Thursday, April 21, 2011

Thinking About the Future

About a week ago I had the chance to tour the space that should ultimately become my working studio. It was tiny, probably much tinier than most professional photogs would ever consider, but I'm hardly a professional and the bohemian aspect of working out of such a history rich locale is too drool-worthy to pass up. Today, one week later and one week before lease signing, I find myself staring at the nebulous nature of this significantly large step toward my ultimate goal of being a professional, recognized photographer.

I suppose the most obvious question to answer in regards to why I'm making this investment is what leasing a private studio space will enable me to do that I can't already. And while that question seems simple enough to answer, at the same time it is difficult to do so convincingly. The foremost purpose of a dedicated studio space is for studio photography, be it with models, products, what have you. This was the original driving force behind my hunt for a studio earlier this year. I wanted to photograph models, but no respectable model is interested in working with a photographer whose idea of a studio shoot involves rearranging his living room furniture, putting up bedsheets and setting up shop lamps. It isn't even the budget lighting/background that break the illusion of professionalism, it's the "My house is my office" idea. Unless I owned a home with a dedicated room for studio shooting, any and all attempts to convince working models to collaborate with me would sound like either horrible pick-up lines or amateur posing. Having a studio is like having an office - it's a matter of projecting a sense of establishment, a good foundation and indication that one is quite genuinely serious about the service provided. So okay, major reason number 1 to justify making this leap verified.

From that single point forward, justification becomes incredibly abstract.

Another facet of the artistic process that this studio will (hopefully) facilitate is a matter of collaboration. Human beings inevitably adopt the attitudes, traits, driving motivations, etc. projected by those with whom he/she associates/is around. To a degree I feel I am more impacted by this subconscious influence than others. Case in point, a little over a year ago I had the opportunity to make a very good friend who continues to be among the best I have. Aside from the common perspectives we share and mutual hobbies, I noticed that when we would go out and photograph together my work came out... well, better. When on a shoot we would bounce ideas off one another by the subtlest influences and both our work reached an incredible new level compared to the grade of work we produced before. Our eyes and minds spoke to each other and we learned new ways to approach a scene to produce the strongest possible image. That kind of collaborative influence only seems to occur when an artist is in the presence of another artist, and the location of this studio in a 15 story tower of naught but dedicated studio spaces, all with working artists within, surely will lead to some great collaborative efforts and learning. From tours alone, I've experienced the atmosphere of artists working with artists to strengthen each others'  skill sets, and I've no doubt that such a well of knowledge and experience will only impact me in intensely positive ways.

The final major perk entering my thoughts right now is immersion into the artistic process. As it stands, after a photo shoot I will return home and walk into a wall of distractions. No sooner than when I kick my shoes off there is a television staring me in the face which is occasionally on with a roommate memorized and beckoning me to join the hypnosis. Should I pass this obstacle there is my pet bearded dragon to be taken care of (which isn't so begrudging, really, but in terms of getting from the point A of taking photos to point B of processing photos it is another thing in the way). Often the kitchen, living room or bathroom is an awful mess in need of some manner of cleaning, one more obligation to take care of. And finally, by the time I reach my bedroom and set down my camera, at least one of the roommates is playing a PC game and I'm influenced to join in the mindless fun. Now, on their own, none of these things is bad, after all we all need to clean, take care of our pets and squeeze in some fun. The problem in terms of the artistic process is that once these distractions take hold and have consumed some manner of time after a shoot, the motivation to process the images drops near to nil and the original imaginings of those images' potential is forever lost after 3 episodes of House and 2 hours of Bad Company 2. It has been a very long time since I've managed to go straight shot to process, and although not essential I feel my strongest images were made when one step occurred right after the other. With a dedicated studio there are no distracting TVs, chores to interrupt or roommates to tilt the balance between work and play. As such, the immersion factor in the art process itself, being in a space dedicated to and entirely surrounded by that process, would certainly enable me greater focus, higher turnaround for working assignments and a tighter streamline from imagined idea to exacted rendering. Much as art is a matter of fun, there is an element of work to the artistic process, and like an accountant or real estate agent working from home, a degree of isolation is needed to best complete the task at hand.

