Thursday, December 27, 2012

A Dark Path, A Broken Flashlight

Once upon a time I posted to this little corner of the Great Big WWW with great frequency at a time when I felt mentally disorganized and woefully incapable of straightening out my core motivators, the direction of my muse. It was a good practice, and right now, time permitting, a practice whose reinstatement would behoove me.

Let's start with what stands out to me as the event of greatest impact on my process of photography and a very likely culprit in my dilemmas of late. My copy of Photoshop "expired" and, due to monetary concerns left me tied to acquiring and learning Lightroom in its stead. Doesn't necessarily sound like an enormous switch, both programs are stellar pieces of Adobe imaging software, but let me tell you... from a guy who has spent over a decade comfortable with and familiar with layers and the nuances of digital art, not just photographic development... MOVING TO LIGHTROOM EXCLUSIVELY AFTER YEARS OF A PHOTOSHOP PROCESS HAS BEEN IMPOSSIBLY DIFFICULT. Developing RAW files as one does in Lightroom has always been simply the first step of my Photoshop process, thus leaving every image I process feeling incomplete. I am so familiar with an array of layer-based adjustments after the initial development of a RAW file that I'm not sure my images will ever again manage to bear the same tonal qualities and infallable crispness. Having a perfected decade-long process interrupted and ultimately abandoned due to software constraints is akin to a chef losing his hand. Sure, he'll be able to prepare delicious courses much as he did before, but even the subtle differences from his forceably altered process will stand out at least to him. It comes down to a time concern, time and a willingness to learn. I certainly bear both, however it has been something of a struggle much as all learning inevitably is in the beginning.

Okay, that's the biggest issue out of the way. And honestly, my First World Whining may as well stop there as I didn't zero in on any of my other "problems" until the Photoshop Fiasco, but like all changes or life events that get us even the slightest bit down, the mind tends to autopilot itself into other subtle woes just to indulge itself in some artificial misery.

I've (temporarily) lost focus on what exactly it is that motivates me to photograph. Personally, I find this quandary absolutely dumbfounding because not 2 months ago I felt I had finally narrowed in on what it was that made be genuinely thrilled to participate in the practice of photography to begin with. It's as if the personal revelation of that core muse's discovery forced it to crawl away in clandestine fashion to some new, unexplored corner of my mental triggers. Or, perhaps (and even worse), the unveiling of the muse's most basic operating structure has left me without anything left to learn, and the slow, inebriated trudging pace of my photography today is the result of the thrill, the adventure of self-discovery being no more. Or, if I were to actually stop reading so heavily into the abstract and just pay attention to the supremely logical hemisphere of the brain, maybe I've just slowed down because of weeks spent ill, recovery from surgery and family-centric holiday events bunching together and attacking my time and stress centers all at once. See, I can state that and totally believe it, that my stark decline in creative, artistic photographic efforts has simply been a result of life-outside-of-photography weighing in, but it is also a function of the brain to look at other people, their exploits and efforts, and thus when my brain sees so many good friends enjoying the season in photographic fashion it immediately assumes some greater, deeper issue is at fault and denying me the satisfaction of creative expression.

I'm not sure if I've ever said this before, but our brains really do rather suck at permitting us complacent satisfaction. That or I'm simply crazy... suppose both statements aren't exactly mutually exclusive either... hmm.

I have hit a woefully jaded peak of disinterest in urban exploration. At least UE insomuch as the infiltration of active, semi-active and guarded locations is concerned. In 2008, when a brand new and exciting genre to photograph, my enthusiasm in urbex outings couldn't have been higher. In 2010, having spent 2 years honing the craft, I felt myself moving at a brisk pace through location after location and pulling winners from the asbestos every time. In 2012 I found a troupe of like-minded photographers and dove into the practice of UE on a nigh weekly basis, culminating beautifully into such memorable nights as a derelict wine & cheese party, amazing road trip through the Borscht Belt, kayaking to abandonment, train hopping and a million witty quips and inside jokes that will honestly make this year one for the memory books. An amazing year with amazing people... and now suddenly it's back to (at least feeling like) to just me. The last location I explored with my fellow UE partners-in-crime, a location that had been off-limits for some time but once again opened up, was so brutally disappointing to see nearly a year after my last expedition to the locale I've been left with a general disdain for abandonment in general. That location had been the defining moment in my early exploring pursuits, the kind of place that propelled my motivation and served as the best subject by which to perfect artistic technique. Whatever took place in its year spent out-of-bounds left the place a hollow shell of its former self, grandeur gone runny and now a muddy stain on the carpet. It was a story many abandoned locations in the home State had undergone, and that not even my original muse could escape the doom of rampant vandalism and "urban renewal" broke the spirit of exploration down for me.

Urban exploration has effectively ceased to be exlusively defined by places alone and now depends overwhelmingly on the company kept during an explore and the ridiculous fun had on location. Much of this overbearing mental trend stems from my great appreciation of the work of Eric Tankel, a Philly explorer who, as he expressed to me, "...suck[s] at taking pictures of abandoned places so [he] just photographs people in them". His work unloads mountainous memories to me and I have no idea who the people in his photographs are. They put me in an experience, in an attitude that elicits maximum appreciation of life, and I want to brandish such a talent myself, I want to be able to share the experiences I have with dear friends on explores in such a subdued yet amazingly impactful way. It's a kind of Holy Grail... and unfortunately for me one that requires a less reclusive, people-evasive nature (something else I'd be doing myself a favor to work on).

In the near term, since the "personal life" of photography is such a mess for me at the moment, I've been steadfast and focused on more formal business elements of photography, which is a good way to at least keep my mentally centered on the skill and keep my warmed up at all times. You can't make art all the time, I suppose, but at least with the business end of things running my mind and hands through the technical motions I'll be practiced and prepared when the muse-bug bites hard. After so much time spent out of the game I'm eager to get back into the enjoyment of photography. It's all a matter of needing mental clarity to know the what, how and why. With the holiday season coming to a close, I suspect that clarity is fast approaching. It better be...

... I think booking a vacation in Philly might do the trick.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

New Toys, New Business, and The Gear Quandary

What a truly exhausting, yet enthusiastic year this has been.

Yesterday, like many of us, I was busy in the thick of celebrating the holidays was various circles of friends and family. A few days earlier I attended (and somehow wound up photographing) a dear friend's wedding and immediately afterward spending time with one side of my family for their early Christmas festivities. Cruising down from 4 hours north, a friend of my better half and mine came down to spend the week with us over Christmas time in what has been a non-stop binge of movies, video games and delicious food. And yesterday, as expected, more time was spent with the remaining side of my family in an enjoyable parade of giddy kids who were surprisingly open to the idea of smiling for the camera. What a holiday!

Naturally gifts were exchanged, and en lieu of my desperate push towards legitimizing all the time I devote to photography and its practice, the assortment of gifts I received this year were very specific assets that have been like missing links, holes that needed to be filled but I've always been too stubborn to buckle down and purchase them. And, oh, are they welcome additions to my toolbox!

Long as I've been doing real estate work, I've always just managed to make certain scenes work, often situations with a large, bright window with sunlight pouring directly in it. A situation where some measure of bounce flash for help tame the exposure. And much as I love the CFL studio lights I own, there's always been the want to take the stands and lights on-location, somewhere they would ultimately end up uselessly deprived of a power outlet. I'm extremely pleased to announce that these scenarios are no longer of issue or concern, and part of what I'm going to coyly dub my "Business Gift Pack" were a pair of high-powered manual speedlights, paired with radio triggers, and a new set of sturdy, rugged light stands with speedlight mounts (with umbrella slots) and sandbags for when shooting in the field. At least, a field-able portrait kit is at my disposal, and never again will I fret at sunlight invading a room through the window.

They couldn't have come at a better time in my ongoing endeavor to establish a strong photography business. Earlier this year, in February I believe, I wrote a long, elaborate business plan as a sort of guide to determine what and how I wanted to grow as a business entity. A very sizable portion of that plan focused on portrait work, both candid and studio, as being a sort of bread-and-butter element of my efforts. As the year went on, my focus shifted much as it should be expected to over time. I had one major commercial job and for a good couple months following I was enamored with the idea of pursuing commercial work, and only in the past month or so have I really settled on the fact that pursuit of commercial work may very well be the great lost cause that ruins many a rising photographer. With that hopeless ambition out of my system, however, I'm once again back to basics, refocused on my original plan and aiming to open up my business to a new market.

