Postcards to the Shore

A couple of months back when Hurricane Sandy hit New Jersey, I shared information in this space about several individuals and nonprofits in this area who’ve been helping out in various ways. Part of the rationale was so that those who needed help might be connected to what they needed; the other part was to encourage those who might want to help, but who weren’t quite sure where to start.

To that end, I’ve launched a project called Postcards to the Shore, which I’ve set up as a means for people to share their stories of the Jersey Shore, in whatever form those stories take. If you’re reading this and you call New Jersey home — or maybe you’re a transplant to or from the Garden State, or you’ve just vacationed here — feel free to head over to www.postcardstotheshore.com and tell your story, in any way you’d like to tell it… through photos, video, fiction, memoir, haiku or koans. The site’s admittedly a bit sparse right now, but with your help (and your stories), it won’t be for long. Then tell a friend, and encourage them to do the same.

We don’t need to wait for the history to be written; we’re in the middle of it, living and writing it day by day. Our stories are our history, our testament, our love letters and our hope.

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Hurricane Sandy Relief: Pics for Proceeds

Pics for Proceeds

Heather Jo Mangum started Pics for Proceeds in 2009 when a coworker lost everything in a house fire. What started as a photo shoot to replace some photos for a friend who lost everything is growing by word of mouth into something much bigger.

“Knowing I couldn’t possibly help everyone myself, I set forth to partner with other photographers to develop a network of people who could join forces and collectively offer the same services but on a large enough scale to help so many who were impacted and leverage our size for help. I’ve just started focusing on getting a network developed for the Sandy survivors in the past week.”

Heather Jo has had offers of assistance from photographers, makeup artists and hair salons, as well as the donation of frames from one of the biggest names in the business. Partnerships with other nonprofits are also in the works, in order to allow deductions to pass through tax deductable. While she says progress has been slow, momentum is beginning to build.

She doesn’t consider herself an artist, preferring to call herself a “heartist”, and says that if she can put a smile on a mom’s face and melt her heart, “then my job is done.” She also, incidentally doesn’t consider herself a professional. “I never set out to be a photographer by career. I don’t want to have a full photography business that takes away from photographers who do this for their sole income source. I have a corporate job that pays well which allows me to subsidize the photography. I believe everyone is given a gift, big or small, that can be used to help others. For me, it’s the opportunity to help others capture the precious memories and moments in life.”

Currently, Pics for Proceeds is recruiting photographers of all skill levels. Ms. Mangum asks that her more experienced volunteers pay it forward by not only helping families in need, but also by sharing their skills with other, less-experienced shooters. She emphasizes that she wants to foster “a supportive, not competitive or secretive, environment.” There are challenges in this kind of photography, and sometimes the logistical issues are the least of it. A photo session for a survivor brings strong emotions to the surface, making it vital for volunteers to operate with patience, sensitivity and empathy.

Heather Jo offers some parting words for those who are amateurs or novices (or maybe just a bit insecure about their skills): “I say, ‘JOIN US! ‘There will always be someone better than you and someone less experienced than you. I will say that we are not the best place for someone who is new to photography. If all of your pictures are always done in “program” mode, I would probably ask to spend some time with you discussing what level of training may be needed and available before having you shoot independently. But I don’t think you can go wrong if your heart is in the right place and you’re willing to learn.” She stresses that it’s less about the camera than a willingness to learn, and to accept assignments based on skill level. And even those who aren’t photographers are welcomed with open arms, since assistance is also needed with setup, makeup artistry, and quite a bit else.

You can now sponsor family photo shoots directly through the Pics for Proceeds website, and the money will go directly to the cost of printing the pictures from the photo shoots. This allows Pics for Proceeds to focus on free photography for families in need. To visit them on the web, go to http://www.picsforproceeds.com/. You can also find them on Facebook, via https://www.facebook.com/#!/PicsForProceeds?fref=ts.

Hurricane Sandy Relief: For Shore Photos

This is just one of the hundreds of photos For Shore Photos wants to reunite with its owners.

One of these days, we’ll get back to our regularly scheduled rumblings and ramblings about photography. Today’s not that day, though, since I’ve come across another photography-related initiative set up to help New Jersey residents after Hurricane Sandy, and wanted to help get the word out. This one’s a bit different, in that you don’t need to be a photographer. In fact, about all you’ll need is a sharp eye, some paper towels, ziploc bags, and wax paper.

Since you’re probably thinking, Huh? to yourself, let me explain.

Jeanne Esti, a Rhode Island-based business consultant and life coach with family ties to the shore, has started For Shore Photos, which is dedicated to rescuing and preserving photos found after the storm. In a note to project supporters, Jeanne wrote:

We escaped unscathed but our neighbors didn’t, nor did so many of our friends around the area. After cleaning up our house, I took a look around the property and truly broke down. What I had thought was debris was the remains of broken open homes and their beautiful, revered contents were strewn all over. I started to look at it and I found photo after photo and then asked the police if I could look at the properties of some of our neighbors who couldn’t make the “access day” (a new normal for many of us). They not only obliged my request, they came with me to make sure I didn’t wind up in a sink hole and helped me collect these photos. It got me thinking about what all of you might be seeing/finding.

If you’re wondering what you can do to help, For Shore Photos’ focus right now is on getting the word out so that people know to look for stray photographs and photo albums in their travels, and know what to do with them once they’ve found them. Namely, to put them in a sealable bag and mark the address where they were picked up. Drop-off points are being announced as they’re arranged, generally at Shore landmarks like Joe Leone’s locations in Point Pleasant and Sea Girt. Then, of course, begins the hard part — scanning those photos, getting them out on the web and Facebook, and helping to reunite them with the families who’ve lost them.

We’ll let Jeanne have the last word. “This is such a blend of my two backgrounds. I’m coaching and helping people through the grief. But the pit bull partnership marketer just created a partnership with a scanning company to do events for free for us and all our scanning, CNN is covering this and one of the Housewives of New Jersey, Caroline, pushed our story! The storm was tragic, but all the help and support I’ve seen since has been inspiring and so much fun! Good energy for a great reason!”

If you’d like to help or find out more, you can visit the For Shore Photos Project on the web at http://www.forshorephotos.com, on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/forshorephotos#!/forshorephotos or contact Jeanne by email at info@forshorephotos.com

Humans of New York (HONY) Sandy Relief

I’ve been meaning to write something about Brandon Stanton, AKA Humans of New York (further known as HONY) for a dog’s age now. If you’ve followed this blog for any length of time, you know that a: I’m a fan of good street photography, and b: I’m conflicted by a number of that genre’s current practitioners, whose work I sometimes find tacky and unneccesarily confrontational. Not so with HONY; I always got the impression with Brandon’s work that it was done by someone who had a real affection for the people he photographs.

Of course, photography can be a bit like acting; you don’t want to read too much into a photographer’s style or choice of subject matter, at least as far as what it might say about them as a person. Having said that, what I love and respect about the work I’ve seen on HONY is that it always seems to be done as much from the standpoint of what the photographer gives to his subject just as much as what he’s taking from (or of) them.

And as it turns out, I probably wasn’t all that far off in the first place. HONY is running a fundraiser on IndieGogo, in partnership with Tumblr. Details below:

Our Mission

Tumblr and Humans of New York are teaming up to raise money for the victims of Hurricane Sandy. For ten days beginning November 11th, we will be documenting and sharing the stories of those affected by the storm. We hope to show all sides of the story, featuring not only the victims of the storm but also the first responders and volunteers who are helping them recover. Hurricane Sandy revealed the power of nature, as well as the power of humanity. We aim to document both. By doing so, we hope to encourage YOU to contribute the relief efforts.

The purpose of this fundraiser is to collect donations. However, to spice things up a bit, Tumblr and HONY are teaming up to provide incentives and rewards for donating. Tumblr is throwing in some cool Tumblr gear, and HONY is providing prints and other goodies. We are covering these expenses ourselves so absolutely all money raised will be going to relief efforts.

Where the Money is Going

100% OF PROCEEDS will be going to the Stephen Siller Tunnel to Towers Foundation– a highly respected, family-run charity which has been officially endorsed by many NYC officials. The money will immediately be used to provide much-needed resources to those areas hit hardest by the storm. Tunnel to Towers is very proud of the fact that no donations are being spent on overhead, and ALL hurricane funds are going directly to relief. 

