Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Snapseed is Awesome and Reintroducing Joy to my Photographic Process

High-rise forever under construction in Tysons Corner, VA. Photographed at sunset while in attendance of a convention staff meeting for which I ran the photo studio (Fur the More, to be specific). Lots of highlight recovery and judicious application of vintage filters in Snapseed.

Idle and unoccupied at my office the other day, I reintroduced myself to Snapseed and the mobile photo editing process in general. Historically, I've whined and complained of the joyless post-process of photography, the true time consumer of the trade that is largely invisible to every client. Methodically crunching exposure values and desperately salvaging minute details otherwise lost in the RAW file, it will always be a monotonous affair. And with my familiarity with the industry standard tools of the trade (see the Adobe suite of software), it has been a long time since I've felt compelled by anything new to learn and master. Mobile editing software for JPGs, however, be it Snapseed or Instagram... there is still joy to be had there, joy in learning new techniques and experimenting with just how much image fidelity is present in a compressed file.

I suspect some of this perceived freedom is a result of a smaller, higher pixel density display hosting the image. The typical urge to pixel peep is cast off with a screen size barely coming in at a 5-inch diagonal. Routines of photography-for-work are also ejected from the process, providing a clarity of head space enabling experimentation well outside conventional norms (and let's face it, the best work any of us produce always bends or breaks rules and conventions). Maybe it's the touch based interface, assuaging the mathematician's urge to find nice rounded numbers on which to seat Lightroom or Photoshop sliders? Who knows... who cares? It's just fun to do.

Early evening capture on a walk with friends Kevin and Rob, putting my freshly serviced M. Zuiko 12mm f/2.0 through its paces. Slow shutter speeds, handheld, and heavy noir black & white filtering in Snapseed (with some vignette to taste).

In conversations with my photographer friends, I'm frequently the one insisting that the lowest common denominator display device is the only real measure by which an image need be edited to (this tidbit of advice I actually adopted from my closest photographer friend of yesteryear, Ted). Of course I'm also terrible at heeding my own advice. With cell phones being the display method of choice for the vast majority of content consumers, unless one is specifically processing an image for print or commercial use by a client, there is an enormous amount of leeway in terms of the degree to which an image can be pushed in processing, even in compressed JPG (although RAW support is certainly gaining momentum among phone and app manufacturers). Factor in the inevitable disparity present in how various cell phone screens will reproduce an image operating in optimal conditions, let alone in varying light affecting brightness levels... people will never consume an image in the same way because the conditions in which it is viewed cannot be controlled. Some may scoff at this level of inconsistency, but considered differently, this actually affords a greater level of freedom to the photographer in the post-process. It is a facilitator of belligerent processing styles and aggressive pushing and pulling of image data, the sort of experimentation that results in new looks, new tricks, new learning.

Snapseed in particular surprises me with the processing power embedded within its code. Clearly rooted in the Nik Software method of processing, it allows for smart contextual application of basic adjustments (exposure, contrast, saturation) against varied regions of the image, cleverly calculated by a sphere of influence based on tonal commonalities. This processing method is available in the (free as of the past couple months) Nik Collection hosted by Google, but the fluid nature of the system makes far more sense when commanded via touch interface. Even superlative filters are clean in application of their respective effects, often complimenting one another when lightly or incrementally applied. Even if an effect doesn't pan out, a history of applied modifications is easily recalled, much like Photoshop's own history taskbar.

None of this is particularly "new" or "innovative" to the seasoned photographer. In my experience (which is admittedly fringe), it's simply more enjoyable to use. I wouldn't produce images for clients with my cell phone, of course, and to date I still feel oddly reluctant to publish most of my mobile edits in any portfolio. But I'll be damned if I wouldn't rather be editing loosely on my phone rather than be cemented in front of my desktop monitor.

I seem to recall having cameras whose output was comparatively subpar to other cameras available, but were enormously more fun to use... perhaps these quandaries are related? Perhaps my next step in growth as a photographer is learning to settle for what is "good enough". The treadmill of Better and Best is certainly exhausting.

Squares will always be my preferred compositional format. Heavy tweaking of tonal contrast and image structure in Snapseed, introducing crunch in highlights while retaining softer shadows.

These things said, I sat on the fence for a long time on the idea of picking up a Dell Venue 8 7000 series tablet for the purpose of mobile photo editing, and could kick myself for sitting on the thought long enough for that model to reach discontinued status. I suspect the Venue 8 (quite popular in the mobile photography community) reaching end-of-shelf-life is an indicator of something new around the corner, but who is to say an updated unit would scratch the photography itch in at all the same way. I'm compelled to track one down in the dank closet of some overstock distributor. The Better and Best do not concern me, I know what tools work in pursuit of my end goals.

