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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INSPIRATION #2: KEENPRESS

In my workshops I’ve tried to pound home the point that if you want to do good work, be happy, avoid burnout and stop beating your spouse and kids, you ought to think about longevity– how to achieve a creatively satisfying life for the long term. Once that is your goal, all your decisions line up to move you in the right direction.

Two photographers who epitomize this philosophy and never fail to astound and inspire me through their work and the lives they live are Sisse Brimberg and Cotton Coulson, founders of KEENPRESS. Married for 30 years, parents of two talented children, and now working not only as business partners but as creative collaboraters, sharing credit on their images they create, and exhibiting and selling prints from their base in Copenhagen.

Although Sisse is Danish, many of us were surprised when they sold their house in Mill Valley, California, one of the world’s sweet spots and moved to Europe. OK so Copenhagen is pretty sweet but you have to love winter to stay year round. Both have spent the majority of their long careers documenting the world for National Geographic. Cotton spent a hiatus as a picture editor at US NEWS (where I shot a cover for him) and in Silicon Valley at CNET as a VP developing content and then resumed shooting full time after they moved back to Europe.

Recently Cotton sent me their updated web site with some new work which knocked me out. Here’s the first image from their series “The Besmirched.”

the-besmirched2

Part of what I’ve always admired about these two is their incredible storytelling ability from their Nat Geo work. And now here we see a giant leap into abstraction, pure expression and a shift into new and challenging waters. It really is true that to grow as photographers we have to embrace risk and try new things and I can’t think of a better example of how this strategy can succeed. But this is not new for Cotton and Sisse, this is just the latest iteration.

What’s surprising is that they keep pushing themselves after all they have accomplished. Whenever I talk to them they exude the passion and hunger of 20-somethings. This is both inspiring and terrifying. Whether they are pursuing this strategy consciously or instinctively doesn’t matter. It has led them to careers of longevity and a level of creative satisfaction and professional success that is spectacular and instructive. You can see more of their lovely work at:

KEENPRESS Photography

Saturday
28
March 2009

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APA/LA ROUND TABLE ON OMNICOM PLAN

In response to Omnicom’s recently announced plan to operate under the premise of sequential liability, APA/LA is hosting a round table discussion of this policy and the adjoining no advance policy and how it affects our industry. Sequential liability is a policy under which the photographer or production company gets paid if and when the agency is paid in full. Omnicom is the parent company of many advertising agencies, including BBDO, DDB, TBWA/ChiatDay, Goodby Silverstein, and many others.

Moderated by Creative Consultant and Photographers’ Advocate Debra Weiss, the panel includes Photographers Jill Greenberg and Glen Wexler, Photographers’ Agent Tricia Burlingham, Syndication Agent Janet Botaish, and a commercial producer to be confirmed. This event is free to all in the photographic and advertising community, and will be held Thursday, April 2, 7pm at Helms Daylight Studio 3221 Hutchison Ave #E LA CA 90034

NEWS FLASH: Omnicom in UK has responded to overwhelming opposition from various production and photographer trade groups including Advertising Producers Association in London (APA) by backing down from their position and is reverting to traditional practices. From APA release to members as reported on shots: ”Omnicom have suspended their instruction to their UK agencies, AMVBBDO, TBWA and DDB regarding the wording of payment clauses. Thus, contracts you receive from them will be as per the standard ISBA/IPA/APA contract.”   Way to go APA. Power to those who organize.

Read more on shots:shots – News

Saturday
28
March 2009

INSPIRATION #1: PHOTO SECESSIONISTS

Where do you find inspiration? Sometimes you walk right into it. Yesterday I was arriving to give a talk at Eastman House on my recent book “Transcendent Spirit: The Orphans of Uganda” (published by Beaufort Books, NY and which is still for sale with all profits to the children: “Transcendent Spirit: The Orphans of Uganda”) and was delighted to see the exhibit “TruthBeauty: Pictorialism and the Photograph as Art 1845-1945″ which features the work of the secessionists led by Alfred Stieglitz, Steichen, Alvin Langdon Coburn, F. Holland Day and other well known practitioners of pictorialism. Their goal was to elevate photography to be considered art equal to painting or sculpture and distinguish their efforts from mere craft or hobby.

