RIPPED ME A NEW ONE

Way back when (2001) I took my portfolio down to Toronto to show it to some of the folks there who have their thumb on the pulse of photography.

Last meeting of the trip was with Clare Vander Meersch. She looked through my portfolio and more or less ripped me a new one.

What Clare told me was (and my memory might not be totally accurate here), the photos were swell but were missing something. They seemed old-fashioned (or, maybe, already dated) and formulaic. Of course she said more, fleshed out the reasons for her reactions. It was a well-measured, though quite critical, response.

As I departed the meeting I mumbled to myself that she didn’t know shit. After all, I was having some success, right? And what the fuck does she know, anyway? Stuff like that.

(I should mention that I was having some success as an editorial and commercial photographer at that point. I was known for shooting classic-type B&W portraits. Lots of people dug them.)

Got in my car and began the 5 hour trip home, turning her comments over in my head the whole time.

Halfway home I wondered to myself, I wondered, what if she’s right? Could that be possible?

As I drove into my driveway in Kapital City I knew she was. Right.

That set off two years of struggle, soul-searching and exploration. I wanted to change my approach, change how my photos looked and felt and, mostly, change what they meant to me.

I won’t bore you with the rest of this story except to say that I finally, in a desert outside Los Angeles, figured out a new approach, a new (for me) way of working. It felt more modern and, somehow, true to me.

(I should mention that the changes in my work, from pre-2001 to now, are not radical. More, they are subtle shifts. Evolution, not revolution. This, in part it seems to me, is why the changes seem right.)

You see, I’m not the kind of guy who can think to himself, hmmm, my work needs to look more modern, and then just mimic someone else’s work I’d seen that struck me as modern (or trendy). Yes, there are certainly other photographers whose images have a similar look and feel to those I make (tell me a photographer’s name who has come up with something completely new in the last 30 or 40 years). But I had put in the work and the self-reflection, the trial and the error (so many errors), to arrive at this new point of departure and it just felt right. I was now at a location (in my brain) where I could set off down a new, different, path and look for new meanings.

I have always held that fateful meeting with Clare close to my heart. I thank her for her honesty and I thank myself for getting past my (bruised) ego. It changed my life.

WORKSHOPS

Speaking of critique, opinion, change and progress . . .  I want to mention that I’ll be teaching two Master Classes this summer.

One is about portraiture. It’s not a technical class (though there will be bits of that). It’s more about teaching an approach to portraiture that explores the space between you and the person you are photographing. The aim being to not just end up with a likeness of your “subject”, but rather to show you a way to work that allows for a fuller experience.

Click this link for more details.


The other deals with sequencing, or, rather, it will introduce you to a philosophy, strategies and approaches to photography that will add nuance, depth and complexity to the work you produce.

Click this link for more details.


The time and location of each Master Class is yet to be determined, but they will each probably happen one morning or afternoon a week, for four weeks. The location will be The National Gallery of Canada or SPAO.

FIRST DUMMY

Well, I finally committed to a first dummy. I more or less settled on a sequence, made 5 x 7 1/2 inch work prints, stuck them onto 8 1/2 x 11 paper and slid them into an album.

Looking at the whole thing flat on a wall is a very different experience from seeing the images in a book. When you transfer the sequence from the wall to a book you experience the photos on pages and turns, you see how it works and doesn’t work. Because of this you inevitably end up moving a whole bunch of pictures around. So for the first dummy I like to use cheap photo albums that have sleeves, which allows for easy shifting of the images.

As I was sliding the images into the album I saw some stupidity right away and changed bits of the sequence then and there. Then, first time ever, once the prints were all inserted I closed the album and walked away. Usually I rush to an easy chair and flip through right away. But I’m trying to take it easy here, stay relaxed. If you don’t this process can climb on top of you like bad drugs. (You ever taken bad drugs? You end up bent out of shape on the floor, just trying not to die. Yup.)

Got up the next morning, had some coffee, made breakfast, ate it, then sat in an easy chair and had a look at what I’d done. Before I was halfway through I began rearranging images and, in the end, removed four entirely.

