You can download an app showcasing the technology in the itunes store (here). It’s exciting to see a photographer pushing the limits of technology for storytelling.
Dennis believes this video can be used in a number of settings, from live music and sporting events to more traditional documentaries. He said creating video with Condition One results in a much more transparent portrayal of an event or story because it doesn’t involve traditional editing and framing techniques.
“There is less control and less ability to filter and it’s harder to construct a narrative,” Dennis said. “We’re taking the power of a still image and the narrative of film and marrying it with virtual reality to make a new experience that’s highly interactive.”
Known for his humor and pitch-perfect execution, Chris Buck is go-to photographer for any magazine that’s trying to illustrate an abstract concept. Ahead of Buck’s Santa Fe workshop, the first week of July, Grayson Schaffer interviewed the 48-year-old New York–based photographer on the subject of creativity and, specifically, how Buck has so damn much of it.
Grayson Schaffer: What are you working on right now?
Chris Buck: We’ll I’m actually not sure how to answer that question. I’ve got a couple of editorial things. Just finished shooting and now I’m preparing for another. One for GQ, and I’m trying to shoot for The Guardian weekend magazine. I’ve got a book coming out in the fall so I’m prepping for the release of that.
GS: Is that top secret?
CB: No, it’s a series of portraits of celebrities in which they’re not visible. Environmental portraits. The celebrities are hiding in the environment.
GS: Very cool. You’re sort of known for having a never ending stream of original concepts in addition to great lighting and execution. How do you come up with this stuff?
CB: You know, I guess I always have my eyes open. To some extent anyone who does interesting work it feels like there are interesting things that could be done or should be done that aren’t. Eighty percent of our culture out there is either not interesting or annoying to you. The other 20 is actually kind of interesting. But even within that you always feel like there are interesting things that aren’t being done. I think creative people kind of feel like they want to fill that void.
GS: So your creativity comes from noticing absences?
CB: Just trying to makes things more interesting where they may be underachieved. I’m sure people look at my work and feel that way. Sometimes they achieve great things with my work and other times they don’t. But the story still needs to run. What I’m striving for is to do something that’s a little new and exciting and maybe a little magical.
GS: But you also have a sort of humorous, highly irreverent sort of thing going on too—the Ken dolls for instance. Are you naturally irreverent?
CB: You know I never really intended to make pictures that would be perceived as being funny. I’m the kind of person where if I see a joke, I can’t help but put it in there. The humor ends up being subtle because they aren’t gag photos. Recently a person described my work as dead serious but totally funny at the same time. The work is clearly serious in intent and visually ’m trying to execute in a way that tells the story and is visual at the same time but it’s almost sort of like when you’re a young man and you’re not athletic, you sort of have to be funny if you want someone to pay attention to you. I’m just translating my juvenile class clown thing into my photograph. It was never intentional, I just can’t resist putting in a little humor.
GS: When most people try and execute a humorous photo, it’s usually too obvious and over the top and, as a result, fails. You seem to hit the right balance every time.
CB: Well thanks. I think it’s probably because humor isn’t the first aim. To make something a little odd and interesting. If humor can be slipped in, than it works. But many of my photos, I don’t feel like there’s humor in them at all. Like the series of hidden portraits, people are going to think those are really funny. It’s great, it’s certainly the most subtle humor ever. It’s like when a comedian comes on stage and people start laughing because they associate them with their previous work.
GS: For people who are going to come to your workshop, I would argue that you can’t teach that sort of spontaneity and creativity. What do you think?
CB: It is a portrait class, that’s the area I’m most interested in. And it’s called “The Surprising Portrait,” but my definition of surprising is not as narrow as one might imagine. I’m not looking for people to shoot more like me. The aim is to help them make portraits that will be surprising for their audience in whatever way that might be. It’s still looking to nudge them a bit and do something a little more adventurous. To engage with their subject. I’m very much about the finished picture and not about the process. Interacting with your subject is important but only insofar as it leads to better portraits. Different people do that in different ways. I’ve met great photographers who deal with their subjects by shooting them very differently than I do and they get great portraits. But there are certain things that lead to better portraits fairly consistently.
GS: Are you one of those light, funny, chatty guys?
CB: I think I vary it up. Sometimes I’m chatty, sometimes I’m quiet. But they’re all going to the same end. I’m looking to set my subject up in a way that gets the reaction I want or need from that particular session. Sometimes it’s relaxed and comfortable, sometimes it’s bossy and manipulative. Sometimes I want them to be uncomfortable. It depends on what it is. Sometimes I’m looking to establish that this is my shoot and I’m in charge. When I was initially shooting, as a young photographer, I was doing that, but it was less self-conscious. I have an end goal of this kind of picture and I’ll do whatever I have to to get there. It was sort of instinctual. But now I think it’s a little more self-conscious, though there is certainly still an intuitive aspect. The subjects are largely ready to go on the ride. I had my portrait taken yesterday by a former intern, and I recognize the fact that it’s their job to put me in the place they need to get the shot they want. Particularly with celebrities I think people often look the the celebrity to direct the shoot and that’s a very difficult road to go down. Most of them just want to be told what to do. They’re the passenger and as a photographer, you’re the driver.
GS: In your class, will you cover any of the technical side?
CB: I’m really focused on the aim of the picture. For me, I do a lot of post work, but the look is still natural. Sometimes I’ll shoot with natural light and do detailed plates and put the plates together in post, so the picture will look photojournalistic, but it will actually have been put together with a number of plates. The experience I want for the audience is largely pretty traditional and natural, but I’m not shy about using technology in the execution or in post to achieve the experience for my audience as I want it. The same thing for many of the photographers taking my class. I don’t have any pretense that the way I do it is “the way.” As long as the finished work is engaging for the audience. I never want the technical to upstage the work. For instance, Cindy Sherman’s work is very technical but it doesn’t get in the way of the work.
GS: Who should take your class?
CB: People who know they’re on to a good thing but are having a hard time closing the deal. It’s for people who have that vision and they want that vision on the page through their images.
To join Chris at Santa Fe Photographic Workshops for “The Surprising Portrait” go (here).
Note: We’ve partnered with Santa Fe Photographic Workshops to interview several of their instructors for upcoming workshops that we find interesting.
Montana-based photographer Kurt Markus has spent the last half-century photographing for magazines like Vanity Fair, GQ, and Outside. Though he’s shot fashion, sports, and celebrities, he’s probably best known for his iconic black-and-white photos of Cowboys and scenes from the American West. He’ll be teaching a course at the Santa Fe workshops, starting June 24, called The Portrait: Finding Your Voice. He spoke with Grayson Schaffer from the set of a Vogue Hommes shoot in Georgia.
Grayson Schaffer: What are you shooting today?
Kurt Markus: A cool young guy named Sean O’pry. I guess you could call him the current face of the moment. The idea of the shoot is to come back to his hometown, sort of like when Dennis Stock went to James Dean’s hometown’ in Indiana. I’m photographing him in the place where he grew up— a little town about 15 miles outside of Atlanta.
GS: All natural light?
KM: I bring lights every once in a while and do my best never to open the case. I consider it a retreat, the last card you want to put on the table. I just feel so much more inspired by the light that’s out there, if you just look and if you’re flexible enough to move around. I’m going to be shooting in this house tomorrow. I’ve got a little set up that I call the ACME lighting kit. It’s something straight out of a Road Runner cartoon. It’s like a hardware floodlight with a daylight bulb and a stand. That’s my idea of lighting.
GS: You can get away with that?
KM: I’ve paid my dues. Believe it or not, when people ask me to do pictures for them, I think they just assume that’s what I do. It’s kind of great. I’ve entered into a zone that I think probably some photographers wouldn’t mind being in. And since I’ve got this pass, I’m using it.
GS: People assume you need 2.1 gigawatts of electricity and a room full of octobanks. In my mind, you’re an exception to the rule. A lot of the better known people use a lot of toys.
KM: There’s been a trend there, really, since Annie Leibovitz brought in auxiliary light during the daytime. Her look became so popular that it became the thing to chase if you were a photographer. I think at a certain point that sort of lighting took over and if you couldn’t do it, you weren’t going to get hired. Now, it’s a difficult situation to retreat from if you want pizzaz because that kind of light made color beautiful.
GS: No matter what the natural light was doing, you had a sure thing.
KM: It just made color beautiful because of the photographer’s control of the light. You could push it into a certain tonal range. And the warmth of the light no matter what the natural light was like at your location. But that’s never been my kind of idea of a portrait, so I was never tempted to do it. I feel like I’ve kind of ridden out the storm. And now I’m doing the best work of my life. Something happens over time that you can’t exchange for the moment. And that’s just loving the person that you’re photographing—not spiritually, but you have to really be into that person because the act of doing a portrait is truly collaborative. And that collaboration may be very subtle, but it’s there. There was a time when I never wanted to do a workshop again. It exhausted me. The digital age was really kicking in, and I didn’t feel like I had anything to offer a beginning photographer because everyone wanted to know about histograms and pixels and I had no language, no experience for that. So I said, let’s not do this again. But I got talked into it again last year. What I found was that no one in the workshop really cared if it was digital or not, and figured “OK, I can do this. I’ve got something to say and it’s worth saying.” I’m believer in workshops. It’s a very energizing and valuable experience that you can’t really get any other way. You go home and sift through the wreckage of the week and pick and choose. And it’s good to know there are others out there trying to be the best photographers they can be.