Me again. Long story short: visit the Humans of New York website at http://www.humansofnewyork.com/, or look him up/follow him on Facebook or on Twitter. And if you’d like to donate, you can do so via http://www.indiegogo.com/HONYTumblr?a=1743524 (you may have to refresh the page a few times before it loads)

Attention NYC Area Photograhers: Helping Out With Sandy Relief

A few days ago, I posted about Will Salomon Orellana’s Help Portrait project to assist Hurricane Sandy victims. He was kind enough to send along this update:

Specific Help-Portrait Event for Hurricane Sandy families who were affected…..

MEETING MONDAY, NOVEMBER 12th, 2012

289 Grand Street (Btwn. Roebling & Havemeyer Street)

Brooklyn, NY 11211 (Williamsburg)

Time: 6pm

Sorry I have been off radar….I finally got power back myself and am back online….

In a nutshell, I have created a Facebook group page for us to communicate better as many people on this forum have been inactive for years…

Please follow the link and add yourself to the group. I will then agree to have you on the group. Very easy.

Group Name: Sandy Relief Help-Portrait NYC (Free Family Portraits)

https://www.facebook.com/groups/498860610153588/

Simply:

I am looking to focus this year on the areas most affected by Hurricane Sandy in NYC. Sites I am organizing in are Rockaways, Breezy Point, Staten Island and Coney Island….

We have a fast turnaround time here folks this is what we need:

This is a group for Photographers, Make up artist and anyone who wants to participate in volunteering for this years Help-Portrait NYC 2012 (Free Family Portraits) specifically for the victims of Hurricane Sandy. Many of them have lost everything including family photos. The goal is to create a loving space where we can offer free family portraits as a gesture of levity and joy during this time.

What we need:
-Lead Photographers to connect with a community based organization to host the event and be the primary liaison.
-Photographers with full lighting set up
-People who can edit and print the images for the families
-Make up artist and/or Hair dressers
-General volunteers to greet, sign in families, share a smile and overall assistance.
-Donations for the paper and ink

From now on all communications will go through the facebook group: Sandy Relief Help-Portrait NYC (Free Family Portraits)

My email is will@willsalomon.com for any questions or by phone at 347.683.7466

Peace and blessings,

Will Salomon Orellana

Hurricane Sandy: Resources for Photographers

Spring Lake, NJ, August 2012

Watch this space, because I will be adding to this post as more information comes in. If you’re a photographer who’s coordinating an event, please leave information in the comments section below, or email thefirst10000@gmail.com

Edited 11/5/12

Via Help-Portrait:

QUEENS****(Special Event)

ROCKAWAY (Families & Victims of Hurricane Sandy)

Lead Organizer-Will Salomon Orellana

Specific location TBA

Will have more information in the next coming days….

I am organizing a HELP-Portrait Group Event for families affected during Sandy in The Rockaway’s…I just visited and it is totally devastated. Especially Brezzy Point.  I will update when I have more info on Location…Am trying to connect with a Church there.  I will have more information in the next few days…..But in the meantime, I would like to form a group of Photog’s who can volunteer…Please hit me up and let me know if you can. and assist……This is a very special one as most families in this affected area have lost everything! Peace and blessings…-Will (will@willsalomon.com)

Souls Rebuilt:

A portrait charity founded just hours after Sandy swept through NJ, Souls.Rebuilt. offers “complimentary family sessions for families who have lost their pictures due to the devastation that Hurricane Sandy brought”. They’re currently seeking both volunteer photographers and families in need of assistance. More information is available on their website, or you can follow them on Facebook or Twitter.

Via Joe’s Pub:

This link will take you to a series of links for artists of all stripes whose works, studios, or livelihoods have been impacted by Sandy. Since the Pub (a.k.a. the Public Theater) is Manhattan-based, there’s quite a bit of information that’s mostly germane to artists in the five boroughs. However, some of the organizations and resources listed also work farther afield, so if you’re elsewhere in the tri-state area, take a look… certainly couldn’t hurt.

And again: More updates will follow as I receive more information. If you’re running a project, or know someone who is, please pass the information along!

The Personal Is Historical (Some Thoughts on 9/11 and the Still Image)

Roger Mark Rasweiler (Image reproduced by kind permission of Shelly Castellano)

Every year around this time, for the last decade or so, I think about writing about 9/11, and I always tend to come up short. It’s not that there’s any shortage of memory or feeling there; like nearly anyone else old enough to remember that day — especially if, like me, you live in the shadow of NYC — I can recall where I was that day in more detail than I remember nearly any other day of my life, nearly down to the minute. The problem is moreso one of volume. So much has been spoken, written, filmed, and repeated that it feels like anything I’d have to say would be but a drop in the ocean. And yet, I can’t quite shake that day, and can’t quite shake the image that made the whole thing immediately and terribly real for me.

The photo that accompanies this post wasn’t chosen at random. The first time I saw Roger Mark Rasweiler (or his photo, at any rate) would’ve been some time around ten thirty on September 12, 2001. I was just getting on the train back home from work, and I saw a flyer just like this one in several of the train cars. I stopped to study the face, said a small prayer, and hoped against hope that this kindly-looking gentleman had just been detoured to Queens, or maybe a hospital somewhere in Manhattan or Hoboken. 36 hours after the towers fell, that wish didn’t yet seem as futile as it would in the days ahead, or as it did when I visited Union Square a week later, only to find the faces of the missing staring back at me by the thousands from subway cars, PATH trains, fences, and storefronts.

What does any of this have to do with photography? Maybe nothing at all. On the other hand, maybe everything. Those initial hours, after all, were a flood of words and images. The sheer volume alone would’ve rendered the lot of them overwhelming, but when you add the emotional heft — all the grief, confusion, anger and sadness with which every page and every frame was weighted — you’re left with something nearly staggering. It might just be me, but there was, and there sometimes remains, something in all of it that defies our attempts to cut it down to size, much less to make sense of it. Of course, it’s hardly the first or last time that would happen; we’ve had other catastrophes visited upon us before and since, and each time the end result is much the same: we’re practically struck dumb by the  weight of history and documentation behind it all.

Time and time again, we hear the numbers of casualties thrown out when we discuss catastrophic events, be they the six million of the Holocaust, the three thousand of 9/11, the hundreds of thousands in the Boxing Day tsunami. Those numbers, by themselves, don’t illuminate much of the larger story; they reduce the victims to a single, faceless mass. How do we wrap our heads and hearts around something so enormous?

Something of the answer — for me, at least — is in that photo of Mark Rasweiler. Those single, still images invite us to step away from the whorl of emotion and motion; they provide a stillness, a point of reflection, in which we can pause and begin to attempt to understand. Just as importantly — perhaps even more importantly — they give us a sense of the human scale of inhuman events. Those three thousand weren’t a monolithic, homogeneous mass; they were three thousand individuals.

We were reminded again this year, as we’ll be in the years ahead, to never forget those three thousand. I don’t disagree. But as I enter my twelfth year with the memory of Mark Rasweiler, and the others who died with him, might I suggest we remember them one frame, one person, at a time?

Postscript:

This article appeared a month after the attacks, and is one author’s take on the Missing posters and spontaneous memorials that sprung up in New York:

http://www2.facinghistory.org/campus/memorials.nsf/0/79960486B7BD852385256FAB00664696

Image of Roger Mark Rasweiler reproduced by kind permission of Shelly Castellano, whose work appears here: http://scpix.photoshelter.com/image/I0000D8VJdzXCD4M

Beyond Photography: Joe Strummer at 60

Joe Strummer by Joe Kerrigan (Creative Commons Attribution 2.0)

Joe Strummer — guitarist, lyricist, provocateur, one-time Clash frontman and the guiding force behind the 101er’s, Latino Rockabilly War and Mescaleros — would’ve been sixty years old today. As I write this, with Strummer and the Mescaleros’ “Global A Go-Go” blasting through the speakers, and I’m reminded of an old saying: “It’s not where you take it from. It’s where you take it to that counts.”

