INSPIRATION #3: FACING THE OTHER

 

©2009 Lyle Owerko/CLIC Gallery

©2009 Lyle Owerko/CLIC Gallery

 

I’m torn sometimes between my core desire to capture moments and to create photographs. I’m also prone to seek the bliss of isolation after periods of intense work. I have to force myself to get out and see what’s going on, but I rarely regret it. So when I am knocked off my feet by such beauty as I recently saw at Lyle Owerko’s show of his project on the Samburu people of Northern Kenya at the CLIC Gallery in Soho I am inspired and overcome with the desire to rush out and do portraits. Lyle goes deep with these lyrical, sensitive portraits and the stunning large prints are hypnotic.

Clic Bookstore & Gallery – New York, St. Barth – ABOUT

In a related vein, Elisabeth Sunday’s AFRICA VI: The Tuareg Portfolios, 2005–2009 presents dramatic figurative portraits of the nomadic Tuareg from the Sahara Desert in Northern Mali, which I also find haunting, lyrical, mystical; they push my inner Jungian dreamscape blast-off button. And I’ve not yet seen these up close, but will next week.

Gallery 291

Back in the US, I was pulled in by Richard Rinaldi’s new monograph “Fall River Boys” from Charles Lane Press, which yields the stark, honest reality of young men coming of age in a struggling New England town. The work rises up and bites when you least expect it to. Eloquent, and also haunting and sad, the images are not without glimmers of dignity and determination as seen on the faces Rinaldi reveals with care.

Charles Lane Press | Fall River Boys

Inspiration alone is a pretty great thing, no?

But it’s deeper than that. I’m responding also to the search for the other, as these artists all seem to me to be pursuing in their own ways. By the “other” I refer to the stranger we encounter in our travels, or even in our own street. Through our understanding of the other, we define ourselves.  The famous journalist Rsyard Kapucinski discusses this phenomenon extensively in his posthumous book “The Other,” Verso, 2008, and refers to the great French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas who said “…the self is only possible through the recognition of the other.”

Through my own portraits on my travels I’ve noticed a continuing theme in my work over the years that explores this idea. In all my work, since I was a kid, I’ve been obsessed with images that could be called portraits but are made as street shots where the subject has momentarily looked into my lens as I was grabbing the moment––probably they were lost in thought while waiting in a line or while working or whatever––but they looked up at me as I pressed the shutter. There is an unguarded quality as if I have known them all my life and they are trusting me. It’s a lovely fraction of a second when defenses between strangers are down. I have the nerve to look the stranger in the eye and they are completely open to me in turn.

I’ve written a bit about this and how I see this as a search for my own identity and place in the world, and that’s about the size of it. Not at all a conscious effort, just part of what I’m doing. Which may be why the above artist’s work is so exciting and inspiring to me.

And by creating a photograph, as opposed to capturing a portrait as a moment, I mean a situation, most likely a portrait where I’m in dialog with the subject. I’m choosing the background, location and position of the subject, or a still life, or some other conceptual approach such as some of the fashion or advertising work I’ve done that may be more illustrative.

These really seem two sides of the same coin because even moments captured in camera are later partly “created” in terms of how I render the print in the darkroom, digital or wet. There the print becomes an expression and subjective interpretation of how I saw the image. While digital manipulation in terms of switching out heads or changing skies and whatnot is not my thing, burning and dodging is definitely another form of manipulation, and is something very important to me. Since your eye goes to the lightest areas first I can control where your eye moves around the image to yield a heightened emotional response. Some of this may be planned in the exposure and depth of field of course, but in the final print comes the full expression of the idea. And that leads to a discussion about the magic of the print… to be continued…

Tuesday
28
April 2009

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KAIZEN IN RICHMOND

“The ideas I’m expressing about true success are scalable and can be modified to fit individual needs. That’s where kaizen comes into play. “

I’m still buzzed from the wonderful, warm bath of good vibrations that made my visit and talk with the photographers of Richmond, VA and the ASMPCV such a blast. Giving one of these talks can be like any performance; entertaining, hopefully inspiring, or…not, and the outcome is more than half driven by the energy of the audience. This was an outstanding audience from which I learned a few things. These folks down here have their heads screwed on right, especially the talented John Henley, who helped arrange my visit. John started in fine art and continues to bring an artist’s eye to his commercial work. In other words, he gets paid to shoot what he loves to shoot. Thinking about John and a conversation we had on the way to the airport got me reflecting again on the merits of kaizen, the Japanese concept of continuous incremental improvement.

