Photojournalism is such a thankless task because many people don’t want to be affected

- - Blog News

Whenever I get back from a long trip, my wife and I have this ritual. It sort of grounds me back home, lets me back in psychologically. Part of this ritual involves sitting on the steps of union square park in NYC and watching people going about their daily lives. Watching them shopping for clothes, for food, whatever – mostly watching their complete obliviousness to the hardships of another place thousands of miles away. Initially I get angry, but then I realize, that it’s all relative. That this is part of life, that most people are oblivious, because there is no other way to live. You can’t care about everyone everywhere.

via Conscientious Extended | A Conversation with Benjamin Lowy.

Is Lürzer’s Archive Worth It?

- - Marketing

I got a question form a reader about Lürzer’s Archive that was similar to another one about CA Photo Annual. Basically, are these things worth it? Both these publications are read by people in the Advertising industry so I have very little experience with them, but the panels I’ve been on they are always mentioned as sources for finding photographers. But “is it worth the $750 for a 1/2 page” in Archive, the reader asks?

My opinion, based on just listening to people, not actual experience, is that none of this is worth it unless it’s part of an actual campaign to reach potential clients. A general rule that a client must see your work in around 5 different places before they will place you on the “to hire someday” list seems smart. That means if your work appears in Archive it should also hit their desk in a mailer and their email box then possibly on a blog or magazine they check out and finally at a portfolio showing. Actually this is related to another question I got about resource books. Are they still worth it? Generally, people are still advertising in them because of the websites and events they have along with the books but also because they create additional points of contact. Don’t forget the old advertising adage: “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don’t know which half.

Love to hear some empirical evidence from readers about this.

Real World Estimates – Bribes And Kickbacks

by Wonderful Machine CEO Bill Cramer

It seems like everywhere I turn lately I’m finding people giving “incentives” for others to do business with them. On more than one occasion, I’ve seen stock agencies offering iPods to art buyers who spend a certain amount of money with them. And recently, I’ve even run across an individual photographer offering an iPad to anyone who hires him for a shoot. One says,

“I am giving away brand new iPad 2’s (WiFi 32Gb your choice white or black) all year to any Creative Director, Art Director, or Art Buyer who hires me to shoot a campaign*. What’s the catch you say??None just my way of saying thanks.”

Sometimes this works in reverse. When I first got out of college, I worked for a photographer who had a client who asked him for a “commission” on the projects he hired him for. The client was an art director for a local television station, and the photographer was shooting publicity photos of the on-air personalities. Another photographer I know used to work for a national tabloid newspaper, and the photo editor there had a high volume of assignments to give out. He decided to create a photo agency as a side business, he hired the photographers through that agency and then took an agent’s commission for getting them the job. Those payments, called kickbacks, are like a bribe in reverse. The practice may or may not be legal, but those folks would certainly be fired on the spot if their employers found out they were taking that money. After all, the employee was obligated to serve the interests of the employer, but instead they were selling those interests to someone else and keeping the money for themselves. Some companies have explicit policies that prohibit their employees from taking even the smallest gift. Bloomberg L.P. for example, sends out a letter every November reminding their vendors not to send any Bloomberg employees any holiday presents because they want to avoid even the perception of conflict of interest.

But what if the person asking for a commission isn’t an employee bound by those restrictions? What if they have their own independent company? Recently, I had a situation involving a small ad agency and a campaign for a local brand. The project was a one-day studio shoot where we’d photograph several models, individually, on a white background, in a variety poses.

In the course of the usual exchange of emails during the estimating process, I received the following information from the account executive:

Good speaking with you today. For estimating purposes, it looks like, in rough terms, we will have:

8 billboards
3 newspaper Ads
1 transit shelter
8 posters

That is subject to change once the final deliverables have been set. But I won’t know that for a while.

As to billing, the client wants to have you invoice them directly because they have tax exempt status. Because we typically mark-up all 3rd party costs such as photography, can you bill the client your fee plus our mark up and then remit the commission to us when you get paid. For example, let’s say your cost is $10K and we add our $1.5K commission on top of that. You bill the client $11.5K and then we invoice you for the $1.5K that you pay us when you get paid. I hope this works for you Bill.