“Big Youth booming in Jakarta, Nina Simone over Sierra Leone, big sound of Joujouka in Nevada, and everywhere, everywhere Bob’s bringing it all back home…”

Joe struck me as something of a magpie, taking a little of everything from a little of everybody. However, it was where he took it — that stew of musical influences, passion, politics, and humanity — that made, and makes, his music worth listening to. It also ensured that Strummer was never “just” a punk, some kind of one-note joke or one-chord wonder. Sure, his earliest recorded work (available on the 101’ers Elgin Avenue Breakdown Revisited*) has a ragged proto-punk intensity, and early Clash material like “White Riot” and “London’s Burning” had all the venom, fury, and irresistable force that the Pistols had. But from Strummer’s earliest days, the worldview and the music were so much more, and so much wider. You can hear it on the covers (“I Fought the Law,” “Pressure Drop,” “Armagideon Time,” and “Redemption Song”), the originals like “(White Man) In Hammersmith Palais” and “Get Down Moses” that name-checked and musically referenced everybody from Bo Diddley, Johnny Cash and the Mighty Sparrow to the Skatalites and Baaba Maal.

Anyway, it’s good to be sent back to the underground. There’s always a good side to bad things and the good side to this is that at least everyone has to go back down.

Of course, it wasn’t all ups. When the Clash dissolved in 1984, Strummer was at loose ends. During these “wilderness years,” he’d release Earthquake Weather,* a mixed bag that drew decidedly mixed reviews. His soundtrack for Jim Jarmusch’s Walker* fared better critically and artistically (the juxtaposition of the jaunty “Filibustero” over the movie’s violent opening scene is a stroke of genius), but he’d essentially dropped off the radar, taking stray acting gigs, scoring small indie films, and even joining the Pogues to fill in for a wayward Shane MacGowan. All that would change in the early 1990’s when Strummer formed the Mescaleros, a band that would, over the course of three albums (Rock Art & the X-Ray Style,* Global a Go-Go,* and the posthumously released Streetcore*), alternately build upon his roots, and branch out in new directions. He never quite recovered a Clash level of fame and reknown (indeed, one scene in Dick Rude’s Let’s Rock Again shows Joe handing out flyers and busking on the Atlantic City boardwalk). But his later career was, I’d argue, every bit as important as his earlier work, and has aged gracefully in ways that, say, the Pistols and Buzzcocks reunions didn’t.

So what do I take from Strummer’s work, and why am I bothering to write all this? For starters, if you’re going to pursue your craft, do it as though it matters, even if you’re the only one to whom it matters for now. For another, wherever it takes you  — the ups and downs and then the ups again — handle it with as much grace and humor as you can muster, but also with no small measure of gratitude.

Welcome stranger to the humble neighborhoods / You can get inspiration along the highroad

Above all, though, approach your craft wide open. Eyes, ears, heart, the whole lot of it. Our work, whatever it may be, doesn’t exist only in our minds. The act of creating something puts it out into the world, and also — even if it’s only in a small way — acts on the world. In some way, then, we need to acknowledge that the world exists, and acknowledge the people who’ve shaped it and with whom we hopefully engage. We’re confronted every day with something, or someone, new. Whether it’s our neighbors, or what comes out of their stereos, their ideas, or their way of life, they present us with a choice. We can stop to learn from them, or run in the other direction with our eyes shut and hands clamped over our ears to drown them out. But of course, if we do that, we cut ourselves off from a give-and-take that could otherwise have expanded our options, our understanding, and ultimately ourselves… all of which is to say that the world doesn’t stop with us, and so our art and craft shouldn’t, either.

Joe Strummer passed away on 22 December, 2002. This December, in other words, will mark a decade that he’s been gone. It seems a lot more fitting, however, to celebrate his birth and all that he brought with him into the world, along with all that he left behind. Rest easy, Joe.

Postscript:

On the Web: Joe’s legacy lives on via Strummerville, the Joe Strummer Foundation for New Music. You can find out more about it (and hear from a ton of bands and solo artists I expect we’ll probably hear a lot more from in years ahead) right here: http://www.strummerville.com/

Audio: Any of the Clash’s albums are worth having, even the sprawling wreck that is Sandinista!* (my personal favorite). If you have to start somewhere, I’d suggest either The Clash (US Version)* or London Calling*. Yes, there are collections (like the excellent Clash on Broadway*), but the albums have a power and cohesiveness that you’d miss if you just listened to the singles. When it comes to Joe’s post-Clash output, his work with the Mescaleros is far better than his work on Earthquake Weather, while the Walker soundtrack is a bird of an altogether different feather. You can get the Mescaleros stuff in order (linked above) or all at once (on Joe Strummer & The Mescaleros: The Hellcat Years*, just released on MP3 today as it happens) but bear in mind that as band members dropped in and out, the group’s sound changed markedly from one album to the next.

Print: Two books are essential if you want to learn more about Joe and the Clash in depth. Marcus Grey’s The Clash: Return of the Last Gang in Town* has been revised several times and covers the history of the Clash with detours into the members’ lives after the band broke up, while Chris Salewicz’s Redemption Song: The Ballad of Joe Strummer* is a revealing portrait of Joe before, during, and after his time with the band. There’ve been other books written about both the band and the man, but none that I’ve read were as good as these.

Video: Finally, there are several films about both the Clash and Joe. For the former, check out Don Letts’ The Clash – Westway to the World* For the latter, there’s Dick Rude’s Let’s Rock Again* and Julian Temple’s The Future Is Unwritten*, which feature archival footage of Strummer, alongside interviews with bandmates, friends, and those he influenced.

It’s time to take the humanity back into the center of the ring and follow that for a time. Greed, it ain’t going anywhere. They should have that in a big billboard across Times Square. Without people you’re nothing.

Links with an asterisk (*) are Amazon affiliate links that help support The First 10,000. Links to song titles go to YouTube videos. The Strummerville link goes to Strummerville.

 

What’s My Motivation?

I read a post a couple of months ago called “Why Photography?” by Steve Coleman. The same day, Brian Miller had a post up called “Why Make Photographs?”

If it came from a non-photographer, it would’ve drawn the same response that I get when someone tells me they don’t like to read, or that they “just don’t like the taste of food.”* In short: WTF? But these weren’t non-photographers. Maybe it was something in the water?

At any rate, the same question, posed the same day, by two photographers whose work I respect and enjoy got me to thinking (and thinking; as you can see, it’s two months later, and the question’s still very much on my mind). You may have asked yourself that question as well, with the inflection changing depending on your mood. If you’re not yet a photographer, or just getting started, the question comes out, “Why make Photographs?” or “Why Photography?” As in, “Why this thing, and not some other?” How come I’m a photographer and not, say, a bassist (easy — no hand/eye coordination to speak of), singer (can’t carry a tune in a bucket) or painter (the less said about that, the better)? I could probably have stuck with bass, or found a vocal coach, or gone to art school, but I didn’t. I did, however, pick up a camera, and found it very difficult to put it down. Sometimes you find your medium, or maybe you just meet it halfway. But if it speaks to you — and allows you to speak through it — it’s hard to ignore that.

So then you’ve done this photography thing for a bit, and you like it enough to do more than take snapshots. The question then becomes, “Why Make Photos?” Somewhere along the line, the relationship has deepened and you’ve decided that you and the camera are more than just friends. You start to move beyond the ability of the camera to simply document, and you decide that maybe you’d like to try using it to interact with, or respond to, not only what’s in front of you, but also what’s starting to show itself in your mind’s eye. There’s an old expression that when you’ve got a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail. Well, spend enough time behind the camera, and if you really throw yourself into it — you really start to look deeply at things, really start seeing — before too long, everything starts to look like a photograph.

Then you hit a wall. Sometimes it’s after a bad day of shooting, or a bad month (or more), where it seems like the inspiration’s gone and the world’s gone flat. Now all of a sudden, the question is “Why Make Photos?” or “Why Photography?” (whereupon you may shake your fist at the sky, your camera, or both). It happens (or it will, if it hasn’t yet; trust me on this). When it does, it’s helpful to revisit those first two versions of the questions. Revisit your motivation, revisit your joy, revisit doing the work just for the sake of it. The frustration will pass, will turn on a dime or a shadow or an interesting bit of geometry or eye-popping color.

