Jake’s speech at the Portland Art Museum – The Decisive Morning
Written by Jake Shivery
What follows is the unabridged text (and slides) from Jake’s speech at the Portland Art Museum on July 17, 2013.
Thanks to the Photo Council for having me. And by “having me”, I mean “bullying me into this”. Thanks to all of you for breaking up your day to come down for a bit. I will do my best to make it worth your while.
And thanks to Pro Photo Supply for sponsoring these events. You guys are great. I hope that at some point, my little company will be in a position to mirror some of your good efforts.
Let’s just move right onto the robots, shall we?
The first point I’d like to address is: “Who is in control of the portrait: the photographer or the subject?” You can’t have a portrait without both, after all.
Here’s an excellent example. This is my friend John and his father. John is an artist of the first order himself, and he is used to knowing exactly what he wants. Nothing is different here – he knows exactly what he wants out of his portrait. So his father’s coming into town, and he’s excited about the shop space that he’s subletting to work on his current obsession: the renovation of Airstream trailers. In addition, John is a builder and a craftsman, with a sense of humour to boot, and he’s recently constructed himself a robot costume, which he would like to incorporate into the portrait. He’s been waiting for the stars to align just so before proceeding.
So John asks me to come down and make a portrait, about which I’m very excited. That’s a lot of great elements to work with. I go down to set up; I’ve been in the shop before but never really looked at the light, and I’m not sure what we have to work with. I get the camera the way I want it, and start placing the subjects. That’s John’s grandfather’s tool chest that he’s sitting on, another subtle and important detail. Father and son, dissected Airstream, robot costume, tool chest – layers on layers – John’s life in fragments. A code.
John and I had been planning this shoot for several weeks before the actual event, anticipating his father’s arrival. John described his idea about using the robot suit, about which I showed some skepticism regarding his father’s willingness. John told me not to worry.
As you might expect, John’s dad was more than a little skeptical once the idea was finally presented. Everything else was largely ready, and John produced the bottom half of the robot costume. His father looked at it with bemusement. John looked at his father with impatience.
John’s dad: “What do you want me to do with these?”
John: “Dad, we spoke about this at length. Now go put the robot pants on.”
And, being the good sport that he is, John’s dad put them on; John himself climbed into substantially less of the robot costume, set himself down on his grandfather’s tool chest, and they took mild direction from me.
It’s layer on layer on layer of one man’s psyche representing itself. It’s a portrait in the truest sense, since it’s John’s own direction. Levels of generations, levels of strength, levels of craft. Levels of information being passed down and passed on. It always pleases me to help my friends create their own self representations, and this is one of my favorites.
And so, I get my shot. It’s more or less my classic “jake portrait” – family in the front, family in the back, some details for interest. I’m proud of it, but ultimately, I was just showing up with the camera.
John and his dad took some subtle coaching from me, and they held still while I did my thing, but he knew what he wanted.
Whose portrait is it? Well, it defies the question, and makes for a good answer – collaboration. This is what makes for a good portrait – work with really good people who you love, try your best to make them look good while they’re trying their best to help you make a good photograph, and you have actual, legitimate collaboration.
There were a couple other things happening in my evolution as a photographer when I made this portrait. Notably, I had decided that I wanted to have a smaller camera with me, where I could shoot more than six frames of film, and where I could have faster results and where I could work in color. So I brought along my trusty old Hasselblad, and a second tripod, and I set it up next to the Deardorff, and tried my best to work with it.
The next day, I had the work processed and proofs to look at and was excited at the relatively “instant” gratification of being able to see results the following day. And it looks great – Zeiss optics, square and compact, lovely, in color and everything – and they all just left me all the more anxious to see the real film. After getting used to dealing with 8×10 negatives, it’s really hard to look at anything else.
Let’s speak a bit about the limitations of the large format system – principally, the number of frames you can expect to make during a given shoot.
I try really hard to get it within just a couple of shots. I’ve recently been trying to limit myself to two or four per shoot. One reason is expense, obviously – it’s five bucks every time you pull the shutter.
Another reason is advice from one of my old photo mentors – the amateur photographer will show you everything that they shot – the pro will show you “the” photograph – the finished product. So I’m mindful of this, and when I’m prepping for a show, there’s always some teeth gnashing about which one is “the” one. For today, clearly, I’m going to break that rule a bit.
For today, I’m going to show you a couple of shots with their out-takes, because it’s relevant to the subject of editing. Which is a constant struggle.
I work with a couple of editors, but ultimately, I like to make sure that I’m making the final call on which photo actually reaches the wall.
And here, it was hard. I mean, I had five of these robot series and I liked every one of them. But you have to pick just one.
