Learning from misses

I recently came back from a trip to Park City, Utah. It is unquestionably a beautiful part of the world and yet I wasn’t able to see it creatively on this trip. My photos felt more post card than personal. More expected than intentional. More travel website than something for my portfolio.

It wasn’t the gear. I had a great camera, two lenses - including a beautiful wide angle. I had polarizing filters. I had gloves that helped me take photos even in the deep cold. I tried to push myself to see things from new perspectives - snuggling a bush here, aiming for the back light there, waking up for sunrise another time (well, a baby helps with that).

I was simultaneously struck by the vastness of the place yet unable to really capture that. Everywhere I looked beautiful landscapes were pocked by roads, modern houses, and other signs of humans taking over. Perhaps that could have been the theme that I lacked but at the time, it wasn’t what inspired me.

Despite my hopes for stronger images, I was still grateful to have my camera. To slow down and ask the questions that helped me see my surroundings in a new way. To be grateful for what I did have - and the people I was with. That’s a lesson perhaps more important than any one my images could have taught me - its more important to be grateful for the experiences we have, and to really experience them through all of our senses and feelings, than to ‘get’ a great capture.

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Market personality

I’ve always been fascinated by the stories of the farmers and workers who come to New York’s farmers gardens. From 3rd generation farmers to trust-fund distillers to passionate fish mongers, each little tent holds such a rich story beneath. In the winter months, when they haul out their goods to stand in freezing temperatures for hours after getting up at 4am, my reverence and respect for them increases in multiples. A few weeks ago, I spent some time talking with a few of the farmers who do their thing through sleet, rain, snow, and just about everything in between.

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Kurt and his family are fishmongers who usually post up at the Union Square greenmarket but come down to Grand Army Plaza during the winter when the ‘regular’ fish crew travels south for the winter.

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I initially asked this man if I could take his portrait and he said “no,” so I lowered my camera and said “sure, no problem.” He then asked, “why are you interested anyway?” I told him his expression was particularly vivid and he said he’d been asked by a few other people in recent weeks as well. We kept talking for a few minutes and as I was walking away he said, “hey, if you still want you can take a couple of photos.” Sometimes people just want to be seen and heard.

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A kind subject

I’m grateful that my cats are patient subjects. While I’ve often used them as subjects when experimenting with different techniques and with different gear, recently I wanted to take a different approach. I tried to see the light first - its direction, quality, tone, and quantity. I wanted to be guided less by the moves and poses of my subject and more by how the light and my cat interacted. Patience. Waiting. A click here, a click there. The series that you’ll find below felt different yet more true than much of my work recently. With less overall exposure, more contrast, a more matte feel, and a narrow focus on the interplay between light and subject, I was OK ‘breaking’ other ‘rules’ of composition.

2018 - A Year in Review

2018 was a year that stretched my photography skills like never before. I began to use speed lights as my client work moved indoors. I re-learned to crawl with the best of them as my littlest clients (and son) got even younger. Perhaps most important, I tackled new challenges of time management as a new dad, team leader, and photographer. So, to kick off 2019, I’m sharing a visual recap of all that 2018 brought in.

There were events, family photos, and a few side projects. There were hikes, food projects, garden wanderings, and some street venturing too. From Brooklyn to St Lucia and a lot in between, my camera came with me as a trusted friend. Someone who challenged me, pushed me, but ultimately helped me be my best self and see the world in a new way.

Thanks to everyone who’s followed along the blog here and I hope you continue to join me in the months to come.

The surreal, ‘public’ beaches of St Lucia

The surreal, ‘public’ beaches of St Lucia

The year began with a getaway. A pre-baby moon if you will but also a kind of trip Katie and I almost never take. Don’t get me wrong - we love a good beach and splash in the ocean, but rarely seek those features out when we travel. St Lucia was simply sublime. Cliche perhaps, but we leaned into it. Not as much as, say, our resort neighbors who got out their sun oil, cubans, and rum punch by 10am at the beach. But hey, to each their own.

The vibrant colors begin to take shape as a cold spring season begins at the Gardens

The vibrant colors begin to take shape as a cold spring season begins at the Gardens

I spent hours - probably days worth of time - in the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens. I especially loved the early spring - as buds burst forth after months of careful cultivation from the fall by gardeners who could only hope that nature would partner in their designs. Each week seem to bring new textures, colors, and choices and for me, getting close or and playing with movement felt like the truest way to capture the feeling of being both big and small, rushed and frozen all at once.

