Recently, I was inspired by a terrific portrait project by Mark Dixon and while I don't have a Fancy Corner to shoot in, I do have a nice section of unfinished drywall out in the garage, so I decided to take a stab at making some portraits of my beloved bear Smokey.
Like many people trying to live a creative life – whatever that means – and trying to reconcile who I am with what I do, I often find myself neck-deep in The Sea of What Does It All Mean. Sometimes I’m only there for a few hours, but I have also spent weeks or months at a time there, treading water, looking for the current that will take me back to shore. I chose this path a long time ago and while I get the whole Steven Pressfield idea that art – which, again is subjective, so let’s agree to say creativity – comes from struggle on an intellectual level, I don’t completely agree with it. Where he and I differ is on the idea that struggle has to be synonymous with pain. I don’t think that creativity has to come from pain, far from it, but I do believe that there has to be struggle – call it effort, if you like or even “skin in the game.” Choosing to lead a creative life, a fulfilling life, means saying yes to struggle, to effort, to process.
I find great joy in the process, whatever form it may take – from grinding coffee beans by hand to writing using actual pencil and paper, to building one of my paintings with layer after layer of acrylic medium. My joy is as much in the doing as it is in the thinking, maybe even more so. My effort – or pain, if that’s where you need to be – comes from the starting. Beginnings are extraordinarily difficult for me because beginnings are rooted in uncertainty and uncertainty is often a neighbor of paralysis. But, as one of my heroes Seth Godin points out, “If you don’t start, you will fail.” Starting is what we have control over.
I’ve spoken about this several times on episodes of On Taking Pictures, most recently in episode #115. I’ve also made no secret about the fact that I have at times felt lost, without direction after the death of my mom. She was not only my biggest fan, but also my North – not that she told me what to do or what direction to go in, but she gave me things to think about that I would often not get to on my own and working through those things would help me to set and follow a course. A few months ago, I was talking to David duChemin on the phone. We were talking about Faded + Blurred and I was telling him how frustrated I was creatively and that I’d hoped that “by now” it and I would be much more (again, whatever that means) than it is and I am. “You have to remember that you’re playing a Long Game,” he said. “Yours is the path of persistence and integrity.” I’ve gone back to that conversation several times and when we had the chance to sit down for the first episode of Process Driven, we talked about the addiction to certainty and how believing that you need to know the outcome is actually counterproductive to letting the process – whatever the process may be – run its course. When I lose my way in the Long Game, I somehow shift from leaper to looker. I go, at least partially, from embracing the unpredictable excitement of letting the creative process run its course to a seemingly inexorable addiction to certainty. I find myself searching for answers that I cannot possibly know, forgetting that, as Rilke points out, I would not be able to live them even if I did. “And the point is to live everything,” he wrote in Letters to a Young Poet. “Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.”
After listening to Bill and me wrestle with this on the last episode of On Taking Pictures, a listener posted this to the OTP G+ Community, writing “If you ever get the feeling that you’re not good enough or your career isn’t moving along as quickly as you would like, you need to give this a watch.” It’s all about the Long Game and how the payoff is in the doing and doing and doing. The effort becomes its own reward.
The first SLR I ever owned was a Pentax Super Program, which I bought at Frank’s in Highland Park during my sophomore year of high school. It was a terrific camera – definitely a step up from the Pentax K1000 I was using in my photography class, even if it wasn’t the all-black Super-A version they had in Europe. But it wasn’t the one I really wanted. The camera I coveted most was a Nikon F2AS Photomic with the DP-12 finder – in black, of course. That was the Holy Grail of cameras – a near-legendary workhorse used by the top photojournalists in the world, which was a list on which I someday wanted to see my name. Don’t get me wrong, I loved my Pentax and used it for years, stocked mostly with Tri-X that my best friend Mark and I would buy in 100′ rolls, but it wasn’t an F2.