While assisting in my teens in a studio in New York I was given a book of Steichen’s work and fell in love with the mystery and beauty of the work. This led me to discover the work of the others mentioned above. I spent a lot of time walking in woods in rain after that looking for images that could trigger the sweet melancholy, sadness tinged joy, and longing I felt when looking at the work of these artists.

Our creative lives go through phases of course. My very first impulse to create was triggered by seeing the work of Picasso, Matisse, Mary Cassatt, Manet, Cezanne, Degas and that gang. I wanted to be a painter. Then I was given a camera and a few years later the book “The Concerned Photographer” and it was like an explosion in my brain, my rocket ride took off. I began learning to be a documentary photographer. This was at 12. So the discovery of Steichen at 15 was a revelation. Thus began a kind of psychosis, a break in my mind between art as the pure expression of the artist and discovering the world and reporting the world as a documentarian. I was torn. When I was 17 I met W. Eugene Smith who was very concerned with his legacy and wanted very, very much to be considered an artist. At the talk I saw he read a letter from Ansel Adams to Smith assuring him that Adams did indeed consider Smith an artist of the highest rank. What I saw in Smith was the very real possibility of merging the two impulses, to create and also to report. Years later I felt this expressed very clearly in the work of Sebastião Salgado.

(I spoke to Smith afterward while he drank two coffee mugs of scotch and lectured me on craft as the foundation of art. He described spending five days in the darkroom making a single print and said that if I ever felt in my gut that some area of the print could be even slightly improved I had to start that print over.)

I was reminded of Dennis Stock’s comments about composition (see earlier blog “Clocks for Seeing”) when I saw this image below by Alvin Langdon Coburn, and of Gene Smith, who Dennis happened to assist in the 50′s, because it encompasses both worlds. It seems it must involve some documentary skills, some timing and luck as anything happening on water surely does, while also serving as an illustration of classical composition that Dennis and I were discussing. But clearly the driving force behind this group of artists was to find the beauty in the world.

Coburn_Wapping, 1904.jpg

After touring the exhibit I spoke about the amazing oprhans I had met who had transcended their difficult lives through education and dance to create new lives for themselves. It was a relief to find good news from Africa. In my years working as a photojournalist I had to cover some difficult stories. Over time the effect of seeing so much misery in the world caused me to question the value of what I was doing. At some point, the pictures of intimate moments of suffering began to feel exploitive and an invasion, despite my desire to bring awareness and hopefully change to the situation. This line of thinking led to many changes in my life and work.

A huge part of what we do is dependent on serendipity. We all have our own ways of being lucky and being in the right place at the right time. F8 and be there. This is not just about the pictures for me but part of how I look at life and the way I try to live. So getting to see this particular exhibit at that moment was one of those key moments of serendipity and encouragement from the universe. As part of my talk I was planning to explain how my efforts to move from covering the disasters and tragedies of the world to trying to find tangible stories of positive change, partly as a way to create meaning in my own life, had led to doing this book. Seeing the results of the secessionist quest to express the beauty they found around them was both inspiring and disturbing in that it reminded me of my early inspiration from these artists, and the lifelong creative schism between pure expression and documentation it triggered. Ouch.

This is mostly unresolved for me. My background as a photojournalist cautions me against trying to do anything but simply record and report the story. My early training in art school gives me license to express myself. My Uganda book and my prior book on Mexican culture and tequila, “Heaven, Earth, Tequila,” are explorations in what I’m describing as “subjective documentary” in that I am now interpreting the story as an artist would to express my personal take. Objectivity on it’s face is no longer interesting or useful for me. So my steps to resolve the schism naturally lead me in the direction Smith described, in a sense to make art from documentary source material. You are still telling a story, it just comes out in ways driven as much by the unconscious as the eye.

