On Photography

On Photography

It's late. I'm tired. A friend dropped off a Ham Jam care package in memoriam of a friend. I'm no Hunter S. Thompson. A Ham Jam combo does not make me more lucid. (Accurate words or prescience - I fell asleep not long after writing that opening and some of the following paragraphs. If there are weird time shifts in this post, that's why. Channel your inner Timothy Leary. Pretend it's 2021 and you're drinking a beer at a bar saying "shit man, remember when we had to wear masks all the time?")

I'm easily distracted, and sometimes I'm grateful for that. Crossroads. An overused term if there ever was one. But man, I think we're at a crossroad(s?) in America. A high-stakes choose your adventure. I try not to be vague or cryptic with my beliefs. If we choose Biden, there's hope (despite his poor record and the host of neocons singing his praises). If we choose Trump, we're screwed (despite his admirable distrust of military interventionism).

I don't worry about Trump becoming a dictator. I think he dangerously admires absolute authority and would love for people to agree with and welcome his inflated perceptions of (his) presidential authority. But he doesn't know enough about how the U.S. Government works to get him there. (No, I'm not saying he's stupid.) If he did, he wouldn't have been the outsider who so resonated with the MAGA crowd. Possible flaw with my assertion - MAGA loves QAnon's supposed insider knowledge. The tricks we play on ourselves. It's not the same man, Q's an outsider working from the inside, reverse Deep State! That insider's knowledge and network is an important cog in the power machine. Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping wield almost absolute power in their governments. They paid their dues on the inside. (Ask me about this paragraph if the GOP wins the Senate and House. )

My worry is that four more years of Trump will be four more years of climate change denial, four more years of division that he foments rather than heals or even addresses. He hasn't got a plan or a vision for helping Americans reach a better tomorrow. And it's pointless to ramble on about that. Is there anyone in America who is undecided?

I fear there's a solid chance Trump will win. If he channeled some Eisenhower, I think he'd have a sure-fire path to winning: Jump in the Oval Office, get a little folksy, and tell the country that the virus is tenacious, matching us step for step and making people fearful, to the point of schools and sports not resuming. Let's zig to the virus's zag. Time to recapture that Apollo era can do spirit. I'm asking everyone to pitch in and get on board with a 6 week hard reset. That's a lot of lost wages, we know. We're going to send out two stimulus checks in that period and we're adding a simple checkbox to 2020 tax returns - I DID MY PART = $5000 no questions asked deduction. We're going to shut down all international travel during that period and are asking people not to travel domestically. We'll deploy FEMA and National Guard Operation Farmers Market teams to set up no questions asked food stations. We'll buy the farmers' goods and get them to open-air distribution sites.

I'll stop the politics there. Not out of avoidance. Cynicism is probably the better term.

Segue. I don't understand the mail-in voting scandal. The 10 people who have visited this site more than once know that I am all about science and statistics. Sure, I make it up sometimes, but I'm a fan. 86.24659% of the people who intend to vote know who they're voting for. Just send that shit in now. The USPS is understaffed and underfunded, but two months is more than enough time for them. I'm skeptical of grand conspiracies - if anyone knows of a good article about what is actually happening with mail sorters and letter boxes, please add a link in the comments. (My sarcasm is sometimes like a Bull Durham wild pitch, so it's worth clarifying - I'm a big fan of the USPS, I love seeing their vans in the neighborhood, and think the service is a national treasure that shouldn't be expected to earn a profit. I mean, let's look at the DOD. That's not a case study in ROI. To be fair, almost 20 years in Iraq and Afghanistan have guaranteed that our wives and daughters would not be subject to sharia law, hamdu lilah. Talk about a war on Christmas! Whew, we barely dodged that one.)

Doubtful as it may seem, I went into this post thinking about photography and my photography. I was going through my archives looking at photos I took in the early 90s. 99.2832% of them are garbage. (More science/statistics.)

I started thinking about advice I'd give a younger me or younger photographers. This is a good time for a caveat. I am LOW on the list of people who can speak about photography with any sense of authority. But I think about it a lot, and I have this blog that won't write itself.

