Today is April 3rd. For the next 11 days I am going to post a chicken a day. It's going to be automated so just in case I'm not around, you'll still get your chicken a day. There is hidden symbolism here. I am expecting the birth of my first child any day now and most definitely within the next 2 weeks. So, hopefully in the next 11 days, as you get to see a chicken a day I will at some point get to meet my son for the first time. You may wonder, "what the hell do chickens have to do with babies?" Well, let me tell you. Chickens have varied significance throughout the world from culture to culture. To me, they have come to represent birth. I think of spring and the daily birth of an egg. The incredible, edible, protein packed egg. On a daily basis I am amazed to see these 4 chickens sitting contentedly in my backyard laying egg after egg. Thank goodness my wife and her friend decided to go into the business of chicken husbandry. And thank goodness this spring has brought me something extra special. See you on the other side of fatherhood.
This morning, for whatever reason I was inspired to dig through some old negatives from the beginning of my obsession with photography. I found some interesting pictures that I remember being excited about at one time or another. It's amazing how my perceptions of what constitutes a good image has changed yet remained remarkably similar to how I've always felt. I think it's important for students and professionals alike to revisit old images. It's good to see how much you've learned and to see how your aesthetic as a photographer has developed.
All of the images below were shot between 2000 and 2003 from Pennsylvania to Colorado to Idaho. I actually still like all of them. I associate learning experiences with each one and could tell a story about each picture. For now though, I'll just leave it to you to make your own interpretations.
As many of you know I have been working with the talented people at Wonderful Machine since last summer. In an effort to help them help me, I printed a duplicate version of my portfolio and sent off to them to keep on file. Recenlty, Jess, Craig and Kayleen hit the road with an arsenal of books, including mine. Tierney in Philadelphia is where they took my portfolio. You can read about it on their blog. They also put together the video below to show my portfolio. If you haven't seen my print portfolio, this is a good opportunity to check it out. Of course, nothing is a substitute for actually holding the prints yourself, but at least you can see how it's sequenced and what I have chosen to include in it. This portfolio changes regularly so I imagine within the next month or two there will be some new images included and some of these will be gone. That's what is great about portfolios . . . they're never finished.
It's not every day that I get to brag about something this cool. For those of you who don't know, I am married to a beautiful, charming, caring and intelligent woman named Larissa. Not only does she exhibit all of these qualities, but she is also a talented songwriter and musician. But here is the big news. I am so incredibly excited and proud to announce that The Hello Strangers recently won the grand prize package for the “AirPlay Direct Win an Americana Record Deal” contest. Check out the press release HERE. This is a huge deal and a major boost for the band. It is a well deserved honor and I can't wait to see how the next album turns out. I've already heard all of the songs and know there will be some real gems on this next album, but I can't wait to see it all come together. Check out their current EP HERE.
And here is a bit more history about the band. In the fall of 2006, Larissa and her equally talented sister Brechyn, started writing songs together in a small cottage in South Austin, TX. I've been fortunate enough to see the two of them develop their music for the past 5 years into the remarkable package it is now. I'll spare you the entire history with a quick summary. After moving from Austin back to their hometown of Mercersburg, Pa in 2007, the sisters (known as The Hello Strangers) began to form a full fledged band. Fortunately, we are surrounded by many talented people here and they quickly found a perfect match of musicians for their band. Kevin Shannon is on guitar, Dave Holzwarth on bass and Katie O'Neil on drums. (Here's an interesting side note. Katie and I played in a punk band together when we were 16. Dave used to run me over on the basketball court when I was 12. As for Kevin, I didn't know him when I was a teenager, but can say now that he's a pretty cool dude.)
Anyway, since this is a blog dedicated to photography and the business of it, I need to talk a little bit about that. So on top of having the privilege of watching The Hello Strangers evolve, I have also been fortunate enough to work with them in building their visual identity. I can't begin to describe how much fun it has been conceptualizing and photographing The Hello Strangers year after year. Below is a selection of some of my favorites from the past few years. These were all fun to produce and many of them have been in my portfolio at one time or another. I can't wait to do the next round of pics.
Congratulations to The Hello Strangers!
The picture below is nostalgic because it was shot after their very first show in South Austin.
Be festive, enjoy the season and laugh hard.
It’s the time of year when I like to reflect and prepare for the future. I look back on what I’ve done since last January, and think about how I can continue to grow as a human and as a creative person in the next twelve months. I also do my best to enjoy the present and focus on living a fulfilling life.
May you live each day with passion, joy and good cheer.
