Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Took a Walk In Those Shoes

This past weekend saw me engaged in the kind of shooting that deep down I've always (and will always) yearned to do for a living. Candid portraiture. Studio portraiture. High fashion. Makeup. Glamor. Beauty. Those things that the photography industry rode on so easily in the 80s, hit a plateau on in the 90s and then lost monopoly on completely in the 00s. Not that I cared. I wasn't in the thick of this world of pretty girls and dramatic vibes to make money. Hell, I wasn't really so much there to make friends (barring Friday's shoot with Allyson, featured to the right here... but she was already a friend so that hardly counts). I dunked my core into this world to discover whether or not it really, truly, honestly bore the satisfaction I would demand from it should I stake the bread and butter of my business plan on its practice (a business plan which is complete, by the way, and currently undergoing scrutiny and polishing by several third parties). The vigor and adrenal rush of the portrait shoot was already apparent, but would it stand up to the required structure and uniformity necessary to function from a business standpoint?

The short answer is "Holy Shit Yes" (and yes, indeed, that is the shortest possible answer, period). I'll start with Friday.

As is my typical working Friday, I was due to be off work by the early afternoon. And, again, as is typical for my working Fridays, I intended to capitalize on available daylight and go photograph... something. Originally my plan was to slip into abandoned building X and photograph my typical decay and detritus, and in hunting for a partner in crime I quietly posted a casting call for company on the adventure. Instead, I was accosted by Allyson, a girl I'd grown up with in high school, a most lovely young lady with high wit and incredible intelligence, a standalone in the crowd (from which I collected more than a few standalone friends of similar caliber). For some time earlier in the year she'd discussed wanting to serve as a candid model for me, but with her working 2 jobs and myself being horribly unavailable and spontaneous in my dealings, schedules never aligned and we never managed to get together for a shoot. This particular Friday, however, planets aligned, and so we agreed to meet at Starbucks for coffee, catchup and cameras.

It had been nearly 7 years since we last saw each other, so the initial passing of life stories was of course in order. More than that, however, this introductory phase served as an easy mode test bed for a critical part of my business plan which emphasizes not passing through clients rapidly, but rather developing a comfortable, familiar relationship with the client first, something which is both conducive to the portrait shoot itself by merit of making the process feel casual and natural, but opens up future opportunity to work with the client again as a preferred photographer. Now, of course, working with Allyson was easier than trying the same with a complete stranger given our history, but with enough time having passed since our last face to face the need was still there to break into that zone of comfort prior to the engagement of the portrait shoot. And it worked out famously. We spoke of her college time, her plans in life of saving money and buying a house, family and relationship situations... we quickly made our way to frank, honest confessions to one another, and that is the critical point at which a portrait shoot has the utmost potential to ascend into genuine art, not simply forced expression.

I popped the lens cap off and started snapping. The conversation continued (as it should), but because we took the time to communicate and trust each others' intentions we synched onto this abstract wavelength I always strive to achieve with my portrait subjects. Although we were still talking, still engaging in business as usual, through a combination of conversational cadence and body language we communicated when the moment was right for a photo, and she would pick up on my subtle cues immediately and freeze whatever position, direction of eyesight, expression, what have you, and wait for me to take the snap, all of which occurring in a matter of milliseconds. I easily snapped 200 plus frames of Allyson while we talked over coffee at Starbucks, and only but a few times, less than could be counted on one hand, did timing and mental communion falter and lead to a silly eyes-half-closed false frame.

To date I've only worked with perhaps a half dozen models who've connected on such a pertinent mental wavelength. Granted, most of the time, I don't go out of my way to establish that communion of mental states, however Allyson would be the first person I've ever attempted to establish that connection with very deliberately, and seeing the fruits of our collaboration in this portrait session, it is without a doubt the most critical facet to the success of an artistically considered portrait shoot. To that end, I thank Allyson for our session last Friday if for no other reason than for opening up that critical insight via hard, deliberate testing (although the portraits themselves are exceptionally gorgeous too, gotta say).

With our session concluded only due to a dying camera battery, we parted ways and enjoyed the rest of our evenings in our own respective fashion. We are, however, bearing all intent of working together again, an on-location shoot preferred by both parties. Aside from being another opportunity to photograph a lovely girl, that shoot would serve as a test for another aspect of the provided services in my business plan. Hopefully I'll have some competent studio lighting equipment to utilize by the time the weather outside is slightly less frightful. Anyway...

... Then Saturday happened.

Ren Garczynski, purveyor of Random Eye Candy Photography and owner of dedicated studio space at Baltimore's Graffiti Warehouse, a very, well, "Baltimorian" art studio venue that encourages rampant graffiti murals and all levels of high glamor studio photography, invited me to attend their holiday open house. The premise was simple enough - $20 for photographers, $5 for models, pay your way in and you have 6 hours in which to link up with models, utilize community backdrops, props and portrait lights, and go to town creating vogue photographic art. I walked into the place Saturday afternoon expecting a collection of the lost and confused wandering around afraid to mingle and network. Whew, was I wrong... instead I walked into a party.

Right from the get go, after paying into the main vestibule I stepped into a room crowded with makeup artists, costumers, models and photographers, everyone at work experimenting with the most random and often nonsensical combinations of light and style imaginable. And it worked every time. Very often the process was model driven - instead of the photographer leading the model in a certain way, the model would select props and backdrops and a flood of up to a dozen different photographers would gravitate around her (well, I suppose there were a few "hims" in the modeling roster, but really, let's be honest, they were predominantly "hers"). It was a few levels of insane, augmented by live electronic music being mixed on the spot by a 3 DJ crew which cycled interchangeably. Nonsense in tandem that somehow functioned without a hitch.

One element really stood at the forefront of the separation of myself from all other photographers there, however. I would venture to guess that easily 90% of the photographers around me were shooting models with kit zooms, amateur (by which I mean sub-$1000) CaNikon DSLR bodies and direct, occasionally diffused shoe mounted flashes. In other words, the standardized, homogenous setup "expected" of all "serious" photographers. Meanwhile, I'm happily strutting along with my Micro Four Thirds Olympus E-P3 with a fast prime 45mm f/1.8 mounted on the front and no viewfinder to speak of barring a rear OLED LCD screen. It could be argued that I was the venue's iconic minimalist. And as hipster of me as it is to feel a sense of pride in that status... I don't know, I think my results with such minimalist gear stand up well on their own.

While most photographers never touched the constant lights available to them, I couldn't stop screwing around with them, and I found 2 in particular that I very much liked and would love to add to my equipment list some time. A pair of 8-bulb compact fluorescent soft boxes that put off the most spectacular light as they heated up. When a photographer insisted upon utilizing a strobe, I used nothing more than the constant preview light they emitted, not once synching to a strobe because... why? I had all the light I needed, and by god was it soft and smooth and gorgeous. A couple times, while using the constant lights, photographers insistent upon using nothing more than their directly aimed, off-branded, non-metered flashes would demand I take the hot lights off the model because their impact on the frame caused their exposures to be blown out, to which I typically responded "Then dial down your exposure or turn off your flash". Unfortunately, not a single person I imparted this suggestion onto took it at all because, of all the hilarious things, very few photographers there knew how to meter on their own, completely dependent on either the Auto setting or Program for everything. Manual EV adjustments be damned, I suppose.

