a year In review

 
What a difference a year makes. Despite that being a cliche, I am going to stick to it for the remainder of this blog entry. Or that's the plan, anyway. As this year draws to a close, I find myself reflecting on what I consider Year One, which is a funny thing to have in your 40s. But it is, really, in terms of photography. No, I have not been shooting for only a year; in actuality it's been about 10 years, but this is the first year of producing images that i care about, that i would be proud to stand by, to present, and to represent my aesthetic, my art, or my soul - for lack of a better word, as an atheist chaffs from the use of the word "soul." But you know what i mean. Why did it take so long to produce something that's a keeper? Why this year?
 
Well, to reiterate the history in meticulous detail is tedious, even to me, so to summarize, it goes something like this:
 
I wanted to be an artist since I can remember, or rather, I have been an artist since I can remember, and would draw all the time as a kid. I wanted to be a filmmaker as an adolescent, and when Star Wars came out in 1977, I REALLY wanted to be a filmmaker, or more specifically, a special effects artist working for either George Lucas or Steven Spielberg. The trouble with those dreams when you are a child of 9 years old prior to the digital technology age, is they are financially out of reach, when you grow up on the lower end of the middle class spectrum. There were no digital camcorders, no non-linear editing software, and really, no home PCs. So those dreams were just that: dreams, and as I plodded through my teens, I got bit HARD by the music bug, and the visual art was still there, since it was the 80s, and the MTV heyday was in full swing. I learned an instrument, and went to music college, and became a songwriter. I conjured up imagery through lyrics, and cool suspended chords with 9ths, and wrote about 200 songs, 50 of which I am still proud of. But music never became a career, and maybe that's okay, because I never had to be in a wedding band, or sing "Celebrate" by Kool and the Gang, and music was never something linked to a chore, it stayed pure, and was a steady pursuit until my early 30s. But, I never did become the next Peter Gabriel, the next Sting, and by then, it was 2001, and as music started waning a bit, I realized that there were digital cameras out there, there were digital point and shoots, and of course computers. So I got my first point and shoot in 2001, for Christmas, and between that and Photoshop, I was hooked, again, on the visual arts I dabbled in as a child, and this time I could actually produce something. The first thing I made, I seem to remember, was a lightsaber. And then laser beams, and all sorts of scifi cool things that Photoshop does so well. The day I got Photoshop, I was so enthralled, I called in sick from my crappy day job for two days and spent most of those 48 hours playing with Photoshop.
 
Anyway, long story short, I caught a little fire, and over the next ten years, I learned video editing, and then After Effects, and actually got a few modest, low-paying clients and produced some music videos for bands and solo artists, making my two passions combine in a way that was…fairly satisfying. I was also shooting the odd portrait session here and there too, with my little point and shoot, and then, later, with my first DSLR, around 2007. Lighting was always a struggle, especially for video work, as my light kits were on the cheap side, and there never seemed to be enough of it, or a good way to diffuse these REALLY HOT LIGHTS. I burned my fingers more than once. When I met my partner in 2006, he was already a working photographer, and I learned a lot from him, especially when I got my first DSLR a year later. Suddenly there were things to think about that I had no foundation in: Aperture, Shutter Speed, ISO, F stops, all the things I didn't need to think about or could control with my little point and shoot. So the next few years I went to school on these things, asking questions, and these technical aspects of photography became a bit of an obsession, as I was determined not to be a hack in this regard. So I did a lot of the things a tech head would do in the world of "what to shoot." I shot portrait sessions as well, here and there, using my partner's big strobes, which bugged me in their size, and the cables everywhere, especially the leash of the sync cord connected to the camera, and always falling in front of the lens. But mostly, I was looking for things to specialize in, such as high speed fruit drops, and dancing paint blobs, and endless shots of bugs with macro lenses. Some of it was cool, but again, it was only mildly satisfying - I didn't feel very artistic shooting these things, just vaguely challenged, but mostly frustrated. The most frustrating aspect was the fact that it's incredibly difficult to stand out of the growing crowds of would-be photographers shooting these genres. And, I don't think my passion was snapping fruit at the moment of impact with water.
 