P.S. If you want to see a collection of great holiday promos (including mine), check out the Wonderful Machine Blog.
Have you ever taken a photograph that simply blows you away? I'm talking about a photograph that brings you to your knees. It makes you tremble with excitement and you absolutely can't wait to share it with the world. You're boiling with anticipation to see the reaction of people as they look at your photograph. And then you show it to people. The reaction is one of disinterest. People aren't interested because it doesn't move them. It's probably not because it's a bad picture, but because there is no real reason for them to get excited. Maybe they don't understand what's happening in the frame. Maybe they just don't care about the subject matter or maybe they've already seen 1000 pictures earlier in the day.
But why then did you get so overwhelmed? Why were you so convinced that this picture would be a smashing success? What even makes a picture successful?
I was thinking about this phenomenon the other day and realized that with every photograph I take, I am emotionally invested in some way. As photographers, we attach ourselves to the subject matter. We involve ourselves in the story and therefore become emotionally attached. Photographers instinctively make their imprint on every image they take. I'm not saying that's a bad thing. I think as photographers we need to interact with our environment in order to truly understand what we want to say. The tricky part is (and here's the catch) that we need to remember that our experience of actually making a picture is very personal. The picture becomes the property of the photographer once that shutter is released. No one else knows exactly what the photographer was thinking while making a photo. Only the photographer knows.
And that is where the hang-up can come from. We think that everyone else is going to like our picture because we had such a profound experience making it. The truth is, our profound experiences don't always translate to the photographic form. So no matter how amazing your experience was, don't expect your audience to immediately respond in the same way. Each person will feel something completely different.
I've been rambling a bit, but I'm coming to my point. My original thought is more of a reminder to myself and it is this: When editing your photographs, do everything in your power to look at them from various perspectives. Imagine that you didn't take the picture. Imagine that you don't know the back story. Pretend that you are a child seeing everything new for the first time. And if you can't do that, ask other people to edit your work and select their favorites. Ask them why they choose what they do. And maybe, just maybe, the images they like the most will be the ones you think are the best.
And that, I think, is when you've made a successful picture. We all respond to good stories. If you can tell a great story in one frame, then your audience will inevitably want to see more.
Last week I posted a quote from Jonathan Blaustein that talked about how beneficial it is for an artist to step outside of his or her comfort zone. When I was a teenager full of angst I was always pushing the limits of my comfort. I didn't know it at the time, but looking back I feel there was always a voice in the back of my head urging me forward. I liked challenging myself and trying new things. Even as I pushed myself into uncomfortable situations I simultaneously put up boundaries. I think it's basic human nature to clearly define our individual comfort zones, but sometimes we do this to our detriment. I like having a comfortable space. It feels good to know your place in the world. Being around people you care about and who care about you is wonderful. But if you want to push yourself creatively it is paramount that you step out of your warm, cozy comfort zone and face the unknown. Challenge yourself in new ways. Do something different that has always scared you before. What's the worst that could happen? You might just be surprised with what comes to life inside of you.
I found this song on youtube last week and thought it would be fun to post here. This band defined an entire period of my angst filled high school life for me and my friends. Never stop rocking!
"We never make our best work in our comfort zone. It doesn’t happen. So one of the most beneficial things we can do as artists, I believe, is to step out of what we know from time to time. Challenge ourselves to do things we wouldn’t normally do. Learn and grow whenever possible. Nobody likes to feel like an idiot, but sometimes we have to delve into the unknown to discover a new process, or perspective, or piece of core knowledge."
Continue reading the whole article HERE.
I read this great interview with photographer Kurt Markus on A Photo Editor recently and wanted to repost this section on PlayingWork. You can read the full interview here. That’s the revolution, because I’ve always thought of photography as an object. It’s not electronic information, it’s an object. I don’t believe in a photograph until I make a print. It doesn’t exist for me. It’s just like thin air. So from that perspective it looks to me like people are afraid. They’re afraid to commit to putting their name on an object and claiming it. They’re dodging the biggest bullet of all which is standing up for your work.
It takes guts to make a print. You know you have to convince yourself that this is you, that you’ve made this and that you’re putting your name on it, and you also have to believe that maybe somebody else either can appreciate the work you’ve done or can appreciate the fact that this is you. There’s nothing else to hide behind.