All those abstract points out of the way, the last item circling my mind is how to arrange the space. But that's a simple matter of planning arrangement and aesthetic. I've concluded that the first month at least will be consumed by restoration and clean-up, a layer of fresh paint and polished floors a must. Furniture is still a matter of issue as it will need to be modular yet attractive, functional when the studio is used for post-process work but also small or collapsible to allow maximum space for studio sessions. Aesthetics will come into play on the monthly gallery shows, with unique lighting and clever arrangement of printed work a must. I'm also thinking of visiting some of my old haunts and picking up some artifacts to play show and tell with when a random visitor shows above average interest. Unfortunately, I'll be running on a tight budget with all of this unless it winds up being a return investment early on. Much as I'd like things to be new, most of my assets will probably be hand-me-downs and Wal-Mart specials. Oh well, there will be plenty of time to upgrade in the future. Sometimes I forget one learns to crawl before walk.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Adventure Time

If nothing else, I am a creature of habit. Weather permitting, my weekends tend to follow a very predictable route - Friday is for unwinding and low key enjoyment, Saturday is party day for drunken debauchery and Sunday is exploration day. It's fitting that exploration day be followed by drunken debauchery day because I feel my most adventurous and creative after a solid night of liquid confidence chugging. Certainly these things are not related.

By some mindless fortune I was awake early in the morning and pumped to create some images. The skies held a promising color after the storms of the night prior and no force other than a neutron star was going to hold me back from making use of the fortunate weather. My original intent was to revisit a site I'd frequented many times before, but due to a lingering loopiness from the night before I missed the exit and promptly declared "Fuck it" and ventured elsewhere. U-turns be damned.

I whipped out my trusty tablet and perused the plethora of locales provided by my "Places to See" map and found myself relatively near to a common haunt of those interested in my variety of photography. Every location deserves at least one visit, no matter how old and gutted, so I made my way to the less than lovely place I'd made my mark.

Once I had arrived to the area it became more than clear that the prior night's storms hadn't simply provided the gorgeous sky that morning, but also demolished a sizable portion of the surrounding area. Water levels on the nearby coast rose up to not-to-distant railroad tracks, and debris and dead, rotting fish littered the landscape. My ultimate objective resided well above sea level, but the impact of the battered land below was enough to put me in a real apocalyptic mindset. The muse only strengthened.

Reaching my target was more than enjoyable. A considerable climb up a considerably steep hillside still running with water from rain deposited the night before. It may only be due to miracle a dramatic tumble never occurred during ascent and especially descent. Well above the wreckage of Mother Nature's abuse below, the sunrise spoke inspirational volumes, glowing with Hollywood magic over bridges and water. If not for the trees it could have been a gorgeous image, but alas, some visages only have a chance to speak in person.

Catching my breath, I made my way up to the first building. The love-her-leave-her nature of the site was obvious. Already one building in and it was clearly nobody had bothered boarding up the windows for some time. Whereas some of the locations I've visited showed clear signs of their past in the form of relics or the care taken to keep them sealed, the ball was dropped in this complex and she was apparently deemed "Not worth it anymore". It's always sad to see the destruction that ensues when a site reaches that level of catatonia - the damage done and garbage left behind by bored teenagers who can't be bothered to care. I've seen it in at least a half dozen buildings/complexes and it never ceases to be a disappointment every time.

Determined to capture her with my own eye, I pressed forward and sought what little interest I could extract from her dry, broken remains. Much of my shooting depended on light play given the lack of subject matter available. The empty hallway is brutally cliche, but sometimes there's little else to photograph in these forgotten places.