 
The only thing I had a bit of a leg up on was Photoshop skills, and I was pretty good at shooting humans, having done portraits for almost ten years. The biggest breakthrough in terms of gear was getting some Canon Speedlites in 2011. Once I learned how to use them off-camera using triggers, and once I bought diffusers for them, I finally found a lighting setup I could feel good about, and had a handle on them, and could take them anywhere, and, best of all, NO WIRES!!! In 2011I also discovered the wonderful work of photographer Joel Grimes, who is the mack daddy of Speedlites. I learned a lot about lighting from his very generous tutorials online, and bought a total of three speedlites and a beauty dish because of him. I also discovered the work of Brooke Shaden and that was a Eureka moment. She was a wake-up call to my dormant artistic pursuits. She reminded me that this medium could be meaningful, allegorical, metaphorical, and visually interesting. Her visual palette reminded me of my own lyrical aesthetics - a timelessness, and nothing particularly contemporary, and symbolism held sway over all. Of course, stumbling across her work has the effect of turning you into one of the many Brookealikes springing up everywhere, and after doing my first levitation shot a la Brooke, I was delighted but only a bit. Doing it was cool, but it was the equivalent of doing a cover version of a song - it's not yours, and it is most likely not as good as the original. So, that was that - my days as a Brookealike were but a few, but her effect should not be underestimated. I spent so many years worrying about F stops and shutter speeds I forgot Art, and she snapped me out of it. 2011 was the launch of my pursuit of art through photography, and besides my ten years of portraiture and photoshop techniques, I have to thank Joel Grimes and Brooke Shaden for supplying inspired master classes in lighting and surrealism, respectively. I also had absorbed enough photographic tech stuff to throw it away and not give a shit about it anymore. It was no longer the point of it, it was just there as a subconscious resource. Finally!
 
September, 2011 - the Newtonian Room - my first shot that I was proud of. Looking at it now, I am still fond of it, but mainly for the memories of making it work, and putting it together. From that point on, I was focused on the big question: What Am I Trying To Say?? This shot didn't have much to say, it was mainly an exercise in composition and technical challenges, but I learned a lot from it. Between September and December of 2011, I tried this and that, and things started getting a little moodier, a little edgier, a little more unique, and miles away from the fruit drops and the macro bugs.
 
 
December 2011 - I did my last client session. Clients were always a frustration for me - the typical frustration of a "pro" that takes on a client that thinks they know how to do your job, and wear you down with their requests for edits and opinions of what would be better. I shot corporate head shots for a small company, and that was the last coffin nail. No more trying to be a professional photographers doing portraits and events, enough is enough. I decided to only focus on artistic pursuits with photography, and would rather pay to get something I am proud of than make money doing something that drove me crazy. I would need models, not clients, and since I was going to get a model, I would shoot a nude model, something I consider a challenge and still do, and wanted to try for a long time.
 
Enter Ed Barron.
 
I found Ed on Model Mayhem, and I decided to go with Ed, who is older than most of the models on the site, because he was an experienced figure model, and was comfortable being nude, So I booked him, for Dec 7th, and unfortunately that was the day after a 6 day business trip to Seattle for my day job. I got home at 8pm the night before, and Ed was coming noon the next day. I was tired, and I had no idea what I was going to shoot, but I just wanted to get it over with and get my first model shoot behind me. Having to use myself as a model to try things the year before, I was happy to be only behind  the camera and have someone in better shape in front of it, who would do what I asked. the session was fairly short, and I focused mainly on getting some nicely lit portraits done. Ed was a good experience, and after he left I spent  the next month or so putting together the shots from the shoot, and they turned out better than I expected, and I got some nice response from them. They were the best shots to date, but there still was not a lot of meat to them - not a lot of elements, mostly prettified portrait treatments. But Ed had a lot of expression in his face, and it lent some implied story or theme to the shots.
 
 
I toiled for another couple months, using myself again as a model and produced some interesting self portraits that I still like to this day, getting more adventurous in my layering and themes. It was around March that I made my most ridiculous purchase. Frustrated, and feeling guilty about lifting photographic elements off the web for my composites, I decided to buy a preserved, large, exotic butterfly for around $75 to use as a prop in some shots. I shot it for a day, and since it was so delicate, it crumbled and was rendered useless in less than two days. I got a few shots from it, and only one that I still like. But still, a waste of money.
 
 
 
In March, eager to work with another model, I searched, and searched, but after seeing one after the other covered in tattoos, something that is baffling to me in someone desiring to be a model, I decided to call Ed again, and this time I had more concepts in mind and decided to make this shoot a bit of a cohesive project. This was my first shoot that locked in everything to follow - the approach to shooting, the style points, the textures, and the post work. All in all, I think I got about 12 shots all loosely based on the theme of aging and mortality, fear of dying, and a couple of these images are still in my personal best folder. Ed really rose to the challenge, and my portfolio was growing.
 