Later, I’ll put some of the “b-sides” up on Flickr and see how the world responds, but not until after I’ve made my final decision. Not until I’ve actually hung “the one” up on a wall somewhere. The results are always interesting. Not surprisingly, different people like different things. But this kind of public election after the show does have an impact on how I shoot.
On the note of “B-sides”, I also wanted to show you the more traditional portrait work of these two men. I was a bit overwhelmed with how good these elements were, and the robot suit and the layers on layers was really exciting, but I also wanted a bit of work of just the two dudes. Sometimes, shoots will go like this, and there will be many which are hard to choose from.
At this point, John’s gotten what he wants. He has his family portrait with his father in the robot pants. Now he’s free to chill out in the nice light.
John’s father looks like he wants to kill me. He doesn’t. He made us sandwiches.
And now onto the clown and the mermaid…
This is as close as I’m liable to come to a “one hit wonder” – this thing gets more views on the internet than everything else of mine combined, by a considerable degree.
And so… I’m sick of it. I don’t think it’s representative of the body of work so much, even though it does have that in focus out of focus action. It’s just so… popular. Granted, if nobody paid any attention, I’d be out there saying “hey – Clown! Mermaid! What do you people want?”
This ties in with John’s robot picture, because it’s more of a collaboration. Similarly, I didn’t ask my friends Leif and Claudie to dress up in this drag, and that’s an important point. They were in the process of making one of Leif’s short films, and I happened to see some of the still work, and barged my way in so that I could exploit a bit of their set design. What I mean is that I’m trying to capture some of the creativity on which they’ve worked so hard. This is a successful portrait not because it’s weird and idiosyncratic, not because it’s an odd clown with a mermaid in the back – but because it captures them working in their craft.
And there’s a funny story about how my dog always comes with me on sittings. I’m down there setting up the camera and working out the landscape aspect of the portrait. It’s wise to get going before you start hassling your subjects. I like to have some time with what the background will look like before I get started. I find that it’s important to generate a pleasing landscape first, get it balanced and nice looking, and then impose the subject(s) on it. That’s why when I’m looking at landscapes, I wonder when the person’s going to show up.
Anyway, there I am, down on the beach setting up – Leif and Claudie are up in the car getting changed, and I realise that I haven’t seen my dog Daisy for a little bit too long. I whistle and she comes exploding over the hill, with Leif, made up and costumed, in fast pursuit. She has his red rubber nose in her mouth.
“Your dog has my nose!”
Oh, and here’s the out-take, which no one has actually ever seen before.
It’s creepier, right? Sometimes, I think restraint is nice in a picture. You can get too creepy.
We had a lovely morning shooting the clown and the mermaid, mostly because we had the extra treat of musical accompaniment. This is my friend Anna, who agreed to come along to the island and let me have two sittings in one. So the whole time that we’re making the clown and the mermaid, we’re being serenaded by a lovely woman with a violin. For portraitists looking to ease their subjects, I highly recommend bribing musicians to come along for the ride.
It was a swell morning for all, and everyone enjoyed themselves. I think that the look on Anna’s face really shows this off.
“Candid” photography with the 8×10 is awkward but not impossible. Right after we made this last portrait, I noticed a boat coming down the river. Moving boat in the background? That sounds great. I yelled to Anna and she came running; I banged the camera around to get it in just the right spot and managed to get off two shots with the moving boat as the background. This is the one which worked.
I know that a lot of people like to switch out their cameras regularly. Sometimes, people like to have a new toy, and sometimes the modern technology demands it, but I think one of the unexpected consequences of this is that people never work with their gear long enough to really know it.
Me, I’m a one camera man. For my own flow, it’s critical that I know where everything is, what every shutter speed is actually doing, what levers and knobs are loose and which are tight, where the bellows may or may not be leaking light. Think of it like a soldier with his weapon – because I spend so much time with it, I could field strip my Deardorff in the dark with a blindfold on. Part of this is because I have sort of an unnatural relationship with my camera. Part of this is because every once in a while I find myself running down a beach, chasing a violinist and a boat. These things happen. You better be ready.
Speaking of action and adventure, here’s one where it gets dangerous. My friend Tasha is pretty breath-taking by herself, and she has a weakness for ballgowns. I ran into her and she mentioned that she was having a dress commissioned especially for her. I had made portraits with her before, both her and that car – with its “Tasha” vanity plate – and had been contemplating the next shoot for a while, so I suggested that we shoot her in her new dress.
Turns out that we had to go to the dress shop itself, because she needed the staff there to help her get into it. This dress was kind of a big deal. Well, that’s fine, cause it gave me some time to get the car right where I wanted it in the frame. That took about five minutes. Tasha took about half an hour, which left me on the street with the Deardorff, fending off passers-by. Anybody who has ever been shooting in public with a big wooden camera will sympathise with this. And we’ll speak a bit more about it later. Back to Tasha – eventually she emerged, all decked out, ready for her fancy portrait. Now, bear in mind that this is first thing in the morning – like 9am – on Burnside – and I swear to god we’re lucky we got out of that without causing a car accident.
