I had planned to write about the concept of over-worship, and how it’s possible to like an artist or photographer to such a degree that you try to emulate them and forget about who you are and your individuality. Well, the weekend was crazy, dealing with many artists picking up their work at OCCCA, the Oscars, maybe a little too much wine, and so I didn’t quite finish the article for today morning. So here are my notes from the article, taken mostly in dictation on my iPhone. Somehow I think maybe they’re more effective than a finished article anyway…
Don’t say why you like them, say how they’ve influenced your work. – more than just being good and inspiring you, they have REASONS for doing what they do. And you don’t necessarily have those reasons. And doing it because you like them is not a reason, it’s a copout.
When I grow up, I want to be just like him. NO YOU FUNKIN’ DON’T
It’s OK to be influenced, it’s OK to try out the ideas of someone else, it’s OK to acknowledge that someone has had an influence on you, but geez, you don’t want to be just like them, they have skeletons, and you have your own, and they won’t mix well together at all.
I realize that coming into your own can take time, and you might need a little help and guidance along the way.
Disperse the influences of other artists within yourself, thus blurring any indications as to where these influences came from in your own work.
Try imagining that you ARE a great photographer. One of the famous ones…and you’re walking around taking photographs. You have complete confidence in your abilities. You know that you have the skills to pull off a great shot. The shot that you take is going to become famous, and sell for quite a large sum. When you die, it will be auctioned off for an even larger OH FUCK! WHO ARE YOU KIDDING?? THE FAMOUS GUYS PROBABLY DIDN’T HAVE ANY MORE CONFIDENCE THAN YOU DO! THAT’S HALF THE BATTLE, OVERCOMING YOUR FEARS TO REACH YOUR GOALS! BUT YOU NEED TO DO IT YOURSELF, OTHERWISE YOU DON’T GET NO CANDY!
Yeah, OK just be yourself. Breathe through your own nose, see through your own eyes.
Don’t feel like you have to create in a certain style just because you know that style to be great or at least perceived to be great. Have faith that you have a point of view of your own.
Look! What I created here looks just like so-and-so’s work. Well that’s a great place to start but it’s only a beginning. Congratulations on having taken someone else’s journey without the journey part. You can’t reach a meaningful goal without first taking a meaningful journey. And as with any meaningful journey it may take a while to get there.
Linda brings some of her photos to class. She’s very proud of them. She shows them to the class and they love them. The teacher loves them. They look just like just like Henri Cartier-Bresson, the teacher says. Well he’s my favorite photographer, Linda states. I love his work, and you’ve given me such a huge compliment! I can’t thank you enough! Linda leaves the classroom completely satisfied. She goes home and celebrates. A few days later, she’s still very happy and satisfied. She decides to go out and take some photos. She walks along the street but everything looks the same, as if she’s seen if all before. She has a new perspective, one of peace and relaxation at having accomplished something real and true. She realizes that what she’s doing now is a bit of a waste of time, since she has no real desire to show any of her work to anyone anymore. She’s somewhat board. The challenge is gone. She reached her goal of being just like her hero. If she’s lucky she’ll find something else to occupy her time.
I place you on a high pedestal.
I don’t understand, why did you place be here?
Because I believe you can do no wrong. Everything I am, everything I want to be, is you.
Why the hell would you want to be me?
Because if I can be like you, I won’t have to worry about being me. I don’t have enough confidence in myself to be me.
Well, I didn’t have lots of confidence either. But I combined myself with other people and influences, but keeping myself in the front. I’m not so original or perfect.
But you seem so confident in yourself.
I’m really not as confident as I look. I just do what I do and hope for the best.
OK then get off that damn pedestal.
Why would anybody want to believe everything someone else says. Don’t take their word for it, form your own opinion.
If we want to advance as a society, we can’t think like everyone else. On the other hand, if everyone thought completely differently there would be chaos.
The more you worship another artist the less time you have to think for yourself.
The more you worship another artist the less you believe in yourself.
Replace worship with experimentation.
over-worship equals over acceptance of the way things have to be.
over-worship is like finding what you think is the answer without asking any questions.
It’s like blind faith.
over-worship is cheating.
Use the work of other artists as a guide, not as an ultimatum.
Andrei Tarkovsky was a movie director that has very much affected the way that I look at and think about many things, certainly the way I think about photography. He’s responsible for altering the way that I look at many of my subjects. What I would normally see as unimportant I now see as very important.
In movie making, I have a huge appreciation for intricate plot lines, fast paced editing, and mental saturation. Films with these attributes allow you to watch again a 2nd time or even a 10th time and notice things you didn’t notice before. This adds depth to what you’re seeing and lets your opinions and moods weigh in more heavily on interpreting the meaning.
In the case of Andrei Tarkovsky, we have the very same kind of depth going on, but the pace is much slower and you might at first be feeling that there’s nothing going on at all. Yet this slower pace forces you to notice more within a smaller boundary of consciousness. You’re presented with less over a longer period of time, so you’re given extra time to notice what you might ordinarily miss.
Tarkovsky had the bravery to slow way down. He wasn’t trying to be tricky or overly-clever. He was simply following the path of his vision. He was never presented with a huge film-making budget to work with and he made only seven films. You won’t find any special effects in these films, he didn’t have any use for them.
Isn’t it logical that if you slow down you’ll see more of what is right in front of you? Do you really need to purchase expensive equipment or visit far away locations to see something worthwhile or to discover what it is you’re after? I think there is something to be said for doing a lot with a little. As photographers, we could certainly benefit from this line of thinking. Training our minds to see what is right in front of us is both practically and aesthetically rewarding.
The result of Tarkovsky concentrating on smaller details over longer periods of time is that the seemingly unimportant becomes very important. We zoom into the fractal and those seemingly small or even unseen details become magnified. What we never thought was worth noticing is now commanding our attention.
I’m inspired by the fact that Tarkovsky was brave enough to follow his vision knowing that it was against the flow. He knew that his movies would most likely lose money in the theater, yet he followed his vision anyway. Many artists do this as well at times, out of necessity and lack of money. But Tarkovsky had the weight of movie studios, actors, and all of the crew and critics on his shoulders. He somehow convinced them all that his vision was worth pursuing and watching.