Still thirst for a new camera, though, but that is unlikely to ever change. Variety is the spice of life, as they say, and it's hard to stomach a meal not doused in Sriracha.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Black Lives Matter

I've been sitting on this post for a couple weeks now. In general, I've avoided covering the Black Lives Matter movement because I did not recognize it as my narrative. Since my home town, Baltimore City, broke into a riot last year, I felt compelled to photograph what was going on, but restrained myself from injecting what I construed as my "spin" on the narrative as it was forming. As a white man, surely my perspective on a movement very much centered around the experience of growing up black in America would be tainted by the very different experiences I've had in life.

The narrative of Black Lives Matter has, nonetheless, been commandeered by many parties, and its core message distorted by players both outside and within the movement. At the moment, it feels as if it is balanced on the knife's edge, with a stubbornly deaf resistance among those who should be allies contributing to outbursts of violence from unstable actors. With the variety in the black experience in different regions of America, no single narrative sufficiently defines the movement, but that fact does not restrict ratings-hungry 24-hour news cycles from generalizing through out-group heuristics (and it especially does not restrict the presumption of meme-regurgitating Facebook junkies).

Instead of pontificating philosophically on my impression of the movement, its accomplishments or agenda, I will simply describe my experience of it as a Black Lives Matter march figuratively "fell into my lap" on a casual outing to Baltimore with my friend Kevin, a black man whose upbringing (I perceive) to be very similar to mine in regard to opportunity, but as I would discover that evening very different for no reason other than race (a discovery that remains stark and sobering in my understanding of what it is to grow up black in America).


We originally rode into Baltimore to explore the curiosity that is the annual BronyCon convention hosted by the Baltimore Convention Center. While not necessarily aligned with our fringe interests, it seemed at least tangentially related and worth checking out. Our arrival wasn't at the most opportune hour, however, and much of the activity we anticipated was still hours out, at best. We spent our time photographing the architecture of the convention center itself more so than the anatomy of the convention.

Idly standing on the third floor trying to decide what to do, where to go, we stood entranced with the mob of sports fans flooding out from Camden Yards, the neighboring baseball stadium. On its own, the opposition of these disparate crowds from one another, the Nerds vice the Jocks, was akin to magnets of opposite polarity, a strange sort of social study from our birds eye view. And then Kevin noticed a third player to this equation, a body of people marching down the center of Pratt Street, the one-way thoroughfare of Baltimore's Inner Harbor - a Black Lives Matter march, comparatively puny in size, but far more demanding of attention than either aforementioned crowd. I hesitated, but Kevin seemed all for injecting ourselves into the march, to be a part of a very unique and influential happening, literally right outside the door. Whether it was right or not for me to have this feeling, I construed his interest in engaging the march as a sort of permission, without which I would have never dared to touch a narrative I considered forbidden.

It was a rush from the onset, although not for the expected reasons. The stern march of the body of protest was a challenge to keep pace with, myself and Kevin frequently leapfrogging one another to get ahead of the demonstration as it marched down Pratt, re-positioning ourselves in 100-foot sprints. Periodically, we found ourselves avoiding police traffic, as cruisers rolled past with lights and sirens, not to stop the protesters but rather to close down intersections down their path. Confrontation was not a thing on my radar.

Reaching the end of Pratt where it intersected with Presidents Street, a police lieutenant stepped forward from a modest barricade of police cruisers and accosted the man who clearly organized the march, a black man who looked to be in his mid-30's brandishing a megaphone. With the march halted at the corner of this intersection, Kevin and I drew tighter into the group, and I incidentally found myself keeping tight with the organizer as the lieutenant leaned in to speak to him. Their conversation was brief, but it was clear to me that the intended route of the march was communicated, and the lieutenant quickly passed the word along via radio. Police cruisers disbanded and relocated to an intersection farther up Presidents Street, and the march continued northward toward the blockade stopped just before the I-83 ramps.

As the march continued north, I was pulled aside from a woman who seemed to be in close communication with the leading organizer. She requested I photograph the group beneath the "Year of the Black Man" sign advertising an exhibition at the local Reginald F. Lewis Museum. The PR potential of the moment in context was not beyond me, and I complied with a smile and promptly shared the image online, imagining that to be the end goal intended. Upon reaching the blockade, the march quickly shifted west down East Baltimore Street, then north up Commerce Street before a final turn eastward down Fayette and back toward I-83. Every step of the way, for each turn, police promptly set up blockades a few blocks ahead of the march.

