In one month I will be in Atlanta, hugging the Arias family again and talking about photography. A week later, I’ll be in Baltimore hugging the Hobby family and talking about photography.
I’m a hugger and I rarely shut up, what can I say.
I’ll be talking about shooting people and all the little stuff that isn’t written in your camera manual: I’m not one of those people who says that technique doesn’t count. It does. Learn it. Improve. Study. Struggle. Take it apart and put it back together. Never settle.
But to me photography is like a language and technique is grammar: it makes your message clear and pleasing to read, it helps you not being misunderstood, it gives you confidence in the way you’re telling your story. But what I care about, what I’ve always cared about, is the story behind the grammar, the characters, the tone. You can make mistakes and still have a compelling story, and anyway grammar is easy to learn (boring sometimes, not always fast, but not hard at all).
Portrait photography in particular, is less of a story and more of a conversation. If you speak beautifully but don’t know how to listen, it’s going to be lousy.
And it’s never just about you.
Photographers have huge, fragile egos: we think our photos belong to us because we were attached to the finger pushing the button, but over the years I learnt that every portrait is a collaboration between photographer and subject and that the more you learn how to take care of the person in front of you, the better the picture is going to come out. That can be learnt as well.
If you’re anything like me, you’re way more comfortable interacting with a camera than you are interacting with a human being, but you don’t have to be a “people person” to be a people photographer. We’ll talk about that for four hours in the Behind the Portrait Seminar. I’ll tell you everything I know and you can come and ask about anything you might want to know. Come with a question, (metaphorically) squeeze me like a lemon, don’t go home without an answer: I’ll try to make it a good one. Or at least the best one I can.
And then in the afternoon I’ll talk about what I *really* like to do. If photography is a language, who says we can’t make up words? They put “selfie” on the dictionary, for duck’s sake, stop thinking you need to follow a bunch of rules some dead person set for themselves just because you read it in a book that one time.
Photography is child’s play. And by that I mean it’s super serious and super focused (have you ever watched children at play? You’ll know what I mean) but it’s also something that you can make up as you go.
Not if you want to be a photojournalist, I guess, but even the World Press Photo had to change the rules because people were getting a little bit too carried away. Don’t resist it: join the dark side. I am your father.
Exploring the borders of photography, that shifty space where you’re not sure you’re allowed to be with a camera, is exciting and fun and can teach you a lot about “regular” photography.
I like to consider myself a photojournalist for worlds that never existed.
And again, I’ll try not to drone on and on about the technique. The technique part is EASY.
And to prove that, here’s a bunch of little videos I made right after Magpies was published, as a reward for some of the people who donated to my Indiegogo campaign:
The Baltimore workshop is sold out, the Atlanta workshop only has 3 spots left and there’s still plenty of space for the seminars. If you want to come and watch me wave my hands like a mad italian, here’s where you get your seat.
It’s been a month since I started documenting my parents, which is proving to be something I care about more than I thought I would.
For all the reasons I wrote about here, this is a project that excites me and scares me at the same time.
I’m way out of my comfort zone both because of the setup I’m using (which is wide lenses and so far no artificial lights, while I’m usually happy around 85-100 mm with a big softbox) and because this is my first time working with something that’s in front of me rather than directing my subjects for the image. I’ve never watched a documentary photographer work and honestly I’m pretty ignorant about the process: I usually just look at the final images and don’t think about how they were shot. But this is so different from commercial photography and there are a few things I’m learning along the way:
1. Being organized. I’m pretty anal retentive when it comes to keeping my hard disks in order, but even the biggest commercial gig I had so far is tiny, compared to the amount of photos I’ve been taking so far. At the end of each day I download my cards, I rename the files with a YYMMDD_001 format, I write down some notes to help me remind what I was doing or where I was or anything that might help me navigate through the images later.
I also go through the shots and assign 2 star to anything that doesn’t suck really bad (there’s a LOT of those. A LOT lot) and these go to another folder, to be printed tiny. When it comes to see how images work together, I still think having a physical print is easier.
2. Shoot now, think later. The hardest thing for me is still shooting while stuff happens. I missed a gazillion good pictures because I wasn’t fast enough and I’m left with a gazillion “a moment after something happened” images. This is frustrating. To add to the frustration, the light in my parents’ house is pretty dim and there isn’t a single white wall. The Fuji x-T1 is behaving really nicely so far, but there are a couple of shots that would really improve with a strobe or ten.
