Making Light of Things

Yikes. Guest blogging for Scott. (Pressure.) Guest blogging right after Jay Maisel. (More pressure.) There’s actually been kind of a photographic “who’s who” who has blogged here on recent Wednesdays. (Now there’s a sentence in search of an editor!) They have collectively toured many points on the photographic compass from inspiration to instruction and back again. There have been tutorials, advice, histories, and videos. (I hearken back to that amazing piece Zack Arias put up here.)

So, how to continue? Be funny? Man walks into a bar…. no, no, that would be inappropriate, and I’ve never been that before. I’m guessing the best thing would be to, you know, continue. The process of sharing stories, field notes, experiences, successes and mistakes so that the next shooter’s passage through the school of hard knocks might not be quite as difficult. The blog becomes the coffee table for some chatter after a day in the field.

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I just did a new book on small flash called the Hot Shoe Diaries. In the acknowledgements, by way of explaining the above coffee table notion, I wrote about being assigned to photograph the first launch of the space shuttle, and being clueless as to how to do it. Thankfully, in a real, real casual way, I knew Ralph Morse, the dean of American space photography, the guy who shot the original Merc 7 for LIFE. He knew how to do it, for sure. So we went to lunch. Over coffee, I asked him. And he told me. Everything. Every little detail, even though I was shooting the launch and would thus be trying to compete with him. But Ralph is the essence of decency and collegiality, and he believes fiercely in the mentoring process.

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So I dedicated the book, basically, to the sharing of knowledge, cause Lord knows where I would be without shooters who took the time to talk things over. A bit of what I wrote is below here, sprinkled with some early NY photo efforts, a contact sheet of growing pains.

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On Mentoring….

“This was, blessedly, how I was raised, photographically speaking. Knowledge was shared and passed on. I was mentored, instructed, coached, screamed at, cajoled, ridiculed, pushed, and edited by peerless professionals, both on the shooting side and the editing side. I was relentlessly told that what I was shooting wasn’t good enough, didn’t cut it, and that I needed to work to get better. Some of this news was delivered in congenial, avuncular fashion. Other assessments were offered in less temperate ways, such as the time I had my film (three rolls of B&W) crushed into a ball by my assigning editor at the UPI and thrown at me in the middle of the New York newsroom. This missile was accompanied by a pungent appraisal of my meager talents, as well as a brief overview of my ancestry.

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During this process of learning—which is ongoing, by the way—I looked at lots and lots of work and, of course, had many photographic heroes I wished to emulate. These shooters had made pictures that formed the high ground I was trying to reach but could only see from a distance and wonder about.

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So in many ways, this book, to the degree it is instructional, helpful, or informative, is dedicated to that hall of learning that was created by those shooters and editors who have gone before. Even in the fast and facile world of digital photography, where experience and accumulated knowledge goes stale as quickly as a loaf of bread, and is often viewed with about as much worth, I revere that work, and the people who created it and thus shared it with all of us, much to our betterment.

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In the field, these photographers created stunning pictures with tools that were the equivalent of a hammer and a chisel. Shooters like Carl Mydans, Alfred Eisenstaedt, Gordon Parks, Ralph Morse, W. Eugene Smith, David Douglas Duncan, John Zimmerman, Neil Leifer, Walter Iooss, Dan Farrell, O. Winston Link, Robert Capa, George Roger, Arnold Newman, Gjon Mili…the list goes on.

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Many of them were there, by the way, on the 28th floor of the Time Inc. building, the floor that housed the photo equipment area and all the photog offices. As a young shooter it was always a thrill to get a job from one of the mags in the building, and go up to 28 to get film, or a lens, or a light. I would wander down the hall and bump into Eisie, Carl, Ralph, or Mr. Mili. (the ever formal Gjon Mili, genius of light, was always Mr. Mili.) I could hover at the edge of the lounge, listening as they would have coffee and compare field notes, like a kid at the kitchen door, peering in and watching as the grown-ups at the table had serious talk.

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As a shooter, I am still listening and learning, though the process has taken on different shape and form. That photo lounge on the 28th floor is now called the internet, and photographic field notes that used to be traded over coffee now pulse around the world in, well, a flash. In days gone by, shooters at a big event would roll their images up into yellow cassettes, number them with a marker, and dump them into their bag for processing and digestion at a later time. Now, at those events, their images pipe through lines or fly through the air and are published before they leave the parking lot.

