While We Were Out


Although The First 10,000 was on a bit of a hiatus until recently, we’ve still been following some of the goings-on in the wider world of photography. Below is a bit of what you may have missed — news and other interesting things — from the last couple of months.

Obituaries: Award-winning photographer Rémi Ochlik was killed in Homs, Syria on February 22; the same attack took the life of British journalist Marie Colvin. Photojournalist Stan Stearns, whose photo of John F. Kennedy Jr. saluting his father’s coffin was one of the best-known images of the 20th century, died on March 2 at age 76. Finally, after a long, sad saga of financial struggles, Kodak’s camera business finally breathed its last, announcing on On February 9, 2012 that it would no longer manufacture digital cameras, pocket video cameras and digital picture frames; they are continuing strictly as a photo printing business that will license its name to other manufacturers for various photographic products. The Economist took the opportunity to question — then answer — why Kodak failed, and rival Fuji thrived.

Backward Glances: NPR’s The Picture Show blog (which you should see posthaste, if you haven’t already) has appreciations of two overlooked photographers. Robert Adams gets his due here, and Jack Robinson, who chronicled the cutting edge of New York culture in the ’50’s and ’60’s, is remembered here.

Politics: According to Salon’s Alex Pareene, everyday people weren’t the only ones caught up in the NYPD’s pervasive spying on mosques and anywhere else that Muslims congregate. Photographers, according to the NYPD, just might be terrorists. Of course, protest New York’s Finest, we’re only keeping an eye on Iranian photographers:

Authorities have interviewed at least 13 people since 2005 with ties to Iran’s government who were seen taking pictures of New York City landmarks, a senior New York Police Department official said Wednesday.

Just out of curiosity, how are they deciding who is, or looks, Iranian? That SLR might leave you answering some uncomfortable questions…

Review: Photographs Not Taken, Edited by Will Steacy

Photographs Not Taken: A Collection of Photographers' Essays, by Will Steacy

I’ve passed up dozens of photos over the years. Some of them were missed accidentally (the moment between collecting my jaw off the ground and getting the camera to my eye was one moment too many), but it’s safe to say that I’ve “missed” just as many on purpose. I’ve brought my camera to plenty of social events, for instance, only to fire off a few half-hearted shots and then put the camera away in favor of enjoying the time and the people. Or I’ve felt self-conscious, or would’ve felt heartless, invading someone’s private moment regardless of how good a photo it would’ve made.

In the preface to Photographs Not Taken: A Collection of Photographers’ Essays, editor Will Steacy notes that the collection is about “moments that never became a picture.” The contributors’ lives and work cover several points on the globe, from Johannesburg to New York, London to L.A., and elsewhere. The essays are similarly varied, from Massimo Vitali’s chance encounter between a Japanese businessman and a family of pickpockets, to Mark Power’s experiences in the Gdansk shipyard that was the birthplace of the Solidarity movement.

The lessons drawn by the photographers and passed along in essay form are often very short, and could be read in about the same amount of time it takes a Polaroid to develop, but they lose none of their impact for that. Some photos are passed up for the subjects’ reluctance, some for the photographers’; sometimes, as when Timothy Archibald “shot” for an entire day on a camera with no film, it’s a powerful reminder that we need to pass up our own hangups if we want to make better photos (and better photographers). If one sentence could sum up the collection as a whole, it’s probably this one from Nadav Kander: “[S]ometimes you just get an instinct when to put the camera down and be fully present.”

There are any number of images that you may never be able to show to your friends or put on the walls of your home, or hang in a gallery. This book is a reminder that you’re not unique or alone in that phenomenon. More to the point, it’s a reminder that that’s alright. While I think that a lot of photography is inherently social (whether in the documenting, or in the sharing later on), there’s a time — sometimes the split seconds taken to compose and make the shot, but other times much, much longer — that the most important part of photography comes down to putting down the camera. If we owe it to ourselves and our subjects to be fully present in the moment, the best way to do that sometimes is to put the camera down and be present without a viewfinder, sensor, and lens mediating the experience. It’s allowing those moments and all that inhabits them simply to be, without adding your own demands, expectations, or even the click of a shutter.

Like another book covered previously in this space (Unforgettable: Images That Have Changed Our Lives), Photographs Not Taken contains not a single printed photograph. It’s no less powerful, or even visual, for that fact. Indeed, it draws much of its power from the intersection between image and imagination, allowing the writing to bear witness to the power of visuals that experience burns first into our retinas, then into our minds’ eye. Those images — saints, sinners, soldiers, drunks, or kids, experiencing heartbreak or transcendent joy — end up being every bit as vivid to the photographer as if they’d been committed to film, but in a testimony to the power of the still image (even one evoked less by chemical processes than by words on paper), they end up being every bit as vivid to the reader. It’s appropriate, in a way, that a book about the absence of images should speak so clearly and eloquently to the photographer’s craft.

