What I’ve Learned So Far; Seventeen; “Funk In, Funk Out, Funk Off”

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I know that being a professional photographer should be a bed of roses, a magical place where unicorns and rainbows are interspersed between the Bentleys and mansions. A place where creativity is simply something that everyone has in spades, and no one is ever without a great idea.. or three.

Yeah… I imagine it is wonderful there.

I have never been. I live in the other part of the creative world. The one where crap happens, and creativity doesn’t always drip off the fingertips. Where I live people have to work hard to deliver, practice hard to get it right, and push themselves to deliver better and better work every time.

Sometimes a funk moves in. It could be a creative funk, or a business funk, or simply a malaise at the end of a particularly busy and stressful period. There can be many things that wrench our creative energy from us and leave us, well… sort of flat feeling.

The funk moves into our heads and sets up a little flat, meaning to stay for a while. And that, we simply cannot allow.

You see the problem with funk is that it can take over, create patterns of destruction, and make it more and more difficult to get out of. So we have to be proactive and kick that bastard out… evict the funk.

Each of us have ways to do that and work well for us. If you have ways to get the batteries charged and knock the funk from its roost, do it without hesitation.

For those of you who wrestle with it, I can share a few ideas that I use for banishing the funk outta my thoughts.

1. Create an Excitement “Folder”:
Make it easy to save work for your portfolio – and provide an interesting idea gallery.

I can’t believe how many times I will be working with a photographer and ask to see some new images, or to send some images for a portfolio, and be told “Let me see if I can put some together”, or “I’ll look for them.”

That is not terribly efficient. Or wise.

I use a shortcut on the desktop to send any and ALL portfolio possibilities to a folder on an external drive. When I am working on an image, and I feel it has consideration for the portfolio, it is simply dragged to the shortcut and sent to the folder for later review. Keeping the drive external means a copy of the image is sent, so the original is still in the working folder.

When I feel a funk coming on, I go to that folder to explore and review work that I thought cool when I shot it, and now I use that work to trigger new ideas or scenarios I want to work on. Note: this is my folder of work, and not other photographers work. The images in there range from commissioned work, to personal work to iPhone snaps, and experiments. They are loosely catalogued in those titles.

I am sometimes very motivated to creating new work when looking at older/less structured work.

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What I’ve Learned So Far: Sixteen; “Devil’s In The Details / Don’t Sweat The Small Stuff”

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Two old sayings people like to throw around a lot without really listening to what they are throwing around;

“The devil is in the details” means pay very close attention to the minutiae… it is where the challenges will be hiding.

“Don’t sweat the small stuff” means getting caught up in the minutiae can be problematic, and not productive.

These kind of colloquialisms will fall from the lips of many creatives, and occasionally within a short amount of time. Makes you kind of wonder how many other ‘sayings’ we have are diametrically opposed? Or just plain silly.

“Patience is a virtue” / “Carpe Diem” (“Seize the day”)

“Haste makes waste” / “Time waits for no man”

Really helpful stuff there old guys… thanks for your, uh… wisdom.

In commercial photography the devil IS in the details unless it isn’t. And not sweating the small stuff is easy unless the small stuff will kill the shot.

So “don’t sweat the details unless the details are of great importance because they contain the devil…”

Got it.

The most interesting thing is that both are true… and that is where it becomes a bit of a tricky choice for the photographer. Do we start sweating the small stuff or let it go – do we get into the details of the shot to dig out the devils or are they just fine being left alone?

Yes.

Sorry, I am starting to sound like my own oxymoron, but it is so very true.

An example:

Shooting for a swimsuit designer catalog on the shores of Zuma Beach one Friday afternoon was a hot mess. Three of the five models were riding together and had gotten lost. Now they were stuck in traffic and we were already an hour and a half past call time. The MUA was new to the catalog type shoot and was busy making every eyelash perfect. On five girls, three of whom would be late… my calculations showed we could comfortably get the shot by oh, midnight or so.

She was looking for the devil in the details, and I was noting that the trajectory of the sun does not care about how much more time we need for perfect faces… in full length shots running on the beach.

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What I’ve Learned So Far: Fifteen; “Own Your Set” – Or Be Prepared for Chaos

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As a commercial and advertising photographer, one of the most important responsibilities you have is to be in control of your shoot. It can mean the difference between a very successful shoot and one that gets by. (Keep in mind there are no failures – it isn’t an option. Ever.)

I refer to it as “Owning Your Set” and it applies to location as well as studio work. It usually applies even more when you have a cadre of artists, talent and agency people working with you to make the shot. The more ‘cooks’ you have, the more everyone wants to add their pinch of spice.

And that can be a deal killer in the creative endeavor we call photography.

Now being in control of your shoot doesn’t mean you cannot delegate, nor does it mean that you must micromanage (something I have to remind myself of from time to time. It is also not a license to be a big asshat either. It only means you must take all responsibility, and MAKE decisions promptly and with clarity and decisiveness.

Remember that this is all your responsibility. Remember that this is what you signed up for. THIS is the big show.

And whether or not you maintain control, the end product is one you are responsible for. It is always better to be responsible for a great shoot and lots of accolades for you and your team than one that is passable and unremarkable.

At this point you may be asking if you are really ready for that responsibility.