©2009 John Henley, from "Midway" series.

©2009 John Henley, from "Midway" series.

These are strange times and I hear from a lot of people struggling to figure it all out, just as I am, and yet for the most part my sense was that life is quite good in Richmond amongst the photo community. People are working, things are happening as reflected by the challenging questions raised by this sharp group. Gathered in a former tobacco warehouse that is now the beautiful studio/gallery of photographer Guy Crittenden I couldn’t help but be impressed with the whole Richmond thing: the town, the people, the almost irritating friendliness (hey I am a New Yorker once again) and the tremendous talent on display on the gallery walls from a show of personal work by the local chapter members.

My talk was based on the themes from my EP essay “On Chaos…” which examines the core challenges we all face in order to create a creatively satisfying life in photography for the long term. These challenges include how to get paid to shoot what we love, building a proper business structure, balancing work and family, thriving and not just surviving kind of stuff. Most photographers are well aware of these issues and working on them. But when I’m listening to someone else articulate ways to address these questions it helps me to recognize my own challenges and to take what is useful from the speaker to apply in my own life. I’m hoping the same can be true for my audience. It really helps me to bounce these ideas off an audience in order to sharpen my own thinking and evolve the dialog. Everything about photography is changing so fast right now so I can’t even pretend to be any kind of authority. I just share my experience and what worked and did not work in the past. Hopefully some of this is useful for the future.

The feedback was very positive so I know I was on the right track for most people. But I had an interesting conversation afterward with Elli Morris who talked about her life and career in terms of having applied most of what I was talking about from the get go. She had acted all along with integrity, following her heart and saying no as much as possible to the bullshit that kills us. This to me is a rare person in photography and her ability to live in that way is exemplary. I was never that mature. Funny, but it does seem that the creative brain is often a beast that must be tamed, and many of my peers have become expert at self-medication. Sometimes this could be a chemical thing– art and madness do seem to go together– and other times it’s related to how we were raised or just the stress of putting your ego on the line. But Elli is also a mature individual, clearly raised with the right amount of self-esteem and gumption to weather the storms of a creative life. Much of what I’m talking and writing about is figuring out how to live like Elli already is living.

On the way to the airport John described similar sentiments that helped me crystalize a thought I need to add to my talks: the ideas I’m expressing about true success are scalable and can be modified to fit individual needs. That’s where kaizen comes into play. When I get rolling I tend to rant a bit, and I try to stress the urgency I feel about how short life is and coming to terms with what you feel is your true voice, putting that in your portfolio and figuring out the proper business structure to support that. For me it really is all or nothing and I can come on a bit strong with my swing for the fences philosophy. That works to get some people motivated, but for others it might be less helpful. If you are feeling trapped by the economy, or in a rut creatively, and trying to feed your family and without resources to change, then my call to action might be frustrating. But if you can make one tiny change such as everyday shooting one picture for yourself to replenish your creative well, you are practicing kaizen. And you can take other small steps, slowly turning your ship around until you are going in the right direction.

To me true success is measured in terms of how satisfied you can be creatively while still getting the bills paid. It is a question of balance, of first defining the goal and step-by-step progress to that goal. It’s doubtful anyone can ever achieve 100 per merger of art and commerce all of the time. There are compromises in reality, the trick is to keep tilting the scale toward your dreams. It’s not going to happen overnight and your version of success is yours alone. John pointed out to me that not everyone will be in the top 20 photographers in the US, nor will they even want to be. Everyone has a different level of ego, ambition and way of defining success. John is not saying people should accept mediocrity either, but to examine what works and does not work for them and begin to look at what their choices have been. What photographers do want is to find a way to make a living from the work that gives them the most joy so their lives are meaningful.