3. Learning the distance. Wide angles are weird for me to use. I always end up being closer than I’m comfortable with, so I have to find ways to make myself invisible while being on top of people. My parents don’t seem to mind having me around at all, it’s more a problem on my side. I’m also so used to normal and tele distance that each time I place my camera in front of my face I end up being too far away. At the same time, I’m finding out that being the photographer rather than the daughter means keeping some sort of emotional distance while I’m with my parents. I’m not judging anything I see, I’m just documenting it and I found myself deflating a couple of situations that in the past would have ended in a big fight (between me and my mum).
This, to me, is very interesting. I’m also learning a lot about my family, because if you stand next to someone long enough they start talking. Piecing together the stories is like building a jigsaw puzzle without the lid from a box in which several different jigsaw puzzles are mixed together, but when two pieces fit, it’s awesome.
4. Digging deeper. This first month was about testing the waters and become a little more confident with the new camera, the new project and the new process. I just wanted my parents to have me around and not freak out. I’m starting to see a lot of things here and there that are interesting, that explain a lot about the person I am and the way I think. It’s hard to scratch the surface and see my family and the house I grew in with a set of new eyes, but that’s the goal for the next months. I have a list of images that I know I want to get and I’m adding to that list each time something pops to my mind. I also need to remember that I’m trying to tell a story and include details and the surroundings.
After the first month the risk is to take pictures of the same things over and over and I need to keep looking, keep digging.
5. Suck until I don’t. I thought I knew how to take pictures. When you do something long enough it becomes comfortable, it’s easy to get complacent. Change a thing or two and the pretty house of cards you built starts rattling. Change some more and everything collapses. I had to learn how to operate a camera again. I focus on light, and framing go to hell. I frame my photo, and forget to change ISO back to 400. I have everything perfect, and the battery dies on me because I’m mostly using the LCD (it feels like cheating, but the fact that I’m not covering my face with a camera seems to work wonders in the “becoming invisible” thing).
And when I’m not shooting like a mad woman with two left hands, I’m preparing for my US workshops: if you’re in Atlanta on august 16-17th or in Baltimore on august 23-24th, come join me!
In the beginning was the word and the word was most likely something like “aurghwaaaaah”.
You weren’t there, no one was there, and the meaningless cacophonic sound that was probably uttered is long forgotten, buried under the amount of amazing words that have been spoken since.
That is what’s painful about beginnings: they’re so full of promise and potential, but most of the time that potential is securely wrapped in a bundle of nonsense and feces you need to dig through with your bare hands. No one has kept track of Shakespeare first little story (his mum didn’t have “facebooketh” to report it), but I bet my camera it sucked. And it was probably exhilarating at the same time.
I’m in that place at the moment, swinging between damnation and redemption as the shapeless project in the back of my head is beginning to surface. I tried to drown it a couple of times, but it keeps coming back, so I guess I’ll just give in and start working on it.
On one hand I’m exploring image destruction in a darkroom, and even though I’m as proficient as a nun on a stripper pole for the first time at the moment, this is right up my alley. On the other hand, though, I decided to spend the summer documenting my parents and for some reason this is scaring the shit out of me.
I blame it on David Alan Harvey, Steve Simon (whose book I just read again, and it seems like this time it struck a nerve) and Eric Kim: talking to them made me want to venture into new territories and push my photography in new directions (new for me, at least), but this came with a new set of problems.
First of all, I’m NOT a documentary photographer. I don’t do reality and for me the decisive moment is the one when I ponder whether to wear heels knowing I will have to walk for more than ten meters. I never spent time building a photographic essay, and I have almost no idea how to do it correctly.
Secondly, taking pictures of my family is probably going to be way too intense for me: how do I keep an honest point of view when the heart of the subject is so close to mine? How to I find the balance between objectivity and making my point of view come across? Where do I draw the line between what’s too private to be captured and what’s important as part of a story? Do I keep shooting when I see something I want to capture even though it’s a “charged” moment (e.g. the relationship between my mother and her mother, who’s now living with my parents, is often tense, but it’s something that I think might need to be explored)?
