L’esprit de l’escalier – GPP2014 shootout

What happens when you leave the stage is that you immediately start thinking about things that you should have done differently, things that you should have done and didn’t do, things that you shouldn’t have done at all. What also happens is that you’re finally breathing again, so at least you have that going for you, which is nice.

I’m talking about the GPP shootout, for those of you who don’t happen to know what I’m referring to. Follow the link and watch videos from previous years, if you haven’t done so already. I’ll wait.
Done? The basic idea is that each photographer has 20 minutes to shoot, edit and turn in a finished image of an undisclosed subject while a bazillion people watch and judge.
These videos, to be honest, can’t make you feel the palpable tension that permeates the whole auditorium. I was there last year and it was nerve wrecking, but because of that I thought I had a pretty good idea about what it feels to be on the stage. Boy was I wrong.

GPP_holycow

Let me say something first: the only reason I was on this year’s shootout is because Zack Arias cornered the GPP people on twitter and I am fully aware of this. The shootout is the event that closes the whole week of awesome madness that is GPP, and it has to be a good show for the students, so they usually ask the “big ones” to participate. I was the last addition to the faculty and, honestly, a nobody1.
I still was a nobody who thought the idea of  smack talking on twitter was great, so for the last month Zack and I have been having fun with it.

ariasburning

The thing I’m probably the proudest of is managing to get a little decorated box into his room before he checked in, as a welcome gift (I don’t remember your name, female concierge of the Holiday Inn Express in DKV,  but you’ll always be one of my favorite people).2

arias

 

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  • 1. I'm not saying I am worth nothing: I know who I am and my mum does as well, but on an international pond I'm the littlest fish. What I'm trying to say is that from a marketing perspective it didn't make much sense to involve me in this, and Zack made it possible for me to be there. It was an act of extreme generosity masked as an act of making fun of me in public. Or at least I like this version of the story better.
  • 2. This is an actual proverb from the area I'm from. It translates to something like "it's gonna be like hitting a kid who's taking a shit" and it refers to being cruel to someone who's weak and in a vulnerable position. We are fancy people.

Sir Bob Cornelius Rifo

Today Bob Rifo released the new video, featuring Tommy Lee and I thought it could be a good time to share some of the promo shots we took a while ago when he was still working on his latest album and was on the verge of unveiling the new mask.
What blew my mind is that when the eyes of the mask are lit at full power, he’s basically blind on stage: if you look at him perform, it’s pretty obvious he’s got some sort of sixth sense/ superpower.
I had already worked with Sir Bob a while ago and was extremely happy to shoot again. He’s a pleasure to work with and under that mask there’s an extremely impressive brain, with a real knowledge of music and… photography. Go figure.

I kept it FAST, because there’s nothing more annoying that being chained on a photographic set for hours when you have stuff to do, so what we did was to build several sets and have him stroll from one to the next, which he did with class, like a real sir.

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So you want to attend a photography workshop

GPP 2014 is getting close and I’ll be teaching 3 different workshop there (a hands-on and quite intensive class on portraiture, one on self portrait, one on mixed media).
I’m extremely excited about this and in the last few weeks I’ve been working hard on making sure I make the guys at GPP proud and give the students my best, and after e-mailing back and forth with a photographer friend about “what makes a workshop worth attending?”, I decided this was a subject worth talking about.

I’m mainly self taught when it comes to photography, which was great: it gave me the freedom to explore the medium without fear of “doing something wrong”. When you don’t know there are rules, you can just try and fail until you discover stuff by yourself and make this knowledge your own (only to find out everybody and their mum already knew and they look at you weird because “being over excited about the fact that if you want a white background you need to light it separately from the subject”, is not that big of a deal apparently).
But then in 2002 I got to attend RISD as an exchange student and it was so overwhelmingly awesome: I realized that having a teacher could propel me into doing things way faster and way better and when I got back I started taking photography workshops whenever I could.