Yet it’s easy to get discouraged, especially if you are moderately successful. There is a keen fear now of rocking the boat. And even if you decide to push yourself to change, practicing kaizen everyday, you will never stop paying your dues. Even the top 20 superstars, whoever they are, will never stop paying their dues if they want to be creatively satisfied. That’s just the reality of what we do. We never reach the ultimate goal. Life truly is a journey––true cliché alert––and needs to be treated as such, appreciating each stage in context.

The inspiring news is that there are many photographers finding ingenious ways to drive their careers into satisfying orbits, even in this economy, and certainly it seems so in Richmond.

Sunday
26
April 2009

APRIL 23 ASMPVC TALK: RICHMOND VA

Please join me at ASMPCV chapter in Richmond, VA on April 23, 7pm, in a discussion around the issues in my recent EP essay “Chaos, Fear, Survival & Luck” For more info, please check out their site:

ASMPCV – Central Virginia Chapter of the American Society of Media Photographers (ASMP)

EP Resources – Doug Menuez ON CHAOS, FEAR, SURVIVAL & LUCK: LONGEVITY IS THE ANSWER

Sunday
19
April 2009

LIFE HAPPENS, ALERT THE MEDIA

“So I laid out my evolving thesis to the crowd of young shooters: if we spent more time with our  families, wouldn’t we then develop more as human beings? Wouldn’t we become more emotionally rounded and more sensitive to the human experience? And wouldn’t that make us better photographers, better able to observe, empathize and understand our subjects on a gut level, rather than what is often a purely visceral news content level? It went over like a lead balloon.”

Our friends Marvi Lacar and Ben Lowy came for dinner last night, with surprising and lovely news that Marvi is pregnant. Naturally the subject came up of how to be a photojournalist and be a good parent. Ben was leaving for Afghanistan in the morning and then possibly returning to Iraq. The discussion was not just about the risks we take to cover the story but being away for extended periods, the endless miles apart from family. When my son was born 21 years ago I was way less mature or prepared to deal with the responsibility then Marvi and Ben. Aside from their incandescent talent and amazing work, they are both incredibly smart and thoughtful people. They will now go through the balancing act a new baby requires. I’ve been writing and talking recently about finding a balance in our work between art and commerce, but this is much deeper and more complicated. Can you have a family and be a dedicated photojournalist?

Sometime in the early 1990′s I was invited to be on the panel of the Flying Short Course. I was the token magazine photojournalist before an audience of mostly young newspaper photographers, many of whom aspired to the perceived glamor and freedom of freelance magazine work. Someday they hoped to be covering wars, celebrities, campaigns, etc., and  expected me to extoll the virtues of my life. True, I was living my dream but was also starting to make the painful decisions that were bringing me to the end-point of that phase in my career. My mindset was very, very different than what my audience was expecting. My son had begun saying inconvenient things like, “Daddy, don’t go,” each time I headed out the door to another far-off assignment. It broke my heart of course. And at that point in my life, not much could get through my field-deadened emotions. And that meant I could no longer ignore the needs of my family for my career. That’s when I started looking for a way to put myself at risk less often, do commercial work or anything that helped me be home more, and deal with the reality I had created. But it is much easier to worry instead about the fierce demands required to not only get across the world but to then get the picture. Much, much easier.

Here’s the first picture I showed in my presentation:

cpw_32

My wife Tereza is holding our two-year old son Paolo in 1989. I had arrived the night before after 8 weeks in China and was leaving at that moment back to China via Hamburg to shoot “A Day in The Life of China,” with 100 of the world’s top photojournalists and then on to another assignment for another month after that. I was able to fit a visit home in San Francisco and had grabbed clean clothes and a meal. As I leaned to kiss my wife goodbye she burst into tears. My son looked at her and also began to cry. My reaction? I snatched the Polaroid off the dresser and shot this image. It was pure training; a moment was happening right in front of me and I reacted as if I was covering a story, instantly. Heartless? Sure, but in retrospect it was probably the only way I could have suppressed the very real pain of leaving my family. I was steeling my mind for more weeks on the road. Super glamorous.

