Monday, November 02, 2015

The Wild Darkness

American born poet Galway Kinnell once wrote:
"I know that I love the day, The sun on the mountain, the Pacific/Shiny and accomplishing itself in breakers, But I know I live half alive in the world, Half my life belongs to the wild darkness." 
His poem "Middle of the Way" is about his solo hike up a mountain, but this passage, and much of this poem in fact, can be applied to many things. I see, in my life, how I too love the sun, love the day, but my heart loves the wild darkness. I'm no stranger to the wild lights of night, either and I believe it shows. In Kinnell's poem, to paraphrase, in reminding yourself that "half your life belongs to the wild darkness" you will bring yourself to experience, as Kinnell calls it, "An inexplicable sense of joy, as if some happy news had been transmitted to me directly, by-passing the brain." Akin maybe to an inner sense of peace.

It holds true that joy is often a determination of purpose. For me, this roughly translates into creating work with a strong sense of purpose. This can be hard to do as an artist. Believe it or not, we sometimes have to try very hard to be authentic, in part because we are led many ways, pulled in many directions. Doing night work itself is a good example of this. Many people don't understand why you would want to do night work and many people don't understand how, if you do night work, you would ever want to shoot both day and night. But, that's how the universe unfolds sometimes. We end up doing both, in part because our vision, our voice as an artist really, drags us in two different directions. I don't see my night work much different from the work I do in the daytime, it just comes from a slightly different place and it tells a slightly different tale, that's all.

Fragmentation aside, I do get the sense of joy reference from Kinnell. It's not lost on me, as I consider myself a creature of the night in many ways. I've always loved the night. I love the way cities look, I love driving downtown with the sunroof open, watching all the twinkly lights of the city flicker before me. I love the loneliness of it, the desolation, the lack of hustle bustle. I love the way shops look at night, especially after they have closed for the day, with mannequins illuminated waiting for tomorrow's customers. I love light trails and midnight subway rides, late night diners, and all night laundromats. It's in these sorts of things, this kind of night, where I really enjoy the wild darkness. I do, I honestly feel that half of me belongs in that environment, even if just for a little while. In some ways, I could not imagine being "only" a day photographer. I couldn't imagine putting the rig away the moment after the sun sets. I have to have my dosage of nighttime, really I do. In a way, it's what keeps me going.

I don't think my night photography is earth shattering, no, I don't think it reveals anything especially special or magical. In fact, you could say it's all a bit ordinary and, frankly, I would accept that. You see, it's not about finding the unusual. It's not about the different. It's about that quiet place inside of each of us-that solitude we each enjoy. For me, that wonderful place is, in many ways, the wild darkness. Half of me belongs there and I celebrate it fully.

Until next time...

Monday, October 19, 2015

Latest Obsession

Latest obsession: Artree. It's an app that makes trees. Very zen, very addictive. Artree into Diana is like some serious zen crack. Quite the addiction!

Somebody save me from this, maybe? Someday?

Until next time...

Monday, October 05, 2015

Night Shooting - Tips and Tricks

Caught up with a friend and went out shooting along South Congress the other night. Was a great shoot, a most excellent evening under the stars, but I was reminded how it's been a while since I've offered up any tips, hints, or tricks that I use in night shooting. I used to think that most people are better at night shooting than I am. Perhaps they are. But, lately anyway, it seems like I've been asked a lot for tips, ticks, and hints at how to do it better. So, I thought I might collect a few and post them here. (Please forgive me if these are too obvious and feel free to post any questions you might have if they aren't.)

For starters...gearing up. It helps if you have a sturdy tripod. Now, it doesn't have to be an expensive one, just one that doesn't fall over too easily. If it's not too windy out and your rig is not too heavy, you can usually get by with a cheaper one, like those available at most electronic stores. If you want to go all out, I highly recommend Gitzo tripods. They are quite good and worth the price of admission.

Tripod aside, you will need your camera, of course, and pack extra batteries, as night shooting can wear out batteries more quickly than daytime shooting. I tend to favor shorter prime lenses for night shooting. This is because there are (usually) fewer lens elements in a shorter prime (think a 50mm 1.4 here) than in a wide ranging zoom lens. This cuts down on reflections and noise at night. It's also a lot easier to focus a shorter lens as shorter lenses tend to be brighter which is helpful for night shooting. That said, use what you've got, as you can usually make it work.

