This piece began life, as ever, with a simple model shot and pose, and then, weeks later while editing, evolved into a meditation on the deaths in Pompeii when Mount Vesuvius covered the city and all its occupants in ash, preserving them seemingly frozen in time at the point of their death. Ash I could do, roman architecture and volcanoes, well, those items are in short supply in my area. This sat around for weeks until I decided to scrap Pompeii and see what else this pose, which I really liked, could become.

Two aborted trips to gain new environmental material and an old Sarah McLachlan song became the sources for what you see now.  Winter in New England is a damnable thing - you never know what you are getting with the weather from one day to the next. I went out twice in the hopes of getting some new places shot, only to come back empty handed. I got a corn field in winter, cut down to the quick, and on the second trip, almost nothing - a few shots of some branches and a bit of a barbed wire fence.

I have always been a big believer in great titles and try to come up with good ones. Growing up, there are more than a few songs, albums and books I bought solely on the title alone - if they were image-laden, if they were alluring, I was hooked. Once you start writing your own work (I am a songwriter as well), you begin to realize that a title is not enough - or, if you have a killer title, you damned well better deliver the promised goods. Case in point, this title, by Sarah McLachlan. I remember this song only in passing - I remember seeing the album in the store, "Solace," and reading the titles of the songs. "The Path of Thorns" - oooh that sounds rich!  Thorns make me think of Biblical things (Jesus and his crown of thorns) being an ex-Catholic, and you can see in your mind's eye wonderful imagery with a title like this. I never did buy the album for some reason, but I never forgot the title.

Who knows why things are dredged up from your psyche and what it all means, but now, almost twenty years since that album came out or more, the title came to me as something I should explore doing in my work. Thorns…hmmm. Well, I could go to a flower store and buy some roses, but who needs the expense? Besides, thorns are so literal a thing, and rose thorns would likely be too small for what I wanted. I had my barbed wire though, from the failed trip to shoot scenery. Certainly in the thorn family, albeit man-made. I added the wire into the model and built up a suggesting of a barrier in front of the model with it. I added the decimated cornfield right over my Pompeii ground layers and then things started clicking. The crucifixes were a no-brainer; thorns will forever be associated with the Bible in my mind, so an icon like the cross not only gave me some ominous cemetery subtext, but also pulled this into a commentary about my stance on religion in general - the depleted cornfield, the symbol of death that is the cross, and the barbed wire all created, in my mind, a symbolic path of thorns - a path to pain, restriction, emptiness and ruin. This led to me adding a bit of blood on the model to imply his attempts at navigating this barbed wire barrier, and also gave me a color scheme to aim for - for some reason, and again, who knows why, I associate purple with church.

I decided at this point to actually listen to the song I was using the title of, and check out the lyrics of it to see what tidbits of inspiration could be gleaned from it. I was pretty disappointed with what I found, and this goes back to my position on having a great title and backing it up with the goods. It turns out that this song, certainly a nice song, nice melody, well sung, is…a love song, or rather, a relationship song. What a huge disappointment. You have "the Path of Thorns" and all you can think of is a complicated relationship? The title is referencing only one line in the song, and is not the "real" title at all. It is, if you follow the pop song biology and let the music and structure dictate the central theme, "Terms of Endearment." I can see why she would choose to not use this, but in my head, I expected an epic, image-laden, almost mythical journey with a title like that, and not some disappointed lover moaning about the loser who let her down. You only get one "Path of Thorns" to use in your career, so you need to make it count! When you use iconic language like "path" and "thorns" those things need to be present, otherwise you are just false advertising, luring people in with promise of "the greatest show on earth" and delivering to them one single sad clown.