Over the next month or so I plan to keep busy perfecting a process by which to handle formal, paid portrait photography work. Now, granted, my "test subjects" are all currently friends or people I otherwise know already, thus negating the spell of woe that is breaking the ice on initial meeting, however I am confident that easing into a shoot, bringing the subject to a comfortable point whereby the images just flow, is something I wouldn't find my difficulty achieving what with my experience in conversing and easing the minds of real estate clients I've met (and in some cases befriended) over the last year. Producing that kind of ease, that peace of mind, I suspect would be the most difficult aspect of any portrait shoot, so at least if I can perfect the shooting process itself to the point where it's no conscious worry on my part all real effort and focus can be directed to the subtle mind games involved in ensuring the subject is most comfortable with where they are, who they're with, what they're doing.

With the heavy hitters in lighting equipment graciously gifted to me, last night I took it upon myself to complete my kits completely with the frivolous little things missing from my camera bags. Red filters, step-up rings for lenses thus far lacking in proper filter usage (M. Zuiko 45mm f/1.8, I'm looking at you), and lens hoods and accessory port attachments for my Nikon V1. Another lovely gift I received this holiday was the Nikkor 1 30-110mm f/3.8-5.6 lens, something that seems outside of my usual circle of appreciation for fact of it being a zoom and long telephoto, but given the nature of the V1 and the simple fact that, sometimes, you really do need a long lens, it adds an entirely new realm of capability for me, something I've not had since dropping DSLRs 3 years ago. With the crop factor in mind, this 30-110mm lens functions much more like a 70-300mm telephoto, and paired with the V1's breakneck speed (I mean, come on, 60FPS in electronic shutter mode...) photographing wildlife and sports has once again become a realistic possibility for me. And, even though it may be a zoom, the uniquely close focus distances of all Nikon 1 system lenses makes it a fantastic portrait zoom capable of producing appropriately shallow depth of field based not on aperture, but the element of DOF rendition that far too many seem to neglect, proximity. I would be lying were I to say I was not absolutely excited to try it out. Inclement weather forecasts be damned.

Admittedly, the surge to completion of my V1 kit has befuddled my mind a bit. Originally, when the V1's price finally dropped down to something I considered worth investing, my idea was that the V1 would effectively replace my point-and-shoot Olympus XZ-1 as the carry around camera of choice. Oddly, that doesn't seem to be the direction I ultimately took with the 1 system at all. Once all of the items I ordered arrive, I will have essentially a miniaturized clone of my old D40 kit that I will forever regret selling in 2009. A pair of kit zooms, 27-80mm and 80-300mm equivalents, a nifty fifty, flash gun for on-the-spot TTL metered shots indoors and a remote for if and when the camera ever finds itself on a tripod. This flies in the face of what the system was meant to be to me. I find myself experiencing the same perplexed stupor as the well known Steve Huff - "I did not expect to love this camera". Something about its brutally simple, utilitarian appearance, it's down to basics, down to business function... it is simply a fun camera to shoot. Megapixels shmegapixels, I was printing 16x20" prints just fine with my D40 just a few years ago. And with that gargantuan battery I feel completely comfortable leaving the house with one for the day and having plenty of charge on it for even a late night's worth of long exposures.

This, of course, makes my brain itch slightly when I consider how much I do still love my Olympus kit. It's difficult for me to maintain multiple camera systems as I imprint a sort of emotional value to each. When I use one overly much, part of me feels that I'm leaving the other feeling neglected, and that would absolutely describe how I feel about my poor E-P3, stuffed in a bag and only ever seeing the light of day for real estate jobs and the occasional night shoot. With the remote coming in, I fully intend to try night shooting with the V1. Miserable as I felt it was the last time I used it on a tripod, I suspect that after spending so much time with the camera and learning its nuances I'd be capable of working with it more comfortably now than before. This all, of course, solidifies my real quandary - why am I maintaining two similarly capable systems?

In the end it really does come down to the abstract of what feels right at the time. That kind of nebulous logic flies in the face of my devotedly logical, rationalizing brain, however, and so I remain in a state of constant question as to which camera really does best suit my needs at a given point. Looking at things from that logical standpoint, I can say that the V1's high ISO performance and formula car shutter speeds make it ideal for anything moving, and its image quality is not terribly apart from the E-P3's when practicing good technique. In the Olympus, court, however, the optics are far superior, and while it may not be a champion of high ISOs, it is an incredibly pleasant camera to work with when the subject matter is still, static, and the resultant image a thing of intention, not simply reaction. This of course begs the question "Then why not just get an OM-D and close the gap", to which... I am stumped. Speechless. You got me. Much as I would like to own an OM-D... I don't. And when I eventually do upgrade my MFT body... will the V1 feel kicked to the wayside next? I find myself dwelling on quotes about being spread too thin... who knew just 2 systems would polarize this much?

In the end, of course, I can at least state with confidence that, although I enjoy shooting with the V1 and do tend to carry it around and shoot with it more, the photos I'm taking are rarely of a superb artistic quality. It tends to be the camera I shoot family gatherings and social events with, not art so much as function. The E-P3, on the other hand, remains my go-to for intentioned artistic shooting and working jobs, and it will likely remain that way even once my MFT body is upgraded to the next PEN or the OM-D or whatever fits the bill. The V1 remains my little experiment, and while it may take some attention and budget away from solidifying my MFT assets, it still seems a worthwhile venture. After all, the best camera is the one you have on you all the time, and I certainly carry the V1 around far more willingly than lug around the MFT bag.

How typical... I steer away from DSLRs because they're too big and heavy, and sure enough I'm starting to treat MFT the same way because there's a new champion of tiny sensor goodness in the ring. My logic centers are an absolute mess!

Monday, December 17, 2012

On Losing Steam (and getting it back again)

After months and months of putting prose into practice, of applying myself and dwelling less on the informal application of theory and thought in my craft, I return to this blog with one assured sentiment - I finally know where I'm going.

Now, with that statement made, let's work on making it less nebulous.

Some time in August I hit a curiously low point brought on by self-imposed, manufactured stress in regard to the effort required to promote my brand. So overwhelming was this stress that it brought on a recession from the marketing binge I'd engaged in prior. Seeing little result from what felt to be gargantuan efforts, I became disheartened, retreated from the legions of desperate upstarts trying to establish a strong name for themselves and acquire new business. Those efforts had only ever resulted in but a single commercial shooting arrangement in my court, and the headache of Web 2.0 quickly lost its allure. Coinciding with my deflated enthusiasm, the company for whom I often photographed property listings had hired another photographer who seemingly devoured the majority of my shooting gigs.

My optimism tested, all that was left was to submerge myself into a forray of personal adventures. Artistic shoots. And I absolutely appreciate their effect, as I've never felt more aware of my baser motivations.

In September I spent much of time photographing a local steel mill that had gone the route of much of America's once proud steel industry. I was inspired by the work of Edward Burtynsky, whose work I'd seen documented in the film Manufactured Landscapes. His years-long series of photos covering the scars in the Earth left by modern industry and strip mining efforts struck me as notably poignant, even definitive of what I found myself trying to express in much of my urbex photography. Until seeing another's work, the creative fruits of a well established photographer, I never quite understood what it was that I was attempting to express myself, but understanding Burtynsky's theme, his direction, and how he defined it before ever engaging in the photographic process... it made me rethink my own approach to photography. My work had always been documentarian at best, with little point outside of what was in the frame to be seen. Suddenly I found myself wanting something more from my own photos. Documenting a rarely seen place was no longer enough, it needed something personal.

But I didn't know what. And for a good while I had no idea what it was that I craved out of my own images. I continued working like some automoton photographing places in a formulaic corner-to-corner approach much as I'd photographed everything up to that point. A good friend and I went on a week long road trip through the greater Northeast region of the States and despite firing off many hundreds of frames not a single one spoke to me. They were all the most boring photographs I had ever taken. But the experience of being in the places in which they were taken was so rich. A bridge needed to be built, some pathway by which to correct the awful disconnect.

I suppose it had clicked before, but it took time for me to dedicate myself to putting it to practice (and admittedly I'm still working to apply it to my shooting more earnestly). It was people. The people I was with, the ones I was sharing experiences with. It was never the places themselves that bore the bulk of the memories, it had always been the conversations and the antics and time shared with unique and wonderful people. When shooting on my own, for fun in this sort of manner, the photos that mattered had always been the ones that featured those with whom I was shooting. So foolish that it took so long for me to recognize.