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Same deal with the trading of photographic notions, lessons, and technique. There are those wise, gracious, and confident enough to share hard-won knowledge and experience. It is as if they have plugged a high-speed modem directly into their mental vault of photographic expertise and are sharing that with far greater numbers than can gather ’round a table in a lounge.

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David Hobby has created a worldwide community of learning called Strobist. Chase Jarvis shares his considerable skills in full on his blog. Moose Peterson dives into problems, sorts them out, and offers pages and pages of solutions, all at the click of a button. Every day Scott Kelby writes, people read and learn. Dave Black, David Bergman, Drew Gardner, Dave Cross, Matt Kloskowski, David duChemin, Michael Clark, Syl Arena…again, too many to list. The tradition of photographic sharing continues. This book follows their lead.

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Things change. The ‘84 Olympiad pic above was shot for ABC Television on Kodachrome with a Nikon F2. Millions were seeing the TV cameraman’s image, but I had to wait for the crane to come down before anybody would see mine. Now I would be up there with a wireless D3X, and my editor would have transmitted something world wide after, oh, maybe my sixth frame or so.

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Just recently I made this portrait of my dear friend, Donald, who’s got the kind of face that belongs on Mt. Rushmore, with ridges, lines, expression and subtlety. It is a face that fairly begs the camera for a good performance, a face that demands that whatever instrument you are shooting wrings the utmost in detail from what it sees. I shot a D3X, a camera that leaves Kodachrome 25, the gold standard of film, the color film I grew up with, behind by a country mile. I went to a photo convention in the early 80’s, and Emory Kristof, an innovator and photographer at National Geographic, stood at the podium and showed us a roll of Kodachrome. “In your lifetime,” he said, “it’s goodbye Mr. Kodachrome.”

I thought the guy had spent too much time photographing underwater.

I shot the first all digital story for National Geographic. It was the cover of December 2003. A few short years later, about 90% of the coverages in Geographic are digital.

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I thought I was pretty fancy, flying backseat with a D1X and a 1 gig Lexar card. (I think that card was about $700-800!) Now I shoot Lexar 16 giggers, and put two of ‘em in my D3’s. 32 gigs in one camera!

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These pictures of Prince Paul, Ringling Bros. clown, I call my first successful flash pictures. They were made with a 500 volt wet cell pack plugged into potato masher flash that was great to have in your bag in a street riot but when it came to light output, it was a bit of a bazooka.

Soon after I upgraded to Vivitar 283’s, chasing people around at Studio 54, shooting on yellow mode and hoping for the best.

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Now, the flashes and the cameras talk to each other and you can tell these previously unruly sons of guns to stand in line and listen.

You can put a flash out a window, and the camera works it out for you.

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You can hang flashes on a fire truck, sit back and push a button, and while you’re having coffee, a whole complex chain of communication between camera and lights takes place in the air of all places and then you look at the LCD and the camera has kind of figured out and rendered….exactly what you were thinking all along.

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No wires, no cords. Just ones and zeroes in the air. Which is handy when you’re in the air.

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As I said above, things change. They change fast. I don’t know where the next step will lead, but I do know I’ll have to take it fairly quickly. There are constants, though. The eye in the camera. The prime mover. Without head and heart and eye driving these fancy machines, the bells don’t ring and the whistles don’t blow.

Also, what stays with me always is the sense of being a photographer. Being part of an energetic, frenzied group of imaginative, hard working, passionate people. Let’s face it, a lot of the collectivity of this field has been stripped away. Not much in the way of staffs of shooters anymore. Newspapers and magazines are shrinking, withering even. Those lucky enough to hold jobs at such places no longer come to an office. They sit by their laptop or their iPhone, waiting for the next job to come in, then transmitting the pictures back in the same way. No more office. No more bull sessions around the hypo tank.

It’s easy to feel isolated, detached. Sometimes you can feel like it’s just you and your LCD talking to each other. Just you and that infernal little TV, chimping away, hooting, clicking and grunting in private. You can feel, you know, a little nuts. That LCD becomes your stapler.

But along comes the internet. The community of sharing and learning, led by folks I mentioned before. So much energy there in the wires!

I’ve always felt that all of us involved in photography—the pursuit of pictures—are in the same boat together. Of late, that has been a fairly leaky boat. But I do believe if we all bail in collegial fashion, we’ll stay afloat.

What you shoot, what you know, what you have done, what you have seen—pass it on.

For more on Joe, check out his website and his blog. You can also see his previous guest blog here, where he has plenty of recommended reading. There are also a few spots left for Joe’s class at the Paso Robles Workshop.