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Beyond Photography: Studs Terkel, Meet Camilo José Vergara

Studs Terkel (1912-2008)

Studs Terkel lived to witness most of the last century and the dawn of this one, chronicling what he saw along the way. He began as a writer in the WPA (Works Progress Administration), and later became legendary as a broadcaster. For all the fame he gained in radio, interviewing the likes of Louis Armstrong and Bob Dylan, he never stopped being a writer. Terkel’s many oral histories covered subjects as diverse as the Second World War to the state of race relations in America. 

He was also blessed with that rarest of all gifts: the good sense to get out of the way to see what his subject had to say. It was a talent that served him well, since often as not, those chronicles weren’t in his own words, but in others’. Their strength lies in the extraordinary stories he drew out of ordinary people. Those stories come from a diverse lot – riveters, sharecroppers, hoboes, office workers, shop girls and others of that ilk. It’s very nearly like seeing another America, except for the fact that this is the land that’s been beneath our feet all along.  

Trees in the abandoned Camden Library; photo by Camilo José Vergara

Like Studs Terkel, Camilo José Vergara’s early love never left him. He bought a camera while still a sociology student at Notre Dame, and his training as a sociologist informs his work behind the camera — which, in turn, takes his sociological explorations in new directions. Based in New York, Vergara’s work has taken him from coast to coast, covering everything from the architecture of, and customs behind, cemeteries to the homes, houses of worship, and people of the inner cities of New York, New Jersey, California, and several points in between.

 Vergara, like Terkel, has turned his attention to what’s too often neglected. Where Terkel concerned himself with the stories of largely forgotten or overlooked people, however, Vergara instead teases stories out of the forgotten corners of the city itself. This isn’t just history; it’s a mirror, or a magnifying glass, held up to the way we live now.

Another thing that Terkel and Vergara share in common, in addition to the way the different facets of their life’s work inform one another, is an interest not so much in the broad sweep of history, so much as its gritty, quotidian details. What both have done at their best — and both men, to be sure, are very good, very often — is to stop us dead in our tracks to pay attention to something we would otherwise have disregarded or written off as mere background noise.

As photographers or storytellers we find that these narratives, whether of everyday people or of the spaces they inhabit, aren’t just self-referential. If we take the time to listen, they also have quite a bit to tell us about ourselves.

More to Explore: Click to visit Studs Terkel’s official website, his Wikipedia entry or his page on Amazon (affiliate link). Also explore Camilo José Vergara’s “Invincible Cities” or his work at the Getty Museum, view photo essays from Slate here, here, or here, read his Wikipedia entry, or check out his books on Amazon (affiliate link).

Photo Projects

Self Portrait in Rust

It’s easy to settle into a rut. Even when we know, on some level, that it hasn’t really “all been done,” we feel as though we’ve done… well, if not everything, then enough of the same thing to feel like we’ve settled into a rut. It can be helpful at times like that to set a project for yourself. Having a set of guidelines — as loose or specific as you feel you want or need — can be a great motivator, and a good way to beat the block. Here are a few of my personal favorites:

1. 365 Days project: This one’s a perennial favorite, probably because it can be either as simple or as complicated as you’d like. The most basic requirement is to take a photo of something every day. Beyond that, you can add additional “rules.” Daily self-portraits are common (and more challenging than they might seem; see below). You can also, as one of my friends has done, choose a specific time at which each photo must be taken, or blog the results, as another friend likes to do.

2. 52 Weeks project: Maybe you’re pressed for time, or just plain absent-minded. In that case, set aside one day a week and photograph something at the same time each week.

3. Choose a limit: Take a day, or several, to shoot with only a prime lens. If you don’t own a prime, choose a single focal length on your zoom lens and stick to it. Or, if you usually only shoot in color, set your camera to black-and-white. Only shoot during the day, or during the Golden Hours? Try night photography, or challenge yourself to shoot in lighting conditions that you’d normally consider crappy. In each instance, the idea is to break your old habits and patterns and find new ways to shoot.