Despite seeming so obvious and simple now, that was a huge epiphany to me in September. It took a good amount of time shooting with my "Bro from Philly" for me to recognize it. It was a concept that had occured to him long ago already, so I more or less felt like I was playing conceptual catch-up with him. As a result, I found myself shooting less, but the crop from personal photo outings being that much richer in end product. Finally it all clicked (pardon the pun), and I spent far more time enjoying my friends' company on urbex adventures than wasting my time hunting behind a lens.

Oddly (or perhaps not), the establishment of my realigned focus on the people, not the places, coincided with a lessened interest in urban exploration per se, but certainly not a diminished interest in being in rarely seen or unique places in the company of those with whom I most connected. While still embarking on the occassional urbex run, the state of decay and abandon of the locale became less interesting to me than the simple uniqueness of the place and the quality of the people. Instead of sneaking into mills and hospitals, I relaxed on 500 foot high cliffs until the stars populated the night sky away from civilization. I made bonfires on beaches sandwiched between Baltimore's finest in industrial assemblage. I spent nights under bridges and recounted life's trials and tribulations on long walks down train tracks. I watched people wander like ants from rooftops for hours. All moments I did my best to capture with the perpetrators in context. People. Not just places.

That missing satisfaction from my personal photographic pursuits realized and addressed, I once again felt in a proper place of mind to return to the business-centric approach to photography that defined the first half of my year. Not because my personal shooting was in any way affecting my business approach to photography, but after having exhausted myself with marketing and promotion, the peace and order I'd come to with my personal endeavors came with a fresh surge of motivation, ambition. Like having one's finances in order, a sense of clarity and control returned. And almost too coincidentally, the company I was contracted to for real estate photography conducted an audit of its photography division, culling its photographer roster by a significant amount... but deeming my work and my methods of conducting business worth keeping. A more reassuring indicator that my business sense is sound... nope, can't think of one.

Once again recomposed, I know what directions I wish to head in. They are somewhat divisive in that they both require different approaches, but neither approach wholly excludes the other. But honestly, my problems being squarely centered in the "what gear should I invest in next" department is reassuring in its own right - my methods are competent and in many ways superior as evidenced by my retention at the hands of bloodthirsty auditors. What I have established now is just fine, and while equipment acquisition can make my job easier they won't bring anything particularly new to the table that my method doesn't already provide. My new business focus is more appropriately focused on expanding to new markets.

In the beginning of the year I wrote a business plan that largely focused on portrait photography as a platform on which to expand. To date I have done absolutely nothing to establish myself in the portrait photography market. It exists, I've seen it put to practice by many local photographers, but they apply their craft in different ways than I intend to implement mine. It's like a trump card, or maybe an Ace up the sleeve. I only need to apply myself to it. Unlike my real estate work, there is no larger company feeding me clientelle. But I suspect that I'm already well known enough to where finding eager clients for portrait work wouldn't be difficult. Establishing that new market for business is my goal for 2013. And I've never been more ready to take it.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Web 2.0 Is A Headache All Its Own

Remaining market relevant in this new Web 2.0 world is nigh impossible without autism-like tolerance of mundane repetition and obsessive site checking.

Allow me to elaborate.

I come from a much simpler experience of the Web. A simpler time. Before the flood of content over-saturation mania and DIY cookie-cutter media sharing constructs. The idea of the "social network" didn't exist yet, and all interaction over such forums as news boards and chat rooms and discussion boards were much more personal and relevant because the user was not rewarded for talking to himself and patting his own back, he was rewarded for strong talking points and relevant contributions to the discussion topics of his board(s) of choice. The internet was a thing for intellectual people. Phenomena like the "troll" didn't exist yet. Categories were only beginning to be established to block certain user personalities into for purposes little more than of witty humor.

The most creative and progressive among the early internet crowd took the digital presentation of their art to a level of art as well. It wasn't ever enough for artists to simply pay someone else for a standardized set of web code to generate a site. The artist took pride in his creativity and created his own page from scratch, fine tuning every line of HTML to produce a visual assemblage that elevated his work by proxy. For the young creatives, the domain was never important - hosts like Angelfire and Geocities existed expressly to offer those eager to pioneer digital media sharing easy access to server space and bandwidth. Genuinely a beautiful thing, and the empty husks of these antique web pages still exist today in the surreal muck of dead server space.

Enter the world of Web 2.0 and it's incredibly difficult to specifically trace when the web went from content and creativity rich to ADHD and media binging hyper saturation. It's a world I find very difficult for anyone to ever dream to achieve any measure of market permanence in.

I preface this entry with early WWW musings as a contrast to the complexity of the modern web and what I am currently engaged in to promote a brand and achieve even a glimmering of relevance to the transient interest nature of the web. And the photos serve as my private expressions to that sugar-juiced toddler, the "crowd", the thing we as budding content creators absolutely must grab the attention of and bend into pretzels to keep a firm hold on.

This year was met with a revelation that achieving my goal of breaking into the professional photography industry would require a concerted effort to develop a stand-out brand, organize that brand into a marketable service and then promote the living hell out of it. The brand itself was solid and the service spoke for itself, but the effort involved with promotion was not only daunting up front but an ongoing harbinger of mental fatigue. I made my first mistake of trying to push the brand on the whole "crowd", and the lesson learned was to unhinge from that crippling load and target precise crowds most desired and most appealed to by the service and brand. Resulting was a Facebook page to promote specific points of interest to the Kneejerk Imagery brand, heavy engagement with the Flickr community to distribute content as a sort of sample of my service and this blog to create a much more personal forum by which I could speak frankly about the business and keep it rather humanized (maybe more of a personal need than a business one). This trio has worked well for me, and with an established consumer base sampling my content via Flickr, keeping track of my business interests and direction over Facebook and keeping track of me through Blogger I've managed to book paid photography work at a rate I never thought I would achieve so quickly, which begot other work through good rapport.

I kept up with the trend by keeping up with the process, the system for success I had stumbled upon. February of 2012 saw the initial rapid incline and by June it had peaked with my first commercial shoot. With that rate of success I felt absolutely unstoppable, like I was going to ride the lightning into a complete career shift, abandon my mundane 9-to-5 and actually realize that long standing dream of working exclusively as a professional photographer. Now... not so much.

Web based content, especially memes and similar such pop culture fads, have ridiculously high turnover. The social relevance of media has a half-life of maybe a few days before being replaced by the next adorable cat photo, Youtube idiot or Troll Face meme. This is an accepted facet of web content, that we collectively pile onto a viral piece of media, consume it like ants to bones and discard it. Much as I understood this concept a mental disconnect slipped in somewhere to lead me to believing such voracious consumption of media and content did not also apply to the consumption of brands and one's relevance to even a targeted audience. And now I am paying for it. I skipped a beat on maintaining the change, and now my market relevance seems to be waning just 6 months after it surged so beautifully.

Every statistic tracker tells the same story. Over the course of July 2012 my "popularity" faded just as quickly as it had surged. And this speaks in the income hit I took in July as it was also my driest month in regards to photo shoots. In June I was booked for 3 to 4 jobs every weekend, a healthy supplemental income. I took real estate jobs, corporate head shots, commercial shoots... business was bustling and the customers I had were more than impressed with my provided cost value. But in July it all disappeared. I received no phone calls or e-mails to book shoots. Out of curiosity, I e-stalked a few of my former clients, initially with the intent to then contact them about future servicing needs, but instead left dumbfounded and devastated by what I'd found. Their service needs were still there, they were simply getting content from someone else. As cheap and as good a service I provided, they still managed to find someone willing to go cheaper.

Thus the almighty dollar won out.

This isn't a problem I've not run into before. In my earliest days pursuing the professional photography dream I spent a good amount of time in the small-time wedding photography business. It was the same story there - as cheap and as good as my results, there were always competitors who may not have provided particularly good quality images but they were cheap enough to trump my influence. In this instance, however, the issue isn't simply a matter of being undercut. All of my working relationships were developed online, through my branding, through my self-promotion and marketing tenacity. But none of that was working anymore. I'd become stale to the crowd. My relevance to my target audience had gone the way of Double Rainbow Guy and Tay Zonday. The only option left... find a new crowd. Target the next audience.

With my established formula now a bittersweet mushy strawberry that sat in the fridge too long, I'm branching out to other media sharing sites and networks I could use as promotional carriers. And you know what? It's a pain in the ass.

Of course we are all resistant to change, it is a common trait among nearly all human beings. When something works we are reticent to change no matter how much evidence is shown stating it doesn't work anymore. That's not my issue right now. I understand a change needs to happen and much as I will miss being able to ride the wave of the process I'd established I'm sure I'll settle into a new one with my new market approach. My complaint is that the next logical step in the infinite war of maintaining market permanence is to indulge the web in its fickle, consumerist habits and hyper saturate my exposure. And it will be the biggest sink of wasted time, all for sake of keeping the jobs coming and keeping some semblance of a dream I'm starting to dread alive.