Of course, your mileage may vary. What I’ve written about is my experience, and yours (the experience, the motivation, and all that goes with it) could well be very different than mine. And that’s okay. I could also quote at length from both of the essays mentioned above, but I won’t. Read them — and quite a bit else on both Steve and Brian’s blogs — for yourself. It’ll be time well-spent. And in the meantime, what about you? Why do you make photographs?

*Someone actually said this to me once, and I’m still agog over it.

Play To Your Strengths? Maybe Not.

I had a conversation with one of those life coaches a few years back that’s mostly slipped my mind, save for one thing she told me that’s always stuck with me: “Your biggest strength, or any strength if you overuse it, becomes a weakness.” Pause a second and let that sink in.

I thought about it, and realized that I’m a very analytical person by nature. You need something analyzed? I’m your guy. I’m great at gaming out a scenario — every last what-if, every contingency — ’til analysis becomes paralysis. Over time, I’ve learned to recognize when I’m doing it, and to remind myself to cut it out.

I bring this up for a reason. It isn’t just our personal or character strengths that can inadvertently trip us up. When you try something creative, it’s really easy to find your strengths and ride them ’til the wheels fall off. Photographers aren’t immune to this, so it’s probably a good idea for us to step back, take a look at our work, and figure out what it is we do really well so we don’t do too much of it.

For starters, it’s not just subject matter that starts to get repetitive. It’s also the ways in which we shoot what we shoot. If you’re an architectural shooter, you start to look for the same shapes and patterns, or relying on the same kind of lighting; if you’re a portraitist, it might mean relying on a set of poses that you know could flatter Quasimodo; if you do weddings, it can mean sticking to the same lighting setups and situations that’ve always worked for you.

To be clear, there’s a reason that people rely on formulas. Sometimes — especially when time is tight, or the results are critical — any artist has to know they’ve got things in the old kit bag that they can pull out at will, and that will almost certainly be effective. Once those things are done, they’ll use the time left for a bit of experimentation. So there’s a time and a place for formula, for going from strength to strength and playing it safe. Sometimes, we just need the safety net.

But let’s be just as clear on something else. Sometimes we need to forget the net. We can’t, obviously, just forget or unlearn all that we know (and it wouldn’t be a good idea even if we could). But we can, and sometimes must, at least set it off to one side for a bit. Yes, it’s a challenging, and sometimes even uncomfortable, way of working. However, the skills and ways of seeing that you pick up when you try something new — even if it’s not your usual subject matter or way of doing things — aren’t just about your new subject or the skills that go with it. Those things spill over even into your “usual,” giving you greater options and new ways of doing the same old stuff in a way that it doesn’t have to be the same old same old.

What would you like to do to shake up your photography? What would you like to strengthen, and what kinds of situations or subjects might help get you there?

Lucky Shot?

Meter Matey

Every once in a while, I’ll go over a day’s worth of shots (or will be looking over someone’s shoulder while they’re browsing theirs), and one or the other of us will comment that a shot was “lucky.” I got to thinking about this. What role does luck play in all of it, if any?

I hesitate to chalk it up to skill, after all. I mean, if you’re Joe McNally or Moose Peterson or whomever, then yeah, you’ve got oodles of skill and experience behind you. I’m none of those individuals, however, so I don’t have quite the same reservoir of skill and/or experience to draw from. So some shots clearly are luck, because they’re the convergence of just the right time, place, and subject, and you, or me, or even Joe McNally being there (I’m sure even he gets the occasional lucky shot).

So if it’s not luck, and it’s not skill, what is it exactly? Woody Allen once said* that half of life is showing up. Arthur Fellig (a.k.a. Weegee) said** something similar: “f/8 and be there.” So. Be there, and have your camera. The rest, at least in theory, will take care of itself. All the luck in the world isn’t worth a hill of beans if you don’t have your camera, though, so make sure you have it.***

Since I like to give examples, have a look at my neighborhood Jack Sparrow. I’ve seen this guy at least half a dozen times in the last year, and each one of those times, I haven’t had my camera. Can’t blame him. He was there, after all, dressed to the nines and being his photogenic self. I was there, too. But my camera’s not his responsibility, so missing the shot those other several times I can’t blame on anybody but me.

Any of those other times could’ve been a lucky shot, but wasn’t. It’s the preparedness — having your camera, knowing how to use it, and being ready to use it — that separates the lucky shots from the fish stories, the missed stuff and all that we wish we could’ve gotten but didn’t. There’s some truth in the adage that we make our own luck, but if we don’t have what we need to capitalize on it, it goes to waste.

*At least I’m pretty sure it was Woody Allen. I think from now on, I may just attribute everything to Abraham Lincoln, just on general principle. Sooner or later, I’m bound to hit on something he actually said.

**Yes, I’m sure this time.

***Why don’t we attribute this one to Yogi Berra while we’re at it? The “hill of beans” bit at least sounds in character.

Beyond Photography: Marx Brothers, Meet Magnum Photos

The Marx Brothers — Chico, Harpo, Groucho and Zeppo — in 1931 (Image: Public Domain)

Chances are, only their mother called them Leonard, Arthur, Julius or Herbert. To the rest of us, they’ve always been the Marx Brothers. The brothers’ schtick had been refined by years of live work in vaudeville and on Broadway before they ever graced the silver screen, and that experience shows through in their movies’ fast-and-loose, anarchic spirit. It takes a lot of discipline to hone your timing to a point where things can look as though they might fly apart at any minute and yet be so incredibly tight; what looked so spontaneous was, in fact, scripted, repeatedly rehearsed, and — in the case of the earlier films, like The Cocoanuts and Animal Crackers — worked out on stage in endless variations.

Part of the Marx Brothers’ appeal and longevity comes from the personae adopted by the three best-known brothers, based on ethnic stereotypes that were popular on stage and screen at the time (Herbert/Zeppo was the group’s straight man, a distinction he sometimes shared with Margaret Dumont until his departure). Leonard, better known as Chico,* was a wisecracking “Italian” pianist, while Adolph (later Arthur, still later Harpo, for obvious reasons) played a supposedly “Irish” type (though generally mute, in any case) and the wisecracking, guitar-playing Julius — that’s Groucho to you — was as likely to play something vaguely German or Dutch, at least until World War I era anti-German sentiment lead him to adapt something broadly Yiddish.

On the one hand, the movies are as effective as they are because the four (or later, three) cohere so well as a unit. This is especially apparent in scenes like A Night At The Opera‘s famous stateroom scene, or a particularly memorable bit from Horse Feathers that… well, watch it, and you’ll see what I mean. On the other hand, there are equally important and even influential scenes that rely on two of the brothers in tandem (Chico and Harpo’s “Tutsi Fruitsi ice cream” interlude, or Harpo and Groucho’s mirror sequence that would later be re-created on “I Love Lucy.” The brothers would also have set pieces in the films that allowed them to shine as individuals, whether they were musical numbers, or some of Groucho’s more memorable (and nonsensical) monologues.

Image from “Looking for America: Ohio” (Photo credit: Alec Soth/Magnum Photos)

You’re probably wondering what this has to do with Magnum Photos, or with photography at all. I’ll get to that part in a bit. Meantime, let’s stop to consider Magnum. Magnum Photos was founded in 1947 by Robert Capa, and had as its founding members David Seymour, Henri Cartier-Bresson, George Rodger and William Vandivert.*** From the agency’s earliest days, its photographers have been a diverse lot, in terms not only of their nationalities but also their distinct photographic approaches and voices. Capa was a war photographer, Cartier-Bresson a street photographer, and subsequent members have been a mix of photojournalists, documentarians, travel photographers… well, you get the picture.

For all the differences in their respective approaches, however, there are still unifying threads to be found among the hundreds of thousands of Magnum images. There’s an innate curiosity, a unique visual sense, and a consistent commitment to quality that means that there’s a house ethic, if not a house esthetic. It’s those things that unite the work of photographers like Franck, Parr, Haas and Arnold, despite their surface dissimilarities. It’s why the Magnum name endures, and it’s also what’s made the rare collaborations among Magnum members so interesting.

The members of Magnum greatly outnumber the Marx Brothers, and I don’t think they’ve been influenced by Vaudeville (I don’t think that Elliot Erwitt is given to sporting a greasepaint mustache), but I’d still argue that there are important similarities between the two. Collective work doesn’t necessarily have to mean the members of the group submitting to some kind of “house style.”

