and tacky. And we do tend to be the one of the fattest countries around, per capita.

If you live in New York City or San Francisco, save your energy. I know your towns are walking towns with a plethora of rich visual targets, just right for fine photography. If you are large, given to wearing bright t-shirts, cargo shorts with stretchable waist bands and running shoes, please try to look out for photographers and maybe don't loiter too long in front of obviously cool landmarks or architecture.

But if you are really into shooting in the streets you'll want to find towns where people strut their stuff on foot and where the ambulatory culture keeps the people looking good. You'll want to head to a European city. Grenoble's great because a huge swath of the downtown is pedestrian only. But one of my favorites has always been Lisbon because it seems anchored to a time warp that keeps everything five years slower.

Back in 1998 I went to Lisbon to photograph a project for a subsidiary of IBM. The project went well and I engineered some down time in the the city. Two days before the event and two days after. Every morning I left my hotel with a Leica M6, a 50mm Summicron and a 75mm Summarit. I kept a pocket full of slide film, an open mind, an open agenda and a nice pair of hiking sandals and a desire to dive into the city life and come up with some fun images.

Here's the problem for me with street shooting: I get so involved/immersed in everything that I forget sometimes to take the photographs. I found a fabulous little neighborhood bakery and I was in line so quick I forgot to lurk around and try to sneak good shots. Then I was enjoying my creme filled confection and hot, earthy coffee so much I forgot to even meter.

But after a while my basic sense of discipline kicked in and I came back with hundreds and hundreds of images that I really like. The above is a smattering. A taster plate. A flight of photos. When you go out to shoot I think it's best to throw away intentions and schedules and let yourself slide into the process like a you slide slowly into a hot bath. If you go looking for the right moment you'll generally never find it.

It's some perverse law of the universe. It's in the same set of laws that mandate if you see a great scene and vow to come back the next day to capture it the scene will never present itself again. Once Belinda and I were staying in Mexico City, in the very hotel that Trotsky used to live in, oh so many years ago. We were only in Mexico City for a few days and I kept meaning to make some cool photographs of the Hotel's interior but I didn't. Something else always came up. I decided I'd get the photos next time I was there. Of course an earthquake weeks later leveled the hotel.

It's also the same perverse law of the universe that demands you do things here and now. If you delay anything it will be changed, diluted, and made more crass. Put off going to Rome and the Rome you could have experienced will no longer exist having been replaced by a different and more homogenous version.

It's the same unfortunate law of photography that says, "Print now or you'll never see this image again." We have the right intention but we need the right follow through. When an image jumps up in your face and fascinates you the time to act on it is in that moment. But most of us put the images into a folder, go out and shoot more and then put those new images into folder and so on, waiting until life slows down and we have time to luxuriate with our little treasure and to photoshop them just so and make them perfect before we sent them off to the printer. But we wake up to find the moment gone, the image left untouched. And we think they will continue to exist but a certain physical/metaphysical relationship has changed and we'll never come back to the same image in just the same way.

These images remind me that the only time is now. Carpe diem.

The Goatman of South Austin

Sometimes you just have to enjoy whatever life throws at you. I was working on a piece for Zachary Scott Theater's season brochure a couple of years ago. The show that drove the season was David Steakley's, Keeping Austin Weird. It was celebration of the diversity and eccentricity that is represented is a town like Austin. A very "blue" city in a very "red" state.

My assignment was to go out into the community and photograph some of the characters and stories represented in the play. The gentleman above had this goat that he dearly loved. The goat was a pet, not livestock. Some of his neighbors and a few city officials wanted the goat gone from the very residential neighborhood. Happy ending for some: The goat stayed.

I buzzed by and shot the man and his goat with an on Kodak DCS 760 camera and 50mm lens. I can't speak for you but it's one of those images that's really stuck for me. I love the green paint, the American flag, the outdoor fan, and.....of course, the goat.

Just another thing that makes Austin special.

A Project From An Earlier Time.

The year was 1985. Twenty four years ago. I was 29 years old and had bounced around a bit in the career arena. I'd done some teaching at UT Austin and I was working as a creative director at a struggling advertising agency. I'd done a fair amount of freelance photography since 1980 and a lot of the editorial work I did was done for Texas Monthly Magazine. Nothing really big but kind of steady.

In the Spring of 1985 I got a call from the book publishing subsidiary of Texas Monthly called, Texas Monthly Press. "Would I be interested in doing the photography for a cookbook on Mexican Food?" I jumped at the chance. I'd done a few food photographs for lifestyle magazines as well as some table top stuff on wines and liquors but I'd never done location food work like this before. Back then people were willing to take more chances. They decided, based on what was in my portfolio, that I would be able to muddle through just fine.