Years later, when I rediscovered my love for photography and picked up a camera again, I often thought about the F2, despite the fact that most everyone I knew had gone digital. A friend of my mother’s heard that I was shooting again and told my mom that he had some gear that he hadn’t used since college and if I was interested in it to come by his house and pick it up. She had no idea what he had, but I appreciated the offer and was only too happy to take him up on it. When I got there, what he presented me with instantly brought me back to high school, days spent shooting for the love of it, followed by long nights in my garage darkroom hoping I actually managed to get something good. What lay before me in its worn leather case was a mint condition Nikon F2AS Photomic with the DP-12 finder – in black, of course. It was absolutely flawless and mounted to the front was an equally pristine 50mm 1.2 lens. I picked it up with what I can only describe as a reverence that few objects had ever received in my hands. Despite the fact that this was the first time I had actually held one, the cold metal body felt like a pair of favorite jeans just out of the dryer. Perfect. After a few moments, I returned it to the case and told my mom’s friend thank you but that I couldn’t possibly accept this. He assured me that I could, and that if I didn’t take it, it would go back into the closet where it had been for more than 30 years. Reluctantly (though secretly giddy), I accepted, thanked him profusely and left with my prize, now imbued with the talent and tenacity of all those who used one before me.
Several weeks passed and I still hadn’t shot anything with the F2. I had taken it out of the case and exposed it to the world nearly every day – learning its weight and its angles – but couldn’t bring myself to run a roll of film through it. What I had come to realize was that over those long years since high school, this tool – which was not so different from a hammer or a cordless drill – had become a talisman of sorts. It was no longer a camera, but rather an Object – not for using, but for merely admiring. What was I afraid of? It was as if somehow by not using it, the Object was able to retain the near-mythical status I had granted it so many years ago. If I were to use it, any flaws in the outcome (read: terrible photographs) would be mine, anchored firmly in my own lack of vision and not in any way the fault of the Object. I had made the tool into something precious, ignoring the irony that it was the use of the Object which is what had elevated its stature in the first place. The F2 got the reputation of being a tough-as-nails workhorse of a camera because photographers routinely beat the shit out of it – rain, sleet, snow, sandstorms, conflict zones – you name it, this camera survived it. Yet here’s me, smack in the middle of suburbia intimidated to the point of creative paralysis rather than just loading it up with Tri-X and heading out into the world to see what I can see. Not to uphold some imaginary legacy of vision, but just to see what I could see.
I’ve included a few photographs that you may or may not recognize. They are the cameras used by Garry Winogrand, Elliott Erwitt and Jim Marshall. Is there any doubt in looking at these cameras – these tools – that each of them were used and used well? Absolutely not. Every ding, dent, scratch and scrape is a story waiting to be told. Chrome worn through to brass shows not only the metal of the tool, but the mettle of the handler. What it took me years to realize is while the F2 felt like a pair of jeans fresh from the dryer, they were a new pair of jeans, which everyone knows only get better the more you wear them – that’s what really makes them yours. Photography is a craft and while the tools are important to do the job, what’s more important is using them to the point where they disappear and only light, subject and composition remain.
I have no way of knowing where I am on my photographic journey; there are no maps for these territories. What I do know is that I’m not so precious about the tools I use as I once was. My Fuji XPro doesn’t get nearly the time in the wild it deserves, but I have noticed some brass peeking out of the black on the thumb grip, which tells me I finally just might be on the right track.
A unique photographic style is one of the benchmarks of a great photographer. In 2007, Tom Hoops, was working as a web designer in Thailand, unfamiliar with names like Richard Avedon, Helmut Newton, or Paolo Roversi. But, after borrowing a friend’s camera one afternoon, a new creative passion emerged and, for the past six years, Tom has been refining a style and building a body of work that is both instantly recognizable and uniquely his own. His dramatic black & white portraiture and brilliant editorial work have earned him an ardent following and are increasingly in demand, particularly in the world of fashion. I got the chance to sit down with Tom to talk about how his work has evolved, the importance of shooting what you love and why he wants his photography to be like a black polo neck.
“You should shoot what you want to put on your wall… I want dramatic, dark, powerful photos. That’s what I’d like on my wall, so that’s what I want to shoot. That’s what I should be shooting.”
On staying true to yourself:
“If you don’t do what is essentially you, in terms of what is your creative vision, then what you’re going to produce is going to be a bit weak.”