You had better be. Seriously – if you are not, then you are not ready period. Get back to the basics and make sure you can control the creation of a photograph.

I can speak from some experience on this… heh.

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What I’ve Learned So Far: Fourteen; “Rolling With The Punches While Dancing On a Wire”

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One of the challenges of commercial photography is that you are obligated to hit a home run every time your number comes up. You are the clean up hitter, or the “go to” guy when the team needs a guaranteed win.

It can be a little stressful at times.

Like standing on a set with 11 professional models ($1250+ rate for each), 4 MUA’s ($650 rate for each), two assistants ($450 rate each), a digital tech ($1100 rate), two assistant art directors, on senior art director, five (5!) client reps who flew in for the shoot from Singapore, and three Hollywood trained dogs ($1000+ rate each). Let’s not forget the stylist ($2500), her two assistants ($900 per) and the catered munchies/lunch (a little north of $1100).

And of course in a rented studio with rented lighting gear and a set that ran approximately $15,000 to build. The props bill was nearly $5000, and wardrobe had been purchased/rented for about $4000.

And by the way, the shot has to be – HAS TO BE – made and delivered by the next morning to make the deadline for insertion – which was already an extension.

The art director, set designer, stylist and photographer had spent at least a couple of dozen hours together on the set design, casting, and various other challenges this shot would create.

The cast was hired, the set was built, the lighting was in place and the tests had been made and approved.

And then… “Excuse me,” says the client representative, “on the flight over we have made some changes.”

At that moment the world becomes a very quite place, and the music that was blaring a moment ago is now drowned out by the thumping in your chest. Three things pass through your mind.

  1. He really didn’t say what I thought he said. (Denial)
  2. I can do a couple dozen years for homicide. (Anger)
  3. What the hell, I have always loved Walmart, might as well welcome people to the store. (Acceptance)

Now remember that the production is in full swing. The models are in makeup, the set is made, the tweaks to the lighting are being finished off, and the team is about an hour or so from first Polaroid.

And they had some ideas on the flight over. That needed to be heard. Now. At this moment. Here.

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What I’ve Learned So Far: Thirteen; Life’s Too Short for Asshats

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You know, it really is too short for most things.

Life. Four letters, and yet it means so much to our very souls.

One of the things I loved about being a photographer was all the amazing people that I got to meet. I photographed the guy who invented the mechanical heart. I photographed God – well, actually it was George Burns… but, you know. I photographed Kevin Johnson and several mayors, a Senator or two and lots of musicians.

I photographed a porn princess and a Supreme Court nominee in the same week. I turned down an ‘opportunity’ to photograph some tennis guy named McEnroe (who needs that BS in their life?), and spent an enjoyable afternoon with Phyllis Diller. Tatum O’Neal was a pure waste of air, and James Garner was a hell of a nice guy.

So many fascinating people.

But I never wanted to be a celebrity photographer. Seriously, I do not see how anyone willingly submits to being treated as badly as some celebrities choose to treat those around them. I simply don’t think that much of celebrity, or pop culture for that matter.

After a while, I only wanted to shoot real people – scientists, authors, astronauts and auto mechanics. And fashion models. I shot a lot of fashion models.

In those days the studio was always full of people dropping by; models between gigs, MUA’s, set builders and friends in the business. It was a safe place to go, and we had sort of a ‘family’ thing going.

But as in any family, drama and asshattedness would occasionally raise its ugly head.

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What I’ve Learned So Far: Twelve; “Nice Shot… Who Cares?

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Back when I was first starting out in this business, I shot nearly every day. Maybe for an hour or two, maybe only for a few minutes. When I wasn’t shooting, I was in the darkroom developing film, making contact sheets or printing.

Lots of printing.

There was a lot to learn, and the curve was sort of a hockey stick configuration. It was fairly easy to learn how to spool up a roll of film and develop it in chemistry as the directions explained. But once that hurdle was passed, creating more beautiful and tonality laden negs began to be something that resembled alchemy and magic – and a lot of damned hard work fraught with failure after failure.

And then that image gets printed – the one where I finally got it right. More tones, more depth, more feeling… magic.

After what seems like a lifetime – and tens of thousands of dollars later – the work was technically meeting some measurement of success.

I assembled a “portfolio” to share with the advertising exec a few doors down. He had hired me for my first ever gig, and I wanted to show him my brand new portfolio.

He took the book from me and sat down. He then flipped through it at a pretty fast clip, closed it and handed it back to me.

I sat there waiting for him to say something and finally he did. “Hey, you wannanother beer?”

I was kinda dumbstruck and asked him if he had anything to say about my book, my baby, the culmination of a few years of hardass work?

He stared at me with a kind of a wry smile and said, “nice shots… who cares?”

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What I’ve Learned So Far: Eleven; “They Don’t Pay Me Enough To…”

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Have you ever heard someone say this?

“They’re not paying me enough to do my best work.” Possibly some variation of that?

What a terrible, awful, self-defeating way of doing anything. It’s an amazingly stupid, self-absorbed sense of entitlement that brings nothing but disappointment and failure.

When I hear someone saying that I can only feel a twinge of pity for them, and a sharp desire to smack them up side the head.

And fire them on the spot.

Why?

Because they agreed to do the job. At the rate that was offered.

