Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Twenty Thirteen (a.k.a The Year After Everything Changed)

Allow me to preface this belated posting with a nod to all the many "draft" posts that never seemed to make it up to this public forum this year. Much as I've been producing content on which to read about, far too much of it stank of whining and complaint and self-pity to warrant any outward interfacing. They were my own tensions with which to wrestle. As such I've deleted many, but published a few backdated entries that were at least sensible.

Now, onto other things.

2013 has been a year to test my fortitude in relation to keeping my brand new business alive and viable, my budgets in vigilant check, and my ego under control. A practice in not rebounding too wildly into a negative state following an overwhelmingly positive year in 2012. I know my history with extreme rubber banding following any extremes of experience - managing a balance was critical this year. And despite what are perceptibly negatives in experience this year, I'd like to think I managed things rather well (and a couple chance positives certainly bolstered that effort to ride the neutral line).

So join me as I stroll down memory lane and consider the wide swathes of change that occurred in 2013 (and perhaps how I'll adapt to them in 2014).

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Come January of 2013 I was still very much stuck on my fixation of risky infiltration. Since about October of 2012 a local counterpart and I had developed a drug-addiction like penchant for finding our way deep into properties that weren't necessarily abandoned (at least not in their entirety), an effort that we acknowledged was less geared toward capturing stronger photos but more indulgent of the adrenal rush involved with the video game-like skirting of security patrols and bypass of fixed security points like guard stations and security cameras. Enjoyable as it was, there was no rational way to sustain that practice for long - tempting fate as regularly as we did only bore plainly foreseeable consequences.

Consciously, we broke our high-risk pattern and redirected our energy toward the only other relevant thing to us at the time - portraiture. When I came up with my business plan in 2012, I'd stated that pushing into the realm of fine art portrait work would be a goal to achieve in 2013. However, in practice, my tightly controlled portrait work only ever seemed to involve friends and cold, lonely nights of boredom. The only break portraiture ever made into my business at all in the year was a Valentine's Day portrait setup I ran for a local park, operating a rather suave setup utilizing the PENPal bluetooth transmitter on my E-P3 connected to a tablet connected to a laptop connected to a printer, a complicated mess of frosty tools in the Winter cold that rather efficiently pushed out 8x10 prints for paying customers. It was a fun gig, an experiment in convoluted workflow in a harsh environment that worked surprisingly well but has since not seen renewed use. I fault myself for that - another chance opportunity hoarded all my spare attention for the rest of the year.

The same week as the Valentine portrait job I was contacted by the COO of a high profile development firm in Baltimore offering the kind of job I hadn't even dreamed possibly coming to my doorstep in just a year's time. Paid and tasked for two entire days to photograph one of the most iconic living structures in Baltimore City. Keys in hand, free reign over whatever spaces I deemed fit to shoot. I still think fondly on that job today as the kind of operation I would like to be involved in more often. Certainly not a bread-and-butter sort of venture for any business model, but it combined the freedom to practice my own sense of aesthetic in tandem with fulfilling my business obligations strictly because I was hired on the merits of my vision and sense of aesthetics. Much as I may operate a business, I still consider myself the eccentric artist, and to be presented such a clear avenue by which I could combine the two... it was a dream job. And when the final day of the shoot came, I sat on the rooftop of that building and enjoyed the sunset with my affectionately chosen post-rock anthems playing over speakers behind me. I felt like I'd conquered something, like David having slain Goliath.

And then, naturally, everything fell to shit.

Occupying the "bread-and-butter" slot of my business model was a contract feeding me travel rental and real estate listings to photograph on the regular. A hefty portion of that work took place in Washington DC, or it did until another photographer local to the DC/Metro area was extended a contract not unlike mine. And suddenly the steady, healthy income stream vanished. Job bookings dropped from 4  or 5 on any given weekend to 2 or 3 in any given month. My well dried up, reducing me to a mere prospector. But with no reliable network for regular business outside the contract that found me obsolete, I did the best thing I could do with the situation. I got back to the experimental and the adventurous shooting I spent the earliest month's of the year trying to get away from. After all, it was that high risk execution of photography that was the very thing that had gotten me noticed in the first place.