When asked whether photography has made him a better person:
“I don’t know if it’s made me better. It has made me more observant and I think it’s made me very keenly observant about people.”
It seems like these "what's in photographer X's bag?" posts are everywhere. While it's interesting to see what other photographers use, it's become much more than that. We have fetishized the tools we use, to the point where the "kit" has developed it's own persona, as well as becoming a reflection of it's owner. It seems like Hipsters use old Leica film cameras (or iPhones), sports and wildlife photographers use Nikon (and iPhones) and wedding shooters use Canon 5D MkIIIs (and iPhones). I tend to travel pretty light, carrying just one camera and one lens, the Fuji X-Pro1 and the 35mm f/1.4, along with pens, pencils and notebooks. Though since we are starting a couple new projects for Faded + Blurred, I will be adding a few things to my kit, namely a Tascam DR-40 digital recorder and a couple LED light panels for recording interviews in the field. I've been asked several times why I chose the X-Pro1 over one of the latest DSLR offerings from Canon or Nikon and, honestly, it has everything to do with how the camera feels in my hands, rather than what the RAW files look like zoomed up to 200%. Ultimately the camera is just a tool, like a pencil or a brush; it should just be an extension of your creativity that you shouldn't have to think to much about to use it effectively.
When I was an Art Director at Universal Studios, my friend and then-colleague, Jeff Holmes and I used to send each other links to artists, designers, and coders that really inspired us. Eventually, this list would come to be known as The Nuts Wall. One of the first people to land a spot on The Nuts Wall was Bradley G Munkowitz, better known as GMUNK. GMUNK was doing some absolutely mind-blowing graphic design, particularly his After Effects work. It seemed like each new piece he posted was more fluid, more complicated and just better than the last. Crazy good work. GMUNK is a master of grid-based design, particularly his impeccable UI work, seen most recently in the Joseph Kosinski-directed sci-fi epic, Oblivion. GMUNK did some superb UI work on Kosinski's previous (and first) film, TRON Legacy, so, it seemed like a natural fit to get him on board Oblivion. Though his work is ridiculously complicated to produce, the results are interfaces that look intuitive and not at all out of place, and isn't that exactly the way it should be? See more on GMUNK's site.
“I saw that the camera could be a weapon against poverty, against racism, against all sorts of social wrongs. I knew at that point I had to have a camera.” – Gordon Parks
While working as a porter on a passenger train, Gordon Parks happened to pick up a magazine left behind by a fellow porter. In it were images taken by Dorothea Lange, Arthur Rothstein, Walker Evans, and others from the Farm Security Administration. It was a series of photographs showing men, women, and children, all suffering from poverty; the migrant workers of the Dust Bowl. Parks could not stop staring; he was mesmerized. He went back to the magazine over and over again, memorizing the subjects’ faces and the names of the photographers. Not long after, he found himself in a movie theater watching a newsreel of a photographer who had been shooting the bombing and sinking of a US gunship by Japanese war planes. The photographer came out on stage afterwards to answer questions and Parks was hooked. He immediately saw the power a photograph could have and made up his mind then and there to become a photographer.
"The mechanism: stamped black tin, leatherette over cardboard, bits of boxwood, a lens. The shutter falls. Forever dividing that from this." - William Gibson
As you know if you listen to On Taking Pictures (and if you don't, now is a perfect time to start), I had been looking for a new camera since I sold my Nikon D300 several months ago. What I've realized, is that it wasn't just a new camera that I was looking for, but rather a renewed connection to and excitement for making pictures. I started with photography in high school at a time when the only way to learn photography was with film. Actually, we had to work up to film, starting instead with photograms, which, looking back, were a wonderful introduction to the medium. A blank sheet of paper, a few leaves or twigs and light; then it was into the darkroom to see the magic. Bathed in the amber glow of the safelights that would become my second home for years to come, I will never forget seeing the image appear before me in the tray of developer. Alchemy. For me, beginning in the darkroom bound me to photography as a process, rather than merely an outcome, something that I think has been lost to a large degree with the advent of digital.
Going back to move forward.