Thirdly, I’m used to constructing the image, using artificial lights and controlling the environment, and it’s going to be hard to find images instead of bossying them into existence. I’m also very comfortable between 50 and 100mm and I’m planning on mostly using wide angle lenses. I foresee a lot of cursing for stuff suddenly being in the frame.
Lastly, do I give them the possibility to veto my work? I usually do for portraits, since what I do is often finding the sweet spot between capturing the core of a person and flattery, but I don’t want to go for flattery in this project, not only at least.
I already told my parents I’ll be around them with a camera the whole summer and they just said that’s ok with them and went on doing what they were doing, which goes to show that I’m probably freaking out over nothing.
It’s not like I have a deadline, a client or an editor to please: if nothing good comes out of my camera, I’ll have spent more time with my parents, and I can just bury the files into some remote hard disk.
At first I thought I would just keep this whole thing under the radar until I had something good to show, but on second thoughts, I decided I needed to make myself accountable because part of me is already starting to find ways to back out.
I also might need advice: how do you turn someone who basically writes fan-fiction about furries into a good essayist?
Let me start by telling you: I’m a digital photographer. My first camera was a Sony Mavica FD-88 and I’m comfortable with bits and bytes. I was taught to shoot film, develop and print while I was at RISD, the came home and I basically just develop the odd roll of film when I want to shoot with my Rolleiflex.
Analog scares me, because I always feel it’s like jumping from a 50mt high trampoline onto a glass of water, while digital is more like jumping from a chair into a swimming pool. With a parachute.
There’s also a lot of numbers that seems to be involved in darkroom stuff, and I have a vagina1.
At the same time I really love analog photography because it feels like taming a wild animal and also because I can spend time locked in a small dark room by myself listening to music.
Long story short, I decided to spend the day working towards putting together a functioning darkroom to play with: I have the enlarger (my best friend’s dad gave it to me), I have most of the stuff and we finally live in a house with two bathrooms.
I also had a bunch of chemicals, some open and some still sealed, all of them expired.
I was going to spend the day looking for answers on google, but then I decided I’d just test them.
I shot a couple of test rolls (the film was also expired) because I don’t like to test unexposed film: it’s always disappointing not getting any image when you open the tank.
The open bottle of fixer smelled like Satan ate all the souls of the damned and then farted into my bottle, but I had a sealed one that seemed ok. The unopened Ilford developer ended up not developing, while the R09 worked just fine, even though it has been open for a couple of years. Didn’t expect that.
I ended up hanging the developed film and decided to take a couple of shots of the film while it was drying. I’d like to print these in the darkroom, but I want to have at least something, in the not-so-unlikely case the fixer is meh and they disappear on me.
I often photograph negatives rather than scanning them. First of all, I would have to get out of my pajamas, walk to the studio and fight with my scanner, trying to make it work in the new version of Photoshop, but most of all I like the added layer of weird stuff I can do this way.
This for example is the same negative. The first photo was taken while it was drying, you can see water drops on the right and the weird pattern comes from the curtains behind it.
These two were shot placing the negative on a piece of white paper and shining a lamp under it (hence the texture) and taping the negative to a window. What looks like a light streak on the right is actually my neighbor’s house blocking the sun.
The hi-tech gear I used for this:
I also tried semi-stand development for the first time and didn’t die. My life is full of thrills.
For the second year in a row, I came back from GPP and I quit photography.
I still dragged my sorry ass into the studio each day and worked, but I couldn’t seem to find any meaning in what I was doing.
The thing is, once you see what can be done and you’re stuck with what *you* can do, the gap can be overwhelming.
Of course spending a week with some of the best photographers alive is inspiring, and of course the gap is always going to be there, as you progress [insert Ira Glass quote]1 but then you go back home and your normal life has nothing to do with international photo shoots on top of incredible architecture, the people you talk to on a daily basis still think selective desaturation is the most beautiful thing ever and you look at your photos and see what’s missing rather than what’s there. And by you I totally mean me, of course. You might be perfectly happy with your work.
The other thing for me is that I live photography in a schizofrenic way: what I do for work, being a commercial photographer, often has to be sharp, well lit, bright and colorful. What I do for myself rarely is. Over time, what I do for work has become the majority of the stuff I shoot and that’s -in my opinion- the heart of the problem.