If you are going to be in Rochester soon definitely stop by Eastman House and take time to see this fantastic exhibit.

George Eastman House

Saturday
28
March 2009

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PIRKLE JONES HAS LEFT THE DARKROOM

Classic master/grasshopper moment: Pirkle Jones, legendary documentary photographer and teacher leaning over my prints at the start of our first class at the SF Art Institute. Silence, then “Hmmm, somebody needs to learn how to spot!” Stung to the core, devastated, struggling to keep my 19-year-old game face on, I tried a comeback. But we all learned in short order there was no defense for anything less than excellence with Pirkle. He’d been trained by Ansel and Dorothea and other masters of 20th century American photography. The only option was to take it onboard and strive to do better, period.

He was tough, he was smart, humble and a powerful force you had to respect. I could not have had a better, or more difficult, teacher. He had such integrity and built a life for himself according to his values and vision. His work stands the test of time and speaks with eloquence for those who cannot. He inspired a generation or three of passionate photographers and we will all miss him.

From today’s NYT:
Pirkle Jones, Photojournalist, Dies at 95 – Obituary (Obit) – NYTimes.com

I just found this 1976 image sent from a former classmate– Pirkle leading a critique. I’m the kid in the center.
pirkle-jones-1976_lo_

Monday
23
March 2009

Rick Smolan: Friend's Suggestions Trump Ads

People trust people they know for product recommendations over ads, says my good friend Rick Smolan, multitalented photojournalist, producer, book creator. We caught up with each other recently in a phone call and in a conversation ranging from the economy and what’s happening with photographers, to how photographers and the public in general use social media. While this has always been true and a natural starting place when hunting down a new lens or printer, the scale has changed with the rise of the social networks and easy access to friends and “friends” alike as a resource for information or recommendations on what to buy. For advertising shooters this will be interesting to watch as companies figure out new ways to reach consumers. Print ads are down significantly this year again with no bottom in site. Will this lead to another rise in “real people” ads or just fuel the growth of non-trackable grass roots marketing efforts?

Check out Rick’s recent interview he did with Nokia:

http://www.ideasproject.com/idea_person.webui?id=2402 

Sunday
22
March 2009

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Rick Smolan: Friend’s Suggestions Trump Ads

People trust people they know for product recommendations over ads, says my good friend Rick Smolan, multitalented photojournalist, producer, book creator. We caught up with each other recently in a phone call and in a conversation ranging from the economy and what’s happening with photographers, to how photographers and the public in general use social media. While this has always been true and a natural starting place when hunting down a new lens or printer, the scale has changed with the rise of the social networks and easy access to friends and “friends” alike as a resource for information or recommendations on what to buy. For advertising shooters this will be interesting to watch as companies figure out new ways to reach consumers. Print ads are down significantly this year again with no bottom in site. Will this lead to another rise in “real people” ads or just fuel the growth of non-trackable grass roots marketing efforts?

Check out Rick’s recent interview he did with Nokia:

http://www.ideasproject.com/idea_person.webui?id=2402 

Sunday
22
March 2009

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CLOCKS FOR SEEING: THE OTHER

Why do photographs– still images– survive? In this media saturated culture where video is king there remains a vital place in our lives for frozen moments in time– simple still photographs, produced by what French critic Roland Barthes called “clocks for seeing,” his crazy/perfect description of a camera. For me it seems to be the collision between the profound, deep seated human need to find meaning– not just in our lives but the meaning of life itself– and the way our brains must decode still photographs. 

There must be some evolutionary twist in our brain development that causes us to be immensely attracted to and compelled to pause and study photographs, even images we are not particularly interested in. When I think hard about memory and my past, every memory is conveyed in a frozen still image in my mind. There is no film running, no motion. Each event is summed up in a moment. And then a series of cascading moments follow, but these are individual frames. I think this is true of most people. Our brain patches these together exactly like frames in a film so we get the impression sometimes our memory is flowing like a film. I don’t think it is a film.