Please get back to me with your input and/or comments. I look forward to working with you!

I had to think about how to reply. I did want the job but I didn’t want to pay them a commission. So I called the account executive and told him that I was uncomfortable with that arrangement. After all, he wasn’t my agent. He wasn’t working for me, I was working for him. If he wanted to mark up my services, that was fine with me, but that was between him and his client. He told me that they always work this way and that all of their other clients and photographers are comfortable with it. I told him I had been working in the same city as him for 20 years and I never had a client ask me for a commission. I asked if his client knew about the commission, and he said, “not exactly.” So we left it at that and he never brought it up again. I’m not saying that there’s anything illegal or unethical or immoral (necessarily) about what he was asking for. It wasn’t exactly a kickback in the traditional sense. But I didn’t like that he wanted to misrepresent the cost of the photography to the client (which is different than a regular mark-up where everyone understands the situation if not the actual costs) and I didn’t want to set a precedent for future projects. Are these situations somehow different from an ordinary bribe or kickback? Am I naive to think there’s something wrong with them?

Back to the estimate. The plan was to photograph three people, resulting in one ad each. The client was a local company that did business mainly in just one section of the city (albeit with a lot of exposure, given the media buy). I first checked Blinkbid and fotoQuote. Blinkbid suggested a fee of 3000.00 – 6750.00 for three images for billboards, newspaper ads and transit poster for a year. fotoQuote came back with 5410.00. They both seemed low to me. If the client was going to lease 8 billboards for a year each, that could be $200k in media right there (small billboards lease for about 1000.00/month and large highway billboards are about 4000.00/month). So I decided on 7500.00. I planned on a day to test the pictures so we could figure out which poses would work best for the concept and layouts. The rest of the production expenses were pretty routine. Here’s the first estimate:

Maybe I came in too cheap, but the client who was previously very budget conscious, decided that they wanted one more ad and they wanted more extensive licensing. Email from account exec:

1) XXXXX would like to have a full buy-out on the rights to use the images for longer than a year and with the possibility of using them on other deliverables such as the website. Can we work this into this agreement upfront?

2) XXXXX would like to know what the certificate of insurance covers?

3) XXXXX would like you to “bury” the cost for catering/craft services somewhere else (e.g., add it into another line item) because she can’t justify this cost to her boss. Long story.

4) XXXXX does not understand the $150 for mileage. Can you please explain that?

5) Last, they are tax exempt. I will fax you their certificate.

That’s all for now. Please get back to me with questions/comments/answers.

1) To me, this meant simply removing the restrictions about where they could use the pictures and for how long.

2) Most locations and rental studios require a certificate of (liability) insurance. They want to know that a photographer is properly covered in the event of property damage or injury during the shoot. Some insurance companies charge for this, some don’t. We routinely charge 100.00 for it because whether we have to pay for it or not, it’s one more task that we have to handle, and to a lesser extent it helps pay for the actual insurance. Like a lot of expenses, there are times when it makes sense to itemize it and other times it makes more sense to bundle it into the fee. Mostly it’s a matter of doing what’s customary.

3) The client’s client’s boss didn’t want to pay for lunch for the cast and crew. Who knows where that came from, but it’s very unusual. If I’m doing a half-day magazine portrait, I won’t charge the client for any meals (though I will buy my assistant lunch regardless). But on most full-day shoots, it’s customary to bill for meals (or for catering on larger productions).

4) This line item was actually for Mileage, parking, tolls, shipping, misc. They may not have realized that we were renting a studio and that we would have to make several trips back and forth.