The “job” is to deliver the best image possible. The rate was there to accept or deny and they accepted it.

Did they tell the client “Well, I will do it for $200, but I am only gonna give you 50% effort cause it is worth more than $200?”

No, of course not. They took the job and then did a crappy job because they felt entitled to more than they charged. And that is not only a deceitful, petty way of cheating the client, it is unethical and will lead to eventual failure of the photography business.

Look, no client wants a crappy job. They want the best they can get. That is what they are expecting when they hire a photographer to do the work.

The photographer wants to project an image of being the best available creative. They want to be seen as the solution to the problems and challenges that clients have.

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What I’ve Learned So Far: Ten; Listen to Your Gut

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… it knows what the heck is going on. That place deep inside you where you just know something is not right. Listen to that feeling. It is right more than it is wrong.

Now I know that your head will be arguing with you the whole time. There is a reason for that is ego, romance, “passion”, a fondness for gazing at one’s own navel… the list is too long to imagine. But all of those things make it difficult for that ‘gut feeling’ to get through. And it is the one that is the most important.

And perhaps your initial gut instinct is wrong. Fine, by listening to it you can make better choices, investigate the situation and come to a more rational conclusion.

For instance…

I often see posts by people who have gotten an email that reads something like; “I have seen your work online and it is perfect for us for our project. We have not been able to find a photographer that we like as much as you and we need you to do this for us…”

Right.

Because we know how difficult it is to find the ‘rare photographer’ out there in the world.

And when the email comes from somewhere in LA or New York, it of course makes everything perfectly clear. There are no photographers in LA that can shoot ‘the project’ like you can. This is true even though you have never met the ‘clients’, they do not know anything about you, you live 2400 miles away, and no one has even mentioned what the damn project is. Nope – YOU and YOU ALONE are perfect for this ‘project’. It says so on the email.

Your gut says… “WTF” and your ego says “Wow, this major corporation/agency thinks I am better than all those LA photographers. Yeah! Sucks to be them!” A good thing to do is to ask your FB friends how to proceed now that you have been anointed into world class at-least-better-than-them-LA-fools status. They will offer loads of good ideas on how to land this big fish client.

But your gut says “wait – this doesn’t make any sense. All I have is a Model Mayhem account with 11 hand-bra shots of girls in stripper heels posing on railroad tracks with caution tape wrapped around them and there are certainly better photographers out there in LA who have done this ‘project’ work before…”

Yes… that is absolutely true – however your head is all wrapped in the stars. And your ego.

Now. Listen. To. Your. Gut.

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What I’ve Learned So Far: Nine; Loyalty Should Be a Brand Attribute

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I am a pretty strict believer in loyalty. I live it and I demand it. Not in harsh, ‘kingly’ sort of way, but more of a gentle ‘I am way too busy for your call’ way.

I can list loyalty as one of my strong traits. I may sometimes be loyal to a fault. I have always felt it was something that was valuable not only to me, but to those around me.

Loyalty to my friends, coworkers, vendors, and clients is a powerful part of my personal brand.

Expecting that loyalty to be returned is not something I can expect, but it is something I do recognize as being very important to me.

What is loyalty?

To me it means I can trust those around me to be considerate when they discuss me and my business to others. It means lying and gossiping about me is limited to the good stuff. No, I’m not kidding about this. I do not gossip about my friends, although I may be candid about situations that we have mutually agreed on whether agreeable or not. Telling someone that my bud Dave doesn’t like the ‘snapshot’ aesthetic which I do enjoy is not the same as telling some dark and potentially damaging bit of knowledge I may know about him. Arguing over aesthetics in photography is fun, and it is open for all.

Those things that are private are easily known. If you know something about someone and have a question as to whether you should share it, you already have your answer. No. You should not.

Loyalty to my clients means billing correctly and on time. It means plugging them at every opportunity. It means arranging a meeting between them and another client who may be a perfect fit for their product or service.

And it means I do the best I can at every single thing I do with them.

Loyalty means honesty too. You cannot be loyal to someone and lie to them at the same time. Not. Possible.

I find that loyalty begets loyalty in most cases. The people around me are those who recognize this attribute as being something that is important to them. And they expect the loyalty they give to me to be returned.

It’s a win-win deal for both sides, and it brings great rewards. Both in business and in our personal lives.

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What I’ve Learned So Far: Eight; Life – Through a Lens…

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… is different – depending on what lens you choose. Choose wisely.

One of the joys of photography is being able to use a different lens for a different perspective. Something very far away can be brought ‘closer’ by a long (telephoto) lens. We can add depth to a flat scene with a shorter (wide) lens.

Interesting though that the scene itself doesn’t change. Only our ‘perspective’ of it does. The scene is a reality that exists whether we are photographing it or not, and all we can do with it is choose our POV.

Kinda like life.

A very talented photographer who is just starting out recently noted that he may be a failure after spending a year and not making any money at it. That was his lens of the moment.

For the last few years he has spent a ton of money on getting the best equipment that he could afford – without being extravagant or a gearhead – and working at his craft with great commitment and passion. Hell, I wish I could shoot as often as he does.

But work had not found him, and he was feeling the pinch of that telephoto lens. That’s the one that reaches out and magnifies the small things on the horizon making them look quite large to the viewer. Large and formidable.