GS: Your work really is more so about the interaction and the moments and the gestures, rather than the technology. Do you think that sort of knowledge is transferable?
KM: Well again, I don’t want to psychoanalyze this whole thing, but if you think that you can make every picture just based on the technique, like “I want to be Irving Penn so if I do everything just based on Irving Penn’s technique I can do Irving Penn’s pictures,” you’re badly mistaken. It’s a lesson to learn, because you see where he uses light, you know what kind of film he uses and you think you can crack the nut by cracking his nut, but it never really works. That may be frustrating but for some people it’s a revelation that “hey, I’m unique, I do my own pictures.” That’s a difficult lesson to swallow, and I think most of us chase other people’s pictures.
GS: Is that something you did early on? I know you’re self taught. Did you start by trying to emulate other people and over time find your own thing?
KM: I think it’s unavoidable. You, as a writer, are influenced by what you’ve read, in certain cadences and word choices. You may pick up the energy from Hemingway or Cormac MccArthy (if you want to drop some punctuation). And photography is like that too. You get some juice from somebody by, for me, Andre Kertesz, a Hungarian photographer who’s not that well known, but he did these really light, lyrical pictures that were very inspiring to me. Just the idea of being lighthanded that I get from Kertesz that I can actually use. I can’t think of setting up a person to pose for Satiric Dancer, which is one of his photos. I would never want to duplicate that. The title of the workshop I’m doing is “Finding Your Voice,” but it’s actually “finding yourself” and learning to express yourself through your work. Trying to figure out what that is.
GS: What actually is going on in terms of how you run your workshops and how you teach ?
KM: The digital era has really helped to make a teaching process out of it. The first workshop I did, they had film. We had to process it, look at contact sheets, it was labor intensive and by the time you were done, you’d kind of missed the moment. My approach to “Finding Your Voice” is to break down the portrait into subcategories. For instance, the Environmental Portrait. I like the idea that you always have a backstop, something to fall back on. Let’s say you’re photographing artists. Someone like Arnold Newman, who photographed artists, is a really good person to look at. His photographs are very architectural, they’re about shape and design and that’s they key. It’s not about a moment, it’s about a moment made. Arnold Newman organizing a photo to make a very strong statement. There’s that sort of picture making and then there’s picture making in a studio environment where you have to light it yourself. So I’ve got examples of different photographers and how they approach the portrait. Alfred Stieglitz and Georgia O’Keeffe which is an intimate relationship, and that’s going to affect the portrait too. And then we have assignments like “make an environmental portrait.” It can be hard to move people off center because we can’t help ourselves. We get in a groove and fall back on what we think works. I really try to limber someone up to take chances. A portrait is an extension of every kind of picture ever made, because in a way, even a landscape is a portrait. It’s a portrait of the photographer.
GS: What about the technical side and process? are you still shooting film, are you shooting digital? What’s your process look like?
KM: I shoot film. I don’t think I could do work that I really believe in with the feel and the look that I want if I was shooting digitally. There’s a certain resistance that I’ve got. But the light coming through a 6×7 Pentax lens hitting on film, is something digital can’t duplicate—and I love the look of it. Then I’ll scan the negative and send the file to someone, they can use it in a publication. It’s pretty rare that I try and make prints anymore because they seem to get in the way. But for I picture that I really love, there’s really no substitute for going into a darkroom.
GS: And you do some of your own printing?
KM: I do all my own printing. At one point I had people helping me, but when I go into a darkroom, it’s my print. I don’t really want people helping me. I don’t retouch. I don’t try and manipulate the image into something I like afterward. 6×7 is a very forgiving medium. Black and white film, these lenses, a slow shutter speed. I’ll photograph women and a lot of time they look flawless, but real. When you’ve had a great experience photographing someone, you don’t want anything to get in the way of someone thinking that’s great looking person.
GS: So if someone brings a film camera to your workshop, is there a way to accommodate that?
KM: Oh I’m sure, but I don’t think that’s an issue, I don’t think anyone is shooting film at a workshop. But I’m teaching portrait making not technique. Everything looks good on a monitor, not everything looks good in print. But if you’re going to live with your photograph it can’t just be a screensaver.
To join Kurt at Santa Fe Photographic Workshops for “The Portrait: Finding Your Voice” go (here).
Note: We’ve partnered with Santa Fe Photographic Workshops to interview several of their instructors for upcoming workshops that we find interesting.
I worked with Andrew Southam quite a bit in the past, so when he told me about a personal journey he recently underwent, I asked to publish an account of it on the blog. I think you will find his honest and humble account of what happened to him inspiring.
APE: Briefly tell me about your background in photography, how you came to it and when you found success?
Andrew Southam: I started out in Sydney, Australia in the early 80’s. I was incredibly fortunate to find a job assisting a photographer named Grant Matthews who became my mentor and great friend. I arrived in NYC in 1986 with a decent book and just got on the phone to all the magazines. A lot of people met with me and I dropped my book off everywhere else. I got assigned portraits for Rolling Stone and Vogue, some small fashion pieces for Conde Nast magazines and that began my career in America. A year later Sassy Magazine was started by an Australian publisher and art director I had worked with in Sydney, another piece of incredible luck. I started working solidly for them doing everything from covers and fashion stories to photo essays about teen suicide and a girl on death row in Indiana.
Would you call what happened next a midlife crisis or is it the result of a shitty economy and shrinking photo industry?
When you’re young and new in this industry you have a kind of allure you don’t know you have, I certainly didn’t. I had a lot of success early on which I took for granted. I just assumed it would be all up and up. I went along like that for about 15 years. Of course I had flat spots but I was what you’d call a working photographer with a good reputation. What happened next was really a kind of burn out. I started out taking very personal pictures, shooting very much my own way. This had as much to do with not having the technical skill to do it anyone else’s way as any artistic ideals! But of course over time you learn technique and wind up doing work that you have less personal investment in, money jobs. What happened to me was I lost my sense of ownership of my work, was less invested in it. Inevitably the assignments I was getting reflected this, less exciting work, not being hired to bring any point of view to the job. More being hired as a good technician who could get all the shots finished on time, run a crew, answer a budget, work with talent. All that’s great but I was feeling steadily more unhappy with myself and my career. I can’t blame the economy or changes in the industry. Of course I’ve felt the changes like everyone. But finally I wasn’t feeling inspired and it caught up with me.
What did you do to break out of the funk?
I was feeling pretty desperate. I never cared that much about the money. In the midst of this period I had some good years. But I was really unhappy with the work I was getting and doing. Finally, all credit to my wife who said “just go and stop talking about it!” I went off on a week long road trip from LA to San Francisco. The first day on the road I felt a real panic that I couldn’t take a picture without a client, an assignment, a deadline. I’d spent so many years shooting actresses, models, portraits of people for magazines, I didn’t even see the scenery at first. But after a day I slowed down and started seeing the world and then looking at it through the camera. Then the huge pleasure of just looking through the viewfinder, composing in that rectangle, paying attention to the light returned to me and I got really excited again. It sounds so simple but it really felt like a kind of rebirth at the time.
Tell me more about the dream project you dreamt up?
While I was driving and shooting, I started to see the journey as a road movie. I imagined a man, a woman, a car of a certain kind, motels, restaurants, the road, all the emotional stuff that happens on a long journey. Maybe it starts out romantically, but at some point you’re just so over being in that car and stuck together, you sort it out, you don’t, you have sex, you argue, on and on. So when I returned home, still with that “my life is at stake” energy, and having unplugged for a week from the whole white noise of our lives now, realizing I could do that and just be a photographer and not an e-mailing machine, I buried myself into using the pictures I’d taken as a story board for a series with the man and woman. I worked with a friend who is a great stylist, Kelly Hill formerly at J.Crew. We found two actors, a real life couple, we found a 1968 Cadillac and talked the guy who was selling it into renting it to us for a few days. I wrote a page and a half treatment for my actors describing the trip, this crisis point in their relationship. It was fantastic because then everyone knew what they were feeling, they sort of lived it and I just shot away as if I was making a documentary about them. Because we were together all day, seriously all day, they stopped noticing me which made the whole thing really intimate. I had no crew except my stylist and my tech who like me is great at becoming invisible. My very large edit was then shaped by designer Matt Taylor at Matt Varnish. He helped me refine the narrative, gave the images a treatment to feel like vintage prints left on a car’s dashboard, designed the book, located and supervised the printing, and was really essential to the project being the success it was.
(click image to see more)
And the job that followed, how did that come about?
My agent at that time had the promo book I made of these pictures at LeBook Connections LA 2011. An Art Buyer from M&C Saatchi, Jenn Sellers picked it up and put it in front of their Creative Director James Bray who was just then looking to solve a problem, how to shoot the men’s Uggs campaign? I was called in to meet with him. I’ve now just shot their second campaign in an on going series.
Is there a lesson here? Did the industry change to be more receptive to this type of thing, did you find different clients, or did you change how you take pictures?