If you want to shoot light trails, I usually expose for the scene and just let the trails blast out. Light against a dark backdrop is going to blast out anyway, you might as well not try to expose for it. You can also opt for spot metering on a bright part of the scene. I try to shoot at f16 as much as possible but don't like to switch to bulb in the city so I will find myself frequently switching to shutter priority and just going with the aperture that a 30 second exposure gets me. Again, whatever works here. I'm not above shooting in all manual mode at night either, being a big fan of whatever works, given the situation I'm in at the time.

Next up, the big question. To bump ISO or not to bump ISO? I'm old school here so I prefer not to bump whenever possible. Having said that, you can get a lot out of newer cameras these days. The ISO wars have not been lost of me. Even bumping up to 400 or so can buy you a lot of wiggle room at night. Just remember to set it back after your night shoot, before you tuck the camera away, as it's easy to forget to do this and you don't want your daytime shots ruined with a 1600 ISO setting (or some such thing.)

There's my favorite topic of light painting. You can do this in a multitude of ways. Some of my favorites? Meter the scene and move the camera about half way through. For example, suppose I take a reading of, say, 20 seconds at f16 at ISO 100. Fire away the shot, with camera on tripod, and, as I fire, start counting (in your head or aloud if you must) 1 Mississippi, 2 Mississippi, etc. until you get to 10 seconds or so (about half way in.) At this point, pick the tripod up and dance it around. Move the camera on the tripod for the remainder of the 20 seconds, until the shutter clicks again. This technique can give you some fun results. Of course, paint with flash is another option, and I've been known to have some fun with some colored flashlights too. You can also open the zoom if you didn't follow my advice about the prime lenses. Whatever works.

If you haven't got a tripod, don't let that stop you from shooting the night. Learn to pan and paint with your camera in hand. There is also flash combined with long exposure (think rear curtain sync here) and a few other tricks you can try. Don't feel limited without the three legged beast, rather learn to enjoy the extended periods of time with the shutter open no matter how you have to work them.

Experimentation and play is a lot of it for me. One of the reasons I love night photography so much is that things look so different and we can really try new things and play around a lot without feeling hurried. I love that. I hate chasing sunsets and hustling to get the right light. Shooting at night allows me to putter about and let the light accumulate on me. I love mixing it up like that.

One last final pointer. Cities, stars, things we shoot at night all have rhythms to themselves. Learn to watch for the timing of the stop lights to guess when a car might come by to give you a light trail. Learn which way the moon is moving in the sky. Watch as crowds of people walk, which way are they usually going? Photography is as much about anticipation as it is about being there when it happens. 

I hope you enjoy night shooting as much as I do. It really is a fun different world after the sun goes down on us all.

Until next time...

This one taken at Tesoros Trading Company, South Congress, with a walkabout zoom lens and the baby Mark. 

Monday, September 21, 2015

An Eagle Away, A Crow at Home

Listening to a podcast recently, the author used the expression, "an eagle away, a crow at home." This really got me thinking. As an artist, we are all, in some sense, eagles away and crows at home. What does this mean? Allow me to present my spin on it.

Everybody creates art (their art) in a local environment. Speaking for myself, I live in Cedar Park, Texas, which is on the outskirts of Austin, so my local market would be Cedar Park or the Austin area in general. Now, those of you who know me know that I sometimes do local shows. I've been known to show my work at "the DAC" as we call it (Dougherty Arts Center) or to participate in AVAA shows (Austin Visual Arts Association.) There's also the Georgetown Art Hop and the local 5x7 art show and splurge at the local museum, which I participate in almost every year. (There are others too, but this is not really about making a list and checking it twice.) These local shows are great, I love doing them, and I feel as if they are a big part of me-a part of who I am as an artist. Heck, I can remember my "early days" (if you can call the time "circa 1995" as "early days" but, heck, work with me here. I am a photographer) when I was overjoyed to be able to get into an AVAA show or some of these other local shows. Now, I'm still happy and I still enjoy these types of shows, frankly, I'm happily surprised when my work is accepted into anything (most of the time I'm a bit taken aback when I find there are other kindred spirits out there who see the world the same quirky way I do) but most of my "show joy" (if you want to call it that) comes from having my work accepted into a new market. Places like Los Angeles or New York or Toronto or...wherever, but you get the idea. As an artist, I have exhibited my work globally. This naturally dictates that my market has broadened and my backyard is a little less exciting for me (on some levels.)