Complaints aside, the venue was absolutely fantastic, however I felt it too overcrowded just 2 hours in and resigned myself from shooting to simply spend time seeing the talented Ren at work in her private studio with a model and friend who I've photographed before, Kyle. The pair were engaged in a Mr. Winter themed portrait shoot, with Kyle covered in white body makeup and whitening hair spray. Her results were very cool (double entendre not withstanding). All in all a very good day and very good experience, and at least a partial foray into the world of high fashion/glamor/model photography that I also hope to implement in my business should I ever manage to network my way into it. For years I complained of how little time spent at college meant to ones skill as a photographer, but more and more I'm coming to realize the investment in college for artists is never, EVER about acquiring new knowledge and applying new technique, it is all about meeting people, gaining exposure, assembling the right portfolio and attaining the required recognition to more or less "buy" your way into the world of high art photography. And to think I had it all wrong all those years.

Perhaps it's time to take some courses...

Thursday, December 1, 2011

When Does a Snapshot Become Art?

Go ahead and laugh at the question if you must.

Photography, and what defines a photo of artistic-grade aesthetic value, is both fickle and maddeningly nebulous. It is the nature of a non-quantitative thing to be impossibly abstract and reluctant to be weighted down by something so mundane as "definition". Thus the selection process I employ when sifting through my photographs for the "keepers" buried amongst the snaps is... difficult.

My habits when sitting down at the computer at the end of a day of shooting are predictable and brutally consistent. Rip the photos onto the hard drive, pop open Adobe Bridge and peek through them one by one. What is horribly inconsistent, however, is what exactly I'm looking for. The night of a shoot I will have in my mind exactly what I'm excited to review and edit in post, the compositions I stopped to think out carefully on a venture with the direct intent to produce art. Eager to share them, I will punch through editing in a couple hours of miserable repetition and upload them to Flickr, distribute them into groups and sit back with the giddy "Look at me and what I did" anticipation of a toddler.

But then there's a phase that creeps up after.

Not every photograph I take is meticulously considered. A great many of my captures hearken directly to my namesake. Knee-jerk images. Moments come and go without stopping, there is rarely a second chance and if the moment is not quickly taken advantage of it will pass on and be forgotten just as quickly as it cropped up in the first place. Snapshots. Candid moments that can embody a vivid memory that would otherwise be completely discarded by what our brains will allow us to recollect.

Now, they aren't always pretty. Such fleeting moments require sloppy spur of the moment reaction, and the attempt to capture that moment isn't necessarily success. But if you're quick enough, if the planets align in that moment and the light is right and the camera is set and the camera is trained on the scene, sometimes that moment is captured beautifully. BUT, assuming the occurrence of a miracle allowed that passing moment to be captured, that memory photographically recorded... is it art?

In my foolish efforts to apply a quantitative definition to what defined a photograph as artwork, I have assembled a set of rules by which an image must abide before I consider it as artwork. The exposure must be balanced, not too dark, not too light. Focus must be spot on and the image must be marked by tack sharpness. Verticals and horizontals must be meticulously aligned and considered. Faces must have some specific expressions or elements of appeal. A million considerations which result in a mass casting out of images from my consideration. I've found a trick, though... a segue into loosened rules, lowered defenses and less process oriented, whimsical thinking.

I sit down with a couple glasses of vodka/rum/whiskey/what have you. Magic happens.

My vision and coordination are woefully stunted and suddenly things that my active conscious rejected outright before are met with consideration as my subconscious takes over. Those rigid, defined images that involved prudent planning and compositional assembly fall by the wayside, they are silly things only an engineer could love. Instead, I look at the snaps. I look at faces and skies and isolated subjects and melting focus and I find things with an undefinable appeal. Pop them into Photoshop and drunkenly give them a muscle memory touch up, post them to be shared, and only the next morning do I realize what I've done.

Not even my active conscious can deny them consideration anymore. I see relationships and shapes and lines and colors and tones and expressions and suddenly they are the most beautiful images I've ever seen, often embodying memories I'd cast aside for sake of the pursuit of "higher art". And in those moments I wonder what it is that defines the art-value to begin with. There are two sides to me, both with grossly different appeals but due appreciation for each other. The sobered, rigid, detail oriented clear mind and this spontaneous, flimsy yet emotionally intuitive mind. Which one is the artist here? And under what instinct does a snapshot meet the standards of "art" to this subconscious drive?

The answer is elusive. Maybe I need a drink to find it.

A Filter is Fine Too

This past weekend saw a fun, photography filled road trip through what I and those I was photographing with endearingly refer to as "Coal Country". A one day trip, half of which total likely having taken place in the cramped space of a car, cruising through rolling hills coated in dead and albino-bleached trees. The ensuing back pain was well worth it.

We met up early in the morning, on the brink of twilight just before sunrise would blanket the landscape with golden light. Our itinerary had only one specific location set firmly in stone, the rest of the trip being much more wishy-washy and open to spur of the moment ideas. Though an enjoyable and very much fruitful venture, I find myself wanting to take it again on the sooner rather than the later. It felt like a dry run, a first impression of the subject, and with knowledge now of what works and what doesn't, the second trip would be an assured tapping into a photographic gold mine.

On the subject of the "what works" elements I discovered in my dry run shooting, I actually tapped into something of a lost art that benefited my exterior shooting especially. Back when I was still sitting squarely in the Nikon camp (good lord, am I glad I'm done with those days of brand elitism), filter use seemed like an obvious route to go down. I was still in the habit of applying UV filters to all my lenses (again, so glad I'm not longer following antiquated practices), and every time I'd run to Ritz to pick up a new multi-coated piece of crappy glass I'd see what else was in their 52mm filter stock. My filter collection was pretty considerable by the time I realized I was never using the damn things, laden with starbursts and diffuse and neutral densities and polarizers. Ridiculous. Except for two - the NDs and the polarizers.

Though their function was clear as ever in my brain, their use seemed grossly unnecessary once the habit of shooting RAW became standard practice. At the time, nearly everything I shot with a filter saw the filter's effect negated by the tendencies of RAW processing. They had effect when shooting JPG, but there was no point to JPG shooting with Panasonic's lackluster rendering engine. Enough curiosity gripped me the morning of the trip that I grabbed the polarizer and ND before stepping out the door. Holy crap, am I glad curiosity bit.

How I could forget how gorgeously polarizer use affects skies is beyond me. The effect is simply delicious, and with on-board bias of white balance favoring the warm, the exposures didn't suffer the ugly blue cast typical of all Quantaray filters (the cheapest of the cheap). Sharpness was unaffected because I wasn't forcing an image through a UV prior to the polarizer like I had done for years on my Nikon equipment (seriously, if you're using a UV, TAKE IT OFF). The skies, my god, the skies... they just looked... GOOD.

Though slightly less effective, the ND was another missed item in the bag. The joy of fast primes is the creamy bokeh and limit of area in focus when the aperture is able to keep wide open. In broad daylight, this is obviously not reasonable. However, slap that 2-stop ND on the lens and suddenly daylight shots are as creamy delicious as you'd ever want them to be. Again, with the E-P3's built-in A2 bias, the blue cast typical of Ritz's cheap filter glass wasn't an issue. Lovely!

Some time down the road I would do well to purchase a polarizer and ND set from a more respectable filter maker, B&W of maybe Tiffen. But in the mean time, I'll deal with on-camera filter fault correction.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

I Don't Know What to Blog About (But this weekend was chock full of photography)

This is a frequent problem, really. I want to write, want to bash the keyboard in true neanderthal fashion spouting fancy lyrical verse about the wonderment of events before they become stale and cumbersome installments of my fragmented memory. And naturally, that is exactly what happens every time. But damnit, it's hard to go from one intense experience to the other, from the zen of a photographic high to the frustrating grunt work of post-processing and then somehow segue into vivid recollection and retelling. By the time I can recoup, sit down with intent to post, it's already 2 days later and the weekend is a smeared finger painting. It could also be because I usually only ever take the time to sit down and write while sitting at work, which presents its own issues entirely. But hey, you're not going to tell on me, right?