The lesson was pretty profound for me. Clients are out there looking for ideas and photographers with ideas, with a particular way of seeing. There are SO many photographers, so many great technicians and digital has only made this easier. What there are less of is photographers with a distinct point of view. You have to really dive into yourself and find out what you have to say or show that is your own take. My friend June Newton, Helmut’s widow says “shoot your desires, shoot your perversions”. Obviously that served Helmut well! I am not the first photographer to shoot a road trip story but I really made it my own. So when clients saw it, it was exciting to them and they recognized something they could use. So yes, the industry is super receptive to a photographer with a body of work that is their own peculiar, fully expressed take. There is SO much imagery out there now, you can only imagine how they must be scratching their heads in advertising agencies and design companies saying “how do we do this in a different way?!”
I am finding new clients. It’s a process and I feel like I’m just beginning it in lots of ways. Which I’m very grateful for after shooting for 27 years! But I have a handful of great new clients who are asking me very specifically to do my own thing. I couldn’t ask for more than that.
I have changed the way I shoot, or rather I’m evolving. I’m trying to see photographs now in series, like a set of film stills, an unfolding narrative. Rather than trying to get the “perfect moment” I’m trying to be much looser, look for the “mistake” that will make the pictures more exciting. Now I’m arriving prepared with a treatment for the story, a clearer intention of what I want to say.
What does the future look like to you?
It has to come from me. If you look to the industry to see what will come next, it’s too late, it’s already happened. I can’t worry too much about trends, about what other people are doing. I just need to go off alone and think about my take on life and how to express that in photographs. It requires self discipline I have to work on constantly. It’s a muscle you have to develop and that never ends. It’s too easy to sit in my “beautiful cave” as portfolio consultant Beth Taubner calls it, and push around post-its and respond to e-mails. I have to shoot more often for myself and develop that part of my brain and just keep doing it. My advice to anyone in the funk I was in would be: don’t wait to get assigned your “dream job”, it may never happen. Assign yourself and go and do it. I fully appreciate this can expensive but you have to find a way. I am always asking favors of people and seeing how I can cut corners to save money. Some friends will work for you for free. Your excitement is contagious. But clients are unlikely to assign you work if you can’t show them you’ve already done it. The good idea is hugely important in all this.
The other part is get the help and support you need. I’ve recently teamed up with photo rep Sarah Laird, someone I feel really lucky to know. Sarah’s agency is artist driven; the photographer must be absolutely clear on their point of view before she can represent them. She’s into building a career around that, finding the right audience for each photographer’s work. Sarah directed me to Beth Taubner who I’ve worked closely with and I would recommend to anyone looking to reconnect with their work or deepen it. I’ve been working on portfolio and website redesign with Bryan Fisher at Perfect Holiday who is amazing and definitely lifted my presentation. I feel like I’ve surrounded myself with great people who can help me take my work to another level. After already having had a long career I feel really excited and grateful to be doing this.
Paula Lerner, photographer and photography advocate, died on Tuesday from breast cancer at the age of 52. Steve Skoll gathered these comments from those who knew her.
Steve: A collection of thoughts from friends and colleagues on the passing of Paula Lerner.
Manuello Paganelli writes: Folks I just learned the awful news that our friend, dear colleague, talented and award winning still/video photographer and former Editorial Photographer (EP), President passed away.
You all know that she was a strong advocate for photographer’s rights and was always there willing to show her wisdom and vision with the rest. She was also batting for photographers making sure magazines would pay decent day and space rates and less rights grabbing.
Today my heart just dropped out. RIP wonderful Paula…my heart goes to your husband and children.
Brian Smith, President of EP writes: I’m deeply shocked and saddened by the news of Paula Lerner’s death. As the founding Vice President of Editorial Photographers, Paula was instrumental to setting EP’s course. She was directly involved in negotiating the Business Week and Forbes contracts that raised the bar for fair deals for editorial photographers. Paula remained committed to educating and inspiring others and it is extremely sad to lose her just as she was producing the finest work of her career.
Our thoughts and prayers are with her family.
Ed Greenberg writes: It is with unspeakable sadness that we inform you of the untimely death of a great lady, Paula Lerner. Paula possessed the all too rare qualities of both bravery and courage well before the insidious cancer ever invaded her body.
While most of us are content with the safety of our daily lives, Paula was busy risking her life to bring home the intimate stories of the brave women in war torn Afghanistan. Dodging bombs and bullets on five journeys, Paula created the finest collection of photography ever created in or about Afghanistan. Paula won a richly deserved Emmy Award for her work as a photojournalist on “Behind the Veil” an in depth multi media feature which also captured an EPPY Award for Best Web Feature.
Those of us who create prose rather than images, know all to well that there is simply no “appropriate” space limitations when extolling the virtues of Paula whether referencing her work or her character. The fact that both her images and life story will become part of the curriculum at Harvard is testament to an extraordinary life that precious few of us will ever even approach in magnitude. Her images will continue to speak to us and that makes her great photographer. Her character, charity, kindness, curiosity, tenaciousness and bravery made her a great person. Her family, friends, colleagues and clients know that her kind won’t pass this way again.
Michael Grecco writes: Paula was fearless in the pursuit of the things she believed in, whether it was to fight for photographer’s rights, as the first Vice President of Editorial Photographers, or when traveling to the war zone to use her lens and multimedia skills to expose the plight of the women of Afghanistan. I was thrilled when she won an Emmy for her hard work. She was a dear friend and will be missed.
Andrew Buchanan writes: In working with Paula professionally for more than ten years, I knew I was working with someone with passion. Not coming from a photojournalism background myself, I was inspired by someone who found a cause she believed in, then used both her artistic and journalistic abilities to get the story and make a difference.
But in pursuing her passion, Paula never forgot her purpose — to inspire, to share, to lead by example. She was generous with her time, her knowledge, and her inspiration. Knowing her made me a better photographer, but more importantly she made me a better person.
Thank you for that Paula, you’ve left your mark on this world in ways you maybe never even knew. My best thoughts to your family at this very difficult time.
Heidi Volpe interviews Michael Muller about his Travel Channel shark portraits.
Michael Muller was hooked at age 15 when after a year of shooting snowboarding he was getting published and paid. Now, he is an award wining advertising and editorial photographer represented by top agency Stockland Martel. I got a chance to talk to him about his recent project with the Travel Channel, Shark Shoot Fiji and the lighting equipment he developed for this underwater project: he took the studio and plunged it deep in the Beqa Lagoon.
Heidi: How much testing did you do to develop the system?
Michael: There was a fair amount of R&D that went into the creation of these lights. To start, I had to go through several different fabricators that delivered me products that either did not work or were so unsafe, I would not get into a pool with them, let alone ask someone to join me. I wasted or should I say spent a lot of money getting to the place of almost giving up before I met the guys who I would eventually make the lights with. This was a very difficult path, because continuing forward always meant that I would have to spend more money on faith that the next person would be the one who would be able to make it come true.
Once we got the prototype working light made, they happened to be delivered the day before I embarked to the Galapagos Islands to shoot the Aqua Timer campaign for IWC Watches. They arrived at my house at about 4 or 5 in the afternoon as we were packing all our gear for a 3 week expedition. The trip was also in conjunction with The Charles Darwin Foundation and UNESCO so there was a huge amount of pressure to deliver striking images. I had promised the President of IWC that I would create images like no one had seen before without having the lights in hand. The weeks leading up to the departure were probably some of the most stressed filled days of my career for making these promises and going on faith that the guys would get it and make them in time. When they did arrive that afternoon I was beyond over joyed yet still stressed that they would in fact work. Being so late in the day with an early am departure flight approaching the following day, I put my trunks on and had the guys hook up the lights and jumped in the pool. I was thrilled when the lights fired and that was the extent of testing.
We packed up the lights and headed out to the Galapagos the next morning where we used the lights in open ocean and did all our fine tuning on the job so to speak. I did in fact get IWC mouth watering images like I had promised which felt very good to do. That is how guerrilla type inventing goes when you’re not a huge manufacture of goods, I don’t have the money or man power for major testing so you do what you can do with what you have. I can say that not giving up in the face of failure was the biggest lesson. It is so easy to throw in the towel after so many set backs but to continue on is the biggest challenge and once again I learned that you should never give up if you believe in something, don’t quit right before the miracle happens!
Tell me more about the lights.
The lights were first tested in open ocean in the Galapagos and then further used many days in the pool with Michael Phelps and all the other olympic swimmers for the Speedo campaigns I shot. I have also used the lights for a multitude of other underwater shoots I have done. There isn’t a whole lot of testing that needs to be done since the lights are just a basic strobe head that happens to be waterproof. The main testing is what the light does underwater and how to control it with use of reflectors, grids, etc. Light reacts differently underwater than it does on land. It bounces and spreads out everywhere so it has taken many hours and days underwater with my team to get just where we are today and we still have so much to learn. That is what I love about “light” and photography, I have been doing it for 27 years almost daily and could do it until the day I die and still know just a fraction of what there is to know about light and the use of it, and how to control it. The minute you think you have got this thing called photography “down” is the day you should maybe put the camera down because your being very ignorant, light is something the greatest minds that have ever lived find mysterious and fascinating. Always be an explorer and try to learn something new with each shoot, never rest on your laurels thinking you’ve got it down!
Does light behave differently in salt water?