Let's go through the laundry list:

First, I'll spend upwards of 30 minutes to an hour editing an image. I will then upload this image to Flickr, as complete as possible with numerous tags, a witty description, add it to dozens of groups to push its web presence through the roof, okay, good. Now, upload the same image to 500px, tag it some more, fill out the gear-snob portion, lay on a thicker, more detailed description, done.

Oh wait, that's not right, I need to troll through legions of amazing images by other artists and comment and favorite on them too, else I don't get noticed at all on 500px and I lose my photo presence in groups on Flickr. Rinse and repeat this process at least a dozen more times because the relevance of a single photo on the web is nearly non-existent if not followed up by a series of somehow related images. Now share some of the images on Tumblr, adding witty captions as necessary to sound moody, brooding or otherwise quirky and aloof. May as well post links to those images on Flickr, 500px and Tumblr on Facebook too, since everyone and their mothers use Facebook. Tell you what, though, better make some blog entries about the whole process being such a pain, too, and make sure to link in some of those photos uploaded earlier. Now go to DPReview and 43Rumors and UER and all the discussion groups on every photo site imaginable and post-whore (with relevant, but redundant information since no matter how many times you tell someone what ISO, aperture and shutter speed do there's always a long line behind that guy waiting to ask the same question). Might as well milk DeviantArt's waning market relevance for what it's worth and cross-post there, too. Maybe on FA, too, just to culture shock the site's target genre. Whoops, forgot to update that Model Mayhem profile with the new portraits I just uploaded, better do that too. Oh man, gotta reply to all the flooding e-mails about comments on those forums and Flickr images. Uh oh, I've had the second portrait open in Photoshop 3 hours now and haven't had the time to finish it and it's already midnight.

It's obnoxious. Absolutely obnoxious. Web 2.0 is a reward system for lab monkeys. In a perfect world, I would be able to process my images, upload them with a single client to "the cloud" and have them shared across all the image sharing sites I took interest in making accounts for. That and maybe a page to promote the business for the business' sake and a blog to rattle off fragments of my mental haze. Instead, I'm forced into this ridiculous rinse-and-repeat process, going through the motions as insincerely as warranted just to merit the attention necessary to reach the key players I'm targeting to book work and sustain my business. It slows me down. I cannot produce content nearly as quickly as I did under the inherent pressure involved with hyper saturation. Ultimately, this depresses me. I would rather process and share photographs for the sake of processing and sharing photographs, but to make it a sustainable business it is requiring the kind of mindless effort that is draining my motivation to continue the pursuit. Depressing.

The Web 2.0 marketing treadmill is putting a major point into perspective. I cannot do this all on my own. There is not nearly enough time for one person to engage in and complete all of the tasks necessary to self-promote in this fashion while simultaneously working a traditional day job. Clearly, quitting work just to promote a business model that barely brings in my current "traditional" income is out of the question. Best as I can perceive, the only reliable solution would be to hire outside help. An "agent", so to speak. Someone whose full-time job is my marketing and brand recognition. Someone with the network to capitalize upon.

But I don't quite think I'm at the point of hiring an agent yet either, so... temporarily SOL.

While the job pool has dried up significantly, at least some are still coming in. I don't foresee any measure of reinvention making a lasting difference at my current stage of professional development, it's down to a simple matter of business model adjustment, perhaps even a change in target audience. Before, my efforts in over saturating the web with my brand was a brute force endeavor to strong arm into the industry. It was successful, for sure, but now that I am in the industry, perhaps continuing to saturate is the wrong approach. Instead of carpet bombing the web, I would see much greater benefit from precision striking the fields where I've already gotten work. Adjusting the brand to be less strikingly fringe and instead more refined, clear cut and professional. Less image site spamming and more corporate client business card trades.

Hmm... perhaps not so SOL after all.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Scatterbrained Update

A couple things.

First, I put my conformist hat on and joined in on this whole tumblr bandwagon. If you'd like, you can catch my work and little snippets of faux wisdom at Warning you, though, I'm still getting used to the thing. And I'm pretty much devoid of social skills with its inherent community.

Secondly, I would like to apologize for my mute trend over this forum. The days have been busy, and only all the more difficult in the past 2 weeks. I'm sure a more adequate monthly review will come once the flurry of activity dies down in my professional life. Oh the woes of the working man.

Third and lastly, I've been in some rather engaging conversation with a certain someone over our respective approaches to photography as less a hobby and more a lifestyle and more importantly the trials of our private lives and how they seem to seep into the work we produce. Earlier this morning I made something of a series of confessions to him, confessions I feel compelled to share in this far more public space. Without further adeu:

"Sympathize on the whole "I'm not occupied" point particularly. I'm bored all the time, too. Video games don't hold the same allure they used to. Without driving off somewhere I just go nuts sitting around and stewing over how I wish I was doing anything else but sitting on my ass and staring at Facebook in less-than-giddy anticipation of updates. I think it comes down to the adrenaline junkie nature of urbex in general - we go to amazing places, do amazing things, see amazing things. When we return to the normal, functioning world, it's like we suffer a low-grade PTSD. There is nothing extreme, nothing incredible about the flow of our normal lives. We are never putting ourselves in grave danger or engaging in outright stupid acts of acrobatics, B&E and/or evasion. It's a safe world. It's a hugbox. And we're so much happier to feel the extreme of knowing our lives and livelihood are in legitimate danger.

That weird sense of post-traumatic stress had me drinking a lot, again drawing a parallel here. I'm actually just a week and 5 days sober, forcing myself to cut back on the drinking for a while. Even cut coffee out of my life since I was downing shots of espresso like a junkie. Everything in excess. The coffee made it impossible for me to relax and the booze gave me the false free ticket to do crazy stupid things from getting kicked out of places to starting fights to "urbexing" construction sites and falling out of second story windows. I was breaking myself in every way possible, and I liked the feeling of being broken. It was a private thrill to wake up after the nightly bender, figure out what I broke, what I lost, who I pissed off and put things back together again. It made me feel substantiated in the weirdest way. Nobody can put himself back together at the same pace he can tear himself down, though. It needed to stop, hence this current sobriety trial I'm putting myself through. Uncomfortable places. Like you said.

I think we're all desperate to be immortals. Artists, I mean. We feverishly record our lives, our points of view, the things and people we see, how they make us feel. What we do when we're bored, alone and can't figure out why we're still breathing. Our art is our cry for attention. But not just the attention of right now. We want the attention of some kid who stumbles upon an old shoebox in an old house 100 years from now and can't help but read the words on paper or shuffle through the polaroids. In this digital age it's harder to garner more than a fleeting existence in the attention of the masses. We are a culture of disposable talent, disposable people. Internet fads. But we'll figure it out in the end. We're just that persistent. We want to be remembered."

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

A Synopsis of How it Stands

I wrote a pretty stellar blog post in a certain forum of ill refute and feel it is more than appropriate to cross-post it here. Rarely does a simple recap seem to be so perfectly concise and inclusive of all the most important elements of my experiences in this journey of photography. I've rearranged the images posted with this blog, but they're hardly the important element.

It's always about the stories...

"The hell if I can remember the past 2 months at all...