I don't mean to tear her down - I don't hate Sarah, I even have a couple of her albums, and regard her as a good songwriter generally. But you don't use an epic title like that and reduce it to a moan about disappointing paramours! Clearly, this song was not going to help or be connected to my image at all. What does one think of with a path of thorns as a concept? Well, certainly a dangerous path, a path of pain, strife, peril, but you also have to think about the starting point of the journey as well as the destination - where is this path going to? And this is what I spent wondering about in the three days this image took to complete. If religion is my path of thorns here, where is it leading to? Well, nowhere, actually - my model is stopped, wounded, naked and alone. All this fire and brimstone you get from the Bible can only lead you to cold comfort, which is really no comfort at all. It demands of us linear, practical, sensory dependent people to believe in the unsubstantiated, to believe in the scientifically impossible, and to trust that which has never been seen or heard. It demands abstraction and yet wants to be taken literally. It boasts peace, yet wages wars to get it. It divides more people than it unites.

I could go on, but this is all my point of view on the topic, and need not be yours. Therefore, my path of thorns is a personal one - a person at the point of losing his faith after getting stabbed a few times with these "thorns." He is entangled in them, will have scars from the experience, and hopefully will get off this path once he is strong enough to lift himself up, shake off his disillusionment, and find comfort elsewhere.

Ironically, or at least symbolically, this path of thorns became a bit of life imitating art for me. It's hard to convey all this in a blog, but you hit certain crossroads and roadblocks as you produce artwork. I just did some pretty strong pieces, personal high points for me, all in a row, and when they come out one after the other like that, you tend to build up anxiety about the inevitable brick wall you will face. this cycle of prolific output and then a crisis of dry spell has happened before and will again, but it is never easy getting to that point - the trudging through it, surviving it, is a miserable pain in the ass, and always will be. Over the course of two years, I have been developing my own techniques, my own way of achieving a look I like, and now that engine is humming along quite nicely - I could do this approach indefinitely. But that is not growth, and treading water like that eventually creates a mini crisis in your mind - will I ever do anything new or am I a one-trick pony?

I am speaking mainly, in terms of this image, about color. Being a colorist is a huge part of what I do - most of my raw shots of the models are devoid of strong color, being shot on gray paper and most of the models wearing dark clothing or nude. I have developed a way to apply color for my pieces and it is now almost a method, a process. After a while, you begin to ask, is there nothing more? Is it only just red, green blue, violet, orange and yellow? It was almost becoming, "well, I think I have done too many blues lately, let's go yellow!" I spent most of one day trying new ways to color this piece, and threw out the tried and true method. This piece will be stored in my memory now as the one that showed me a few new techniques to apply color and dynamics. Will I be able to use them again? Who knows, but the point is I learned something new to try, and my bag of tricks is a little more robust for the journey. Also, I feel the guilt of relying on my one approach has abated now, I can be reassured that I don't need to churn out carbon copies over and over, that there are other ways of doing things.

Did I deliver an image worthy of the delicious title? Well, that is a matter of opinion, but at least the flavor of it is there, and not some lamentation of love going wrong, and I would rather reach for the grand and mythical and be accused of missing the mark than downplay the intent with a throwaway title like "beware the barbed wire fence!"




I ended last year with a blog post called "a Year in Review" which was rather long and ponderous, covering nearly everything I did in the world of art photography as well as some biographical information. This year will be different - basically because more things happened, strange as that seems!

The list would be something like this:

I shot 11 model shoots this year (6 models, three of them more than once)
I was published in magazines for the first time
I had images stolen from me online
I won a Photography Competition
I gained a much larger audience online
I finally got a workflow together with a printer I liked
I sold an image as a book cover
I sold some images to a magazine
I self-published a photo collection book (in two formats)
I created my most popular images to date

Not bad right? Well, it's easy to list these things in hindsight in a bullet list and pat yourself on the back, but if anything useful is to be gained from a blog post like this, it is in the details and not in the broad strokes. So off we go…

Shooting models is essential to me as I don't enjoy doing self-portraits at all. This year I learned that quality is of course better than quantity and stopped fretting about getting a fresh face for every shoot. Mind you - I DO look for new models from time to time - I think it is healthy, but more and more I have come to really value the contributions of those that gave me their time and energy, and decided to not worry about using them more than once. Of course a large part of this is due to their talent in front of the camera, and I think I really do put my models to task - it cannot be easy - I give them almost no indication of what we are going for because most of the time I do not know myself. They must improvise, they must trust me, and above all, as most of them pose nude as well, they must be utterly comfortable with themselves. Comfort is a big factor for me as well - I am incredibly nervous going into a shoot - akin to stage fright, and working with a model more than once makes this so much easier. I have gained something useful and created some really strong images with everyone I have work with so far, and my hopes of creating a little stable of recurring models seems to be forming. If I have not done so publicly before, I would like to thank sincerely all the models for 2013: Ed, Gilberto, Mike, Edward, Felix, Zack, and Luis.