In reality they are hardly noticed when standing there without the camera and scanning the scene ahead for a possible composition. We choose the telephoto to reach out, grab that small, insignificant element and by doing so elevate it to the “hero” of the photograph. The isolation of the subject removes much of the context, so it is without a relationship to that which is around it.

Kinda like life.

In life we put those telephotos on our minds and reach out to find the small things, the little incongruous parcels of our life and we magnify them to ‘fill the frame’. What was a single incident is magnified into ‘the way it is” in our minds. What was small and perhaps inconsequential becomes elaborately framed and presented as THE star of our focus.

Now if we stayed in that telephoto mode, most of our lives would be filled with small, tiny fractions of our life enhanced by magnification into massive failures, huge challenges and a resignation to defeat.

Hey… let’s not do that shit, OK!

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What I’ve Learned So Far: Seven; Gear Envy Sucks

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Gear envy takes two major forms;

1. “I can’t do what I want with this crummy gear.”

2. “I can’t believe that guy/gal has such great equipment when their work sucks so bad.”

Actually envying someone by what their gear collection is – “I so wish I was him, I would be so awesome with that gear” – is more a sign of needing some professional help. Please see someone straight away.

So let’s look at number one first, the thought that you cannot shoot with your current crummy gear.

I have absolutely no sympathy for you at all. Crummy gear is better than NO gear, and it is probably better than a lot of photographers who are smoking you butt daily. Why? Because they are shooting instead of worrying that their edges are too soft if the image was blown up to the side of a house, or that awful purple fringe that no one can see anyway, or how there is a chromatic aberration when the lens is pointed at a 36 – 46 degree angle to the sun in the afternoon on alternating Tuesdays!

Give it a rest. You can make great shots on an entry level camera. You can make great shots on P&S cameras if you know how to make a good photograph. And understand the nature of the tools. And have spent anytime actually MAKING images instead of talking about them incessantly.

Think about this:

  1. If you cannot take a good photograph with an entry level camera and a kit lens, what makes you think your work will be better with a shiny new D760D-X NiKanon?
  2. If your pictures suck with what you have, they will most likely suck with a new camera, but now have the added fun of sucking after spending a boat load of cash.
  3. Your results may vary. Listening to some photograph blather on about how the new camera from  —- simply sucks the suck out of suck means only that he/she lives in a bubble somewhere since there are thousands of photographers doing amazing work with every kind of camera on the face of the earth.
  4. Perhaps it isn’t your camera, maybe you suck at making photographs.
  5. If your camera is not working ‘correctly’, it could be “user error”… just sayin’.
  6. Bigger file sizes means bigger file sizes. That’s it.
  7. Focus is not a substitute for connecting with the viewer. (Neither is pixel counts or dynamic range, but we don’t want to get too crazy.)
  8. Yes, yes… that guru on all the awesome YouTubes shoots with some terribly expensive gear, and his pictures are awesomer than yours. Here is something to think about – give them your camera and watch them make the same awesomer shots.
  9. Camera manufacturers pay extraordinarily big money to make you think that their new wizbang will turn your pathetic throw aways into gallery ready pix. You let that crap take hold and you will never have enough gear… ever.

Worrying about gear is a form of resistance. It’s an excuse. I ‘need’ this or I ‘need’ that, and without this or that I am in no shape to make a photograph. The gear won’t let me.

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What I’ve Learned So Far: Six; Self Sabotage and the New Photographer

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(This is an ongoing series that I am writing for the month of December, 2014. After nearly 40 years in this business, I have learned a couple of things. I am sharing that knowledge here.)

What is “self-sabotage”?

It is the premature destruction of a talented photographer… and it comes from within.

It starts when we accept the judgement of one person as the gospel truth of our work. Usually that voice is one of negativity. We can have a huge bunch of people who tell us they like what we do, a cadre of clients who continue to support us, and yet one lone voice can carry so much weight.

When we let it.

I taught for a while at a photography school in Phoenix after my celebrated return from LA – (LOL, more on that later). It was part of a modeling school and we had a very good facility with students from all over the southwest.

One day the director called me to discuss a great idea she had about doing a show of the students work. It would be like an opening and there would be food and drink and making merry.

She also mentioned that she wanted to get one of the local photographers to come in and ‘judge’ the work. I was sort of mixed about that since this was student work and it would take a judge who knew what the parameters were to be able to do the work justice. When she told me who she was going to invite… well, that sort of took a lot of the fun out of it.

Egos can be a problem in this business. They can blind one to all that is outside their orb of ‘kissassedness’ and provide a faux quality of relevance where none really exists. This photographer had that… trait.

This may sound braggadocios, but it is the honest truth. We had a hell of a school and we had some simply astounding photographers. Some of these guys are still shooting and kicking ass all over the country. The show ended up with 38 prints and all of them were stunning. The instructors and some of the local photographers came in to help hang the show and were simply blown away at the quality of the work.

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What I’ve Learned So Far: Five; Step Up, or Step Aside

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In photography, as in most things in life, there are moments when you hesitate for reasons you may never know. Those small hesitations can be driven by fears, or unknowing, or simply because you had too many beers and are partially paralyzed from playing some sort of adult game that you cannot remember the name of BECAUSE your good buddy John and his girlfriend decided… wait. We aren’t going there.