When you go into these "other" markets, something happens. You suddenly become "exotic." I know this sounds strange, especially coming from a little old photographer living in rural Texas (actually suburban Texas-even worse!) but something happens. You are "special." You become different. The rusted old barns, the fields with long horns stuck in them, heck, even the tired old bluebonnet photos suddenly become "exotic." They don't have fields of bluebonnets with grazing cattle in New York City, ok? Yes, it's true, what you may take for granted, somebody else finds, *gasp* interesting. (Oh! Who knew?!?) This makes your work suddenly special. If you look at the course of say, a gallery in Los Angeles, why they have only shown so many pieces from artists based in Texas. They're off busy showing work from all over the world. There are photographers from Dubai and Romania and Luxembourg and places we didn't even know existed (rural Kazhakhstan, anybody?) When you stuff a Texas image next to an image crafted in, say, Luxembourg, you're going to get something that's...well...different, OK? You just will. Because of this, you suddenly become magical. And, I'll be the first to admit, you never get to wear out the phrase "exotic" believe me, you just don't. What might seem stale and tired to you suddenly has a "Wow!" factor to somebody somewhere else, and every place is "exotic" to somebody far away, that's just how the entire "exotic" thing works.

Fast forward a few years and you see what starts to happen here. It's easy to become a celebrity far away from home. It's easy to play that "exotic" card and make good things happen to your work in far away places. Los Angeles or Seattle or New York or....whatever the locale you think happens to be "exotic" suddenly finds you (and by "you" I mean your work here) "exotic." You're special. You're magical. You're a photography titan from a faraway, magical, distant land and everybody wants to rub your sleeve because, well, that's how this "exotic" thing works.

Meanwhile, back at the're still the same old suburban lady with the same bluebonnet images that everybody else seems to have. Nope, nothing special about her. She's, why, she's *local.* Oh the horror! You might as well call me vanilla ice cream and stab me in the eye with a spork! Over time, you can see what happens. It's easier to milk that "exotic" label. It's actually easier to build a following in your hometown by going far away and coming back. Seriously. You would not think this to be the case, but its' true.

I once shots stills for a TV show called "Trading Spaces." The host was a lovely lady named Paige Davis. An interesting thing about Paige, she always wanted to be...on Broadway! She never wanted (not once!) to become a TV star. So, how did she get to be a TV star? Easy. She went on audition after audition and got rejection after rejection. And then she met somebody who met somebody who knew somebody who told her he knew this guy who was casting for a pilot...for a "small TV show." Thinking it might be good exposure, she auditioned and got the gig. One TV role let to another led to another until she became a bit well known in TV circles. Eventually, she did make it to Broadway but only after doing several stints of TV shows. She's also on record as saying it was a lot easier to go for auditions on Broadway when she had a resume with lots of TV experience. She was, in fact, "an eagle away a crow at home." It's easier to go on a Broadway audition when you're "that TV star" then it is to hire people who are already playing bit parts on Broadway (oddly enough.)

A few years ago, I had applied for a local art exhibition. Now, I didn't think it was a big deal of a show, I had just read somewhere, maybe even online, that somebody was looking for work and I thought, what the heck, I'll send in a few pieces for consideration. As luck would have it, I made it into the show. Since it was a local show, I actually got to the go to the opening reception. Since I'm a "local" artist, I know a lot of other local artists, in fact, I can hardly walk into an opening reception in the Austin area without bumping into somebody that I know. It just works that way-there aren't that many exhibiting artists around and we all tend to hang out together. So, I walk into this opening reception and a local artist I know and respect (when I say "respect" here, I mean like really "RESPECT" as in, I've taken classes from her kind of respect and not just, "oh, yeah, I've seen her work and it's pretty good" kind of respect) comes up to me and confides in me that her work didn't make it into the show. I was a bit taken aback by this. I mean, how could this well respected artist not get into this show and yet there was my work sitting there on the gallery wall? Let me be the first to tell you, my work is *not* any better than hers, ok? No, this was not a question of quality, not by a long shot (if it had been left to quality, why, I'm the first to admit, I'd be sitting at the curb and they would have cleared the place out to hang up her stuff, ok? And I say that sincerely. She's a damn fine artist.)

When I got home, I was still reeling from the experience, so I typed the show into my search engine. On the web page for the show, they had me listed as an exhibiting artist, as you might expect, and then there was a blurb about "...recently shown work in Toronto and New York..." Yes, it's true, I had just come off doing a few shows in these locales. And, I have to say now that, in hindsight, it was not the quality of the work that got me into this show, no, it was the "eagle away crow at home" status of my work. Anybody who Googled me at that point would have come up with the words "Toronto" and "New York" and probably figured, "Hmm. She must be good," even without looking at my work. I was "exotic" and had that going for me, even if there was better local work.