 
But after two sessions with Ed and a smattering of self-portraits, my portfolio was largely comprised of Ed, and only Ed. It was also 100% images of men. I wanted my images and portfolio to be more diverse, so I was determined to get some female energy into it. I shot my first female model in May, someone who does not wish her name to be used, as she prefers to keep her modeling life separate from her private life. By this time, I had the beginning of a method forming in my shoots - one part concept and ideas, and the other improvised movement, where I would have the model try things, dance around, whatever. This part of the shoot usually produced the best shots of the session, more than the planned concepts. This shoot gave me a good supply of images featuring a lovely female presence, and I was happy with the output. This was also the first time I was in the presence of a naked woman in about 20 years, and I thought that would be weird for me, but I am happy to report that it's all business when behind the camera, and I wasn't weirded out by it at all!
 
 
After this shoot, and before my next session with a model who calls herself Shoney, I attended a Brooke Shaden workshop, who was doing a small tour of cities teaching her techniques to small groups. I was excited to see it myself, but in the time since I signed up for it and the day of the workshop, I was asserting my techniques and my approach to shooting, and it was quite far from Brooke's, who does not shoot with lighting, and favors real environments and natural light. It was a day of being out of my element, shooting on the spot, working with a model I only met an hour before, and ramping up my ISO to levels I would never even consider usable to shoot in the dim confines of a warehouse space. I also was pretty strong in terms of Photoshop, so I was not sure how much I would take away from this workshop. But the energy was good, and the day was fun, and Brooke was a gracious and generous host, and it was a good day overall. But it certainly did clarify this growing trend of Brookealikes, or wannabes, which I've talked about in this blog previously (see "Attack of the Brookealikes"), and I wanted no part in imitation.
 
 
The next day, I had my shoot with Shoney, and she was an absolute delight to work with, and we got some really good stuff out of the shoot, including a little series based on the Victorian Death Photos. This shoot was expensive, costume rentals. This is another growing problem, the expense of doing shoots that require period piece costuming. In addition to the expense of the rentals, they are really hard to find, but I've written about that too.
 
 
Now that I had two shoots done with Ed and two shoots with two different females, as well as a few self-portraits, I had a more varied portolio, and the one type missing overall was a younger male. Now, I think I have also discussed this in a previous entry to this blog, but it bears repeating - finding male models willing to pose nude is not at all easy. Especially a younger one, with no tattoos. But I did find one, on Craigslist, and while our talks via email were good prior to the shoot, I think there was some awkwardness between the model and me, and maybe it was that he was a newbie, but whatever the case, it was a little strained, and I think it shows. I do like some of the shots from the shoot, a couple of them in particular, but there has been no communication since our session, and I don't think there will be another session with him. Definitely not as easy as the previous shoots.
 
 
Before my session with Keith, I had a bit of a post production epiphany - I was overdoing my images with the texture layers, and something made me step back and look it all the work thus far and I thought some of it needed to be re-worked and toned down. I ended up doing a month of it, and reworked at least twelve of them. I think they were greatly improved, and from that point on, I  toned down the textures significantly, and my post production work was now very much approaching a cohesive, defined style.
 
 
Compared to the ridiculous purchase of the disintegrating butterfly, my next unwise (in terms of finances) purchase was a far better outcome: my dream camera. Look, the Canon Rebel series are decent, and they were my only choice, both decidedly and in terms of price, since I went DSLR. But everyone who is into photography wants a full frame camera. I had my eye on the Canon 5D mk II for years, it was my dream camera, and I finally just charged it, interest payments be damned, and it came. After snapping a few casual shots for a couple days, I wasn't entirely sure I saw a big difference to the images I was getting with my Rebel, but when the next shoot happened, using my now familiar setup and lights, I saw it. Wow did I see it!
 
I wanted to work with Ed again, but I was unsure I had any new ideas for us. I was increasingly focusing my shoots on concepts, big ones, big themes, and I didn't know what we'd be doing, but I went out the morning of the shoot and scrambled for some props. I decided to get a large empty picture frame, because I had seen them used in some work from other artists, and I liked what I saw. I wasn't sure what I'd be doing with it, but between that and the fact that Ed was bringing his best suit with a top hat, I started focusing on Jekyll and Hyde, having just watched a BBC series that cleverly updated the classic tale. I decided the theme would be about duality, about ego and alter ego, and what better place to start than with the split personality progenitor of all?
 
