4.30.2013

My favorite portrait technique? Simplicity.



One light. One 12 megapixel camera. One 85mm 1.8 lens.

Just put the light in the right place and then work on seeing the person in front of you. At that point the technical stuff should take care of itself.

Back when we printed just about everything every photographer worth his Dektol at his own filed out negative carrier to use in his enlarger. The idea was that you could print everything that was on the negative. It was proof that you saw perfectly at the moment you pushed your fickle index finger down on the shutter release button. Shades of Henri Cartier-Bresson!!! While there are probably a thousand ways to make your own custom frames to fit around you digital images I find it easiest just to hop into Snapseed and customize one of their handy, pre-fab frames.

Most of the time they serve no purpose other than eliciting the ethos of printing in the wet days. But in this situation the background toasted up to white and I needed a frame to define where the white background stopped and the Blogger background begins.

I did some work on this photo in Snapseed. I turned down the saturation a bit. Because I think skin tones look more natural when they aren't Disney-saturated. I opened up the shadows and brightened up my subject's eyes to match the perception I had of her eyes while I was shooting. I was moving from objective reality to my subjective reality, via sliders.

I look at most of my RAW files as a vague starting point. And when it comes to portraits I'm willing to use every trick in the book to bring an image from the vague muddle of data that comes from my cameras into line with the pristine and always optimistic view my brain seems to store of my subjects. On any given image I might spend some time in Aperture (for just the right color and tone), PhotoShop (to repair blemishes and dust spots and meteor dust) as well as Portrait Professional (to get the eyes and the skin tones just right), and finally a wallow through Snapseed because I like the judicious use of the structure filter and the ease of adding frames and vignettes.

It's my job to guide your eyes and your intentions. I am not an forensic documentarian. My job is the opposite of strictly recording the median. That's for robots and surveillance cameras.

I suggest that we use the tools we have at our fingertips. The trick is to know when to stop. That's probably why I'm not showing the other ten variations. The bottom line is that the value lies in your original vision, not the cameras literal compulsions. Drag the image to the reality you saw in your heart and mind and the hell with the purists.

4.29.2013

A Portrait. The way I think my portraits should look.


The portrait is a collaboration.

A.Z.  ©kirk tuck

I met the woman in this image a few years ago. We were shooting some big graphics for a trade show and she was one of the talents the ad agency selected as a principal for the ad campaign. I was smitten by her quiet and unusual beauty when she walked through the door. After the project was completed and the 9 foot by 12 foot panels were installed I sent her an e-mail and asked if she was willing to come into the studio and have a portrait made, as a fun project. 

I set up my usual lighting. A big, soft light coming from the left and used in fairly close. At first there were the obligatory smiles and poses but as we got into the session I found that the quieter, more serious expressions were the ones that made me happy. People remark that my portraits can be too serious but the bigger the smile the smaller and squint-ier the eyes. And A.Z.'s eyes were one of the features that attracted me in the first place. Why hide them behind a smile?

I used my camera of choice at that time. It was a Nikon D2x and the exif info tells me that I was using the 85mm 1.8 Nikon lens. I know this will sound monotonous but I shot all the images in the session with ISO 100 because it's the optimum ISO for that camera. 

We shot a lot of stuff in a short amount of time that evening and I sent along a few of the best images but lately I've started to go back to my favorite images and re-work them. Funny how four or five years passing makes such a difference in my perspective about how faces and lighting and post production should look. 

Here's another version:


 We are all attracted to different ideals of beauty. You work better when you work with the kind of human you find most amazing. Knowing your creative muses may be the most important aspect of making great portraits. Not commercial, sellable portraits, just great portraits.




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Why the reset? Here's my quandary: My market and my interests are shifting...


We live in a world of insanely fast changes and I work in an industry that changes even quicker. The things I've written about for the past five years have all referenced a continuum of photography that more or less reflected the viewpoint that digital didn't really change any of the underlying structures that made photography what it is, digital was just a new media to write the images to. A new kind of film that's infinitely cheaper to buy and process, and equally easy to share. And that was a comforting construct for me but it's just not true anymore.

A large number of the skills a lot of us spent decades honing are no longer relevant or even desirable. Who, in this day and age, needs to know the fine points of selenium toning Seagull Portrait fiber printing paper? Who will make use of your dissertation about the Scheimpflug formulas for calculating rear film and front lens standard movements for a view camera? And really, who gives a shit about which version of a 50mm Leica Summicron lens is really the hidden gem in the cosmology of lenses?