No only that Saltwater has many more elements in it. Living particles fill every inch of the ocean and all of these things no matter what the size, either reflect or react to the light when it hits them. A filtered pool like the one I have at my studio is the easiest place to control light, there are no waves or surge or current to deal with and the water is much clearer then what you must deal with in the ocean. If I could have a pet great white in my pool that would be amazing, but until now they have not figured out how to do that. Honestly even if they did, I would not capture an animal like that to keep in my pool, but I sure do wish I had my own private ocean in my back yard filled with clear, warm water. That said there would be no challenge or mystery to that, so I would get very bored quickly so the way it is now is just perfect! Wait not perfect, because we are destroying our oceans right now, so if correct that, then it will be perfect!
On Shark Shoot Fiji, you narrated the underwater footage. How did you really communicate underwater, I am assuming that was not live? or was it?
I did in fact navigate underwater using an OTS (Ocean Technology Systems) mask system. They make the best most reliable communication system available on the market today. Until I started using the OTS system it was a nightmare trying to communicate using hand signals with my assistants underwater. Even in a pool we had trouble but when we were in the ocean with 18ft great whites swimming around us all, the ability to talk and direct the lights where I needed them was and is crucial for successful lit subjects! I am so grateful for this system that I believe was developed for the NAVY and Military. There are some, very few benefits to battle, this being one, and one of maybe three things. If there were no wars and I had to use hand signals underwater, then I would trade in this mask system in a heart beat!
What did you learn about the sharks that surprised you.
Every time I swim with sharks I learn something new. I have had so many misconceptions about these creatures and to smash them has been so liberating. I had so much fear surrounding them since I was a child growing up surfing the waves in Northern California home of many large great whites. I was always fascinated with them. Jaws had a huge impact on me as a kid as well like it did most of the planet when it came out. That movie single handedly took the already natural god given fear we all have and injected it with steroids. I though the sharks were coming out of the lights in my pool as a kid, not joking! So having this fear combined with the yearning to learn more about these animals has allowed me to view with my own eyes in person what gentle giants they really are. Watching them on TV is nothing like having them in front of you in person. Sure the TV helps lessen the fear a tiny bit but really until you are in the water with these sharks and your adrenaline is pumping like it always does even to this day with so many dives, it is just not the same.
I always have the blood pumping when I first get in the water but shortly there after my body settles down and I get in the rhythm of these animals. They are like puppy dogs, and I know when you read that it’s hard to believe but it’s true. They do not want us, we are not on their menu. They are more scared of us then I believe we are of them. They shy away from us at all times and only their curiosity similar to ours of them causes them to come in for a closer look. I have been so fortunate to witness behaviors rarely seen by us such as being underwater as a 15ft Great White re-enters the water from a breach. Seeing two great whites going nose to nose to see which one gets the food. Witnessing these behaviors along with many more is just fascinating to me. I study humans when I shoot them here on land, their nuances and personalities to try and bring them out in my portrait sessions and I have had the gamut come in front of my lens and like humans, I am as curious about the sharks as I am the fellows I share this planet with!
You have tremendous range in your work from the past 25 years. How did your previous work lead to this?
I have shot many subjects in my 25+ years of photography and have covered so many different subjects that may be very much the reason it led me underwater. To be honest there are not a whole lot of things left that get me as excited as animals do at this point in my career. I do love shooting people and always will. I do love shooting commercial work but am having a desire to do much larger productions fewer times a month than many small ones which I have been doing for many years. My passion is leading me outdoors again to the wilderness and the vast oceans to turn my lens on our planet and what’s happening to it. Not in a way that focusses on the destruction but more the beauty of it in hopes that it will inspire the destruction to stop. I have always loved and been fascinated with animals as I have been with people. That said, I was not in a place like I am now to go and do what I am doing now which is taking that 25 years experience into the wild and take the skills I learned in the studio and on location, then turning it loose on animals. I want to take photos of things in ways people have never seen before, I want to make people stop and think “how did he do that?” “how did he get that look” only by doing that can you possibly have a chance to get people to stop and think “how can we keep this animal around?” you know? The same approach as I have taken to get people to buy a product or see a movie I am using to try and change perceptions of our planet. I can only try right? Like the road blocks I hit with creating the lights, the challenge is to not give up before the miracle happens!
Was Summit to Summit the start of you adding yet another dimension to your interests as a photographer?
I don’t think it was the start but it certainly is along the lines of what drives me today. To be a part of a movement that educates people about our planet and the lack of clean drinking water around the world is just another example of how I am trying to use my gifts today. I don’t think I was put here to shoot the things I have shot for 25 years and continue shooting them for the next 25 years. I am a student or follower of Darwin’s comment “evolve or die”. I want to evolve as a person, a photographer, husband, and father. I want to challenge myself as an artist and as a human being and what I see happening today on and to our planet does not sit well with me. I am under no illusion that I am going to go out and take a photo that is going to change the world, but at the same time I am not going to sit back and do nothing expecting someone else to fix the problem. I don’t know what my images will do, but that is not my business. My job is to take pictures, give them to the world and what happens, happens. I have to follow my heart and listen to my gut, I always have and it has never been wrong.
Where are you going from here with underwater photography?
I don’t know? I am going where the light leads me I guess. I just want to go out and have fun creating images and documenting this amazing planet we all share. There is just so much to shoot and the subjects are limitless, I just need to show up! I am planning an exhibition to South Africa this year to shoot breaching Great Whites as well as safari all in one trip, so that ought to be a fun. All I can say is that as long as I am drawing a breath and my limbs are all working, I will be out there shooting, both above and below the water. There are a few other ideas I have that I want to try and do underwater that I think will help take underwater photography to anther level, but we will have to wait and see what happens!
JB: You and I met, as I have with several people I’ve interviewed, at Review Santa Fe in 2009. I don’t think we’ve seen each other or spoken since. I’ve got to give a shout out to that class of ’09. This is right off the top of my head, but you came out of there. Susan Worsham. Jesse Burke. LaToya Ruby Frasier. Emily Shur. Ben Lowy. Susan Burnstine. (I know I’m forgetting another handful. Apologies.)
KT: It’s been fun. I’ve kept in touch with a few people from that Review as well. They’re all doing well. Kind of crazy.
JB: You went there a young guy, just trying to get his work out into the world. And in the ensuing three years you’ve evolved into a photographer with an International exhibition record, you’re represented by Jen Bekman, one of the biggest galleries in New York, you had a book published by Keher Verlag. It seems like it all came together for you in a relatively short period of time.
KT: Before Santa Fe, I had this plan to shoot a project, “In Case it Rains in Heaven,” which is the one that got published and exhibited a lot. I’d done the leg work in the two years leading up to Santa Fe. Doing the reviews. Meeting the curators. So I had my network ready. I went back to Hong Kong and shot the project, and I was able to show it to a lot of people in a very short period of time. From there it snowballed.
JB: So this was really a 5 year process for you.
KT: Yes. If I’d shot that project in 2007, before I started doing the circuit, it wouldn’t have exploded so quickly. It’s because I’d just put my foot through the door.
JB: We all have so many different things going on at the same time, it can make it difficult to give our best effort in any one avenue. You’re living back and forth between London and Hong Kong. So that must resonate with you, the struggle to be our best self.
KT: I have been working hard. Pre-2009, I was shooting a lot of events and weddings. Then that project came out, and people started taking notice. I planned an 18 month stint in HK with my family to work a different project that’s due to come out soon.
JB: What’s it called?
KT: “The Queen, the Chairman and I.” But, with what you were saying, trying to do everything at once? I didn’t. I made the decision that I would concentrate on the fine art, I didn’t do any events jobs or weddings. The benefit of that is showing. Within the last 18 months, I’ve got signed up by 3 commercial galleries, including the Photographers’ Gallery in London. I’ve had a book published, and have been working on a lot of shows. That’s a full-time job.
I think wedding photography is a full-time job. I had a wedding that I shot a year ago. A year later, the couple is still hassling me to get the album right, or get some new orders. So I had to give that up to concentrate 100% of my time on my personal work. Which involves a lot of social networking, and turning up at festivals, making book dummies.
I think that’s paid off. But at the same time, a lot of that work doesn’t pay. Which is what I’ve been struggling with.
JB: You chose to stop working for pay so you could pour all of your energy into something that wasn’t actually paying your bills. And you’ve got kids, right?
JB: Yeah, I saw that. Is that what you’re dealing with now, trying to figure out how to afford to show your work around the world?
KT: Absolutely. I gave myself 2 years to shoot a new project, and really try to see if living off print sales alone could work. People tell me it doesn’t work, and I found out the hard way. I’ve been doing OK with the sales, but as Aline’s blog post suggests, every show comes with printing and framing costs, without any guarantee that you can even make your money back.
JB: It sounds like you saved up some money and saw it as a phase where you put in the time and energy now for long-term results. And now you’re two years into it, and it’s starting to hurt a little bit. Is that it?
KT: Yeah, in a sense, I’m kind of running out of money. I’d been living on print sales until August or September, and that’s when the financial markets started going a bit bad again. It is reflected. Once the stock market dropped, the print sales stopped. You realize that Art is such a luxury commodity.