Suffice it to say we occasionally hesitate.

And when we do, we leave the door open to a lot of other people to hit it before we do.

So it was for me and Polaroid transfers. I watched a photographer do one while on a roadtrip in Colorado. I LOVED the look, and he was very gracious and walked me through it.

Back in Phoenix I tried all sorts of Polaroid transfer techniques: Hot press paper, cold press paper, original images shot in camera, slides projected on Polaroid film… all sorts of methods.

I was the only one in the area doing it and I wasn’t showing anyone because I wanted to have this massive book of imagery to show. I wanted to blow the walls down with a half dozen different techniques that would rocket me to stardom.

Once I had the portfolio put together, I wanted to start showing the agencies… but I hesitated.

“What if no one likes this stuff,” it suddenly dawned on me. And I began to question whether the technique was really something they wanted to see.

I hesitated.

A few weeks later, I decided to hell with it, I wanted to share this work with folks who may think it was as cool as I thought it was.

And they loved it. In fact the first agency told me they had just hired a guy the day before to do a big Annual Report with the technique. A second and third agency all said “yeah, we have been seeing this a lot in the last two or three weeks…”

Seriously?

My hesitation meant I lost first opportunity by a few lousy weeks.

By the end of the year, everyone and their brother were doing them and in another year or two they were passe’… only a few opportunities to do them.

(Which, as an aside I will say – NEVER set your style on a technique. Technique can be learned and borrowed. Vision cannot.)

“He who hesitates is lost.”

“Strike when the iron is hot.”

“Carpe Diem”

All very important for photographers. No matter what we are doing, it is important to not hesitate unless there is a good reason. Wondering if they will like what we do means we weren’t sure about it to begin with.

Do you have an idea for a shoot? Do it.

Been wanting to change your style a bit? Do it. Now.

Waiting for that perfect moment is a fools folly. There is NO perfect moment.

There is only now, and you and your work.

In the words of a great captain, simply “make it so…”

PHOTO NOTES:
The original image was shot on black and white Polaroid Instant Slide Film, a very delicate but absolutely lovely positive transparency. The Polaroid transparency was put into an Omega enlarger and focused onto a mounted 4×5 Polaroid film sheet holder. After a few attempts that were pure black and white, I added a slight warm filter to the enlarger and it then cast a sort of sepia image down to the Polaroid in the holder. Cold press water color paper was used and I made four images transferred to the paper. This is one I liked the best, and it is an original… no negative exists. One of a kind art.

What I’ve Learned So Far: Four; You Can’t Please Everyone

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Not only can you not please everyone, you shouldn’t even try.

Why? Because all those “anyone’s” can’t even agree what they like anyway.

The first seven or eight years of my photographic career were spent trying to figure out what “they” wanted to see. Should I have more black and white? Should I separate out the black and white from the color? More product / less people or more people / less product?

It was a quandary every single day. And trying to dial it in seemed impossible.

Out the door to an agency showing… book is tweaked and ready. Agency CD looks through it quickly and mentions that they mostly do more ‘produced, big set shots’ which I knew – intellectually – was pure bullshit. I could see the work they did on his FKN OFFICE WALL. And it was the kind of work I was showing. I was a fit.

No matter… back to the studio with one burning thought… “must do more big set productions, must do more big set productions…” A new mantra was born.

The next meeting with a different agency would find an AD saying – “wow, I like your food stuff but you are a fashion photographer right?” Well… uhh… I am showing you food and you are discussing images you haven’t seen in a book that has never crossed your desk. And – you didn’t hire me for the food stuff, even though you said you should, because you heard I was a fashion photographer?

“Need more fashion, need more fashion, need more….”

And on and on it would go. Always taking a random thrown out statement as some sort of ‘golden nugget’ of advice and a solid lead on what I needed to do to ‘get the gig’.

Sad. Lonely. Maddening.

Then one evening the local ASMP hosted a “round table” of some of the big name AD’s and CD’s in the area. There were four of them sitting there and we got this kind of stuff:

AD 1: “Never send me direct mail. I hate direct mail… goes right the can.”
AD2: “Direct mail is the only way I will see your work. I rarely look at the annuals and we will only call in books if we have worked with you before.”
AD3: Direct mail… eh. We occasionally will bring all the AD’s together to look over a couple of weeks pieces, but honestly it is catch as catch can on that stuff.”
AD4: I LOVE direct mail. Keep it coming, guys…”

Seriously?

AD1: “The only kind of portfolios I like are loose prints. If I can’t spread them around the table, I am not really gonna look that hard at them.”
AD2: “Small books are best. 8×10 – 9×12… and not more than 30 images, please.”
AD3: “I like the really big format… even 16×20’s are cool. Book or loose prints, it doesn’t matter much.”
AD4: “We prefer to find the work we like in the annuals, and if we need to see a book we will ask you send it over for us to look at on our leisure. We don’t care much for large books, but we do love when they are super designed.”

Seriously seriously?

There was no consensus on anything that evening. We heard that direct mail sucks and keep it going because it is effective. We learned that design of your portfolio was totally unimportant except when it was absolutely a dominant force. The enlightenment continued with the admonition to separate black and white from color and oh, BTW, never separate black and white from color, only separate genres except when the book has a more flexible, organic flow.

