It’s Guest Blog Wednesday featuring Andrew Eccles!
Let me start by saying that I’ve never blogged.
In fact “Blog” was one of those odd words that seemed to creep into our social consciousness one day completely out of the blue. No one had ever heard of a Blog and then all of a sudden everybody had one. It reminded me of the word ‘scud”. Nobody had ever heard of a ‘scud’ missile and then one day everybody seemed to have one of those too.
My using the word scud as an analogy is really no coincidence because the meaning of the verb ‘scud’ is: to move fast in a straight line because or as if driven by the wind: “we lie watching the clouds scudding across the sky”.
This represents what Scott has been kind enough to let me blog to you about today; how the digital world has scudded into our lives and not only changed the images that we’re making, but completely changed the process by which we make them.
Next, I’d like to say that I am not a hippie. The fact that I’m writing this blog from a tiny cabin in Woodstock is a coincidence. I’ve lived in New York City for 29 years and never really been to Woodstock. I’m here for the weekend and it’s pouring rain, so how better to spend my time than to blog.
I’m not a hippie, but I do have one or two strongholds in my soul that were spawned by a kind of “hippieish” psychology referred to as “Gestalt” that was founded in Germany in 1912 but developed into a type of therapy used by the psychologist Fritz Pearls during the late 60’s in Northern California.
One of the cornerstones of Gestalt therapy is attempting to be truly present, to attempt to live in the ‘here and now’.
I recall this being something that was actually doable and a philosophy I tried to practice from time to time throughout my life with some success…up until several years ago.
But before I go on, here’s a very brief synopsis of my career for those of you unfamiliar with my work.
My Dad was a very good amateur photographer and he gave me his 35mm Pentax camera when I was ten or eleven. He let me take photos then edit them from a contact sheet using a loupe and a grease pencil to outline my crops. He went to great expense allowing me the chance to choose and emend how I saw.
By high school I was taking pictures regularly, mostly for the yearbook. I applied to Art College and by the end of my third year had taken every photography class in the program, so I moved to New York.
It was 1982 and just as difficult to break into the industry then as it is now. After a few months of working for whoever would hire me a fortunate set of circumstances landed me inside Annie Leibovitz’s studio. I had no idea what I was doing so I started out loading film but over time learned the ropes and became her first assistant. I worked alongside Annie for three years.
In the two years that followed, I freelanced for several other top photographers including Robert Mapplethorpe and Steven Meisel.
When I ventured out on my own, my first assignment was to photograph a dance company. Those photos became the basis for my first portfolio. When I showed them to magazines they saw bodies in tights and promptly assigned me fitness stories to shoot. Which wasn’t so bad because those exercise pictures helped get me a job photographing a series of twenty books for Time/Life on health, nutrition and fitness. The fitness work led to taking beauty pictures, which led to photographing actresses, which led to photographing mostly celebrities, eventually resulting in what I do now, which is primarily magazine work, television advertising, and movie posters.
I still shoot dancers and have been working exclusively with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater since 1999.
That’s the shorthand version of my ten-year overnight success. Let’s return to the idea of “here and now.”
(This post contains minor PG-13 nudity/sexiness beyond this point. If you’re offended by such things, please don’t click “Read More.”)
When I first really noticed that things were changing dramatically was several years ago while photographing an actress from the show Desperate Housewives.
Like any ordinary photo shoot roughly twenty people were milling about the studio but unlike any ordinary photo shoot, instead of the usual murmur of conversation and occasional outburst of laughter, the place was dead silent.
I turned around and everyone in the room was staring at their hands, their thumbs scrolling, brows furled, their concentration clearly focused on something far more urgent and compelling than the pictures I was taking. They clearly weren’t here and certainly not now.
I smiled and looked at the actress and said, “this is great, we can do whatever we want, no one’s paying attention”.
At the time I found it mildly amusing, but now I’ve come to realize that it’s something that can be, at its least threatening, slightly rude, and at it’s worst, downright destructive.
We see it on a day-to-day basis in all walks of life. Many articles are surfacing as the trend continues to reach epidemic proportions. People are inappropriately using their handheld devices everywhere.