The blockade at the end of Fayette before the I-83 ramps was different than the fluid and mobile blockades of police cars. A line of beat police stood shoulder to shoulder while officers behind them collected steel railings to close off the street with a physical barrier. The night prior, a similar protest (larger in size) had congested I-83 traffic, and police were clearly interested in avoiding a repeat of that event. None of the marchers I focused on grew confrontational, and the police insisted the blockade was a measure to ensure no one was injured by traffic bound for or departing the highway. Things seemed to stall for some time at this position, the demonstrators clearly interested in continuing forward, but police clearly unyielding. Hands were joined a few times in prayer at this point, prayers for several black men killed by police whose names have commanded the news this past year, and also prayers for the police officers killed in Dallas, TX that very week. At the most tense moment, a line of demonstrators joined hands in a mirrored line up against the line of police, and I am unsure what words may have been exchanged. Eventually, the organizer broke the stand, and the march turned back westward, reportedly as far as Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard prior to disbanding. Kevin and I stopped following the march after the stall at Fayette and Presidents Street.

Exhausted from keeping up with the march, we ducked into a local pizza shop of popular note, Joe's Squared, to share a bite and a beer. At this point we touched on our differing experience of the protest. Through my lens (as in the lens of my experience), I was impressed with the communication and organization between protesters and police, perceiving each blockade as a safety measure for the benefit of the march up until the mild stall of confrontation just before we broke from the march. It struck me as a positive event, a healthy demonstration of civil disobedience that lacked any aura of pending conflict. Kevin, meanwhile, described being terrified that at a moment's notice he would be subdued along with the marching body, and that each blockade was not a safety measure for the benefit of the demonstrators but a control measure designed to herd and manage a rebellious body.

I was surprised by the disparity in our experiences. Kevin and I are extremely similar people, with similarly advantaged parents who afforded us a privileged upbringing. We've grown into similar hobbies because we're similarly dorky guys. But whereas I felt the freedom to rebel against authority when I felt at conflict with its execution upon me, Kevin has always been afraid of what could happen to him should he ever fall out of line. When police harassed me for photographing in public spaces, acting completely within my rights, I rebelled by adopting urban exploration as my muse - If I was to be harassed for photographing anyway, I would pursue photography in which the consequences of authority were at least warranted. It was not a threat to the sanctity of the privilege to which I'd grown accustomed. Kevin, however, had cultured himself into an anxious wreck to remain within the boundaries presented to him by authority, lest the benefits and opportunities of his upbringing be put at risk, or worse.

My direct peer, a friend, whose experience of the world had been so similar to mine, yet by virtue of race, I was afforded the freedom to rebel while he remained bound by the excruciating stress of conformity and complicity. I would not survive within the confines such a social framework.

We returned to BronyCon for a last look at events, quickly tired of the crowd and returned home. I felt we'd touched on an important topic, but only just barely. More than any other signs being brandished by demonstrators in the march, "White Silence is Violence" stood out to him as the most powerful. And I'm compelled to agree.


My experience of the Black Lives Matter movement more completely cemented my shifting understanding of the role of race in the American social contract. Particularly in my brief discussion with Kevin, race alters perception because white-normative Americans will interact with non-white Americans differently, no matter how great their opportunities are, no matter how rich their privilege. Between Kevin and I, all things being nearly the same, I am free to rebel with a sympathetic audience, a freedom he will never have without frank and candid conversation about race and its social impact.

I take that away as the end goal of Black Lives Matter. To not deny the issue under guise of being "above" it (a la All Lives Matter, and every person to say "I don't see race/color"). To face the discomfort of the topic and learn that to embrace diversity is not to normalize it in the context of the majority race's experience. Face the discomfort, deal with the awkwardness.

Start the conversation.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

When Safe Spaces Aren't Safe Anymore

I suppose it's only natural to go through periods of self-defeat when your end goal is to somehow be endlessly, creatively, trans-formative.

It's a broken record thing, a seasonal cycle. Pretty sure I've seen most material on the matter of creative death coming from the Winter cycle, when I'm ironically feeling at peak performance. Suppose we're all seasonally inspired in different cycles. Meanwhile, it's getting to be the peak of Summer and I couldn't feel more dead inside (cue Linkin Park music).

Shenandoah was the first inkling of the problem. Here I am with two of my most creative and inspiring friends, and I can barely be bothered with the struggle of getting my camera out of the bag my capacity for caring is so diminished. Every image I did take was a forced thing, less inspired by the art of seeing so much as it was the manual struggle of attaining the vantage point. I simply didn't care.