I mean, it’s easy to be sympathetic. Imagine that you’re a dude, you’re driving to work with your coffee between your knees, and you look up and there’s this Amazonian goddess in a ball gown standing up in the back of her Cadillac convertible. There was a lot of screeching of brakes and so forth. You’ll be pleased to know that nothing bad happened. And dudes at work all along Burnside had distracting thoughts for the whole morning.
Let’s talk a bit more about “the decisive morning”. Everyone knows that photography happens fast, really fast, like a thirtieth of a second. And Cartier-Bresson and the street shooters have pummeled into us the truism that the decisive moment is everything. That practicing your whole life so that you’re ready for that moment when it occurs is what we should all be doing as photographers.
This is a sentiment with which I agree.
However, it’s not the only truth. Large format photography, especially large format portraiture, is exactly the opposite. I miss stuff all the time – all those beautiful little in-between moments always go unrecorded by me. When I’m standing there prepping, I see them, the simple little flashes in between poses, and I love them, but I’m not going to get them. There’s some loss there, and I acknowledge it. Hopefully, I’m making up for it by going hard the other way.
I like the formalism that the camera causes. I like how it sort of scares people – it’s big and intimidating and it does its job nicely. Not just the job of taking pictures, but the job of working with me as a collaborator. By having some impact on the scene, the camera completes the process.
So, here we are with my friend Tomás. Now, I’ve known him for a while and think he’s an interesting person, but I’ve never been to his house. We start talking, and his obsession with carrier pigeons begins to emerge. Well, now – that’s interesting.
So we go heading over there one fine fall morning. I’m minding the light, but we seem to have enough time to let the morning evolve. Tomás serves espresso in little white cups and we set and talk for a while, watching the pigeon coop. I’m getting a little nervous about the light changing up on me, but we’re really enjoying our conversation.
The sun comes up abruptly – it seemed abrupt at the time – and suddenly, I’m in a panic. So we rush around and jam the camera into place and he gets his favorite pigeon and I manage to pull two or three frames before the entire backyard is flooded with high key sunshine. At the top of this frame, you can see the sun creeping in. I was a bit late.
My point is this – the actual moment is important, but for this kind of portraiture, the events leading up to it, the coffee and the conversation, are what gets us both on the same page and makes an image like this possible. It’s not the moment, so much – it’s the whole morning.
So, here’s the “famous” picture of me bending spoons. This was a really pleasant afternoon, raining, I was more or less trapped in the house, and I wanted to make a photo. No one else was around, so I had to be my own victim. I’m a big advocate of making self portraits – I firmly believe that every working portraitist should be making pictures of themselves with regularity. Not as a one time experiment, but all the time, to remind yourself what it’s like on the other side of the camera.
So I made this shot. I was quite pleased with the negative, and anxious to print it. My ex was working with me in the darkroom when I pulled the print and her reaction was priceless. I hadn’t told her what I was printing, or that I had even done this, I just handed her the exposed paper. While she was swishing it around in the developer, she stamped her feet and said “That’s what happened to all my spoons! You bent all my spoons for this goofy picture.” I replied: “Baby, I bent those spoons with my mind and then I took this picture. Aren’t you impressed?”
The public response was a little dicier. I was a little shy about showing it, but I had an exhibition and not quite enough new work, so up it went. While it was pretty well received, I also got a lot of interesting comments. “Jake, I had no idea you had such a dark side”. And that took me a couple of minutes to figure out.
No, folks, I am not a heroin addict. Yes, I bent those spoons with my mind. And then took a picture.
I wasn’t even sure that I wanted to show it. This is pretty early in the series, and I was a little fussy about the narcissism necessary to put a picture of yourself up on the wall. But there was a show, and I had space to fill, and really, I liked it, so up it went.
Coincidentally, Terry actually made an appearance at an art show, and he liked it, and suggested that it should be added to the museum’s collection.
Well, that’s cool. I mean, that’s sort of the final thing, right? I’m in the museum collection, I can stop now, right?
And then there’s months of paperwork back and forth and getting through the collections process, and the longer I have to think about it, the more I think – “Oh, was Terry just being nice?”
Then we got Julia. We’re good friends now, but we hadn’t even met when she executed her first show of portraits at the museum. And she hung it.
And that was the best. It’s cool when your pal pulls something for the collection; it’s even cooler when the new lady actually hangs it.
It honours me greatly that I had anything pulled for the museum’s collection. I guess it’s sort of the ultimate recognition for a “fine art” photographer. It pleases me even more that one hundred years from now, I will personally be glowering down on the rest of the photo collection.