I personally believe that this is becoming so dangerous that some of the societal rules about cigarette smoking will soon be applied to the use of hand held devices. Some already have, there are quiet cars on trains and restaurants that don’t allow cell phones.
But it’s not the loudmouth walking down the street yelling into his cell phone or the pedestrian that walks in front of my car while sending a text that bothers me so much, it’s the person who takes out their handheld device in the middle of a conversation that really bugs me. Especially when the conversation is about the pictures I’m taking that day. It would be no different if that person were to hold up a newspaper or a magazine in front of their face while you were talking but for some reason it’s ok if they suddenly look down at their phone and all but ignore you.
So here’s the conundrum:
How do we get our clients, our crew, and even our subjects to put those things down and get them to be present?
How do we get them to return to the naïve notion of living in the ‘here and now’?
We’re all busy and we’re all important, but honestly, what can’t wait for a couple of hours or at least until the shoot is over?
It makes me long for the days when we had no choice but to get caught up at lunch or to produce future jobs at the end of the day, often with nothing more than a pocketful of change and a pay phone.
So when I refer to the ‘digital world’ scudding into our lives, I’m not talking about digital versus film, or whether an image has been manipulated in Photoshop or captured ‘in camera’, it’s bigger than that, it’s how all of this technology is changing the actual process of taking a picture.
As I said, I’m not a hippie; well I’m not a dinosaur either. I shoot digital almost all of the time. I have an office full of Mac Computers and Epson printers. I have a laptop, I’m writing on it now. I have an iPhone, an iPad, and an iPod. You name it, I’ve got it, and frankly there’s a lot I like about all of these things.
Like you, I love the ease and convenience, the immediacy of being able to research and produce anything in a fraction of the time it took twenty years ago (I don’t really want to use a pay phone).
We photographers love the way they look, they’re beautifully designed and, let’s face it, they’re fun. No argument here!
But on set, it’s an entirely different story. What seems to be happening, and I’ve watched this grow exponentially from year to year over the past decade, is literally, a shift in focus, a shift in creative influence, from the photographer to everyone else in the room. It’s mostly handheld devices that are responsible for the shift in focus; they distract everyone’s concentration away from the task at hand, they allow people to believe that something more important is taking place elsewhere. They give refuge to those who lack confidence in a photo studio environment, allowing them a place to hide, a way to avoid being put on the spot and taking responsibility for their role in the process when things get complicated.
It makes it appear okay that what they’re dealing with back at the office is more important than what’s going on in the studio. Seriously…there’s something more important than your magazine’s next cover that I’m shooting right now?
In defense of our clients, and this includes art directors and photo editors, many of them are dismally understaffed while facing far too great a workload. They have no choice but to multi-task on set. They may have no choice but to respond to text messages and emails while trying to concentrate on the day’s shoot. It’s become expected now that if you email or text someone they should respond immediately. I still believe most of it could probably wait though.
Handheld devices are a part of the problem, but nothing’s been the same since the introduction of the monitor.
Once that bad boy was rolled into the studio, everything began to change. Overnight, all of the people who’d been held captive by the suspense of seeing one tiny, blurry Polaroid were suddenly witness to each frame unfolding before them, to the point where they very quickly began to imagine themselves as the one actually taking the pictures. Suddenly everyone became the photographer directing the subject with little or no regard to what the photographer might have in mind.
So we’re faced with an awkward duality, we’ve got a bunch of people in a room where half of them aren’t paying enough attention while the other half is paying far too much.
A photographer’s collaboration with an Art Director or Photo Editor can be an amazing experience. It can be as strong as your closest relationship and, without sounding too weird, can even be a little like having sex. It can be that intimate. Some of the greatest magazine pictures ever created have come as a result of this process; brainstorming ideas before the shoot, helping those ideas become realized on set, and, at times, even sharing in the final edit and layout of the finished product.
The monitor came along and began to chip away at that relationship. It allowed everyone on the shoot to have a peek, which is ok as long as the boundary between having a peek and having an opinion is still upheld. At first it was fun. We were all able to see and confirm that we were getting the shot, or better yet, had gotten “THE shot.” Don’t get me wrong, the ability to see a dancers jump mere seconds after they’ve landed is a truly marvelous thing.