I realized that I was trying to please a ‘them’ where there was no ‘them’.

There were only individuals, and they all had different criteria for what they wanted to see.

I stopped worrying about them. I started worrying about me. What the hell did I want to do? When the taskmaster of madness is lifted and all you have to worry about is the work you LOVE to do, it can suddenly dawn on you that you are not really sure what that is.

After years of trying to feed the beast, it became abundantly clear that it was a faux beast to begin with… and it may be too stupid be fed.

I learned that I had to be comfortable with what I shot, and build that work from the ground up without checking in with the Blackbook or the Workbook or any other ‘hip’ annual to see if I measured up to what everyone else was doing. I wanted to measure up to what I WANTED to do.

Within a year the book was totally different than it was a year before, and the clients I was shooting for not only liked what I was doing, but wanted me to do more of it.

And no, it wasn’t every agency in town. It was a few agencies, and a few designers, and a few corporate MarComs… but they added up to busy weeks and lots of billing.

I was shooting exactly what they loved because I was shooting exactly what I loved and the individuals who hired me were in sync with that.

Trying to please everyone will end up with you pleasing no one.

I remember one of Avedon’s assistants telling me one of the things that surprised him was that Avedon didn’t get every gig he tried for. Sometimes they picked someone else. For all sorts of reasons. Can you imagine?

You simply cannot please everyone.

You shouldn’t even try.

(And if you ever hear someone say, “this is what they all want to see”… well, consider that full on, totally awesome bullshit.)

Photo notes:
I was asked to shoot tools for a construction company. They prided themselves on very detailed and hand done work. I chose a set of antique tools and shot them on 4×5 Polaroid Type 55, then contact printed them and toned them with copper. I left the ragged edge of the Polaroid on the contact sheets to give the images more ‘reality’. They ran as 4×5 images quad toned and floated singly on a white page with text on the opposite page. The brochure turned out to be an award winner.

What I’ve Learned So Far: Three; It Ain’t Brain Surgery

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When I first started I met a photographer who was what I call a “prima-donna”, or asshat in today’s world. He would rant and rage while shooting. All of his assistants would cower as he belittled them, humiliated them and treated them less than anyone should ever be treated.

I met one of his assistants who quit after he threw a 4×5 film holder at him because of some perceived offense. In the day, he was quite an influential photographer and had lots of work. At first, the rages were done after hours, but they slowly became visible to clients. And that was sad.

The clients would talk about his screaming and ranting and raging with a shake of the head… but they used him anyway because he was a good photographer.

The problem I had with it was three fold.

  1. No one should ever be treated with that level of disrespect.
  2. It was supremely less than professional… after all, the staff was HIS, and HE was ultimately responsible
  3. He was taking pictures of fkn TOWELS FOR A DEPARTMENT STORE!!!

Now yeah, I got it – being a professional means doing the absolute BEST towel shot, or box of crap shot that you can. And you tweak it till it is perfect. Feeling that it warrants rage and deep, moody brooding is – well – mental illness.

Seriously.

I only worked for him one day, and never went back. He eventually left the industry when digital came in. I sorta figured it was because throwing a compact flash card at assistants wasn’t impactful enough.

I was reminded of his idiocy a few years after the one day I assisted him, when I photographed actual brain surgery for a regional hospital chain. The mood of the two surgeons and four nurses was relaxed and respectful. They were focused on the task at hand, and broke tension with humor and good natured comments.

Brain surgery. Screw up and someone dies.

Photographing towels. Screw up and… photograph them again.

The difference was absolutely staggering… and it has stayed with me since that day.

Yes, we work very hard to make the absolute best image we can, we push those around us to perform even better than they think they can. And we do it with respect. We take great pride in presenting an absolutely perfect photograph, but that should never come at the expense of those around us.

Things have changed a lot since those days, and I don’t hear much about the “angry prima-donna drama queen” photographers. Oh, they are out there, but probably not as prevalent as they were because social media could be disastrous.

It really is important to do the best we can at what we do, but it ain’t brain surgery and no one dies if we mess up… and believe me, that is a good thing. :-)

(PS… my assistants have always appreciated the way I treated them, and their professionalism. In fact, many of them became personal friends over the years.)

(PSS: My wonderful MUA Danita Fenn, who is still a friend today… sorry, cannot remember the name of the model. Only worked with her once.)

What I’ve Learned So Far: Two; Partners Maybe – Maybe Not

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There is nothing better than a great partner. Finding someone who fills in those blanks in your business acumen can be a life saver. Whether it is a rep, or a second shooter/first assistant, or a full business partner, working with someone who helps you stay focused can be one of the most enjoyable experiences of being in business.

A great partner takes hold of what you don’t do well and runs with it. And your creativity helps them do their best at what they do as well.

Synergy. Power. Growth.

My best assistants were ones who understood how I worked. Some even better than I did. They knew where the damn meter was even when I had no idea where I had left it. They knew what I was thinking when looking at the Polaroid with that sort of look I get that says… WTF is THIS? The best would be a step ahead, or at least ready to spin on a dime to “make it so”. They were partners.