Here’s what I learned:

1. A workshop is not a photography course. It’s short and intense and you don’t get to really grow within its duration. You are not going to be a better photographer because you heard a great photographer speak: as much as I wanted to, photography is not transmitted via osmosis nor diffusion1. This means at the end of the day you need to go back to your little studio/room/burrow and start putting what you learned into practice as if your life depends on it, otherwise you’ll just forget it but (and this is the sucky part) you’ll still think you know it, because you remember sitting in that class.

2. Pick what’s best for you and not what’s available or cool. There’s a bazillion workshops out there. Some are cheap, some are insanely expensive. Some are one day long, some last a whole week. Some are held by rockstar photographers, some are taught by people whose name you never heard. How do you choose your next workshop? My rule of thumb is: select something that might help you with what you are struggling with *right now*. Are you constantly screwing up your exposure when you’re working with strobes? Are you good at lighting stuff but you freeze in front of a human being? Do you feel like there’s more to photography than technique, but you can’t seem to figure out how to add meaning to your images? Use this as a compass to look for the best workshop for you, because then you’ll have questions in need of an answer, which brings me to my next point…

3. Have at least one or two specific questions before you step into the room. Stress on specific. You can’t reach a goal unless it’s defined and measurable. “I want to take better pictures” is a crap goal for a workshop: how will you know if they are better? Or better enough to justify the cost of the workshop?  A better goal would be something like “I want to learn where to place my main light, because all of my portraits seem to have weird shadows and that pisses me off so much I want to punch the model in the face and since I’m a kid photographer, this might be a problem”2. Pick the workshop that seems to give you a better shot at figuring this out (e.g. in the example I used, NOT a class on storytelling). If the teacher is not addressing that specific question, ask it. Believe me, it’s not going to kill you.
Choosing a workshop because it’s available and looks cool is like the old joke about the drunk dude looking for his car keys under the street light, not because he lost his keys there, but because it’s better lit.

4. Research the teacher. If you are taking a class on fashion photography and the photographer teaching it does not shoot fashion, never published a single photo in a fashion magazine and all the photos in his portfolio are definitely not something you’d see in a fashion magazine… well… do I need to go on?
A lot of photographers in the last few years started teaching workshops as if they were ATM machines: you get a pretty girl in skimpy clothes, place a couple of lights and lure guys with cameras willing to spend money to post photos of a pretty girl in skimpy clothes on flickr and get a lot of likes from their friends. I’m not judging (too much), but if you spend thousands of dollars in this kind of education  and you don’t seem to get more clients, it might not be the recession3.
Also, if the teacher is someone you loathe, does not share your values, has a sense of humor that offends you, you might want to give your money to someone else. If you are considering taking one of my classes at GPP, you might want to read my series on photographing people I wrote on strobist first, or read a couple of interviews that might give you an idea on how my head works. If you read italian, hop over to my blog: most of my stuff is there.
I’m completely fine with people thinking I suck, I’m less fine with them wasting their time to listen to me talk: remember that you could use the same time (and probably less money) to hire a model or rent some gear you want to test and shoot one-to-one for the whole day and you would learn a lot from that.
On the other hand, if you’re enrolling in one of my GPP classes because Heisler’s are filled up and you plan to stalk him the whole week and need an excuse to be there, I totally support that. Let me suggest one of the one day classes (less money, more stalking time) and remember he likes a skinny latte with 2 fake sugars in it.

5. On taking pictures. Some workshops give students shooting time, some others are more “show and tell”. There are advantages to both formats.
If the workshop you are attending is one of those where the teacher demos how he/she works, use the camera to take notes, if you need to, but don’t be the one shooting from behind the teacher’s shoulder to get a photo “for your portfolio”. That’s just ridiculous. First, that’s not your photo: it’s like photographing a photograph and claiming it as your own. I know appropriation played a significant role in art, and I find Jon Rafman’s 9 eyes project brilliant and poetic4, but what makes it different is the intention. Always have intention when operating a camera. Also, you have paid good money to watch this person work, and you’re spending your time snapping bad photos of the model. That’s not super-clever.
On the other hand, when you are given shooting time use it, milk it, make the best of it. Aim to fail: try stuff you saw or heard during the lecture or demonstration and don’t care about not getting the perfect shot. You are not there to impress the teacher nor your classmates, you’ll most likely never see those people again in your life. As a matter of fact, if you’re not screwing something up, you’re most likely just doing what you already knew how to do. Remember why you are there.