I wandered the hallways of various buildings for the better part of 4 hours, ultimately met with disappointment but as I said before every locale deserves at least one visit. The single area of great interest was the theater of one of the larger buildings. Good fortune and noon light saw fit to produce a solid beam of light shining down on a small section of seats in the theater. I couldn't live with myself if I didn't attempt to capture it, so I set up on the stage with a fast prime and proceeded to expose. The entire time I was in the building loud slamming sounds would intermittently fill the hallways. Used to this sort of thing, I traced the sounds to the theater roof, different panels slapping against one another in the strong wind. Just a few seconds after completing my theater exposure, another loud slap roared throughout the room, followed by a considerably louder crash. Perhaps 6 feet from me a sofa-sized chunk of the ceiling decided it would like to take a seat in the front row of chairs. Unnerved by the realization that the theater was quite literally coming down around me, I made my prompt exit.

The final series of buildings I wandered about were old offices, all just as gutted and absent of history as the rest of the complex. Satisfied that I'd seen all there was to see, I returned to the hillside and made the uneasy trip back to the pier.

Later that day I returned to the pier with a friend who happened to live in the area. We photographed the sunset, which was being augmented by heavy rains pouring just over the horizon. The sky may as well have been done in pastel. Naked shots of the sky stopped being interesting years ago so I sought some manner in which to give the sky context. Without naught but water in the direction of the sun and no model readily available, I exercised by vanity, set the camera to timer and used myself as the model. The results were quite successful. One of these days I will be sure to keep a model in my camera bag, however. Surely they make collapse-able people that can fit in your pocket... like a Pokemon.

Oh God, that is an awful thought. I take it back.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Old Dog, New Tricks

It's not really that often that I feel particularly proud of an image. Sure, I like the images I capture, but not all of them stand out in such a way that I feel necessary to brag. Usually those kinds of images are not the ones that impress everyone else, but that's okay. They're my personal victories.

This shot here on the left may be the first time I've ever successfully implemented HDR techniques successfully. For the past couple of months I've been trying to learn the art of HDR photography and consistently hit a brick wall with tone mapping. My post-process tends to be very mathematical but my number crunching brain worked heavily against me in the pursuit of good looking HDR. For this image, I broke those habits managed to create an attractive and convincing blends of stylistic sky and color dodged subject. It wasn't easy, however - to achieve the look in the sky that I wanted the trees on the edges and background of the image were morphed into distracting ghosts. This required me to create a second HDR image to match the exposure and gamma but reduce the glow effect enough to eliminate the ghosting. With both images available it was simply a matter of combining them with appropriate blending. Much more work than I'm used to pouring into a single image, but ultimately worth.

With the experiences and lessons learned from this image at hand I'm feeling much more hopeful about future HDR images I may produce. For a long time the HDR technique has been a thing of contention for me (as well as a large number in the photography community at large). There are so many awful examples of "clown vomit" images that those 3 letters induce shivers. At the same time, there are a few practitioners of HDR who create images of such believable but surreal quality that the technique seems like some golden ticket to imbue already strong photographs with even greater impact. As understood from producing the image above, however, good HDR requires a very laborious investment of time.

Having said that, I'm curious about revisiting some of my earlier attempts at HDR and re-processing the images with the new knowledge I've acquired. There may very well be a few diamonds in the rough, let down only by lackluster tone mapping.

Oh, also, on another note, this past Friday I had the chance to tour my new studio. I may consider a name change to "The Clock Tower Monster" given the nature of the space - 154 sq/ft in the Bromo Seltzer Art Tower in Baltimore City. Quite exciting! How many people who aren't super villains do you know who can say they work out of an old clock tower?

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Farewell, Dear Winter

Yesterday the temperatures managed to ascend to a daunting 86 degrees Fahrenheit. That would be a 40 degree climb from just a week ago. Dearest Winter, I do believe it is time I bid thee adieu.

