February 2010

Some thoughts on Photography

Forewarning, this post is looooong. It’s also filled with a bunch of skate park photos mostly because I live close to the park and it’s a great place to practice.

My relationship with photography has been one of three things, taking photos to use myself, looking at photos taken by others, or working with photos taken by others as part of a larger project. I’ve worked with photographers in both an “fine art” way (showing them in galleries) and a “professional” way (hiring them to shoot something, or buying their existing works to be a part of some design). I’ve looked at photos in magazines, in museums, and pretty much everywhere in between. The photos that I’ve always been drawn to are the ones that don’t so much tell a story, but that inspire wonder, and make you think about what the story might be. The photos I generally ignore, or look at for some specific thing and then forget are the ones that just document things. Portraiture usually falls into the prior category.

When shooting photos myself I’ve had a bit of a roller coaster ride which I’m still kind of on and that has inspired a lot of this analysis. So in my very early experiences with photography, I had some kind of cheap 35mm camera in high school that I’d occasionally shoot photos of my friends with. Those photos no longer exist, the prints having been cut up to make collages and the negatives lost long ago. That’s probably for the best, if I recall correctly those photos pretty much sucked. I should note that the collages were likely the motive for the photos to begin with if you get what I’m saying. I had an idea of what I wanted a collage to look like so I went and took the photos to make it. I’d take one roll, shoot the shots I needed, and that would be that.

The main insert from Toybox Records #001, the first 7" I put out with examples of chopped of photos.

Anyway I wasn’t much into the actually photography part of it, that was just a means to the end for me.

Over the following years I had similar situations where I needed a photo of something for some specific purpose so I went and took the photo to fill that need. It was almost like I was a working photographer with only one client, myself. Though I didn’t do this often, my photos are featured on a good number of records and posters I designed over the years not because I thought I had the best photo for it, but rather because I had *a* photo for it. I needed a photo, I took a photo, I used it, I moved on to the next project. I actually remember more than once being annoyed that I had to finish out 30 shots on a 36 roll because I had gotten the shot I needed in one of the first 6 photos I took and the rest were just in my way.

Then digital photography entered my world. I could shoot only the one photo I needed and then download the shot to use it. For a lot of people digital photography was awesome because it allowed them to take more photos because of the reduced cost of materials. For me, it allowed me to take less.

This kind of coincided with my realization that there were some photographers who consistently took great photos. As a kid growing up I had photos ripped out of magazines like Trasher and Maximum Rock N Roll that I’d taped to my walls. I was attracted to those photos because of the subjects, and hadn’t thought much about who was on the other side of the lens. One afternoon in Chicago my old friend Jon Resh handed me a copy of a brand new book he’d just bought called Fuck You Heroes. It was a collection of photos that had been shot by Glen E Friedman. I remember sitting on the floor in his small apartment near Wrigley Field flipping from one page to the next and literally losing my mind because I was realizing that so many photos that I had grown up with and been inspired by were all taken by the same person.

I knew more than half of the photos in that book because I’d stared at them for hours in other contexts. I’d looked at them dreaming about being a part of the world that the photos had come from. But sitting on the floor in that apartment looking at this book I realized that there were plenty of photos of those same people, those same events, that I’d looked at and passed over but for some reason I’d consistently been attracted to all these photos that had been taken by this one person. I realized who was taking the photo and how they were taking the photo was obviously just as important and the fact that I’d never realized it before was a testament to how good of a job that photographer had done.

I can safely say that afternoon changed my whole perspective on photography and I started to think as much about what was happening behind the camera as in front of it.

In the years following that digital cameras were becoming much more prolific and ordinary people (not photographers) were able to dive into photography in new and exciting ways. Especially with the adoption of camera phones, that solved the “I don’t want to carry a camera around with me all the time” problem that many people, including myself, had. I explored this aspect with the SENT exhibition in 2003. Billed as “Americas first camera phone art show” we were interested in juxtaposing what actual fine art and professional photographers would come up with when suddenly they had to work in a format the size of a postage stamp with barely web resolution, with the results of giving a handful of other people a camera they could just keep in their pocket without thinking they were carrying a camera around.

We sent them out into the world to see what would happen, and hypothosised that this would help teach people that rather than just snapping a shot of something to document it, they could play with the limited nature of the devices and come up with some really interesting results. And by and large that’s what happened. It was a fun experiment, but the time for that came and went. Very quickly camera phones increased in quality and image size to work just the same as any other digital camera and the uniqueness of it disappeared. I look at those early days of cameraphones with a similar nostalga to toy cameras like Holgas and Dianas. Forcing artists to create with a very limited pallet can produce some very cool results which I think is why those plastic toy cameras are still popular today.

When you have all the choices in the world, which one you make doesn’t matter so much, but when you only have a few choices, they become very important.

Bad Brains "Omega Sessions." Cover photo by Glen E Friedman, design and handwriting by me.