5) There are two parts to the “tax exempt” question. The rules vary from state to state, but in Pennsylvania, we’re obligated to charge sales tax to any in-state client (that’s not a publication) unless they send us a certificate exempting them from that sales tax. Lots of times when I’m doing an estimate, I’m not sure who’s going to pay the bill and whether they’re going to have to pay sales tax or not. If you add in the tax, it makes your price look bigger than it really is. If you leave it out, you risk getting stuck paying it yourself. So we simply say, “plus applicable sales tax.” That way, we’re covered both ways. Looking back to my client’s email, saying that his client wanted me to bill them directly because of their tax exempt status was a bit of a red herring. In all likelihood, the end client wanted to be billed directly for the photography because they wanted to know what they were paying for and they wanted to keep a lid on the “mark-ups.”

Now to revise the the estimate. Adding one more situation and expanding the time and breadth of the licensing would certainly increase the price, but by how much? Checking back with my pricing programs, Blinkbid offered up a range of 33k – 90k and fotoQuote said 7350.00. I knew that the if the client was concerned about buying lunch, they were not going to pay the photographer $90k. But 7350.00 seemed way too low. A lot of photographers say that their rule of thumb is that a “buyout” is worth triple the price of limited use. (First of all, I don’t use the term “buyout” in any of my contracts because it means something different to everyone.) I don’t think it’s a simple multiple. You have to evaluate each situation individually. There are some pictures that are going to hold up better over than others over time, or be more useful in more ways than others. In this case, the first quote was for a year, with the bulk of the value (and the most likely use – based on the long narrow format of the photos) was in the billboards. They were already planning on 8 billboards, which is a lot for a local company to rent in a relatively small geographic region. Any campaign is going to wear out after a while. I decided that without restrictions, they might reasonably use the pictures two to three times as much or as long as the original plan. That doesn’t mean that the licensing is necessarily worth double or triple though, since a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. All things considered, I decided on $18k for the fee. We “buried” the catering fee into some additional “retouching.” (I guess I’m corruptible after all.)

They signed the quote. We shot the job. They paid the bill (less the commission).

Detaining photographers for taking pictures “with no apparent esthetic value” is within Long Beach Police Department policy

- - Blog News

“If an officer sees someone taking pictures of something like a refinery,” says McDonnell, “it is incumbent upon the officer to make contact with the individual.” McDonnell went on to say that whether said contact becomes detainment depends on the circumstances the officer encounters.

McDonnell says that while there is no police training specific to determining whether a photographer’s subject has “apparent esthetic value,” officers make such judgments “based on their overall training and experience” and will generally approach photographers not engaging in “regular tourist behavior.”

via Long Beach Post.

Chris Buck’s Genuine Enthusiasm

- - Photographers

Chris Buck has been in the news lately for his controversial Newsweek cover image. This promotional video shows how his enthusiasm for ideas gets his subjects to do crazy things.

I don’t really like heroic portraits, I find them really boring. I don’t think it’s interesting when someone is celebrated in that way. I like vulnerability, I like surprises, I like when there’s a sense that you don’t know what’s happening in the picture.

— Chris Buck

via, Strobist.

The Amazing Yellow-Bordered Magazine — John Stanmeyer

- - Working

John Stanmeyer begins a multi-part blog series on what it’s like to shoot for National Geographic:

Photography on very convoluted stories often flows like this: 70 percent research/logistics, 20 percent serendipity…and 10 percent photography.

It’s one thing to pen up a story proposal based upon research collected from news stories, books, feelings and direct observation. A proposal next evolves into a “Oh shit, now I have to make this happen!”

Some stories visually speak for themselves — war/conflict, social revolutions, famine and other event driven stories are primarily (though not all) about recording the occurrence transpiring before us. Long term photography projects are meditative, layered and protracted.

They can also be riddled in logistics, especially when it’s a story being told from many locations, like the food crisis would become.

Read the whole post here.

Note: He’s got other interesting posts up on shooting a book with a holga and music. Check it out:

Mert & Marcus Inspired By Jeff Bark?

- - copyright, Fashion

The fashion world is abuzz over a Mert Alas & Marcus Piggott’s 46 page fashion story for Love Magazine entitled “What Lies Beneath.” They’re also talking about the inspiration it draws from Jeff Bark’s body of work “Woodpecker.”