When I was 20 years old I was a jerk. Not all the time, but in one particular instance I was the biggest jerk on campus. During my 20th year of life I attended Colorado Mountain College in Glenwood Springs, CO for one semester. I was in the professional photography program and it had a major impact on my development as a photographer. The coursework was great and the instructors were top notch, yet I only lasted one semester before transferring for the third time in my college career. There were a combination of things that led to my departure from CMC including the fact that the I-70 corridor through Colorado is rather expensive for someone trying to make it through school without incurring any debt. Another major reason was the fact that my new girlfriend (now my wife) was living in Boston while attending Berklee College of Music. Being 2,000 miles away from each other is a tough way to build a meaningful relationship.
The other factor that led to my departure was that I quickly burnt myself out on photography. The program was intensive and required me to throw everything else aside. I remember days of hitting the road before dawn to go on location to shoot. I'd come back before my first class in the morning, then process the film after lunch. I'd go to more classes and then print through the evening. It was great for fast paced learning, but my personality requires my life to be diverse. I needed variety in my life so I worked 30 hours a week at a local ski shop and spent the few spare moments I had climbing mountains and snowboarding. I loved Colorado!
But . . .
There was one particular instance during my time at CMC that I want to talk about. I can look back on it now and smile, but at the time I was convinced that what I was doing was the right thing. Being 11 years removed has given me a much clearer perspective of that "defining moment."
Simply put, I was an arrogant little asshole. I'm going to recount this experience now in the hopes that some of you younger readers won't be as much of jerk as I was at 20.
I was taking Black and White Photography 1. I should start by saying that this was an incredibly valuable class and I learned many of the fundamentals I now use as a professional photographer during this time. I went through the entire semester doing very well. I wasn't that crazy about many of the assignments the instructor assigned, but the material was relevant. I held an A the whole way through the semester until my final assignment for the semester when I really shined as a jerk.
BW Photo 1 - Make one picture that represents what America means to you. I remember getting the assignment and immediately being turned off. "How can one photograph represent America! This is a ridiculous assignment." At least this is how I felt at the time. Now I look at this assignment and realize how subjective it is. I literally could have shot anything. But, being the arrogant little jerk that I was I thought, "No way man, I'm not going to lower myself to these standards. I'm above this and won't do it." See what I mean - I was a dickhead.
So instead of just doing the assignment like the rest of my peers, I spent way too much time writing an essay about why I refused to do the assignment. I wish I could find a copy of that essay so I could have a really good laugh. I think I even turned in a black print. Yeah, like I said I was a jerk. I probably spent more time not doing the assignment than if I had actually just gone out and shot something new. It's hard to remember why I was so passionate about not doing it, but I remember being 100% sure of myself then. Where did I get that confidence?
Long story short, I got an F. And rightly so. I can't imagine what my professor thought when I turned that in. He was so furious that he didn't even talk to me the remainder of my time there. I don't blame him one bit. That act of defiance was something that isn't worthy of being addressed. If by some coincidence my former teacher happens to read this and remembers me, I would like to utter this apology:
"I'm sorry for being such a jerk. I had no basis for acting in that way and I hope you realize the lessons you taught me have been invaluable to my career. I regret not using the passion I had to actually create something meaningful. I regret acting the way I did and hope you'll except this belated apology. I was only 20, clearly immature and stupid. I'm sorry."
And with that I would like to turn in a revised assignment and say, "Hey Kid, don't be a jerk."
Ammon and Mervin take a break on a hot July day.
Recently, I wrote about the beginning of a new personal project. Since that post I have logged about 30 hours on the road in Pennsylvania and have many new photographs of the Keystone State and the people who live here. If you remember, the project began with the exploration of an abandoned building in Northern PA. I decided that I wanted to continue this study of vacant spaces but also begin to talk to and photograph the people that live near these places. The result has been that I have met some great people and subsequently learned a lot about the varying perspectives on the state of our economy and way of life.
With each trip I learn more about the state I have spent 23 of my 31 years of life in. I am discovering places I never knew existed while learning about my fellow Pennsylvanians. So far this project has been about exploration and discovery. I am enjoying the developmental process and still really don't have a definitive theme. Right now this project exists as a very broad story about Pennsylvania and I kind of like that.
Below is a gallery of a few recent images. I'd love to hear what you think about them so if you feel inclined, please leave a comment. And if you know of any unique areas in Pennsylvania I should explore, let me know and maybe I'll check it out.
Jake catching helgramites
While photographing at a tire center I met a man who invited me to his house for coffee. This is the view we had as we talked and drank coffee.
Frank, a retired mechanic poses for a portrait outside his house
Sharlene smokes a cigarette and checks her phone just off the PA turnpike.
An abandoned motel in Breezewood.