We look at photographs to find ourselves, our place in the world. We learn and affirm who we are and our place in our culture by identifying with the subjects or by opposition and by our differences with the subjects. This ties into the meaning of the “other” and the connections we make with strangers we encounter. We are all human but what is their experience? We wonder and are fascinated by strangers in strange cultures, their clothes, habits, beliefs. This curiosity is particularly well served by the still image precisely because it is fixed, still, frozen and available for long study.

Now I understand that I photograph with an unconscious purpose other than to simply document a people or place I am interested in. Like everyone else, I need to find my place in the world and understand who I am. This is not something I think about, it’s part of human DNA and so I’m constantly attracted to the “other” and looking to connect. It’s meeting a stranger as you press the shutter.

apa_slideshow_94

Recently I came across the famous Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski’s fantastic book “The Other” which deals at length in an extremely accessible way with this subject. In the introduction there is a reference to the French philosopher Emmanuel Lévinas’ wonderful quote that sums it all up: “The self is only possible through the recognition of the Other.” Exactly.

As I’m pondering the “other” and why photographs have survived all the changes in our culture and technology, I’m thinking of my friend and mentor Dennis Stock and his opinions about exactly what qualities a photograph must have to succeed and last the test of time. Dennis believes photographs that have certain qualities explain why the still image has remained useful and part of the culture. Over dinner at our house in Woodstock, I began to describe a recent show of contemporary photography I’d seen that was entirely conceptual, as opposed to overtly emotional. It was purely an intellectual exercise and you could read the artist’s statement and agree or not, get the point, perhaps appreciate a little better the imagery, but it was art. Subjective and debatable as to its merits.

Dennis is never shy of his opinions and began a critique of contemporary fine art photography. I lamely interjected that rules are made to be broken. “Bullshit,” he cried, slamming his hand on the table. “Do you want your pictures to be memorable or not? Be serious!” 

His point was that most contemporary work was going to pass by in a flash and disappear. To be useful it has to be memorable. To be memorable it has to follow certain fundamental principals passed down through Aristotle’s golden mean. He reminded me of Cartier-Bresson’s comments, roughly paraphrased here, that it is not enough to capture the moment, the photographer must at the same time position the subject in a compelling geometric composition. He suggested I go back and look at all my favorite images from the 20th century and promised I would see HCB’s ideas were correct. 

I have to report that I did look up the golden mean again and copied one out. I pulled out many of my old photography books of my heroes and inspirations and damn if almost all of the images I’d remembered seeing in my youth did in fact fit with Dennis’ beliefs and combined a moment with classic geometric composition. 

Does it then follow that what Aristotle discovered about composition is related to how our brains evolved to perceive still images? And therefore, to take photographs that will become important to the culture, that we always remember, must by default always follow a set of compositional rules?

Friday
20
March 2009

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EMIRATES CAMPAIGN BREAKS

The new Emirates Airline worldwide campaign “Meet Dubai” of 18 ads created by Leo Burnett Dubai is breaking this month.  Commissioned to shoot for an entire month all over Dubai, this project epitomizes everything I have been saying about merging art and commerce: get hired for your eye and paid to shoot what you love and would be shooting anyway. The creative team and client gave me a free hand to document the daily lives of Dubai citizens from a range of cultural and economic backgrounds, exploring the traditional Arab culture and modern Western influences, as I normally would on my own. Does not get better or more fun than this if you work for a living. And yes, these kinds of campaigns are becoming rare as the economy sinks.

Friday
20
March 2009

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CRISIS=OPPORTUNITY

In regard to commercial photography it does seem that with the latest from ASMP and APA that things are definitely getting worse before they get better. With Omnicom’s announcement that they will no longer pay advances and are passing liability to their clients the expectation is that photographers will be asked to provide banking services to multibillion dollar corporations. Insane. Sad. Make no mistake, this is a war on creatives– agency and photographer both. One form of leverage is to deny copyright (registering the work immediately) until payment is received. But this is usually not a big stick until legal action is taken and the reality is that without significant capital and LOC it is not a sustainable business model for most. Another might be to start each job by setting up direct communication with the client– working with the agency– and arrange better payment terms. We’ve actually done this on a few jobs already in the past few years. It’s definitely not ideal, but with a decent client it’s far better than being a victim of a victim– the ad agency in the middle– and often far better. Not that different from corporate annual report projects that are done in house.