Assuming you’re talking in terms of plot, very little seemingly transpires during a Tarkovsky movie, yet so much transpires in terms of emotion and vision. I think we can all learn something from this, or at least contemplate the nature of it. We can certainly add these aesthetics to our bag of artistic tools, and bring them out when we need them.
Below are a few great contemplative Tarkovsky sequences.
Here we have a sequence of three men riding a train, from the movie “Stalker”. We hear the sound of the train in the background and we note their individual expressions and emotions.
Here is a sequence from the movie, “Nostalghia”, a transition into a dream sequence:
This sequence is again from the movie “Nostalgia.” A man must light a candle and walk the entire length of a pool and when he reaches the other end he will die. The wind blows the candle out multiple times and he must return to the other end of the pool to relight it. The sequence goes on for nine minutes.
I was inspired by Tarkovsky to create the movie below that utilizes my own visions and techniques towards scale, but plays upon Tarkovsky’s aesthetic for bringing the insignificant to prominence. It was mostly shot in the farmland near where I work during my half hour-long breaks each day. I call it “One of Tarkovsky’s Dreams”, as if it were a dream that Tarkovsky might have had. I suppose you could say not much happens during this movie. Yet depending on your point of view there’s also an entire universe here.
I hope these Tarkovsky sequences inspire you the way they inspired me. If you haven’t seen a Tarkovsky movie from start to finish, I would highly recommend doing so. You might discover the power of the seemingly insignificant.
I’ve often pondered the difference between shooting a series of images and a single image. Does taking a series of photos heighten the meaning and understandability of what a photographer is trying to say? It would seem that this is the case, especially when considering that most photography books published today deal with a series of images based on a single idea, rather than a random series of images. It would also seem that most of the photographers being represented by many of the major photography galleries around the world shoot with very specific ideas in mind and have a series of images which support those ideas.
I’m wondering however whether this entire realm of belief is nurtured and promoted based less on personal or aesthetic reasons and more on a need to cater to a viewing public who need to be spoon-fed something more obvious, especially when based on the fact that we’re living in a very sound- and visual-bite-oriented society. We’re used to having many images thrust upon us without our permission, and those images that are thrown at us are done so with such vigor, especially where advertising is concerned, that we’re made to believe that those particular images are golden. What does that do to the part of our brain that should be left to making up its own mind? Doesn’t this make it more difficult for us to decide for ourselves what is worth seeing and what is not? Hmm.
Ahh, but back to the series thing. Oh but wait, an aside: Can’t the input into our eyes when turning our heads from left to right be thought of as a series of images as well? True, the brain does not have to process each of those images individually, in fact I would say only the first and last images in a single head turn, and especially the last one, we’ll call it the “goal image”, the image which caused you to turn your head in the first place, is the one worth processing. But everything we see is in fact a series of images. Obviously it’s safe to say that the images “in the middle” are not as important.
So, maybe the images “in the middle” of a series of photographs do not in fact need to be as strong. Maybe we’re wasting our time shooting those middle images. A good starting “gotcha” image and a strong finishing image might be enough to do the trick. The middle stuff can be ho-hum.
I think it might be true to say that the general public often has difficulty determining what is good and what is not, especially considering how much is visually thrust into their conscious on a given day. Seriously, to stop and look at something, while still within the realm of their control to do so, is perhaps in fact counter to what they actually feel like doing, or are, as of late, being programmed to do. People would rather move, not stop. Who has time to stop?
A series of photographs: It almost alludes to stupidity, as if we need multiple examples of the same thing. Isn’t it like we’re thinking, “I don’t understand what you’re saying, I need another example.” Alright fine, here’s another one. “I still don’t understand what you’re saying, I need another example!” And on and on.
Or maybe it’s the photographers way of saying, “I can’t take a decent image of this subject, so I’m going to take a bunch of these and maybe I’ll get lucky.” So you try and try, and eventually, yeah, you do get lucky. Good job.
In a series of images it seems that the emphasis is on the idea. In a single image, it would seem that the emphasis is on the image itself. How does this affect the way in which we shoot these photos? Well I guess you could say taking a single photo…takes a lot less time.
Now don’t get me wrong I enjoy taking series of images also. I began doing it about 10 years ago, after someone asked me, “Why don’t you take a series of images?” I obliged and I was happy with the result. But I can’t help but wonder if this has caused me to be lazy in some way.
And I suppose you could zoom out and take a broader look at that big fractal. For example even if I’m not taking a series of images of one subject, if I am taking a lot of random landscapes, you could certainly call that a series of landscapes. Come to think of it, is it even possible to avoid taking a series of images in the first place? Pretty much any image you take on planet Earth could be considered to be a series about, well planet Earth, eh? And don’t even get me started on the universe.
So please don’t ask me to shoot a series when I’m already doing it. Don’t tell me I need to hone in on one single idea. Let’s face it, even images that seem totally opposite of one another are still part of a series: Images shot using light in some way. Images shot using a camera in some way. Images that I myself have taken. Images that are less than satisfactory.
About the only way it’s possible to successfully take a single image is to only have shot one image in your entire lifetime. And there’s a pretty good chance that this image is going to suck. But thankfully, no one will be able to tell the difference.
One of my favorite techniques in photography is to play with scale. Or more specifically, making it difficult to tell how big or small something is. I want the viewer to look at a photo, do a double-take, and wonder, “Just what the heck IS that?” They’ll accept certain aspects of it, but something will seem “off” about it. Why do I want them to react this way? It has to do with an internal dialogue that I have going on in my head almost constantly having to do with the fact that everything deserves to have a chance to be looked at. Why can’t I just leave these objects at their regular scale? Well, sometimes in order to appreciate something that might be overlooked I think you need to present it from a slightly different perspective than for which reality allows!
In adding a tilt-shift focus in many images, which I create in Photoshop. I’m using it differently than usual, however. In most cases with tilt-shift you see something huge being turned into something much smaller, such as a cityscape being turned into what looks like a hand-made model. In my case I’m doing just the opposite: making smaller objects appear to be larger. Some examples can be found below.