Friday, Saturday and Sunday were three amazingly charged days chock full of the kind of out-in-the-sun activity I needed to recover from a week-and-a-half of getting maybe 30 total minutes of vitamin D exposure per day. Winter is a cursed season, the sun all too willing to drop under the horizon before standard business hours are even over. Should the daylight savings tradition ever be abolished, I will celebrate with brash public drunkenness and a camera in hand. In the mean time, I will simply have to take advantage of the weekends, and the aforementioned 3 day spread were very much taken advantage of.

My shift on Friday was short, as it is most Fridays. Despite a steady, week-long period of rain preceding the weekend, Friday saw the sun punching through an all but clear sky, a kind of temptation I was in absolutely no way going to pass up. The muse was rusty, though, and marked by the creative low period prior, so to ensure I exercised my eye I managed to entice a new friend (and photogenic to boot) into an afternoon romp through a low key locale followed by coffee at Starbucks (the latter sealing the deal... works every time).

Needless to say it was a good time. The feeling was akin to what athletes must feel when first returning to a punishing routine after a period out-of-commission. Inspiration was scattered, no single arrangement of lines, no poignant sources of light leaving strong impact. I resorted to snap shooting, damn near pressing the shutter button for no sake other than that of the pressing. To hear the sound, the slap of the mechanism. The images themselves meant nothing. I was building up, doing jumping jacks, stretching, exciting the heart rate in preparation for a sprint. A slumbering beast, the muse stood and shook itself of dust and grime. It's appetite awakened, its vision attaining pointed focus. It stirred, restless and hungry, and sank its venomous teeth into my lethargy. It demanded satisfaction, and the rise of creative excitement was more than willing to oblige.

After so much time spent stagnant and miserably resigned to depressive seasonal darkness, the afternoon spent shooting aimlessly was like a revival. Once our time spent exploring the well-trodden dank regions of the valley lost its luster, we spent even more time casually conversing (and yours truly snapping) at Starbucks. Simply put, it was a nice day, the kind of nice day one wishes every day would turn out to be but unfortunately so rarely ever does. It reset my disposition from disquieted and cynical to chipper and floaty. A weight dissolved in my brain and again my dreamy nature was permitted to coax my perspective into benign, curious childhood naivety. Which happened not a moment too soon, I might add, seeing as the following morning I was expected to participate with a local troupe of photographers on a photo walk through a territory of subject matter that never seems to stop calling out to me for attention.

Long had I intended on joining this particular band of fellow photographers but consistently backed down (generally due to my own damn laziness). The proposed adventure for this particular hike, however, tripped every possible pleasure center. A morning hike to an abandoned hospital with competent people. I couldn't have asked for more. And upon meeting the group members and having time prior to our trek to chat them up I grew only to like them more. We were all different people with different chosen disciplines, different motivators and different specialties. Unlike past experiences with photo groups, it didn't suffer the obnoxious aura of competitive nature (as if any art could ever possibly be competitively judged). Everyone had something unique to share, something to bring to the table, and our conversations were of mutual respective, learning and teaching one another. It was wonderful. Idyllic, even.

Since the location of the day was a spot I'd photographed many dozens of times before, I committed myself to putting a very different approach to the test. Although I had my E-P3 handy and shot a good bit of video (but have nothing to do with), my primary stills camera on this venture was the comparatively diminutive (to everything, including the E-P3) XZ-1. When I first needed a camera to replace my lost GF1 it was the logical purchase I directed myself toward. It triggered every positive logic response possible, but I never really did put it much through the paces in hard, directed creative practice. Saturday saw its status as a backup revoked, replaced instead with an earned promotion to full fledged Creative Instrument.

The entire morning we spent shooting the hospital, the XZ-1 remained mounted on my tripod without an ounce of regret. I shot wide, and even if I'd stopped it down to only f/2.8 I'm certain the depth of field would've been more than ample and the sharpness beyond anything the sensor would ever be demand in resolution, but running off of prior experience I kept it stopped at f/4 for unlimited depth of field and peak sharpness. Not that I distrusted its JPGs, but curiosity also saw me shooting RAW files, which offered an absolutely exceptional amount of breadth in dynamic range for manipulation in post. At base ISO 100 the shadows offered remarkable retention, with highlights only ever clipping where they naturally should (unless your definition of a photograph demands a -7 to +7 stop spread).

Many times in the past I've used the XZ-1 as a snaps camera, rarely if ever using it in calculated, intent driven image recording. The E-P3 has simply been too tempting, a veritable bar in the way of my realizing the capabilities of the tiny pocket rocket. Now that it has seen its test, I am far more inclined to approach a location with only Olympus' bastion compact. True, it may be in no way suited for the high demands of bokeh in subject isolation shooting, but it may very well be my new go-to tool for all things wide. Complain about the 10 megapixel resolution all you want, I've managed terrific prints with far less not so many years back.

Hours upon hours of adventure later, I bid adieu to my fellow photographers in the troupe and parted ways. The day left me exhausted, sore and desperate for sleep. Despite a solid rest the day before, my wearied body gave in to the seduction of the sandman by 8. Not necessarily a bad thing, however. My adventuring for the weekend was hardly over. I had one more date to make according to my calendar, a rendezvous with an incredibly like-minded photographer I'd shot with only a month before. Anticipation was the defining factor of my sleep because of it.

Saturday night, I dreamed of rot and decay. All things beautiful.

Sunday began much as a Sunday of last month. Awaken to the dark. A quick shower, donning attire befitting of the exploits to come. Dine and dash at the Dunkin Donuts just up the road and hop onto the West-bound highway, running from the sun as the minutes tick by to almost melancholy post-rock consuming the airwaves. Again, the destination was a new locale for me, and the excitement associated with anything new only quadrupled when paired with the clandestine nature of our art. I arrived early. I arrived eager.

Having spent the entire previous day doting on the XZ-1, I felt I needed to counteract the neglect of the E-P3 by bringing it as my only camera (odd how I assign very human emotions to simple tools). A vast majority of my shooting was handled by the 45mm f/1.8, and in an act of the most incredible laziness, I disregarded the tripod entirely while exploring this new locale. Not that it much mattered - with the 45mm my intent and my approach suffered an enormous shift. No longer was I accommodating an entire room and wide dynamic range in my images. With 90mm being my point of view, there was only one proper way to utilize the presented perspective. Subject isolation.

Not that the locale offered much interest in the way of wide angle photography anyway. Subject isolation, however, is still a new discipline to me, something which I have always intended to learn. While "normal" focal length shooting was a strong introduction to the considerations of the art, there are new challenges to face when locked into a focal length that often puts one's back to a wall. The results, however, are absolutely worth the effort required, and it is only a matter of time before it becomes a second nature skill. It is a style of photography that is almost minimalist, but whereas traditional minimalism leaves the worst of tastes in my mouth, it seems to work with a unique level of charm in the capture of my coveted "ruin porn".

Though the time spent exploring this new location was short compared to most adventures, it felt fruitful, and incredibly satisfying. Afterward, we wound down our appetite for traditionally incongruous imagery with a revisiting of the location I had just spent a majority of Saturday combing through. In celebration of our mutual artistic accomplishment, we dined Italian, sipping pinot grigio with fervor and talking the core essence of photography, the "why" that carries real meaning. Another day of driven artistic outburst, met that early evening with a very familiar weariness. A "battle worn" photographer.