The Japanese Gardens were a favorite - finding new ways to see them was a challenge

The Japanese Gardens were a favorite - finding new ways to see them was a challenge

As spring turned to summer, walks in the parks turned up fun surprises that you only get in a city where it’s entirely possible that a dog’s wedding gown was more expensive than my own wife’s. This was one of my favorite street photos of the year and for me it captured much in what was changing in my photography. While many others turned their lenses on the couple, or even the dog while it was in their laps, I tried to position myself to where it was going to go - to create the juxtaposition of the two brides. Of course I got lucky, but I also set myself to maximize that luck too.

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But May also brought us other surprises - and while I won’t be posting any photos of our son yet, the cake below was our first celebration of the incredible news. He has brought so much joy and happiness into our world and it’s hard to imagine life before him.

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Even with our new addition, I made time to reflect and explore the gardens in new ways. From macro to blur, I wanted to tell the story of change without losing the importance of the individual elements. Some of what I created felt dull and unoriginal, but the creative constraint helped me develop both new techniques and perspectives.

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The summer also began my first family photos of the year - this one with our neighbors who had a child only two weeks apart from ours. Watching them grow up together has been hilarious and illuminating and I loved working with our friends for an intimate session in one of my favorite spots.

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I was also thrilled to work with my close friends when they had their second child. We’ve been through so much together - our early years of teaching, weddings, illnesses, and just about everything inbetween. We’ve toasted each other, cried on each others shoulders and I loved working with them to capture this precious moment in time.

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One of my favorite client groups to work with are entrepreneurs who are seeking ways to capture the value of their work in distinctive ways. From events to editorial pieces, portraits and headshots, I’ve been fortunate to have worked with a number of clients this year who have exciting new businesses and a powerful story to tell. My goal of making high quality photography at accessible prices makes me humbled to work with such hard working, creative folk.

Callan from a Spark Collective

Callan from a Spark Collective

 
Larnell and Jonathan at a Soulful Experience

Larnell and Jonathan at a Soulful Experience

As fall rolled in we took a trip to Lexington, KY and had a chance to soak up the quiet beauty of the fields and farms. I realized how long it had been since I had been out in more rural country that seeing even relatively small farms triggered quaint (and naive) thoughts about life away from Brooklyn.

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As the year came to a close I did a final gig with a family who we’ve been close to for over a decade - the couple that introduced me to Katie and with whom we’ve stayed close ever since. Sharing their joy as they welcomed their baby into the world was icing on the cake.

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Thanks for reading and joining in a complex year filled with joy, new beginnings, new ventures, and new ways of seeing familiar sites.

The garden turns to summer

The crowds thin out as spring turns to summer at the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens - the peak of the blossoms has passed and the roses have moved on. The lilacs are gone and the blue bells look like weeds. But there's still so much to enjoy.

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These two were overly patient as I got up close during their date by the pool.

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The rose garden is already on the way out but a few bushes are blooming strong. Gardeners spend the entire year preparing for a little over 2 weeks of transitional bloom, all trying to time it to maximize the bloom during one week when the garden puts on Rose Night. It's a wild endeavor - they can't see the fruits of their work for nearly a year, have little ways to tell if what they're doing is making a difference, but combine technology, tradition, and art to make it all come together.

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The crane only comes out for the evening crowds.

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Contact Sheet: Blooms in Motion

Using just a bit of camera motion while taking a frame can send a photo in many different directions. From the mildly edgy to the wildly abstract, very small movements make a lot of change. Here my goal was explore the different ways that a little bit of speed and different approaches to focus and shutter speed affected the final image. 

One thing that became apparent is that showing just a little blur was much worse than going overboard - it looked more like a mistake of craft rather than an intentional artistic move. I also found myself enjoying those where there was more of a clearly defined single element around which the background moved. Achieving this is quite difficult because it requires keeping the camera at a very steady plane while rotating the camera and moving it through while hitting the shutter. But it was worth it to learn a new method.