Sometimes, whether you’re part of a photo collective, an agency, a one-off collaboration, or just (in Groucho’s memorable words) one of “four nice Jewish boys trying to be funny,” a sense of common purpose — even if it’s arrived at in a cacophony of voices — is just as important as a sense of common style. The works of these two entities, the Marxes and Magnum, are the result of what each person brings to the table as an individual. What makes it all gel is that the overriding concern isn’t that everyone should sound, or look, alike; rather, it’s a matter of respecting the process, honoring the work, and allowing each to shine so that all can shine.

As with seemingly everything else, there’s a Wikipedia entry on the Marx Brothers (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marx_Brothers). You can also find a proliferation of fan sites, such as http://www.marx-brothers.org/ and http://www.marxbrothers.nu/  (Google will help you locate plenty more). When it comes to film, there’s The Marx Brothers Silver Screen Collection**, which anthologizes their earlier films (from 1929’s The Cocoanuts through their 1933 masterpiece Duck Soup), and an anthology of their later work, titled The Marx Brothers Collection**, which anthologizes their work at Warner Brothers. Of the latter set, A Night at the Opera (1935) is the unquestionable highlight. Given that their work after that film fell off dramatically in terms of quality (though there’d be moments of genius in each of the later films), you could just as easily pick up “Opera” by itself in tandem with the first collection and have all the essentials. In print, meanwhile, there are a few excellent options. Glen Mitchell’s The Marx Brothers Encyclopedia** was recently reissued and is a handy reference for all things Marx. Simon Louvish’s Monkey Business** is a good biography of the brothers as a troupe, while Stefan Kanfer’s Groucho: The Life and Times of Julius Henry Marx** is an excellent study of the most famous Marx Brother.

When it comes to Magnum, there are literally hundreds of options. After all, we’re dealing with an agency that’s employed some of the best (and best-known) photographers in the world over the course of its history. On the web, their own site (http://www.magnumphotos.com/) is the best starting point; from there, it’s relatively easy to zero in on photographers whose work you find particularly interesting. In terms of books, there are two recent standouts on the agency as a whole (you can certainly find plenty more if the mood strikes). Magnum Magnum,** by Brigitte Lardinois, is a fairly comprehensive overview of work from the agency’s entire history, while In Our Time: The World As Seen by Magnum Photographers** (William Manchester et. al.) actually picks up some time before the agency’s founding.

*Actually pronounced “Chick-o,” in case you were wondering.

***Calling HCB, Seymour and Rodger founding members gets into a bit of a gray area, since none of them were present at the initial meeting.

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Sir Ken Robinson On Creativity

After last week’s post on Daniel Boorstin, I’m hesitant to put up yet another short post with a link to someone else’s stuff. With that said, A: I don’t plan to make a habit of this, and B: I haven’t been able to get this video out of my mind since watching it last week. I hadn’t heard of Sir Ken Robinson before seeing this talk he gave at TED, and in case you hadn’t either, I’d like to remedy that, since what he has to say — about education, creativity, and where those things intersect (or, sadly, fail to) — is witty, heartfelt, and vital. Share this with a friend, an educator, and/or anyone who doesn’t quite understand why the arts and creativity matter, in or out of education.

(h/t Jon at Great Heights Performing Arts Lab)

Beyond Photography: Meet Woody Guthrie

If you walk across my camera I will flash the world your story. — Woody Guthrie

Something a bit different than the usual “Beyond Photography” post today, in that I’m only devoting it to one person: Woody Guthrie, whose centennial is today.

Woodrow Wilson Guthrie was born on the 14th of July, 1912, in Okemah, Oklahoma. What happened after that could well have been anybody’s guess, given that Woody wasn’t one to stay in one place for very long. And all along the way there was music; other people’s at first, but before long an avalanche of his own songs that chronicled what he saw day to day. For all the songs that he recorded during his career — hundreds of them, over a little more than ten years — he also left behind notes for a thousand or more songs in varying degrees of completion.

He also wasn’t above revisiting a subject or reworking a song. “Dusty Old Dust” (originally part of the Dust Bowl Ballads collection) would reappear during World War II as an affectionate send-off for the troops who were shipping out (“So Long, It’s Been Good To Know Ye”), while there’s also a pronounced similarity in the rhythm and cadence of many of his talking blues songs (listen to “Talking Sailor Blues” and “Talking Fishing Blues” back-to-back for a good example). Even his best-known song, “This Land is Your Land,” would appear with variations in its lyrics.

He also collaborated with other singers, such as Cisco Huston, Leadbelly and Pete Seeger, coming away from each with new ideas, new songs, and new ways to approach his craft (he later told Ramblin’ Jack Elliot that his playing style was essentially a carbon copy of Leadbelly’s). In their own way, those collaborations would continue long after his untimely death of Huntington’s Disease in 1967, thanks to the work of his daughter Norah and the Woody Guthrie Foundation in getting Woody’s lyrics into the hands of Wilco, the Dropkick Murphys, Billy Bragg, the Klezmatics and others.

But if there’s one thing that makes Woody’s music endure more than anything else, it would be the sheer breadth of it. For someone who said that playing anything more than two chords was showing off, it was pretty obvious that Guthrie not only had smarts to spare, but also that he’d steeped himself in the music that had come before him — quite a lot of it, from traditional ballads to blues and nascent country-and-western. But he didn’t immerse himself only in music; wherever he went — and he traveled quite a bit, criscrossing the United States and also spending time during World War II in the Merchant Marine — he also got to know the people he met, incorporating their stories into his own, and into his music. He didn’t shy away from much of anything, taking on topical material (like the Ludlow massacre, the sinking of the Ruben James, and the plight of migrant workers) alongside politics, Eastern philosophy, children’s songs, and pretty much anything else that struck his fancy.

You could say that Woody Guthrie wasn’t much of a guitarist, or that he wasn’t a great vocalist, and you might even be right. But what music has in common with photography, and the reason I find myself approaching both time and again as though they’re two sides of the same coin, is that there should be a balance, a sense of harmony if you will, between what you’re trying to say and how you say it. There’s a simplicity and honesty to Woody’s work that isn’t such a bad quality to have if you’re a photographer. And a lot of the singer’s other qualities — the sense of humor, the willingness to collaborate, and an ability to get new things out of old subjects — would probably serve you well, too. But there’s another lesson lurking in all of this as well: perhaps the single most important thing to have in your kit isn’t your lenses, your flash, batteries, memory cards, air blower, or even your camera. Pack your curiosity first and you’ll be amazed at how much better the rest of your kit — whether it’s the physical one or the metaphysical one — works as a result.

My eyes has been my camera taking pictures of the world and my songs has been my messages that I tried to scatter across the back sides and along the steps of the fire escapes and on the window sills and through the dark halls… — Woody Guthrie

POSTSCRIPT: What I’ve written here only barely scratches the surface. There’s a vast number of resources if you’re curious and would like to learn more.

On the Web:

http://woodyguthrie.org/ is the official website of the Woody Guthrie Foundation, and probably your single best starting point. Besides having an extensive biography, it also houses media, manuscripts, notebooks, correspondence, and more. A whole lot more. The Library of Congress website also has a long biographical essay by Mark Allan Jackson, available here: http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/wwghtml/wwgessay.html in addition to a collection of Guthrie’s correspondance here: http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/wwghtml/wwghome.html To learn more about Huntington’s Disease or to donate to research toward a cure, visit http://www.hdsa.org/

In Print:* Woody Guthrie penned two autobiographies that were… well, equal parts biography and shaggy dog story. There was Bound for Glory (1943; reprinted several times since, and made into a movie starring David Carradine in 1976), and the posthumously-published Seeds of Man(1976), both of which contaned a healthy amount of self-mythologizing. Subsequent biographies by Joe Klein (Woody Guthrie: A Life ), Robert Santelli (Hard Travelin’: The Life and Legacy of Woody Guthrie ) and Ed Cray (Ramblin’ Man: The Life and Times of Woody Guthrie ) have had the unenviable task of separating the man from the myth, but have done quite a good job of it.