I've yet to sort through most images from this weekend. For three days, I was more productive than I'd been in over a week, and the activity has built up a reserve. For at least one more week of rainy weather, I can be satisfied.

Unless the sun comes out before this weekend, anyway.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Consumerist Dribble

I suppose I should have seen this coming. Whenever here has been an absence of doing in any field of interest of hobby, my attention inevitably fixates voraciously on the buying. Capitalism has taught me well - against my will, I find myself wanting to buy buy buy in the delusion that a new acquisition will somehow lead to some degree of artistic ascendance.

Yesterday, in my maddening and stir crazy loathing of the daily 5pm blackout, I set up a shoddy excuse of a studio to practice with some simple lighting. The setup was rudimentary and grossly amateur, a wrinkled black bedsheet, two 100 watt halogen bulbs in cheap Walmart shop light tins and a half-broken old stool (since I'm so tall that the bedsheet would need to reach the ceiling to leave room for my head). Simple and straightforward.

Out of laziness (since the tripod mount was already screwed in) I locked my XZ-1 onto the tripod and set it up right against the bed. Working distance did not exist - the space between the stool and the camera amounted to maybe 3 feet at best. Even with the massive depth of field offered by the smaller sensor, f/1.8 still proved a challenge to nail crisp focus without being behind the camera. Plainly put, the entire effort was both half assed and a royal pain because of it. There really is a reason photographers are supposed to stay behind the camera in these situations.

In the wake of that horrid act of futility, I've been pricing the needs associated with a competent portrait/studio setup. Much to my surprise, it's not nearly as expensive a pursuit as I originally thought it would be, but it is still money to be spent and money is something of a scarce resource to me still (although it is a situation constantly improving). For about $125 there is a solid studio backdrop set available that comes complete with a solid black and solid white background. Lord knows a flat, not-wrinkle-ridden background would do my studio efforts wonders. More importantly, the backs of the backdrops are rugged, permitting outdoor setup of the unit and use of a light I've always been more comfortable with using, natural light. At that point, the only possible future purchase interest would maybe be a beauty dish or some other kind of reflector to bounce light as I see appropriate in any given circumstance. Win win. But, from the financial standpoint, requiring patience.

Shopping for studio backdrops unfortunately proved to be a slippery slope. From backdrops, my mind wandered into artificial lighting, and from artificial lighting it wandered to glass. Never a good way to go because deciding on what you want tends to make you eager and impatient in anticipation of acquiring those things you've chosen. They become like milestones, miniature goals to be achieved that have no real impact or merit other than providing one more item to the list of gear to boast about. Sadly, I've come up with my mini-goals. My consumerist demise is a looming dark in my future.

Truth be told, I have the equipment at my disposal that largely completes my gearing wishlist. But I am a brand loyalist. Shameful, I know. My 14-45mm f/3.5-5.6 outshines Olympus' own 14-42mm f/3.5-5.6 kit lens in sharpness, but it is of a different brand, an antique piece for an extinct camera system, and so I will side with my Olympus lens with subdued reservation. The case for my 14mm f/2.5 isn't nearly as clear. It is my choice fast wide prime, but it is not THAT fast and it is not THAT wide. More so, Olympus' offering in the 12mm f/2.0 is far sharper and far less distorted and just generally much more appealing than the pancake I have, up till now, suffered with. As such, I predict in the future I will sell off my 14-45mm and 14mm lenses, perhaps to a friend who can put them to good use. From that point, I have 2 pieces of glass in mind to construct the kind of system I feel I can stand behind. Two systems, actually. For the casual, the family candid shooting and documentarian approach to events, the 14-42mm f/3.5-5.6 II R paired with the acquisition of the 40-150mm f/4-5.6 R is ideal. It is a kit lens system, much like the Nikkor 18-55mm and 55-200mm combo I packed for years. For the art, my 45mm f/1.8 lens has already stood in competently for a normal prime (which I'm still not sure about needing/wanting), but for the wide interior shooting I'm prone to do, the 12mm f/2.0 is a very clear front runner. Two lens systems for 2 very different kinds of shooting. The final complement to the camera system in total is in speedlights, and with the remote capabilities built into the E-P3, a pair of FL-300R flashguns seems more than perfect for bounce, direct and remote, creative flash use. $1600 in acquisitions total. Not as bad as it could be, but wow do I find places for my money to go.

Maybe I'll manage to build such an ideal system up before the end of next year. We'll see.

Today, however, I think I'll go home, iron that black bedsheet, push-pin it to the ceiling and try my faux studio setup one more time.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Holiday of Pessimism

It's neat when you can peruse your own photographic library, meticulously organized by dates and subjects and what have you, and find out just what exactly it was you were up to 365 days in the past.

Myself, I was wandering the large campus of a very recently vacated and left to rot mental health hospital campus not far South from where I live. I remember the day pretty clearly, actually, despite the shoot itself being rather uneventful. November of last year still saw my appetite for exploring the abandoned both voracious and insatiable, and much as I did most weekend mornings I hopped in my car with camera gear in tow and pursued the next spot on the list. It was a Sunday, as I recall, and I parked at a nearby church still flooded with cars and people attending morning mass. Bundled up in my typical jacket and scarf and gloves, my main interest was less direct infiltration and more... scouting.

My gear list was short back then. Short, simple, sweet and complete. A Panasonic GF1 with 14-45mm f/3.5-5.6 lens and LVF-1 viewfinder attached (the primary and most important bastions of my daylight artistic photography) and a bag concealing a shutter remote, 20mm f/1.7 pancake and the necessary spacers and step-up rings to allow for use of the circular-polarizer tucked in my pocket. No need for a tripod this time, the sun was shining high, maybe an hour from its noon-time peak. Diminutive as the gear was, the petal lens hood on the barrel of the zoom really gave off the air of Professional Photographer, so when security and police both inevitably stopped me to ask what I was up to it wasn't hard at all to write off my shenanigans as the musings of a wandering artist. Not at all far from the truth, really.

I only ever spent my time shooting various exteriors, but the place exuded enough personality to where those were all I really felt I needed to visually describe the place. Entry very quickly showed itself to be against my better judgment. Can't much complain, though. The more difficult a place is to access the more likely it is to stand the test of time sans vandalism until my persistence and brash decision making get the better of me.

Anyway, pardon my abrupt subject change.

It's been a solid 7 days since I've taken a single photograph, and this fact is supremely depressing. Granted, I was also sick enough to stay home from work both Monday and Tuesday, a rarity to say the least. Even today, a full week later, I'm still on my way out of a state of being sickly, but that's still no excuse to my personal high standards. To boot, the onset of illness was paired with that most woeful time of year, Daylight Savings Time, which most people embrace for getting an extra hour of sleep before work but then progressively learn to despise because it often means coming into work in sunless dark and leaving just the same. For certain, I've noticed my own mood take a very sharp nosedive since the onset of night began taking place at 5pm.

At current, I'm wrestling with my memory trying to ascertain just how it was I endured this period of time last year without rolling down into this godawful slump. I'm fairly confident I had some underlying motivation driving me to venture out in the cold on early mornings and photograph the seasonal death and decay. Perhaps it was in part due to lingering sickness, but nothing could assuage my pessimism and defeatist attitude this weekend. Despite two days of strong sunlight and lovely temperatures, I still chose to stay indoors. What's worse, with no sunlight to command my biological clock to stay awake and aware, I have consistently been falling asleep at or before 8pm, sometimes sleeping a straight 12 hours or more only to awaken for a measly 12 and sleep again. It's clear that I have slid into a funk, and the only way out will require a mountainous store of persistence and effort. Perhaps when I'm not also combating illness I will again have such reserves.