I’m going to stay on self portraits for a bit longer; don’t worry. This one took a little doing, cause we’re shooting into a giant eight foot by eight foot mirror, and, as it turns out, it’s really hard to find an eight foot by eight foot mirror. These guys – Sean and Oliver – were members of my loyal staff, the class clowns if you will, and they were pleased as punch when I asked them to come stand behind me and mock me.
I was pleased with the way that it came out. It was the first shot in one of my autumn photography breaks – I try to take off a week from work when the light changes and just roam around and shoot. It’s very good to be able to concentrate on that and nothing else. This one kicked off one of those especially productive weeks.
Ultimately, I was sort of interested in what I actually looked like when photographing. But I wanted to make it with my own camera, and not another camera taking a picture of my camera. Hence the mirror. Which we did end up breaking. Of course we did.
I’ll abuse you with one last one of myself. I bring this up because it takes me back to my roots. When I was a geeky kid and didn’t have any friends, I knew I wanted to make portraits. Since I couldn’t lure anybody in, I ended up shooting myself a lot.
Well, one morning I woke up to an April snowfall and when I went outside realised that my camellia tree was in full bloom, covered in snow, and broken by the weight of the snow. Perfect for a picture. No one wanted to come out and play, so I had to use myself.
So, now that we’ve looked at three pictures of me, let’s talk a bit about narcissism. There’s people in the room right now – you know who you are – who are currently stewing about my implied narcissism. Just cause I’m showing pictures of myself.
Well, they’re wrong.
Listen, every time you take a picture, any time you do anything productive, really, you’re engaging in a sort of narcissism. Add to that the idea that you have the gall to take pictures of people and try and freeze time like that, well that’s the definition of the term. Who am I to take pictures at all? Who am I to take portraits of people and then show them? Much less sell them…
Well, if you’re going to have the gall to take portraits, then you can’t hide from it. You have to be willing to administer the same treatment to yourself, and then deal with the results. Ultimately, I think it’s true narcissism to be a person who thinks they can do it to everybody else and not do it to yourself.
This is not the most flattering photo of me. If someone else had taken it, I’m not sure I would like it very well. But I was there, and that was a really nice morning. And I think it’s important for portraitists to remember that sometimes we like the photos better than our subjects do, even when our subjects are ourselves. It’s useful practice.
This is my friend Tiffany. Months before we made this portrait, I was talking to her at a party when she turned her head just a certain way. That moment got fixed in my brain, and we started scheming on her next portrait – I’ve shot her several times. Eventually, she had inherited her father’s shotgun, and wanted to incorporate that. I was stuck on cars at the time, and so we integrated all three things – the tilt of her face, the gun and the car, and made this one. I’ve always liked it, because it’s not uncommon for people to miss the gun completely. Every once in a while, though, that’s all they can see. I love the quiet menace.
OK – This is a weird segue, but don’t worry, I’ll bring it back around.
My old man asked me a question once, while he was looking at a hanging show. Now, he’s a smart man, my dad, but he is firmly entrenched in the “I don’t know art, but I know what I like” school of thought. Let’s just say he’s had better things to do with his time than consider the definition of art and so forth. So he comes to me with the first thing on his mind: “Why are they in black and white?”
Well, because the film’s cheaper, of course.
Actually, it’s a profoundly good question. I got thinking about it, and right about the same time I was gifted a small box of color film, so I thought I’d try the experiment. Had a photo in my head, got everything lined up the way that I like it, made the portrait. Without changing anything at all, made it again in color.
By way of process, I tried my best to mirror my usual technique. I’m not the strongest color printer in the world anymore, so my colleague Faulkner pulled the contact prints for me. The color negs were darkroom contact printed, nice and dense and warm the way that I like. I had the opportunity to hang two shots in a group show, so I hung both of my “experimental” color portraits. And you know what? They looked just like pictures.
When is a portrait actually just a picture? When it’s in color.
No, seriously, the portrait is meant to have a little heavier presence than just the picture. A really easy way to convey this is to take people out of their usual perception and show it to them in a way that they can’t actually see it. Black and white does this. Except for our color-blind friends, everybody can see the world in color. Nobody sees it as a tonal scale of grays.
In this example, I’ll draw your attention to the shotgun. In the BW picture, most people have to look at if for a while before they even notice the weapon. In the color version, you can’t see anything else. In the portrait, this is of the girl. In the picture, this is of the gun.
OK, Humour: A few years back, Zeb and I went down to see the museum’s show of Elliott Erwitt. When we talked about it afterward, we both had basically the same comment – everybody today takes themselves so seriously. Erwitt was not afraid of humour. Erwitt’s work is always elegantly executed, and a bit of it is humorous, but he’s not going out of his way to be a “funny” photographer. He’s just not scared of making a picture which will make you laugh. Because what’s wrong with that? I think it’s possible to still take a body of work – dare we say “medium” – seriously, even if it’s got some quirky elements to it.