With a certain fondness I christened this phase the "UE Renaissance". The latter months of 2012 leading into 2013 involved unconscionably brazen acts of infiltration only because of boredom and a certain jaded sense of the known and available locales popular among practitioners of urban exploration. However, with the weather warming to a tolerable climate, the drive to explore new areas and find new locales saw a sudden crop of freshly rotten places populate the map. To say it was a welcome distraction from the woes of my nearly-lost business revenue would not do this renaissance period justice. In the absence of need for business sense, the thing that had so rooted me to a small area, my gears oriented toward adventure outside my traditionally accepted locus of control. I wanted to get out of the DC Corridor.

So I did.

Beginning with a weekend run up to a friend's place on the Jersey side of Pennsylvania, I developed a quick and early affinity for "Pennsyltuckey". Being from a relatively flat area of the Northeast visually polluted by sprawling highway systems like a blood infection emanating from DC, the contrast in scenery against the rolling, lush green hills hugging tight against wide networks of rivers left me enamored. It was a kind of scenery I'd never much been surrounded by before, and its allure kept me coming back as a reprieve from the relentless concrete makeup of home.

When home or otherwise unable to swing a trip North, pairing with friends in a hiking group introduced me to the local pockets of green oasis. Though small and curiously sequestered, weekly hiking trips became fresh new avenues in which to practice the art of nature photography, a discipline I'd never given much thought prior. And along with it my approach to photo editing churned and cycled with change as I stepped out of the circle of Adobe Devout and embraced alternative software, some engineered for specific effects, somehow working in tandem to create looks I'd hunted unsuccessfully for years. Abandoning the tried and true routine of processing, I stepped into nigh-dreamscape territory. It didn't matter if it was popular or perceived as cheesy. In taking myself less seriously, I took my art less seriously, and in shirking perceptions of expectation I found a most liberating, uplifting kind of freedom that has managed to define the tail end of the year.

Mid-year saw my personal travels bloom in the self-prescribed ethos "you'll never see it if you're never there". Complacency was a thing for other more stagnant and lethargic people. I had to see things. I had to be places. I had chapters to write in the cognitive novel of memories. And so I rather aimlessly went everywhere I could to do things I hadn't done as they came along. With the renegade UE crews of Baltimore and Tennessee I drank and camped in an abandoned curb stone quarry, feasting on burgers cooked with poor drunken shoddiness in the pitch black. Against every impulse I've held in the past 10 years, I braved Baltimore's Gay Pride Parade and ensuing after-party with a good friend, complete with drunken return train ride and follow-up bar run of regret. With that same friend, insane times were had hiking beneath the Key Bridge with such illustrious happenings as jumping snake attacks and MRSA infected waters (many apologies to this friend who spent days in the hospital combating the infection). Per tradition, my annual pilgrimage to the Steel City took place, but with an entirely new crowd of people and less anchored in the Golden Triangle of the city's commercial district. No, with this new company of incredible people in tow, far sketchier lands, broken towns of proper Pennsyltuckey abandonment, were explored, only to be toasted to, nightly, on a rainbow LED lit riverside.

After the weight and drag of the early year, my muse had ascended from an optimistic cadence to a vivacious tango, a full sprint of energy and motivation.

Two outings at the groaning end of Summer defined this inspired period for me in a uniquely personal way, however, as back-to-back events that acted like remarkable exclamation points to a trans-formative phase of life. A childhood friend I'd heard little from in the years after High School roped me into an outing to Deep Creek for 3 days of relative isolation and mutual catch-up among friends. It was a remarkable weekend retreat for more than just the revelry and company, edging closer to a pointed kind of introspection on the kind of company I keep, the kind of company I want to keep, and the kind of company I should keep.

The crew at Deep Creek, myself included, were all very similar, with relative little differences in the natures of our upbringing, backgrounds and education. Smart, motivated "kids" who took the reigns of their own lives earlier than expected (or sometimes condoned) by parents. In the early years of our growth we all kept the company of less motivated, less capable people. Company that was no less charming or amicable as any friendship should be, but lacking in a mutually shared pursuit of more, of better, of new... of discovery. And in those early adulthood years that shared passion for self-betterment went unfulfilled, at least until we all came into our own having learned to identify the rare company that encouraged us to be more.

