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.