Being published in a magazine is a big deal and I won't downplay it (too much) but I find as I get older, these benchmarks are less exciting but nevertheless satisfying. It meant that this year I could finally say I was a published photographer. First it was an online magazine called JC&Art Elite, which does print copies as well, and then I had two pieces published in the UK magazine Practical Photoshop - one being a breakdown of one of my images layer by layer. It was great to see that on the printed page, and even a thumbnail of the article on the cover! I will cover the next magazine in more detail in the a section dedicated to competitions, but I was also published in a biannual literary journal called Camera Obscura Journal, having one one part of the competition and receiving Honorable Mention in another. That was pretty gratifying too. On the site, a curated site that chooses what they publish, I had many pieces granted publication and they even contacted me to tell me that one of my pieces was going to be published in the annual yearbook! It's a beautiful collection, and one I am proud to be a part of. They also produce a how-to tutorial book once a year and I will have an image/write up in that as well, though it seems like it will be available in 2014 at this point. Finally, in November and December, I was published by way of selling three images to Healthy Living Magazine - one image in the November issue and two in the December issue. A nice way to end my first year being a published photographer! 

Being stolen is certainly a horrible thing to experience, but on the bright side, it must mean you are doing something right too. Early in the year I found a few of my images on Tumblr, and while I was credited, the images were altered to black and white. I am not a huge fan of black and white, and I think it is beyond shitty to alter someone's intended presentation without consent. Since then I have been vigilant, and had to reduce the size of my posted photos online and insist on watermarking them everywhere they go. If is not enough though - this past summer, I discovered a site was using two of my images on their Facebook page - one heavily altered as their logo! The other was being used for some contest promo. I got pretty heated, but managed to get them to take them down, and they responded in kind and with respect, so all was well. Still, I do now make periodic sweeps of the online universe to see where my babies are going, and who is doing what. This has nothing to do with sharing - those that share images from my site and credit accordingly are beyond kind - this sort of thing helps me by growing an audience and I am over the top appreciative of those that like my work enough to share it!

Two competitions were payoffs for me - or so I thought. Late last year I won a slot with Canon's Project Imagination and this year the press started for that. I got a few mentions in local papers, and I suppose wherever the press releases from Canon wound up my name was mentioned but…it didn't really make much of an impact. Sure it's nice bragging rights, sure it's cool and there was a little prize money in the form of Canon Online dollars (new lens, thanks very much). By the time the competition culminated in October in a film festival with the films that were inspired by the winning photos, I was pretty unphased by it - after all, it was nearly one year since entering the thing - and then, when I finally saw the film my image was supposedly incorporated into, I was…annoyed. The film was not inspired by anything - it was a vanity project of the celebrity director/star. I saw not even the slightest hint of my image used, or even some of the others, and I was kind of disgusted with the whole thing. I will likely not enter it again unless the direction and concept of the competition changes in the future. The other win was the Camera Obscura Journal's annual photo competition. I won 1st place in the Amateur category, and Honorable Mention in the Professional category. I was happy to receive this news, but upon seeing the magazine in print, a tad disappointed that the photos were interspersed with nary a mention about the photographers - no write up, no bio, nothing. The focus of the publication is short stories, so the Photography section is really just an aside. Still, bragging rights in a quality publication - I am pleased! 