  • Read Susan Sontag. Yes, I buried the lede. I do that. I'm also a little annoyed that it's lede vs. lead. My use of lede is aggressively passive aggressive. Then read things like Teju Cole's exploration of Susan Sontag's writing. That article is incredible, and I need to read it many more times. Go to the library and look at photobooks and zines. Follow Daniel Milnor, Megan Farmer, Erika Schultz, Andre Wagner, and Craig Mod.
  • Don't surrender your creative instincts to old photographers (it me!) handing out unsolicited advice.
  • Amazing single images are amazing. Powerful. But try your hand at the visual essay. A series of images that hint at or tell a story. There's a spectrum to it. Images only and images with text. There's no right or wrong on that spectrum.
  • Give yourself time to think about projects. Sadly, I'm addressing current me here, too. There are incredible stories to be told in 2020, and I'm not doing it. Want to see an example of someone who is? Have a look at David Ryder's photo essay about the front-liners cleaning the front lines and looking after people. I'm not crying, you're crying.
  • There are some photographers who make great, meaningful art with the first click of the shutter. I envy them greatly. For them, the camera is a paintbrush, a tool they'll rarely discuss. I've never heard a painter describe how X brush was the key to a particular painting.
  • Most of us aren't like the photographers in that last bullet point. We take a lot of shitty photos. (it me again!) Your photos (not mine) probably aren't as shitty as you think. But break out that journal and make a note of what made you think it was a shitty photo.
  • Think about what you want to shoot and why. For some people, shooting everything works. They're akin to the speed-readers who are actually able to absorb information and reflect on its meaning. I suspect most of us are in that shit I have to re-read that paragraph because I can't remember what the hell it said category. Did I turn the oven off? Film, digital, developing, processing - it all takes time. Storage is deceptively, insidiously cheap, time is precious. You'll probably be happier slowing down and taking fewer images. As the recently-displaced-as-cool-kids say, your mileage may vary.
  • If you're in your 20s and you like taking photos of people, start telling people that you would like to take their photo. If you're a creep, burn your photo gear and find a job that requires no interaction with people. If you're not a creep, collaborate with subjects. Explain your idea, use a good model release template, don't worry about social media, turn the photos around in a timely manner, and send the subject an actual print and a thank you. I need to do this. (Here's a good example - Larry D. Hayden to Daniel Milnor.) This is especially important for men. My favorite photographers are women or not white dudes (it me triple shot). I have worked with models in Seattle, and they've told me about "the list" they keep on dbags - I can't remember any of the dbags being women. Don't be a dbag.
  • Learn the basics of a flash/strobe. You might decide that natural light is your preference, but understand lighting. Zack Arias is an awesome photographer, and he has a "one light" course that is informative and inexpensive (sometimes free). Another great option is David Hobby at The Strobist. The bonus is that they both seem like nice, funny people.
  • Print your work. You don't have to break the bank to do it. I need to get better at this. I've only used Blurb, but there are loads of options. Print a 10-20 page zine or digest with your best work. 2 to 3 copies might cost you $30 total. When someone asks you what you shoot, pull that zine out of your camera bag and put it in their hands. It's an elevator pitch on steroids. (Uhmm, put it in their hands post-COVID.)
  • Count to 5,676 before buying gear. We all do this. If I had X lens or Y camera I could do Z. That might be true. But in most cases, you've got what you need. The gear factor is usually a crutch, or you're swooning over someone else's work.

Here are some of the old photos that sent me down this rabbit hole. If you're going to take a photo of a bridge, MAKE a photo of the bridge. I recommend against doing what I did.

Somewhere in Switzerland? That I have the negative suggests I took it. I don't remember taking it. But I kind of like it, a rarity from those rolls.
Generic photo of European lake
No idea where this was. Lake Geneva? Somewhere near Interlaken?
I should have done more of these, with some thought to light.
The cutting edge of 90s street photography.
One of the worst Glockenspiel photos ever recorded. You're welcome.
Field in Europe
A field. Somewhere in Europe.
Bad focus, bad lighting, one of the few photos from that trip I like.
Hi Troy.
Mountains in Europe
Mountains. Clouds. Europe. (Not a dis against landscape photographers. A dis against me just clicking away mindlessly.
Goodnight Troy. Hope you kept those dad jeans, they're all the rage these days. (We missed our connecting train. I think it was in Basel.)

I've had this dumb post open for three nights now. Time to just post it. Felt revelant, might delete later. Weird times, folks. I hope you're doing well.