Much of the blog space on the web that has to do with photography has devolved into an endless review of cameras and lenses. The bloggers have discovered that talking about the latest equipment introductions is fun for the majority of readers to read. They've also discovered that most readers will click through the product links and return some income to the bloggers. It sets up an UN-virtuous circle wherein we start to customize our content to encourage equipment purchases instead of encouraging an exploration of the art. And that started to bother me. The websites I used to go to in order to read about technique or new works by ascending thought leaders have changed their mixes to be almost all commerce all the time. And while I know that's the basis of the American system (Oh...yay capitalism!!) it's also a subject line that decays quickly and irreversibly. That wonderful review about the Olympus EPL2 already seems antiquated. Like listening to Abba.

When I first envisioned writing this blog I thought I'd be writing about a handful of subjects. I wanted to show work I'd done and talk about the commercial photography world. How we make work. The challenges of keeping our personal visions alive while making a living doing images that weren't necessarily germaine to the visions that drove us into this commercial niche. I wanted to talk about the personal journey of creating art. Of shooting on the street. Of making portraits of wonderful people who made our hearts pump faster and our eyes perk up.

Here's the wonderful thing about writing a book: You only get to see the sales numbers twice a year and once you've written it and put it out there there isn't a hell of a lot you can do to change it if you get lots of good or bad feedback. Here's the really crappy thing about writing a column for a blog: You get hour by hour feedback in the form of comments, pageview metrics and even click through numbers which you can't really help wanting to see. If they are good on an article you wrote yesterday your ego is massaged and you feel vindicated and smart and dialed in. If your numbers fall over the edge of a cliff the next day you become frustrated and you subconsciously start edging in the a different direction. Which direction? Obviously, the one that protects your fragile ego.

A number of years ago I wrote two blogs that I really love. One is called "Lonely Hunter, Better Hunt" and the other is, "Coffee Time is Over, Shut up and Shoot." Both have been moderately popular in terms of pageviews and comments. But, of course, the numbers are dwarfed by anything I write that covers, reviews or even just mentions the gear. Write a long Olympus review and the numbers are amazing. Write something that discusses our motivations and watch the numbers fall through the couch cushions with all the spare change.

But here's the disconnect, a vocal faction of readers tells me how much they love the non-gear columns while the vast majority of visitors turn off and head for more gear-like pastures.  

The next problem for the blog is that after nearly 30 years in the business I feel that I can clearly see, both in art and commerce, how much bigger video is becoming. And how important it is to the whole sphere of visual communication as we plunge into the future. I like cinema and video and the art of the moving image. I like scripts and writing and acting and everything that goes with it but my audience sometimes makes me feel locked into being that guy who wrote a book about using small flashes or the guy who wrote a book about LEDs and they give me (metaphoric) disapproving looks when I mention video/motion.

Wanna see readership drop off your photography blog? Shift from writing about which camera and lens combination currently has the most magnificent bokeh in the world to writing about how to light faces in video and watch the current readership shrug and trundle off for another cup of Sanka.

The future is coming at us fast. Four of my work days this week will be consumed shooting video for clients. I haven't changed my branding or advertising; my clients just assume I will be able to bring the same lighting effects and personal rapport to the video table. And I feel that the wave is just beginning to swell. 

Sony announced a 4K television set at NAB this year that should be priced under $5,000 so it's only a matter of a year or two until the high end of the market (where the juiciest clients reside) are totally saturated with screens that deliver a much higher level of detail and tonal integrity than even the best units we're using today. And that will change so much. Levels of production will have to rise and the next generation of DSLRs (or, if you shoot with Sony, DSLTs) will have to incorporate the new 4K level of HD video. And the potential to show work on a high quality medium will become ubiquitous. But if we sit around and argue about the death of the traditional photo industry or how we need to go back to printing our own black and white photos with chemicals, or which camera is the best one right now! Then we won't share in the fun.

I don't want to create a site like Phillip Bloom's where everything is a commercial for every video gadget that's offered for wannabe movie makers. And I don't want to be a blog where we worship our past at the expense of the present. I also don't want to turn my back at timeless good work either. 

But in my mind the first step in rehabbing the VSL blog was to take down as much product specific stuff as possible. I'm no longer in the business of reviewing the tools. I'm not any smarter than many of my readers and I think they can figure out which camera works best for them. I'm no longer flogging my previous books. I've worked and worked on that and there's no rhyme or reason to their selling pattern. If I flog a book it will be the upcoming novel or a new e-book after that. I don't want to sell people workshops. I don't want to sell my audience prints.

In fact, I don't want to seek out an audience, I want my audience to seek me out. 