Here we have something that appears to be a mountain but which is only about 8 feet high. It is a mud volcano found at the Salton Sea. These small volcanoes spurt mud at constant time intervals. There are about 20 of them in the field and each one spurts mud at a different rate.
I came across this structure at the Salton Sea while hiking around. To this day I have no idea what it is. Was it something new that was being constructed or something old that was decaying? It’s about 30 feet long. The pieces of wood are each about two feet high. I really need to revisit the area to see if it’s still there!
This wave is only about six inches high, but placing my camera down very low on the surface of the water made it appear to be much larger. The wave was about two feet away from the camera in this shot. It was not a waterproof camera, so I had to lift it up at the very last minute.
This appears to be an organic creature of some kind. It is actually a decomposing waste barrel. This was found about 50 feet from the mud volcanoes. The barrel itself had totally disintegrated, but the metal rings on the top and bottom of the barrel were still in tact, although totally warped out of shape.
This shot of downtown Los Angeles was taken from Echo Mountain in the San Gabriel Mountains. I love the way downtown Los Angeles is represented by something incredibly small, a few rectangular blocks at the bottom of the image. It was a very noisy image to begin with, as it was a very smoggy day, and blurring the image further sank the buildings into the murkiness.
On the day before a number of the mobile homes along the beach in Laguna Beach were going to be removed forever, I took a walk in the area. I came across these cement structures sticking out of the sane. They resembled large pyramids, especially with the long shadows, but are actually only about three feet long.
I was the cinematographer on an independent movie and one of our destinations was Coyote Dry Lake in the California desert. We traveled the lake bed in search of large, natural “pits” that can be found in the surface. Near one of those pits I found this small “tree”, about 8 inches high. I took a shot right from the ground. Many of these small bushes can be found, but this one had a particularly tree-like appearance.
Here is what appears to be a huge Canyon but is actually only a trench about 5 feet high. I crawled down inside with my camera. I first threw some dust in the air to give it more atmosphere which gave it a depth cue and made it appear even larger.
In my first year of digital photography, I visited many construction sites. I found the shapes fascinating, though I often had to find ways to sneak in. They were usually abandoned on the weekends. In this case I came across two small pieces of wood on cement right after it had rained. Though it’s obvious to me that these are two small pieces of wood, almost everyone who saw this thought that I must have shot it from a plane.
This dust devil was shot at El Mirage Dry Lake in California. I’ve been chasing dust devils for years, as they are so often very similar to tornadoes in structure but are of course much safer. In this case I darkened the shot quite a bit to take out the foreground details, which would give clues as to the actual size of the dust devil. With those details missing, the size becomes questionable.
There is a huge field of mud flows near Trona Pinnacles in California. I took a drive out there but on the day of my trip I was just getting over a cold and had quite a headache. I didn’t stay for very long but captured about 50 shots of the mud flows of which this was my favorite. Some very subtle tilt-shift focus warped the scale enough to make it appear the it might have been shot from a plane.
I came across an outcropping of red sandstone in Fish Creek at Anza Borrego Desert State Park. Processing it in black and white gave it the appearance of a mountain top covered with snow. I love the way that one formation in nature imitates another in this case!
In the past I’ve spent many hours in the darkroom. Unfortunately I have very few photographs in my portfolio to show for it. In fact I have none at all. All of that darkroom work is a big part of the reason that I became a digital photographer, and not a traditional film photographer.
From 1986 to 1993 I worked on the Planet Crossing Asteroid Search project at the Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL). Headed by planetary scientist Eleanor F. Helin, the project was created to increase our knowledge of the asteroid population in the solar system, and to hunt specifically for Near Earth Asteroids (NEAs), or asteroids that could potentially strike the Earth.
The telescope that we used at Palomar Observatory was in fact not a telescope at all, but a Schmidt Camera. Always referred to as a telescope, the 18” Schmidt camera, pictured below, was built in 1936, and was in use until 2010. Its primary users were our group from JPL and another one headed by Eugene Shoemaker and David Levy, who were considered to be our competitors.
Photographs of the sky were shot with the 18” Schmidt on Kodak 4415 film. The film was first “hypersensitized”, making it more sensitive to light, by baking it in hydrogen gas for 8 hours in metal canisters. We would generally take 6 minute exposures, opening the huge shutter at the end of the telescope, and tracking on a guide star while the exposure was taken. The telescope tracking was excellent, but we would have to correct for smaller movements in the telescope by attempting to keep the guide star centered on crosshairs while viewing it through a smaller guide scope attached to the main telescope. Without doing this, our pinpoint star images would look more like streaks, and any very faint asteroids would not be seen on the films.
The films themselves were cut into circular pieces via a “cookie cutter”, and were loaded into a circular film holder that had to be loaded into the telescope. This could be tricky, as the holder was heavy and had to be loaded in complete darkness. Dropping the holder while loading it would be disastrous, as only a few feet below was the primary reflector mirror. If the holder was dropped and the mirror was damaged, we would be out of business for a while. Amazingly, this never happened during my time there.
The field of view of the telescope was very wide, and could be estimated by holding your fist up to the sky at arms length. This wide field of view allowed us to shoot photos of a large amount of sky in a single night, which is what was needed in order to be the first to discover an asteroid or, much rarer, a comet. It was all a race against time.
In the darkroom it was all very procedural. Nothing artistic going on here. The films were loaded into racks, 8 to 10 at a time, and lowered into the D-19 developer for six minutes. They were taken out and lowered into the stop bath for 30 seconds, and after that into the fixer for four minutes. Then a 30 second wash in “Photo Flow”, to clean off the chemicals. The films were then hung to dry. As negatives, they were almost never printed, and we used them as negatives, with black stars and white backgrounds. I spent many hours in this darkroom, listening to music while developing, and it’s here that I really learned to dislike the darkroom process.