I think that plays into photography a lot, for me especially. Over the years I’ve spent a lot of time talking to photographers about their methods and their philosophy. Shortly after that epiphony in Chicago I had the opportunity to work with Glen directly when we did the Bad Brains “Omega Sessions” album while I was working at Victor. Since then we’ve done several full blown photo exhibitions together at sixspace and he’s become a close friend of mine. We’ve talked about the art of photography many times and I think more than anyone he’s influenced how I feel about it.

There are two schools of photographers I’ve found, one that says good photography is all about editing. These folks recommend taking thousands of shots and then pulling out the handful of good ones to show off. Not surprisingly digital is huge with this world because shooting thousands of photos on film is not quite as easy. This is a practice that works very well for some people and there is no question that some photographers have gotten some really great results using this method of shooting. Including myself. I’ve definitely carried around a digital camera and snapped shots until all the memory cards I had were full and at the end of the day I was delighted to see that I’d gotten one or two stand out images.

But at the same time I felt like I was cheating. Honestly.

A photo I snapped in Harajuku, Tokyo in 2007 during a "photo walk" with a bunch of friends. I took this on a Canon TX1 digital camera and while I've always dug it, it was one of a few that I liked out of several hundred I shot that day.

And yes I know that could be my own neurosis about this, but I’d always think of the old days growing up when I needed one shot so I went and took it, and somehow that was more rewarding then taking hundreds of shots and hoping something good would result. Of course you can argue the difference between knowing what you want ahead of time and just seeing what comes from the day, but it still kind of bugged me and I felt like because I had no limits, I had no reason to think about things too closely.

The other school of thought teaches that you shouldn’t hit the shutter release unless you are sure it’s going to be a good shot. It doesn’t mean it always will be, but you shouldn’t be taking throw away shots on purpose. This is the theory that has always appealed to me, even when it wasn’t something I was practicing.

The more folks I talked to, the more I found that the photos I was visually drawn to were the ones taken by photographers who were still shooting on film. Some people argue that you can get the same look by just using filters on a digital camera but I don’t think it’s the look of the film as much as it is the look of the picture. There is more going on then just what is in front of the camera, and when the photographer behind the camera knows that they have only 36 shots to get the one they want there is a different approach then knowing they could take hundreds or thousands of shots without notice, I think you can tell that in the results sometimes.

If “art” is based on intention, then it makes sense. If you are looking at a photo that the photographer took because they really wanted to capture that specific thing, it will feel different than one that was taken by chance with hundreds of others at the same time. At least that is what I’ve experienced in my consumption of this medium.

I’m not knocking the first school of “shoot a lot, edit a lot” photography, I’m just saying personally the “measure twice, cut once” philosophy strikes more of a chord for me.

An image I shot at the Venice Skate Park with my Pentax K1000 on Neopan400 film, one of 4-5 photos I took that day. No one was skating at the time, people were kind of just sitting around waiting for mysterious thing to happen which I thought created a cool scene. Not sure if that translated to the photo or not.

And it really doesn’t have to do with with the subject as much as the atmosphere. Photos that capture a moment in time have always come across more compelling to me. Even if that wasn’t what I was producing myself. But I think that is the thing, I never related the quick shots I was taking myself with the amazing photos I was looking at that other people had taken. I didn’t have the intention to create a great image so I wasn’t trying to take a great image, so I didn’t think it was anything thing close to the same thing as someone who had the intention of making a great image.

Even though they were both photos.

If that makes sense.

Anyway, recently I was thinking about this and thought that was stupid. If I was going to take a photo, why not spend a little extra time on it to make sure it’s nice. Why take 20 photos hoping one of them will work out, or just uploading them all to flickr, when I can take a breath and think about what I really want the photo to look like before actually taking it. On one level I’d still be taking photos of the same things, but I thought maybe with a little extra care the photos I would get would be much better with some added thought.

And that’s when I decided I needed to shoot on film. Of course I have my iPhone with me all the time and thanks so some cool apps I can replicate the “look” of a film photo rather than just looking like a stock digital photo, and that was a great step (any anyone who has checked out my flickr stream knows I’m no stranger to), but if I wanted to really explore this I needed to get a camera, load it with film, embrace those restrictions and see what I could come up with.

Venice Skate Park, taken with an iPhone G3 with effects from the CameraBag app applied. This is the "helga" filter which is supposed to replicate the look of a photo taken on a Holga.

It should be no surprise to anyone who knows me that I couldn’t just be simple about this so within a few weeks I had a Pentax K1000 (a fully manual SRL from the 70’s, thank you craigslist), a Nikon N90s (a much newer fully auto and computerized SRL, on loan from Jason DeFillippo, a FED-2 (a Russian rangefinder from the 50’s that is most accurately described as a knock off of a Leica), and a Holga. All 35mm except the Holga which is medium format, but I haven’t played with that much yet. Between these 4 cameras I feel like I’ve got a good variety of functions and looks and I thought I could dive in and see what I might be able to do with them.