Since then I”ve shown this picture in my talks and workshops because it was such a searing pivotal moment for me in my evolution as a photographer and a person and often relevant to younger shooters contemplating their futures. My heroes in photojournalism, most of the legends, had pretty much abandoned their families to survive as best they could while away on shoots. All my mentors were divorced and married to the camera and job. The attitude I learned with was that to be any good, you had to be willing to die for the picture. It was the work, the work, the work. Everything else came second, if at all.

The life I led then was similar to so many magazine news photographers. You kept a bag packed at all times. You had your eye on the news all the time looking for stories. You would either get a call to cover something or you’d pitch a story. If there was a big story and you could get to it first or second you’d just go knowing your agent would secure the “guarantees” for a number of days plus space. You could never say no to an editor or ever, ever fuck up. At a conference in the 80′s I once heard a young photogapher ask Roxanne Edwards at Business Week what would happen if, you know, somehow the film just did not turn out? Response: “Then you would never work for us again.” Sharp, honest, true answer. But seriously, doh! The other editors on the panel from Time, Newsweek, US News all shook their heads solemnly in agreement. The pressure to get world-class images on deadline against tremendous competition was unrelenting, yet it was also what fueled us. I was on the road so much that at one point I had to write notes to myself before I passed out in my hotel with the name of the city I was in, so when I woke up I’d know where the hell I was. Berlin. Bangkok. Khartoum. Paris. One trip had me shooting in 17 countries in 17 days. 

And I do believe there is a natural tendency when you photograph the misery in the world– people dying or starving– to shut down our emotions, not that differently from an EMT at an accident scene. You must function as a professional. The by-product is that we become damaged goods; emotionally stunted, untreated PTS victims. This is just another layer on top of what the loneliness of the road does to you. I’d say some of us probably become borderline sociapaths. But hey, I’m probably just confusing some photojournalists with hard core paparazzi. Kidding! Or maybe not…

So I laid out my evolving thesis to the crowd of young shooters: if we spent more time with our  families, friends or significant others, wouldn’t we then develop more as human beings? Wouldn’t we become more emotionally rounded and more sensitive to the human experience? And wouldn’t that make us better photographers, better able to observe, empathize and understand our subjects on a gut level, rather than what is often a purely visceral news content level? It went over like a lead balloon. One slightly older guy approached me later with tears in his eyes and said he was struggling with just this issue. But the reaction from the crowd that day, and later from my my peers was pretty negative. None of my friends––who were also my competition––had kids and most were not yet married. From there I chose my own path and moved into a kind of wilderness of isolation from my colleagues and clients in photojournalism. A new life began.

This photograph of my wife and son is always a good reminder to me of the goals I set to try to be a better parent. My son is now a talented musician finishing college so for that I’m grateful. Obviously my career could not have happened without the support of my wife who became my partner in the business and primary caregiver. For her, the decision was easier because she was told she’d never have children. Our son was a miracle kid and she wanted to be part of his every minute. And this issue is obviously more complicated for women in general. It used to be that most women became picture editors; now there are many more women in the field shooting– not enough, but still way more.

Of course smart people will find ways to balance the competing needs of work and family, that’s not new. The issue is about what it takes to do what Ben does in Afghanistan. Can you be at that level, all in, and still create a balance? It can be done I think, but it is not easy and only with careful planning. And with so many more people starting families while working in photojournalism I’m interested to learn some of the creative solutions out there.

The truth that I’ve learned to live with and embrace is this: how my son turns out is way more important than any picture I produce. His impact on his world, the world he grows into, his friends or future family, is my only real legacy. And I’m so, so fine with that.

Thursday
16
April 2009

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BUY THE BOOK, SUPPORT THE KIDS!