This week there is a planned photo walk being led by a fellow photographer to one of my more illicit locations of guilty enjoyment. Much as I would love to attend the walk for sake of meeting other photographers with similar interests in decay and detritus, I can't help but to feel wary of the circumstance itself. Best as I can tell, this walk will consist of several members of a considerably sized group. Though the location itself is admittedly one of the less fortunate in that it has been very blatantly vandalized and commonly tread upon by wandering curiously 16-24 year olds with a healthy dose of boredom, I can't help but feel traveling through a location of this type with any group (especially one as green as this one may in fact be) is an invitation for bad times. After all, it's almost been a year since a similar situation cropped up, and the lessons learned from that experience are still bright and fresh in my mind, and this particular photo walk triggers all the alarms my experience from a year ago should have. I suppose the only reason I'm humoring it at all is a strong sense of desperation to be around my kin, my fellow shutterbugs.

Aside from this proposed photo walk, I'm also feeling an odd kind of jealousy toward those who engage in formal modeling and portrait shoots. I can take candid portraits all day and they look well enough, but in the end it is still not what I want to be doing, and when people I've photographed in my signature candid fashion come back at me later with formal (and markedly beautiful) modeled shots a peculiar blend of jealousy, territorial rage and disappointment in myself surface in my psyche. They are the kind of shots I've wanted to be taking for close to a year now. My budget, impromptu studio sessions in the past have always been a blast, and I want desperately to construct a space in which to do such shoots again. It is beyond frustrating to take a backseat to my own desires and watch as those with the resources (or willingness to go into debt) reap the satisfying rewards of studio work. And worst of all, my greatest challenge in this pursuit isn't the gear at all. I like the minimalist approach and I'm more than capable of cranking out art with very little in the way of gear at my disposal. No, my conflict is with space, which is to say I have none. My apartment is not permissive of modularity, I cannot simply rearrange my furniture anymore to make room for a backdrop and hotlights like I did in the past. There are no empty rooms to use or space to set up and stretch out. Everything directs back to what I determined to be an absolute necessity in April - I need a dedicated studio space. And sure enough, it is the one thing I cannot afford anymore.

The only other option I can think to humor is to force the gear-centric route and pick up 2 or 3 battery driven LED banks and light subjects on-location, which is still not my intended goal but at least meets that goal halfway with my current capabilities. But then I'd also need to find a model willing to endure the dangers and risks associated with less-than-cozy locales, because I'm certain my inclination would be to photograph models against the backdrop of the decay I already love. It's a hairy state of affairs. At least I can predict my own tendencies and inclinations, at least.

So here I am, treading water still, more pessimistic than ever with the shade drawn on the sun for this Winter season. For the most part, my gear set is a workably complete kit, with the 45mm f/1.8 for strong portraits and 14mm f/2.5 for wide interiors. The E-P3 has managed to impress me more than my old GF1 ever managed to, despite my longing to once again shoot with that old glory (the GX1 is a bit of a downgrade at best from what I've seen, and this is strictly coming from an ergonomics and control standpoint). Future lens acquisitions will likely include the 12mm f/2.0 to replace the temperamental 14mm f/2.5, the VF-3 because sometimes it's just nicer to hold the camera to your eye, the shutter remote for experimentation with HDR once again, and maybe the 40-150mm f/4-5.6 for sake of having a "for work" kit to complement a prime driven "for art" kit. Aside from those pieces, perhaps a speedlight or 2? I'm not sure, I've always been partial to WYSIWYG lighting, so hotlights might be my better route. I suppose that list is not cheap, but the pressure is not on for any single piece acquisition. They are simply tools to make what I'm already capable of even easier.

Cheers to the patient wait for financial stability.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Anatomy of a Working Shoot

Back in my earlier, more naive days of practicing photography, somewhere along the line I'd gotten it into my head that I had the stuff to do working shoots, photographing weddings and events and whatnot. This back when all I really had a grasp on was an innate sense of aesthetic appeal and amateur (at best) knowledge of the mechanics of photography from a more technical standpoint. These days I parade the equivalent around as "faux-tographers", even though they are little more than mirror images of a state of progress I myself stumbled through foolishly (about the only way one can stumble through such a phase, really).

For the better part of 2 years I booked occasional weekend wedding shoots. The images I took weren't necessarily bad, but definitely indicative that I only had a shallow understanding of what and how to photograph a busy event. My tools at the time were none too helpful either; a Nikon E8700 (Coolpix superzoom), a wide and telephoto adapter lens for aforementioned camera, a fully manual off-brand Quantaray flash and lens hood to allow for filters. I'm rather convinced the only thing that set my images apart from anything that could've been captured with any old point and shoot was in the editing I'd put the images through once back home. Again, the results weren't terrible, nothing like the standard extreme white vignetting and flat black and white or selective color images that float around these days from "faux-tographers", but certainly not material from a competent and established artist and businessman.

After a few gigs, my taste for paid, working photography declined sharply. Photography was still about discovery to me at the time, not about homogenization and putting out a consistent product. Granted, although we never stop learning, the collection of knowledge of new techniques and which practices worked and (arguably more importantly) which didn't was too much at the forefront of my growth experience in the trade and working assignments rarely allow the latitude of quality consistency to allow for experimentation of growth in one's imaging style.

Fast forward 3 years.

Earlier this year I was already 100% gun-ho about starting my own business and once again stepping into the realm of working photography. Granted, that motivational drive suffered one hell of a setback with events that precipitated exactly 1 day before their full crystallization (in the form of a signed studio lease), but after months and months of time wasted dwelling on events long past and goals delayed due to events out of my control, I'm once again at that point from 6 months ago, ready to leap into my art form as a business venture. I've been posturing it quite nicely already, what with low key marketing and mostly web-based awareness campaigns designed to emphasize my own eye for things more than a product or service (just yet, anyway). After a few years shooting strictly for myself, my portfolio is horribly dry of material from working photography sessions, so I knew I would need the help of local, likely known clientele, friends or family or co-workers, to construct a portfolio of images exemplary of what I could consistently produce on contract assignments. And sure enough, my first customer contracted me last week for a shoot this past Sunday, a family oriented (but mostly daughter oriented) photoshoot. Once again, I had to get my business face on and work my professionalism into a less dusty state. Luckily, the clients being known friends and co-workers, this first shoot out of "retirement" was much more comfortable and casual than even past shoots ever were. Still, it was good to get my toes in that sand again.

Being good buddies already, we met up at a mutually agreed upon location such that I could drop off my car and hitch a ride to the location of the photoshoot. The client's in-laws happened to have a little horse ranch and small collection of their own equine pets, and the subject of this shoot was very generally kept at arranged family and (mostly) candid daughter photos while she rode horseback on her very own pony, Beauty. We'd been humoring this shoot for some time, but I was reticent to take up the job until my Olympus 45mm f/1.8 came in. As clean as the images are from the Panasonic 14-45mm f/3.5-5.6, and as fast as Olympus' own kit 14-42mm f/3.5-5.6 is in the 25-35mm range comparatively, nothing would quite stand up to the kind of crisp and creamy subject isolation I knew would be possible with that 90mm f/1.8 equivalence of Oly's 45mm. Eager as we both were to enter into this shoot, I knew it would be worth waiting. And my oh my are we both glad we waited for the "pro tools" to come in.