4. Shoot one thing: This is a variation on the 365 Days/52 Weeks idea above. Find something — be it a building, an object (like your car) an animal (like your cat) or even yourself, and take at least one shot of it daily. Not only will the resulting photos let you track the changes in your subject over time, it’s also much more challenging than it might seem in the first few days. After all, you’ll soon find yourself looking for new angles and new ways to shoot the same subject, which can present its own set of challenges while it also pushes you to expand your imagination and creativity.

5. Find a Theme: This can be something concrete (shooting shop windows, or in cemeteries, for instance) or something relatively abstract (like trying to capture a photo of a concept, like love or death). The challenge here is to avoid cliches, whether in your choice of subject matter, or in your composition/representation if you’ve chosen a subject that’s often photographed.

Most importantly, don’t be afraid to experiment. Put your own spin on these ideas, or come up with something daring of your own. If you’ve come up with an interesting project, let us know!

Rule 28: Go Back To An Old Passion

I suppose it applies to escalators too, but c'mon, that's not exactly rocket science.

If you asked me twenty-five years ago whether I thought of myself as a photographer, I’d have looked at you funny. If you asked me now whether I could see myself on stage, giving a speech, or sitting behind a mic on the radio, I’d probably look at you just as funny. My interests have changed over time, and I’d wager that yours will soon enough, if they haven’t already. You might not still do all the things you did when you were younger — maybe time, money, or a bum knee won’t permit it — but don’t turn your back on them altogether.

I bring this up because I spent a good couple of hours yesterday shooting at my niece’s school musical. Granted, there’s the usual photographic business — figuring out the best sight lines, fiddling with settings and exposure, keeping fingers crossed that you’ve brought along enough memory cards — but beyone that, it was the chance to revisit something I’d done a few times in my own past.

It’s a good challenge to go back to things you’ve done in the past. For one thing, you have a different (and, I’d dare to say, somewhat deeper) understanding of something having done it yourself, even if you’re far short of an expert. Let’s face it, someone who’s been on the inside of something can bring an understanding to photographing it that an outsider might take a bit longer to pick up. 

For another thing, it’s easier from a photographer’s point of view to “read” the goings on. There are rhythms, or at least a kind of internal logic, to how certain things unfold. It’s a lot easier to settle into that groove, to find or even predict the best shots, when you know how something works. It’s a bit like following a score or libretto, in that you can skip ahead a bit to anticipate what comes next, wait for it, and capture it versus sometimes shooting blindly and hoping for the best.

I’ve written before about cultivating interests outside of photography. Those things, besides being a break from photography and something that can give you a respite from shooting, can give you new subject matter and a new perspective on your photography, even if that isn’t why you took them up in the first place. However, it’s not all about looking ahead to the next new thing; sometimes, it’s just as productive — and just as much fun — to go back to something you may not have given a second thought in a very long time, just to see what develops.

Copy Shamelessly


I save lots of things. I have piles of ticket stubs, recipes, magazine articles, greeting cards, scraps of paper that I jot things down on… and writing. Lots of it. I’ve discarded quite a bit of what I’ve written over the years, but I’ve also hung onto enough of it to have a pretty good idea of how my writing has evolved over the years. 

With the older writing especially, I can usually tell what I was reading at the time by how I was writing: A bit of Benchley here, a pinch of Barthelme there, the occasional pinch of Rushdie. It’s not just writers who do it, either. Anyone who creates pretty much anything relies on the work of those who’ve gone before for equal parts inspiration and road map. So it’s hardly surprising when we find our work echoes, or even outright mimics, those whose efforts inspired us to do what we do.

When we first catch on to the fact that we’re doing this, we might be a little ashamed. If we were any good, we think, our work would be more authentic, and would speak with something more of our own voices. It’s okay, though; what’s important, at least early on, is the simple fact that you’re doing something, creating something. It’s in that process that we find our voices, and the confidence to speak with them. It’s only later on, if we’re using someone else’s voice or style as a crutch (or actively plagiarizing them) that it becomes problematic.

There’s something useful buried in that imitation, though, and it’s something that only became clear to me by hindsight. When we consciously set out to imitate someone, we’re picking apart their style and disassembling (or deconstructing, if you want to get all fancy about it) what they’ve done to figure out what makes it tick. Putting someone else’s work under that kind of microscope gives us insight into their technique, but actually trying to do what they’ve done can help us to make sense of our own work if we approach it the right way.