Transcendent Spirit: The Orphans of Uganda

STILL IN STORES, AMAZON.COM AND EMPOWER AFRICAN CHILDREN.COM

ALL PROFITS TO THE KIDS

Amazon.com: Transcendent Spirit: The Orphans of Uganda: Douglas Menuez: Books

The stories featured in Transcendent Spirit illuminate the smallest fraction of Uganda’s heartbreaking history with HIV/AIDS. I believe you will be moved by the magnificent photographs by Doug Menuez as much as I have been. It is through his caring lens that we see the children and experience their courage, joy and innate beauty. This book brings these young lives into sharp focus, and we must never look away.”

–– Dame Elizabeth Taylor


07_06_007__1_book2

“Transcendent Spirit: The Orphans of Uganda”

Rarely do pictures alone create change. What does change things is money– funds to pay for food, clothing and the critically important education that catapults these children forward to lives of meaning. Therefore all profits are going to the foundation : : : Empower African Children : : : to support these amazing children.

Please buy the book, make a difference! 

Sponsored by Macy’s, Produced by David Elliot Cohen, Intro by Dame Elizabeth Taylor , published by Beaufort Books, NY. 

Monday
13
April 2009

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THE ZEN OF FILM vs. DIGITAL GRATIFICATION

“Mulling it over, I couldn’t articulate it fully but definitely, I knew I had become lazy, really lazy. A spectacular sloth by the standards of shooting film. Film is hard. Film is a stone cold unforgiving killing bastard. Film is once in a lifetime, no excuses. F8 and really, really be there: ready, steady, in focus, correct exposure, and pressing the shutter in synch with life.”


THE LURE OF DIGITAL

Throughout the 1980′s I covered a lot of football, some of it without a motor drive or auto exposure and all of it manually follow-focusing with big glass. Various manufacturers would show up on the sidelines with different versions of digital cameras to try, always promising (or threatening) the same refrain: “In five years you guys will all be shooting digital!” Everyone would laugh and roll their eyes at this ridiculous idea.

It took more than five years, but by 1999 with the introduction of the Nikon D1 I was shooting both film and digital. Five years later, fully two thirds of my work was digital. Now with the D3X and D700 it’s 99 percent digital. The main reason for this shift is simply that the quality of the files is just so fantastic now that I can’t justify the expense of film for most projects. I’m not too precious about my tools; for me it’s all about the image and whatever gets the job done. We are at a point now with the quality of digital where I can make a digital print from a digital capture and show veteran photographers prints they cannot tell are digital. And that brings the discussion back to the eye of the shooter and the content of the images; the camera is irrelevant.

Yet despite this technical advance, lately I’ve been looking hard at what this means for me as a photographer and how I see. Of course I miss film and the traditions I grew up with. Until recently I had been shooting Tri-x almost every day since I was 10 years old so it’s not a small thing to change. I’ve been questioning if what I’m missing about film and film cameras is more than sentimental. I wondered if the differences between the working methods of using film and using digital were more than physical and what the implications might be if so. And bear in mind, I’m looking at this as someone who lives for capturing moments. This led me to do a serious shoot on a personal project with only film. And that experience led me to a revelation that is changing how I shoot digital, for the better. More on that in a moment.

It was at the Super Bowl in 1982 that I first laid hands on a digital camera. It was an experimental prototype Nikon was working on. They let me shoot a frame or two. At the time, I thought the whole idea insane. I remember it being very slow and heavy. I vaguely remember you could fire a frame every few minutes and it had a maximum shutter speed of 1/90th of a second or similar. It was unworkable for sports unless you planned to just shoot peak action, waiting for the athlete to reach the apex of a leap in the air for example. This reminded me of the old guys I knew at my first newspaper who started their careers shooting sports with a 4×5 Speed Graphic. One gentleman in particular–Zeke–looked over my shoulder one day and saw the film I was getting ready to soup from an assignment. I knew Zeke had covered the invasion of Normandy, incredibly, with a Speed Graphic. He took a drag on his cigar and leaned over and shouted “Six rolls! We could have covered World War II in 2 f*****g frames; one for the battle scene, one for the generals shaking hands!”