So what do I intend to substitute for all the decaying and moribund content that used to live here? It's easy. I want to write about my experiences making portraits and shooting motion picture projects. I want to write about how this one freelance content creator lives his life and makes his work. I'd like to showcase and interview more and more interesting people in the way I did with Michael O'Brien's video.  And I'd like to talk about this whole life and undertaking as a process that's done with thought tools and not just the cameras and lenses we buy for sport. I want to make portraits that are exciting or seductive enough to make me forget the gear.

You can come along for the ride or you can find somewhere else to live. You can join my imperfect search to bring meaning to my photographs and the work of people that I think are doing good stuff. Going forward I will be much more direct in my opinions (I've felt myself toning things down to keep the virtual peace around here) and if enough people don't like it vocally enough I'll just turn off the comments.

I'm old enough to know that all the stuff we buy is irrelevant if we don't have anything to say. And we'll never know what it is we want to say with our work if we have our collective heads up our butts chasing the latest light, lens and camera stuff. Mea Culpa. I got sucked in by the magnetic attraction of pageviews and the lure of the cash. Not anymore. 

It's hard to write for an audience you don't know. I would sincerely like to use the comment section on this particular post to hear from you, my readers. Who are you? What do you do to make money? What do you do to make art? Why are you here? What do you think the future will bring for you and for the rest of us....in a photographic sense? I'd like to hear from as many people as possible. I'll open up the comments even to the anonymous commenters. Share with me who I've been writing to for the past five years.

Thanks, Kirk





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4.28.2013

I spent part of my week with a very interesting artist. Take a look at Marja Spearman's latest project: The Forget Me Knots.


I got an e-mail a week and a half ago from Marja Spearman. She introduced herself as a sculptor looking for a photographer to document her project. We exchanged a few e-mails and I decided that I'd be delighted to meet with her and help document her project. The project involved making 1,000 ceramic Forget Me Knots, painting and glazing them different shades of blue and purple and then creating an installation that weaves across three properties in west Austin. Each ceramic piece is a wonderful and visually alluring metaphoric knot. The pieces seem to have different meaning for every viewer. One person who as driving by as the pieces were being installed stopped to look. She shared a quick story with us. She had a knot in her colon that had to be repaired surgically. She wanted to know if she could buy one of the knots. 


Marja insisted that she just take one. In talking about the project she shared with me that she still has a relative in Holland who carries a rope around with him just for tying "forget me not knots" to help him remember things that he has to do. That was part of the germination of this project which I think deal with memory and loss. 

Documenting this project called for making photographs of the installation from a number of angles and at a variety of scale. From close up clusters that really show the form of the individual ceramic objects to wider shots that show the scope of the installation. Of course, effective documentation has nothing to do with camera capability beyond that the camera needs to have a relatively decent wide angle to short telephoto range and that the camera be able to handle the range of colors and textures. Most modern digital cameras would qualify.


A second part of the project, which just seems like a natural adjunct, was to do a video documentation in much the same way. I documented the same range of scales but introduced movement and sweep to the coverage. Video also allowed us to interview Marja and her assistant, Christina. Our edit will be very straightforward: A few title slides to open, a few interviews and then intercuts of the installation with a continuation of the sound track from the interviews over the top of the images of the knots.


To make the video interviews I worked with a Sony a99 camera (but any of the equivalent Canon, Nikons, Panasonic or Olympus cameras with video would do equally well. For me there were two big considerations. One was that the camera be able to accept external microphones while giving me real time controls over audio levels and, second, that the camera have a headphone jack so I could monitor the quality of sound we were getting. 

For the interview I worked on a tripod and used a manual focus 85mm lens. I used a set of Sennheiser wireless microphones. I would pin the microphone onto the person I was interviewing (or fallowing around during the installation) and they would be free to move around while they spoke. We got some good material by keeping the microphone attached to either Marja or Christina while they were engaged in installation. Their remarks about why they were placing the objects in such a way illuminated my understanding of their vision. 

While the process of documentation was very straightforward I think there is so much that could be done in the video edit that I'm feeling a bit intimidated about it. I'm torn between how much could be done and how much I'll be able to do under my time and budget constraints. We'll make something good for now and pass along the raw video to Marja in case she wants to push the program further or cut it in a different way.