Last November I had about 100 followers on Facebook. Flickr, my mainstay for publishing photos, was my largest audience, but it would sometimes take one week before a new image was viewed 100 times. By the end of this year I should be at 20,000 Facebook followers and now my photos on Flickr reach 100 views in the first hour or so of release. Progress indeed. This was not divine intervention though - it was work and planning, and even some money. I made sure to release new images at least once a week - a grind at times - they do take me a long time to create - and I made sure my blog was updated at least once a month - that can be hard to keep up too. I even did some paid ads on Facebook to get the word out - and it worked really well. Now I can ease off that and let the rest happen by word of mouth hopefully. Paid ads are nothing to be ashamed of - it means you believe in yourself and you want an audience for your work. Any artist that claims they don't is lying. Getting likes on Facebook is do-able by paid ads - keeping them and growing them is up to you and your work. As draining as it can be, I am on Facebook daily trying to find ways to grow my audience. I share on various pages, I make contacts and virtual friends with fellow photographers, and all that plus keeping fresh material coming has really paid off this year. Is it catapulting me to photographer stardom? No, not yet - but you never know - a year ago I had no followers and had never been published.

Turning my work into fine art prints proved to be quite a saga his year, and none of it was resolved or working until the middle of the year. I won't bore you with the blow by blow, but my goal was to find a relatively small printing house that I could work with to get my prints to look like I intended and using the finest paper and archival inks. I must have tried five printers in 2013 until I finally have it going in the right direction now - and they look great. The goal for next year though is to find buyers for them - these prints are expensive to produce and I cannot sell them at cost - so I need to attract an art buying audience - for now, these prints are ready to go, but priced as art, so, ummm, they are not exactly going! 

Designing book covers and record sleeves was a childhood dream of mine, and in 2013, I got both! Sort of. I started being a contributor to ArcAngel Images last year - they are an image house that markets primarily to book publishers, and this year I finally got one sold - a Polish novel used it. And with all the handsome and attractive models I work with and have in my portfolio, who did they go with? Me! There are very few conceptual pieces using my face, but one of these apparently fit the bill, so my face is apparently on racks across Krakow now! I was also contacted by a composer who wanted to use one of my images for his original music project, so now I have, albeit virtual and electronic,  my second childhood dream come true - an album cover. Thank you to ArcAngel Images and to Richard Ames Music for making these events happen this year!

Late in the year, as I have already mentioned, I sold three images to Healthy Living Magazine. Sold, as in, I was paid. I cannot begin to tell you that these checks, while small and not something I can quit the dreaded day job over, meant more to me than anything I have been paid for before. They were purchased as is, not by decree, and apparently worth using to them. This is significant to me - I do not want an assignment-based portfolio - I want my work to be what it wants to be - and if someone finds value in what I do, well, how can I be anything but happy about that?

Doing my own book was not exactly a priority this year, it was maybe something relegated to the future wish list, but given that there are ways to self-publish books now with printing done as needed, and not in bulk, I decided to get a collection done and take a chance. I was really pleased with the results - I chose a good grade of paper and did a nice, large collection of 55 images with their accompanying notes, all in an image-wrapped hardcover presentation. Of course, being rather verbose, these write-ups and editing them proved to be the hardest part - I had to self-edit, and often cut down the original texts to a more manageable size. This meant cutting out a lot of the technical background information on the images, but that was fine - I would rather present them as conceptual works and not focus on the technical when it comes to doing an art/photography book. Of course, given the materials used and the size of the book and the page count, this tome is rather expensive to even produce and at a very modest percentage for profit, it is not exactly priced to fly off the shelf! I decided to do a smaller, softcover version with no notes, and added 20 additional images to it. So, now i have two books to display my wares. I am proud to have it in my home, and even more proud that some actually purchased it and have it in theirs now!

There are a few ways you can get some big numbers on some of these web sites like Flickr and Editor's Pick, for example, or being "explored" on Flickr. This means you get thousands and thousands of views. I have never gotten either of those, and at times it bugs me. I drove a lot of traffic to Flickr this year - over half a million views, and yet none of mine have ever been picked up on Explore. On 500px, I get most of my images up to "Popular" status, usually topping out at the mid 90s percentage-wise, and still no Editor's Pick. In theory those boons would get me a much larger audience, but for whatever reason, it has not yet happened. Still, some of my images from this year have gotten some impressive numbers, all things considered. My top five images on Flickr were all created this year. I will show the top five below. One image really got a helping hand from the band Duran Duran. I created an image using one of their song titles, "Is There Something I Should Know?" This song's video had some connectivity to the idea I was trying to convey, and on a hunch, I sent it to them via Facebook. They posted it on their page and I had one really great evening of thousands and thousands of views. So, thank you Duran Duran!