... But I will try to share good stories 'round the LED/LCD campfire glow anyway.
Been up to a lot of "soul searching", I suppose. Developing a solid sense of self, a concrete form of character, and of all the silly methods I have done so by whittling my social circle into a collection of people worth knowing as opposed to a collection of people I met at a bar one day or in high school years ago. People I can actually learn from, not a cheap collection of fan boys who do little more than masturbate my ego. I feel like a better person because of it. More so, I've seen a lot more in the past 2 months because of them.
I'm not going to inundate your web service with what amount to little more than re-posts since I know most of you over Flickr anyway. No no, this is story time more than photo time.
I've started hanging out pretty frequently with the only legitimate Baltimore urbex crew that exists. That is a pretty harsh statement, but given the wide gamut of personalities that I have come across this year as far as fellow explorers goes, they are the, THE only crew that isn't wasting time trying to impress other people, one-up other explorers or otherwise collect a crowd of followers unrelentingly fapping to HDR of wheelchairs. In wholly impromptu fashion, we hang out, scope out neat city locales, have a beer then call it a night. Entirely informal and with no real expectation. Some nights we spend feeling jaded, others we hop trains, still more we light paint or any number of lazily thought out endeavors. And it's great. We talk, we learn, we share experiences and in the end it's always a satisfying and chill night. If not for the intervention of that crew I wouldn't have expanded my horizons (to coin the cliche) and actually surf through cities with the level of comfort and carefree attitude I now have. I thank them for encouraging me to not be a sissy shit and see the city for what it (really) is.
That said, my time spent with this crew has left me feeling jaded in general to the traditional urbex aesthetic. We've all been to the classic abandoned hospitals, all seen and done our tours through the high profile spots with lots left behind, and while still neat to some degree, the thrill of urbex isn't just in the decay and rot but in simply being places most people just don't go or get to see. That seems incredibly basic, but for the longest time I've been so locked in on urbex being specifically about abandonment that it never really dawned on me that there was much more to it than just the aesthetics of decay. Be it hanging out in train yards or on the rooftops of permanently-under-renovation buildings to inner-city aqueducts pretty much anywhere else you're not typically supposed to be, the simple act of going there to hang out and spend your time, building those unique, location-based memories, is the appeal of urban exploration I'd been missing out on all along because I couldn't get my head out of the asbestos.
Roof topping specifically is a new thing for me. I've always had the stupidest issue with heights and as much as I've loved others' roof top photos I've been too wary to attempt them myself. With positive encouragement all around, however, I've been pushing myself in various instances to tackle that irrational fear of heights. The views are simply stellar, too amazing for any photograph to ever translate as well as the experience of being there.
Not that I'm entirely knocking "old fashioned" urbex outings, though. I'd be lying if I said I'd completely sworn off tours through abandoned neighborhoods, factories and distilleries. Such structures are undeniably amazing. They simply aren't the end-all-be-all of the hobby, which is where my personal disconnect was.
On one occasion I was invited on a tour with someone who is now a new but very good friend through an abandoned neighborhood. Up front the explore sounded pretty mundane, but then the catch cropped up - the explore required kayaking out to the tip of a peninsula and marching through a marshy muck to access. The buildings could have been the crappiest things in existence, it didn't matter, I didn't care. The adventure involved is what made the explore worth it to me.
It was my first time meeting this person, and she turned out to be an amazing mind with which to debate philosophy and abstract concepts just for the shit of it. To analyze our choices, our decisions, why we made them, why other people made theirs, and theorize about the plight of the human condition. Stupid stuff that made us laugh later over a hookah on the porch. We'd hit it off so well that only a week later we committed the majority of an entire day to exploring random things we drove by in the city.
One of the neater things I've picked up shooting with her is a willingness to shoot freehand once again. It's been forever since I've felt comfortable enough with my hands to tackle an interior shoot without the crutch of a tripod to compose the lines tightly parallel. With her encouragement to try, I surprised myself with how well I could handle composition with a little faith in my own steadiness.
We've done various other explores in the past couple weeks as well. Our common theme seems to be abandoned houses, which I was never into before, but am finding myself taking a liking to what with the wealth of story to be gleamed from remaining possessions. Locations less of photographic interest but nonetheless piquing strong curiosity. Occasionally they're also good for little treats like unique cookbooks that make for great presents for significant others.
I've recently linked back up with my "old" exploring partner as well. Every year he goes on a bit of a hiatus for ski season (his other strong passion in life). I missed him. Seems like every Winter I spend my time searching for a replacement partner figure but never find one that measures up. Not knocking my other friends at all, we simply have a uniquely strong bond. Maybe a side-effect of the deep history we have with urbex shenanigans and belligerent drinking. In any case, I'm glad to have him back in my life. First stop once we hooked back up was a building that has been getting used up like a cheap whore (but damn, is it one of the more stand-out abandonments in the city).
This past weekend I ended up traveling to Pittsburgh for a certain gathering of ill repute. While aforementioned gathering was certainly the underlying pretext under which I went to the city to begin with, I essentially had nothing to do with it. It was an excuse, at best, to take time off work, go someplace new, drink, spend time with friends and, of course, urbex the shit out of everything I could get to without a car.
Thursday I spent entirely alone. I hadn't met anyone of a similar mindset as myself, so it wound up being a pretty lousy day of excessive drinking and bad decisions. It did produce one interesting story, though - the building next to my hotel was undergoing renovations, leaving the first 5 floors of the mid-rise an unknown, potentially awesome explore. I found this out while sober. 8 beers and 2 flasks of honey whiskey later I stumbled up to the building while a tenant of the upper floor was wandering in. A key fob was needed to access the building, and a simple drunken "Hey, can you hold that" was enough to slide in. Rode the elevator to the fourth floor and got off with the confused pedestrian behind me wondering why some drunken idiot just got off on a pitch black floor undergoing heavy renovation. Bored, drunk and unable to see a damn thing, I rode the elevator back down to leave, but the door wouldn't open. The key fob needed to get in was needed to get out. I kicked and slammed on the door for 20 minutes, pissed and suddenly wishing I were sober enough to figure out what I was doing in a secured building to begin with. I turned to the stairwell, hoping the fire escape doors would open. 11 floors later and I was on a rooftop - every fire exit was mag-locked. With no choice left but the most dangerous, I drunkly stumbled and fell down 11 floors worth of fire escape. The next morning, my hips were black and blue with bruises from swaying side to side, slamming onto the railings of the iron stairway.
I suppose the logical response to this story would be "Pics or it didn't happen". With that logic, I would like to pretend that it was the most retarded dream ever. But my hips still hurt.
Friday came, and my always-missed partner showed up at the gathering. No sooner did he arrive did we meet up at the same room party, boozing up and getting ready to tackle the world. And that's exactly (at least it felt like) what we did.
The rest of the weekend was random explores, city wandering, rooftops, cab rides, amazing food, spectacular beer, incredible vistas, the stuff that makes you want to retire from the expected Western standard of life (sleep->work->housework->sleep) and just drift. We created the kinds of memories screen writers couldn't make up if they wanted to.
I haven't sifted through all my photos from the weekend yet, but did punch through one locale we hit. An abandoned and half-demolished white building off the Southern end of the city, across the river. Of all people, the barista at the Crazy Mocha in the Westin hotel clued me in on the location. He'd originally asked me if I was there for the event going on, and when I said "Yes, but I'm more here for photos of the city and abandonment" he immediately opened up. Wondering if he isn't maybe one of the local contacts I tried to make before, but remained ever elusive.
Anyway, the explore was relatively short because the way to the roof of the building was caved in with the half that had already been demolished, but at least we got some decent shots of the lower levels.
We plan to make another week-long trip to the Steel City some time in the future. As much as we saw, there's still far more we couldn't see simply due to limited transportation. In any case, though, it's a weekend I doubt either of us are going to be forgetting. Times were simply too good, and words wouldn't do them any measure of justice.
Photography in general has been a thing in flux for me. Recently I was contracted by a travel listing firm to do real estate photography work, and through contacts I've made through jobs for that listing service, I've managed to slip into other commercial photography jobs of a terrifyingly high profile. As such, finally making money with what has been a passionate hobby for a decade at least, it's been strange trying to rationalize the hobby end of it with the business. I find myself taking things less seriously than I ever did before when shooting for myself. On top of that my motivation to work on processing images has suffered because I don't seem to be able to justify the effort if I'm not getting paid to invest time in the image. It's a weird position to be in. However I find my personal value assignment to the photos I take for pleasure that much more important these days. As if my interest has taken a very blatant turn from the ultimate quality of the image to the memories that image represents. The nostalgic walk in my brain it conjures. And I'm alright with that. My images have gone from sterile pieces of "art" to reminders that, yes, I am alive, I have done amazing things with amazing people, and here, look at this moment in time and be reminded that the experience of life is a beautiful thing.
And hot damn, am I happier to be alive for it."

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Breaking Into the Industry (And Other Misadventures)

These blogged musings are becoming more and more scarce these days. But not without very good reason. With as many strides as I have already been making to impact my industry of preference, what little ground I've managed to make, what goals and hurdles I've managed to clear... none have been enough. Inexplicably I have reached a point whereby I am not placated by any measure of success, only further motivated, with a vicious, violent thirst, for more. And this past Sunday fed that relentless drive a steak dinner with deep, dry red wine.

For the sake of context, a little back story is in order.