Working with other artists engenders a good feeling of sharing and opening one's eyes to a different angle and a different perspective. I love that this artist, Marja Spearman, had a singular vision and combined her art, her management skills and her ability to build a collaboration into a overarching project of making art. There is no discernible business return. The knots required months of hand production, and because of the variations in color and glaze there was a high failure rate. Her team experimented over and over again with different glaze formulations and different firing parameters. In the end she understands that some of the objects will be stolen, other broken and many given away. That's what makes documenting the project so important.
The installation itself is temporary and will only exists in the collection of images and video that we capture during its short tenure.


This is a busy time in Austin. This weekend and next are the West Austin Art Studio Open Houses. You can drop by and see the installation, and speak with the artist. A direct connection with an accomplished artist. You can also make your own documentation of her work. Just go this afternoon or the afternoons of next weekend to the intersection of Lamar Blvd. and 31st St. The installation starts just a few feet from Lamar on the west side.  You can turn into 31st St. and you'll probably find a bit of parking along the street. Next Saturday Marja says there will be a bit of catering for people who drop by. Go see a fun installation. If you aren't in Austin, don't worry...I'll post the video as soon as I finished editing. Hope you are having a fulfilling and artistic Sunday. Best, Kirk


Interesting angles. A black and white Eeyore's Birthday Party.


I try to go to Eeyore's Birthday Party at Pease Park in Austin, Texas every year. It reminds me of the Austin I loved when I came here in the 1970's to go to school. Janis Joplin sang in a local club and you could pretty much ride across town on a bicycle. The city has grown up a lot since then but the people who come to Eeyore's do a great job channeling that old spirit.

I usually grab a camera at random, stuff maybe $20 in the pocket of my jeans and head over to Clarksville to park as close as one can and then I walk an easy half mile to the park. I didn't stay too long. I didn't need to. I soaked up some good feelings, watched the drum circles and the unicycle football games. Saw the kids decorate the Maypole and watched everyone and their mother snap away with their smartphones. And that was fine by me.

Usually I wander around directionless but today was different. I was drawn toward a different end of the park where I came across this young woman and her partner doing aerobatic yoga and I just stopped. I love people who defy gravity. I love photographing beautiful people who are turning upside down. Who doesn't? So I photographed their improvisational routine with delight.

Then, rather than stay and look for more stuff, I decided to leave on this high note. And I am completely satisfied with my experience at the celebration. In the past I would have hung around hoping to find more, more, more. But I've learned that it's almost self defeating to keep going after a certain point. And that point is a moving target.


The camera I took today was my Sony a850. It's a throw back to the same look and feel of my old film SLRs from the dark ages. Big and heavy in the hand. A big, optical finder and a mirror that goes "boom, boom, boom!" when you hold down the shutter button. But I now get why I am partial to that camera. The longer I shot with it today the more it reminded me of those days of shooting Tri-X in a Nikon F3 or a Canon F1 (original). Big, brawny cameras that felt like they'd outlast your car or your house. That association, coupled with the fact that I shot so much black and white back then must have triggered some sort of mental muscle memory.

I set the camera to shoot black and white jpegs and I shot without looking at the indecisive consideration screen on the back of the camera. In this way I could shoot and move on. I removed the step where I reflexively stop after each flurry of activity to check the screen.....As though I'm so inexperienced that I fear I may have missed the shot or mis-set the important controls and screwed up everything. It was purging not have the instantaneous feedback loop engaged at all times. And it felt great to start looking for the form of a shot instead of the emotional triggers of color.


I used an old lens today. I selected it because I found it sitting on my desk this morning when I came back from an early Saturday morning public relations assignment for the regional gas company. Maybe Ben borrowed it and put it on my desk to return it to me. Maybe I put it there yesterday to get it out of the way of our video shoot. It doesn't matter. I grabbed it and put it on the Sony on my way out the door. It's a cheap, old Minolta 24-85mm 3.5-4.5 zoom lens. Very old tech. But a nice look, on sensor, when used as a black and white translator.


I had a long talk with my friend, John, this morning over our after-swim-practice, decaf coffees. We were talking about the need to keep adapting to and understanding the advances in technology as it relates to culture. Neither of us needs to understand dynamic power management of redundant web servers but we both feel like any knowledge that is diffused into the mainstream creates a cultural dialogue and that to be left out of this dialog is what separates and isolates generations. My friend doesn't need to use Twitter all the time (for example) but he needs to understand the twitter basics and how they mould the prevailing cultural structure. It's vital as we grow older to continue to embrace the translation of technology to culture to remain relevant and engaged. The alternative is a separation from our clients, our potential future clients, and a whole number of generations that will inevitably launch themselves into the world and inadvertently change our lives.