Each area of sky was shot twice, with roughly a 40 minute separation. The two films, with identical star patterns, were then loaded into a stereo microscope. It is here that all of the asteroid discoveries could be made. When viewing the films through the microscope, all of the stars in the two negatives would appear to be flat, since they hadn’t moved over the 40 minute separation due to the telescope tracking along with the sky. However, an asteroid would be moving differently, and its motion could be detected by its appearing to hover above or below the plane of the stars, depending on its direction of motion. This 3-D appearance either signaled the discovery of a new asteroid, or a known asteroid.
We would discover many new asteroids on a single ‘dark run’ of six nights, and if we were lucky we would find one or two near earth asteroids. Occasionally we would discover a comet as well. I spent many hours scanning and re-scanning those films, occasionally finding objects that we missed the first time. At one point, we did miss something truly amazing: On our films, we had a comet which later became known as Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9, the comet that crashed into Jupiter in 1994. To our credit I suppose, it didn’t look anything like a comet at the time we recorded it.
As advanced techniques for discovery later became available, such as CCD cameras and automated data gathering and detection, our method for discovering asteroids became obsolete. Machines were taking over and they could discover objects with much more frequency and precision than humans. The discovery rate began to increase and our old telescope was used less and less. It was finally retired in 2010.
When I left the job at JPL, I found I needed something to replace the feeling of discovery that I was now missing. I began hiking in the desert, especially in unknown areas, to see what I could discover there. I bought my first digital camera, A Kodak DC-280, in 2000 to document my hikes in the desert. Before I knew it I was bringing back all sorts of strange photos from out there.
During all of that time scanning hundreds of films at JPL, it had begun to occur to me that what we saw on our films, these tiny little pinpoint images, were in fact representative of something staggeringly huge, and that when we made an important discovery of an asteroid which could potentially collide with the Earth, I could always trace it back to those tiny little black dots which required a microscope to resolve. This paradox tickled my brain and got me realizing early on that all things are of equal importance, large or small. Or at least all things deserve equal attention, regardless of size. In other words, when I come across something that is incredibly small or seemingly insignificant while I’m out photographing, I have no problem assigning it huge importance.
In my own adventures as a photographer this philosophy and spirit of discovery is key. It drives me to move forward and continue the search. When I am out searching, I never have a set idea of what it is I’m looking for. I simply seek, occasionally finding exactly what it is I WASN’T seeking. For me, that’s the time I learn something new about life: When I discover a new path, a new way of seeing, a new reason for continuing my search.
A bottle of wine flies across the room and I see some kind of orange substance ground into the floor near the bar. There are multiple, quiet conversations taking place, none of which I can resolve, nor which I care about, though I swear that I hear someone say, “boring”. A woman approaches and asks me about something. I’m sure I can hear her but nothing is making sense. Something about intent. There are too many lights and they are bright and distracting. There are numerous people who appear to be staring at me. They each have jiggling glasses of wine and I can smell them. The floor below me feels soggy. I see the bar, and the bartender is staring at me as well, but his eyes are more compassionate. Through the window looking outside, I see many white lights quickly moving by. Then there are bright red lights which move by much more frantically, and there is a loud sound.
The sound of the siren is excruciating and it sends me through some kind of barrier. It awakens me. I’m aware of a woman standing next to me and she is smiling. She appears to be waiting for me to respond. As I’ve learned to do, I apologize to her and ask her to repeat the question. She asks me what my intent was when I took this photo. She points, and I turn and look at the photo on the wall in the frame and I see a black and white representation of a crack in the ground with a pylon next to it. Did I take that photo? I think I would love to jump into it. Something about it makes me want to scream for joy. As to my intent, I recall the crack and the pylon asking me if I would please take their photo before they vanish, and I obeyed. But I cannot say this to the woman. I look back to the bartender for pointers and in hopes that he will send me a few words to play with but he is talking and pouring wine. As a last resort, I think of something I’ve rehearsed and spit it out: ‘The shapes are what intrigued me here.’ Then I pause. In my nervousness I cannot remember the next part, and she stares at me but I give her my ‘final face’ so she’ll have to be satisfied. ‘I see’, she says and then she quietly walks away. My heart is pounding. Flustered, I attempt to move toward the bar.
My journey there will not be an easy one. There will be interruptions and mishaps along the way. It’s possible that I will walk into someone and cause them to spill their wine. They will question me about my photos and I’ll be forced to speak with them and will most likely spit out a rehearsed response. Each step that I take increases my chances for an embarrassing encounter. Someone reaches out and grabs my arm. ‘Your work is beautiful’, they say. I spit out a ‘thank you’ and continue toward the bar. Someone else turns and faces me directly with a sad expression on their face, and utters, ‘Your work makes me feel so sad’. I spit out an ‘I’m sorry’ and they smile, turning away. I continue on but before I can move very far I trip over someone’s leg and fall forward, spilling their wine. My hand lands in the puddle and arms grab at me to lift me up. “I’m sorry”, I spit out, turning red as they lift me, and everyone is smiling. As if nothing has happened, the conversations continue, though I still can’t resolve them. I do hear someone say, ‘very trite’, however. I try to stand back up straight but it’s difficult. The room is so bright and confusing. I continue forward and can see that the bar is now within my grasp. There is the bartender with his compassionate eyes looking at me. Behind him on the white wall I can see writing in black: ‘Photography by’ and then my own name in cursive.
I stumble into the bar and without diverting his gaze away from me the bartender moves to brace a few bottles of wine setting there. I spit out, ‘I’m sorry” and he grins, and lifts up a brown bowl full of orange objects. ‘Not to worry, have a cheese puff’, he offers. There are numerous bowls filled with orange objects along the bar. I look at them and then look back at the bowl he is holding. I move to reach for one but am interrupted by a crash as someone drops a glass of wine behind me. I look back but can’t see any broken glass and no one is reacting. I turn back to the bowl of orange objects and touch one. They feel soft and gritty. ‘His work is somewhat derivative’, I make out from a random direction as I taste the saltiness of the puff and look to the bartender for approval. Still grinning, he lowers the bowl. ‘You’re having quite a time today.’ he says, and then, ‘My name is Benny. Benny the bartender. And how are you, Mr. Jeff?’ He points to the wall behind him without turning away from me just as I begin to ask how he knows my name. ‘You’re the star today, Mr. Jeff. Everyone knows your name, a name worth knowing’. He grins another grin and offers up the bowl again. I shake my head and from another direction I think I hear someone say, ‘Photoshop? Figures.’