6. Go home and start working. I am the nerdy type, so I take a lot of notes, but I also bring a separate piece of paper to class to write down ideas for stuff I want to try. It might be something technical, like “place a beauty dish in front of a softbox, same axis” (thanks, Heisler) or something that might make little sense to the passerby, such as “birds hair”.
As soon as I go home, before normal life sucks the enthusiasm out of me, I start planning to make these notes happen. I make appointments with myself, as if I was a client, and I test out stuff.

At the end of the day, a workshop can be a great tool to propel yourself, but can also be a great excuse to postpone the actual work (I can’t take photos because I still don’t know everything there is to know about photography). A lot of people seem to be waiting for someone to put the hand on their shoulder and tell them “you are ready know, here’s a bucket full of money” and that’s just never going to happen. If what you need is the permission to be a photographer, here: have mine. Go take photos.

 

  • 1. Don't know the difference between osmosis and diffusion? http://www.diffen.com/difference/Diffusion_vs_Osmosis
  • 2. On a side note, you might want to take a class on anger management. And please, don't breed yet.
  • 3. Also, I'm thinking of selling a 1000$ workshop on how to avoid scam workshop: it's me slapping you with a trout for hours and it's a great value because I use a fashion trout. Paypal me the money if you're interested.
  • 4. You can also watch Michael Wolf speak of his Google Street View work here: http://vimeo.com/20667709, or check Sherrie Levine's work on Walker Evans and Richard Prince's photos of magazine clippings.

On untranslatable words and photos.

This is going to sound super random, but it’s one of those days.

I am obsessed with words, and especially words that can’t be completely translated into another language. Coming from the Venice area, I have a very specific word to define the smell that sometimes is left on washed dishes (or hands) when they came in contact with fish or eggs (“freschìn”, in case you’re wondering).
Having a word to define something this specific is enriching.

Or “Sobremesa” in spanish, which is the time you spend chatting to people after lunch or dinner, the brazillian’s “saudade”, l’esprit de l’escalier” in french (which is when you think of the perfect retort too late).
One of my favorite is the japanese “Komorebi”, which is sunlight filtering through the leaves of trees. I love the fact that there’s a specific name for it. The Japanese word “wabi-sabi” (as as “a way of living that focuses on finding beauty within the imperfections of life and accepting peacefully the natural cycle of growth and decay”) is my most vivid memory from a weird class on traditional japanese aesthetic I took at RISD during spring break.
And I’m sure guilty of my good share of “Schadenfreude” (in german, a feeling of enjoyment that comes from seeing or hearing about the troubles of other people), but knowing that it’s a feeling common enough to have its own word makes it a shared experience, it becomes less terrible.

This, to me , is interesting from a photographic perspective.
See, I can smell my hands after washing dishes and think “ew, spusa de freschin!”1 and define something in a very specific way, some other person might just think that something smells off, unable to give a name to it. And I’m pretty sure in the same way when I look at the world around me there are things I see and recognize because they are part of my visual language and things I can perceive without being able to actually “see” them, because I have no way to define them yet.

That’s probably why two people in the same place, at the same time, with the same camera, will go home with two different photos. That’s why I’m completely fascinated by photography that I don’t get, when I sense there’s a meaning to it.

Sometimes I find an image that finally defines a very specific feeling I didn’t know I could feel, and that makes me incredibly happy.
Why I woke up thinking about this, I don’t know. Brainfarts, I guess.

  • 1. it smells like "freschin"

Fun with cheap mirror sheet roll

I found a very cheap roll of mirror sheet and of course I bought it because “I could use it for photos!”, which is basically my go-to excuse when I want something and I don’t need it.

I bought it BECAUSE I knew it would be shit for its intended purpose, but I also knew this meant it would be fun to play with because of deformations.
A quick test on myself before I use it for something more interesting (these are straight out of camera)

and here’s the very fancy set.