JB: It’s perfect that you brought that up, because you have a solo show up right now at the Jen Bekman gallery in New York, as we speak. You came up through the ranks of the Hey Hot Shot competition. You were chosen as their Ne Plus Ultra one year. And when people think of Jen Bekman, they often think of 20×200. $10 to the artist for each 8X10 print. How does that work? You talk about surviving on print sales, but you can’t survive on $10 a pop.
KT: When I talk about print sales, I’m talking mostly about the galleries representing me. Jen Bekman has only 2 of my prints on 20×200 (2 more were launched with the exhibition). It’s only those two prints sold through her that are from $10 a pop. My other prints sell for considerably more. They range from $600 to $6000.
I think a lot of people have issues with Jen Bekman’s model, 20×200, bringing the cheap prints into the market so people don’t buy the expensive prints. But I’ve got to say, at the end of the month, they’re the only ones who guarantee me a check every month. Whether it’s $200 or $2000, they never fail to sell something. Whereas my other galleries often go through 3 or 4 month dry patches.
JB: So the fact that there are 2 images out there for very little cost is not having any adverse effect upon the higher market value of what you do?
JB: People are going to want to hear that. It’s a controversial subject, and you can only speak for yourself. But I have talked with Joseph Holmes about it in the past, who also works with them, and he’s been very positive about how the 20×200 program works too.
KT: I think it’s important what work is put onto 20×200. Obviously, they have a very strict curatorial process. They pick the best work, so as a photographer, with all the publicity it gets, it’s tempting to give them your best shots. But it’s important to put some of your best work aside.
JB: And what was the opening of the exhibition like for you?
KT: It was exciting. I had the best experience ever, last year, when I had my first museum show. That kind of spoiled me, but I had a fantastic time in NY.
In reality, I think there is a difference between having a show in New York and a show in Europe. It’s the buzz afterwards. In London, if you have a show, and you don’t manage to get the newspaper or the bloggers down at the opening, they stop talking about it, and the show just fizzles out. But in New York, a lot of people didn’t come to the opening, but since I left, it’s kept going. I think it’s a much more vibrant scene of online art critics, in New York, I find.
JB: I want to switch gears a bit. I know that you were raised in both Hong Kong and England. In one of the statements on your website, you referred to yourself an others as “Us Honkeys.”
KT: I did.
JB: So with the rise of the Internet and more affordable air travel, national boundaries seem to mean less than they used to. You’re a living embodiment of the mashup of East and West. A global citizen type. What’s your take on that?
KT: It’s funny you said that. I lived in Hong Kong until I was 13, then I went to boarding school in England, and stayed here and married here. Throughout my twenties, I saw myself as a citizen of the world. I spent a lot of time in India, and Eastern Europe. So I thought wherever I was, I was home.
It wasn’t until my daughter was born that I started feeling Chinese again. Once you become a father, you want to be prepared when your children ask you about their identity. So that’s when my work completely changed. Up until then, I wanted to travel the world, so all my projects were done out and about. Since the kids, all my work has been shot in England, Hong Kong or China. Really, I was trying to find my own identity, in a way.
JB: Do you speak any of the Chinese dialects?
KT: I do. My mother tongue is actually Cantonese. The last two years I’ve been learning Mandarin, for a couple of reasons. A., because I wanted to, and a lot of my work is shot in China.
JB: B., because you saw the writing on the wall.
KT: (laughing.) Exactly. I want a gallery in Beijing.
JB: No doubt. You’re talking about surviving on print sales. You’re no dummy. You’ve got to go where the money is.
KT: It’s interesting, actually, because a lot of the big galleries are opening branches in Hong Kong, precisely for that reason. White Cube, Gagosian. It’s definitely where the money is.
JB: Can you talk a bit about the differences between mainland China and Hong Kong?
KT: It’s hard for me to say. When I go to China, I don’t face the same scrutiny as a Westerner would. Because I don’t enter on a passport, I enter on a Hong Kong residency card. I can almost infiltrate.
JB: And unlike me, you’re not a gringo with a goatee, so you can perhaps blend in a little easier.
KT: I have no secret police following me, I don’t think. I certainly know of photographers who’ve done work in Tibet, and their room gets ransacked. But I never had that problem. Certainly, in Hong Kong, there’s lot more freedom. No doubt about it. You can openly criticize the government, which you can’t do in China.
JB: Is that something that people expect to continue?
KT: China still needs Hong Kong. Companies and now galleries like to open in Hong Kong, because things are done more legitimately. Money and Banks. There’s none of the corruption. So China needs to keep Hong Kong a certain way, but they also want Hong Kong to rely on them. A lot of the businesses and hotels and tourist industry relies purely on the Chinese tourists. So if China wanted to stop Hong Kong, they could just stop tourism. They can definitely control Hong Kong in certain ways.
JB: Do you think you’ll stay in London, or move back to Hong Kong?
KT: We’re thinking of moving back to Hong Kong, actually. It would be good for my children to learn Mandarin. And I get more work done from there, in terms of making contacts and pushing my projects, living in Hong Kong as opposed to living in England.
JB: Why do you think that is? Because China’s hot right now?
KT: No. When you’re here in England, you might know a curator, be acquainted, but they have lots to do. When I try to show my new work, I keep getting pushed further down the diary. But when I email from Hong Kong and say I’ll be in town for a couple of weeks, I tend to get the meetings. It works a lot better.
At them moment, in London, I’m struggling to meet people I know well because they’re so busy.
JB: Sometimes, we imagine that you have to be in the biggest of big markets. One of the reasons I left New York, (other than the fact that it was kicking my ass,) was that I started nosing around Chelsea, really paying attention to the CV’s in the exhibitions, and and I noticed that at least half the artists that had representation were not living in New York. They were in random and far-flung places.
It resonated with me, because I always felt like I was swimming upstream in the Big Apple. I knew if I came back to Taos, living in the mountains with the fresh air, that it was more likely that I’d make the most of myself.
KT: Living in London, my friends often get sucked into going to openings, meeting the same people. As you know, lots of photographers like to talk about themselves…
JB: Oh my goodness.
KT: So you come away from the openings completely depressed. I won’t name names, but one of my friends is a photo-journalist, and she’s so jealous of a few of the female photo-journalists that are doing well at the moment. Every time we go to an opening, they’re there, showing off, and she becomes very depressed. I’ve got to ground her a bit, and say, “If you really look at the CV, they’re not doing that well. They’re having a nice run, but you’re doing just as well.” It’s hard to distance yourself from that if you live in a city and see people every Thursday at an opening.
JB: That was what happened to me. I got really insecure, and I think that competitiveness can be incredibly destructive to one’s creativity. I’m trying to learn not to judge myself by others’ success. I want to judge myself by how hard I’m working, whether I’m growing and getting better. Learning how to avoid the problems that in the past would have tripped me up. It’s easier to say that than to do it.
KT: Very few people are living off their art. But living in a city, going to artist talks, you get the impression that they are. I think it’s important to know that’s not the case.
JB: You’re ticking all the boxes on what would be considered success, and yet you’re dealing with the same problems as all Global Middle Class citizens. How can I make enough to support my kids? How can I keep it together? Acclaim is still not equated with material success for most artists who are not already super-established.
KT: Absolutely. I went Paris Photo recently, and it is the same 8 or 10 photographers who are dominating the whole scene. It’s almost like they’re eating the main meal, and there’s another 200 photographers eating the scraps around it. And I’m not even eating the scraps.
Jodi Bieber (1966) is a South African photographer mostly known for her highly publicized portrait of Bibi Aisha; the young Afghan woman who had her nose and ears cut off by the Taliban after seeking rescue from her violent husband in her parent’s home. It was this photo that won Bieber the World Press Photo Award in 2011. She has won no less than 8 other World Press Photo Awards, as well numerous other prestigious awards such as first prize for the series “Real Beauty” in Picture of the Year International Competition and Winner of the Prix de l’Union Européene at the Rencontres de Bamako Biennale Africaine de la Photographie in 2009.
Bieber is currently rounding off a hectic year of constant traveling, meeting people, being on juries and lots of public speaking. It is on this last leg of the World Press Photo exhibition, in Cape Town, that we find ourselves sitting in the gardens of the Castle of Good Hope. A place with a symbolic name as this is where Bieber is teaching a 3-day masterclass to 17 aspiring photographers organized by World Press Photo in cooperation with Iziko Museums.
Kathalijne van Zutphen: How did you get into photography?
Jodi Bieber: I originally studied Marketing because an aptitude test said I would be good at studying Law. I couldn’t picture myself doing 7 years of studying and chose Marketing because it was only 4 years. While I was sitting with a friend during a lunch-break, a piece of paper fell into my lap. The piece of paper advertised photography courses at the Market Workshop in Johannesburg. And that is how I got into photography.
After completing several short courses at the Workshop, I did a three month internship at The Star under Ken Oosterbroek in 1993. My job as an intern was to develop everyone’s film and print their work. I still found time, though, to go out and shoot on my own and scored my first front page publication on the third day. I was invited to be part of a select group of 10 photographers for the World Press Photo Masterclass in Amsterdam in 1996. I’ve always done my own projects such as ‘Between Dogs and Wolves’, ‘Survivors’ and ‘Soweto’ but have also done work for Time Magazine and Médicines Sans Frontières.
Can you tell us something about the way you work? For example, how much directing do you do?