As the digital revolution unfolded through the 80′s and 90′s and all things analog were being converted to bits I was covering the engineers in Silicon Valley making the breakthroughs. It was clear they were going to change the world and I was very interested in the story more than the technology itself. My background was traditional and seriously analog. I was all about silver and the rituals of the darkroom. Staying up all night printing with MIles Davis on and a bottle of tequila was a necessity. I never imagined that digital capture and output would replace film and silver gelatin paper in my own work. But my curiosity about what the engineers were developing and my proximity led me to experiment early with digital scanners and printers. In 1983 I was transmitting photos to USA Today from forest fires in Yosemite with a steamer trunk size “portable” Scitex scanner. I bought a Mac in December of 1984 and was cruising the early internet immediately through primitive modems. In 1989 I co-produced the first published photography book with digital separations using a beta version of Photoshop. I made one of the first– if not the first– portfolios using a dye-sublimation printer from SuperMac. After three months of hard printing that beast, tweaking the color and density, I put the prints in an “archival” portfolio and by morning all the prints were blank. The ink molecules had migrated to the plastic pages. This is why we call it the “bleeding” edge of new technology. There are dozens of other experiments and beta tests I did with all the latest hardware and software, yet through it all I still never believed it would replace film or wet printing. Never. And that is exactly what happened.

THE ZEN OF FILM

So who cares anymore? Digital is king now. I for one do care, immensely, about the differences between film and digital. Why? I want to make great photographs, that’s why. I still dream every day of trying to make something meaningful that will stand up to time. And I started to get this slow realization that digital was making me lazy. Lazy, as in the opposite of what’s required to be great. No need to really worry about exposure, or to focus or anything. Just point and shoot–a monkey could do it! No need to think at all. This is so seductive and easy to rationalize. You tell yourself, “My eyes are getting bad” or “The auto everything makes me faster” and so on.

I started to worry that with digital I might be losing my edge. Yes, I was making images that I could be proud of and giddy with the instant gratification of seeing the image on the camera’s LCD. But what if I was in fact losing ground? What if I would get so slow and lazy I would miss the picture of a lifetime, the one I’m waiting for every day?

Mulling it over, I couldn’t articulate it fully but definitely, I knew I had become lazy, really lazy. A spectacular sloth by the standards of shooting film. Film is hard. Film is a stone cold unforgiving killing bastard. Film is once in a lifetime, no excuses. F8 and really, really be there: ready, steady, in focus, correct exposure, and pressing the shutter in synch with life.

To test this seemingly irrational fear, I decided to shoot a new project using film and manual settings. It turned out to be incredibly difficult at first, like giving up hotel mini-bars difficult. Like running up a sand dune blindfolded while trying to thread a needle difficult. But some things you don’t forget and after a day or so my mind razored up and I noticed I was again unconsciously adjusting f stops and pre-focusing while I was raising a camera in anticipation of a moment, just like in the old days. Soon these mechanical procedures happened automatically, unconsciously, naturally and in so doing I was changing. I was much more aware of light and therefore of the unforgiving nature of the film. I was bending my brain back into a film mindset. I could feel the difference and started to grasp the outline of a theory.

With digital, so much can be saved. Not only do you have the LCD to alert you to whether you got the shot, to adjust exposure and composition, but you can back it up via wireless, double memory card slots, downloading right there onto hard drives and so forth. The processing is much safer overall and risk of losing the image goes way down. Sure we get the odd electrical storm inside a memory card, but this is insignificant compared with film dangers.

With film, so much is at risk. You are never, ever sure you got the shot until you process the film, and depending where you are in the world and your assignment this could be days or weeks, or in the case of my old friend Frans Lanting, months! You learn to be psychic and to live in denial. You are denying your burning desire to see what you got. And sometimes when you think you sort of missed the shot but are not quite sure, you can deny it for the time being and move on, hopeful yet ignorant. (Contrarily, with digital you will know you missed the greatest shot of your life right then and there, thus inducing plans for suicide, and casting a pall of depression over your shoot.)