The author of the book was Anne Lindsay Greer. She had done two previous cookbooks that had been very successful, was a famous restaurant consultant and also a writer for Gourmet and Bon Appetite Magazines. Anne had restaurants and recipes in mind and the whole project revolved around showcasing one or two dishes from every selected restaurant. We'd go on location, have the chefs cook up their signature dishes, have Anne style the food and the decor and then shoot. I would do the lighting design and frame up the shots using stand in food. Once the technical stuff was decided we'd bring in the hero entree and shoot film.

Now, to all the well equipped photographers out there, grab hold of your Airport Security cases and hold on tight because you will not believe that any work could be done with the primitive gear I had available at the time. Let's start with the car. I was driving a 1968 Volkswagen Beetle. It never had air conditioning and, if I took right hand turns too fast, the driver's door had a tendency to fly open. It was a small car but that never presented a problem because all of my gear fit nicely in the back seat. And the car was amazingly reliable. It had a few dents and there was a nice decal of a trout on the engine lid. Great gas mileage but back then who cared?

I had two cameras. One was a Canon FTb. A fully manual camera with a sync speed of 1/60th and a top speed of 1/1,00oth of a second. The second was the down market or budget camera from Canon, the TX which had a top shutter speed of 1/500th of a second. It made a great back up and I thank the fates that I rarely had to use it. The lenses were equally interesting. I made due with a 24mm lens, a 50mm 1.8 lens, and a 100mm f2.8 lens. This was a time before there were Polaroid backs for many 35mm cameras so I brought along an old polaroid 195 which could be synced to our lights.

Ouch. I'm just remembering the lights. A 22o watt second Novatron power pack the color of a bad solder joint with two plastic heads and three spindly silver stands. One white umbrella and a Vivitar battery powered flash that pre-dated the 283 model. The piece de resistance was the gold colored budget tripod someone had given me back in school. That and an extension cord was the bulk of my equipment bounty.

We shot everything on Kodachrome 25 and 64 ASA film (ISO for the latecomers). I borrowed a Sekonic flash meter.

We'd have a schedule each week that we'd all agreed too. Ms. Greer would fly to the location and be driven to the restaurant. My editor would drive her car and I would rendezvous at the location with my VW. Not every shoot was memorable. I shot Chile Rellenos at a restaurant in San Antonio and you just can't do a lot with charred peppers. But there were several very memorable episodes.

At the time there was a restaurant in San Antonio called El Mirador. In foodie circles they were famous across the country for their traditional Mexican soups. They were only served on Saturdays. The recipes came from the grandmother who insisted that she make them herself from scratch. We put the bowls of soup into the hearth of a traditional Mexican fireplace and shot a wonderful shot that still stands the test of time.

And we ate the soup. And they treated us like family. Gringo family, but family all the same.

My next memorable stop was at the Mansion on Turtle Creek in Dallas. At the time it was one of the toniest and most expensive hotels and restaurants in the country. I pulled into the parking lot amongst the Bentleys, Rolls Royces and various effete German roadcraft and at the speed of light two valet parking people took control of my car and parked it around back with the employees' cars. I had my equipment in a scarred camera bag and one of those blue plastic milk crates and those were whisked away to the bell station so no one would see them. I was an hour early and thought I'd read the Wall Street Journal to see just how to cross over to the other side and make my visits to the Mansion On Turtle Creek a more routine thing.

The Mansion on Turtle Creek

As I sat in the lobby reading the financial news a waiter stopped by and asked if I would like something. I decided on a cup of coffee and a chocolate croissant. How bad could that be? Well, try $18 in 1985 dollars. First big problem of the day. I brought $20 along with me. You know, to cover gas back to Austin and maybe a dinner at McD's en route. Poof. All gone. Amazing because at the time you could get a much, much better cup of coffee and one of America's best croissant at Sweetish Hill Bakery in Austin for around $2. Really, much better.

We photographed the tortilla soup in the main dining room and I got my first stab at making exposure work with half the frame as an interior and the other half of the frame as a sunlight exterior. Thank God for Kodachrome 25. I would have loved to have some of the tortilla soup and a few of the sides we photographed but as soon as we finished the food was swept away and they gave us a lusty, "Thank you very much for coming!" and showed me to the door. Then we remembered that the car was out back and we tromped back through the kitchen into the back lot.

I could've used part of that twenty bucks to buy water because I ended up in a rush hour traffic jam at a dead stop for two hours......in July, in Texas. And remember, no air conditioning.