There's something about the bright sun, brisk winds and overall warm weather that make photography that much more enjoyable. Well, okay, that kind of weather makes pretty much anything outdoors more enjoyable, but that's not the point. No sane human being could pass up the chance to play in the first really warm day of the year, so as soon as work let out I hopped my happy ass into the toaster mobile and cruised on down to one of my favorite casual shooting haunts, the Patapsco River Valley.

I suspect all photographers have their special places. Often times they likely overlap with the special places of other photographers. After all, there are only so many scenic places in the world. Sure, you may be able to squeeze a masterpiece out of your own back yard, but taking a trip out to a special locale with clear and present artistic opportunities only enhances the creative flow. That said, I see lots of photographers in the Valley. It's a quaint little gash between the hills of Ellicot City with all manner of interesting visages and subjects and sprawls. And just as interesting as the place are the people you run into.

Case in point: Yesterday, while photographing the rail bridge crossing the Patapsco river I was randomly accosted by a young boy of maybe 5 or 6 and his father. I was minding my own business, contentedly shooting the tracks and graffiti-laden structure of the bridge, when I hear the little boy insist to his dad "Hey, go over there and ask him his name". Clearly the kid was shy and needed dad to break the ice. So he comes over, we introduce ourselves, and immediately this shy little kid blossoms into the most inquisitive young man I've seen outside of Hollywood film firing question after question after question. Being knowledgeable of the area, I tell him about its history, why all the buildings in the area are the way they are, anything and everything I could answer, and he just kept asking questions. It was adorable, really, and reminded me a great deal of when I was that age and taking walks with my own dad through areas not too dissimilar. Our encounter was short, but it was fun to impart some knowledge on such a bright and curious young kid. Lord knows I spend enough time mentally scolding the '00 generation for its obsession with fame, fortune, glamor and attention in general. That little boy gave me a little hope for the future. Kudos to his father for indulging that strong curiosity about the world.

Monday, April 4, 2011

It's been a good long while since I've done any people/model photography. Strange, too, because it's something I very much enjoy.

The other night I had a friend over and we tossed back a good handle-and-a-half of and in our inebriated stupor we both developed a keen sense of nostalgia. Because let's face it, the times have changed dramatically in the past 2 decades, and as a result we've changed as people (and sometimes more than once). In a culture dominated by digital it wouldn't be a stretch to state that our lives move at a digital pace to keep up with an ever broadening and amorphous world. Moving at that pace, it isn't difficult to lose sight of who you are, who you used to be, what you've accomplished and where you've come from.

Random nonsensical sentimentalism led me back to my old DeviantArt gallery, the host of my artwork during my high school days. I never closed the account, never took anything down - it has always stood as a reminder of where I came from that I'll recall and revisit maybe once a year. While the early days of the gallery are full of awful spontaneous shooting, the mid and latter portions are full of images that, frankly, I miss. Old as they are, some of them feel so amazingly good to see I just want to open them back up in Photoshop, apply the new touch I've developed over the years and post them to Flickr as if they were shot yesterday.

There are a lot of images I've relegated to the past. Strong images that I still love to this day, but due to their age I'm reluctant to revisit them. I'm not sure why entirely, but to a degree I somehow feel it is "cheating" to go back to images taken by my younger past self and apply the new knowledge I've accrued to them. Sort of like that old "Go back in time to complete elementary school with what you know now at 24" scenario. Not that the post-process necessarily makes the image, but I wonder if my fondness of those images is more the curiosity of what I could do with them now as opposed to what I was able to do with them then.

I may yet exercise that revisiting option, however - lately the weather has been crappy and my muse rather elusive. Exploring the potential of old images might do wonders for rekindling my creative centers. The process involved with claiming studio space combined with lining up models to shoot has been a bit draining. Playing with inconsequential images could be just the fun I need to loosen back up. If nothing else, it will certainly be nice to see just exactly how far I've come along since my 1 megapixel Kodak days.