Fine art photographers will continue selling prints into the art market once this downturn abates a bit. There will always be weddings. The danger here is with the advertising and editorial shooters. So here we are with a collapsing economy, more photogs than ever before in history, fewer jobs and what remains will be paying less and slow paying too boot. Shoot me now. 

Yet as many know the Chinese symbol for crisis also stands for opportunity and you can bet there are plenty of smart shooters out there figuring out ways to survive and thrive in this downturn. What exactly those opportunities are might include pushing into markets with less competition, exploring other revenue streams such as print sales, products such as t-shirts, services such as consulting, new markets in stock, and so on. I’d love to hear the new ideas that are percolating. With the internet and social networking this is certainly the time to build the myth and keep your name alive, at least within the photo community. Every bit helps.

The truth is that many will not survive and there will be a winnowing of the field. There will be many turning to other or related careers and photography will be their passion on weekends. Nothing wrong with this, in fact if another job was satisfying to someone enough to make a living at it, then their time with photography may be even more rewarding. But many will be lost, caught in between the crushing forces of corporate desperation and a sea of competition driving prices down. My first bit of advice is to cut your overhead, today. Don’t wait. Keep everything tight and to a minimum.

Second, what has held true forever and will continue to be true is that those with a reputation, a brand if you will, and capital will ultimately survive and grow stronger. If you don’t have the reputation to rise above the crowd that is your first priority. Shoot great work and get it out there and build awareness for your work. This also means the age-old forces of supply and demand are still valid. There is an over supply of photographers, talented photographers, both established and new, and the new ones are young and hungry and ready to kill their mothers to make it. These young ones have not been educated properly in the power of saying no and respecting the trade practices that sustained us so well for so long.  They don’t see the benefits yet, they can’t, they are too busy trying to break in and their schools just did not care to explain how it works– worked. It’s really beside the point and probably too late for that. I do know some older shooters who believe the power of copyright will win in the end. But there is a whole new generation who believe information wants to be free. Yet the other half of Stewart Brand’s famous observation was that information also wants to be expensive. The information that is specialized, that is branded, than no one else has is the expensive stuff. Be special and eventually you’ll be needed and needed badly as the only one who can do the job. 

Yes there will be fewer opportunities for quality, for unique and amazing work simply because this is a luxury most companies can’t afford at the moment. But they are there and there will be more as companies who do have cash flow come to their senses and realize this is the moment they themselves need to build market share and build their brands. The only way to do that successfully is with special, unusual, visual talent to express an original vision so their freakin’ ads get noticed.

So I do believe certain market forces will continue to play out in terms of the survival of the fittest– those with names– and supply and demand. Yet I also believe things have changed forever. I just don’t see the advertising business or magazines ever coming back to the trade practices of the past, ever. It’s over. So what is the new business model going to be? 

Apple has shown with iTunes a path through the minefield that was Napster and other forms of copyright theft for the music business. People will pay– much less– to get music through a system that is easy and fast and perceived to be cool. The low cost is made up with volume but the music business is never going to be the same either. Bands make their money on tours and t-shirts these days. And they seem fine with that. 

I would like to believe there is something similar but better in terms of revenue coming down the pipe for photographers. We’ve seen the race to the bottom with stock, ending in microstock and whatever comes next. 1/10 of a penny stock? For sure, but someone will figure this out and come up with a sustainable and fair model for photographers to receive compensation for their assignment work. 

If that does not happen, the definitely we will see thousands of photographers leaving the business. After that devastation, those still standing will be back in a position of relative power. There will be less supply, more demand, and as the economy improves perhaps some of the old trade practices such as respecting copyright and licensing the work for a specific period of time will return in some form or another. Keep the faith and keep shooting great work. 

But please email me that new business model!

Thursday
19
March 2009

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