I had a small cooler but it was dedicated to keeping film and Polaroid cool, not stocked with thirst quenching beverages.

The shoot that made the biggest impression on me took place at a restaurant called Las Canarias which was part of an upscale hotel on the Riverwalk in San Antonio. It was by now into the first week of a brutally hot August. We got to the location around 3pm and the chef and Anne decided that the appropriate photo would be a groaning buffet set across the river from the hotel. In this way the photo would capture the table laden with scrumptious Mexican morsels, the beauty of the Riverwalk and the facade of the hotel......all in one!

And that's when they mentioned the ice sculpture. A big, bird ice sculpture would be the centerpeice for the table. To get the shot they wanted meant setting up the table right in the middle of the direct sun. Remember our equipment list above? This was becoming a recipe from hell. I put both light heads into the big white umbrella at full power and they barely made a dent in the wicked hot sunlight. About this time an older gentleman with a Leica in his hand walked up to me and pulled me aside. I expected the usual "are you a professional? What kind of cameras should I buy?" questions, but no. He'd looked over my set up and watched the ice bird dripping to its death and humanely interceded.

Fonda San Miguel, Austin, Texas

"The only way you'll make this work" he whispered "is if you get a king sized white bed sheet and use it to block the sun from the food." And then he smiled and blended into the crowd that had gathered. Ten minutes later I had two bus boys, who spoke no English, standing on an adjacent set of tables holding a king sized bed sheet as high up as they could. I had all the flashes on full power and then I said a prayer for good luck. The photo was remarkable. I love it. It may be the best photo in the book. And, if you read my past blogs you'll know that I never leave home without at least one six foot by six foot white scrim.

I had a fun shoot at Fonda San Miguel here in Austin which started a twenty year relationship with the restuarant. And the shot looked great as well.

All total I shot 16 rolls of film at 16 restaurants. After ten years of shooting digital I am amazed at those numbers. That's an average of 36 exposures for every shot used in the book. Spread out over two or three weeks of shooting. Enough to "see" the shot, bracket, try another angle or two. Add in the Polaroid and I'm going to say that we did the whole book for around $250 in film and processing.

So, I was a neophyte, working with trash gear, severly under-inventoried in the lighting department and sapped of my endurance and fortitude by a transportation system that many would now consider cruel and unusual. How did the project turn out?

The book was/is beautiful. Texas Monthly kept it in the catalog for years and eventually sold the book to Gulf Coast Publishing. The last I heard it hit five reprints and multiple editions. Interesting to think that projects got done before Profoto rentals and 24 megapixel cameras and legions of assistants. And self referential video coverage. And air conditioning in cars.

El Mirador, San Antonio, Texas

Street Shooting in Rome. Getting close.

Robert Capa is reported to have said, "If your pictures aren't good enough you aren't close enough." It's a great quote for photographers. A while back I spent a couple weeks shooting for fun in Rome. On one of the first days there I was shooting in the main train station and trying to get good candid shots of arriving families, vendors and porters. Then I spied the guy with the cup of espresso. I tried to blend in but the medium format camera I was using was hardly stealthy. The man caught my eye and motioned me over. I thought he was going to lambast me for trying to photograph him. Instead he waved me in, smiled and said, "You need to get closer!" I smiled and snapped the shutter. We both laughed. A huge print of this has been on the wall in our kitchen for 12 years. It makes me remember to enjoy coffee and enjoy life. And to get closer.

After that experience I stopped trying to sneak around with my camera and realized that I could just ask, gesture, smile etc. and I'd get better shots. By the time I shot the card players I'd switched from my "stand-offish" 75mm normal lens and I was leaning into the group with a 50mm wide angle. I learned that you need to invest time instead of zooming by and snapping. It's so much fun to catch a milieu instead of a scene. Although I really can't explain the difference.

These two images have withstood the test of time. I have copies of each in my studio and every time friends drop by they comment on them.

A friend who is a psychologist bought a copy of the card players. She says that it opens up dialogue with other clients. She points out that the Italian culture brings older friends together. A harder thing in America's transient culture. You can be an honorary member if your are kind with your camera.

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A Favorite Portrait from the film days.

This is Senator, Kirk Watson. A Democrat from Texas.

This is one of my favorite portraits. I probably like it because I really like Kirk Watson. He was the mayor of Austin for a while and did a great job. He's always be personable, kind and patient with the people working around him. He isn't a prima donna politician. And finally, I think his heart is in the right place...which has meaning no matter what side of the political spectrum you call home.