Now, I'm not against showing work in the local market, no, just the opposite. I think artists need to cultivate local ties. I'd be the first to admit too that local shows have, at times, kept me sane. It's *fun* to go and see your stuff hanging on a wall, have a glass of wine, and hob knob with some local folks. It really makes for a nice evening, trust me on that one. You get wonderful feedback on your work, it's easy, you don't have to ship stuff, you can invite your friends to the opening. There are a lot of advantages here. But, you have to spread your wings too.

My advice to other artists is, yes, have roots. Participate in local shows. Network with other local artists. Invite local patrons into your studios and share your work with your neighbors. Have roots in your community, yes, but also, have wings. I think the most successful artists are just this, "an eagle away, a crow at home" or maybe it's more accurate to say, yes, they have roots, but they also have wings.

Until next time...

 PS This image from Port Townsend, Washington, taken with a walkabout lens and the baby Mark.

Monday, September 14, 2015

New Apps

I've been playing around with some new apps, just trying to learn a few more tricks. It's amazing to me how the iPhone has made it so you can manipulate almost anything to get something interesting. It seems like you don't even have to start with an interesting image, rather you can just jump in and play. This one started out as a random shot of my pillow and blanket, then put through iColorama. 

--Until next time...

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Color and Quirk

So, I've been looking a bit at color lately. An interesting thing about color, it's both a design element and, sort of, a design non-element both at the same time. What I mean by that is that as artists, when we make compositions, we think of points, lines, shapes, sometimes even contrasts, yes, but not always color. Yet color plays into that mix. Color often defines how we see points, lines, shapes, even contrasts. Perhaps the most important "color" of them all is in fact black since it serves as a backdrop for all the other colors. Tints, tones, shades, shadows all get combined by mixing hues with white, grey, or black. Color never exists in a vacuum, no, colors are always (well, almost always) reflected off of one another. It's incorrect to speak really of "color" in fact, a more accurate assessment would be to discuss palette, as colors interplay with one another, and our perception of one color is, almost always, tampered by it's neighbors. There are so many aspects to color, it's so complicated, yet it's also really so very simple as well.

Good artists work with color a lot, even if they limit their palettes to a more monochromatic likeness. Think black and white photography is not about color? Try working tones someday. You still have to know all about color because we live in a color world, even if you do try to reduce it to its black and while elements. Simply put, you cannot be tone poet if you don't know how to work with color, even if your work itself is black and white.

Artists can have "color signatures" as well. We tend to favor certain palettes, for whatever reason. Some of us love the bold, splashy stuff while others prefer a more muted palette. But, muted colors are colors too. They can reveal as much (or as little) as we would like them too. Biology and psychology both factor into our color choices. Pink tends to calm us, red makes us hungry. Other colors, like purple, have an association with things like royalty, which comes more from psychology than biology. As predators, we tend to see our prey in contrast with its surroundings and other predators in different colors. There's a reason the deer look like the bushes and the tigers look orange with stripes to our eyes-colors serve to help keep us alive and well fed!

When we talk about color, we talk about things like contrasts and harmonies. There's an interplay of color, sort of like a great tango that happens while we aren't really noticing. Colors dance with one another to form patterns, lines, shapes, and other design elements that we see, but we often neglect the color aspects of design. Of course, we often go the other way, and focus only on the color aspects of design, while neglecting the "big" picture. (I've been guilty of this myself...oh, look, shiny red!) It's easy to use color as a sort of "cop out." One could make a career out of shooting say red things, but is that really good design and composition? Would a more selective color palette be more meaningful and provide more of an emotional connection? (I don't think there's a blanket yes or no answer to that question really.)

I would have to say my color signature tends to favor the browns and neutrals more, especially cooler toned colors like blues. At least, that's how it feels now. Of course, I still love quirk-shooting oddball things, and these things tend to be more brightly colored (like the image you see here.) Being a photographer, I don't always get to pick my reality, sometimes, you have to take it when you can get it. While I'm no stranger to that, I have been trying to work with color a bit more recently. Paying attention to my color palette, trying to think about adding design elements, about how I work with contrasts and tone. It's just all more to think about when shooting or crafting a composition and something I hope will eventually bring my work to new levels.

The process has me learning to describe my work a bit more too. Color and quirk, slightly minimal with hints of tension. Playing with scale, working line. It's just kind of what I do, how I tend to see the world around me. Well that and, I'd guess, a bunch of little houses. (I like to shoot little houses for some reason.) Have you thought about the role color plays in your work? It can be an interesting exploration for artists of all levels. 

Color, it's not just for breakfast anymore.

Until next time...