Knowing that the row of actors walking towards camera is in focus is equally phenomenal. Getting on an airplane in Los Angeles and flying home to New York without having X-rayed the film and knowing the client got every shot that they needed is magnificent, all of this is fantastic!
What sometimes saddens me and often times infuriates me, is the growing disrespect for the sacred relationship that a photographer has with his subject. There are days when it’s all but gone. Depending on the size of the shoot and how many ‘cooks’ are in the kitchen, as many as six or seven people can be directing the subject, diffusing the vision of the final image and reducing the photographer’s role to that of a technician, just a guy or gal that pushes the button.
Granted, I’m extremely fortunate and immensely thankful that I’m given assignments sizable enough to require hordes of people clamoring around the monitor to get a glimpse at what I’m shooting. And there are times when I make light of it and tell the swarm of onlookers, “If my shoots have become a spectator sport I want to hear applause and cheers when you like what you see!” and they’ll respond with whoops and hollers of encouragement. That’s kind of cool.
But some days there’s a sea of unwanted input, random direction from all sorts of people, micro managing every frame as it appears, giving direction so specific and so constant that it completely undermines the natural evolution of taking a picture.
Here’s an amazing example of someone using a handheld device and the monitor combined to upset the natural process of a portrait session.
I was in the middle of a shoot for a very prominent magazine when the associate photo editor came to me and said that her senior photo editor back at the office wanted me to re-shoot something making some very specific changes.
I said, “how does he know what we’re shooting, he’s across town in his office?”
“I took a picture off of the monitor with my phone and emailed it to him.”
Not an image that I had selected or those we had both agreed to send him, just a random frame she’d taken a screen shot of with her phone and fired through cyber space to her boss.
I’ve discovered that this happens quite a lot when you’re not looking.
Now don’t get me wrong, being able to send a jpeg to an art director who can’t be at a shoot is an extremely valuable tool. It sure beats faxing a Polaroid, but I firmly believe it should be an image that’s chosen by the photographer with the photo editor, not one that’s stolen without the photographer’s knowledge.
So unlike the old days when no one knew what the photographer was actually getting until the film was processed, everyone can see the session unfolding. So I suppose it’s understandable when people have trouble containing themselves. They want to add their two cents or steal a picture to share with their friends or colleagues.
It’s not their fault. Everyone wants to be the photographer, it’s the sexy job.
But what seems to be getting overlooked more and more is what photographers possess that is different from other people.
They (we) have an innate or learned ability to know what will make for a successful final image. We have the knowledge, the technique, and hopefully the charm to achieve the end result better than people who aren’t photographers. We’ve mastered the ability to hold a heavy camera, carry on a conversation, focus, compose, study the light, manage the exposure, and capture ‘the moment’ all at the same time. Not just once, but day after day for weeks, months, years.
Not everyone can do that.
Not everyone should do that.
Can you imagine the key grip on a film set shouting out to the actor, “It’d be better if you said that line with a little more urgency” He’d be fired immediately.
Photo editors and Art Directors have the same kind of ability in their area of expertise as photographers. Some have better ‘on set’ personalities than others and the best ones know that. The process can still unfold in a very similar fashion as it did in the days of shooting a Polaroid and then film. When the monitor is respected, the art director and photographer can be left to collaborate and create without distraction.
Some of you are probably saying, well why doesn’t Andrew shoot to a memory card and then no one will see what he’s doing?
I’m sure there are photographers that can, but unfortunately for me it’s not possible. Pandora’s box has been opened and my clients come to set expecting to see each frame. Even I’ve grown dependent on seeing what I’m shooting as I shoot it. Once you’ve had that luxury it’s hard to go back.
Or why not hide the monitor?
Well, once people know that the monitor is somewhere they will find it no matter where it is. Once I tried concealing the monitor inside a foam core box and it wasn’t long before a dozen people were squeezing themselves inside like a bunch of college students stuffing themselves into a phone booth.
Now, enter the iPad.
The iPad has solved some problems while creating new ones.