Since February I have been engaged in travel real estate photography jobs for an online listing service that has blown up tremendously in the past couple years. It is the first legitimate, contracted and paid photography "gig" I've ever had going for me, and to this day I continue doing shoots for the company. Early in April I was scheduled to do a shoot in Southeast Washington DC, the only of the weekend. While I had been very responsible and composed on days prior to shoots in the past, this particular weekend saw a lapse in my judgment and I drank just a bit too much alcohol the evening prior. Enough to the point that I did not only oversleep, but felt awful enough to call up the client for that day and request we reschedule (with an exceptionally large helping of apology). Unfortunately the client's own circumstances were such that rescheduling was very much impossible, thus if the shoot did not happen on that very day it could not happen at all. Understanding yet begrudged, I packed my gear, drank lots of water and made what has become something of a habitual trek down to the DC area.

I arrived at the client's rental space, requested "the tour" so I could plan my angles and exposures for the shoot and dove right into the work. Maybe 20 minutes of effort total, move from room to room, corner to corner, capturing all the typical angles of interest. The client was wandering about the house amid my staggered photographing, but at one point stopped to ask me a battery of questions about when I had started working for the listing service and how long I had been photographing in general. Still in a partially hung-over daze, I rattled off sloppy but straightforward answers. She even asked about my camera, taken slightly aback by its diminutive size. I explained how I had used tradition DSLR cameras for years prior to drinking the mirrorless system camera Kool-Aid, and was so spoiled by the convenience of size while maintaining top image quality that I would never go back. At this point, after a pause in the conversation while I was snapping her living room, she mentioned that she worked for a public relations firm in the city and that they were occasionally looking to hire freelance photographers to complete jobs for their art directors. Still in a zombie haze, I fumbled for my wallet and handed off a business card, letting some of my idiocy show through with an unashamed comment, "The two things I do well, drink and take pictures". If I recall correctly she was right on board with me concerning drinking habits. A quick discussion about the next phase of her property shoot and I was off, not thinking much about the transpired conversation at all.

Then a week later an e-mail shows up in my inbox from that very client, only it wasn't her personal e-mail address like I had before, but a corporate e-mail. Her PR firm had great interest in hiring my full-day services for a photo shoot necessary in to complete a high-profile ad campaign for a city sponsored program. They requested my day rate and contract. No interest whatsoever in finding competing rates from other photographers. They wanted me, no question.

At first I was still from shock. Then I proceeded to let my internal freak-out erupt.
This was it, my first freelance commercial photo shoot, the very job in the very industry that I have always wanted. Professional shooting with studio equipment for commercial clients to produce giant ads that would be plastered over subways and bus vinyl. A job in what is easily the hardest photography industry to break into. And who would have thought that my ticket in, the critical networking contact, was a woman I had met weeks ago on a photo shoot I nearly cancelled but completed anyway while brutally hung over. Amazing.

The weeks leading up to the shoot were something a clusterfuck of equipment acquisition. Studio equipment was an absolute necessity for this client, and I had none at my disposal to speak of. Scrambling funds together, I ordered what I thought would be the crucial gear set for the client. Unfortunately, only the week of the shoot did I discover a different few pieces were needed. God bless 1-day shipping. But otherwise, I was set. Set and gung-ho. Not in the typical sense of excitement, the sloppy, giddy, so-overblown-with-energy-that-mistakes-are-inevitable way. Rather a very cool, collected, goddamn-it's-about-time-I-take-this-step way. Even before beginning, I already felt accomplished.

Without going into details, the shoot itself went without a hitch. Barring a model that never showed (which put the casting director in a quiet panic), every session throughout the day went incredibly well. I stayed at the hip of the art director, sharing my captures with him in every scenario to ensure what I was capturing matched with his vision (an effort I suspect he was very appreciative of). Despite being the most expensive aspect of the shoot up front, the studio portrait portion came and went in the span of perhaps 15 minutes. A full 30 minutes ahead of schedule, the shoot was completed. I celebrated with my partner with Coronas and spicy hot TexMex. It was a fantastic day.

This entire week I've felt a critical change in how I approach photography from a business standpoint. Even with the introduction of paid real estate shooting months earlier, the tracking of payment and expenses has largely been an afterthought of mine. Now, however, with this most recent shoot hopefully being the first of many to come, my approach is absolutely required to be more proactive.

Going back to the first travel property shoots in February, I've logged every bit of mileage, comped and uncomped, tolls, expenses for studio equipment, anything and everything that a formalized, incorporated business would be required to track. While I am not yet a legally established small business entity, I feel it will not be long now before that approach becomes the next logical step for me to take. Though still diminutive by comparison to the income of my established 9-to-5, the rate of growth I am suddenly experiencing with my photographic pursuits leads me to believe they will inevitably balance out, and although the pursuit of one is certainly harder than the other, eventually they will come to compete. The question is how long do I get to enjoy this balance before the competition begins? I only have so much free time in which to accommodate photo shoots so long as I work a structured Monday through Friday schedule and with no time to mentally defragment and relax, I run the risk of putting both pursuits in jeopardy.

Next week I am taking a trip to Pittsburgh. Originally it was strictly intended as a personal vacation, a weekend to abandon all work and responsibility, to retreat for a few days into a crowd in which rules and social etiquette are afterthoughts, thus making it socially acceptable to behave like a fool (and even garner praise for it). In direct defiance of my own intentions, however, I've been hired by someone who will be in Pittsburgh at the same time for my photography services, thus officially making this Steel City pilgrimage an unexpected business trip. While I don't expect the shoot to be particularly difficult, I do hope it doesn't leave me in a mindset whereby I cannot relax even while on vacation.

It's a bit terrifying when you lose the ability to be satisfied with doing nothing.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Anniversary of a Photographic Blackout

I went digging through my archive of photographs to see just what I had been photographing at this time last year. It's my time-to-time tactic for making myself feel better about the stage of photographic evolution I may be desensitized to at any given point. Last night was a particularly low night for me, with an interest in pursuing the muse ultimately defeated by an inexplicable inability to do so, a comedy of self-inflicted errors leaving my spirit deflated. So I sought the crop, the product of my photographic musings in May last year.

My ailing short-term memory seems to be evolving into a long-term memory problem - in May of last year I took no photos. I had no adventures. I had no camera. In May of last year I was recouping from my dance with the Reaper.

Wild to try and think back to that time, really. Much as I dwelt on a split sense of identity at the time, I no longer seem to feel that way today. If anything, the person, the personality and outlook I'd adopted during recovery was the John 2.0 he would always ramble about. Who I am now feels seamlessly connected to the person before the accident, but with a greater sense of self and profound understanding of the lessons to have been learned from the experience. My identity is whole again. Thus it is strange to think that I could have ever endured a period of doubt, that such a disconnect ever existed.

In any case, I wouldn't take a photo again until June 11th of 2011. I was sitting at the coffee house with the son of the woman whose car I was in when the accident occurred. Good kid, helped me keep tabs on his mother's progress through recovery as her's was a much longer process than mine. I had just acquired the funds to purchase a replacement camera, which I was very eager to do. All I could think about was rebuilding the camera system I had lost, putting together a similarly competent system and running into the photographic fray once again. Unfortunately, all I had enough for was a premium compact, the Olympus XZ-1, which I still use and love today, but was not nearly the kind of system I had lost in the accident (a compact is hardly something one can refer to as a system). I didn't care, though. All I wanted to do was take pictures again and I didn't care what the limitations would be. I needed to be able to photograph again.

We sat up at Starbucks, drank coffee and mused about how all our worlds were rocked. He nearly lost his mother (and at the time still stood the chance of losing her), I nearly lost my life, the legal repercussions of the event were still nebulous and worrisome, all we could do to keep our minds out of the sea of confusion was to talk out our stresses over coffee. He didn't mind me photographing him. Being a musician and therefore artistic type himself, he understood the swell of pain involved when a muse is untapped for so long. And frankly, the photos were terrible - I was learning a new camera after over a month of never touching one and being dry as can be on the concept of composition and processing. I was learning how to do everything from scrap puzzle pieces littering the ground, some of which were so malformed and destroyed they didn't even fit anymore. Amazing to think that I've managed to put the picture back together at all, let alone so well that I've monetized the process with a talent that others recognize enough to pay money to utilize.