You can see a couple of the closest comparisons between the two in the images below. Clearly the lighting, set, animals and overall idea come from Bark, but there is almost no exact copying of the images beyond that. Of course that’s plenty for many people to cry foul, and they have online, but the similarities do end and the fashion duo go on and do their thing with it. It’s always a little shocking to see famous photographers knocking other famous photographers off, but it’s not very uncommon in fashion.

(Berk on left)

(Berk on left)

via, Fashionista.

LA Gallery Visit Part 2: The West Side

- - Art, From The Field

by Jonathan Blaustein

“Hasta la diecisiete, a la direcha,” the parking attendant said. “Hasta la diecisiete, a la direcha?,” I repeated. (Turn right at 17th Street.) “Si,” he said. I drove away, contemplating whether I ought to listen to him, or try to find the highway on my own. Given all the times I’ve shanked myself driving around LA, I decided to trust him. Good call. I found I-10 in no time, and was soon cruising West towards Culver City.

Much like Chelsea used to be a dumpy, non-descript neighborhood before the Art world gentrified it, (bringing gobs of money and Frank Gehry frosted glass buildings,) the Culver City arts district popped up in a random concrete block in the last decade, and hung on for dear life. Wedged between Venice and Washington Boulevards, right off the highway offramp, the Culver City corridor mainly consists of one long block on South La Cienega, and a few places that spread off the corners. There must be 20 galleries there by now, and it’s easy to see a lot of art in a short span of time. Normally.

I say normally, because when I visited a few weeks back, most of the neighborhood was closed for installation. Gallery after gallery had makeshift signs in the door, casually letting me know that I was not welcome while they were hanging their new shows. Not uncommon, I understand, but unfortunately, they’d all scheduled the new openings for Saturday July 16th, smack dab in the middle of the impending “Carmageddon.” I’d been warned about it weeks in advance, and actually chose to visit on that very Thursday to avoid the chaos, bloodshed, and misery that “Carmageddon” was supposed to provide. (Hell was predicted to reign down on the West Side while a stretch of the 405 was closed for construction.) So when I saw that the art dealers had collectively chosen that very weekend to re-open to the world? I was not impressed. Like, yeah, you know, we’re having an opening, and yeah, it’s cool if you come, I guess, but we really don’t care, because we don’t sell work to you at the opening anyway.

As it happened, a few galleriests managed to get their homework done a couple of days early, and were in fact, open for business. I started at Cherry and Martin, which wasn’t there last time I visited. (Like Chinatown, there’s been tremendous turnover in the last few years.) They were showing three artists together, including a few 1970’s black and white prints by the conceptualist Robert Cumming. I remembered his name, and the vague certainty he was important, from the Contemporary Photo history class I took with Tom Barrow back at UNM. FYI, that was one of the best classes I’ve ever taken. Prof Tom knew so many of the photographers personally that some lectures took on an almost-boozy, you had to be there vibe that was totally addictive. Like Austin Powers with better teeth. Yeah baby. Everyone was throwing crazy, groovy key parties in the darkroom, Man, huffing fixer and chasing it down with qualudes, Man. Can you dig it? (Of course, none of that is actually true, but ought to convey the feeling of sitting in the audience.)

But I digress. Back to Mr. Cumming. His photographs were terrific, and leapt off the wall. I recall three in particular. The first was a diptych of a the torso of a naked body with a leaf covering the privates, holding a flute. In the second image, all was the same, except the torso was holding hands with a woman. It made me think of those Scholastic Magazine puzzles I used to see at the doctor’s office when I was a kid. The diptych was surreal in a groovy way. Just weird enough to be awesome. Another Cumming photo had different font versions of the letter A, and also managed to strike the right balance of oddity. Finally, they displayed a photograph that was one of the best I saw all day, “Spot with a Nice View, 1973, Orange CA”. An image of a backyard alleyway that had been slightly decorated, with a deck chair and lamps posed just so, with a projection of a palm tree at the back of the composition. It was like a crime scene meets a back lot in Burbank meets Jeff Spicoli’s perfect spot to smoke a joint. I think I could have stared at it forever, as it had that parallel universe mood that is almost impossible to achieve.