So I’m photographing my friends Bruce and Carla, who have just had their first baby, Olympia. Now, Bruce is a puppeteer, and he is so all the way to the core – he can’t quite ever stop being a puppeteer. So when he brings his infant daughter out to meet me, he holds her up alongside his head and starts in with the ventriloquist routine. “Hi Jake”, he makes her say, in a funny monster voice. Now, that’s funny. The way I see it, it’s my job as portraitist to try and bring that humour and good spirit across.
Important to note – I’m not making fun of my subjects. If they’re funny, I’ll try and bring that over. But if they’re accidentally doing something funny, it’s my job to skirt around that. I think that the whole point of portraiture is to make something that the subject will not only like, but relish.
But I keep it easy on myself, and don’t try to make portraits of people that I don’t have a relationship with already. I only make portraits of people for whom I have affection. I don’t have any interest in making portraits of the famous or the important, or even the interesting. I don’t roam around and ply my trade with people that I don’t know, because it diminishes my point. I keep it easy by only having sittings with people that I care to sit with.
Here’s my friend and neighbor Angela. We’ve been making portraits together for several years now, and I’m always pleased with the results. This is her in her backyard chicken coop. This is a monstrous coop – me and the Deardorff are actually inside there with her – you can’t see Daisy running around like a maniac on the outside.
Angela was preparing for a trip to the South Pole – not McMurdo, but the really little station down at the actual bottom of the world. This was promising to be an intense trip, and she was going to have to be giving up her chicken coop and the rest of her life for a year, so we wanted to make something that she could use to remember it all. Fleeting moments.
You can’t tell this from the screen, but the 8×10 format really shines here. Looking at the contact print, you can make out the delicate lace of the dress. It’s really rich. Generally, I don’t like that dappled light; I find it to be a pain in the neck to print. Here, I think it works pretty well, and it gives her some warmth to look up into.
Here’s one of our favorites – another excellent morning out on Sauvie Island. I’m not sure I really remember where the blindfold came from, but it made sense at the time. Just to finish it off, you’ll notice “incidental Daisy” in the car.
And so all this gives me a much more limited base upon which to draw, which is, ultimately, also the point. I’ve mentioned this in the past, but photographing the same people repetitively is really a major part of the point. I’m aiming for the long term, and the big – really big – body of work. I’m going to make portraits of the same people until I die. When I’m through, what I hope comes out is the evolution of my favorite subjects – a giant, 8×10 flip book of folks getting older.
I feel especially blessed to be as close as I am to as many people as I am, and even more so because they all make such agreeable portrait subjects.
This is a more recent shot – I just went over to visit for coffee one morning – Angela and her husband Nick live a few blocks away – I was intending to shoot, but as we often do, we got very distracted by conversation. We ended up talking forever, but we still squeaked this one out. It’s all natural, it’s all incidental.
One of the big advantages to shooting people over and over again is that they become more comfortable with the process. Angela is not necessarily the sort of person who likes having her picture taken, but she likes my project, and by this point it’s old hat for her. It’s comfortable and easy and that helps make portraits like this one.
That’s Angela and Nick’s new dog Lily, who’s much happier looking in person.
This was the first one we did, back in 2008. I had known that I wanted to shoot her, and then she sprained her arm in a biking accident. Perfect. I mean, for the portraitist, events like these are a gold mine. I like catching people in the midst of something different. One of the big points of portraits for me is capturing time when it happens – gathering images of people at important and pivotal moments of their lives.
Busting your arm might not seem like a pivotal event, but it is something to remember, and it gives the portrait a certain strength that it wouldn’t have otherwise.
This is Dennis McCormack and his son Matt of Ace typewriter, up in St Johns. They run a retail typewriter repair store, and keep Blue Moon Camera in the typewriter business. He’s ninety, and warm and a pleasure to be around. He’s very active, and very Catholic, has a shrine to his deceased wife in the back of his shop, the whole bit. Any time I stop by, he always offers me a little wine or a little beer, or a little coffee with cranberry juice in it.
The in-focus/out-of-focus thing works really well here. My pal Matt back there, he’s the guy that fixes all the machines these days, but he’s not the kind of guy that’s going to stand still for a portrait. But he’ll happily hang out in the back while we make a portrait of his father.
Ace typewriter is important as one of those businesses which won’t exist in a hundred years. We as photographers should be doing what we can do to preserve these things for posterity. Men like Dennis McCormack aren’t likely to exist in a hundred years.
Get it while you can.