Contact Sheet: Japanese Gardens

In these contact sheets I've tried to capture the harmony and serenity of the Japanese Gardens at the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens while cutting down the noise of the intense crowds that were only ever inches away. You'll see them in some spots, but my goal was to recreate the 'peace by design' that evolves throughout the seasons here.

Some are 'classic', some are experimental, but all try to build on the designs that the garden itself is built around: reflection, space, flow, and clean lines.

Contact Sheet: A Doggie Wedding

Contact sheets aren't common in digital photography, but they were a staple of the film days. They were an expression of a photographer's method and intent and a way to interact with editors and art directors. If you haven't yet discovered Magnum Contact Sheets, you are missing one of the most extraordinary treasure troves of photographic history and lessons. Go buy it.

But the most important lesson from using contact sheets and watching how masters went to work is how they approach a scene: deliberately, patiently, with a vision but intent to experiment. Maybe the sheets contained a portrait session with a few different moments and poses or very different perspectives on a march as it progressed down the street. Or maybe they told the story of how a photographer would take 'sketches' to understand the scene and then focus in on one element.

And so I've attempted to re-create a little bit of that "contact sheet" feel here with a series featuring a few different stories explored through different perspectives.

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Rites of a Spring Deferred

Spring's clearest symbols for me have for years been budding blossoms, matzoh, and hiking without base layers. But what happens when snow comes and the boldest of the buds shrivel and die? Perhaps it was an opportunity for a more nuanced look at the transition into spring.

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Roasted carrots aren't what I usually think about when thinking about spring but when I saw a recipe for a harissa aioli with rosemary over roasted carrots I knew I had to try it at the seder I was hosting. And a seder - that beautiful mix of pagan and Jewish traditions and stories - well, that's about as springy as you get.

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Taking a break from passover brought me to the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens. While usually things are just starting to pop up this time of year, this was definitely a shivery time for the brave buds. Magnolias, Cherry Blossoms, and more are getting ready for the big reveal after nearly a year of sleep. These first ones are likely to wilt and fall away as the temperatures dropped away again but the warmth and with it, life, is coming back later in the week.

I chose to focus on the contrast of the few buds emerging from the wiry sticks and stems blending macro and extreme open apertures.

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How I interview people

When I began doing street portraits, I tried to study how different photographers approach their subjects. I learned from Brandon Stanton of Humans of New York who has spoken extensively about his approach, the importance of developing trust, and how to work with a subject to tell their story. From David duChemin I learned how to cross lines of difference with humility and respect. How to close both physical and emotional distance to create space to help people open up.

But 'learning' these ideas in abstract is just one step - applying them in my own context, my identity, and personality requires disciplined practice, reflection, and ongoing improvement.

A moment of solitude

A moment of solitude

When I approached this man sitting near Columbus Circle, he looked simultaneously serene but also conflicted. His music offered one way to block out the crowd but I sensed he had other thoughts swirling in his mind.

I've borrowed HONY's strategy for approaching strangers by asking simply, "can I take your photograph?" No pretext about a project or interest, but just a desire to connect. From a first photo or two, I'll then ask a few questions. Also borrowing from the HONY method, I skip the small talk. This is really hard for me - asking strangers to share vulnerable moments, hopes, challenges, is not something that comes naturally. But there's no way around this. While many people have said 'no' to my initial question, almost no one has declined to share once we get going. Being a stranger helps. They have a chance to open up and talk without concern for consequence and the connection that creates is powerful.

If I'm being totally frank, I think my camera and neck-strap actually help a lot. They are items of interest - tools of the trade that signal more than a passing interest. Yes, there are many significantly more talented photographers who can work with just an iPhone. No, you don't need a fancy camera or craft neck-strap. But from my own experience, they create a small amount of trust that I take what I do seriously. I'll often actually get questions about my camera - is it film, who makes it, do I like it, why did I choose it? While these questions have nothing to actually do with my approach to photography, they help create a connection with the people that I photograph. I'll take it.

Opening up

Opening up

As we continued talking, he shared a deeply personal and honest story. As it unfolded, he seemed relieved to have a chance to share it. It was that moment of relief, honesty, a touch of timidity, that I tried to capture in this second image.

In the end, there's something revealing about that first image too. It speaks of a man with a need to get a way - who has lived much of his life hidden behind a facade. But personally I like the second one better - it speaks of the connection we had in that moment. Fleeting, earnest, sad, but still hopeful.