I’ve only just started this so I don’t have a lot to show, and realistically I might not ever have a lot to show. If the shots I take end up being more embarrassing than interesting I’ll probably write this whole thing off as an interesting experiment, which isn’t a bad worst case at all. And if I happen to get some shots that I’m more proud of, well all the better. I can say for sure that in a few weeks of actively walking around with a film camera I definitely feel like I’m looking at things differently. It’s kind of crazy because I’ve had a camera of one kind or another in my possession every single day for the last 5 years at least, so the ability to take a photo at any time isn’t new. Instead it’s knowing I only have a few photos that I can take. So I’m looking for those. Trying to pull something out of the mix I guess.

Unknown skater at the Venice Skate Park, shot on a Pentax K1000 SE with Fuji Neopan 400

As I said I don’t know where this is heading just yet, but I think the process of limiting myself forces me to be creative within that area. I think I do better with less options. I know not everyone feels that way, but I think the restrictions can be liberating, where as lack of restrictions sometimes is just too intimidating. Self inflicted restrictions anyway.

And really, if nothing else, I’m really enjoying the creative outlet. It’s easy to forget how important that is sometimes, so having an excuse to embrace it makes my brain work in ways that I like, and don’t get to indulge in often enough.

Venice Beach post storm, shot on roll of Kodak color 35mm a Nikon N90s

More of my crappy photos:
Some film shots I’ve taken and kinda dig
More Venice Skatepark Photos – film and digi

Facebook Friday

I proposed this idea on twitter yesterday and decided it made a lot of sense. Going forward, from here on out, or at least until I decide it doesn’t work as well as I thought it would, I’m going going to visit Facebook on Fridays. I realized that I get in this cycle of checking twitter, checking e-mail, checking facebook, then doing some work, then checking those three all over again. E-mail and twitter generally result in something I need to respond to or act on, but Facebook is largely just looking at comments friends have made or new photos they uploaded, a lot of which I’ve already seen on twitter or Flickr anyway. So I’m going to cut down my usage and see what that changes. So Facebook Fridays it is. If you are a friend on Facebook and need to contact me, regular e-mail is a better option anyway.

Anyone want to try this with me?

The gospel of FAIL

I’ve been preaching the gospel of fail pretty openly for the last year or so. It seems so obvious in hindsight but something that is incredibly hard to grasp from a nice safe landing point. What I mean is when you everything is working out OK for you, the idea of trying something that might not work out so well is pretty scary. I talk to people all the time who have an idea that they are “working on” but haven’t taken the plunge on it because they aren’t 100% sure of all the angles and they like their current job or whatever so don’t want to walk away from that until they are positive the next step they take will be successful. There might even be someone else out there working on their same idea but these folks are convinced their version of it is light years better.

These are the same people who 2 years from now will still be in the same job because they still aren’t 100% sure about their idea, and likely someone else or many someone elses will have had their same idea and run with it. I know this because that is the same situation they were in 2 years before.

These people, and I’ve been plenty guilty of this myself so don’t think I’m pointing fingers, are hesitant to try because they are afraid they might fail. There’s this little voice in our heads telling us that it’s irresponsible to take chances until you know all the ducks are in a row. That trying something and it not working is the worst thing that can happen because then everyone will think of you as a failure. This little voice stops us from trying so many things.

The gospel of fail is about telling that voice to shut the fuck up.

Buzz and Aardvard and Twitter and Facebook and… Ugh!

/Warning, on this big scale of quality of the written word this piece is much closer to the ‘stream of consciousness rant’ than ‘well though out argument.’ What that means is I will likely jump around a lot and I reserve the right to change my opinion on anything I say at any given moment./

This week we saw the launch of Google Buzz and the acquisition of Aardvark by Google for $50 Million. These two things have sparked a lot of discussion about the social web and how we all use it and what specifically we use it for. I have a lot of feelings on these things but I don’t know that focusing in on my explicit experience with them really makes any difference. I tried out Aardvark for a while and after getting a grand total of zero useful replies to anything I asked (once I asked for recommendations for a local dive bar and got responses suggesting scuba diving schools) and frequently got pinged to ask questions that would be much better just sent to Google. Luckily LMGTFY was there to keep me amused, briefly, then I quit it as the annoyment trumped the utility. The Buzz launch was similar in that I was very excited to see it added, then every time I looked I just saw posts from my friends that I’d already seen elsewhere. My point being neither of these things have instantly compelled me to use them. But neither did twitter originally and since then I’ve fully admitted that it’s changed my life.

But again my personal experience isn’t important, the overall experience of the people using it and the people who may end up using it is much more interesting. I know that the big hype around Buzz is it’s use of open standards, similar to identi.ca. But I think it suffers from the same problem as identi.ca which is if all my friends are on twitter, even though I know identi.ca is “better for the web” so to speak, I don’t have any reason to switch. I’m not going to twitter because of the technology, I’m going there to communicate with my friends, and so without my friends, as a user I don’t have any motivation to use this other platform.

Spreadshirt is missing the point

Yesterday I announced the launch of R3515T.com which is largely powered by Spreadshirt. In my announcement post about it I explained that I’ve printed and sold t-shirts via different companies for most of my life but only now had print on demand services, like Spreadshirt as well as Cafe Press, PrintMojo, Printfection, Zazzle and others gotten to the point that I thought I could actually use them as the main production and fulfillment piece of the business.