I had looked at all of the DSLR offerings in my price range, but nothing really impressed me. Originally, I had sold my D300 in anticipation of getting the D600. Unfortunately, once I actually got a chance to play with one, it just felt like a full-frame D7000, not that there's anything wrong with that, mind you (Nikki does gorgeous work with hers), it just didn't feel like what I was after. A friend suggested the Fuji X-E1, which, on paper, looked very interesting. The Fuji X-series cameras have fantastic sensors, tack sharp lenses and vintage-inspired styling that really appealed to me. After reading far too many reviews and pixel-peeping far too many photographs (not to mention multiple "should I?" or "shouldn't I?" conversations with Bill and Nikki), I ordered an X-E1 with the 35mm f/1.4 and the 18-55mm f/2.8 from B+H. A few days later, I opened the package like a four-year-old on Christmas. Thankfully, there was a little charge on the battery, so I popped on the 18-55mm and started snapping away around my apartment. I liked the styling of the camera straight away, though, if I'm being honest, it did feel a little plasticky; not flimsy, but just not as solid as I was expecting, based on the look of it. The body also felt a little small to me; small enough that my pinky dragged across the baseplate, which I didn't like. Weight and ergonomics aside, the image quality is gorgeous. The JPGs straight out of camera are clean, sharp and, depending on what Film Simulation mode you use, vibrant, smooth, punchy or dramatic. Unfortunately, the unit that I received was defective, only locking focus about 30-40% of the time. At first I thought it was just me or one of the focusing quirks that I had read about that affected both the X-E1 and it's big brother, the X-Pro1 (XP1). But, apparently, this was not the case. Repeated tests on a tripod under constant light with stationary subjects yielded wildly inconsistent results, both in focus and in metering. So, back it went. I was hesitant to simply get another X-E1 for several reasons, so I decided to have a look at the XP1. I think I knew the moment I looked through the viewfinder (and heard the shutter sound) that it would be my next camera.
The mechanism itself.
Picking up the XP1 was like slipping into an old pair of jeans, or my favorite pair of Converse sneakers. The cold metal against my fingers and the subtle click, click, click of the aperture ring made it feel like an object that was to be taken seriously. The vintage design of the camera is an homage to rangefinders past and present, though it is definitely not a rangefinder. The minimal top-panel controls consist of a single programmable function button and simple analog dials for shutter speed and EV compensation. The threaded shutter release button will even accept an old-school cable release, though mine has been fitted with a lovely Satin Red Beep from Match Technical.
Beyond the brilliant design, one of the main features that sold me on the XP1 over the X-E1 is what Fuji calls their Hybrid Multi Viewfinder. First seen in the X100, the Hybrid Viewfinder allows you to toggle between an optical (OVF) and an electronic (EVF) viewfinder on the fly. The OVF displays relevant exposure information, including bright lines to approximate the current FOV, as a HUD style overlay. The EVF is nice (though not as nice as the one on the X-E1), but I find that I’ve been using the OVF about 90% of the time. I shoot with my left eye to the viewfinder, which, on a DSLR, isn’t a problem since the prism sits above the body, leaving my right eye free to help gauge my surroundings. On the XP1 (or any similar type of camera), my right eye is up against the back of the body, so using the OVF allows me to see what’s entering and exiting the frame, which is a very valuable feature when shooting something like street photography, where both photographer and subject are often in motion. The only potential downside to the OVF, which I’ve read a number people complain about, is that the OVF exhibits parallax errors and isn’t 100% accurate to the FOV, particularly when your subject is less than 1m away. While that’s true, enabling ‘Corrected AF Frame’ and updating to the latest firmware gets you pretty close. Personally, this has yet to be a problem for me, since, in those instances, you can easily toggle to the EVF, which is 100% accurate. I have to say, if OVF parallax (which, by the way, occurs on virtually all cameras where the viewing window is separate from the main lens) is that much of a problem, the XP1 may not be the camera for you.