This is my process and it continues to evolve.

A new perspective with CHIHULY

First, if you're in or near NYC, you need to go see the CHIHULY exhibit. Second, this piece is the second in a series going deeper into my process and craft of photography. It's both an out-loud reflection and self critique but also a way of opening up more about my approach so that I can learn from my own voice as well. Thanks for joining me.

Straight forward

Straight forward

I would have loved to be in the studio as the CHIHULY team put this piece together. Did they sketch out some master plan? Select a color palette? Or let themselves go willy nilly? Did the canoe come first or did that come later as a clever after thought? Was the reflection - for many the main subject - a focal point as they started or a brilliant realization as they started? I've been asking more of these questions as I interrogate my own process more.

As I looked around me and saw photographers with tripods, with huge zoom lenses, and those with iphones, I realized they were all basically doing the same thing - standing about their normal height and honing in on the boat or a part of the boat from a few different perspectives. These shots would look vaguely similar down the road. Nothing wrong with that, but it made me wonder whether there were other ways of seeing the artist's work.

Gentle movement

Gentle movement

With a little intentional hand shake a low angle, both the piece (and the photograph) take on an entirely different meaning. For me at least, this second perspective accentuates the artist's intent to play with light and highlight the power of glass to bend, transform, absorb, and reflect it in all different ways. Here the colors act more as ghosts dancing on the water with their partners. The edges of the balls soften and the different shades, gradients, and sizes - the forms - become more salient.

As I continued my journey around the garden I tried looking for different ways to express what I was seeing and how I interpreted what the artist had created.

A reflection - or is it?

A reflection - or is it?

I loved this because because of the endless options it offered. Nestled in a reflecting pool, these glass rods shot up out of a wood pile. But I was more interested in the way that they had a never-ending presence in the reflection below. At just the right angle, you can't quite tell whether you're looking at the reflection or the 'real' thing and so my intent here was to capture that sensation of surprise and wonder. Could the artists have designed it for this moment? Who do they let in on their little secret?

Finding the right balance of motion and shutter speed

Finding the right balance of motion and shutter speed

I began searching for even more ways to understand what I was seeing - slowing things down, changing the angle, swiping left, swiping right. I realized in that process that creating intentional blur is more than just about slowing the shutter. It requires really understanding what story you want to tell and how much the blur plays into that. Do you want to totally abstract the shape or just nudge it out a bit? What emotions change as more or less blur is introduced and what do you gain and lose with those choices? I realize there was also a delicate balance of how much motion to introduce within the chosen shutter speed and whether that motion followed one direction or many.

There are so many questions to answer but I loved how this exhibit gave the opportunity to experiment with new ways of seeing.

Storytelling - getting deeper

I'm trying something new. For the next few weeks I'm going to be posting an image I've taken - some recent, some years old - along with some commentary and self-critique. At some level it's part of a self-guided course I'm taking, but at another it's a way for me to be more open about my process, my approach, and hopefully getting something closer to an articulation of my vision.

Unlike past posts I'm opening these up to comments and hope you'll join me in the conversation.

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When I saw the fireplace and the soft indirect light I knew I had to do something, but taking a photo of the fireplace itself was just boring. The guiding lines of the old stone toward the fireplace hinted at a fun way of directing the scene and more importantly, my fun loving wife dancing in front of it offered an even better option.

I took my first few shots from various 'standard' perspectives - shoulder, a little above, a little below. But when I looked back at what I had taken I noticed how dramatic her shoes popped out against the background. I loved the forms, the shapes. It speaks of decades of dance training. It speaks of her playfulness.

And so I tried a new perspective. Getting down low, I focused on just her shoes and the fireplace, sending it out of focus but still with enough clarity to leave no doubt about what it was. I got an extra bonus because it looked like it may have been on its way out. A hint of the end of the party.

But it's far from perfect. I cut off her raised ankle on the left foot and the lines lead away from the rest of the frame. It's confusing and requires the viewer to have the energy to draw themselves back in. Then there's the choice in aperture. Did I need to get so radical with the fast approach or could i have stopped it down and gotten a little more of her right foot in view?

It's still a favorite of mine and continues to connect with me but the process of going through this self-critique will hopefully pay off down the road.