Once we'd arrived at the ranch, I introduced myself to the in-laws who would inevitably be part of the shoot, firm handshakes and all. The in-laws themselves being strangers, I took the professional route and declined the beer I was offered. Most importantly, I introduced myself to the dogs adamantly slobbering for my attention (everyone knows if the dogs love you then you must be an okay guy). Without much ado, my client got her daughter dressed up in her most cow girlish outfit (sans hat, unfortunately, although that isn't to say we didn't try) and got right into shooting.

Prior to the full preparation of the star of the show, I stepped outside to tune my camera to the light available. Daylight savings time had kicked in the night before and my judgement of sunset's arrival was unfortunately quite off. Light was very quickly waning behind the cover of trees, and my shooting was mostly decided by the location it best gleamed through the interrupting branches. It all worked out in the end, though, with enough light to allow for reasonable shutter speeds but the proper lack of it to permit the delicious bokeh of f/1.8. We tried to get some moving shots, but sadly the light wasn't bright enough to permit anything but still capture. Still, the images came out gorgeous, the lens rendering important subject features with the crisp look expected, and Olympus' e-portrait algorithm providing an even better base image from which to tack on my considerably subtle layers of edits. It was a fantastic shoot, and the client was/is more than satisfied.

After the shoot was the part of a photographic effort I'd usually skipped in my younger years, but certainly proved pleasant and an appropriate closure to the evening. After a good hour, maybe hour and a half of shooting, we all retired to the Quarterfield Grill and sat down to have ourselves an absolutely delicious dinner. Granted, I already had a previously strong relationship with my client this time around, but assuming we'd known nothing about each other, we engaged in avid conversation that constructed the basis of what I'd understand to be good rapport. She liked the shots even before I'd gone at them in post, and with an already good impression made the experience leaped from professional encounter to casual chit-chat. Once home, I immediately set forth to touch up a few choice images and put together a DVD consisting of the original images, 4x6 crops and 8x10 crops, the sizes most commonly printed and certainly more than necessary given how simple printing is these days. Before handing off the disc the following workday, I'd already uploaded the choice edits to Flickr to share (after previously attaining permission to upload the images, of course). The client was only more eager to get her hands on the final disc.

Compared to my experiences years ago shooting images within the working frame and mindset... the experience has been night and day. The weddings and events I photographer between 2006-2008 felt like work, with minimal enjoyment involved and the lack of creative experimentation permitted at the time feeling like a clamp on my muse. Granted, being that this recent session was with a friend and co-worker the experience is ultimately bound to be more positive by default, but the experience of shooting felt very different nonetheless. I didn't feel the strict set of rules bearing down on me this time around because I already knew what was going to work and I already knew what I wanted the images to look like. On top of that, there was no doubt in my mind that the images I was shooting for would be liked by the client because I already had a portfolio to share of similar images and the client already liked them. Unlike 2006-2008, I have a style now, a trademark method and vision that is desired and deliberately sought after (so much so that the client was willing to wait 2 months for a lens acquisition). The working experience of photography is now less a stumble through swampy waters of unease and MUCH more a determined, marathon jogger's pace of following a defined route from checkpoint to checkpoint. I am not guessing at my performance and behavior anymore. I know what I am doing.

Time to find the next gig to book!

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Coffee House Encounters (Playing with the 45mm)

If the day is sunny and the quality of light is good, it's hard for me not to gravitate immediately to the coffee shop behind my apartment, camera in hand. Paired with a direct invitation, I will tie up my boss and shove him in a closet just to sneak out early and spend some time around the photogenic people I've occasionally heard referred to as "friends".

Yesterday Autumn found herself bored and with a lump of free time, and she was gracious enough to give me a ring to see if I would join her company at the coffee house once I got out of work. Not meaning to come off as desperate (but totally doing so in spades), I informed her that I would leave work that very moment, drop my car off at home and be right there. Autumn ends up being the subject of my coffee house shenanigans fairly often. We were good friends in high school and continue to be uniquely awkward to the rest of our tribe of friends, but we both like out on-the-line outsider stance and appreciate one another for walking that line. Usually I come by her by chance as she's sipping a latte and reading a book. On this occasion she was specifically pleased with what she'd done with her hair that morning and, knowing she'd probably never manage the same "do" again by intent, aimed to not only play our weekly game of pastime catch-up, but to also have her "do" immortalized by the lens. I was certainly not one to object. I'm a hair guy, after all.

Needless to say, we had a good time chatting, sipping coffee and shooting. Easily spent a good couple hours afterward idly blabbing about our work, squatter's rights in regards to foreclosed homes and "fauxtographers" (my favorite subject). Good times all around.

On a side note, at the suggestion of a good friend I've taken to increasing my activity on Flickr, from spreading out into more groups, actually participating in those groups instead of using them as hollow photo dumps and basically using Flickr as it was always intended to be used (not just an online backup). Reluctant though I was at first, I am now thoroughly addicted to the more social aspect of Flickr. I'm bouncing from group to group actually eager to see the next post, making connections with other photographers directly, contributing suggestions and participating in thread-run topics and contests... it's a lot of fun. Wish I'd been doing this all along.

Oh, and as a side effect, my typical 40-50 views a day has suddenly rocketed to over 1000. Whoops! Who knew?   :)

Monday, October 31, 2011

Holiday Nostalgia (Where Were You?)

Holidays are fun because they're a great launching point from which to leap back into memory and see where you've been, how far you've come, so on and so forth. Sometimes it's just fun to sit and think back on what you were doing that day. And, being a holiday, it's usually a tad easier to remember than, say, some random day in the middle of September.

I remember Halloween last year pretty clearly. Helps that I enjoyed a bit of photography and exploration to ignite the synapses. It was a mostly cloudy say, chilly but not bitter, and I was horribly bored. Ventured to Starbucks for a change of scenery and had myself an Americano, quad shot, 3 packets of Splenda and a heap of creamer. Ran into my friend Autumn who was also bored that day and opted to enjoy some fresh air over a good book. I sat down with her for a short while and we chatted about this and that, but then we got the crazy idea of indulging in a bit of urbex to mark the holiday proper. At the time, there was only really one place worth going (and I will forever miss it), so we ventured to our spot and proceeded to inhale the stale air and enjoy ourselves, immersed in the history around us.

We landed ourselves in the offices of abundant filing cabinets and patient files, record books and incident reports. Most of our time that evening we spent absorbing the lost textual record of the goings on of the place. It was Autumn's first time being there and words had always held her attention better than lonely chairs and peeling paint. We sat in a room full of student desks, sunlight just barely pressing over the concrete wall outside and pouring through the long shattered bay window. She read from the records and reports, telling me stories of violence and delinquency, all while I snapped photos of the various relics collecting dust and cobwebs in the room. It was a good time.

Lately I've actually been rather sad that this particular locale has recently outweighed its risk/reward balance. A definite shame, I feel as if a great potential had yet to be unlocked with all of my visits there. But that's another story entirely. Besides, I'm quite happy I had the chance to enjoy the place at all.

So where did you folks spend your Halloween?

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Playing with Pop Art

Friday of last week I was itching to shoot something. Seems to happen whenever I go too long without photographing something meaningful for myself - the images resulting may look like crap, but it's the act, and the zen state of mind associated, that calls me back behind the lens. The day job consumed just enough of my morning to let the good light shine in, and then it was off to one of the calmer, more low-key locales to hike and snap a few for enjoyment.

I'd had Olympus' 45mm f/1.8 lens on order for nearly 6 weeks, and would have much rather been out and about with that speed demon mounted on the E-P3, but instead I made do with Panasonic's 14-45mm f/3.5-5.6 zoom dialed all the way in to 45mm to try and force myself to learn and think with the 45mm (90mm, really) focal length. Locked in at f/5.6 as my best speed, the only method I had of isolating a subject was through proximity, so I pushed the lens as hard as I could to behave in macro fashion. And it held up surprisingly well, with a fairly close distance available in manual focus. More often than not, I found myself focusing by moving myself in and out rather than turning a dial. Novel method of focusing, really.