On Disc/MP3:*

But of course, beyond the thousands of words written by and about Woody Guthrie, the legacy wouldn’t be quite the same without the music. Start with The Asch Recordings, Vol. 1-4 on Smithsonian Folkways. It’s a comprehensive collection of music recorded in the mid- to late-1940’s that has the added bonus of being thematically arranged and well-annotated, with excellent sound quality. There’s also Woody at 100: Woody Guthrie Centennial Collection, which overlaps in places with the Asch set, but it has the added bonus of a disc’s worth of material that hadn’t been previously available. Finally, if you’d like something that’s shorter but still representative, the Dust Bowl Ballads (recorded in 1940) is a fantastic and cohesive set all on its own.**

*The links in these sections are Amazon Affiliate links; by purchasing through them, you help keep The First 10,000 going. Thanks!

**There’s also a set of Alan Lomax recordings from 1940 which is as fascinating as it is uneven; the sound quality is iffy in places, and the performances often aren’t as tight as later versions. With that said, it’s also a great snapshot of someone working by the seat of his pants, and leaves you with a different appreciation of Guthrie’s genius than the more polished versions that would come later. It’s out of print on disc (and terribly expensive used), but still available as an MP3 download.

Daniel Boorstin’s “The Amateur Spirit”

A short post today, mostly because I’d like you to read something and it feels a bit like I’m imposing if I ask you to sit through five hundred words from me and then read someone else’s stuff on top of it. It’s an essay by Daniel Boorstin, the historian who wrote The Americans, The Discoverers, and The Creators (among others), and who was also Librarian of Congress from 1975-1987. The essay is called “The Amateur Spirit,” and it’s a good reminder to maintain a touch of beginner’s mind no matter what your discipline. Enjoy!

Featured Nonprofit: Idealist.org

When I’ve profiled charities and nonprofits in this space, I’ve tended to focus on organizations whose focus and mission are directly photography-related. Indeed, many photographers who are charity-minded are already well acquainted with the work of  one or more of these organizations. While I’ll be going back to profiling more of those great nonprofits and their work in this space, I’m making an exception this month for Idealist.

Here’s the thing: I think that photo charities are great. They’re even better if you have a cause about which you’re passionate, and to which you want to donate your talents and services. But what if you just want to get your toes wet, or if you’re not 100% sure where your passion and time are best spent? That’s where Idealist really shines.

The idea for Idealist came to founder Ami Dar in the mid-1980’s. Eleven years and a couple of name changes later, Idealist launched. In the decade and a half since, it’s become the closest thing online to a one-stop shop for anything and everything related to nonprofit organizations. Not only are there literally thousands of volunteer opportunities from all around the world, there are also jobs, internships, programs, and a pretty lively community around the whole lot of it.

And while it’s not a portrait charity, it’s a great fit for photographers who might want to volunteer. Sometimes you might just be looking for a shorter-term volunteer gig, or maybe you’re not confident enough in your photography to volunteer as a photographer but you’d still like to do something. You’re likely to find something here. It’s also good from an organizational standpoint, especially if your NPO/NGO’s mission isn’t explicitly related to photography or portraiture, but you could use a bit of help behind the camera.

So, whether you’re looking to donate (time, money, or services), work, launch your own organization or project, or find just the right person for something you’ve already got up and running, give idealist.org a try (if you haven’t already). It’s a phenomenal resource.

Postscript: visit Idealist on the web to find out all about who they are, what they do, and what, in turn, you can do:  www.idealist.org

Gratitude

Today marks a year since The First 10,000 first went live. That’s 200-odd posts, several thousand visitors, and God only knows how many hours spent behind the camera and the keyboard. I’d be remiss if I didn’t say some “thank yous” to those of you who’ve gotten the site to this point.

Usually everybody leaves wives for last, which baffles me. Mine puts up with quite a bit, not least of which is the tapping away on the keyboard into the wee small hours of the morning; nor should I neglect to mention my incessant enthusiasm for finding some new (and invariably buggy) place to get just… one… more… shot. Thanks, sweetie!

Thanks to anybody who’s taken the time to show me something that’s improved my craft – written or photographic. Sometimes it’s family (hi, Mom!),  friends, or other photographers (thanks especially to Steve Coleman and Sabrina Henry for the words of encouragement), but just as often it’s been complete strangers who were willing to share something of what they knew (James Cooper, if you ever read this, thanks for the impromptu tutorial in Hoboken; I owe you a beer).

Thanks are also due the photographers who’ve allowed their images to be used here. Big ups to Christian Cantrell, Colleen Fletcher, Brian McCarty, Chris McVeigh, Ken Storch, and Miguel Yatco. Tremendous thanks also to Michael Wilson, who subjected himself to the first interview to be featured in these “pages.” Stop by their sites and show ‘em some love!

Special thanks to Phil Yurchuk, for friendship and invaluable advice (technical and otherwise), to say nothing of bailing my ass out every time the blog or server hiccups.

Finally, to everyone who reads the blog and/or follows The First 10,000 on Facebook and Twitter, thanks again (and again). Without y’all, I’d just be some guy snapping and scribbling into the void, which wouldn’t be nearly as much fun. Thanks to everyone who’s stopped by, contributed to the discussion, and/or given me something to think about. Doing this has helped my understanding of my craft, and hopefully has helped you in some small way as well.

Here’s to the next year!

What’s Your Photography For?

Sometimes, in photography as in life, the questions are just as important as the answers. So, with that in mind, think this one over for a second: What is your photography for?

I don’t necessarily mean that in the sense of “What kind of photographer are you?“, though I think that’s also a useful question to ask. We can think of this in terms of utility, obviously. That is to say, we can ask to what use our photos will be put (would we like to see them on our own walls, or in a museum, or on the glossy pages of a magazine?). There’s a tradition of this in craft, from the earliest human history to the Bauhaus* and beyond. And that, too, is valid.

But there’s another, equally important, sense in which we need to ask the “What’s it for?” question. That is: What is my work for? What does it affirm? It’s a point of pride among some photographers to let you know that there are certain lines they won’t cross. They’ll only shoot film, or only with prime lenses, or only portraiture, but only in the style of a certain photographer or school thereof. They’re very quick, in other words, to tell you what their photography negates, ignores, or works against. Each photographer becomes his or her own Groucho Marx.**

There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with not wanting to shoot certain ways, or to sidestep certain trends. Our “look,” such as it is, comes from a complex set of variables that come into play each time we frame the shot, and the things we choose not to do each time are hardly the least of those considerations. We cannot, and should not, stop there, however.

It’s all well and good to oppose something, but that fades after a while or becomes a pose of sorts. On the other hand, if your work is an extension or expression of your values, both photographer and viewer can sense, I think, that the photo is grounded in something. Our purpose in our craft, as with our lives, changes with time and experience, so I don’t think there’s a single purpose, or a one-size-fits-all definitive answer. Instead, it’s something we need to revisit from time to time.

Photograph with a sense of purpose. It doesn’t even have to be the same purpose each and every time, but there should be something there. Doing that, and thinking it over every now and again, is more difficult than nihilism (at least in the short term), but questioning your motivation, even if it’s as simple as being a better photographer today than you were yesterday, gives you a touchstone when your inspiration flags or life throws you a curveball, and can also help your work to express depth and sincerity.

That’s my two cents’ worth (adjusted for inflation). What do you think?

*Walter Gropius et al., not Peter Murphy et al.

** “No matter what it is or who commenced it/I’m against it.” (Horse Feathers)

Michael Wilson Interview (Or: A Few Words About Photography, By Way of Lyle Lovett)

Lyle Lovett, "Release Me" (Photo: Michael Wilson)

One night a couple of months back, I was at a total loss about what to write in this space. I’d been shooting, and had even been doing a bit of writing, but it seemed like nothing was clicking. I actually came within a hair’s breadth of reviewing the new-ish Lyle Lovett CD, Release Me. Even by my standards, and even with my habit of tying things that, to the untrained (or perhaps more sane) observer, have very little to do with photography back to photography, this was a bit of a stretch. So I was thinking, This being a photo blog and all, I’ll have to bring it back it back to photog– oh, wait, got it.