It's been a good year; as much as I can complain about some things, I really can't or shouldn't. Things are growing, and moving in the right direction. Most important to me though is the work itself, and I am happy that this growth coincides with my personal growth and satisfaction of the images i create. I won't say that there have not been some clunkers this year - there have been - but much less so than the prior year. I created over 100 new pieces this year, and most of them are in what I consider my portfolio, which would represent my personal best work. There have been creative slumps, frustrations, sure, but the highs this year greatly outweighed the lows.

And on that note, a good one, I will say goodnight and thank you to all who read this, to all who encourage me, and to all who helped me make 2013 my best year so far.

A few of you have been asking about a tutorial on photoshop techniques. This is harder to do than it would seem. The process is not something that can be explained in an orderly, step by step fashion. It is somewhat organic; try a little of this, discard it, try something else. But, since I am going to try to explain some of it, I have to present it in some fashion, so, this little preview will be from layer one up, all the way to layer 28 - but, and I cannot stress this enough, this was NOT how it was built. At the very least you will see what each layer does, in order, and that might provide some tidbits of use. Actually, the order of layers is crucial; change the relative position of one layer, and you can change the whole image!
So, this image was built using 6 photos:
My model shot against gray seamless
A nice cloudy sky
a bright grassy field in full sunlight
the balloon strings dangling from a balloon
a metal crucifix prop I purchased some time ago
a photo of a skeleton key prop I bought:
In case you haven't noticed, I prefer my images to be square. I am a symmetry junkie, so I like those nice neat squares all uniform and even steven. Makes me happy. I will write more on the square composition some time in the future, when I feel I know more about it - I've only been using it for about a year. Shooting with a non-square format camera means imagining where you will crop. In this case, I expanded my rectangle shot into a large square by creating a new canvas in photoshop using the largest dimension of the original image and squaring it. That means I had to extend the sides of the gray seamless paper to stretch across my now large square to fill in all that additional real estate. And that is a big part of why I use gray seamless. It's very versatile.
anyway. so now I have a large square with a model fairly centered. There are numerous pre-treatments I do to an image to prep it for surgery that would be really LONG and boring to write out, so maybe, if there is interest in the future, I will expand on that. But the short version is: neutralize the color cast of the gray paper, reduce orange and red, "distress: the image to look more like paint strokes, bump up exposure or fill light if needed, sharpen AND reduce clarity. This is all done in Adobe Camera Raw. I only shoot RAW.
Once I open in Photoshop, there are some adjustment layers I always add as I am sure I will need them eventually: Curves, Levels, Color Balance, Hue and Saturation…all these get piled on top of my main image.
here is the finished PSD with all the layers shown and turned on. There are 28, though if you count there will be less; the crosses are all grouped. Oh, and you will also see the working titles on the top bar LOL. "Leper" - oh my.
here is the layer panel…