Robert Cumming Spot with a Nice View, 1973, Orange CA

Kopeikin Gallery, a peripatetic LA institution, moved into one of the best spaces on the block recently. And not only was Mr. Kopeikin’s gallery open, (despite a scheduled Saturday opening,) but the man himself was arranging number pins to coordinate with the press release when I arrived. We ended up striking up a conversation, and he gave me a gracious tour of the place. I was really happy for the LA photography community, because this new gallery is an impressive place to view photos. Three pretty, interconnected rooms that grow in size: small to medium to large. I’m not saying I loved all the work, because I didn’t, but having a super-high-grade exhibition venue in the middle of a humping art scene is a good thing in and of itself.

As to the art, it was a mixed bag. The small gallery had an exhibit of Mr. Kopeikin’s personal collection of vernacular photos that he’s acquired at flea markets over the last ten years. Great. If seven year old kids can make interesting photographs nowadays, I see no reason why anonymous hobbyists fifty years ago couldn’t do the same. And they did. The group was well curated, and had a distinct 1950’s West Coast Americana vibe to it, with burger flippers, convertibles, & cowgirls. Random puffy faced white dudes, trapped in time.

The middle gallery had an exhibit by Kahn & Selesnick. The pictures consisted of digitally manipulated alien type people on Mars. Apparently, the pair had partnered with NASA, and the backdrops were in fact taken by the Mars rover. Interesting detail, but I didn’t care for the photographs. They were kind of cool, I suppose, but felt like a more highbrow version of a Michael Bay movie.

Finally, in the biggest space, there was a two-person show of work from Cuba, featuring Simone Leuck and Jeffrey Millstein, representing interiors and exteriors respectively. Ms. Leuck’s work, which is called “Cuba TV,” featured tight, detail-style images from the interiors of Cuban homes, all with a glowing television somewhere in the frame. Repeating a symbol like that can be tricky, as it can sometimes seem like a crutch, but it worked well here, creating just enough distance from straight up documentary photographs to make the group fresh. The repetition also highlighted the differences, not unlike the Warhol Soup Cans, and brought my attention to the little things that make up someone’s private space in a poor place, like plastic flowers, little dolls, and pictures on the wall. I actually saw the other day in the NY Times that Cubans are only just now being allowed to own their own homes, so all the photos I saw were of people’s attempts to personalize spaces that did not, in fact, belong to them. Strong work, overall.

Mr. Millstein is well-known for his ongoing series of images of airplanes, shot from below, in an identical Becher-style composition. So this exhibition was a departure from what I’d seen from him before, but not from what I’d seen from others. The exterior, large-scale, supersharp images of peeling paint on decrepit architecture were about as cliché as I can imagine. I don’t enjoy writing such things, because I’m actually not an asshole, despite appearances to the contrary. One photograph, which was installed by itself on a separate wall was pretty awesome, and made me wonder why Mr. Millstein hadn’t pushed himself further. It featured a building, with some people on the sidewalk in front. Up on top, there was a billboard with a succession of politicians’ faces. The portraits of the men were illustrated in black and white, and the sign said “Volveran,” which means they will return. (I guess there’s not much surprise in the electoral process.) All but one of the men had these thick, ridiculously awesome, Pancho Villa-style moustaches. It looked like a Looney Tunes mugshot, minus Yosemite Sam. Truly remarkable photograph, which went a long way towards redeeming the show.

My final stop in Culver City was at Western Projects, for a series of hand-drawn, photo-realistic portraits of thug-life-vatos and other hard-looking dudes. The LA-based artist, Patrick Lee, met the men on the street and took their photographs, on which the graphite drawings were based. In a couple of the images, the subjects, neck tats and all, were staring right into the camera, so the viewer could look right back. As most of you know, I’m sure, in real life, you probably wouldn’t want to stare directly into one of these guys eyes. (Unless you’re a fan of getting your ass kicked.) So the drawings functioned in a way that society can’t. They allowed the viewer to contemplate and objectify the subjects, but as the commodification of gang culture and poverty is a billion dollar business these days, the phenomenon becomes a part of the metaphor. And though I’m proud to be a trigger-jockey, these portraits were definitely more engaging as drawings, which I was told take three months to create. The craftsmanship, and I suppose a bit of magic, held me in front of each piece well beyond what I would have offered up to a straight photo. Especially as the faces were surrounded by the naked paper, in lieu of the neutral backdrop one would likely see in a photographic portrait.