Shooting with the XP1 over the past couple of weeks has been an absolute joy, which is a little surprising, considering the vintage (read:boxy) form factor of the body, especially compared to the curvy, grippy goodness of modern DSLRs. In fact, one of the only issues I encountered while shooting was that my thumb kept hitting either the AFL/AEL or the Q button. While researching the camera in the many XP1 forums, I noticed that several people had experienced the same thing and suggested the Thumbs Up EP-7S from Match Technical. Basically, it's a machined brass thumb rest (the model for the XP1 also features silicone bumpers to protect the body) that slides into the hotshoe. According to Match Technical, the thumb rest "incorporates the well proven 22 degree beveled EP grip" which, frankly, sounded like a lot of marketing speak to me, until I actually used it. Night and day. Not only does the EP-7S prevent my thumb from hitting the AFL/AEL buttons, the slight change in the position of my hand allows the camera to rest against my palm between my thumb and index finger, making the camera feel not only more comfortable, but also more stable. Plus, it looks really cool.
It does take pictures, right?
So, by now some of you are thinking, "Yeah, yeah, enough about viewfinders and thumb rests, what do the photographs look like?" Well, in a word, they are superb. I'm just going to say it. The XP1, coupled with the 35mm f/1.4 lens, produces the best looking SOOC JPGs I've ever seen from a digital camera. Period. Noise is virtually non-existent up to about 2500 ISO and even then looks more like film grain than what we've come to expect from digital noise, which makes perfect sense, given the nature of Fuji's X-Trans CMOS sensor. The X-Trans ditches the traditional Bayer sensor model of a repeating 2X2 pixel array in favor of a 6x6 array that offers a higher degree of randomness. Fuji also eliminated the low-pass (anti-aliasing) filter, which dramatically increases apparent sharpness.
The entire X-series line features what Fuji calls Film Simulation modes (don't call them presets) which, according to Fuji, can "simulate the color and tonal qualities of acclaimed film brands." I have very limited experience with films like Velvia, Provia or Astia, but the XP1 versions of them look absolutely fantastic. The Velvia has a dramatic, punchy feel, while the Astia and ProNegH are much more subtle and render beautiful skin tones. The black & white modes are also great and even allow you to simulate the inclusion of yellow, red or green filters to achieve different tonal effects. Beyond the gorgeous color reproduction, the files produced by the XP1 are extraordinarily clean. Dynamic range is wide, with highlights that roll off naturally and shadows that retain details as they smoothly drop to black.
Let's wrap this up.
Look, I could go on and on about how incredible this camera is on paper, and while things like pixel density, dynamic range and the ISO vs noise graph are important to digital photography, they aren't very important to photography, which is what this was all about for me in the first place; to find a tool that would help me to reconnect to the process of seeing and making pictures. The XPro1 is definitely not the camera for everyone. It doesn't look, feel or behave like the DSLR you are probably used to, but, for me, that's exactly what I was looking for. I applaud those photographers who need (and can actually use) a camera that shoots 12fps at 36MP, that's just not me. I wanted a camera that feels somehow more deliberate to shoot with, a camera that rewards intent and purpose. I'm only a couple weeks into this experiment, but, so far, that's exactly what I've got.
Bill Finger is a photographer who creates his own drama, literally. Each of his wonderful photographs is the end product in a meticulous process that begins with planning, designing and creating miniature dioramas which are photographed, then destroyed. A former assistant cameraman, Finger borrows from the world of cinema to create, saying that all of the composition, staging and lighting is done through the camera lens. As for his subject matter, Finger has this to say, "By using the genre of crime drama, I emphasize a certain degree of theatricality within my images. It is this very theatricality that lends the photograph a certain sense of falseness. By opening the image to questioning by the viewer, they are left to wonder 'how much truth does this photograph hold?'"
It seems like over the past year or so, the number of people making timelapse films has grown exponentially. While I love watching them, very few rise above the now obligatory night skies, star trails or dramatic clouds. So, when something different comes along, it really stands out, which it exactly the case with the wonderful new timelapse film by Benjamin Trancart (Trak). The film employs a variety of dramatic perspectives and split-screen camera work, as well as a soundtrack by the legendary Amon Tobin, to take the viewer on a chill night time stroll through Paris, with stops along a number of the more famous landmarks in the City of Light.