And here is what the composition looks like with every layer but the main shot turned off…
First step is to always make a copy of the main layer, for safety and for do-over potential. In this case, I neutralized the red warm tone of the gray paper even more…
Here is the key image added to his back. The key was masked/painted out of its background - always use a Layer Mask - don't erase anything EVER! The excess key was masked off where it intersects his body…
Next come the crosses. All eight are the same shot, masked out of its background (I shoot the props with the same lights on the same paper), slightly blurred, and the blur is different to simulate distance and depth of field. Once in the desired positions, the layers are grouped to get them out of the way and cut down on clutter.  As you can see, there are some areas in the crosses that I didn't mask out  - the cutaways in the engraving. I didn't bother because I didn't notice - it was not an issue on the finished image.
Next come the balloon string shot. The strings is placed and blended to match the white bandage of the foot. A duplicate is made and placed alongside. The strings are masked out of their backgrounds.
Next comes the shot of the field. I added additional blur to the hills in the distance, as I thought they were too distracting, and I wanted a lot of DOF in this piece...
A duplicate is made and blurred and overlaid using a different transfer mode, creating a slightly foggy, shimmery effect. This mask work is hard and slow; you need to cut out the shape of the model only from the grass layer, and this is where the gray plain paper really helps, as well as the precision of using a Wacom Tablet to carefully paint out the edges.
Next is an adjustment layer of Hue and Saturation to mute the colors almost entirely  - it's now virtually black and white. You will see why this is done later on…
As you can see, the mask is okay, but he is cleanly walking on the grass, and it looks fake and two dimensional:
To sell the illusion a little, a touch of grass is copied from the original layer of grass, and lumped in over his foot and painted out to give a hind of his foot stepping into grass, to simulate some depth to it. This looks not great now, but it will work in the end well enough - one of the final steps is to go over all these details with a clone tool and address bad patches, dog hairs, lint, pimples, etc…
Next comes an art paper texture that I use often, not for the texture, but for the fact that it has a highlight area in the center, with falloff to shadow on the corners, giving it a nice function of a marquee to highlight the subject:

Finally the sky is added. This mask is a little easier, since the gray of the sky almost matches the tone of the paper. The model shape is cut out on the layer mask, and feathered to clean up the edge. a duplicate layer is added and additional blur is used with a different transfer mode to give it a bit of a foggy look.
Next comes gray blobs, crudely painted in a layer. With the transfer mode used, the image can be brightened in some areas, kept dark in others, depending on the level of the paint in the layer. As you can see, this is now a VERY bright, foggy image…
another layer of solid white is used in similar fashion in Luminosity transfer mode, to punch up the highlights…

The beige scarf I bought was ornate but dull in color, so I painted it red. Looking at it in this way, I see what a bad paint job I did, but it didn't really matter, as I was painting with all the layers turned on and it didn't show up as bad in the end result:
So now all the components of the piece are in place…and it's very bleached of color and overly bright (to me)…
I add a rough paper texture image over it, to give it some detail and some graininess.This texture is also darker around the edges, so it creates a slight iris or spotlight on the subject, depending on how you place it.
This is how it looks originally:
Always keep texture images black and white unless you want them to recolor what you've done!

Ah the magic of Levels and Curves! These pop the brights, and darken the shadows, and add serious drama to the image… see!
When the shadows are amplified and the highlights brought up as well as the midtones, a lot of the color we siphoned off in the beginning comes back, which is why I remove a lot of it down below.
Finally, a color solid is added on top of all, and ramps down to single digit opacity - just a pop of color cast over all:

As you can see, at this point it is done, but the final image was altered further from this spot. At this point, I was satisfied with the composition and saved the PSD file so I can fix things later if I want to, and then made a flattened copy as a TIF. The TiF goes through 5 more alterations - all very long and hard to describe. I am not trying to be enigmatic - just really depends on each image, so I couldn't say "do this at 10%, do this at 40%… it all depends. But in any event, that was the tour through the 28 layers! And now I must go back and clean up the red paint job that is now bothering me, now that I have taken all the layers off and demonstrated how sloppy it is!
I hope it helped a little, or, failing that, was at least interesting if you are into this sort of thing! I welcome feedback on this blog post, especially any questions. I will try to answer if I can. Doing this, it occurs to me that showing this live, with people driving at the wheels themselves, would be the easiest way to demonstrate this stuff. Maybe someday it will be wanted enough for me to do a workshop class.