Patrick Lee courtesy of Western Project

Done with Culver City, I hopped back on the 10, and drove a few miles West to Bergamot Station, a self-contained arts complex on the outskirts of Santa Monica. (Which is the part of town that you’d probably live in if money was no object. On the beach, postcard pretty, sun shining, that sort of thing.) I would not suggest the art is better here than in New York, because it’s not. But I owe it to you to mention that Bergamot Station is filled with purple flowers and palm trees, cool ocean breezes and eco-friendly hybrid UPS trucks. Very cush.

First stop, Berman Projects, which was technically closed for installation, but happily let me in when I said I was in town to review some shows. Nice people. They were showing a group exhibition curated by the actress Angela Featherstone, who’s one of those people you’ve never heard of, but recognize the headshot on IMDB. The photos tracked the life cycle of Woman, or so I was told, and represented a mixed-bag of quality. Catherine Opie had a cool photo of a laundry room from a married lesbian couple, and Tierney Gearon was showing a few images of naked preggos, including a dynamite photograph of two nude pregnant married ladies kissing, But the outright standout was a photograph by Gillian Laub called “Mom and Dad with Harriet the Wedding Planner, New York, 2008.” Rarely have I seen a photograph that so clearly could stand alone, without any text or the support of a complete project. (Though I’ll admit the title doesn’t hurt.) Somewhere, in the depths of my dreams, I know I’ll have nightmares of Harriet staring down at me, wickedly extracting a tooth, while she whistles “Sympathy for the Devil,” and lets loose with the throaty, smoker’s laugh she no doubt possesses. Ms. Laub, if you’re reading this, kudos.

Gillian Laub

On to Patrick Painter, for a show by Bas Jan Ader, the second artist of the day I remembered hearing about in Tom Barrow’s class. He was a strange, Scandanavian dude who disappeared at sea in 1975. Well, you don’t hear that every day. First observation was that there were probably ten photographs in a huge warehouse space with 20ft ceilings. It was the perfect contrast to the way MOCA had disrespected “The Americans,” and I made it a point to give props to the gallerina as such. The photographs hit the mark, like Robert Cumming, between outright surreality and the subtler, more Japanese, Murakami-style version. Perfectly weird and absurd, like the triptych of the artist holding a hand-saw standing in front of a band-saw, the artist sawing the hand-saw on the band-saw, then the artist holding up the sawed in half hand-saw. His other pieces, seemingly disconnected, like the artist falling from a tree like Yves Klein, and a black hooded guy on a baseball field, were also great. One can only hope he’s secretly living in Fiji, his royalties funneled through a dummy corporation in the Caymans.

Next: Frank Pictures, for my guilty pleasure of the day. Joe Aker, apparently a famous architectural photographer, had shot details of Gaudi and Gehry buildings, and printed the photos directly onto aluminum. My first thought was cheesy, but I stuck around for a few minutes, and slowly began to love these things. Most of the images were in varying and subtle shades of ochre, and they shimmered like holograms. They didn’t mean anything, per se, beyond the architect/artists’ original intent, which normally bugs me. But these things were just so beautiful, that I began to covet. Jonny want photograph. Jonny need photograph. Feed me.

Then: Joachim Brohm’s “Ohio,” at Gallery Luisotti. He’s German, despite the name, and the dry-style proved it. Like many of his colleagues, he was heavily influenced by Stephen Shore, and it showed. These photos were made in Columbus, Ohio, during the early 80’s. Much as I love real innovation, which these images lacked, they were so well-seen and made that I began to love them. It was a day of the random perfect image (Cumming, Laub) and Brohm busted one out too. A car on fire in an alleyway. Muy bien, Señor Brohm. But a few others were incredibly resonant of place and time too, like a view of a silver Gremlin from above, in an alleyway, or a handful of firemen walking into a house in red, super-short 80’s short-shorts. (Yes, I had some too.) Great use of color, great time-warp experience.