This Autumn has been the most colorful. Likely due to the incessant, pummeling rainfall that has plagued the Northeast since early Summer, a majority of the vegetation was in a black-and-white state of either alive or dead. Disappointing, really, since Autumn's defining aspect is the flood of warm color associated with it. Utilizing my own custom color profile for the E-P3's JPGs, everything looked depressing no matter the framing. Let down by my own presets, I decided to give some of Olympus' art filter modes a whirl.

Typically I avoid built-in, canned filter effect modes, but I remembered having a good amount of success with them when using the XZ-1. Olympus really does work some magic with its JPG handling - not only is every facet of how the camera generates a JPG available for your tweaking pleasure (all the way down to tone curves), but its preset options work like some genius magic. The first art filter mode on the list of the E-P3 was "Pop Art", and swtiching to it, the color on the back of the LCD exploded into an array of deliciously autumnal hues that blew the real-life equivalent away. Contrasty reds and blues invaded the world as seen on that little LCD panel, and suddenly I was inspired to shoot everything for sake of seeing how gorgeously the E-P3 would render it.

That camera is really spoiling me.

Aside from the array of filter-augmented JPGs I did try some RAW shooting. Curiosity got the better of me, and since ACR finally acquired RAW format support for the E-P3 I knew I wouldn't be content until I tried it, so I shot a few bracketed RAWs for assembly into HDR images later. Far less satisfying than simply getting a great JPG while there on the scene. The HDR images came out okay, but were not nearly as thrilling to capture knowing that most of the work would require slavery to post. But for sake of making the process easier during shooting, the E-P3 again impressed me by seeming abnormally quick from shot to shot. I remember shooting the GF1 bracketed for RAW capture and the process began with 2 quick shots and 5 more lumbering and slow ones. With the E-P3, each shot came and passed as quick as the last with no lag time associated with shutter reset. Nice. But I was more excited to be cranking out awesome JPG after awesome JPG.

Nothing is more pleasing than having a strong image right out of the box needing the most minimal touch in post to electrify with beauty.

As fortune would finally have it, my 45mm f/1.8 arrived in the mail this past Tuesday. It's rainy, but I'm slated to meet with some good friends at the local coffee house to enjoy some conversation and candid photos. I'm lucky to have a group of friends versed enough in my company to ignore the camera. I get the best shots with them.

Hopefully I'll have some nice samples to share after today.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Missing the Old Timey Tech

Last night was a weird night, marked by multifaceted dreams that explored some oft neglected elements of my psyche. My subconscious saw fit to have me lewdly behaving in a department store, exhaust myself in a full sprint for 20 minutes running from police, and out of the blue, purchasing a traditional DSLR and indulging in the simple joy that I do find myself missing at times - composing through an optical viewfinder.

It's been just over a year since my diving board leap into the mirror-less pond. Not that I regret the switch at all, the advantages of size and weight with a mirror-less system are enormously beneficial to a person taken to photographing the things I'm most apt to photograph. The cameras are small and easy to finagle into tight spaces, the lenses are tiny and only require a pocket instead of a bag. Perfect matches to the urbex aficionado. But I'm not exclusive to shooting scenes of abandonment. And although these tiny mirror-less wonders are just as capable of capturing a strong image as any bulky penta-prism equipped behemoth, there's a very abstract, unquantifiable level of connection to the subject that can be experienced when photographing through an optical viewfinder that no EVF can match.

Shooting through an LCD screen introduces a degree of detachment that can make candid photography difficult. The screen may have some ungodly refresh rate, the signal boost that makes low-light imaging on the screen possible may be clean and superb, but my mind recognizes the experience like viewing a television screen. I am not there, what I am viewing on the LCD is not actually happening and I am just taking a snapshot of the program that's on. It's a weird feeling, honestly. With laborious and slow landscape shooting it doesn't tend to be so bad because my attention is directly on the subject and my mind is calculating how to capture much the way the mind process shooting a classic large format camera. There is time to consider the shot. But with candid snap shooting, sitting at a coffee shop with friends and taking photos or sitting around a dance circle as other artists engage in their own art form, the screen is an interruption. Through an optical viewfinder, I am still there, I am still engaged with the scene and acting as a participant. Through an EVF, I am an observer, disconnected and watching the show on TV. It's a very strange feeling.

In this past year, shooting with EVIL cameras has taught me many critical lessons about imaging. I am now much more mindful of aspect ratios and how aspect cropping can lend strength to an image (before I was typically locked into the 3:2 native aspect forced by Nikon's optical viewfinders). With the electronic level built into the E-P3, I've learned a great deal about balancing parallels in an image and correcting for inherent distortion in whatever optic I happen to be using. But there are many times when I wish I could simply forget those now deep rooted considerations and relearn how to shoot the subject for sake of shooting the subject. I take to photographing candid images frequently but find my ability to do so comfortably is spoiled by distractions such as "these lines aren't parallel" or "the verticals aren't straight" and actually devalue an image based on those very fickle pretenses.

This stage in my artistic process seems very convoluted. Recently I became aware of the relative unknown site that is Beauty of Decay, an international collective of urbex photography that pushes the envelope of art in much the fashion of 1x. The images hosted by the gallery are absolutely gorgeous, painterly as opposed to documentarian (which is where I feel my images now stand). My appreciation for the high art of photography is very much at odds with my appreciation of the experience of photography that I enjoy, and so I am at a crossroads. I can either pursue the high art, photograph much the way I have been in the past year and hone the skill to produce emotive, quality images, or I can stagnate to the point of artistic degradation, act in true Zen fashion and forget the process and knowledge I have attained so that I can enjoy the act of photographing all over again without the muddied considerations I've adopted. Much as I dwell on these choices, they do not seem to blend at all. They are mutually exclusive paths. The pursuit of one can only come at the sacrifice of the other. I will either be the revered artist or I will enjoy taking pictures.

It's a headache inducing train of thought, really. I miss when photography was simpler. Alas, now I am burdened by knowledge.

Monday, October 17, 2011

That Warm Blanket Feeling (Part 2)

More post-rock musical wonderment played over the car's speakers, familiar walls of sound that put the heavier aspects of thought at ease but let the creativity and inspiration to flow through, like a mental filter.

Both suffering from pangs of hunger interrupting the serenity of our otherwise candid moment, we decided upon a very hole-in-the-wall looking buffet which only portrayed itself in such a fashion from the bland, blank exterior. Inside, fountains and tall ceilings and a sprawling banquet awaited us, and we indulged in it proper. A filling hour long interlude during which we brainstormed our next adventure from approach to execution. Bill paid, we made our way back onto lonely Pennsylvania roads.

The drive was short compared to the one preceding it, far less distance needing to be covered. It did bring us through a before unseen portion of the city we found ourselves in, and if not for time constraint laid upon us by prior scheduled engagements we could've spent the rest of the day walking those streets and photographing the very old architecture that screamed early 1900's origin. Being a Sunday and still early by Sunday standard, the streets were effectively empty, making the few wanderers navigating the concrete jungle stand out as starkly removed subjects against a mostly stone and brick background. We mutually agreed the city required a return at some point for an early morning street walk and photoshoot, but our objective at hand was in a far bleaker region of the city.

