Monday, August 26, 2013

Skin in the Game

 It's All About the Tattoo Art, 2013

(Click on images to see larger)

I broke one of my rules for these pictures.
I’ll do a lot of things in the name of getting the picture I want. I’ll trespass. I’ll ask the subject to move into a better position. I’ll use Photoshop to clean up my mistakes.
But what I won’t do it pay someone on the street to let me take their picture.

This is a practical matter. Once you pay someone to sit for a street photograph, 1) everyone expects to be paid and 2) you become a target for every beggar and ragamuffin.

There are more than enough interesting looking people in the world to photograph. If someone insists on being paid for a street photograph, I politely decline and move on until I find a more willing subject.

Up until a week or so ago, this rule of not paying had extended to not paying exorbitant tariffs to get into places where I’d like to photograph people. I’ve paid, say, $5 or $10 to get into an event where there was photographic potential. But that was it.

Then my friend the eminent illustrator Walt Taylor insisted I go with him to a tattoo convention. Walt and I sometimes wander around the local scene on Saturdays, me looking for things to photograph and him looking for inspirations for illustrations.

I didn’t have anything against going to a tattoo convention. People with tattoos can be intimidating to some people. But they’re also among the easiest people to get to sit for photographs. I thought there might be some interesting people at a tattoo convention. Besides, Walt’s been threatening for several years to get a tattoo. I thought this might be the day.


In This Man's Navy, 2013

What I didn’t reckon on was that there’d be a $25 admission fee to get into the tattoo convention. But in the name of friendship and photography, and after making sure they’d allow photography, I went ahead and agreed to this inky excursion.

The convention center where the event was held was a sea of booths containing lots of tattoo art and chairs and tables where people could sit or lie down while a tattoo artist did his or her work.

There’s a curious intersection of themes in the tattoo art world I hadn’t anticipated. The fifties-style pin-up girl look is big. So is anything steampunk. The real surprise, though, was the number of exhibitors that had taxidermied animals in their displays. Can someone explain this for me?


Framing the Art, 2013

In the end, I didn’t take as many pictures as I’d hoped and wasn’t very pleased with what I did take. Walt, by the way, didn’t get a tattoo, either. But he did buy a tattoo convention t-shirt. That might qualify you as hip in Norfolk. But from where I sit that doesn’t count as real skin in the game. 


Taxidermy and Tattoos, 2013

Monday, August 19, 2013

A Wrong Turn Turned Good

 Gowanus Canal, 2012
(Click on images to see larger)

I was leaving New York to return home to Virginia one morning recently and made a wrong turn. Actually, after reviewing the map I’ve determined that I didn’t make a wrong turn so much as fail to make the correct left turn when the route took me briefly off one expressway onto local streets so that I could get on another expressway.
But that doesn’t matter. What matters is that instead of getting an earlier start on the drive I found myself headed downhill toward Brooklyn’s Gowanus Canal. It was a gorgeous morning and barely 70F. In other words, excellent conditions for a quick walkabout.
The Gowanus Canal is probably second only to Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River in the notoriety of its environmental degradation. It’s been the dumping site for industrial and other wastes for more than a century. I’m told copious efforts have been made to end dumping, clean the Gowanus Canal and open the area up to more modern uses that allow people to get closer to and enjoy the waterfront. However, as the picture below demonstrates, I’d advise you to refrain from sticking your toe in the Gowanus Canal just yet. Even the birds seem leery of it.
Gowanus Waters, 2013
But that doesn’t matter either. I wasn’t going for a swim. And it turns out the area around the canal is ripe for the kind of graphic industrial photography I sometimes like to do.
Gowanus 017, 2013

Gowanus 022, 2013

Monday, August 12, 2013

Under the Lights and Stretching the Comfort Zone

Brittany, 2013
(Click on image to see larger)

I spent last week in New York participating in a workshop called “Environmental Portraiture” at the School of the International Center for Photography (ICP).  After last summer’s terrific “Photographing People” workshop at ICP with Harvey Stein, I thought I’d turned the corner and that it would be clear sailing from then on. Then I had one of those “Aw, s---t!” moments when I realized I had to give thought to what to do with people once they’d agreed to be photographed.

This isn’t rocket science. But still, if you want photos to be more than mindless snapshots, you do need to give some thought to how you portray people honestly, accurately and engagingly. And it’s not like I haven’t given this some thought already. Still, I thought it might be instructive to observe how another photographer works through this process.

This year’s class was taught by Shelby Lee Adams, who is probably best known for his arresting portraits of individuals and families who live in the “hollers” ofAppalachia.

From anyone else, this series of portraits could come across as exploitative. Shelby, however, grew up in Hazard, Kentucky. He understands and respects the culture and customs of that impoverished region. He doesn’t treat his subjects as caricatures, something an outsider would be easily tempted to do.

I enjoyed getting to know Shelby. But it didn’t take long to conclude that the course should have been called “Lighting for Outdoor Photographic Portraits.” There was very little talk about the intellectual process of environmental portraits and a whole lot of talk about lighting ratios.

Let me tell you, this is a lot harder than you might think. As someone who’s always favored natural light, learning to shoot in a formal portrait format, particularly outdoors, was a real test of my comfort zone elasticity.

What we had to do was reject natural light and instead learn how to create the light we wanted. We were approaching these portraits as a painter might, with all the creative flexibility that entails.

Artificial light isn’t a foreign concept to me. I’ve photographed in a studio before. It's intuitive to use strobes and other artificial lighting there. But on the street, where there’s lots of light and maybe even the interesting light that drew you to photograph someone in the first place?

This leads to the second obstacle. Normally, I’m anxious to photograph people in their own context. I go to where there are, whether that’s an artist in his studio or a pianist at the piano or just a pretty girl sitting in the soft light under a tree. You get the picture. That’s why they’re called “environmental” portraits.

But in this class we were learning not to go to the people, but rather to bring them to a place, or create a place, where we’d set up a series of artificial lights to turn an outdoor space into an indoor space.  To me, this makes about as much sense as spending a lot of money to manufacture rain on a sunny day just because you have a raincoat you want to wear.

Anyway, I spent a week stumbling through this change of paradigm. I shot hundreds of images of seven or eight different models. I don’t think I embarrassed myself too much. The photo above was taken in the arcade under the Bethesda Terrace in Central Park.