OK, so here’s my boys. That’s Rob up in the front and Jason in the back. They both have held similar spots in my life – always nice to have men around who like loading and driving trucks. I’ve known Rob about fifteen years, we were friends in Denver – where he still lives, and Jason pretty much the whole time that I’ve been in Portland. They are similar men who still manage to enjoy each other’s company. They are both very handy to have on hand when it’s time to move stuff around. Generally speaking, when it comes time for a truck to get loaded and driven away, it’s my job to step aside and let men like these ply their craft. Many trips with many different kinds of trucks full of loot have been made significantly easier by having one of these men in my life. This morning was important, because they were both present and ready to help.
There’s a great confluence of events here – they had just finished rapidly unloading this truck and they looked very pleased with themselves – very accomplished. The yawning maw of the truck looked great, the light was really perfect, and for some unknown reason, I had my camera with me. Serendipity.
Have you noticed that they’re dressed the same? Rob’s visiting from out of town – we put him to work and Jason’s always ready for the task, but the identical clothes are entirely incidental. This is what you wear when you’re a pro at loading and driving truck.
It’s a nice picture, and I’ve always liked it. What’s important about it is the lesson about editing and selling. This was the thirty-ninth portrait in a thirty-eight print show. When I dropped off my stuff at the gallery, I left it behind, you know, just in case there was a hole somewhere. It didn’t especially fit with the rest of the show, but I liked it well enough.
Well, it was the first thing to sell – it sold before I even got back up for the opening.
I had shown something pretty similar in an earlier show and I don’t generally care to repeat myself, but this image kept evading various culls, and I knew that at some point it was going to have to be on a wall. Being wishy-washy about it just proved the point – you can’t edit yourself. This one paid for itself. First.
And this is what you get when you ask me to shoot your engagement portrait. Something that looks like a divorce portrait. You can almost hear the violins in the background.
This is one of those where I’m going to get my chops busted for “dressing my friends up” for portraits. I rarely ask for any specific wardrobe, and this is one of the times where I didn’t. Lori and Jason would look good in their jeans and sneakers, but they had something else in mind for their 8×10 engagement shoot. It’s one of the reasons I like the format so well – it causes a different type of behavior in the subjects. Generally, because it is such a formal process, it makes people wish to look their best. Or look the way they ultimately wish to. I do my best to accommodate.
There were more romantic shots from this sitting, but this one continues to stick out in my mind.
Rude under the waterfall is an example of a highly produced photograph – this is an image I carried around in my head for a year while I was searching for a barrel.
This is not a picture of a guy in old fashioned swimwear acting like he just went over a waterfall in a barrel. This is a shot of my friend Rude, who is the only guy I know who would go over a waterfall in a barrel. Specifically, I did not have the thought first and then cast Rude in the main part – I spent some time considering what would make a good “narrative” portrait of Rude, and this is what I came up with.
Unlike most of my other portrait shoots, this one involved a crew. Generally, I’m not interested in making a production out of it – this is not commercial photography after all, and I feel like a bunch of extraneous people only puts distance between me and my subject. This shot required it – if only because there was a big barrel that needed carrying.
So Rude and I and Jason – you’ll remember him from the truck driver portrait – and John – you’ll remember him from “robot pants” – made a trip out to the Columbia Gorge in search of the correct waterfall. Lucky for me that I had such stout help along, as the waterfall was at the bottom of a cliff of precarious wet rocks and down there was where we needed the camera, tripod, film and barrel. There was a lot of carrying. Furthermore, the light was perfect, but rapidly changing.
And so it was a stressful shoot, and I am glad to have the image. Even at that distance, the waterfall was spraying my lenses and dark slides. Rude was freezing. The sunlight was rapidly rising in the sky and working its way down the waterfall. This frame was taken moments before it was too late – the sun was just at the edge of the frame, threatening to blow out the waterfall completely.
And then – here comes the dentist. Now, the dentist is the nemesis of the large format photographer – we’re talking here about a guy who has a lucrative day job during the week and a camera obsession at night. They’re easy to spot – carrying a lot of photo gear, traveling to tourist spots, generally wearing a tackle vest stuffed full of photographic accessories. You’ve all been there. You all know what it’s like when you’re trying to work and some guy wanders up to talk about photography.
But there they are – they’re out on the weekends, making “art”, following the well worn paths of a century of waterfall photographers before them. And they’re a nuisance to anyone using a big wooden camera, because they can’t help themselves.
So this guy is up at the top of the rise, and I’ve already seen him see me, and the Deardorff, and he is now making a beeline down the slope and I know what’s next: twenty minutes of him discussing with me everything he knows about large format photography, the history of the Deardorff, the reason why he, himself, has decided that he’s better off with a modern digital camera, etc, etc. Smoking and cussing while I’m shooting is generally my good defense for warding these people off, but I knew that this time it wouldn’t be enough.