My reps (only had two in my career) were also great people who completed the parts of me that were as yet unformed. Yeah, I could handle my way around an 8×10 but bidding a three day shoot on location… well, my ADD kicked in and I would find it a great time to clean the darkroom. I eventually learned from them – and them from me. Partners.

The best of them know how to make you smile when all you really want to do is to kill the art director slowly and with as much pain as possible. They knew how to break the tension, and let me refocus on the part of the gig I was working the hardest on.

However… there is also the possibility that what you thought was a good mix, a good partnership, was not that at all. Sometimes people can deceive, be dishonest, or simply change. If you are not paying attention, the ramifications of a bad partner can be as small as a gig going south and you having to pick up pieces while still delivering a smashing job to losing three quarters of a million dollars. Three quarters. Of a Million. Dollars.

I have learned that while good partners are great, nothing is as bad as a rotten one.

I have no partners at this moment, although I do work closely with some folks that may be limited partners on some deals coming up.

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What I’ve Learned So Far: One; Photography Ain’t Easy

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Starting today and for the duration of December 2014, I will be making one post per day on ideas and thoughts I have had about this business of photography. And it is directed toward the professional practice of commercial photography.

I have been kicking around in this crazy business for nearly 40 years. In that time I have discovered what I didn’t know, been surprised by what I thought I knew, and still don’t know what I think I should know. But I am catching on… ya know.

Along the way on this journey I have learned a few things. Some of them seriously impactful and some of them curiously quirky.

Now these little posts may not change your life, rock your world, finally open your eyes to “the truth”. They may only make you think about photography, business, life and great beer. (More on great beer as we go along.)

Let’s get started on this list of 31 things I have learned so far. Please understand they are in no particular order, nor are they meant as a guideline for you to base your hopes, dreams and mortgage savings on.

Number One:

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Thinning Down, Weeding Out… Hopefully

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Gettin’ Skinny and Lovin’ It

I bet you’re wondering if this will be about a new diet program, and how I am slimming down and getting to be a lean mean fighting machine.

And it is… sorta.

It’s a diet of all things photography.

I am moved out of the big studio I share with Dave Siegel in Phoenix. We moved to a smaller studio (still with a cyc and all I need for a big shoot) but without all the excess stuff that really resulted in a cluttered space and working environment.

Clutter is not always things either. Sometimes it is thought processes and sometimes it is workflow and sometimes it is simply dealing with all the physical clutter that makes us have mental clutter… did you follow that?

When I started the process, I was a bit down. I am a collector. I love my little mementoes; of projects I did, models I knew, and experiences that were memorable. Getting the courage to toss a lot of that stuff made me dig deep… LOL.

I also found boxes that had been unopened from my original move in 2002. I was going to open a few to see what was in the them, but realized if I hadn’t touched it in 12 years it simply was not important. (Yes, my fear is that I will awaken in the middle of the night remembering I had stashed a Leica system in one of the boxes… arghh… but that will only be a nightmare.)

I pared down almost everything I had because of the changes in my interests in photography and the work I want to do and will be doing.

When I started out it was in the late 70’s. Natural light was my source.

By the mid 80’s a studio with tons of lights and booms and stands was home to me. 14 hour workdays were common. It had a kitchen and a shower, a full makeup area with two stations. The darkroom was spacious and featured three enlargers – one color. We did Cibachromes and black and white prints and poster sized enlargements.

The studio was always full of people… models, clients, art directors stopping by on the way to and from somewhere, assistants, makeup artists… it was a place of social interaction as well as a place to work.

That changed.

What was pretty cool to do in your thirties became less so as we get older and gain families and other social lives. Perhaps in some studios that still goes on.

In ours it doesn’t.

(We are adding some things to the new studio that will maybe help create a more fun environment with much more interaction between creatives.)

I have over the years gotten rid of a lot of the bigger lighting (Norman 2000 packs) and was down to only one pack and four heads. They went to a friend who is going to fix them up and use them in his studio. The stuff I had been clinging on to for years was in the end a lot of junk.

Dumpster divers will find old negatives, transparencies, and boxes of stuff they will not even have a clue about. Stuff that meant something to me at one time… now it is gone.

Or perhaps someone will reclaim those old pinup shots from the 80’s. or the tractor catalog I shot in 92 or better yet, the “Little Black Dress” poster I shot for the Leighton Agency back in 90.

LOL… lots of memories.

Interestingly the memories remain… only the box of stuff is gone.

I was going to toss out the print ‘collection’ (probably a thousand or more)  but decided to digitize it first. Probably use the iPhone and snap shots of each of the prints before tossing them as well. Perhaps… unless I just love the print and want to DO SOMETHING WITH IT. If it doesn’t go into a portfolio, it will be gone.

So what did I keep?

Booms – all five of them. And all my stands. Never have enough stands. I have four Profoto strobes and a plethora of modifiers, but my “kit” is now two heads, two Octaboxes (48”) and one 24” square softbox. Accompanied by four grids and a beauty dish, this is what I will be grabbing on the way out the door. I still have the one Dynalite as well. It may go or I may get rid of the Profotos and go all Dynalite. Much smaller footprint for sure.

I have a rolling rack that contains all of my gear except the booms. All stands and umbrellas are in Standbaggers, and the small stuff is in a cadre of tool boxes. One for small strobe stuff, one for big light shoots and one for the odds and ends I always need on a shoot. Pliers and wrenches and fasteners and velcro.