JB: When I go out on a shoot, I am there for hours. I exhaust my subjects. As far as shooting goes, I start with framing the photograph. I will tell the person I am photographing where I want to do it, but I will not tell someone how to pose. And in case there are two or more people being photographed, I will not tell them in which order to stand. I feel you can tell a lot about their relationship from where they chose to stand. Once I have framed the image I will direct, I will maybe ask someone to move a leg or hand.
I was never motivated by the money, I was motivated by photography. I chose my projects because a subject interested me. I came to ‘Real Beauty’ after seeing the Dove billboard which showed normal women as opposed to models and I thought that was amazing. Then I met a model soon after that, who told me a lot of dark secrets about the fashion industry, and that yes, for instance, she does have bags under her eyes but that will be photoshopped out. That made me curious about what real beauty is. When I started that project a lot of women were a little apprehensive at first, but I soon received phone calls from women asking to take part. And I accepted everyone.
You speak a lot about the importance of editing well. What makes a good editor to you?
JB: Editing is absolutely crucial. Everyone is a photographer these days and where you can make a difference is with interpretation. As a good editor you have to be true to yourself but not be too emotionally attached. If you let someone else edit your work, you have to make sure you put your point of view across well and work with someone you trust.
Where do you think a lot of photographers go wrong?
JB: They rush too much. You have to take the time to edit. Don’t add photos because you think you need a certain number of photos, less is definitely more. Create piles while you’re doing it; have a ‘Maybe’ pile, as well as an ‘In’ and ‘Out’ pile. If you have difficulty saying goodbye to your photos, then keep the ‘Out’ pile in your view so you feel like you can always go back to it. And do not do it on the computer.
And when you are building your portfolio it should be like music – made up of highs and lows but not weak.
You often find yourself in quite dangerous situations. How do you cope?
JB: I believe that my openness about what I am doing is my protection. I create relationships quickly, little circles of people around a bigger situation that may be dangerous.
You mentioned during the workshop that photographers bring themselves to the shoot as well. Where do we see you in your work?
JB: I don’t know, I am not the right person to ask. My choice of subject matter will probably tell you a lot. I also think that I am pretty direct and you can see that in my work as well but it is not “what you see is what you get”.
I once heard someone say that a profession is a vehicle for something deeper. Assuming that is true, what is it that you are searching for through your photography?
JB: Photography has been a vehicle to discover things I didn’t know before. When I go out shooting, I am learning something new. I am connecting with other people; and I feel a responsibility towards them.
Speaking of responsibility, there is the age old dilemma and debate, that photographers go into a situation and take something, prey on the weak while the gain nothing. How do you feel about that?
JB: I do feel responsible, and sometimes I do feel it is a bit unfair. You get your shot but the community will never benefit. That is a difficult thing.
I really do believe that it is important to be very clear about what it is you want and what the photo will be used for. If you leave out a detail just so you can get the photograph, that detail will come back to haunt you. And if someone has a problem with what you are trying to do, then simply don’t shoot them. I make sure that the people who do agree to take part in a project get one of the Artist Proof prints (ed: out of two) that I have. It is up to them to either hold on to the print or if they want, sell it. That is my way of giving them something back.
What has been your biggest challenge so far?
JB: Well, being a photographer is a lonely profession and you sacrifice one thing for another. All I ever did was photography and I am only just learning that there are thing like shoes, make-up (laughs).
After winning the World Press Photo, you must have led a very hectic and different life this year. What has been the biggest lesson?
JB: I have learned that photos speak very loudly. Not all and not all the time but when they do, then can create change. And I have learned that when you have a voice, you have to use it. Photographers can be very powerful.
What is next for you?
JB: I will be starting a new project and I have a big show coming up in Ulms, Germany.
Any last advice?
JB: Just go out and do it. You have to get out there and create the work, put in the hours, develop your own style. And don’t be where the pack is. Do your own thing. And, when you are about to take a picture of what I like to call ‘The Stare’, reconsider it.
Filmed over a decade, beginning in 2000, Gregory Crewdson: Brief Encounters provides an unparalleled view of the moment of creation of his images. It also reveals the life-story behind the work—through frank reflections on his life and career, including the formative influences of his psychologist father and his childhood fascination with the work of Diane Arbus.
On January 18 the Obama administration blocked the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, which would’ve moved bitumen and crude oil from the tar sands region of northern Alberta to refineries in Illinois, Nebraska, and eventually the Texas Gulf Coast. The pipeline’s advocates claim that it would create 20,000 new jobs and decrease America’s dependence on foreign oil. Its critics claim that employment figure is closer to 3,000 temporary workers and that the pipeline would represent a serious environmental disaster even if it never ruptured or caused a spill; getting the oil out of the ground, they argue, is already tearing up Canada’s boreal forest and would massively contribute to climate change. One thing that’s not discussed in the debate is the role photography has played in shaping the battle lines. Chances are, if you’ve seen photos of the mining operations in the tar sands region, they were shot by Canadian photographer Garth Lenz. Grayson Schaffer recently spoke with the 54-year-old Victoria, British Columbia–based shooter about his work.
Grayson: You get to chalk up last month’s decision as a win, right?
Garth: It was a great win. Of course, the Republicans can and will reapply at a later date, but one has to think that this is a very positive step. The same reasons that make the pipeline a bad idea now are going to make it a bad idea in the future—even if it goes around the Ogallala Aquifer [under America’s heartland]. There will always be a real risk of a breach in that pipeline. The bitumen contained in the tar sands crude pumped through these pipelines is far more corrosive than petroleum, so the chance of a leak is even worse. Plus, the pipeline would completely undercut initiatives for Americans to be pursuing their own sustainable energy sources.
Grayson: What exactly is the environmental movement fighting against? Is it the pipeline, specifically, or is the fact that this oil gets burned at all?
Garth: Well I think that depends on who’s doing the fighting. There are obviously a number of groups whose primary concern is the risk of a pipeline rupture. And then there are a lot of other people who look at these pipelines as the linchpin for expansion of the dirtiest most carbon-intensive fossil fuel on the planet. And the creation of that fossil fuel is predicated on the destruction of the boreal landscape under which it’s found. That part of Canada holds a significant portion of boreal forest, the most concentrated terrestrial carbon sink on the planet. In terms of climate change, it’s a double whammy. This is why NASA climatologist James Hansen feels that it is “essentially game over” in terms of maintaining a stable climate if the Tar Sands are developed, and environmental writer Bill McKibben refers to the Keystone pipeline as “a 1700 mile fuse to the biggest carbon bomb on the planet.”
Grayson: Explain how you think your photographs may have affected this process.
Garth: People hear so many arguments back and forth, and it can become extremely confusing. I think there is a real honesty in actually seeing the physical impact of what a development project like this means on the ground. When you’re actually there and you see the scale of impact, you really realize that we’re changing the earth in a way that has never been done on this kind of scale. I think the photography brings that home and will compel people to do their own research into the matter and form their own opinions. I think photography has the potential to convince people that this is, in fact, a huge issue and worthy of their attention.
Grayson: In writing, everybody has an opinion, even if they try to present an objective version of a set of events. When you shoot the tar sands, are you thinking about how to cast each photograph in a light that supports your point of view? Is photography inherently more honest than writing?
Garth: I don’t know that I’m going to say to a writer that photography is inherently more honest than writing, though I imagine you’re a photographer as well. Especially in the digital age the honesty of photography is being questioned, but I try to make my photographs as honest a representation of what’s really there as possible. Photographs are compelling, they get people’s attention. I think that honesty is important.
Grayson: So how do you stay honest but still advocate for your cause?
Garth: I am definitely not trying to photograph with any particular agenda, that usually results in bad photography and bad journalism. When I am photographing, I am not trying to advocate for any particular cause. Of course I care about these issues but my work is really driven by an interest in the issue and its potential for producing the kind of aesthetic imagery I respond to, and in trying to tell a story. When I am in the field, my aesthetic perspective really kicks in and is the overwhelming influence in the photographs I produce. When you’re shooting from a plane, everything is happening so fast that you’re working on instinct and intuition. I’m really just trying to make a strong, powerful, beautiful image. There are images in my exhibit for which I have been criticized for making the Tar Sands look too beautiful. Those are some of the images that I am most proud of. I like the idea of challenging peoples preconceived ideas about what these landscapes “ought to look like.” The same exhibit also has a large print of some of the work done on producing dry tailings, which has the potential to have a very positive impact on that aspect of the Tar Sands’ impacts. Some people might prefer that I not show an image that shows some of the efforts being made to try and reduce the impacts but I think it is an interesting image and an important part of the story. At the same time, some of the images are pretty graphic and challenging. The overriding influence in producing these images and including them in my exhibit was that I found them interesting and compelling visually. I’m not really thinking, “Oh, if I frame a picture this way, people are going to think that.” I am really not thinking about how other people are going to respond the them, it is really more about how I am responding to the subject matter in the moment. My overall approach is pretty intuitive. Whether I’m on the ground or in the air, my aesthetic desires take over. I care about these issues a lot and that’s one of the motivating factors in photographing these kinds of industrial landscapes. But the fact is, I find the subject matter incredibly arresting and powerful, just on its own merit. And I think even if it weren’t for the fact that these are important issues that I feel compelled to communicate, I would still find this subject matter fascinating.