A person approaches from the left, grabs my arm, and yells at me in a very high voice, ‘Your work reminds me of certain scenes from my childhood!’ It jolts me and in my reaction, I knock a bottle of wine off the bar which Benny matter-of-factly catches before it hits the ground. I look to my left and a large male body builder type is there, waiting for my response. I spit out, ‘thank you’. The body builder nods, slaps my back with vigor, and quickly walks away. I look to Benny who has his hand over his mouth, shoulders bouncing. He takes his hand away and shrugs. ‘Well, it would seem that many people admire you work.’, he says. I nod and take another cheese puff, this one damp with wine. From a direction perpendicular to the bar I hear, “Not much talent here. I could do that.”
‘Benny’, I whisper, ‘believe it or not, I’m not having a good time here at all. In fact I’m feeling very misunderstood’. Benny, looking at me with those understanding eyes, says, ‘You know, I’m an artist too. No, really! You wouldn’t know it I realize, I mean, I’m the bartender here, but I do have to make a living. I never feel misunderstood because I try to communicate my intentions through my art in a way that is so obvious that no one could possibly misunderstand.’ I think about this and I wonder if it’s even possible for art to communicate so directly. I know for sure that my own art doesn’t communicate that way. So I ask Benny, ‘What would you do if your art didn’t communicate directly, and there was so much left to interpretation that your audience couldn’t possibly know your intentions?’ Benny thought about this for a moment, and then answered, ‘Well, I suppose I would have to let them know through some other outlet’.
I think about this as I glance up and again notice my name on the wall. Seeing it up there is somewhat reassuring, and I suddenly feel the need to boldly express myself in words, so I blurt out very loudly, “This entire exhibition is a waste of fuckin’ time! It doesn’t at all represent how I feel or who I am or what I do! When I’m out taking pictures, there’s HEAT, there’s DIRT, there’s NOISE, there’s EXCITEMENT! But here, what do we have? A clean, air conditioned room with wine and cheese puffs and uninformed people and my photos hanging nicely in neat little rows and in perfect little frames! It’s all so completely counter to my mindset as an artist and even as a human being! You know what I think the perfect exhibition would be? I would take my photos and attach them to my Jeep and drive at least 100 miles per hour, and force you mother fuckers to drive along side of me to see my work! Then maybe you would understand my mindset and who I am and just who the fuck it is you’re dealing with!”
After I finish, there is a silence the likes of which I’ve not heard since before I was conceived and I look at Benny who has eyes bigger and wider than any I have ever imagined. Benny being Benny, he quickly recovers and says, ‘I think that came off very well. Consider yourself understood!” We mutually smile at one another at which point it all rushes back to me, the nervousness, the unconfident feelings, the feeling that I’m once again alone on a planet in another solar system and I am caught wearing unmatching socks. Benny immediately understands of course, and shoots me a look of sympathy, as a monster approaches from the right and says in a whiney voice, “You know, I really liked your speech. It brought back to me subtle feelings of my last family vacation to Las Vegas. But your photos do need a little work.’ I look back at Benny in disbelief and in a moment of weakness he can only hold up another brown bowl and mutter, ‘Cheese puff Mr. Jeff?’
I shudder. Having reached a limit of sorts, I jerk quickly to the left and knock two bowls of cheese puffs into the air with such force that even Benny cannot catch them in time. The cheese puffs fly upward, and when they land they are squished into the floor by my own shoes as I attempt to flee. I find that I am immediately blocked by lovers of my work and so am forced to stop short, and adopting a false smile, I again slowly attempt to work my way through the crowd. Along my journey, I am asked questions and receive many compliments, the most poignant of which is, “Your work makes me feel like I already know you, kind of like I AM you, which really pisses me off, because I mean, why the hell would I want to know you, let alone BE you?” I continue slowly moving forward, until I finally make my way through the chilled room, out the front door and into the warm night, a few lingering admirers still trying to grab at me for punctuation.
I see many lights quickly moving by, and there are sounds that are immediately relaxing to me. I take multiple deep breaths, and begin to gain my senses back. It feels great to feel less insane. I hear in the far distance the sounds of a marching band, there must be a parade somewhere. I concentrate on the passing cars and they ground me. The full moon is lighting everything just enough so that I can hear what I see. The music from the band is growing louder and I’m beginning to feel its vibrations. I look to my right and in the moonlight I can see dancing reflections along the sidewalk. They pulsate to the rhythm of the music. As they approach, I consider my current position in life and fear that I have a long way to go. I realize that it doesn’t matter what others think, but it also doesn’t matter what I think. I wonder if it’s possible to figure anything out but I also understand that it’s best not to worry about it. The vibrations become critical and the marching band is right in front of me and there are tubas, trombones, trumpets, accordions, and a bass and snare drum. They begin to circle around me on the narrow sidewalk. They are playing very loudly and aggressively in tones and rhythms that are foreign to me. Each band member is wearing a T-shirt with an imprint in large, red lettering that says, “None of this has to be how it is.” Out of fear, I consider escaping back into the gallery and visiting with my admirers, but the music doesn’t allow for it. I can hear each player playing individually as they move past me and it’s hypnotic. Each instrument sounds unique but they all seem to be speaking with one voice in a unified chant which I take to be singing my praises. I realize that I’ve been successful here today. Everyone is here for me. They all came for me. Maybe it shouldn’t matter that they don’t understand me.
Four tubas stop in front of me and face me. I can feel their vibrations very strongly. They slowly move closer and closer. The band which is now playing at fever pitch suddenly stops and there is silence. I can only hear the cars passing by. The tuba players slowly begin to lean back and inhale as deeply as possible and when they’ve reached capacity they pause, looking at me with eyes of warning. I pray that they won’t, but I know otherwise. They lean forward quickly and exhale through their instruments with such force that all of the gallery windows shatter completely.