When I shoot using Capture software I can now have the images come up on my iPad exactly as they do on the monitor. I place it on an apple box beside me while I’m shooting.
There are some truly great things about this. Firstly, when I work I still shoot with a similar rhythm as I did when I used film. I’ll take a couple of shots (Polaroids), step over to the monitor, have a look, tweak the curves then begin shooting. I don’t tend to look at the monitor again until I’ve shot the equivalent of several roles of film. I like to keep the session as fluid and as organic as I can. That’s why untimely or unwanted direction can be so stifling. We photographers have our methods of getting there, we don’t all get there at the same time but we will get there.
With the iPad I can see the image I just shot right beside me. I can walk the iPad out to my subject and show them, like I would a Polaroid back in the day. And now I no longer have to fight my way through the throngs of bodies huddled around the monitor to see what I’m doing.
And, for better or for worse, anyone in the room who has an iPad (or iPhone for that matter) and downloads the software can have the images come up right before them too, whether they’re on set or across the room. This helps when a lot of people need (or think they need) to see what’s going on. It keeps them a little further away giving the photographer some breathing room. The drawback is that everyone can really study each frame, even blowing them up, providing even more opportunity to speak up than they otherwise might have. The photographer is now less entitled to the ‘misses’ between the ‘hits’ that he or she once was.
At the end of the day, we’re all in this together. Hopefully everyone involved in a large-scale commercial photo shoot is striving to achieve the same goal. And truly constructive input can only help no matter where it comes from, but it’s best presented to the photographer at a break in the action or through a photo editor’s or art director’s experienced ability to shape something that’s not working into something that is. There are shoots where I know that the art director I’m working with is charming and has a good ‘on set’ demeanor so I will encourage them to verbally direct the subject from my side as I’m shooting. Which is fine. Sometimes a client will be watching the monitor and see something that they don’t like and will tell my assistant who in turn will whisper they’re concern in my ear. I’m fine with that too.
Ultimately I’m there to please everyone. It’s my job to see that my clients and my subjects leave feeling that I did everything I could to make the day as successful as possible.
What I’m trying to figure out is how to best navigate our way through these uncharted waters. How do we manage a room full of people, half distracted and not paying attention, the rest directing every frame when they shouldn’t be directing at all.
Any way you slice it, the technology is here to stay, we know that. So how do we make this ‘scud’ of information and technology work for us and not against us?
How do we remind everyone that getting to take pictures for a living is a privilege? How do we all enjoy the quintessence and excitement of the creative process but respect the boundaries it possesses?
I’m still trying to figure that out.
Not long ago I gathered everyone together at the beginning of the shoot and asked them to please respect the process. To let the pictures evolve naturally and to find a way to have your suggestion or your input brought to my attention without disrupting the flow.
I asked them to please try to be present, to turn off their phones, or at least step outside to use them.
Everyone stared at me with a real and genuine sincerity, and for a moment I thought I had gotten through.
I began shooting and after several frames a few people piped up that it would look better if the actor’s arm was in a different position. I turned around and saw a cluster of people basked in the glow of the monitor, watching each frame, directing at will, and behind them, silhouetted in the dark, everyone else staring at their phones.
I guess I hadn’t gotten through, perhaps in time, but not today, not ‘here’, not ‘now’.
“And we’ve got to get ourselves back to the Garden”
– Woodstock by Joni Mitchell
I’m happy to report that in the week since I first sat down and wrote this I’ve had four very successful shoots, two of which had over fifty people on set. Everyone was respectful of the monitor and of my relationship with the subject. They also seemed to respect my experience and, for the most part, appeared to be fairly present. So either it was a just a good week or people are starting to ‘get it’.
Personally I think it was a little of both. It seemed as though the more iPads were handed out, the better. What’s nice about the iPad software is that the images take a few seconds to come up, so people aren’t quite seeing the session unfold in real time. It kind of keeps them tongue-tied.
Anyway, all of this has been on my mind for some time now so I’m very grateful to Scott for allowing me a forum in which to discuss it with such a large number of my colleagues.
Good luck to all of you with all of this.
You can see more of Andrew’s work at AndrewEccles.com