Organized it is getting. And I will be doing more now that I have pared it all down. That means I have to redo my packing sheets (obsolete now) for the new gear bags and boxes. Each box/bag has a laminated ‘packing sheet’ with exactly what is in them. This makes it easy to find the right part and easy to know where it goes when the shoot is over. Even thinking about color coding the items for the different boxes. Using small pieces of colored tape, each strobe, connector, cable or screwdriver can find its home easily.

When I used to go on location, we took a truck of gear. I am now finding I prefer one light and the world. Styles change, but also my personal work is becoming more about my vision rather than someone else’s. Yes, commercial photography was a lot of working your image to THEIR vision. I am climbing out of that hole, but after decades it is not as easy as I would have thought it to be.

The more gear I take on a shoot, the less ‘spontaneous’ I find myself. I want to change that up.

For nearly four decades I was focused on getting THE IMAGE. We would prep and light and re-light all day for that one perfect shot. Tweaking and ‘roiding, tweeking and ‘roiding. In the end a perfectly conceived and produced photograph was the goal.

That is not how I want to do it anymore. I want flexibility and whimsy and a much more loose feeling to my work – to my images. And that means thinking differently.

Thinking smaller in gear choice, looser in presentation, quicker in production. Spontaneous is exactly that and ‘staging’ spontaneity is as hard as it sounds. However, the actual image should look like it wasn’t staged at all. And that takes a loose approach to a tightly scripted production… loving that right now. The challenge is something I have always craved. If it is too easy, it can become a bit stale.

I still love to shoot in natural light, ‘real light’ so to speak. Working with what I am given seems to perk my creative ideas up a bit. But I also love to create light and create an emotion with that light that may move someone else when viewing the image.

Something else happened this week amongst the tossing of stuff and the paring down of gear… I am much more excited about shooting. I have so many more ideas now than I did two weeks ago. Perhaps the anchor of too much stuff began to wear on my creativity.

Stravinsky once said that the greatest freedom to create came with the tightest confines. If we have everything to choose from, perhaps the choosing gets in the way of the creation itself.

I went on a week long roadtrip with only one body and four lenses not wider than 28 and not longer than 85. I had the best shoot I could have imagined. In fact, I probably would love to do it again with a 35mm only. Maybe the constraints of the lens would spark a creativity I would have to dig deep for.

Perhaps.

For now I have gone from an office the size of my living room to a corner in the garage (OK, a bit more than a corner) and I am feeling more like shooting than I have in quite a while.

Look, I am not telling you to pare down and go minimal. I have no dog in that hunt and would only prefer that you do what you want if it makes you happy and more creative. There are some incredibly gifted shooters with far more gear than I and Dave put together. They USE the tools for what they do.

And that is exactly what I want to get back to… using the tools I have to make the images I want to make.

It is really all about the image, and the freedom to create what you see in your minds eye. If there is something that is getting in the way of that endeavor it must go. It must.

I will post images of the new studio when it is ready. Lots of construction going on… we are putting in a real darkroom with sinks and all. Don’t ask… we are indulging ourselves a bit.

Industrial Assignment: Project 52 Pros

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One of the most under-rated and least mentioned genre of commercial photography is Industrial/Corporate. It isn’t sexy, and models don’t flock to the studio after hours. The travel is usually not to some awesome resort or fancy hotel, but rather to out of the way places with gritty facilities and hard working men and women.

I like industry. I love when people make stuff… and then find people who want to buy that stuff.

We had some great work turned in on this very difficult assignment. In some cases the work is far better than competing work by those already in the business. I like tough assignments and this one the students really lit on.

Photographers You Should Know: Ellen Von Unwerth

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tumblr_l2hzax2OX91qb9i4yThe first time I saw her work was a Claudia Schiffer shoot for Guess. The ads were edgy, fun, loose and sexy. The photography was gritty, and voyeuristic and part of the scene itself.

Ellen von Unwerth (born 1954, Frankfurt) is a photographer and director, specializing in erotic femininity. She worked as a fashion model for ten years herself before moving behind the camera, and now makes fashion, editorial, and advertising photographs. (wiki)

From Complex Style:

Ellen von Unwerth began her career in the fashion industry as a model herself before deciding to get on the other side of the lens. She gained credibility as a photographer in the ’90s when her work for GUESS jeans became popular, shooting famous models like Claudia Schiffer, Eva Herzigova, and the late Anna Nicole Smith. von Unwerth has continued building her reputation throughout the past two decades, doing work both for top publications and independently, while also creating album art and doing private shoots for many celebrities.”

The One Hundred Sexiest Photographs by Ellen Von Unwerth.


 

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Here is a large group of great posts of the work of Ellen Von Unwerth from Fashion Gone Rogue.

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Some very cool videos by Ellen Von Unwerth.

Throughout her career, she has kept it fun, sexy and very accessible. Her models always look like they are having a blast, and many times unaware of the photographer, or happily playing along with the shoot. There is a feeling of watching something unfold in front of our eyes that we are not usually privy to see. She is definitely one of my biggest influences as I have tried to keep the hand of the photographer out of the image itself. I love the wildly candid approach to the images.

See more on Google:

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