I have a photograph of myself after getting home from the hospital. My face was still pretty discolored with bruising, scars bright and glaring against my skin. I looked like I hadn't showered in days (which, come to think of it, I hadn't). A sad, broken person, with a sad, broken history. One year later, on the very date of my demise, this self-portrait replaces the image of that broken person. And even though this whole nostalgic ramble was spurred because of a tragic dry spell in the pursuit of the next strong image, it's hard to be so pessimistic when the pace and progress of the past year is taken into consideration. Bored and frustrated as I may be, I'm still smiling.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

I Feel Another Transition Coming On

My life really does feel like it has endured nothing but a steady stream of really positive transitions in these opening 4 months of this new year. Call it paranoia, but I do hope this rushing sweep of uplifting change and accompanying optimism isn't precipitating a pending future tragedy. For a change, I'd like to think I've already endured more than my fair share of personal tragedy. Not just the car accident that should have ended my stream of consciousness, but the year preceding which was effectively a long-term state of mind so unbearable as to make the concept of premature death not just palatable, but appetizing. It's good to be done with self-imposed bad vibes.

So much of the latter half of 2011 was spent re-evaluating my significance, my reason for being. Much time was spent mentally fixated on the perplexing circumstances of my continued survival, a constant process of rationalization. My perception of who I was split, the original variant of my concept of self left dead on the roadside. The person that remained was a shambled collection of the broken pieces from that shattered identity, a piecemeal sense of self not cohesively arranged into anything recognizable as the defined man preceding it. I was someone new, someone different, and despite all the years spent defining the person I was (leading to the tragic result that was a self-sabotaging 24 year old) I needed to slow down, take my time, erase what was written and start fresh, ink in what worked and erase the sloppier parts of the draft. Like traveling back in time to correct mistakes you know you'd make (only without that silly Hollywood subplot of every change inevitably bringing a negative consequence).

Most of 2011 felt like lost time, a period of recovery where progress that could've been made wasn't. Once upon a time that thought left me feeling cheated, but now I appreciate the hiatus from rapid progress as it gave me the time I needed to really think critically on what I wanted to achieve, which pursuits were the most fulfilling, what I wanted out of life instead of what I was being given. That period of introspective brainstorming shows today. Without it, I wouldn't have ever developed the brand that I am now recognized by. I wouldn't have met the people I've developed an affinity for shooting with. I wouldn't have branched off into actual studio work, been contracted to shoot real estate for a legitimate, well established company, been published and re-published in a strong, ongoing business relationship with a foreign publishing firm. I wouldn't have realized the dream of becoming an established, working photographer. And that really is the important part... if not for the wild way in which events unfolded, I never would have ascended from the tragic dreamer to the man living the dream. From simply quixotic to self-actualized.

It's a good feeling, and life has become an optimistic affair. And while it is natural to become acclimated to the state of being after a goal has been achieved and once again yearn for the next goal, the next journey, I am supremely contented with the coasting ride. However, I have a swelling sense that the changes are not done coming, that in spite of the grand positive influx of happy coincidence and boons to my future, there are still other subtle, unexpected changes set to settle in my lap. Regardless of need or desire. Independent of anticipation. So long as I continue making progress in solidifying my foundation as "Photographer".

Life has treated me well. And I am absolutely thankful.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Uprooting Syndrome

Life in general has been on an all too lasting holding pattern as of late. Last month I signed the lease to a new apartment, and while items were trickling over into the new space the entire time, it has been in the past week that the vast majority of major item moves have taken place. As it stands, the new apartment is more or less together with nearly all the "keepers" from the old space, but with that said, the old space still needs to be emptied. As nice and obvious an "upgrade" as the new apartment is, the transition is bittersweet - after 4 years in the former residence, memories, habits, a solid history had formed in and around it, the likes of which it will naturally take some time to form in the new apartment. Much as I love the new place, it just won't have that home feeling until I've been there long enough to built a new set of patterns, write a new history. Ah, the impact of sweeping transition.

The only photography I've managed to engage in during the past couple weeks has been some shooting in Baltimore, at the inlet of the Inner Harbor. Night shooting, the classic stuff I learned the art of photography on to begin with. Learning some niche issues that make the E-P3 a bit tricky to use when shooting at night, but learning it well enough. Still in love with the wildly punchy but somehow balanced colors it produces in i-Enhance mode. To remove one annoying little handicap to my post-process, I invested in a new monitor last night, a 23" LED with excellent tweak-ability and bundled calibration software, perfect for ensuring solid photo editing. It's nice to not be left squinting at the screen anymore to edit photos and be a slave to off-even zoom levels. It may not affect ultimate image quality, but it will certainly make the experience of post-processing less cumbersome and annoying on my end.

Another off-usual tidbit from last week, I visited a therapist for the first time in many years. At the encouragement of a friend (though, really, multiple friends), I sought professional counseling to get to the core of a multifaceted and deep seated disquieted demeanor I just can't quite seem to shake. I've been more and more prone, in recent years, to essentially consume stimulus much as one consumes media such as TV or movies, and much like those who watch too much TV or waste too much time watching movies or playing video games I've reached a point where no matter what my goal, the hobby in practice, whatever I may be working towards or in pursuit of, I am never satisfied by the ultimate outcome. Not disappointed at the end result, but disappointed that it is a completed goal. If not on a constant journey, a non-stop march to complete some objective, I quickly grow bored and stir crazy until the next goal is presented. Effectively, I am binging on work because I'm never content with the result no matter how positive. After my first session last week, it was suggested I read up on and engage in the practice of meditation to slowly bring myself to contentedness with doing nothing, and while I would like to try it the first step demands a location that is relaxing, sacred, generally non-stressful, and because I am in a new place that isn't even entirely together there is nowhere at home that qualifies.

Best I could think of was perhaps driving out to one of my abandoned sanctuaries and practicing meditation there, which I'm fairly confident would work, but that line of thinking brought me to a deeper point of understanding about how I work mentally. I haven't explored solo in quite some time, usually bringing along the safety net of a friend such as Kyle or with a trustworthy group. From a safety standpoint, such a practice is best, but I thought further about how I felt while exploring on my own, with no safety net. Mental wellness meditation involves a strong emphasis on body awareness, demanding central focus on breathing, where the body occupies the space around it, generally a sense of where you are, strictly locking the mind in the time frame of the present. While exploring in groups, my mind has always been muddied by the influence of those people, be it self-conscious thinking of their perceptions, the influence of their photographing approach on my own, any number of subtle, often overlooked ways in which we interact with each other simply by being in close proximity. Alone, however, there is no better way to describe the experience than the most firmly rooted in the present and the most keenly focused and aware of myself, my body, my presence. Concern for Facebook status updates, what I'm eating for dinner, how much gas I have left in the tank, what groceries I need, whether or not I cleaned the stove, none of it ever entered the picture during my solo explores of late 2010 and early 2011. Everything was strictly in the moment, and the only elements that mattered were what were directly available to the senses. In essence, those solo explores were like meditation all their own. I'm thinking perhaps I should engage in the practice of it again to reset that scope of clarity they provided before. If I can learn to function strictly in the moment during an explore, certainly I can bring it with me into my normal day-in, day-out.

Hopefully this weekend the apartment transition will be complete. Then, finally, I will be able to return to a more normal span of activities. My hands miss holding the camera.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Skylines and Mountainsides

On this day last week I was roadway bound for the region around Shenandoah Valley, specifically gunning for Skyline Drive. If you haven't heard of it, you should have. It's a very touristy locale, but still manages to offer the kinds of stunning vistas you'd think only hardened mountain climbers should ever get the opportunity to see. I'd been there once before in 2010 with a good friend who held similar interests in the photographic sense as myself. Our time there 2 years ago was the stuff of magic. While last week's excursion was certainly not nearly as long a trip, it was still a time of heavy introspection and abstract worldly appreciation. One of those rare opportunities to step back from the game our modern world has made of our day to day existence and contemplate the stuff of existentialism, the stuff that really matters.

Driving down last week proved to be one of those quirky little adventures all its own. The main point of amusement was a hiccup in our chosen GPS device. Utilizing my tablet for all directions and other such location-related needs, we (Kyle tagged along on this trip) managed to make it a majority of the way without a hitch until the signal the tablet received from the cell towers dropped to nil. Suddenly the satellite was grossly off our actual location, so turns, landmarks, roads, everything was askew just enough to throw us that critical little bit off course. Frustrated, a quick stop at a lovely little Italian eatery in the land of Middle-of-Nowhere was just the recharge needed, and with our bearings re-synched we managed to make it to the place we'd chosen to stay for the night. And oh what a place it was.