The sound of the tubas are excruciating and they send me through some kind of barrier. They awaken me. I look around and the band is gone. My ears are ringing. I turn and walk back inside the gallery. Everything is cold and pristine and the room is empty. I can hear the air conditioner. Benny is there and I look at him and there are the bottles of wine on the bar and he stares back at me blankly. ‘Benny, do you think anyone will come to my opening?’, I ask. ‘Who the fuck is Benny?’ he yells as he grabs up one of the bottles from the bar and with an off-putting glare, launches it across the room.
A few years back, I did something that wasn’t very smart. I decided to place myself in a position of personal risk. I didn’t know what the outcome would be, and I didn’t realize how educational it would be. I knew there was potential for rioting if the Los Angeles Lakers won the championship in 2010 against the Boston Celtics since there had been riots in previous years. At the time I lived only a few blocks away from the area, so I decided to walk over with my video camera to see what would happen.
I placed myself at the corner of Olympic and Figueroa in downtown Los Angeles, right near the potential center of the action. I began filming about one minute before the end of the game. Just as the game ended and the Lakers won the championship, the crowd became very excited. Everything was OK for about two minutes. After that, things began to change.
The area where I was standing at the edge of the street became overly crowded. A police line had begun to form, keeping pedestrians from walking into the street. Tensions began to increase as the spectators taunted the police. The police had shields and sticks. They were doing their very best to keep things in check. At one point during this build up I was pushed over and buried underneath the crowd. I figured I would be injured, or worse. To my amazement, rather than being trampled upon, I was quickly pulled up by those standing around me. It was obvious that I was on their side. We were one and it seemed to be us against the police.
There was now a very huge crowd and many police cars were in the streets. I decided it was time to move on. I headed north on Figueroa. The crowd was so compressed that it was difficult to move. After a moment I came to an opening. To my left, a large group of people were attempting to overturn a very heavy motorized construction sign by rocking it back and fourth. To my right, another group was attempting to kick over a metal newspaper dispenser which was bolted to the ground while they were waving flags. Those on the left finally succeeded while those on the right did not. The police began to appear with guns. They were incredibly calm, even as the situation was beginning to unravel in front of them.
The police line was now very slowly moving north on Figueroa, forcing everyone to move in that direction. Along this route there were car alarms going off, cars with windows broken in, and small, patchy fires burning on the ground. A few fights began to break out. In those cases, to my amazement, the fights were broken up by the rioters themselves. Order within the chaos. It would seem that their intention was to be destructive without causing bodily harm.
I developed a filming technique based on fear. Not thinking it was a good idea to let anyone know that I was filming them, I would turn the camera away just as I saw someone beginning to look in my direction. Because of this, I was moving the camera almost constantly, attempting to anticipate their motions. In a strange way it added to the drama of the final filming, but also meant that I was almost never pointing the camera in one direction or at one subject for an extended period of time.
The police line was now more organized and police on horseback were appearing. They began to order people to move in specific directions. They began to deploy. Police helicopters started to appear as well. The rioters began to look unsettled. A huge line of police on horseback was forming. They pushed the crowd east on 9th Street. There were still rioters who were taunting them. The police begin to fire rubber bullets. People began to run. We ran out of range and things quieted down.
Strangely, I realized that I was beginning to feel more relaxed. I realized that I was not being threatened by the rioters. These were riots but they were riots of joy. These were people who were celebrating. These were people who were enjoying themselves. These were people looking for an excuse to destroy. They were not out to harm one another. This was a big party. A huge, destructive party. Now, even my filming seemed to be non-threatening to them. They were eager to let the world know that they were happy to be destructive.
I walked down through a quieter area and came to the backside of a police line. One of the officers saw me and ordered, “Go this way”, to the left. A few others turned around, shields, sticks, and guns, and made sure I followed those orders. They had no way of knowing if I had recently destroyed something or if I was just a guy with a cheap video camera. I quietly slipped past them.
I continued further. Around a corner they were drawing on a taxicab with ink pens. They were writing words I couldn’t read, possibly graffiti. Further down I could see rioters dancing on top of taxicabs. They attempted to turn the cabs over. They were rocking them back and forth. There was a driver inside one of the cabs. They tried to turn his cab over. They tried harder and harder but could not overturn it. The cab driver escaped. A skateboarder approached and slammed the cab window with his skateboard, shattering the glass. Another rioter took a match and threw it inside the taxicab through the shattered window. Everyone began to quasi-chant. Slowly the interior of the taxicab begin to catch fire. The Rioters backed off. As they moved away the flames grew higher and brighter. There were loud bangs. Someone yelled out, “They’re shooting, they’re shooting!”, as the police fired off more rubber bullets. We ran down the street. I looked back and could see flames engulfing the taxicab. We ran further until we turned around a corner.
We ran through traffic to cross the street, an officer on a bicycle attempting to stop us. We dispersed into the crowd and into the night. In this area, things were beginning to calm down, with only smaller incidents taking place in the distance. The batteries were beginning to run low on my camera, so it was time to head home. I only had a four block walk to get there. It was hard to believe that all of this was taking place so near to my residence.
As I was walking home and just before my camera died, one of the rioters shouted out, “I don’t want to be a victim! I don’t want to be a victim! I don’t care! I want to get the fuck out of here!” Suddenly the guilty man was the innocent man. It’s all a matter of perspective I suppose.
I sometimes feel as if all of this was a strange dream. Growing up within protective suburbia, it was a unique experience. It left me with the feeling that everyone has a violent side that they would love to unleash, they just need a good reason to do so. Or even a bad reason. We’ve all lost our temper, maybe there’s proof in that alone. Maybe there are everyday versions of this, such as pounding a nail into the wall, or sawing a tree trunk.
I must say the the actions of the police were commendable. They were always incredibly calm, and highly successful in moving the crowd along using their slow and patient yet continually relentless techniques. Not once did I see an incident of police brutality or abuse of the kind amplified in the media today.
Below you can view the film. I apologize ahead of time for my roller-coaster camera work. If you have motion sickness, you may want to skip this one. I would suggest full screen, high volume, for best effect.