With film, not only might the exposure be off, but the processing is fraught with peril. Even if you process yourself mistakes can happen, it’s chemistry for Christ’s sake– and even the best labs have the rare but deadly disasters. Just protecting the film from the shoot to the lab is sometimes a minefield of stress and worry. Try getting a hand check at Heathrow security sometime. The rolls of film are like uncut diamonds, objects that simply cannot be replaced. You sweat, you bleed, you age until it’s safe.

The state of mind required to shoot film is one of heightened, intense concentration and analogous to the mindset required for Zen meditation. It’s pure zen in fact. You are truly living in the moment, electric with anticipation, open to life unfolding before you.

The state of mind when shooting digital is more relaxed, more easily distracted. It’s more like everyday life, nothing that special is required. Especially if you are in fact trained as a photographer and have some skills. The camera does leverage your abilities, no doubt. But while you have your head down checking the LCD guess what? You just missed your pulitzer. That LCD is crack. You just can’t get enough. We all want instant gratification and here you have it. Bliss. Yet the act of constantly checking the back of the camera is taking your head out of the game. You gain a useful bit of knowledge but at what cost? I know it also can save time we used to spend covering our asses with brackets and snip tests and whatnot but if it’s moments in time you are after, I now believe it’s the disciplined Zen mindset you need.

So my theory is simple: there is something really important, perhaps magical, about the fact that film is so unforgiving that it creates a special mindfulness in the photographer, which in turn increases the chances of making great pictures.

Is that a big breakthrough? For me it was a bolt of lightening. I’d slid down into the warm tub of digital complacency and lost discipline and needed correction. Yet I really love my digital cameras for all the practical reasons listed above and so I figured out a compromise. It has not been easy, but it’s all about limiting my use of the LCD. I try to never look at the devil LCD and I often will put the camera on manual exposure or manual focus to keep those neural pathways oiled. I’m not fully going back to the complete mechanical world, but by creating a limit on the LCD I put my mind back in the moment, open and thinking, ready for that shot of a lifetime.

Friday
10
April 2009

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Natasha Richardson

natasha-richardson_menuez1

It was very sad news the other day to hear about the death of Natasha Richardson. A sharp reminder of the fragility of our lives. We are just not in control of much that happens so best to pay close attention to what we do get to experience. I flashed back to a day in the late 1980′s that I spent with Natasha, shooting her for People Magazine. I was young and very nervous and so was she. But she was gracious and generous, exceptionally so for someone in her position. She had agreed to let me hang out through her day and I arrived at her father’s house in the Hollywood hills by myself with all my gear. I rarely had an assistant in those days, even when I was lighting.

She said she loved to cook and suggested she make us spaghetti for lunch. I felt this was her subtle way of directing the situation, both me and the photographs, and glad of it as I could relax a bit and begin to work.  She drove us in her little convertible to the market where she shopped for our meal and then back. Her father, the director Tony Richardson, wandered in to the kitchen while she was cooking, tasted the sauce, said hello and wandered out. I just kept shooting and talking with her, hoping to make a picture. After we ate, we did some shots by the pool and around the garden where I made this portrait.

Over the years I’ve shot many of the famous, infamous, up-and-coming and otherwise celebrated of our culture. You often see the way fame twists a person and the pressure and stress they deal with and how they treat people around them. I did not see her again and don’t know really what she was truly like but I got a sense. I keep an open mind and try not to judge people. Yet being human it’s only natural to do so and generally my opinion of a person is shaped by how they treat me. Of course I keep in mind that when I show up I’m there to get something, I’m asking for time and intimacy. It’s tough. I understand that this is difficult, even when your career relies to some degree on the heat that People Magazine and it’s 29 million readers generate.