But continuing education doesn't mean everything changes completely. It's good for me to check in at things like Eeyore's Birthday Party or to make black and white prints that I really like so that we don't lose our personal relevance, which may be anchored at the other end of the progress paradigm. Know the future. Raid the past. Embrace the fusion.



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How did you really intend to have your images seen? Who would you like you ultimate audience to be?


When professional photographers go out to shoot they always have an audience and a venue in mind. The acknowledgement of this audience and venue inform the way they shoot technically and, if they are smart, it also informs the way they take the images. If they know that the highest and best use of the material will be a point of purchase display they take special pains to use the highest resolution camera and lens system they can in order to make a product that withstands inspection from as close as you (the consumer) want to examine it.

If the work is for the web and needs to be delivered and used quickly the professional photographer may dial back the promise of ultimate quality and use jpeg files at medium resolution settings to deliver a product that's quick to use and still has oodles of quality for the intended medium. The audience still informs his aesthetic intentions.

But what happens when the professional photographer takes off his "pro" hat and settles into making art for his own enjoyment? What is his target then? And as an amateur or hobbyist (or full time artist) who isn't constrained into hitting a specific, final target what is the way you want your images to ultimately be viewed? How do you want your audience to savor those images that you spend so much time and effort on? What is your highest and best display aspiration?


Most of us have a choice. We can aim for the widest audience imaginable and put our wonderful work up on the web. Potentially millions of people will have a chance to see it...but what are they seeing? At the other end of the spectrum we could go for the highest intrinsic quality but we'd have to be content with a tiny (by comparison) audience. In this scenario we'd capture our images as raw files and we'd practice our best techniques and our most present attention. We'd print as large as the image wants us to and we'd choose a medium that insures the integrity of our work.

For many that might mean shooting with a full frame camera at its lowest ISO and using a well made lens at its most effective aperture. To take it a step further it would mean being locked down on a tripod. The resulting image might start life as a 14 bit file and be meticulously post processed and then optimized for a well profile printer. We'd print it on the paper that matched our original intentions and then we'd matte the print and frame it appropriately. The final step would be to put the print into a gallery environment that allows our audiences to view the work without distraction. This would require attention to the height of the work, the angle and distance of the illuminating lighting and even the ambient light of the gallery space itself. If we are really meticulous we would carefully regulate the temperature and humidity of the space for the optimum viewer comfort.


How incredibly different that viewing experience would be, in terms of experiencing the work, than flipping open a 13 inch laptop screen at a noisy and frenetic coffee shop and trying to see work at 1,000 pixels wide while mixed light sources bounce off your screen. Even worse...imagine that you spent months researching a venue. You traveled and spent a fortune. And then, after days of waiting and looking you shot a really wonderful image with lots of energy and layers of meaning....and then you had to reconcile yourself to the idea that most of your audience was looking at your Pietรก on the fingerprint swirled screen of an older iPhone. Or worse.

All that work and intention smashed into the never ending blender of images coming directly to your audience tiny, compressed, unprofiled, and, well.....just a mess.  Yes, you may reach millions but with what? 


I come from a generation to which the finished print, hanging on a wall, or the printed page in a book or magazine in front of you, were our ultimate aesthetic targets. We wanted to always share the highest and best representation of our work with you. And it seems that in art circles that presentation imperative has never gone away. The exodus toward all content being solely on the web is being undertaken by the masses but not by the chosen few, the artist. In the realm of fine arts the paper print still reigns supreme as the Lingua Franca of the collectors, gallery owners, museums and enlightened viewers.


Two years ago I was on a photographic assignment and a fellow photographer joined me. We knew each other from the web, from seminars and from casual coffees. His exposure to my own work had been, up to that point, exclusively here on the blog or on my website. Perhaps also in projected images at talks and lectures. That day, when we ended up my work for the client at hand we walked back to my car to pack up. I also wanted to show my friend a printed book of 10 by 10 inch black and white portraits that I'd carefully printed. He was shocked. He was absolutely shocked by the presentation. He took the book and wandered back into the country club we'd been shooting at and sat in a chair and looked through the book several times.

"It's so different to see this work in print." He exclaimed. "There's a sensuality to the images that's incredible in the prints." And at that moment I knew I would never abandon the printed image. Because while authorship on the web is efficient and empowering by dint of sheer numbers it loses something real and vital in the translation. Maybe when we're all looking at 30 inch Retina ™ screens it will all be different. But right now? I don't think so.