Last week saw a brief flight of the muse, chasing a protest down Baltimore's streets. But that was documentary work, not art. A great record of an important movement and moment in time, but only ever as much when it comes to satisfying a very different carnal need to consume the art of my surroundings. The simpler things.

Today was a trip to what I'd always considered a safe space, a setting and terrain whose aesthetic I was familiar with and could always eke out inspiration from. It was a forced effort to make the trip, a long drive in hot Summer air with no air conditioned sanctuary to be found in my car. And upon arrival, the last ditch bastion of inspired art making was not only shut and sealed, but under watch of authorities who (however politely and apologetically) turned us away, the Seekers of the Muse. Eight hours in the hot air with not a single photographic record to speak of. An entirely wasted day. And I still don't care.

I'm sitting, alone in the evenings, pouring over photos from the last few months looking for anything that might suddenly reach from the screen and grip my shirt at the collar. A full 90% of the stock is nothing but photography done for work, uninspired and stagnant swaths of poorly presented food in Styrofoam containers, drab interiors with dull furniture and flat light, and people captured for sake of documentation of events or general goings on, not art. My theoretical portfolio is a mass of images I couldn't care less about. I shoot nothing I'm deeply compelled by. And I don't care.

The fantasy is that some day some curious soul will pick up my hard drives at an estate sale like a shoe box of old negatives and be inspired by this massive body of work the world never knew existed. However, the realist in me understands that it is a facet of the times to eternally struggle as an undiscovered someone in this over inflated population, and if I was ever good enough at inspiring others I'd know it already. If not some pending fire, I'm sure an errant solar flare would do in that pipe dream just fine. And I can't be bothered to care anymore.

I should be curating my speech and angling to build future business, but I'm not. My business peaked with the hump of the Sharing Economy, and all that is left now is for that venture capitalist machination to succumb to the only logical conclusion of any unregulated free market venture and dissolve as the businesses are morphed into profiteering last ditch efforts and sold as bankrupt hopeless causes never able to satisfy the ludicrous demands of shareholders. My value proposition was that I didn't value myself and would greedily sell out to the hand with the money. On my own, I have no market. I don't care enough to put the effort into it.

Like every ambition I've ever had, this dream has hit the line of atrophy, wherein my speedy successes are inevitably met by sheer laziness and unwillingness to invest the time and energy and stamina to make it to the next step. It will never be a thing that is spectacular, only ever good enough to impress the layman. At the phase of Good Enough, I subconsciously consider it conquered and move onto the next well of supposedly untapped potential, a tendency I've often referred to as jack-of-all-trades syndrome. How could I ever think photography and business are any different on the spectrum of "talents" I've adopted ranging from car modification to yo-yo play.

I've worn so many hats. My neck hurts under their weight. I carry the burden of unrealized potential in every single thing I pursue. Why should any single thing I do now be outside the scope of my capacity for losing gusto at Good Enough.

[EDIT 7-16-2016]: I thought getting that monologue off my chest and out of my head would help me feel better. It didn't.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016


Most of the time I feel like these steel beams. Rigid, straight, and orderly.

But in the end, I really make no goddamn sense at all.

Fantasy City

There's a city that recurs with some frequency in my dreams. It's much like Tim Burton's imagined visage of Gotham City, with many high rising and interlaced highways, winding in and out of each other going in every which direction. It's a fascinating place to me for several reasons, let alone the intricacy of the architecture. Frankly, it seems odd to me that I would ever have a locale that repopulates in a dream state, ever. That said, I've dreamed this city's landscape maybe 5 times, at most.

I've only ever seen it at night, and every time the perspective from which it is perceived is aloft 13 stories or so up on the highway, with enough tall buildings to look up toward whilst knowing there is substantial level below to which I pay no attention. I'm simply above, not quite atop the edifices towering to my flanks but enough to know I want to rise higher, to rise above them. The highway street lights are all a dull and vapid yellow, while every building bellows forth with a striking blue, letting me know I'm aware of the muck and mire of a pedestrian perspective despite seeing the brilliance and the difference of an echelon above my own.

Remembering this dream, this imagined city, takes me back to nights spent driving back home in the back of my parents' car, when we would visit Catholic Charities in the process of adopting my sister. I was maybe 12 or 13 at the time, and each venture involved a drive into Baltimore, a city which I did not know nor understand at the time. But I was always fascinated by the play of shadows on my legs and the back seat during the trip, usually listening to some ambient movie soundtrack on compact disc while dumbly being carried along. I understood nothing, not about what was going on, not about where I was. Absolutely nothing made any cohesive sort of sense, but I didn't care. I was content to watch the shadows crawling up my legs in the dark, although in hindsight it was more realistically light doing the crawling.