Generally speaking, you don’t judge something by its cover. Well, you’re not supposed to, anyway. But I always thought that  Lyle’s covers, shot by photographer Michael Wilson starting with The Road to Ensenada, were a bit like the singer himself; there’s a touch of melancholy suffused with just the right amount of wry humor (as with Release Me‘s shot of the singer entangled in a lariat). In other words, Wilson’s photos fit the albums (including shots for The Bears, Emmylou Harris, David Byrne, the Bodeans and others) in a way that album covers don’t always. After a series of emails, I finally managed to catch up with the aforementioned Mr. Wilson. For someone who worried aloud that he might not have much to say, he proved to be… well, as affable and perceptive about photography as I’d hoped. I’m happy — heck, make that honored — that he was kind enough to sit through an interview with me.

The Bears, "Car Caught Fire" (Photo: Michael Wilson)

It’s no mistake that Wilson’s best known for his portraits of musicians. His first ambition in life was to play the French horn. There was only one small problem; as he admits, with a laugh, “I was one of those people who was blissed out by it but I really couldn’t play it. I had no talent but a lot of enthusiasm.” The money that would’ve gone into a French horn went instead toward a Pentax Spotmatic, which Wilson calls “the first piece of the puzzle.”

The second piece of the puzzle, as Wilson tells it, was a scholarship to Northern Kentucky University. “I got a camera because I couldn’t play the French horn, I got a scholarship because nobody else wanted it. I go to sign up for classes, and the advisor asks me what I’m interested in studying. I told him I didn’t really have any plans, but that I was interested in photography. Lo and behold, he said, “Oh, we have photography next year in the Fine Art program. Would you like to be an art major?” So I said, “Well, I’ll give it a try.” That was the third piece of the puzzle.”

At NKU, he credits Barry Andersen for helping him to realize that photography wasn’t, as he’d originally thought, something people did for newspapers. “I got there and it was like being in a darkened theater as the lights go down… the curtain goes back and you see this wonderful thing you never would’ve expected. That’s what the history of photography was to me. I had no clue that for 150 years people had spent their lives taking pictures. That did it for me. Watching a filmstrip of Bruce Davidson talking about his photography, that’s the moment I realized, ‘This is what I want to do.’”

Upon graduation, he found he had no interest in graduate school, or in teaching photography. However, even as he wandered from one odd job to the next, he found himself working his way closer to a profession in photography. Here, I’ll let the man himself take over:

Nick Hornby (Photo: Michael Wilson)

Michael Wilson: I took a job as a photographer’s assistant at a textbook publisher. They had an in-house studio and I did the darkroom work and assisted on shoots. It was very controlled photography, everything lit to the nth degree. By this time, I was three years out of college, out of my honeymoon with photography, and I felt a sort of dread of photography coming over me, especially on days we’d be in the studio doing these controlled pictures. I remember thinking, “If this is what a photographer is, I don’t want to be a photographer.”

All the while, music has always been my main inspiration. I couldn’t help but notice that when I’d spend a couple of hours at a record store, you’d occasionally run across a really beautiful photograph, like a Stephen Shore photograph, or a Robert Frank photograph, and I’d be reminded of the pictures that made me love photography when I first discovered it, the pictures that made me want to be a photographer. The work of the usual suspects… August Sander, Robert Frank, Bill Brandt… all those people and that work was so unlike the sterile, institutional work I was doing for my 9 to 5 job. So when I’d go to the record store after work and I’d see a photo on a record that really came from the heart, I’d say, “Man, how did that happen?” So there was all this frustration building up, but it didn’t take too long for it to come to a head.

Paul: That dread, was it the work itself being so regimented starting to grind you down?

MW: It was that. Think of it like money sitting in a bank account somewhere. It was like that money was being spent on something I really didn’t care about and I felt like I was going broke. I’d get envious, because I’d see these photos and say, “Well, somebody’s doing beautiful work.” I think after a while the chip on my shoulder got big enough that they just asked me to stay in the darkroom.

The Bodeans (Photo: Michael Wilson)

I had a friend who was an illustrator, and he knew what was going on. He said, “Well, show somebody your pictures you care about.” I put together a handmade book of portraits, work I’d done for myself, and I sent it to a name – she really was just a name that I’d seen on a bunch of record covers that I liked. She was the creative director for Warner Brothers. I didn’t even know what a creative director was at the time, but I knew that if I looked over five records that I thought were really beautiful, three of them would involve this person. And I thought, “This person responds to the same things in the world that I am.” So I made a handmade book of about ten to twelve photos that my wife bound together, and I sent it over. A few weeks later, I got a call from the manager of the Bodeans. They’d been given my name by Jeri Heiden at Warner Brothers and she suggested I get together with them and make some photos. That was my first break.

PB: So you sort of drifted into this.

MW: I drifted, but what was deliberate – and I tell this to photographers now – is instead of following the money, I’d say to look at the pictures you wish you would’ve made. Go back and follow that picture back to a photographer, back to a photo editor. I just followed pictures I loved back to a name, and back to a person. It’s a long shot, but that’s probably the best advice I can give to anybody, especially if you’ve got a strong photographer who has an idea of the kind of pictures they want to make. I meet a lot of young photographers who are trained to do specific things – tabletop, headshots – and that sort of shotgun approach is a different approach that I don’t really know as well. If you know what kind of pictures you want to make, and you know what kind of pictures make your heart beat faster, see what names are attached to those pictures.

PB: Speaking of pictures that make your heart beat faster, who are some of the photographers who’ve done that for you over the years?

MW: I’ll name an unfair and very partial list. August Sander is one of my favorites. Bill Brandt, Eugène Atget, Robert Frank, Bruce DavidsonEmmet Gowin, Robert Adams (also for his writing). I could go on and on. I’m not as aware of the current “edge” of photography, but there’s a portrait photographer in South Africa I really love named Pieter Hugo. And Andrea Modica is also wonderful… But once you start talking about photographers, it’s like talking about music, the records you really love. You start, but you can’t really stop. I’ll leave it at that.

[After a pause, he continues] The woods behind our house are filled with grapevines. I love how those grapevines grow. There’s something in you, there’s work that exists out in the world, and it has the role that light does on a plant from the inside out. Without thinking about it, we grow toward things that move us. And those are people who’ve been light to me.

PB: Continuing on music and some of the photographers you’ve mentioned previously, how did you arrive at your style? Was it something learned, or…?

The Replacements, "All Shook Down" (Photo: Michael Wilson)

MW: Yeah. Now I’m getting nervous, like I’m about to teach a workshop. [laughs] I don’t perceive myself as having a style. I have a way of working, but that’s just the tools in my toolbox. I just throw a bunch of pictures on the table, and… okay, this works, this doesn’t. They tend to be pretty simple. There’s a photograph I did for the Replacements for All Shook Down, it’s just two dogs standing in the middle of the street. I hesitate to call it a style. It’s not a deliberate choice. What I have done is I’ve chosen to work in a very reductionist, simple way. I think I benefited a great deal from those four years at that book publisher, where everything was lit and gelled and we would tweak shadows a half an inch one way or another. For me, that was painful. I felt like, “Life is way more interesting than what we’re doing here.”  I realize now that I was shortchanging it, ‘cause there are people who make great pictures by exerting a lot of control over a photograph, orchestrating every element. I think I came to find that that’s not going to suit me well in the long run. I just didn’t have the patience for it.

The other thing was, early on when I went freelance, I’d take along a strobe and a softbox, and I’d try to be professional and get the lighting just right, but those pictures were never as good as the pictures I made when I was just walking around and I just had to find the lighting. So that was more of a subtractive decision. I got to the point where I just told artistic directors, “I don’t use lights.” The truth is, there are occasions I carry a light with me. I recently did a shoot for a record company I work with, they told me I’d be shooting in a club basement with no lights and no windows, but 99% of the time, I don’t augment the light. If it’s fluorescent, or bare bulbs, or whatever, I just use it. I’m better off that way.

PB: It’s funny, ‘cause I look at somebody like David LaChapelle, and I say, “You know, I wouldn’t have the patience to do this.” But I wonder, am I copping out doing that?