August, 2012 - My third shoot with Ed and my fist with my brand new camera, and I must say, I did struggle with the camera at first - the controls were a little different, added weight, all that, but we got through it, and I went to work on what would be come my most popular images yet. Being eager to get new work out, and insecure about the premise and concept of the shoot, I nevertheless started producing them, and one of the first out the gate was "The Strange Self Portrait of Dr. Henry Jekyll." This was a bit of tongue in cheek one, where the good doctor would sit for his portrait, and in order to capture all of him, the mild mannered doctor and the venerable badass Mr. Hyde, he sits with a large portrait of his other half. I liked it, didn't love it, but I thought it did what it was supposed to do, and the post processing came out nicely.
 
I put it out there, and one of Ed's friends immediately trashes it on Facebook, saying it has no magic, no reinvention, a total misfire. I was devastated, as I was insecure to begin with, and having someone be so blunt about the first image from this session was unsettling. It doesn't take much to shake my confidence, and this one hurt. But, others liked it, and it got a lot of views (for me) and it was accepted into the gallery of 1x.com, a site that is curated, so you submit but not everything you submit gets in. That site became a source of pride and also an immense source of frustration this year, and I think it may even be the topic of its own blog post, so I will leave it at that. The point is, it got in, and I felt better, even a little vindicated. I generated three  images using that picture frame, and they all did really well for me. Again, my audience and numbers are small, but they were growing and that was good - they were growing quite a bit - as Ed has a lot of fans out there, and it seems that he became something of a DeNiro to my Scorsese this year - all my work with Ed does better than any other work I do with other models. The startling resolution with the 5D was amazing, and despite the fact that I will be paying it off for the next three years, I have no regrets about that purchase. The work from that session did in fact grow into a bit of a theme of duality, and I saw a through line in it, and this is where I started accepting the fact that I work in broad strokes and fog and slowly focus it in after the shoot is over. Hard to live with, but it seems to be my process. I discussed this in detail in my previous post called "Best Laid Plans."
 
 
As it always happens, the well of usable shots from the session began to run dry, and I started looking for a new model once again, and had a very specific concept in mind. I needed to find the right looking model, I really wanted to cast to type. I decided to search for models on acting sites, and thought I would hire an actor to play my priest role, and it was a long and fruitless search that yielded a lot of response, but no one quite right. I will not go into detail about the concept, as I still hope to do it someday, but this was going to be expensive, in terms of costuming, in terms of actors, and I really wanted to use two models for the next shoot - something I have yet to do. I got a response from the friend of a guy who was PERFECT for it - exactly the look I was going for. The trouble is, he did not want to do it. She worked him, and he decided he MIGHT want to do it after all. He had me on the line for two weeks, and finally asked if we could meet first, obviously to suss me out and see if this was okay to him. So, after a busy and long day at my day job, I met him, and we chatted for a bit, in a parking lot, and he left saying he would let me know either way the next day. Never heard from him again. Good luck with your future endeavors pal, if this is how you conduct yourself. I wasted three weeks searching for someone to shoot this with. In the end, I decided to ask Ed. Ed was older that what I had envisioned, but I know him, I work well with him, and I thought it would work. The trouble is, he was not available. Not for weeks. I did not want to wait that long, as I had not shot at all since our session in August.

So I scrambled for a plan B. The trouble is, I had no plan B. I contacted one of the models who expressed interest in the priest role, and though I had passed on him as he was way too young, I liked his look, and I liked how respectful and prompt he was in our communications. I had earmarked him as someone I would work with in the future, so I contacted him, asking him to come to shoot, and though I had no ideas for the shoot, it was finally scheduled, and my October shoot was on. October is my favorite month, and traditionally, it has always been a month of creative high energy for me. This one would prove no different, it was indeed a creative high.
 
My frantic and troubled preparation for this shoot is documented in my entry called "Chasing Balloons" so I will spare you the blow by blow, but Gilberto came, and we worked well together. He was polite, professional, and up for anything, and we did a lot of shots inspired by Rene Magritte, who is certainly an influence on my work. After he left, I went to work on the shots, and the "Red Balloons" series was born, and I really loved the series. I believed in it, I had a firm grip on what I was trying to say with it, and it all exceeded my expectations. My numbers on sites like Flickr and Ephotozine all jumped up again, and by and large, this was becoming my most successful run of images. As I write this, on November 30th, 2012, I am still getting some finished pieces from my session with Gilberto, now almost two months ago.
 