It's also one of my favorites because it is informal, relaxed and collaborative. So much gets written about lighting and gear but the real magic, where the rubber meets the visual road in portraiture, is getting that elusive quality called "rapport". A meeting of the minds. The intersection of greatest commonality. Shared experience and shared purpose. That's what makes people "smile with their eyes."

And fortunately, or unfortunately, it's not a component of photography that you can buy. There are a lot of books about lighting and portraiture but none about how to talk to portrait sitters in a meaningful way. Or why you should read novels and magazines and see some movies that don't always have scenes where stuff blows up. Why you should read the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. Many times your photographic knowledge and creativity takes a back seat to keeping up your side of a conversation.

Technical stuff: Shot with a Hasselblad 501 CM, 150mm lens, Fujichrome. Lit with two Profoto Monolights. One large softbox. One grid spot on a zoom reflector.

Getting Kinky in Austin, Texas

There's nothing I like better than an interesting portrait subject and a big, soft light. This was shot for a magazine cover and it's one of the outtake outtakes. That means the magazine assigned me to do a 35mm color image to run on the cover (vertical, saturated, etc.) and when we finished with that we switched cameras and mentalities and started shooting big black and white images that were square and fun. The color outtakes are the first outtakes and the stacks of contact sheets and negatives are the second outtakes.

I've tried portrait shoots a lot of different ways. Many photographers I've worked with or hired (back in my ad agency days) were strong believers in the "big crew". They made each portrait session a big deal. A really big deal. There was always a first and second assistant, a make up person and maybe another person for hair or wardrobe. Everything always seemed tense. Like a preparing for surgery. And sometimes the big crew is client driven. The portrait may be of a CEO or some other "very important" company officer and short timelines may have been set.

There's always a good rationale. And for some people it may be the only way to comfortably work. But I've always been most comfortable hewing to the opposite extreme. If I brought along assistants it was usually because I couldn't carry in all the gear by myself. If I hired a make up person I generally wanted him/her to do the make up and then leave me alone with the sitter.

I think it's hard for a lot of people to have their portrait taken. They have a certain amount of fear that they won't meet expectations or that they won't be able to project what they want people to see. With more and more people on the set it can become harder and harder for inexperienced sitters to relax and get with the program. Even if the inexperienced sitters are world famous business people....

Here's the way I like to do it. I like to spend hours by myself setting up and testing my lighting. Which is kind of silly since I tend to light things the same way most of the time. I guess it's a ritual. Before every major portrait sitting the first thing I do is to clean the studio. Then I start planning the shot. Seems like the biggest thing is getting the background just right. If I can get the background hung and lit just right everything else falls into place. I usually have vision for how I would like the photos to turn out. Sometimes it goes that way and sometimes it doesn't.

I'm always trying to get the most distance between my background and the subject. I like to use long lenses and compress the background as much as possible. f2 on a 4:3 camera, f2.8 on 35mm and f4 or 5.6 on a medium format camera. The last thing that gets set is the main light. Right now I'm setting up for portrait tomorrow at 1 pm. I'm using a Profoto 600 monolight into a five foot octabank and I'm diffusing that thru two layers of diffusion on a six by six foot panel. Maybe a little piece of foamcore to the opposite side for fill.

For this session I'm working solo. Just me and the sitter. We'll talk about what we want to get from the session and then I'll have him sit down and we'll start. The session goes in fits and starts. We might find a subject of mutual interest and chat for several minutes between bursts of frames. ("He burst into Frames!!!")

When we both feel that we've got what we came together for we'll end the session, talk a bit more and go our separate ways. No big drama, no big production.

I'll head out to lunch and then come back and start processing. And we'll do it all over again the next day. And that's the fun stuff.

Examining Modern Mythologies About Camera Equipment. Part Two.

It's a little bit scary to work on a project that spans years, or even decades. Especially if you didn't know that everything you were shooting would one day end up as a packaged project. I've known and worked for the owners of the famous Fonda San Miguel Restaurant for many years and have done numerous photographic shoots for them. Tom Gilliland is an amazing collector of Latino and Caribbean artwork and he uses his fabulous restaurant as a gallery for parts of his collection. Part of the draw of the restaurant is the five star cuisine but the other draw is the ever changing show of museum quality modern art on the walls. And the walls themselves which were recently painted over the course of a year by a very famous muralist from Mexico City.

Where do I fit in? Well, ever since the inclusion of Fonda San Miguel in a cookbook I did back in the early 1980's for Texas Monthly Press, Tom has been hiring me to document the art in its environment. Wide room shots that show the juxtaposition of the art and the dining rooms, the furniture, the murals, and even the tile floors. I've shot the dining rooms from every direction and I am particularly fond of documenting the temporary displays like the ones they do each year for the "Day of the Dead" celebrations.