Given that critically common similarity, the willingness and reception to challenge of self, even a mere 3 days spent in the company of those old friends was intoxicating and rich. Paired with the dramatic swing of warm and cold temperatures, brewing incessantly varying degrees of fog and steam and color simply floating in the sky, the weekend provided a thoughtful period in which to exercise what felt like a higher level of photography than ever before. Slower, patient, more thoughtful. Because thought was the definitive aspect of Deep Creek, for all of us. We exhausted ourselves with questions and concepts and ideas that would only ever resonate with those who shared in the driving quest of curiosity and shunned complacency like a heretic in church. For the vacation that it was, however relaxed and carefree, by the end the fatigue was both mental and physical. To date I've yet to muster the mental cohesion to approach many of the photographs I took on that trip.

Only a week after Deep Creek and my closest creative companion and I were on the road following highways West, driving into the sunset until the Rockies in Colorado inevitably halted our charge.

My friend managed to achieve his own impulsive life goal, finding opportunity to comfortably move to Colorado for both work and pleasure. He graciously invited me along for both the company and the help with the long trek. Prior to this trip, I'd never really traveled much beyond areas bordering home, certainly never traversing half-a-country of land westward. Though I'd seen plenty of landscape photos and film of the Midwest, that is all those territories had even been to me, imaginary lands seen in magazines or television screens. The difference in translation, difference in impact would be far, far different when experienced. I knew this, and was giddy for this epic adventure with a dearest friend.

Our first day of the trip was spent driving almost entirely. We drove until we escaped the suffocating familiarity of East coast terrain, until the trees looked different, until the air smelled new. We drove until our backs ached and legs were stiff. We drove until Saint Louis. 16 hours, an entire two-thirds of the trip accomplished in our inspired escape from sameness.

Henceforth it was new territory, sights ne'er before seen (at least for us). Our pace slowed as we drank in the transitioning landscape, in quiet awe of the foreign lands found within our own borders. In particular, I remember Kansas very distinctly. The State had long been presented to me as choice for storm photography and film, and the description of its vast expanse of clearly visible nothing often spoken of sarcastically. Per expectations of aforementioned sarcasm, I was prepared to be utterly catatonic as we crossed the State, bored of the empty sameness. It had never occurred to me that the sheer enormity of that nothing, how truly gargantuan and unending the land stretched into a distance, obscured only by dust storms and the mortal inadequacy of the human eye. A kind of impact that could never be translated by anything but physical presence, experience. Possibly one of the most gorgeous "nothings" one could ever see.

We stayed the night in Kansas, ruminated on the incredible variety within our home country that we were all but blind to in the relative microcosm of the Northeast. I suspect he knew this remarkably different world was out there already, the kind of thing you experience as a child and long to return to well into adulthood. Longer and longer into the journey, and especially in the oasis of Colorado Springs, I gave very serious thought to abandoning my life as I knew it, beginning anew in the refreshing unfamiliarity of this new landscape.

Having marched steadfast in the first day of the trip, we found ourselves with 2 days to spare exploring Colorado before my flight home (which I begrudged). We hiked and photographed throughout the Garden of the Gods and imbibed ourselves on scenic overlooks, every song on the car radio an anthem of arbitrary accomplishment. Ascending Pike's Peak, we stood deaf and dumb in the face of the visage atop the mountain. This was where the Immortals stood. This was the God Perspective. And in keeping with a recurring theme throughout the year, it was appropriately where I incapacitated myself with injury.

Home and able to adjust to responsible living as I waited for my damaged knee to heal, an unexpected trend suddenly re-entered my realm. For months, nearly half a year, my business had fallen completely to the wayside with hardly any clients to speak of available or interested. I had already come to terms with my pipe dream of operating a photographing business having crashed and burned, a one hit wonder forgotten by the next fiscal year. But something changed. Somewhere the market had shifted, or perhaps marketing had somehow managed to appeal in a new way. The contract that once upon a time fed me job after job in DC... suddenly I was being fed clients in Baltimore. And not in small numbers. It didn't take long before 2 or 3 shoots a weekend spontaneously grew to 5 or 6 with last minute bookings, then 7 or 8, then too many to handle in just one weekend, I had to take time off my staple day job to accommodate the influx of new business.