MW: If you look at LaChapelle’s work and it resonates with you in a way that you want to do that… in his case, there’s a lot at work in his pictures. The lights, the styling. Anyway, I’d say that you know when your pictures complete the thought that’s in your head. If you’re making pictures that feel like a finished thought, it’s not a cop out. The pictures I made with the strobes and all that stuff, I didn’t want to show those to anybody because it didn’t feel like me. I wouldn’t feel guilty about it unless the nagging persists. And then you need to call a doctor. [laughs] Certain people are almost like directors. It’s a different mindset. They know what they want before they go in. I’m a total reactionary. I need something to respond to. They imagine things, and create them… “Wouldn’t it be great if so-and-so was covered in a suit of leaves?” And then they go to the lengths it takes to execute that vision. If you’re the kind of person that has that kind of vision but won’t do the work, then yeah, you’re copping out, but otherwise it’s not.

PB: Speaking of reacting to what you see, what strikes me in your work is how the album covers especially just seem to go with the music.

Emmylou Harris, "Red Dirt Girl" (Photo: Michael Wilson)

MW: Yeah, that’s more serendipity than anything else. In the case of Emmylou Harris, Buddy Miller’s a friend, and he’d played guitar for her. He suggested me, and that worked out well. Sometimes, like with Lyle Lovett, the art director knew me and knew him, and because he knew both of us as people, knew that we would “get” each other. I’ve also worked on projects that haven’t turned out well. There was a time when I was getting offered work because of Lyle Lovett’s popularity, people would say, “We should get the guy who did Lyle’s picture,” but they had no knowledge of me. They saw it as a “look,” and almost without fail, those didn’t turn out well.

I can give you an exception, though.  The most recent Lyle Lovett record… Release Me was his last album on Curb. It was just me and him. We were sort of joking around, then we saw this lasso and it just came together. It was a silly joke on the title. But I wasn’t allowed to get his suit dirty. [laughs]

PB: Walk me through the process of getting from that first contact from an art director to me holding the disc in my hands.

Shawn Colvin, "All Fall Down" (Photo: Michael Wilson)

MW: I’ll give you a specific example, a best-case scenario. I do a lot of work with Nonesuch Records. They’re really good, a great record label that respects photographers. There’s a new record by Shawn Colvin that I shot. I knew the title of the record, I’d heard the music, and that’s good, but it doesn’t change how I make the pictures. It helps me to know them a little bit, but I don’t pick different cameras or change the shots.

Nonesuch isn’t committed to your photo being the cover. They’ll say, “Go make pictures, and we’ll see what happens.” So what I’ll do is just go and make the strongest pictures I can. Some will be color pictures for publicity, but then I’ll also just take pictures I like to make. This shoot, I did some shots with a pinhole camera, and just played around a lot. The cover picture was taken at the end of the day in her back yard. I knew the music, I knew the title, but you’ve still got to make an interesting picture. I just spend a day, however long the artist has, usually about four to six hours, and make a bunch of pictures. They’re really simple pictures if you look at them. If you saw me taking them, you’d say, “He’s really not doing anything.” The Shawn Colvin picture is a woman smoking a cigarette by her garage. There’s no high drama. But it’s a lovely thing as a photographer to have a designer who gets it and can put it in a setting where it resonates. I feel really lucky when that happens. Those are pictures that are really simple, but I’m happy that they’re out in the world.

PB: So the photos are more a reaction to the people than the music.

Jeremy Denk, "Ligeti/Beethoven" (Photo: Michael Wilson)

MW: Exactly. It’s funny, the Jeremy Denk record… he’s a classical pianist. The music is inspired by fractals, but the pictures that ended up working were the simplest ones. It’s just a guy sitting on the floor. Sometimes the ideas behind a record are so huge – a broken heart, being really happy – they’re usually big things that are hard to photograph. What’s cool about doing portraits is if you make a really honest picture of somebody, there’s a kind of power in that that leaves room for lots of complicated ideas that you’re not talking about in the portrait, but they’re there.

PB: A lot of the photographers that I’m drawn to, it’s like… whatever life puts in your lap, that’s what you’re photographing that day. It seems like you leave your subjects room to speak for themselves.

MW: When I’m looking at a portrait, I kinda want to feel like I trust that picture of that person. I know that’s a slippery slope, but I think you can tell. You see someone trying to look coy, or look some kind of way, and you say, “That’s not real,” you know? But when you see a strong human connection, those are the pictures that hold up over time, even when it’s a family snapshot in an album. It’s like trying to cross a stream and you’ve got your choice of rocks to put your foot on to get across. You look at a rock sometimes, and even though something’s sticking out over the surface, you know it’s not steady. You find somewhere else to put your foot because you know it’s solid. That’s the kind of portraits I want to make. I don’t want someone to feel duped. Like the Lyle Lovett pictures. They’re often exaggerations, but hopefully there’s something honest about them.

PB: Whether someone’s just starting out, or if they’re rethinking how and why they shoot, how would you advise someone to get to that kind of honesty, if that makes sense?

Hugh Laurie (Photo: Michael Wilson)

MW: Yeah, it makes sense. I guess I’d say there’s a few things that go into that. It’s gotten to a point now where you can push a button on your camera, and the picture looks pretty good. But the biggest dose of reality or inspiration I can give someone is to just go to the library, pull the photo books off the shelf, and look at them. There’s a really powerful energy when you’re learning something new and you’re excited. That’s a really important energy, and we need to keep that enthusiasm. Robert Adams talks about how artists live by curiosity and enthusiasm, and you need that. But you also need to look at pictures that are beyond you. Look at the history of photography. Yes, take pleasure in the pictures you’re making and stay enthused, but spend deliberate time looking at people who’ve made pictures for their whole lives. That, to me, feels like something really important to do. To know what the scope and power of the medium is. That’s bound to be frustrating, but none of us are original. We’re all mining veins that exist in the soul or in the world. We see someone who’s mining from a particular vein that’s also where we want to be digging. That’s different from the early pleasure you get when you pick up a camera and start playing. The curiosity is good, but you need to add to it some deliberate looking.

PB: The understanding versus a scattershot approach…

MW: Not even an understanding of how they did it. Just to know that there is somebody named Robert Frank who took a little camera and surreptitiously photographed what it felt like to be the outsider. To know Karl Blossfeldt, who in the 20’s and 30’s made these incredible photographs of plant forms. Emmet Gowin and these incredible family photos that read like stage plays… that stretching that comes from being exposed to something. Not the settings. Just having your eye and your head stretched.

PB: Any particular piece of advice you wish you’d had starting out, or some piece of advice you wish someone would’ve given you early on?

David Byrne (Photo: Michael Wilson)

MW: The first thing that pops into my head is, “Beware of jealousy.” Learn to be grateful for what you’ve got. Whether you’re trying to get attention to try to make a living, or get attention to get shows, it’s hard to just be satisfied with the smaller stuff, like making pictures and doing it as well as you can. It seems to me that most of the energy and desire to enjoy looking and be out with your camera gets sapped. You suffer from the desire to get noticed. If you’re a freelance, you need to let people know what you do, but it’s that part of it that I wish someone would’ve said, “There’s no reason to be jealous.” If photography doesn’t exist in some truthful, joyful place in your life, if you don’t get unforced joy or don’t see something beautiful and want to say a prayer of thanks – that sort of prayerful part of the process needs to stay intact by whatever means you can do it. A lot of damage happens when you’re just trying to get attention.

PB: When you get to that point, whether it’s jealousy or frustration, or just a rut, how do you get out of it?

MW: The physicality of the process. The actual walking outside and realizing, “this is what I love to do.” Lately in my life that’s happened a couple of times. A younger photographer’s asked me a few times to walk with them and take pictures. That’s been a godsend to me. Doing something physical, doing the duty part of it – the actual discipline of shooting. Maybe nobody needs or wants you to make a picture, or is going to pay for it. In my case, I’ll just find a neighborhood and start walking. Just do the work of a photographer.

PB: Any thoughts in closing?

MW: There’s a quote I love by John Berger: “What makes photography a strange invention with unforeseeable consequences is that its primary raw materials are light and time.” And this one’s by August Sander, who’s one of my heroes. It plays off the same idea. He said, “If I have attempted to pursue and represent the revelation of the spirit through nature with only the photographer’s usual means, both the stimulus and contemplation necessary for this has come to me through my experience that miracles do happen.”

Afterword: All photographs reproduced in this post appear by kind permission of Michael Wilson. There’s plenty more where they came from; his website is http://www.michaelwilsonphotographer.com/ and I’d suggest not missing his series The Pipe Coverer’s Ball for all the album covers and famous people.