Then I showed it to Cin. She had mostly positive things to say (the best being, as she closed the book, “How the fuck did you do that?”). She also pointed out a number of bad choices as well as some confusion and, conversely, not enough confusion in the flow of images. Then we had a wide-ranging discussion about the work in general.

That led to further changes (refinements?) and then, over the next few days, I spent a fair amount of time having a harder look at the thing. That resulted in even more changes.

Now I’m gonna show it to all manner of folks, get more feedback. Then I’ll have to weigh a bunch of disparate comments, have a rethink, and get down to the second dummy.

Feels good, though, to finally have something in my hands.

(AND, PARENTHETICALLY)

(I might mention that I generated about 5,000 images over the year and a half I was shooting this project. That was whittled down, over two and a half months of edit/sequence, to the 45 that, at this point, are in the book.

The fact that there were 5000 to choose from is unusual for me. Most of my projects are shot on film. When I shoot film I approach the subject in a different way: I shoot more slowly, consider more, take fewer pictures, so the shape of the project becomes more defined during the shooting phase.

Of course it’s necessary to apply a tight edit/sequence no matter how you shoot the photos, no matter how many you have to choose from. In a lot of the digi vs film debates that used to rage, and still rear up from time to time, these differences [how the tool changes your relationship to the subject, the subjects’ relationship to you, what that causes and how you deal with the aftermath] . . . these differences don’t seem to enter the conversation too much. But it does make a difference.)

THE LATEST

Quite often a photographer’s favourite photo is the latest one they’ve made that doesn’t suck too much. That favourite image is then inevitably supplanted by their next photo that doesn’t suck too much.

Nothing wrong with measuring your success by admiring the endless parade of photos you’ve made that have, shall we say, worked out. Unless, of course, you view photography as something more than just liking your latest good picture.

If you consider each of your photos as a piece of a larger construct you will be forced to look at and judge your photos on merits other than “hey! this looks good”. You’ll need to assess them by how they fit into the larger scheme of things.

I mention this because of where I am in the edit/sequence of my new project. All the shooting, up to now, has been done without thinking about specifics too much. I had a general idea, shot a whole bunch of pictures that might somehow support that thesis, and trusted that I had enough options to make the edit/sequence work.

But now, at this point of the project, I realize I need a few more specific images to make the sequence smoother. One of them being a portrait-type photo of a young woman.

So I went out and shot it (yesterday). It has become my latest picture that (I think) doesn’t suck too much.

Whether it will actually work for the project remains to be seen. I have to print it, insert it into the sequence, and see what’s what. I hope it’s what I need, but there’s every chance it’ll join the big pile of photos that I like but just don’t work.

We’ll see.


ABOUT A BLOG

Last week I was wondering why my projects don’t all look the same. Same goes for this blog. I mean, of course there’s a kind of continuity here, dead horses I continue to flog. (Writer Martin Amis once said, “The only reason to flog a dead horse is for the pure enjoyment of it”.)

I think we’re all a bit like that, us humans, us photographers. We latch on to something (or other) and somehow (or other) the tables turn and the thing we’ve latched onto gets its hooks into us. That can be good up to a point, obsession must be part of any practice, mustn’t it? But what’s even better is when that obsession is tempered by a larger perspective, a longer view. That’s where theory meets practice, where the inner meets the outer, where old thoughts are tempered by new possibilities.

Anyway . . . drool.

I can tell you (and you probably know with being told) that some weeks I’m just itching to say something, something is on my mind, I’m affected by, and infected with, some verve. Other weeks, not so much. But I’m committed to posting something (or other) every Sunday. Like church.

I like the structure. And, sometimes, when I sit down to write, I’m blank, empty, depressed. I’ve got nothing, but the process of writing leads to something (or other). (Or not.)

It’s all really just a shot in the dark, isn’t it? But the important thing is to take a shot.

And, because of the relatively short gestation period from post to post, drool. reflects my state of mind in a different way than my photo projects.

drool. fulfills a function for me. Like my photo projects it’s a way to keep track and to reckon, to try to understand myself and the world, and to leave a trace of my passage through.