Two thousand feet up on the undeveloped side of the Pocosan Mountain, hidden like a treasure up nasty, aggressive gravel mountain roads, a local conservationist, naturalist, farmer and all around green thumb had set up a rather large yurt on one of the cliff sides of his 60 acre mountain top property and rented it out to those interested and willing to brave the trek to reach it. He happened to have it listed on the website of the company that contracted me to shoot their listed rental properties, and for the minimal fee he was charging for its use it would have been an insult to myself to not have taken up the offer. Kyle and I aimed to stay there just for the night, my intent being to photograph the mountainside views as tenaciously as possible, but with Kyle's influence the vacation quickly turned from self-prescribed work to an actual, legitimate instance of rest and relaxation. What with the host's home grown meals served to us in the evening and for breakfast the following morning, a hot tub with an amazing sunset view and amazing views in general, it was hard to want to do much else than sit, let stress dissolve and take in the unique sounds of such an isolated area. An actual vacation, fancy that.

The following morning we set off to wander the winding roads of Skyline Drive. Again, while my intent had been to stop and photograph the overlooks aggressively, that simply isn't what happened. We did stop to take in several overlooks, but most of my attention that day was directed to the simple pleasure of aggressive driving, tackling the limited roadways as hard and as fast as possible. I don't think I have ever smelled brakes cooking so repulsively. Each stop at an overlook, though providing an opportunity to take photographs, was ultimately more an opportunity to let my brakes cool off and just generally give the car a chance to breath after the demands I placed on it for miles and miles and miles. It was a fun time, regardless, and Kyle wasn't terrified at all sitting shotgun through my irresponsible maneuvering. Was rather nice to have someone riding passenger who at least understood the method behind the madness of some of the more aggressive handling techniques I employed. 67 miles and 40 minutes later, we were in Front Royal, and even though our adventure hadn't lasted too long, we were both oddly eager to get home.

Unfortunately, the haze over the Blue Ridge Mountains was still heavy. I had hoped the haze would be more subdued in the Spring (my trip in 2010 was in the Summer and haze was atrocious). Ultimately, this means a Fall trip will be required as I am determined to photograph multiple North American States in a single image, and the nearly 4000 foot peaks of some of the mountains of Blue Ridge are some of the only places such a task can be accomplished. Just a quirky personal goal. But I will most definitely be looking forward to staying in the yurt once again.

It's also becoming more and more of a priority to me to shoot such scenes in lower light, either at nightfall or twilight states. They just speak to me more when photographed at those times. Well lit scenes are just so bland anymore.

Tonight I will possibly be shooting with the crew of local urban exploration masters I linked up with in January, but all will largely depend on events at home - I am in the middle of moving into a new apartment and alas the air mattress I've been sleeping on for nearly a year decided to pop last night. Oh well... cest la vie.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Abandoning the Status Quo

It's been a long while since I've made a post on this forum. Peculiar, really - as much as I have done, as many things as I have accomplished in just the (nearly) 2 months since my last entry here, somehow I feel like I have accomplished remarkably little of note. Or perhaps that's simply a rise in my sense of personal doubt that anyone actually cares what I am doing (and let's face it, why should they)? Not sure... but looking back over the past two months... dear lord, my world has been shaken.

Let's start with the business aspect of photography (since I like to pretend this blog is somehow business related in any respect at all). Early in February (but after my last post, obviously) I received a message from a photography department liaison for a certain vacation/travel real estate rental service that has blown up to something quite big over the past few years. At the core, their business model is decidedly "European" - when people have guest spaces they aim to rent out to short term travelers who would rather opt into a private space than a hotel, this company handles the money between them as well as functions as a sort of background checking buffer to ensure hosts and guests are trustworthy individuals. A simple and rather novel approach to rental properties, streamlining the booking process and doing well to alleviate concerns one might have when allowing strangers into their home (and vice versa). While every listing tends to have at least some photos snapped by the property owners themselves, this company contracts freelance photographers in various areas and distributes locations in need of more professional presentation. Effectively real estate photography.

Anywho, this liaison approached me with a very direct offer - not verbatim, but in generally the same words, she proposed to me "You take such fantastic photographs of the interiors of these abandoned structures, how would you like to be paid to take photographs of some not so abandoned interiors?". Long story short, I most enthusiastically accepted the offer made - now I am officially employed as a photographer! To date I have conducted well over a dozen shoots, for which I have been compensated quite graciously. Finally, after years of persistence and missed chances, I am operating in an industry I actually reserve some strong passion for. Good times, for sure.

Partially related to my engagement in such a business form of photography, my editing methods have also undergone tremendous adjustment. The standard by which everyone in the industry swears as far as post-processing goes is Photoshop. Well, Photoshop or Lightroom. An Adobe product. The packaged RAW editors delivered with cameras very often fall to the wayside, neglected and unappreciated.

Following the standard, I utilized Photoshop to process the RAWs from my first photoshoot for the company that contracted me. And much to my alarm, my submissions were rejected for not conforming to a certain style and expectation of image fidelity I simply didn't know how to achieve with Adobe Camera RAW. I fooled with the RAW for hours in ACR and could never manage a clean looking image that would pass the review gate, and as such I feared my chance at continued employment with this company was in dire jeopardy. Desperate, I traveled off the beaten path - I couldn't return to reshoot the scene using JPG processing in-camera (as I suspected the i-Enhance color mode with my manual adjustments would have been the golden formula the company was looking for), so I installed the Olympus Viewer 2 software offered along with the purchase of the camera. I knew that RAW editor would effectively allow the application of color profiles offered in-camera, just with much more in-depth tweaking available. While worried the clarity of the image would not be up to par with the detail retained by ACR conversion, I dove in regardless, out of options and desperate to submit a product that would meet the company's approval.

Not even 20 minutes later I had a solid bank of 15 or so images I knew would pass through the acceptance gates with no problem. More importantly, the next few hours I spent experimenting, reprocessing images I'd shot months ago in RAW, because dear lord Viewer 2 managed to produce a kind of tonality and color fidelity I would never in my life ever learn to achieve in Adobe Camera RAW. And to this day, my post process has effectively abandoned Photoshop entirely - Viewer 2 is that good.

Before, my process never affected the RAW file in ACR that much before it was fully rendered and dumped into Photoshop for layered editing. As such, the color profile of each image was an identically bland natural tone that depended entirely upon heavy adjustment layers to manipulate into anything original or artistic in aesthetic. I'd doted before on Olympus' magnificent JPG engine in-camera, but never really came to the understanding that the same color fidelity could be achieved with its own RAW development software. My only exposure to manufacturer RAW development before Viewer 2 had been Nikon's NEX software, which (as any photographer will tell you) was an atrocious failure of function. That first impression left a stigma that made me afraid to travel outside of Adobe for imaging software. Just as Olympus has a monopoly on ingenious JPG rendering, they similarly have the monopoly on supremely functional and genuinely useful RAW development software packaged with their cameras. No need to spend $900 on the Adobe suite when the camera you already spent $900 on can render an image just as well, if not better, with less effort required on the end of the user.

It dumbfounds me that Olympus isn't higher up on the photography tool popularity charts. They are the only manufacturer I have maintained a system from that actually has the entire package together to maximize the capabilities of the end user of their equipment. Their systems are open and modular, with both in-house support and that of many third party manufacturers, their products come packaged with functional, competent software so the end user isn't required to look elsewhere for optimal image rendering capabilities, they even provide for offsite storage of image files and the bandwidth to carry the load of image sharing and distribution. The system couldn't be more complete, from both a software and hardware end. It doesn't just stop at the capabilities of the camera, it runs over into excellent customer support, quality warranties and product repair, community and open sharing of information between end users - I would call it the Apple of digital cameras, even though I bear a strong contempt for Apple (which isn't to say I respect the amazing product and user support they provide). Digital imaging is so inundated with obsession over the hardware capabilities of its tools, a shame more people don't take the time to step back, look at the greater picture. I'm certain, if they did, Olympus would never have suffered the scare of 3 years ago when they very nearly dipped into irrelevance to the market.

Aside from those two very landmark points... well, let's see... I'm sure I've been up to other things too. My protege, Kyle, and I spent one weekend more or less binging or urban explores. His presence during an explore is a welcome thing - he manages to challenge my usual hesitations and boundaries of risk in ways that encourage the will to conquer them, not the easiest balance of provocation and empathy to exercise. We also took a trip into the Shenandoah Valley region off Skyline Drive for some natural landscapes, but alas, the Blue Ridge Mountains lived up to their name even this early in the year. They definitely demand a Spring-centric shoot to avoid their usual mask of haze. My backlog of personal images has gotten rather tremendous, what with photos from working shoots often taking precedence. However, with my log of working photoshoots taking a bit of a needed lull, I hope to present more of my most recent material this week.

So much in so little time. And so strange that is seems like the complete opposite to me... I really should learn how to relax a bit more.