That fascination bred something in me, something long lasting and pervasive. I can hardly spend any trip in the car not keenly aware of how the shadows play against the interior. Even super subtleties like how the scratches in my glasses carry bloom and undefined flares of light in a variety of forms. I am aware of all these things, and they are somehow pertinent to me, to how I define my experience of life, yet I don't think I will ever be able to express them properly. They will never be subtleties embraced as pervasively influential experiences. And that makes me sad, to a degree, as the impact of such nonsensical minutae strikes me as something that could deliver a greater appreciation of the smallest of things to a great audience. But that audience is not me, it is not a body which has endured the same experiential transformations I have, and though that is not a bad thing, it precludes the presumption that it will ever appreciate such subtleties in at all the same way.

I desire that audience, though. That unicorn of a thing, a body of open eyes that might get what I'm trying to express in exactly the way I intend to express it. I suspect it's not a thing that ever genuinely exists, as we're all different people, shaped by different experiences and biased by different perceptions. But I will always hope for just one body to even silently get it. Someone who also happens to find the same fascination with how the shadows creep up their legs in the car in the dead of night. Someone who also dreams of that fantasy Urbana, the city of highways and unattainable goals. I'm hoping for my though twin.

Yet at the same time I hope he doesn't even exist.

Monday, July 4, 2016

Where You Are is Where You'll Be

Sometimes the words aren't nearly as important as I'd like to pretend they are. Sometimes it's enough to just stop and see. Sometimes you just need to get over yourself.

Foolish to think any arbitrary "end goal" ever even matters.

A Table of Prints

Spent this weekend in Virginia with Rob and Kevin, a trip predicated on a lot of 1-off tradition (considering we've only ever made the excursion once before). The original expectation foresaw the outing being an exercise of photography in the practical sense, and to a measure it was, however it also functioned as a remarkably effective conduit for introspection amid safe company. Despite the less-than-ideal weather, I believe Rob and Kevin came out of the trip with photos they'll be proud of until we inevitably one-up ourselves next year (or even sooner, ideally). Myself, I spent more of the trip internally struggling with concepts of "Why" and "What".

I will preface this self-analysis with the clear bias of envy I have specifically of Kevin's workflow. Rob and I have been photographing for a very long time by comparison, and we've established a rigid process that lends itself well to the working engagements we shoot. The business-end of things. Furthermore, Rob seems entirely comfortable with that workflow, and has adapted it well to his personal work in posting and sharing. Both of them seem entirely comfortable with what they're doing, so I find it frustrating that I cannot seem to discover the same comfort in my own process. I am not doing something I want to be doing. I am not accomplishing the things I idealize in the work of others. And I know what it is, have known for plenty long a time, but I'm still not doing it.

Kevin's workflow is entirely mobile. He is more than comfortable to rely on the tools available to him on his phone, and he produces amazing images even within those markedly limited bounds. Rob and I do this to some extent, but the end goal for us is always a sternly managed edit in Lightroom once we're back home on the desktop. Rob is comfortable in that process, but my own creative drive basically dies the second I sit at my desk at home. The enormity of the task of processing images isn't so much the issue, but self-imposed standards stall execution of publishing, what images do break that stall are daunting to share in such a way as to gather an audience, and frankly I don't entirely understand what the point of cultivating that audience even is anymore. It's the first trap of any artist who ever got the faintest taste of success... Not doing art for oneself, but rather doing it for the audience. The fallacy of that logic is clear. The audience was originally attracted to the artist for the work done for the self, so any variance from that is effectively a failed attempt at masturbation. How stupid.

This entire weekend was an exercise in masochism. While I enjoyed my company of friends, I did not enjoy my company of self. I enjoyed the experimental verve Kevin and Rob both exhibited with their photography this weekend, and felt frustration that such creative freedom and vigor had escaped me. Watching Kevin exercise his muse, especially, reminded me of the freely expressive drive I embodied on afternoons at Starbucks in 2009, and the experimental curiosity of evenings on the porch during the same period trying to capture lightning, or setting up shoddy "studio" setups with disgustingly stained bed sheets tacked to the wall with 100 watt pot lights. I see it in his photos every time we shoot together, that spirit of creativity. I long for it, but am trapped in the defeatist thinking that it has moved on.

Something needs changing.