Monday, September 07, 2015

Photography as a Performing Art

Lately, I've been thinking about photography as a performing art, not just a fine art. What I mean by that is that there is a quality about certain photographers, and you know who they are, who are just compelling when they work. It's like watching a story unfold before your very eyes. They work, they travel, they shoot, and the entire universe sort of emotionally "buys into" what they are doing. They are captivating, not just in the way they produce images, but they possess a certain je ne sais quoi which memorizes people. People like to watch them work and, in turn, they have an emotional buy into what they are doing which, in turn, makes the images that come out at the end almost irrelevant. Nobody cares about the end result, in a way, we're all more captivated by the process, the actor on the stage, so to speak. There are certain invisible factors that come into play which make the entire world seem to want to live vicariously through the eyes of the photographer in question, not just enjoy the finished product (images.) I suppose you can say the same and generalize this to all artists, not just photographers as well.

Maybe an example here would help. I recently watched an episode of Art Wolfe's "Travel to the Edge" where he went to Japan in the wintertime to photograph snow monkeys bathing in the hot springs there. Now, I'm not a super fan of snow monkeys, at least I wasn't until I watched this show. I mean, don't get me wrong, I've no secret desire to round them up and kill them all but, had you asked me, "is this something you want to photograph?" an hour before I saw the program I would have quickly responded with a, "Heck no!" Yet, I found myself watching the show, watching Art Wolfe as he traveled, watching the quiet barren snow covered Japanese landscape, and I was captivated. He photographed the snow cranes in Japan, he talked about the bare bones hotel he was staying at (I believe he had to sleep on a mat on the floor rather than an actual bed.) We saw the beautiful pagodas and enjoyed the quiet meditative snowfall as he worked. The entire show had me emotionally hooked. I wanted him to get the shot. By the time the end of the show came around, I wanted that snow monkey, sitting there in that hot spring, to just smile for the camera and I wanted Art Wolfe to capture him in all of his glory. Of course, Art Wolfe is a great photographer and, wildlife being his specialty, he got a fantastic shot of the snow monkey bathing in the hot springs in the end, but it was more then just the shot that captivated me. Kind of like the whole being more than the sum of the parts, it was the entire process that had me hooked. When you enjoy a program like this, in a way, you are letting this person into your home. You are letting them into your life. For a moment, no matter how brief, Art Wolfe was in my living room. I let him in. Perhaps, more importantly, I bought into the whole process. The entire snow monkey thing, I was into it. I wanted to see the monkeys. I wanted to see him with the monkeys. I wanted him to get the shot of the monkeys. I wanted to see the finished print, yes, but it's less about that. I let him into my life for a brief moment and emotionally connected.

Now, you can say what you want about me, or Art Wolfe or monkeys for that matter. Maybe it's shallow, but I don't think so. I think there's an energy that connects. I think there are photographers who share a certain energy, who are capable of building a certain excitement, who just are capable of making that connection, that emotional connection, that draws the people into their world. If you're not a fan of Art Wolfe, there are other photographers who do this quite well too. I think Joe McNally could have an entire series of TV shows, called the "Wild Man Joe Chronicles" or, if you want to be more polite, maybe bring his concept of the "Hot Shoe Diaries" to life on my TV screen. I would so binge watch that, let me tell you. I'm even buying into this without it coming to pass, already imaging in my head what such a show would look like should it ever come to my TV screen.

I really think this connection is, in some ways, like a performance. Perhaps it's a dance we all do, not sure about that, but there is a certain performance aspect of it. Maybe Shakespeare was right when he said, "all the worlds a stage and all the men and women merely players." Photographers, when they are good, I think they do this dance. They hook people, they bring them in. It's about an emotional connection. It's a dialogue, a conversation, not just a single image. There's something more there, something that cuts deeper on some levels then just your typical shallow, "Nice shot!" Not that there's anything wrong with getting nice shots but, well, you get the idea.

The line of thinking has me contemplating other issue as well. In my own work, am I captivating? Probably not so much. How do I become more captivating? (Or, heck, even captivating at all?) How can I better draw people in? How can I make more of an emotional connection with my work? I never said there were easy answers, only that I've been thinking about this more recently, at least a bit. I don't think I'll ever be as entertaining as somebody like a Joe McNally but, maybe adding a bit of drama into the way I shoot, maybe doing work that's a bit more compelling, maybe being a bit more aware of the entire performance aspect of things, might not hurt so much either. (Heck, maybe I'll just buy myself a new scarf. That would add a touch of something, wouldn't it?) Seriously, I'd be curious to hear from other photographers. Have you thought about this at all when shooting? Is it something that has crossed your mind or am I just blowing smoke yet again?

Until next time...