It was back. Not a zombie, the undead, some husk of decayed dreaming revived for an animated sputter before its final aching gasp. It was reanimated, ascended. My contract was feeding me more clients than I could sometimes handle without panic and stress. A businessman interested in kick starting an automotive modification shop commissioned my help in producing images for marketing materials and to promote his brand. Independent realtors came in bidding on my rates with respect for my timeliness and style. So much business it took but 2 months to produce over half of my yearly profits.

I functioned like an unrelenting machine. Until the onset of the expected end-of-year-holidays slow down, there was time for little else but work. Two months spent photographing almost exclusively in the working sphere and I had no idea what to do with myself once the clients put their shoots on hold while they spent time with their families. And so began one of the more curious, certainly more spontaneous pursuits of the year, a left field anomaly.

Time lapse.

Barring aimless toying around in my younger, more experimental years, I'd never pursued time lapse with any sort of dedication to the craft or interest in learning its very delicate intricacies. The underlying inspiration to grapple a new medium was beyond me outside of a basic interest in capturing the sunrises and sunsets I enjoyed on the daily commuting to and from work. Some nebulous driver in my creative core determined the still photo was insufficient, that the light must move and change to inspire and have impact. And so began a rapid ground-up learning of a new skill, one that, try as hard as I may, doesn't seem so much marketable as it does attention-getting (which, who knows, may perhaps make marketable after all).

Beginning with small JPG files for speed and ease, graduating to batch conversions in RAW, manipulating in varied software, the entire post-process was unfamiliar and amorphous. But the initial capture, the process of acquiring the photos required to produce the final video, presented itself to me as an opportunity to relearn relaxation, a sort of meditation to discover how to be at peace in the process of doing nothing after a year of near breakneck pacing. Patience was the critical aspect, and in practicing each morning and evening, I learned to slow down enough to sip at life at an easier pace in contrast to experience binging.

Early on, before I understood the rapid pace at which I'd learn and refine technique, I set myself the shortsighted goal of producing a time lapse compilation in just a month's time, right before the turn of the new year. With much of the post-process still in a rough, unrefined state, I trudged forward regardless, insisting on meeting an arbitrary, unintelligent goal for sake of tenacity. It stood as proof of process, proof of progress, proof to myself that however trivial or inane the pursuit was worthwhile for how it left me feeling upon its completion and for no other reason to speak of. An unimportant, irrelevant objective to all but the progenitor.


I would look forward to 2014 as The Year of the Progenitor.

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With the new year I look forward with contented optimism. With a slew of medical interruptions and the months-long phase of business flat-lining, 2013 proved on the whole to be incredibly difficult to march through without sinking into soured thought and pessimistic predisposition. Having kept my chin up through some of lowest of lows, I greet the new year now with the expectation of positive retribution for sake of karma, but rather resolution in knowing that even if I am met with yet another challenging year, I can manage to stay afloat no matter the punishment it sends forth.

I intend to continue with my pet project of time lapse production, and aim to reach a more professional grade of quality by the end of 2014. With clients still gushing in from my standing contract, I aim to take advantage of the broad networking opportunities more actively than ever before, selling myself to realtors on the basis of those qualities I offer that even the long established businesses fail to provide. The end goal is to broaden the scope of my business' bread-and-butter elements, to lessen the single-point-of-failure of relying on a single business source too heavily. When warm inviting air returns, I may very well make it a point to hike every single day and photograph the nature I once took for granted. I will travel through Pennsyltuckey and make my pilgrimage to Pittsburgh and absolutely drive myself out to Colorado once again, perhaps taking a more northern route through Chicago and South Dakota.

However it's stated the theme remains the same. I aim to make 2014 not a year of sweeping change but one of refinement. My world changed in 2011 when a car accident prompted me to re-evaluate my life and abandon the person, the other me, left dead in that wreckage. 2012 saw the introduction of a life's dream in the establishment and success of a business in photography. 2013 tested my resolve and in a very subtle series of ways polished off the end goals of my expected lifetime, making bare, plain and clear what mattered, what was the kind of underlying passion one doesn't shake with time. The rest is... sand. Dust. Forgettable and forgotten. I step into the new year knowing exactly what I want to do, exactly what I want to achieve, exactly where I want to be.

Let's see if I can beat my own expectations.