But here's the rub. Some shots were done in the 1990's on transparency film, some on an Olympus e-10 in our early days of digital. Some on an old e300. More on a Nikon D100, then a D200, then a D300 and so on. So, of course, I was expecting that with the ever improving cameras that the older work would suffer by comparison. Especially the early digital work with the low megapixel count Olympuses and the early Nikons.

But you know what? It all hangs together beautifully. Dozens and dozens of images. Double truck spreads with older digital cameras. Detail shots with the latest cameras and historical shots on film. The uniformity of style is pretty remarkable, given that it is for the most part unintentional. But the whole package works.

At least that was the concensus of the International Association of Culinary Professionals who made the book the 2006 winner of their Best Cookbook Design award and the cookbook winner of the 2006 Independent Publisher Book Awards.

All the recent food images were done by ace food photographer, Tracy Mauer, from San Antonio.

For my part I relied on a few techniques that seem to minimize quality differences and these are: 1. Shoot in good light. Even if you have to bring the light. I always shoot this kind of imagery on a tripod and at ISO 100. 2. Use really good glass and use the apertures that make every photographer look like a technical expert. Those are f5.6 and f8. If you are shooting with zoom lenses you really can't afford the quality hit at the wider or smaller f-stops. 3. Trust good designers. (That has nothing to do with technique but I loved the way they used the images we shot).

I hadn't intended to blog about this book but it brought to my attention the fact that, across the spectrum, the differences between generations of cameras really become apparent to most audiences only at the edges of performance where things start flying apart. If my style had been to shoot only available light I am certain that more modern cameras would have less noise in the dark areas than the older cameras. If I shot the images using only high ISO the results would be immediately discernible between cameras. But when we equalize the playing field with good technique the differences a become minor.

I have a few copies of this book on my shelf and I really love the images because they remind me of my own experiences over the last thirty years of dining in this fascinating and ever changing restaurant but I was reminded of the book when I walked through Costco today. There was a stack on the book table staring up at me.

Next time I write I think I'll share the story of my very first cookbook experience with Creative Mexican Cooking, by Anne Lindsay Greer........It was one of my very first book projects, done in the early 1980's, on a shoestring budget, and it always comes to mind when I hear people put off projects because they don't think they have the right gear. But that's next time.

Do you have one image that is head and shoulders above the rest?

I took this portrait of my friend, Anne, in the early 1990's. It wasn't done on an assignment for anyone. She worked for me in the studio and I always liked the way her face looked and the elegant way that she carried herself. On days that were quiet, bereft of client direction and drama, we'd occasionally set up some lights and practice. Just for the love of photography. One afternoon I thought it would good to make an image using a large, soft light source with no fill to the opposite side.

We'd been doing images for a theater and set up multiple backgrounds, draped in the background at different distances. We lit those with gridded lights and small umbrellas. Then I asked Anne to sit in an old wooden, Texas bar chair. The afternoon was lazy. Nothing on the schedule. Nowhere to be and nothing pressing.

We worked quietly. Shooting at f5.6 with a long lens on an old Hasselblad. I used a slow shutter speed to incorporate the warm glow of the model lights. I can't remember what we talked about. Only that in those days I felt like I understood my path and my craft and could take the time to just relish a moment of pure photographic joy. We shot four or five 12 exposure rolls of Tri-X. Then, when we knew the image wouldn't get any better we left the set intact and went off to do our own errands and make our own separate liasons.

A few days later I souped the film and inspected it as I pulled it out of the photo flo and hung it up to dry. I stopped and stared at this frame. And it stared back at me. This was what I'd been working toward all along. It was beautiful. But not in a glamour, sexy, hot way. It was beautifully complete and rationalized. It sang out to me as a perfect score. I could hardly wait to print it.

I'm sure that the myriad computer screens that are the dna of the web won't do justice to the rich tones or the complex yet subtle nature of the print on my wall. Someone out there will dismiss the image because it lacks a hair light or the forced sparkle of HDR.

But to me it will always be a high water mark. A place to aim for. If all my work could be this good I'd be so satisfied. But it's good to have a target that you've made with your own hands because at least you have a fighting chance of getting back there some day.

If only you can take yourself out of the way of your own progress and let the subconscious core of emotional understanding that we all have inside commingle with the other skills required to make great craft and good art.

I hope you have an image that you've done that really moves you and motivates you. It's empowering to know that you've been there once and may be able to find your way back again..............

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