So, try this some time: choose a photographer, and do your level best to create something that looks exactly like that person would’ve done it. If, for instance, you feel ambitious enough to take on a David LaChapelle shot, try to re-create the lighting, the makeup, the post-processing… everything. You may not be able to afford all that goes into a LaChapelle shoot (props, lighting setup, assistants, Amanda Lepore), but it can also be fun figuring out ways to get the same results on a shoestring. In the course of doing all of this, you’ll be adding to your own skill set, and also gaining an appreciation for all the work that goes into making a great photo, while also finding new ways to express your own voice in your own work.

Rule 27: Teach


When I came to teach, I was obliged to make precisely clear what I did for the most part unconsciously. –Paul Klee

It might be years since you’ve set foot in a classroom. You may not have given as much as a second thought to education, much less being an educator. But one of the best ways to do something better — no matter what it is you do — is to teach it.

I think Klee is getting at two very distinct, and important, things here. The first comes from making something “precisely clear.” I remember someone saying once that in order to teach something, you generally have to break it down to a level that’s so elemental you end up understanding it better yourself. There’s a lot of truth to that. After all, you can’t hope to pass on your understanding of something if your own understanding of it is foggy at best. I’m also reminded, time and again, that the steps I take for granted in doing something, whether it’s making photos or organizing those photos on a computer aren’t as self-evident to the person to whom I’m explaining something as they’ve become to me.

Which brings us to the other half of Klee’s little aphorism. When we do something long enough, we’re taking steps without consciously realizing that we’re taking them. Making a single photo can happen in only slightly less time than it takes to swing the camera in the general direction of your subject and press down the shutter button. If we look at the photo later, we can reverse engineer the steps we took to arrive at that photo, but we may not have been taking those steps very mindfully.

Therein, I think, lies the advantage of teaching. It’s one of the reasons that I write this blog, even though I’m by no means a professional or an expert. It’s a reminder that at the end of the day, when the camera’s had the day’s dust blown off it, the battery’s on the charger, and it’s time to look over what I’ve shot, I’m going to have to explain this stuff to someone. It’s a good means of holding yourself accountable, and of reintroducing mindfulness to your process.

If you’re not a teacher — even if you’ve never been much of a student — don’t worry about it. Wherever you are in your journey, however little experience you may have, and however much your knowledge has only served to let you know how much you have yet to learn, remember that someone somewhere is just taking those first steps. Since you’ve already been where they’re going, it can be an interesting and rewarding challenge to share some of your experience with them. As a fringe benefit, it can also send you off in directions you couldn’t have anticipated when you started.

Review: Take Your Best Shot, By Miriam Leuchter

Take Your Best Shot, by Miriam Leuchter

Some time ago in this space in the course of reviewing one of Tom Ang’s many introductions to photography, I noted that Ang had covered the same ground, albeit with minor variations, several times before. Upon reading Miriam Leuchter’s Take Your Best Shot: Essential Tips & Tricks for Shooting Amazing Photos, I realized that the issue is by no means unique to Ang, Leuchter, or any other writer who’s already covered this territory (or has yet to do so). Put simply: the fundamentals are what they are, and there’s only so many ways to state the same fundamental principles.

Especially, might I add, when you’re covering them this briefly. The book’s 240-odd page length is a bit deceiving, since Leuchter covers some 86 topics, ranging from useful equipment and a glossary of terms, all the way up to advice on architectural shooting and portraiture. On the surface, that’s all well and good, but the author rarely devotes more than a page to any of her topics.

That leaves somewhere north of 150 pages’ worth of photos illustrating each of the topics. While I won’t knock the photography, which is as good as you’d expect from the Popular Photography stable, I can see where it might be frustrating to think you’re going to get the straight skinny on, say, macro photography, only to end up with a short blurb and some (admittedly beautiful) photos. Far be it from me to complain about photos in a book about photography, but cliches aside, those photos aren’t going to supply their own thousand words. More in-depth writing about the techniques used to get the shots would have been welcome, even if it had meant fewer photos; a small handful of photos accompanied by case studies or deeper technical information would also have been helpful.

This book’s back cover copy promises that even advanced photographers will find the book useful, I differ (albeit politely) with that assessment. While there are a few bits and pieces toward the end of the book that are useful regardless of skill level (especially the bits on the legal aspects of photography), much of the rest will be review to more experienced shooters (even if, like me, you’re not quite “advanced). The brevity with which most of the subject matter is treated isn’t the most useful thing if you needed, or wanted, a more in-depth explanation of the concepts (though, in fairness, there are book-length treatments of nearly every single topic the book covers, and you could seek those out if you want that much depth).

However, if you’re just beginning your journey behind the lens, Take Your Best Shot represents a good starting point. It’s  a brisk and readable overview — illustrated with some breathtaking examples — that can help you hit the ground running.