Meanwhile, as mentioned, the camera’s getting wet, Rude’s freezing, the light is changing and I am desperately trying to actually make this work. All the elements are before me, I just have to get them lined up and in focus, and I’m on the edge of losing twenty minutes to a tourist. To a dentist.
Bear in mind, this guy is also my client base, so I can’t piss him off. I don’t want to show my feelings and point out that I’m busy, because sure as hell he’ll wind up strolling up to the counter six months later, possibly to buy something, and he’ll suddenly remember – “Oh, you’re that guy.”
So, the dentist is chugging down the hill as fast as his fat little legs will carry him, his family of piglets in tow, camera bouncing on his belly, and he’s already lining up his speech. John is standing behind me like a human shield – he’s clearly aware of the incoming threat. The dentist gets within about six feet of my back and is already opening his mouth when John, totally deadpan, quietly and dryly announces:
“Gay porn in progress”.
Bam. Like a ricocheting billiard ball, the dentist slingshots forty five degrees in a heartbeat and doesn’t break stride heading down an alternate trail. I pull the dark slide on my last exposure – the winner, of course – this one – and the crisis is averted. The sun cruises down the waterfall too late to stop me, and we’re finished – a successful day in spite of the best efforts of nature, light, and incidental dentists.
Here’s part of the “work” series – that is, folks with their tools. I think I was actually over there shooting because Loly was getting ready to cut her hair and wanted a little testament of having it long. But I saw this dress form and went a little crazy – and then even more crazy when she told me that it was conformed to her actual proportions. That’s just a perfect thing to shoot.
I was really pleased with the way it came out, and it turned into the promotional card for the Powell’s show. I liked the way the card came out, and decided to try something unusual and make a really big print. The nice people at U-develop did an excellent job pulling that thing all the way up to four feet wide and we hung it in the stairwell landing at Powell’s.
It was a little surreal, for both me and for Loly, to see this gigantic image up on the wall. And that’s what you’re supposed to do with 8×10, right? I mean, it’s a huge negative, so let’s make really, really big prints.
And I’ve done it, I’ve used the big 8×10 enlarger and pulled darkroom prints and made stuff that was life size or better, but it’s a little like shooting in color – it starts looking like just a picture. Nothing out there really looks like a contact print. Big prints are cool, and certainly trendy right now, but for me, they don’t have the same depth and punch as a contact print. I like the little 8×10 contacts because they seem more like artifacts. They have a certain gravity I just can’t achieve when I blow images up very large.
Having said that, I’ll share with you all that I have a secret long term aspiration. I’m aiming for this when I turn fifty, maybe sixty years old, but I’d love to have a giant show of giant prints. I’d love to fill a space with thirty or forty of these things, all blown up to eight feet by ten feet, hanging like flags, holding their native proportions, doing everything I can do to make them look like contact prints, just really, really big contact prints. Of course I want to do this in the darkroom, so it’ll take some doing.
And a raise. And a grant. And lotto.
So here’s our lovely curator Dr. Dolan, out with me on one of my favorite decisive mornings.
We went out to Sauvie Island really early in the morning, in the winter time, despite perhaps a little bit of protesting about the status of the weather. Julia, I’m sorry again about the cold, but that’s where the light is.
We were traveling with our mutual friend Julian and the three of us were enjoying some nice conversation and camaraderie. I was plying them with coffee in tea cups and the light was diffuse and wintery. Altogether a perfect morning.
Daisy was with us, too, of course – this dog gets very excited every time I load up the car with the camera rig because she always gets to go and there’s generally some fun for her. By the time we were out on the island, she was quite excited – cause this also means some playing on the beach.
So I’m hauling the camera around and fiddling with the lenses and setting up my landscape and more or less unconsciously pitching the ball for the dog. Everything’s looking great, and I’m moments away from calling Julia into the frame, when all of a sudden, the dog starts screaming.
For those of you who don’t know, she’s more or less a three legged dog; her front left doesn’t work quite right. She was about fifty feet away from me and had hit a pothole and twisted her bad leg.
So I go running over to her and by the time I get there, she’s forgotten all about it. She won’t walk on the foot of course, but she’s part lab, part mule, and she feels no pain, especially if there’s a tennis ball in play. I verified that the leg wasn’t broken, and made her lay down next to me, but this wasn’t her first sprain and I knew from experience that: A.) There’s nothing I can do about it except put her on light duty for the next six weeks and B.) She wants to stay on the beach.
So, a little rattled, we proceed with the shoot.
And that’s what you’re seeing here. Julia multi-tasking – sitting for her portrait and simultaneously caring for the dog, keeping her from running around.
The light’s perfect, the company is swell, everything’s hitting great, but the added drama and responsibility of the dog tripping herself up made this portrait complete.
And that’s the decisive morning.
