In which the photographer attempts to say something that doesn’t sound like, yadda yadda, storyteller, blah blah image-maker…
It’s a big world out there. A great big world of stone and water, mud and sand and rain, watersheds and trade routes, cities, people, history. There’s entirely too much to think about, entirely too much to see, entirely too much to learn. Every question begs a new question, every solution creates new problems; and as I’ve grown older I’ve begun to realize that, though we seek to find answers, it is the questions that motivate us. It is the questions that send us far from our homes, far beyond our comfort levels, with hearts and minds open and attuned to new possibilities and new discoveries. What we encounter along the way may not answer the original questions; but if we didn’t have that burning curiosity to find out, we’d never have gotten out the door.
As a kid, I was a bit obsessed with drawing. I filled scores of sketchbooks with pictures of eagles, fighter planes, swordsmen, horses, superheroes, and surfers. My dad, a painter himself, would buy me books from the local art store: little primers on composition, perspective, shading, the human figure. I was fascinated with the idea of the vanishing point, and drew scads of scenes taking place on checkerboard surfaces, the lines all converging to that imaginary point on the horizon.
I also wrote, quite a lot. Even in elementary school my essays were pages and pages too long, and if at any point I was given license to write a story rather than turn in a few paragraphs lifted from the encyclopedia, I’d take it and run with it. I like to think I gave my teachers a break from reading essays by kids who really didn’t give a rat’s ass.
I went to college on an academic scholarship, graduated with an interdisciplinary degree, and did time in graduate school, pursuing a Master’s in anthropology. But I didn’t have the patience to finish; the institutional minutiae of graduate academia dampened the excitement I first felt for the subject. So I dropped out and bought a ticket to Australia to seek out the Aboriginal people I’d been studying. No grant, no thesis or dissertation — just my own personal walkabout. It didn’t quite go as planned. I came down with a chronic illness that still affects me to some degree to this day, and my walkabout turned out to be more of a crawl-about.
My postgraduate years could best be described as peripatetic, in every sense. I spent time in Ireland, England, France, Seattle, Madison, San Francisco, Eastern Washington, Vermont, Boston, Charlottesville, New York City. Three to six months, sometimes as much as a year or two. Playing music, studying, working bar gigs. I was restless, searching. Normal behavior for my generation, I suppose.
In the winter of 2002 I found myself on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, a place I often returned to in order to recuperate from these slingshot odysseys. It was an extremely cold winter, full of snow and ice and crazy storms. Over the Christmas holidays I borrowed my father’s old Nikon FM2, bought a cheap wide-angle lens and a few filters, and started photographing the dunes, the ocean, the ever-changing sky. I knew my way around a camera, which I’d used often in art settings to create hybrid work, but it wasn’t until I started paying attention to the way the light danced upon the sand-dunes and white-caps and fields of sea-grass of this place I now call home, did the potential of photography as a medium for seeing the world and exploring the world really hit home. Looking back, I don’t know why it took me so long.
Since then I’ve worked on a wide variety of professional and personal projects. I’ve been on barges out in the Gulf of Mexico photographing the confusion of cleanup efforts after the Deepwater Horizon disaster. I’ve been to Haiti to document the efforts of the World Food Program, and to wander the tent cities, capturing the life of a nation living amid rubble and ruins. I’ve documented huge post-disaster cleanup operations on the East Coast by trucks with cranes that look like giant robots. I’ve scuba-dived the murky waters off of Panama with marine archaeologists in search of the lost ships of Captain Morgan. I’ve flown over Kauai in a helicopter, over Kona in a motorized glider, over the Florida Panhandle in a Cessna. I’ve descended 150 feet down the Bloody Bay Wall in the Cayman islands to get a view of divers far above against the ridgeline. I’ve attached my camera to wing struts, sailboat hulls, automobile hoods. I’ve spent countless hours swimming inside the churning waters of the Outer Banks, photographing the local surf heroes and studying the shapes that waterborne energy makes as it dies its violent death against the obstruction of landfall. I’ve documented Carnival celebrations around the world: from the fantastical masquerade balls and ancient legend-rich spectacles of Venice, to the sexy samba street parties of Rio, to the socially complex and endlessly fascinating Mardi Gras culture of New Orleans, to the surreal — and at times violent — Courir de Mardi Gras of rural Louisiana. I’ve photographed famous and almost-famous musicians — live, in the studio, and in a multitude of locations. I worked as a cameraman for a video project on Medal of Honor recipients for the Grand Ole Opry. I worked as the Director of Photography on a long-form video for International Youth Hostels promoting respect for cultural diversity. I DP’d an independent film that had to be scuttled due to lack of funds. I’ve shot a couple of music videos. And I’ve shot weddings. Beautiful, lavish weddings, simple beach weddings. I shoot sunsets too. Lots of sunsets. Crazy technicolor swirling sunsets. How can you not? And fractal mackerel skies, burly cumulus clouds, trees in winter. There are things we shoot out of pure instinct. I think it’s important to follow instinct. It knows us, and the world, better than we know either.