I'm not saying that anyone needs to make a choice and certainly they don't have to make my choices. I share images with you on the web because, effectively, that's all I can do to stay in touch with most of you. But in the back of my mind, with every frame I shoot I find myself thinking, "Would this be worth printing? Would this shot merit my time spent working the files and making a large paper print?"  I'd like to say I never push the the shutter button unless I can answer "Yes!" but we all know it's not true. But that doesn't keep me from aiming at the ultimate quality or making files that can stand up to the technical tests. I think photographers and artist should have an intimate show of their physical work about once a year. 

In this way you have to have yourself and your resources invested in the process. And instead of typing and uploading in a dim room you stand, nervously, in the middle of a room full of people and await their judgement of your work. 

On the other hand if you look for other people's approval you put yourself under their control. Better to enter the whole idea of a show as a sharing instead of a judgement. So the question really becomes, "Do you have the balls to share your work directly? Face to face with your audience?" If you do I think you'll find ample new energy to create your vision. And refine it. And create again. An intimate show with a real and present audience beats yet another dropping into the cavernous and insatiable jaws of the anonymous web. At least in your physical gallery space a nasty critic will have to really summon their courage and spleen in order to even try and make a nasty remark. And if the wine is really flowing you can answer their irreverent critique with a kick to the seat of their pants as you propel them out the door. That's got to provide some satisfaction... But seriously, a good show is one of the best highs an artist can get. And each showing raises the bar for the next one.


In fact, 
I don't think you'll ever know just how good your work is until you 
print it large, frame it and put it in front of 
a real human audience.

They (the audience) won't tell you. 
they won't need to.

You'll know.






Images from 2013 Eeyore's Birthday Party. Camera: Sony a850
Lens: Minolta 24-85mm 

Intention? To share.



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Street shooting in Lisbon







Do you shoot out in the streets? It's hard if you live in one of most American cities, for a number of reasons. There are really very few places to shoot. People live in their cars and at the malls. And people in American tend to dress down. Cargo shorts and white t-shirts with logos on them. Comfortable and tacky. And we do tend to be the one of the fattest countries around, per capita.

If you live in New York City or San Francisco, save your energy. I know your towns are walking towns with a plethora of rich visual targets, just right for fine photography. If you are large, given to wearing bright t-shirts, cargo shorts with stretchable waist bands and running shoes, please try to look out for photographers and maybe don't loiter too long in front of obviously cool landmarks or architecture.

But if you are really into shooting in the streets you'll want to find towns where people strut their stuff on foot and where the ambulatory culture keeps the people looking good. You'll want to head to a European city. Grenoble's great because a huge swath of the downtown is pedestrian only. But one of my favorites has always been Lisbon because it seems anchored to a time warp that keeps everything five years slower.

Back in 1998 I went to Lisbon to photograph a project for a subsidiary of IBM. The project went well and I engineered some down time in the the city. Two days before the event and two days after. Every morning I left my hotel with a Leica M6, a 50mm Summicron and a 75mm Summarit. I kept a pocket full of slide film, an open mind, an open agenda and a nice pair of hiking sandals and a desire to dive into the city life and come up with some fun images.

Here's the problem for me with street shooting: I get so involved/immersed in everything that I forget sometimes to take the photographs. I found a fabulous little neighborhood bakery and I was in line so quick I forgot to lurk around and try to sneak good shots. Then I was enjoying my creme filled confection and hot, earthy coffee so much I forgot to even meter.

But after a while my basic sense of discipline kicked in and I came back with hundreds and hundreds of images that I really like. The above is a smattering. A taster plate. A flight of photos. When you go out to shoot I think it's best to throw away intentions and schedules and let yourself slide into the process like a you slide slowly into a hot bath. If you go looking for the right moment you'll generally never find it.

It's some perverse law of the universe. It's in the same set of laws that mandate if you see a great scene and vow to come back the next day to capture it the scene will never present itself again. Once Belinda and I were staying in Mexico City, in the very hotel that Trotsky used to live in, oh so many years ago. We were only in Mexico City for a few days and I kept meaning to make some cool photographs of the Hotel's interior but I didn't. Something else always came up. I decided I'd get the photos next time I was there. Of course an earthquake weeks later leveled the hotel.

It's also the same perverse law of the universe that demands you do things here and now. If you delay anything it will be changed, diluted, and made more crass. Put off going to Rome and the Rome you could have experienced will no longer exist having been replaced by a different and more homogenous version.

It's the same unfortunate law of photography that says, "Print now or you'll never see this image again." We have the right intention but we need the right follow through. When an image jumps up in your face and fascinates you the time to act on it is in that moment. But most of us put the images into a folder, go out and shoot more and then put those new images into folder and so on, waiting until life slows down and we have time to luxuriate with our little treasure and to photoshop them just so and make them perfect before we sent them off to the printer. But we wake up to find the moment gone, the image left untouched. And we think they will continue to exist but a certain physical/metaphysical relationship has changed and we'll never come back to the same image in just the same way.