 
Before my shoot with Gilberto, I bought a Wacom Tablet, and it was a game changer, perfectly suited to my type of editing. I don't know how I did it without it all this time. I strongly encourage anyone  who does Photoshop work to get one - you will love it.
The unsettling disaster of my next shoot is covered in the previous three entries, "The Complicated Birth of an Idea," "the Death of an Idea," and "Dark Matter," so I will spare you and me the gory details, but this one did a lot of damage. It was very high on concept and the most thought out shoot to date, not to mention somewhat ambitious, and it utterly crashed and burned. I still feel terrible for the model I hired, and Ed, who was also to be in it, for the fact that nothing came of it. But it was a miserable day for me, and I am still unnerved by it. Again, I am not exactly resilient to failures.
 
The only thing that made the last two months creatively bearable was the fact that I became a winner of Canon's Project Imagination, with the "Dr. Jekyll" shot, and then one of the celebrity directors chose it as one of her 10 images to inspire the film she will be creating. It felt great to get some recognition, and to get my name out there. That, and also some other write-ups and features started to come my way. A blog about style and design did a piece on me, a men's site focusing on male issues and nudity did a lovely feature on my work with male nudes, and I did three interviews for the Canon Project Imagination win. One of the sites I am on, Ephotozine.com, did a feature called "Top 8 Digital Artists" and I was on that list with a short interview piece. Two peers from two different sites featured me on their websites. In November, I started to address the need to generate prints of my work, as I have started to submit to galleries. I found a fine art printer not far from my town who does wonderful work, and I went to see a proof of one of my pieces as a 16 x 16 canvas. I looked wonderful, and I feel I will soon have the ability to generate and sell quality prints of my stuff.
 
 
If I could only shake the damage of the last shoot, I might actually approach a state of temporary satisfaction!
 
I do not think it is terminal, I think there will be many more shoots to come, and I am even as I write this planning on shooting with a new model next week - with no ideas of what I will be shooting or what the concept will be, if there is going to be one at all. It's a hard way to work, but it does work, and I must get past this failed attempt. It is almost two months now since I produced anything behind the camera, and I am eager to get back on the proverbial horse and see what comes of it. Symbolically, I would love to end this, my Year One of Fine Art Photography, on a good note, and produce some great images. I love working on stuff - the putting it all together makes it all worth it. It is calming to sit there and try things, put things together, and find some symbolism in it, to imbue it with meaning, or die trying. At some point I would love to make the shooting aspect less of a panic, and something I look forward to, but maybe that will come next year. For now, I am focusing on getting a new model to shoot, and producing another string of images to add to the portfolio, the journey.
 
And so, even though there is a month to go in 2012, even though I need to look forward and create new work, I think there is a value to looking back on this heady first year, and try to feel satisfied with the roots I have planted and the strides that were made. I shot with 5 models, and did seven sessions with them, I created about 125 images, 50 of which I am proud of, and I have a presence on five websites that show my work, and I even got some press this year. Not bad for a first year, for a 40-something newbie.
 
I have to thank, of course, the models that contributed their talent, their looks, and their time to my endeavor, I have to thank my loving partner who is always supportive, even when I was crying in my beer, and all the Facebook, Flickr, Blue Canvas, 1x.com, and Ephotozine friends that have encouraged me along the way, took the time to comment on my work, and tell their friends about it. I have made some valuable friends online, a little circle of peers with which to commiserate with, to relate to, and to talk shop with.
 
There are a lot of things to work out and improve in the coming year: shooting with less stress and more confidence, finding access to 19th and early 20th century clothing that I seem to favor, keeping the cost of the shoots down, finding more models, and broadening my palette and process. But there is time for all that. Next year I hope to keep the momentum up, and get a showing at a gallery. That is the prize my eye is fixed upon. Oh, and if the cosmic wish granters are out there and listening, I think putting to rest the tedious day job should happen next year as well, but if not next year, then Year Three for sure. I mean come on now, enough is enough!
 
Thank you for reading, for taking the time. I am amazed that you do, that you would. I intend this to be the last blog entry of 2012, but hell, there is likely going to be another shoot to write about soon, so whether it soars into the stratosphere or smashes onto the cold ground, broken and dying, I will likely chime in about it before 2012 is gone and all the panicky fools that misinterpret the Mayan calendar are embarrassed on the first morning of 2013. I certainly hope that I have good news to regale you with when it's over. And of course, some shiny new images!
 
Be Well and be Better.
 
Michael