In my personal work, I tend to straddle the line between reality and imagination. I like to paint a picture of a place, or a community, or a subculture, or a person, that is imbued with legend. I believe that as a people we share an incredible capacity to exchange ideas, concepts, and feelings through imagery, and that throughout our history we have incrementally enhanced and developed the skill of passing images from one mind’s eye to another. In so doing we have developed inner worlds rich in iconography, which we draw upon and add layers to over time. Photographers especially are attuned to this power. From the raw natural majesty of Ansel Adams’ Yosemite to the human theater of Robert Doisneau’s Paris, photographs have the power to create complex Platonic forms that we hold collectively in our minds; and by populating the spaces within our inner visual diorama, still images can influence how, as a people, we collectively envision the world.
I see a particular alchemical power in the ability to understand the architecture of that communal imaginarium and breathe new life into it by capturing moments, characters, and scenes that strike some kind of chord within my own visual chamber, and creating a sort of quotidian mythos out of them. My subjects are always real. The situations are real. But what I happen to discover, what I choose to show, and how I choose to finish the photos: that’s where the magic is, for me.
These days I think we’re drowning a bit in imagery, with billions of photos being shared daily on social media and other platforms. I personally find it overwhelming and somewhat detrimental to my peace of mind. So I keep my head down, and participate on a level with which I am comfortable, but try to keep my eye on my own ball and not get distracted by the chatter.
I’m not a specialist. I’m not the go-to guy for underwater photography, aerial photography, lions, bears, eagles, Russia, China, or archaeological finds. For better or for worse, my interests are varied, and my subject matter is diverse. It all has meaning and coherence to me, but it makes for a difficult and long-winded elevator pitch.
The upside of this is that I’ve developed a versatile skillset, which I can bring to bear on a great variety of projects. I can shoot in the studio, in the field, underwater, in the air. I can capture people at work and play. I can shoot landscapes, cityscapes, seascapes. I can design. I can shoot portraits, headshots, architecture, food. I can work in the dark. I know how to use strobes, softboxes, flags, snoots, gobos, HMI’s, motion stabilizers. I can shoot and edit video. And I can write.
Too, I’ve learned over the years, as any good photojournalist must, how to get “in”. Whether it’s with a nod and a smile, a simple request for permission, an official invite, or a slog through bureaucratic channels, I’ve gained experience with a wide array of tactics to get access to the subjects I’ve wanted or been assigned to photograph; and, that being done, how to put them at ease, how to blend with them, move with them, become a part of who they are and what they are doing.
Different situations call for different approaches. You have to be able to creep like a ninja when stealth is required, and command like a general when order is needed. Sometimes you need to work fast, get your shots and move on; sometimes you need to wait all day for the right moment. These are things we all learn as we gain experience in our photographic careers. Sometimes getting access is the most difficult and most stressful aspect of an assignment or project. Sometimes you have to break in, without permission, in spite of the law, in spite of the security. And, occasionally, you have to let the shot go, for ethical or diplomatic reasons. Nothing pains a photographer more than seeing an incredible scene unfolding before their eyes and not being able to photograph it. But sometimes keeping the camera down is the most important move you can make. Sometimes you just need to be a human being, to gain the trust of other human beings. Sometimes you need to become part of what’s going on — to be a participant rather than an observer — to show respect, make friends and allies, and open yourself up to future photographic opportunities. Once you’ve earned someone’s trust, it’s a lot easier to photograph them and their world.
I never went to school for photography or photojournalism, but I learned very quickly the most important attribute a professional photographer must have, and that is the the ability to produce A-grade work, on demand, on time, regardless of technical, logistical, or meteorological difficulties. If the forecast calls for sun, you better be prepared for rain. If the traffic is jammed up, you jump on a bike. If your camera is malfunctioning, you grab your spare. Whatever it takes to get the shot, you make it happen, no excuses.
On a somewhat higher level of proficiency, I’ve learned the value of good communication with photo clients. If they have a picture in their mind’s eye of what they want, I try to find out what that picture looks like and flesh in the details as much as I can. I’ve learned to ask a lot of questions, and to offer multiple suggestions as to how I might approach a particular shoot. Some editors want you to do your thing; whereas some want you to do their thing. Usually it’s a little of both. So you make a plan, but only as a way to get started, and as a contingency against something special and unexpected not happening. All of this takes a high level of devotion, a personality that can work simultaneously on multiple levels — socially, aesthetically, and technically — at the same time. In many cases a photographer is hired because of his or her style, but it’s not enough just to have a style. You have to be able to take that style and utilize it to complete your assignment in a timely manner, and produce photos that the buyers love. And smile all the time, like you’ve got the best damn job in the world. Because you do.
I’ve got dreams and ideas for projects that could occupy me for the rest of my life, and I wish I could live another 200 years — to see more, learn more, produce more. But reality knocks on the door to my imaginarium, and I wake up to tend to business. Still, the dreams beckon.
To be continued, or revised, or expounded upon….