These images remind me that the only time is now. Carpe diem.

The Goatman of South Austin

Sometimes you just have to enjoy whatever life throws at you. I was working on a piece for Zachary Scott Theater's season brochure a couple of years ago. The show that drove the season was David Steakley's, Keeping Austin Weird. It was celebration of the diversity and eccentricity that is represented is a town like Austin. A very "blue" city in a very "red" state.

My assignment was to go out into the community and photograph some of the characters and stories represented in the play. The gentleman above had this goat that he dearly loved. The goat was a pet, not livestock. Some of his neighbors and a few city officials wanted the goat gone from the very residential neighborhood. Happy ending for some: The goat stayed.

I buzzed by and shot the man and his goat with an on Kodak DCS 760 camera and 50mm lens. I can't speak for you but it's one of those images that's really stuck for me. I love the green paint, the American flag, the outdoor fan, and.....of course, the goat.

Just another thing that makes Austin special.

A Project From An Earlier Time.

The year was 1985. Twenty four years ago. I was 29 years old and had bounced around a bit in the career arena. I'd done some teaching at UT Austin and I was working as a creative director at a struggling advertising agency. I'd done a fair amount of freelance photography since 1980 and a lot of the editorial work I did was done for Texas Monthly Magazine. Nothing really big but kind of steady.

In the Spring of 1985 I got a call from the book publishing subsidiary of Texas Monthly called, Texas Monthly Press. "Would I be interested in doing the photography for a cookbook on Mexican Food?" I jumped at the chance. I'd done a few food photographs for lifestyle magazines as well as some table top stuff on wines and liquors but I'd never done location food work like this before. Back then people were willing to take more chances. They decided, based on what was in my portfolio, that I would be able to muddle through just fine.

The author of the book was Anne Lindsay Greer. She had done two previous cookbooks that had been very successful, was a famous restaurant consultant and also a writer for Gourmet and Bon Appetite Magazines. Anne had restaurants and recipes in mind and the whole project revolved around showcasing one or two dishes from every selected restaurant. We'd go on location, have the chefs cook up their signature dishes, have Anne style the food and the decor and then shoot. I would do the lighting design and frame up the shots using stand in food. Once the technical stuff was decided we'd bring in the hero entree and shoot film.

Now, to all the well equipped photographers out there, grab hold of your Airport Security cases and hold on tight because you will not believe that any work could be done with the primitive gear I had available at the time. Let's start with the car. I was driving a 1968 Volkswagen Beetle. It never had air conditioning and, if I took right hand turns too fast, the driver's door had a tendency to fly open. It was a small car but that never presented a problem because all of my gear fit nicely in the back seat. And the car was amazingly reliable. It had a few dents and there was a nice decal of a trout on the engine lid. Great gas mileage but back then who cared?

I had two cameras. One was a Canon FTb. A fully manual camera with a sync speed of 1/60th and a top speed of 1/1,00oth of a second. The second was the down market or budget camera from Canon, the TX which had a top shutter speed of 1/500th of a second. It made a great back up and I thank the fates that I rarely had to use it. The lenses were equally interesting. I made due with a 24mm lens, a 50mm 1.8 lens, and a 100mm f2.8 lens. This was a time before there were Polaroid backs for many 35mm cameras so I brought along an old polaroid 195 which could be synced to our lights.

Ouch. I'm just remembering the lights. A 22o watt second Novatron power pack the color of a bad solder joint with two plastic heads and three spindly silver stands. One white umbrella and a Vivitar battery powered flash that pre-dated the 283 model. The piece de resistance was the gold colored budget tripod someone had given me back in school. That and an extension cord was the bulk of my equipment bounty.

We shot everything on Kodachrome 25 and 64 ASA film (ISO for the latecomers). I borrowed a Sekonic flash meter.

We'd have a schedule each week that we'd all agreed too. Ms. Greer would fly to the location and be driven to the restaurant. My editor would drive her car and I would rendezvous at the location with my VW. Not every shoot was memorable. I shot Chile Rellenos at a restaurant in San Antonio and you just can't do a lot with charred peppers. But there were several very memorable episodes.

At the time there was a restaurant in San Antonio called El Mirador. In foodie circles they were famous across the country for their traditional Mexican soups. They were only served on Saturdays. The recipes came from the grandmother who insisted that she make them herself from scratch. We put the bowls of soup into the hearth of a traditional Mexican fireplace and shot a wonderful shot that still stands the test of time.