Here’s my friend Aïda with one of her favorite things – roller skates, and at one of her favorite places – Oak’s park. This is a little bit older, and at the time, I was roaming around the city trying to find every passé and trite landmark I could find, and then make it more interesting by sticking a person in it. That project didn’t last long – I don’t really like leaving St. Johns, for one, and I don’t really have the context to know what’s passé and what’s not.
I was pleased that RACC bought this for their Visual Chronicle of Portland a couple of years ago. Nice to think that some city hallway is being decorated with “hot girl on roller skates”.
On the subject of money, let’s talk about selling prints.
Specifically, I get a lot of flak about selling “too cheap”. Like I’m going to single-handedly de-value the whole industry or something.
I’m in business for myself, which you probably know is another way of saying that I’m perpetually broke. I do like to support the art community when I can and personally buy what I can. I wish for art to be accessible, and for my own art, specifically, to be available to people at my own income level. When I’m figuring out my price tags, I consider that if it was me, I might want to buy a print.
So I price “cheap”. It was only a couple of years ago that I finally sold enough prints out of one show to hit that golden break even point. That was a big deal.
In the meanwhile, I think it’s one of the great strengths of the photographic medium. It’s re-producible. They’re not paintings, folks, and while I take pride in my craft, I can always make another one. And another one. And so on.
Of course I like selling prints, and of course I like getting fairly compensated for it, but I’m also aware that I’m effectively just starting out, and I’m pleased that I’m in a medium which allows me to keep it accessible.
Which is a good segue for one of the questions I get a lot – “why show?”
Before we get to that, a couple of words about this picture.
This is Kelly Sorg from a pleasant little shoot last year. Blue Moon Camera was in the midst of renovating the store, and I was working A Lot – and really missing making any art. So I freed myself up long enough to sneak out for one morning shoot down under the bridge, and Kelly was nice enough to come along.
I’ve been working on a new little series, the “currency” photos. Once I get around to inventing my own currency, these are the shots that I wish to use for the bills.
I like them – non-narrative, close up and intense, heavily posed, pretty classic looking. It’s simple, and yet, it’s so loaded.
Oh, and now she’s my girlfriend. A lot of water under the bridge between when we took that and now, but it’s pretty cool dating the person who’s going to be on your hundred dollar bill.
OK – showing.
As many of you know, showing is a pain. There’s the money thing – it’s ludicrously expensive to mount a proper show. There’s the self promotion aspect – most of us don’t get a lot of joy in pitching our own work. Folks working at my level still have to be out on the street, trying to get people to have a look – it’s unpleasant and distracting. Then there’s dealing with the galleries – the less said about that, the better. Then there’s the anxiety and then it’s opening night and you have to stand around and talk a lot. I mean really, how much wine and cheese can one man consume?
Oh, and why doesn’t anyone serve proper spirits at these things? I swear to god, one day I’m going to have my way, and we’ll have an opening where everybody gets shots of rye and pork rinds.
OK – for me, it works like a deadline. I do enjoy the process of shooting, but of course it’s very easy to get distracted with regular life and find many, many ways to put it off. If I know I have a show coming up, then I have to shoot. And everything takes forever. Shooting eight by ten and then printing fibre and then matting and framing – I need months of lead time. So I try to get a show scheduled a year out, and that keeps me on track.
And when production is finally over and done with, and the stuff’s up on the wall, then I can resume shooting. Which is a relief.
But there’s a more important concept at work, here. Things need to be brought to fruition – visual work doesn’t even really exist until it’s out there in front of an audience.
Why show? Why not? Not showing a print that you’re proud of is like executing a perfect tango with a beautiful woman and then not shacking up with her in a hotel room. As I say, things need to be brought to fruition.
It’s a circle of life question. Taking the time to make them is important, and I, like many others, really enjoy the process. I love to make photos, both in the field and then later in the darkroom. I love setting up the camera, and I love setting up the trays. For me, that’s really the point.
But ultimately, they have to be shown. If you’re proud of them, or even if you’re just semi-proud and unsure – it’s always useful to get some public reaction.
I make a point of curating my own shows myself, before I release them into the wild. Showing is important, for the deadline, for the circle of life, and also for the public reaction. I’ll take a fifty image body of work and cull it down to twenty or thirty, and always with a mind towards keeping the project going. I am influenced by what the public says, either in person or over the internet, but it’s not the only factor. One of the big factors is keeping it consistent. In a way, I am making the same picture over and over again, but that’s one of the major points. I have a long planning horizon, and I want them to all hang together. I’ll always be tweaking my process, but I’m also completely ready to enjoy this period where I’m receiving some nice attention and where people like my work. I’ll keep kicking out more of the same, and I’m already braced to suffer through the next period where folks are tired of it. At the end, it’ll be a big old body of work, the one note on the piano over and over again, hopefully to perfection.
Give me ten more years, and I’ll make something that will make you cry. I promise.