Thanks for reading and viewing!
Michael, Dec 21st 2012

Late in 2011 I had this idea. I thought it would be a really cool project for myself to take on the Tarot Cards and make a photographic series based on them. After doing some searches online, it seemed that no one had done it so far – really?? No one? Did I stumble onto untapped fodder for ideas? Could I be that lucky? Jazzed as I was by this, I researched everything I could find on the cards – there was a LOT of information, and many, many versions of the deck. Not being terribly familiar with them, I nevertheless, once upon a time, owned a Rider Deck, and that’s the one I was most familiar with, so I decided to base mine on those. After absorbing a lot about the symbolism within the illustrations, the color scheme and what each meant, and even the connection to the zodiac and which signs pertained to which deck of the Minor Arcana, I was ready to start this project.

I first determined the size needed, basing it on the Rider Deck dimensions. I decided on the overall color palette of each suit of the Minor Arcana, from which our modern playing cards evolved. I assigned the three corresponding zodiac symbols and even a runic symbol appropriate to the suit and their meanings. Fonts were decided upon, and the basic template was made for the border and graphics of the cards. So far so good, but there were no images.

I decided to start gently, doing the Ace of each suit of the Minor Arcana. See, the suits all have a prop: Pentacle, Sword, Wand, Cup, and each sequential card in the suit adds more and more of the props in the images. Ergo, Ace of Pentacles begets one Pentacle, Two of Pentacles begets two, and so on. So, starting with the Aces meant only one prop needed, and no models, as each Ace in the Rider Deck is a disembodied hand holding its suit’s symbol. A simple place to start…except where to find these props?

I got lucky with the Pentacle, finding a nice 8” wall piece of a Celtic Pentacle. Done! I ordered a sword replica from Amazon. Not so great. It was too big, and way to mirror-reflective of a finsh to be anything but a nightmare to shoot. The Wand took forever to find – because really, what the hell is a wand?? In the Rider Deck, it is more like a walking staff, a bamboo rod with live buds sprouting out of it. But, in the modern vernacular, we think of “magic wand” when we hear the word “wand.” So I opted for both, and bought an antique walking stick for my magic wand, and a couple bamboo stalks for my other wand. The cup was the biggest pain in the ass. I never did find one that was right – I ended up using an old antique wine goblet, but it wasn’t right. I searched and searched online, usually for chalices, but all of them were too Judeo-Christian, too shiny, or too small for my purposes.

But anyway, I started making some of the cards happen, doing the Aces to set the tone for the Minor Arcana suits, and having a color and design palette to jump off from. So far so good. After the expense of procuring the hero props I realized very early on that I could only afford one prop per suit, so I was going to have to do some Photoshop cloning to make more than one happen per suit. I used myself as a model for a couple of the cards, and dealt with the first clone shot for the Two of Pentacles.

As I went along, knocking out one card after another, slowly, over months, I realized the scope of this undertaking was pretty mammoth, and was going to take possibly years. There was the sheer volume of it: 78 cards in all. There was the number of cards requiring models and costumes: nearly every one. There were props I had no idea how I would get or fake or afford like thrones for the Kings and Queens, A dark Tower, a Chariot. A Chariot!! Where the hell does one rent a Chariot?? All this to say, it is a very big undertaking, which in and of itself is not a problem – I would dedicate myself to the time it took to do a good job, but you have to be really passionate about what you are doing to stay focused on it for that long, and at the end of the day, I wasn’t. I think the EUREKA moment of what a good idea it was, and how the project could actually be lucrative if completed into a viable deck for sale, and how it had a built in audience factor was eclipsing the fact that I just didn’t care enough about it to see it through. I think some of the decks are beautifully done, and I thought I could make some striking images from them, but it wasn’t enough fuel to keep me going, and I want to be free to explore ideas as they come, and not be tied to representing already established images. In other words, I wanted to write original songs, and not do cover songs for the next two years or so.

It’s one of the few times I have taken on a creative endeavor and abandoned it unfinished, but it was starting to feel like an anchor and a chore, and that does not make for a well-produced result. So, while it’s never wise to say “forever” about anything, for now, it feels done. Incomplete. It was fun for a while – putting the design of the cards together, doing the research, and I am proud of some of them. So, unless I revisit them sometime in the future, here are the ones I completed, in no particular order, one last time.


Thanks for reading.

Michael – Dec 04, 2012

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, 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,, 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,, 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.