Parked and again loaded up, we made our way to a familiar location. My "guide" had frequented the old industrial icon more than half a dozen time, knowing the place in and out, its dangers and risks and where the best light showed through. Some time early in the year I'd made my own journey to the place for some early morning images myself, but we were arriving at noon, and the light was bound to behave very differently. Despite a familiar entry and familiar layout, the deep spaces within the building harbored a completely different look than ever before, almost bleaker, certainly more depressed and gray than when cast in the encouraging glow of morning's rays. Because the origins of good light were limited, our shooting session did not last particularly long. Only one space managed to carry any semblance of warmth, a machine space with a mostly destroyed window frame. Our passing had kicked up a storm of dust that made the beams of light visible, tangible things, so clear that one could almost touch them, grab them and shape them. Easily the most beautiful scene the place had to offer at that time of day. A quick venture to some other commonly frequented spaces and we were very much ready to turn ourselves into the much more mundane schedules awaiting us for the rest of the day.

The ride back to the park & ride was quiet. We were both exhausted from a solid half-day of adventuring, both churning through ideas on how to best present the images when the time came to sit in front of the computer and slave away in post. Something about the nature of the shooting we both had an affinity for conducting, for the rest of the day everything else felt amazingly droll compared to what was accomplished prior, like a soldier who had seen much heavier realities than the one he came home to. Not that it necessarily was a depressing line of thought that ruined the rest of the day, quite the contrary. I had just returned home from being out at sea for months and exploring uncharted islands and bringing home souvenirs to share with those mutually curious. I felt pleased, enlightened, eager to share the stories of the places I'd been. Were I less sapped of energy I would've asked if my partner in crime felt a similar pedestal of enlightenment complex after returning to more normal things after having been so completely detached. Guess that's one for next time.

We parted pleasantly, both of us with things to attend to. So much time had already been spent in a vehicle that I took the time to stretch, my back aching as it's apt to do when locked into a seat of any kind for too long. It had been a good day, and I could've fallen asleep with utmost satisfaction that it could not have gone any better at that point, but alas there were still another 8 hours to spend doing something, thus I spent that time with family to bring myself down from my quixotic high amid good company. I shared my sense of accomplishment, shared some of the rough images on the camera prior to the editing I would later apply. I shared the story of the stranger I may as well have known already based on how ridiculously much we shared in common. And upon going to bed, the satisfaction of the day refused to wane...

...I dreamed of photographing some more.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

That Warm Blanket Feeling (Part 1)

Setting an alarm the night prior wasn't even necessary.

My eyes opened with motivated intent to a dark room, the only semblance of light coming into focus being a street light bleeding through jostling blinds and casting uneven shadows on me and the wall. Squinting, opening wide, squinting again, I forced my vision into clarity on the digital clock a few feet away. 5:30am, on a clock that was ritualistically 15 minutes fast. Through the slats of the blinds there wasn't even a hint of twilight in the sky. A smile sneaked its way onto my disheveled morning face.

Quietly, with the stealth technique employed by a child on Christmas morning, I slipped off the couch on which I slept, careful not to conjure a ruckus that might disturb my partner still asleep on the opposite end of that same couch. I'd showered the night prior, so a quick splash of cold water served as my only morning jolt before completion of all the other standard niceties of grooming. Clothes selection would be the most important choice of the day: long pants against which to defend against insect tag alongs and little cuts and scrapes, a long sleeve thermal shirt for warmth in the chilly morning and again to protect against those little scrapes, thick palmed gloves good for climbing, heavy, weather resistant boots for trudging through less than kind terrain... the essentials. Camera gearing choices were easy: the E-P3 equipped with the 14mm f/2.5 pancake prime, my primary workhorse equipments, and the XZ-1 for quick snaps, references and anything better handled in a focal length deeper than a 28mm perspective. No bags, no spare lenses... no need. Just a pocket rocket, a pancake equipped artist's tool and a sling bag to hang onto a sturdy, versatile tripod. If any photographer were to tell me I was ill-equipped for my intended outing I would've had difficulty fighting back the appropriate bellow of insulting laughter.

Loaded up and armed with a working man's Dunkin' Donut breakfast and coffee, I made my way to a local Park & Ride rendezvous with a fellow photographer with similar taste in subject matter. I'd followed his work for the better part of a year, and was finally set to collaborate with an eye which held my utmost respect, and working with him would certainly be no disappointment. Once I arrived and parked my vehicle, we made quick introductions that felt less like first impressions and more like reconnoitering with a friend who hadn't been seen in some time. But there was no time for lengthy chat in a parking lot, the sun was still barely readying for its rise, and a soft blue hue was sneaking into the sky from the East. We had places to go, at least one destination in mind specifically. With businesslike purpose and intent, we loaded up into his vehicle and sped off on the highways again, ready to exercise the creative engine driving us both.

The drive to our intended locale wasn't a short one, offering us ample time to make with the small talk traditional of first time encounters. Strangely, we only seemed to uncover commonalities. It was already apparent that our preferences in camera gear and photographic subjects were incredibly similar, a simple review of our online galleries and a look at the cameras in our hands would have told that story to a complete stranger. While on the drive North, however, the music playing over his car's speakers caught my attention, the telling, genre-defining sounds of post-rock invading my ears. Still a relatively "underground" style of music to date, though certainly accruing more and more market attention with its unique tone. It was an immediate ice breaker, upon which the conversation blossomed into shared experiences and stages of life where only more parallels were drawn. The resultant sense of ease, the warmth of company typically reserved for close family, the immediate brotherhood... suddenly the entire morning felt like a long awakening accompanied by butterfly warmth teasing the belly. A very good morning.

Past the foggy flat spans of farmland, past the bases of rolling hills and gorgeous morning mountain views, we arrived at our destination... sort of. Parked in a quaint little neighborhood, a burrow shoehorned into the sides of steep hills bleeding into the mountain range just miles away, we collected our gear and set forth, through thick brush and onto the disused steel tracks that would serve as our makeshift guide. The sun was still working up the muster to completely rise, peeking curiously over the horizon and bathing the retreating fog in a rich golden light. That sight, the slow and staggered process of the sun rising, would be the backdrop by which we conducted the remains of our journey, the awesome spectacle unable to slow us in our focused trek. We had a building to photograph. A history to record. Something forgotten to remember. We would see a thousand glorious sunrises before our lifetimes were spent. Our determination demanded we seek out a subject far more fickle and transient. And just over the hill, with a view over the sprawling flat land to the East, we met our fickle friend.

Inside the building we both entered the trance-like state iconic of the diligent worker, the focused photographer, attention impossible to divert. Words went unspoken, sound passe, we invested all of our senses into the act of photography. Softly stepping about the quiet, still space, we soaked in the atmosphere, the chipped paint and rusted hinges, stained doorknobs and splintered floor. We took time to recognize the relics left behind, scattered mail carpeting the floor and lost literature discarded, lost and forgotten. Hours were lost in that building, time spent to piece together a mental image of its better days. Crutches, rotary phones, cushioned chairs and sewing machines, all items that could've told wonderful stories of their own if imbued with the power of speech.

It was a wonderful place. A wonderful time.

With the same clandestine nature employed in our approach, we made our departure once the inspiration of the place was exhausted. Stopping only momentarily for the farewell courtesy of a few snaps of the building's exterior, we made our way through miserably dense woods and back to our steel tracked guide. The sun had finally managed to achieve a full presence in the sky, pleasantly bathing us in the chill of the shade. It shared the satisfaction of a job well done, of accomplishment. Once again at the car, unpacked and relaxed in the seats, we took a mutual deep breath, engulfing fresher air like some life giving mist. The clock barely read shy of noon, and already our parallel minds erupted with the same idea.

Where to now?