Joachim Brohm

Finally, finally, (Yes, it’s long for me too) I ended the day at Peter Fetterman, who was showing some classic, feel good favorites from Elliot Erwitt, and some classic feel-bad favorites from Sebastao Salgado. Rather than risk a Fatwa for criticizing two such-loved legends, I’ll finish up by saying that the work didn’t speak to me. Erwitt’s sweet, playful, romantic, nostalgic sensibility seemed out of time in these stressful, difficult, globalized 21st Century years. But they were made in a different era, when everything was looking up, and of course they’re great. They just didn’t move me. Same with Mr. Salgado’s work, with high-contrast black and white visions of India, Africa, and Antarctica. I wondered whether I was evil for not liking the images, but they seemed a bit too generic, like 3rd World Travel Porn, and that was that. He did have one image, super large, of an Algerian man in the foreground of some immense sand dunes that receded into the distance, and while it didn’t do it for me, I was sure that for the many photo lovers who crave the perfect “shot,” it would have been a perfect 10. El Diez, otra vez.

California Is A Place

- - Filmmaker

California Is a Place is the creative brain child of  Zackary Canepari and Drea Cooper. They were both working PAs and met in 2004 on some forgettable commercial job. Zac showed Drea where to park and the rest is history. Their films offer a quick glimpse into the people and places of California. Their  subtitle is  Tales from the Golden State, though the narrative arcs are not always severe blue skies and sunny. Their most recent film is Aquaettes and just came out last week.  You can follow them here and here.

Heidi:  What is your role specifically and what is Drea’s?

Zack: It’s pretty simple. Drea and I both produce, direct and shoot. But Drea is our editing machine. And we outsource the music.

How did the project come about and what was your first film?

We had talked about working on a project together for a long time but were never in the same place long enough to get something going. In July 2009, A friend of mine mentioned the foreclosure skater story. On a whim, we hopped on it. We called Josh Peacock on a Wednesday and by Friday we were in Fresno shooting our first film, Cannonball.

About three weeks later, I sent Zack the first cut of the edit. We were both super excited and immediately started discussing what we were going to do next and how these films would connect and be presented. Seven months later, the site went live with our first four films.

Most of your films are about 10 min. Do you have plans to go longer?

Yes and no. Of course, we’d like to tell longer format stories but I’m not sure if they would be for California is a place. Maybe they would. It’s hard to say.  We generally shoot until we have enough to tell the story we are trying to tell. At this point, those stories tend to be shorter than 10 minutes. I guess it comes down to intention. Our goal with this series is to make short personal stories about people in the Golden State.

Is the amount of shooting hours about the same in order to get 10 min, meaning is it relative?

Not at all. There probably is a minimum amount of shooting needed but there is certainly no maximum.

So far you have eight films out, which was the most ground breaking for your creatively and why?

It’s hard to say. When I watched the first rough cut of our first film, Cannonball, there was definitely an “a-ha” moment. I knew then and there that the work was good and that we needed to make more.  For that reason, it was the most ground-breaking.

Which film taught you both the most about your weakness and abilities?

For me personally, coming from a background in documentary photography, the transition to motion wasn’t overnight. It’s such a more detailed and nuanced medium than photography. And tedious. I was lucky to have Drea for a partner.  He’s been making and studying film making for almost a decade.  Plus, he’s an editor. There was so much I didn’t know about producing a film that he was patient enough to show me. Without him, I’d be lost.

Aquaettes is your latest release, how did you know that was a good enough idea to move forward? What were your initial hesitations if any?