Grayson: Explain what the International League of Conservation Photographers does.
GL: The ILCP was created in 2005 to bring together the best practitioners of this kind of photography. The idea is that if we work together as a network, the impact of our actions would be a lot stronger. The ILCP helps photographers more effectively use their work to support environmental causes and organizations. They’re trying to raise the credibility, the standards, and the public awareness for this kind of work.
Grayson: Awareness? You mean that Keystone isn’t just an abstract talking point for talk radio hosts to bat around?
GL: Yeah, that it’s real, and that the photographers who are covering these issues are doing so with a very high code of ethics and a sense of integrity to communicate an honest representation of the threats.
Grayson: How do you pay for these projects? Flight time is not cheap. Then there’s your time, your equipment… How does a photographer get funding to do what is essentially activism?
Garth: For me, it comes from a variety of sources: fine art print sales, editorial assignments, stock sales, etc. I’ve been doing commissions for NGOs, fundraising mostly through folks who have supported my work over the years. Sometimes you have to be creative. My first work on the tar sands was in 2005 as part of a very large project that I conceived and completed for a coalition of groups working on boreal issues. In 2010 I made three trips to the area, mostly shooting stills for the documentary The Tipping Point. The producers helped cover the cost and air time, but I retained all copyright, which allowed me to produce a huge amount of material. I think I’ve been fortunate in that I recognized early on what a big issue the tar sands development was going to become.
Grayson: What’s the takeaway here for a photographer who wants to get into advocacy? And what effect can you actually have?
Garth: I think photographers can have a huge effect. Photography is one of the most powerful ways we can communicate both the fragility of the environment and the threats that unchecked industrial development present to it. That’s one of the reasons why, in all of my projects, I never just show the industrial landscape. You also have to show what that landscape was like before it became industrialized. The hope is to make people realize how important it is to protect the places that haven’t yet been impacted. The takeaway for photographers is that you have to really care about these issues. There’s not a huge amount of compensation. You have to be doing it for the right reasons because it’s a long haul.
I asked Ethan Levitas to tell us a little more about the picture he took for GQ that we featured on The Daily Edit last week. Here’s his response:
Jean-Jacques Naudet, the legendary editor in chief (’76-’88) of French Photo, who looks like a leading man and lives like a gentleman – and who is a gentle man – told me not to. This was years ago, at his flat in Paris, while I was showing him some rough prints of my work Broken Arm. They were strewn all over the living room floor, and as he looked them over he told me, in his deep but quiet voice, “These are great.” Then he asked, “But how did you get all the police to cooperate and pose for you? What did you say?” A bit perplexed by this, I replied, “Well, Naudet, I didn’t. And that, to a large degree, is the work.” To which he seemed to take great delight, smiled wide and said, “These ARE great.” Then he added a four letter word, poured us another glass, lit another cigarette and after a long pause looked up and said, “Never explain your work.”
And though the paradox wasn’t lost on me, I generally agree. But at the risk of stepping on my own photograph, and because I truly appreciated hearing sincerely and positively from my peers about this work, that it spoke to them, a few words.
Sam Brown’s experience is at turns unique, tragic, and inspiring. (I hope those interested will take a moment to read the text of the GQ article as well.) As I considered this sitting, I struggled to avoid any simplification that would leave the individual behind: a skin-deep representation of the trauma, a lens-based impulse to voyeurism or imposed sentimentality, or any political polemic. At the same time, Sam’s story is also Capt. Brown’s story, and cannot, and should not, be separated from the Nation which he represented and served. It is personal and it is collective. Which, incidentally, is not unlike photography itself.
Other than that, and if I may, I’d prefer at the moment to get out of the way and let my portrait, and the medium, speak for itself.
APE: Tell me about yourself and how you got started as a photographer?
Jake Stangel: I was that dude in high school whose hands always reeked of D-76 from processing tri-x and printing in the darkroom without tongs all day long. I was fortunate to go to a public school that had a great photo program and provided all the black and white film I could shoot. Photography is just literally how I’ve identified myself since I was 15 years old, it’s been ten years now. Just constantly shooting, constantly out and about with a camera, always loving it. There’s never been a day I’ve been “over” photography, and I feel really fortunate to have that kind of relationship with the medium.
I went to NYU/Tisch photo for college, really hated what the majority of the photo program was about throughout my freshman year. A bunch of 18 year old egos with pretty shitty work (myself included), listless crits, an even more listless curriculum (I hear it’s gotten better, this was in 2008). And it was expensive. I couldn’t see myself there for 3 more years, so I got out of there ASAP after my freshman year.
However, I did stay within NYU, and followed my own educational path by enrolling in a school called Gallatin, where you can create your own major. I studied photography, marketing, economics, American Industrialization, and did a whole lot of writing over those last three years in college, which was seriously fundamental. I also studied abroad by doing a semester with NOLS in Central America for full credit, which took me about as far from NYC and civilized life as one can get. I would very much advise studying a well-rounded group of subjects in college, stay aware of what’s going on around you, cause there’s alot more than photography in this world.
Living in NYC was also paramount to my development as a photographer, and I got to intern and assist for Jeff Riedel and Richard Renaldi. Both of those experiences were fantastic and I learned heaps. These internships were utterly fundamental in solidifying my desire and motivation to become a photographer myself. I got so excited and happy to be on shoots, I knew I wanted to go for it. So, if college kids are reading this, work for photographers you love and respect. Doesn’t matter how big-time they are, though it’s helpful if they are working!
What does biking across the country (three times!) have to do with becoming a professional photographer? Shouldn’t you be assisting or something?
So I’m a little deranged (or very sane) and love cycling and traveling so much that I’ve ridden a bicycle East to West across America three times over three summers, twice while still in college in 2007, 2008, and once after I graduated in 2009. About 3 months and 3,000-4,000 miles each time. Usually 50-65 towns along the way. Lots of on the bike and off the bike time.
Every summer, the camera became my journal. The trips were just as fundamental to my photographic development as anything I did in college, and built the foundation upon which I still shoot: exploratory, narrative driven, environment-focused, mood-oriented, engagingly quirky photos that are based on wonderful light and interesting compositions. Everything became part of a visual diary, and a cause for exploration with a camera.
These exploration-quests set the tone for me to always be present on the real, live moment, the situation, the snippets of life/human interaction/engagement that mark our lives, our personal experiences, our memories. It lets me shoot quickly, loosely, and lightly. It also lets me jump between locations alot quicker, and allows me be on the lookout for great light and settings to shoot in, and not worry about all 9 strobes firing or wishing I hadn’t planted all my lights in one place.
These trips were also a phenomenal way to build a giant body of personal work, which I was aware of going into it, and really tried to take advantage of every day. Almost every ride and every experience was a “William Eggleston, eat your heart out” kind of day.
After I moved to Portland, OR from NYC, I was able to leverage this portfolio alot, and it helped kind of pull me up out of assisting a little quicker. But that said, I was shooting a crap-ton of personal work every day in Portland too.
I recognized that personal work, and developing a comprehensive portfolio of reportage-y, on-location work was the key to getting commissions. So I just went for it. Assigned myself what I wanted to shoot, then showed that work around, then got actual assigned work that nicely overlayed on top of it.
Seems like you’ve hit a new chapter in your career. The forum you started for up and coming photographers (Too much chocolate) is dead and you signed with a major rep. (Julian Richards). Tell me about it?
Yeah first of all, a goddamn hacker that took the site down. I didn’t pull the plug on it. I was getting pretty overwhelmed trying to maintain it at the end of last year while shooting, and planned to put it on hiatus, but keep it live, as a reference. Then this hacker came in and destroyed it. I’m beyond bummed, it was like 2.5 years of my life and hundreds of hours of time on the site. I think I’m just going to upload a tombstone on the homepage.
I met Julian through my genial photographer friend, Alex Tehrani. I was shooting some snowboarders riding halfpipe in 2007 in Stratton, Vermont for a small snowboard magazine. I was being totally dumb/gnarly by shooting with a 4×5 Toyo camera, which is the worst cause it slows down the process about 15 times, and you just hope the rider is in the right place, took the right line you prefocused on, etc. When a shot comes out, it’s worth it, but you’re so gripped the whole time you’re shooting, thinking about the money sinking through your hands.
Anyway, Alex comes tromping down the pipe in ski boots with a 5D and a huge sloppy grin on his face, and he’s like, “Dude! What the hell are you doing?!?”. He was there shooting Shaun White or Kevin Pearce, I think, for Men’s Journal. A friendship was born.
Alex became, and still is very much a mentor to me. I love him for that. He’s got such a great attitude and life outlook. Alex had been with Julian forever, and over time, sometime in 2009 I guess, he introduced Julian to my (nascent and early) work. So from there Julian and I got to know each other in late 2010 or so, and I quote-unquote “signed” with him in the summer of 2011. It was a totally pleasant, totally slow and totally natural process. Like childbirth. I’ve been told.
Julian’s great, I’m pumped. There were so few agents I took a liking to, where the roster was fantastic and the overall vibe wasn’t “we’re gonna turn you into a slick, photo-taking machine and you’re gonna shoot for Mercedes-Benz”. I really love Julian because he lets all of his photographers be themselves, and he really finds work that snugly fits right along with our personal, natural style, as opposed to jamming a square peg in a round hole.