The shoot with Natasha was sheer pleasure. It was one of those rare shoots that illustrate why what we do is such a privilege. I got to meet and learn something of life from a person of great character, humble and untouched by the mad swirl of celebrity she grew up in. Her civility, manners and core respect for others, along with her profound talent and cautious joy in life took her a long way. A portrait of the artist as a young woman.

Monday
06
April 2009

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ICE BLIND

94_100_102v11A pounding on my cabin door brings me upright from a deep sleep only just begun. Sunlight slanting through the portholes is disorienting me––my clock says 3 a.m.––but then I remember I’m on a Russian icebreaker out of Murmansk bound for the North Pole, somewhere in the vast snow-covered arctic ice plains, smashing our way to the top of the world through endless days of endless summer. I’m on assignment for Condé Nast Traveler to cover a group of environmental scientists and wealthy adventure tourists. Fully dressed and expecting a wake up call in case of polar bear sighting, I jump up and grab my cameras.

Opening the door I see the ship security officers Sergei and Ivan, both ex-KGB and carrying shotguns. They are on board because our icebreaker is nuclear powered. “Helicopter. You come now,” says Sergei as he pulls me through the door, marching me onto the deck where the ancient, massive cargo chopper is warming up. I can see seven or eight passengers, mostly attractive women dressed for disco and a few men from the crew who live below decks where there is supposedly a clandestine prostitution and gambling ring. They appear to have been partying all night and are passing around a clear bottle of what I assume is vodka. I am pushed on board and strapped into an observation seat facing out the open door. They pass the bottle to the pilot who takes a swig and starts revving the engines. I get the bottle and realize I’m drinking de-icing fluid. Clearly they expect me to take pictures of something and I get the idea that I’m now part of the entertainment. As we start lifting off I spy a giant cotter pin on the landing pad. I can’t help but wonder about the standards for air craft maintenance in the collapsing Soviet empire.

We immediately fly into a swirling arctic fog, losing sight of the ship and all visibility. I remember that I was told yesterday this craft has no functioning navigational instruments and will only be used on clear days. A short while later we descend onto the ice, the powerful twin rotors whipping the surface snow around us into a perfect roaring white out.

I’m tensed and ready to shoot whatever is going to happen but completely blinded and turn my head back to Sergei and Ivan to shield my eyes. They are smiling, watching me expectantly, drinking. I motion to go up and am ignored. I look up through the swirling, opaque snow and suddenly make out a looming shadow across a curtain of fog–– it’s our own massive ship, rising up and bearing down on us as it smashes its way through the ice. As the bow makes contact leads are opening, shooting lighting bolts of cracking ice in all directions, the widest lead heading straight for us. I shout to go up, up, up, but the crew is convulsed in laughter, thoroughly enjoying this game of chicken while the leads streak towards us. Just as the biggest lead rips into our skids exposing the black water below us–– so cold you die in minutes–– the pilot skillfully blasts forward and up, rising and turning the chopper like a matador spinning away from the bull, flying just beneath the bow of the icebreaker, now yards away and blasting it’s horn.

Looking back, it was a crazy gift in terms of pictures, but the whole episode was a suicidal, snow-cowboy joyride designed to impress and entertain the women. A few days later I became the 3014th person to stand on the North Pole, a destination many died to reach over the years and at the time only reachable by air, submarine or this Russian icebreaker. The US icebreakers are not equipped with nuclear power and are not built with strong enough hulls or propellers to withstand the weeks of pounding. You can try it via dogsled but the odds are very good you will join the legion of missing explorers. When we arrived at the pole it turned out the Russians didn’t have GPS and after two hours of math and guesswork the captain turned to a passenger who produced a handheld GPS device to pinpoint our location within a few meters at 90 degrees North. The Russians winched a car, stereo system and huge barbeque onto the ice below with cases of vodka. An impromptu disco party began. The last thing I remember before blacking out hours later is being cornered below decks by the very tall and formidable first mate shouting into the face of a young American scientist next to me, “Look in eye! Are you man or woman?! Drink the vodka!!” We drank, we drank.

Journal entry, aboard the Yamal, August 1994.

Saturday
04
April 2009

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