That’s a good question. We knew it was ready because we just knew but there are always doubts. There is always something missing. There is always something we could have gotten more of. But we have yet to put out a film that felt incomplete. At least not in our eyes. If anything, I think a few of them could be fleshed out a bit more. The Aquadettes are a perfect example. That film could easily be longer than it is. But for now, we are very happy with where it is…

How do you find, discover develop your ideas?

Any way we can. Local news, international news, friends, family, random conversations we’ve had, random relationships we’ve made and once in a while, from own intuition. Generally, we know what types of stories we are looking for and are interested in, so we often know where to look. For example, the Big Vinny film started with Drea and I just shooting empty used car lots in Alameda. We had no character and no story until someone told us about Big Vinny. From there, it’s all phone calls and reading and talking and research.  Same with Borderlands. I went to photograph the funeral procession of an Border Agent murdered by drug smugglers. I met some minutemen there and they invited us down. But when we got there, it turned out that the story wasn’t the minutemen who’d go there once or twice a month. Instead it was the locals that lived at the border that we were interested in.  You never know until you go…

How much pre production/research do you do before you decide the idea is worth it?

Some but we’ve found there is only so much planning you can do until you get out there and meet people and see the world. Sometimes all it takes is a phone call or an email to know. Other times, you’ve got to drive 3 hours at 5am to know if a story is any good or not. And more often than not, what we find is totally different than what we anticipated. It’s never easy to find good stories and good characters.  In 2 years of working on this project, we’ve only found 9-12 stories that are worthy. It just shows how rare they are…

Uppercut for example, that is very underground, violent and esoteric… tell me how that one got developed.

That story came from a friend of Drea’s that was actually a local fighter. Drea knew him from high school and this guy had gone to a few of the Fight Club nights. He put us in touch with Gints, the man with the plan. From there, it was just finding the time to go and shoot…

After that came out, do you know if the subjects had any fall out or collateral damage? Is a fightclub legal?

Not yet. As far as they can tell, you can do what you like in your garage on a tuesday night as long as no one gets hurt. I think they were more fearful of losing their Silicon Valley Jobs than they were of being arrested.

Did filming that make you want to try a fight?

Yes! But fighting isn’t my thing so I passed. Although I completely related to what drove these guys to participate. Which is exactly what I like about making these films. Generally speaking, most “normal” people disapprove of underground clubs or being a minuteman on the border or sneaking into foreclosed homes to skateboard in a swimming pool or smoking weed but our characters have their reasons. And often those reasons are pretty solid and authentic.

How do these projects get funded?

They don’t. We self-fund. Hence the need for day jobs.

I know you have a photography career as well and an interesting organization to your portfolio section. Most if not all begin with a description narrative, are these all self assigned projects? Do you feel the text adds your ability to story tell and has that then translated and transcended into your motion work.

Most of the work on my website is self-assigned. Some was shot on assignment (eg. Pakistan) but the rest was just me wanting to shoot and tell stories. They have led to me getting plenty of paid work but paid work is often so unfulfilling. I always admire photographers that get great photos for their portfolio while on assignment. I’ve rarely been in that situation. Normally, someone pays me to shoot something fairly mundane and then I parlay that money in to a project I’m interested in. It’s a terrible business model but I’m happy to work that way…

What are your hopes with this project? What is the end goal besides a creative outlet?

Honestly, I’m not sure. The success of the project is already beyond my wildest dreams. I suppose I’d like to see it get sponsored so that we make films like these all the time. This American Life being the best model I can think of.  But overall, I’m not even thinking about that too much. All I want to do is tell good stories and make nice images. I think that’s been my goal since I became a photographer. Shooting is my therapy and it’s something I’m going to do no matter the circumstances. Lucky for me, the circumstances right now, are pretty good.

Whats next after your latest release, are you already on to your next production?

We just keep it moving. We already have another film shot that just needs to be edited. We’re in the process of getting another story going. And then of course, there is the always exciting game of getting paid work. Unfortunately, California is a place doesn’t pay the bills.

Are you discussions with any studios?

To make films? Not at the moment. The obvious next step would be to make a feature documentary. But as I said, good stories aren’t all that common. Without a good story, you can’t make a good film.