The other thing is, what I actually care about seems to remain buried, because it embarrasses me. I spent years playing around with mixed media in secret before deciding that I could admit in public I was “playing around with photos”, and after Magpies was published I actually found out people were more interested in those silly things rather than the stuff that was in my old portfolio (which was there because I thought it had to be, to show I was able to operate a camera, which is basically able to operate itself. I’m not a clever woman).
I truly believe every problem has in itself the seed of a solution and during my self portrait workshop in Dubai I realized something that for me was really huge: I think now I know why I’m so fascinated with the distorted image, identity and memory.
When I was 4 years old I fell from a custom made 6+ feet tall bunk bed in my sleep. I was sleepwalking, kind of, and I only woke up once my face hit the floor. I was rushed to the hospital, where my parents were questioned because I was so messed up that the doctors were afraid they were beating me to a pulp2. For about a month I wasn’t allowed to look at myself in a mirror, because everybody thought it would mess me up. I could still see the look of disgust and pity on people faces when they came home to visit, I could sort of see my distorted reflection in the faucets when it was bath time, or on the side of a dark car when we went out.
To be fair, I still have nightmares about the face I saw when the finally thought it was ok for me to look at myself again: green and yellow, swollen, a web of exploded capillaries to decorate my potato of a nose. And I don’t know how true this story is, since the details are lost in my memory: all I have is a bunch of stories from people who were there, some nightmares, a crooked nose and an interesting lack of photographs from that period of my life.
So when I go back to these self portraits I took last december, I realize that’s probably the most honest image of myself I ever took. That is me. And that’s a beginning.
The next step was to go back and look at all of the photos I saved in my hard disks from the past 10 years. I ignored the ones I picked and showed people and what I found is that those weren’t always the best photos I took. They were the prettier, but most of the time they weren’t interesting (or at least they are not interesting to present Sara. Past Sara might object, but she’s not here to argue, and since I’m always dealing with all the screwups she has done, I don’t care about her feelings).
Take this image, for example.
This is the image I picked from the shoot and I like it. There’s a bit of a film noir feel to it, she’s beautiful, the fur’s fluffy.
This is one of the images I shot with my rolleiflex after we were done, just to experiment around. This is what I would be drawn to if it was shot by someone else. I love the absence of the face, those three weirdly straight fingers receding into the dark. It makes me uneasy, and I tagged it as a mistake (I still didn’t erase the file, which is what I usually do)
And plowing through my files I see it’s something that comes up over and over again. I shoot it, I bury it.
(the last one is a misfire during my mixed media class at GPP. Still probably my favorite photo I took that week)
Then there’s all the blurry images I take around the sharp ones. Those I keep because I love and end up in limbo because my brain has been trained over the year to zoom in, check for sharpness and discard everything that is not.
And there are photos that I discarded because I probably wasn’t able to deal with them when I took them.
Like this photo I took of my mum. I was just playing around with a couple of rolls of expired film, because I couldn’t remember how old my chemicals were and I wanted to check if they still worked. I am a digital photographer and I am the WORST ever in a darkroom, but I keep going back to it from time to time, because I love doing something I can’t completely control.
It was a hot summer afternoon and mum was asleep on the couch. I sat there, focused and took the first shot. She woke up when she heard the shutter and I took another photo, this one.
What made me discard this image when I developed it and what draws me to it now, is the fact that she does not recognize me in this photo. She’s still half asleep and trying to process what’s going on, and for a split second I was a stranger to her. If you zoom in on her face, she almost looks afraid.
It’s a photo of a possibility that scares me (I think my grandmother’s Alzheimer is another one of those things that shaped my view of the world). It’s true and false at the same time and this, exactly this, is what made me grab a camera on first place. When did I decide to trade it for “pretty”?
And then there’s the everyday photos I take “because”. Those are the ones I never show, because for the most part they really mean nothing to someone who’s not me, but I thought I might try to find patterns in them, hints. They are completely random, but I seem to be drawn to empty spaces, people’s backs, the meeting place of urban landscape and nature and there never has been a dead bird I didn’t stop to photograph. Seriously, though, what’s with the birds? (click on the image to see it bigger)
So after weeks of being a major pain in the butt to anyone around me and completely absent to everyone who was lucky enough to have some distance, I think I’m finally starting to see the beginning of a bunch of ideas forming. I honestly don’t know where they will take me and I don’t know how long it will take me to get where I want to be, but of one thing I’m certain: when I’ll get there, I’ll complain.