I don’t own any expensive photographic equipment. I prefer to shoot with cheaper point and shoot digital cameras. The reasoning for this is both practical and philosophical.
First the practical: I’m hiking through a treacherous, rocky area and I drop my camera into a crack between two huge boulders completely out of reach or rescue. Do I want to dish out thousands to replace it? No way. Since I tend to be rough on things, this is the practical option.
Now the philosophical: I tend to be rough on things, and that’s how I like it.
That is not to say I don’t respect certain physical items. I actually do have the ability to treat certain pieces of my equipment with care and respect. For example my new GoPro Hero4 Black camera. So far, I’ve been very kind to it and have even purchased lens covers and I keep it in it’s protective casing whenever possible. At $500, it’s the single most expensive piece of photographic equipment that I own, so I should treat it with care, shouldn’t I?
Pictured below is my previous camera collection:
A few details: the Kodak DC-280 died in a sandstorm at El Mirage Dry Lake. The Canon Powershot A640 pretty much gave out when it was waterlogged while trying to photograph waves close up. The iPhone died after hitting the floor right after I flipped it in the air while making my bed (I think it was hiding from me under the sheets…) The other cameras simply passed, most likely searching in desperation for relief in the camera after-life. One, not pictured here, was stolen at a large field event when a person impersonating a trash collector walked up and took it right from my side, (this was decided after some deduction and with no one else to blame it on…)
But the practical side is not my only rationale for the purchase of these cheaper cameras, it’s also the philosophical. It’s the feeling that I’m doing a lot with a little. It’s the feeling that the equipment that I’m working with is not interfering with my creativity due to its being complicated by switches, dials, and gizmos. It’s the feeling that I’m not trying to be part of some kind of techie club, trying out and discussing the latest features. It’s the feeling that technology is not interfering with my way of seeing, (or is it?) It’s the feeling that my camera is simply an eye through which I view the world without barriers, (or is it?)
Mostly however it’s the feeling that the camera is part of who I am and that it takes on my personality. If I am leaping from rock to rock, it leaps along with me. It doesn’t dictate how I should move from place to place. I don’t have to think about protecting it while I’m on the move. This frees me up to concentrate on the terrain around me. It allows me to work with the lay of the land on my terms rather than the terms of some external influence.
The idea is to see beyond the camera. Or to see in spite of it. Or maybe simply to spite it, to get pissed at it for my needing it in the first place. Why do I need it? Why can’t I do all of this without it? The very idea of having it is forcing me to think within narrower terms than I would otherwise. When I don’t have it I accept everything as legitimate, without worry. Why does its presence cause me to be narrow-minded? Without it I’m free to see however I want. With it I’m forced to see things more specifically, to think less freely. But alas, I do need it there with me. The one I have inside me with all of that freedom won’t do the job.
At least I can be rough on it. I can beat it up a little. I can take out aggressions on it for its attempts to hold me back. If I do drop it in that crack between two boulders, that’ll serve it right. True, I’ll have to buy another one, but at least the first one will get what’s coming to it. Crappy little vision minimizin’ contraption.
But OK, maybe I shouldn’t let these things affect me in this way. How can a small device such as a camera really change the way I view the world? What is it about the thing that makes myself and others question my abilities to see correctly? How is it that rooms full of people can sit and intensely discuss captured visual moments that are not worth a single word when the parameter of time is included? There’s an apple on a table over there, not a big deal, but hey I have an idea, let’s turn that into single moment in time so that we can contemplate the way it looks even though each of us already saw it beforehand.
What is it about the power of the camera that causes fear and shyness in otherwise outspoken individuals? “Oh, I could never show anyone my work, it’s not very good”. Not true, it’s every bit as good as it is in the real world, in fact it IS the real world, and we don’t get embarrassed or shy about that do we? We walk past a tree and we see the tree there in front of us and then you show me a photo that you took of that tree and somehow, someway, it’s not as good as the tree, even though it is the tree, the same tree we’re looking at right now.
So it comes to this: Stand there and look at a beautiful scene, nice, but raise your camera and click a button and now that same scene is subject to criticism, curation, mockery, imitation, praise, rejection, ego, valuation, collecting, selling, over-rating, under-appreciation, promotion, distribution, duplication, framing, archiving, theft, damage, and with any luck, auctioning. No one man-made object deserves to have that much transformative power over something that can already be viewed by everyone, anytime, without it.
So do yourself and all of us a favor. Destroy your cameras. All of them. It’s obvious that they’ve got an agenda, one which is already influencing the masses, instilling fear, inflicting pain, and limiting our ability to see clearly and subjectively.
Everything is a good photographic subject. There are no bad photographic compositions.
I was incredibly lucky and honored to have given an artist talk to the Disney Imagineering Photography Group last year. One of the Imagineers bought my photography book at Photo L.A., and she later invited me to speak to the group. It was very difficult and intimidating to know what to say to them. I thought, “Should I include in my talk examples of my photos that had shapes and lines that were reminiscent of the shapes of Disney Characters?” Well, I did spurt this out at one point:
“I view many of my photographic subjects in terms of living characters: characters in danger, characters overcoming hardships, characters triumphant in the end. Without this humanistic nuance, my work has far less meaning to me.”
Which is actually very true. I do indeed view many of my subjects in terms of living characters.
I would be lying if I said that I didn’t treat my talk as if it were a job interview. I showed them a bit of my 3D graphics work, and played them some of my music, in a way that illustrated how they were components that influenced my current photographic style. All of this was very true as well. But in the end, I was not offered a position in Mickey land.
However, the talk went very well. I held their interest, and had them laughing at a few key moments. I had been preparing the talk for about three weeks, and realized as I was almost finished that I needed a much more poignant ending, an ending that left them all with something to think about, so a couple of days before the talk I wrote out the following which I read off of a piece of paper while they watched one of my fractal animations below:
“I believe that the ideas and potential of photographic composition have only begun to be explored, and that we’ve only just scratched the surface. Diving into a 3D Fractal, I find that there are an infinite number of potential compositions and that each one exists equally in terms of importance and visual impact. Why is that? I believe that the removal of humanistic qualities changes our perspective on what is acceptable and not acceptable in any given composition. We accept more compositionally in the abstract world since we aren’t as concerned with the organizational features we are used to dealing with in the humanistic world.