What’s going on in the northwest, some kind of photography movement? Every time I check out someone new and cool they’re from the NW? Maybe you guys have a gang or something?
Well I moved to San Francisco in the summer, around when I came on board with Julian, but the two happenings were unrelated. I moved cause I wanted more sun, really, and I felt like Portland was definitely limiting my chances of getting work and being as visible as I wanted to. I’d have great meetings with photo editors and at the end they’re like, “where do you live again”, and I’d say “Portland!” and they’d be like, “oh…”. So I split. But I still love Portland.
Portland, Seattle, and Vancouver also have smaller and more transparent communities, where everyone knows each other, whereas in NYC and SF you start to not have that. The Northwest is rad because everyone there is incredibly grounded and centered, they’re much more in touch with nature, the rent is cheap and the coffee is also really cheap yet terrific, and most people grow beards, which helps in some way I haven’t yet ascertained.
So, is everything starting to click for you now? In the first chapter I detected angst, like “when is this career going to start,” but now you must be feeling pretty good?
Well, it’s not like I just stepped into the club and everything started to pop off. It’s been alot alot alot of struggle and getting the angle of my Kangol hat just so and there have been lots of rainy mornings spent getting out of ruts and staying positive and directed. Just tons of hard work. That’s all I can really say. Everyone who you see doing well has worked incredibly hard to get to where they are in their career, they’re all on the grind.
If anything, and I’m sure there’s a business term for this, there was a definite tipping point where I had the ability to channel all the commissioned work I was getting back into my portfolio, and that let things snowball alot. I was no longer having to make personal work to get assignments, my assignments were getting me more assignments. So its almost like all these magazine jobs were doing my marketing for me, because not only did it all become portfolio material, but was turning up in print, and it helps you stay top of mind alot more.
On Tuesday, New York Magazine announced that it had signed longtime contributor and well-known photojournalist Christopher Anderson as the weekly magazine’s first-ever “photographer-in-residence.” In a statement released to the British Journal of Photography, New York said the 41-year-old Brooklyn-based shooter would tackle a “broad array of subjects in a full range of styles, from photojournalism to portraiture to conceptual work.” Anderson will now work exclusively for New York, at least where print magazines are concerned. The odd thing, here, is that the era of the staff photographer was supposed to have ended when National Geographic gradually moved away from the practice. We called Anderson to try and make sense of the sudden turn of events.
Grayson: Congrats. We thought the staff photographer position had gone the way of the film camera, what happened?
Christopher: I’ve had a close collaboration with [photography director] Jody Quon and [editor] Adam Moss for quite some time. They came to me and asked if I would consider taking this kind of position as an experiment—a way to reaffirm the magazine’s commitment to exciting photography. It’s a great opportunity.
Grayson: What are the specifics of the arrangement that you can share?
Christopher: The amount of time is, as of yet, undetermined. We’re going to see how it goes for at least a year.
Grayson: As much as you can produce for them? Are you like an all-you-can-eat buffet of photography?
Christopher: Well this is the real world, and of course they’re going to want to use me as much as they can. It is, in that sense, an all-you-can-eat buffet. But I don’t think that was the point. The idea wasn’t to say “Let’s put him on staff so we can use him up as much as we can.” The point was to have my undivided attention. We want to see if working together in a concentrated way like this can produce some interesting work over time.
Grayson: So it looks more like a professor’s chair than a hamster wheel.
Christopher: Right. They have my undivided attention, but I also have theirs. As a freelance photographer, you spend a lot of time trying to drum up business—shooting just to eat. Now I feel like I can focus on the creative side. I genuinely like working with that magazine, and I love the current projects they’re presenting me with. You might think your hands would be tied and you’re owned by them, but in a weird way I feel much freer.
Grayson: Why do you think staff jobs went away in the first place?
Christopher: There were never many to begin with, though there were some contracts. I used to be on contract at Newsweek. But the implosion of the publishing industry in general, and the photography industry specifically, led to the end of that practice. In the end, it’s cheaper for magazines to use freelancers. It makes economic sense.
Grayson: So how does this arrangement make economic sense?
Christopher: I don’t know that it does. It’s kind of an experiment. But my sense is it’s not about economics. It’s hard to put an exact price on the value of this kind of collaboration. This is more about a creative partnership. I think that they’ve looked at models of how this is done before, particularly by the New Yorker. That magazine has had a long tradition of staff photographers over the years: Richard Avedon, Gilles Peress… and I think this is sort of that New Yorker model where it’s about letting my identity stay independent, even though I’ll be attached to the magazine.
Grayson: They’ll probably end up with some great work to show for it.
Christopher: I hope that that will be true. I also hope that I can produce some great work for myself. I see this as a mutually beneficial relationship.
Photographer and (now) Director Ed McCulloch sent me his new reel website: http://EDdirects.com which I thought looked amazing, so I asked him about the process:
What was the impetus for getting into directing and creating your reel?
Over the last couple of years I’ve seen the needs of agency creatives change. I did not want to be left behind. Last year I was shooting a campaign with Cramer-Krasselt in Austin Texas. On set the creative director for the agency told me that if I had a reel I would’ve been directing the tv spot as well. That’s when I started seriously thinking about film and director’s reel.
How do you go about creating a reel from scratch? Walk us through the process.
It was definitely a lot of work. I knew from the beginning that I wanted to create a reel that was on the same quality level as my photography. I knew it would take time. The learning curve would be steep and keep my head spinning for months.
The hardest decision I had to make was deciding between creating a director’s reel or a director of photography (DP) reel. Did I want to direct or did I want to shoot? Being a photographer my natural instinct was to become a DP. DP’s are responsible for everything composition, camera movements and lighting. They collaborate with the director to make sure his vision comes to life. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that in my photography my biggest enjoyment came from directing the photo shoots; choosing locations, talent, wardrobe and getting the right performances out of the talent which all culminate in the final product. For me photography was always more about the story and the creative aspects, not the technical side.
After that decision was made I started brainstorming ideas and writing the scripts for the spots. That was one of the most important things: the creation of the concepts and the stories I would be telling. I chose brands that people would recognize but not brands so huge that everyone knows exactly what agency or what director shoots them. I do however have a Nike spot on my reel. The decision to use Nike as a brand was made because I was shooting an NBA player who is really sponsored by Nike.
While writing the scripts I searched for specialized crew members that were willing to help me build the reel. I did use some of my photography crew like assistants and stylists but in the end film is so much more collaborative and involved than photography so I knew I would need crew members that were also experienced in film. I definitely encountered plenty of no’s but kept pushing forward. In the end I found a great group of people willing to help me build the reel. We had anywhere from 15-25 crew members on set for each shoot.
After I had scripts and crew I set dates for the first couple of shoots then started producing them. I scouted locations, applied for permits, gathered insurance certificates, scheduled casting calls, chose wardrobe with my stylist, made compositional and lighting decisions with my DP, put together call sheets and shoot schedules etc. That was extremely time consuming and exhausting.
Next was shooting and directing the talent and overall look and feel of each piece. Shoot days were definitely the most fun. Collaborating with actors was a learning process, it’s much different than working with talent in photography. Learning the way actors think and the language they use to communicate takes time to understand. The whole process of collaborating with them was incredibly fulfilling.
After shooting came editing. I could not for the life of me find a good editor willing to help, so my DP and I had to learn it. Editing is an art form in and of itself. Editors have a unique talent for problem solving and story telling. It was incredibly difficult to learn. It takes a completely different creative thought process, it was challenging. We edited all of our pieces on Final Cut Pro 7.
Sound design was another challenge. Collecting high quality sound and laying it in the right places at the right times of the commercial is an art form. I enlisted the help of a sound designer for this part.
Put all of that together and you have a :30 or :60 second spot. Everything currently on my reel was shot this year between February and November.
What are your thoughts on taking your vision from print/digital and applying it to motion?
Yeah that was definitely an important part of the process. Having your own unique style of directing is just as important as it is in photography. I think it’s extremely important to stay consistent throughout your photography portfolio and motion reel but there are so many more variables in film to consider. This one thing caused an immense amount of stress for me. I knew how to create photographs, how do get the look and feel that I needed, how to tell a story with one frame. Initially film blew my mind in this aspect because instead of one frame I now had many many frames to tell my stories. There are so many different processes in producing and directing a commercial that it was initially a challenge to make sure ALL decisions were being made with my vision in mind.
What’s the next step, working with a production company? That seems a bit different than the photography business, so tell us how that works?
After the reel was created the next step was contacting production companies. These companies represent directors. They are the middlemen between the director and the ad agency. They take care of all the estimating much like a photographers agent would do. What differentiates them from photographers agent is they actually produce the commercials which is where their money is made. A director is assigned an executive producer within the company to work with. Production companies are represented by reps that are positioned by territory; east coast, mid west and west coast. These reps travel to ad agencies within their territories and funnel projects to the production companies they represent. Most reps represent multiple production companies, editorial (editors), music and visual effects companies.
I researched these companies and contacted the executive producers to set up the meetings. The process took about six months, they are incredibly hard to get a hold of. I was told they receive thousands of email requests each month. I’ve recently returned from LA where I met with some great production companies. I will be up and running with one of them in January.