And we ate the soup. And they treated us like family. Gringo family, but family all the same.

My next memorable stop was at the Mansion on Turtle Creek in Dallas. At the time it was one of the toniest and most expensive hotels and restaurants in the country. I pulled into the parking lot amongst the Bentleys, Rolls Royces and various effete German roadcraft and at the speed of light two valet parking people took control of my car and parked it around back with the employees' cars. I had my equipment in a scarred camera bag and one of those blue plastic milk crates and those were whisked away to the bell station so no one would see them. I was an hour early and thought I'd read the Wall Street Journal to see just how to cross over to the other side and make my visits to the Mansion On Turtle Creek a more routine thing.


The Mansion on Turtle Creek

As I sat in the lobby reading the financial news a waiter stopped by and asked if I would like something. I decided on a cup of coffee and a chocolate croissant. How bad could that be? Well, try $18 in 1985 dollars. First big problem of the day. I brought $20 along with me. You know, to cover gas back to Austin and maybe a dinner at McD's en route. Poof. All gone. Amazing because at the time you could get a much, much better cup of coffee and one of America's best croissant at Sweetish Hill Bakery in Austin for around $2. Really, much better.

We photographed the tortilla soup in the main dining room and I got my first stab at making exposure work with half the frame as an interior and the other half of the frame as a sunlight exterior. Thank God for Kodachrome 25. I would have loved to have some of the tortilla soup and a few of the sides we photographed but as soon as we finished the food was swept away and they gave us a lusty, "Thank you very much for coming!" and showed me to the door. Then we remembered that the car was out back and we tromped back through the kitchen into the back lot.

I could've used part of that twenty bucks to buy water because I ended up in a rush hour traffic jam at a dead stop for two hours......in July, in Texas. And remember, no air conditioning.

I had a small cooler but it was dedicated to keeping film and Polaroid cool, not stocked with thirst quenching beverages.

The shoot that made the biggest impression on me took place at a restaurant called Las Canarias which was part of an upscale hotel on the Riverwalk in San Antonio. It was by now into the first week of a brutally hot August. We got to the location around 3pm and the chef and Anne decided that the appropriate photo would be a groaning buffet set across the river from the hotel. In this way the photo would capture the table laden with scrumptious Mexican morsels, the beauty of the Riverwalk and the facade of the hotel......all in one!

And that's when they mentioned the ice sculpture. A big, bird ice sculpture would be the centerpeice for the table. To get the shot they wanted meant setting up the table right in the middle of the direct sun. Remember our equipment list above? This was becoming a recipe from hell. I put both light heads into the big white umbrella at full power and they barely made a dent in the wicked hot sunlight. About this time an older gentleman with a Leica in his hand walked up to me and pulled me aside. I expected the usual "are you a professional? What kind of cameras should I buy?" questions, but no. He'd looked over my set up and watched the ice bird dripping to its death and humanely interceded.


Fonda San Miguel, Austin, Texas

"The only way you'll make this work" he whispered "is if you get a king sized white bed sheet and use it to block the sun from the food." And then he smiled and blended into the crowd that had gathered. Ten minutes later I had two bus boys, who spoke no English, standing on an adjacent set of tables holding a king sized bed sheet as high up as they could. I had all the flashes on full power and then I said a prayer for good luck. The photo was remarkable. I love it. It may be the best photo in the book. And, if you read my past blogs you'll know that I never leave home without at least one six foot by six foot white scrim.

I had a fun shoot at Fonda San Miguel here in Austin which started a twenty year relationship with the restuarant. And the shot looked great as well.

All total I shot 16 rolls of film at 16 restaurants. After ten years of shooting digital I am amazed at those numbers. That's an average of 36 exposures for every shot used in the book. Spread out over two or three weeks of shooting. Enough to "see" the shot, bracket, try another angle or two. Add in the Polaroid and I'm going to say that we did the whole book for around $250 in film and processing.

So, I was a neophyte, working with trash gear, severly under-inventoried in the lighting department and sapped of my endurance and fortitude by a transportation system that many would now consider cruel and unusual. How did the project turn out?

The book was/is beautiful. Texas Monthly kept it in the catalog for years and eventually sold the book to Gulf Coast Publishing. The last I heard it hit five reprints and multiple editions. Interesting to think that projects got done before Profoto rentals and 24 megapixel cameras and legions of assistants. And self referential video coverage. And air conditioning in cars.



El Mirador, San Antonio, Texas