I believe that there are an infinite number of potentially great compositional possibilities in the field of view of any camera at any time, but to see them we must unlearn what we believe to be correct or familiar. It can be educational to see the world in terms of micro worlds, to break down what you see into smaller measures, each with equal importance. We’re used to thinking in terms of one composition being superior to another, but it can be very insightful and liberating to think in terms of everything being equal, visually or otherwise, at infinite scales, until scale becomes a parameter which allows us to be free, rather than dictates to us the implied limitations of our placement within 3D space”
It’s important to keep in mind that the way we interpret what is inside the field of view of our cameras is based on more than what we have been taught is a good photographic composition. It’s based on our current view of the world, our current moral beliefs, what drives us and what we want to communicate to others, and our fears of making mistakes. It’s based on our inner need to impress others and to impress ourselves. It’s based on pressure we receive when we’re forced to produce.
So if you take away all of that interference, what are you left with? Well, freedom for one thing. With all of that pressure absent, you’re free to think in new ways, see in new ways, feel in new ways. Instead of emotions pouring out of your mind, you can open up a new channels into your mind.
When thinking about composition, try to think about it without all of the humanistic and familiar qualities. Try thinking purely in numbers and patterns. Walk around with your mind cleared out. The goal is not to take the humanness out of photography, it’s to reassign it to a composition at a later time, but to first allow yourself to see in new ways without any interference.
A tree is no longer a tree, but a shape. A river is no longer a river but a large mass with some kind of strange movement. Buildings are not man-made, but have always been present. Think of every shape as generated by a mathematical formula within a 3D space, and realize that you can get closer to and further away from these shapes without affecting their importance or meaning. Try viewing the world through a new set of eyes that block out emotion and redefine what is both meaningful and meaningless.
So I’ll say it again:
Everything is a good photographic subject. There are no bad photographic compositions.
You may or may not agree, but just try it: Walk around for an hour or two taking photos while BELIEVING IT and see if anything new happens.
Photography is a means of recording current events and memorializing them for future generations. Photography is a means by which the egos of individuals are surfaced and multiplied. Photography is a long road to financial loss. Photography is a form of intellectual expression. Photography is a means by which the undeserving can find fame. Photography is a form of tension-release responsible for lowering the crime rate. Photography increases discouragement in individuals which increases tensions and raises the crime rate. Photography is created by the poor and collected by the rich. Photography is an outlet for those seeking to blabber on about elitist nonsense. Photography is pretty. Photography is gritty. Photography crosses borders exciting unity between opposing forces. Photography instills fear and causes death. Photography is a summation of ideas and beliefs, communicated uniquely by each individual based on their existing ideas and beliefs. Photography is a battlefield in which an individual fights for the right to speak as loudly as they like. Photography is a path, a journey, hopefully without a clear destination. Photography is just a huge lie.
I have no idea what photography is, ultimately. However, I’ve been asked to write about it here and I’ll do so even at the risk of becoming overly cerebral.
When I’m out doing photography, I usually don’t think about it much. I try not to let it worry me. I try to “zen out”, not thinking about any one thing in particular, and let the shapes in front of me dictate my actions. I try to relax. The less I know about those shapes, the better off I am. The more I know about a subject ahead of time, the less freely I interpret it. I just like to let things flow. That’s really all I can ask of myself.
If I’m lucky, the results will please me. If I’m luckier, the results will also please others, and they will not be thinking in their heads as they look at my work, “I could do that better”, or “I’ve seen that before”, or “That looks like so and so’s work”, or “This guy needs help”, or, “This guy is wasting his time”. I guess I really don’t care what others think about my work. OK, that’s not true. Yes, it is true. No, it isn’t.
I’m not big on equipment, so asking me technical questions about cameras is probably a waste of time. To me, cameras are simply data gathering devices. The light goes in and sticks itself to a chip somehow and it stays there until it is beamed to my computer and I can play with it. That’s what I personally love the most about photography, playing with the light.
Light is amazing to me, as are shapes. I tend to see everything in terms of abstract shapes, and to make matters even more complex, I tend to see almost everything symbolically. When I look at something, it almost always appears to me to be a representation of something else. This can cause me to zone out sometimes. I’m all there, I’m just busy processing. There’s so much out there that is worth processing, don’t you think?
I’m not big on “preconceived notions”. In fact I really hate them. Those bloody beliefs that we have to do things a certain way, or think about things within specific terms, or obey the intellectual laws and rules that are so often thrust upon us. I’m not saying that these laws and rules aren’t correct, and I’d even call them handy at times. I’m just saying that if we over-worship them like gold-plated zebra goddesses we’re likely to follow a path that eventually leads us to the largely populated berg of Boresville.
So, during this month of February, as I write about this thing called photography, don’t be surprised if I jump around from topic to topic, or if my emotions change from paragraph to paragraph, or if at times you think I’m a little nuts. Because really, we’re all a little nuts, we just try so hard not to show it by being overly careful. You know what I mean.
I doubt I’ll provide you with any answers here, because I don’t think I have any. I’m just not the go-to guy for answers. I prefer to ponder, zoning out as I do, and play with the musings going on in my head, and then somehow spit them out through my art. Very rarely will you find me bringing any of this up in casual conversation, being overly careful as I am.
So as an ending to this beginning, I’ll leave you with an unknown maxim that occurred to me a little over a year ago. I’m not saying it’s the truth or anything, but it occurred to me and I keep on reading it over, trying to prove it wrong but so far I haven’t had any success in doing so. I’ll place it within quotes to make it sound a little more imposing, like a preconceived notion:
“There is no true originality, there is only a mixture of two sets of laws: the laws in front of you, and the laws inside of you.
Your creativity is defined by the ways in which you mix these two sets together.”
I’m certainly looking forward to posting here 11 more times, three times a week, for the next four weeks, during this month of February, in the year 2015. Hopefully we’ll have some fun.