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Serendipity: Have Better Accidents


It’s probably no accident that one of my favorite words in the English language is “serendipity.” It’s defined as a chance happening that works in a fortunate way, which is a longish way of saying that it’s a happy accident.

I bring this up because I know in many past posts, I’ve emphasized mindfulness and care in making your photos. I still stand by that on general principle, because a careless process often leads to careless photos. With that said, let me emphasize, often but by no means always. I’ve also mentioned, after all, that sometimes we need not to try so damn hard, and I’m reminded as I go back over some of my work that some of my favorite photos didn’t happen because I set up the perfect shot; they happened more or less in spite of me. They happened, in other words, by chance, as happy accidents.

This reminds me a bit of the Taoist idea of Wu Wei, variously defined as “action without purpose,” or even “action of no-action.” For practical purposes, it means not worrying about process or about control, and essentially getting the heck out of your own way. Photos like the one that accompany this post came about not because I’m such a skilled photographer. If I had a mind to, I could pick out several things wrong with this picture. The point, however, is that if I’d taken the time to think all of them through and fix even a fraction of them, I’d have missed the shot. Sometimes you just need to stop worrying, point your camera in the general direction of something interesting (or that has the potential to be interesting) and see what develops.

In a roundabout sort of way, that brings me to another point: if, like Woody Allen said, half of life is simply showing up, the same holds true for our best (and worst) photographic accidents. Just the same as it’s important to always have your camera, it’s important sometimes to just get the shot. True, if you pass up the shot, you can’t really screw it up. But you also pass up the chance of creating something that could be great, or at least a lot of fun.

Have any interesting accidents to share? Pass them along and we just might feature them here!

A Few Thoughts On Digital Infrared Photography

Sleepy Hollow Cemetery 2011 (D7000 and an inexpensive Polaroid IR filter, converted to black and white)

Infrared (IR) photography can provide some unique, very striking images. Blue skies are nearly turned black, while grass, trees, or skin can take on an eerie, ethereal glow. Having that option in your toolkit can be very tempting.

As with so much else, there’s a catch. In the film days, you needed special IR film and an IR filter (which filtered out the visible parts of the spectrum to leave you with mostly infrared light) to capture that part of the spectrum. Digital sensors, left to their own devices, will pick up the IR and UV (ultraviolet) parts of the spectrum just fine on their own. Therefore, most digital cameras have what’s called an antialiasing filter installed in front of the sensor to block out IR and UV (ultraviolet) rays that could otherwise make a mess of your photos. Over the years, these  filters have gotten stronger and stronger, making it nearly impossible to attach an IR filter and get anything close to an IR image.

If you’re really serious about IR photography, your best bet is to get a secondhand camera (like a Nikon D70) that has a weak antialiasing filter, or sending your existing rig in for modification. Either of these options will run you a considerable amount of money (and the latter option, if I’m guessing correctly, is likely to make your warranty vanish like steam from a bathroom mirror).  There’s another option: pick up a secondhand film body* and some IR film (Ilford makes a pseudo-IR 35mm film that’s well-reviewed and not as tempramental as the older IR stock from companies like Kodak), and snap away. The advantage to this, naturally, is that you can shoot regular 35mm to your heart’s content if you get bored with IR.

In any event, it’s a good idea to think about exactly how much IR photography you’re going to do. It’s a bit like cilantro; some people love the stuff, others can’t stand it, and its overuse gets quite tired very quickly.

The same image, in color. A tad creepy, but not in a good way.

The conventional wisdom about filters is that since your gear is only as strong as its weakest link, you generally don’t want to cheap out on whatever you stick on your lenses. While that’s true in a lot of cases — indeed, I’ve seen cheap UV and polarizing filters cause more issues than they were supposed to solve in the first place — this is one place where I’d suggest you go with something inexpensive if you decide to ignore my advice and try IR photography with a newer camera. Given that you’re not likely to get true IR results, all you’re going to be doing is sticking a very strong red filter on your lens (see the images that accompany this piece). Nothing wrong with that, but plunking down $100.00 or more for something that’s very easy to do with a few clicks in Photoshop or GIMP is a silly use of money that’s probably better used elsewhere.

*If you’re going to go the film route, I’d suggest getting a cheap old rangefinder. Once an IR filter is on a conventional SLR — where, remember, the viewfinder shows the view through the lens — you can’t see a darn thing. Since a rangefinder usually relies on split focus (through a finder that doesn’t rely on the view through the lens), it’s a lot easier to compose and focus.