Tag Archives: photography

Two Ideas

“Have more than one idea on the go at any given time. If it’s a choice between writing a book and doing nothing I will always choose the latter. It’s only if I have an idea for two books that I can choose one rather than the other. I ­always have to feel that I’m bunking off from something.”
Geoff Dyer

I read Geoff Dyer’s book “Paris, Trance” over the weekend, and came away with a great deal of respect for his writing. Some books you pick up and read a few pages of and think they aren’t going to be great, then 24 hours later you turn the last page and realize you haven’t put the thing down since you started and it’s over. The effect is all the more pronounced when you took a chance on a low Amazon rating (I really can’t comprehend why it only has 2.5 stars on Amazon – the Goodreads aggregate of 3.65 is much more reasonable.)

The suggestion to carry two ideas all the time is interesting and I can relate to it. I can also relate to having too many damn ideas to do anything about any of them. This blog is an example.

Most people with any sense come up with a theme for their blog, market it to an appropriate audience, and make some money. Or, if they’re photographers, they focus on their photography and don’t spend time writing book reviews or literary weather reports.

I’ve historically been torn between visual art or writing as a creative outlet, but the last few days I’ve been trying to paint with one hand and to take photographs with the other. Thankfully, painting and photography are two things I can deal with more ambidextrously than painting and writing, or photography and writing. The answer is just to paint from photographs.

Here’s a photograph I took in Paris, in 2011:

Here’s a painting I made of that photograph, in 2017:

There’s a party scene in “Paris, Trance” where a character is introduced as a “writer and a painter,” and another character retorts that nobody can be any good at both. “What about Van Gogh, haven’t you read his letters?” the writer/painter asks in his own defense…

“Sure, they’re great, but have you seen his paintings?”

I guess I like ‘Podcasts’ Now

I had avoided Podcasts for many years after they surfaced because of what they were called. Words derived from commercial products just seem gross to me. They’re lazy.

Maybe I also just didn’t enjoy listening to people yap, instead preferring all the music that became so limitlessly available around 2008.

But, times change. For the past few months, I’ve been listening to several ….Podcasts…. (the term still makes me cringe) and gathering information, insight, and entertainment.

 

Here’s a roundup of what’s been in my queue:

Longform has been great to hear writers talk about their craft. It’s an interview show that spends an hour or more asking good writers great questions. So far, I’ve heard Josh Dean, Malcom Gladwell, and Carol Loomis.

Listening to Josh Dean sent me careening down the David Foster Wallace rabbit hole, since some of his stories were edited by Dean for the New York Times Magazine. After reading DFW’s piece about Wimbledon, I fell into watching Federer videos on YouTube – listening to a writer talk for an hour can lead the mind to all kinds of places. Dean’s story also made me think about how NYC-centric magazine writing is, how being ‘in’ the industry is critical.

What clicked for me while listening to Malcom Gladwell was his perspective of his work being “optimistic,” and how he doesn’t believe in ‘gotcha’ journalism, and how if someone says something you think they wouldn’t say again, you shouldn’t quote them on it. His sense of ethics is curious when thinking about how popular his work is – being nice makes for repeat customers, I guess. He said something about how you can only make so many negative statements before you turn your reader against you.

Carol Loomis had a very interesting story – she’s one of Warren Buffet’s best friends, and had a 60+ year career writing for Fortune Magazine. Her longevity in the industry is monumental, and when she started, being a female writer covering finance was taboo. There’s much to be learned from her approach to owning a subject and sticking to a beat.

http://longform.org/posts/longform-podcast-131-josh-dean
http://longform.org/posts/longform-podcast-62-malcolm-gladwell
http://longform.org/posts/longform-podcast-152-carol-loomis

 

The Candid Frame is similar to Longform, but focuses on photographers. Almost an identical format. I’ve listened to two episodes so far, neither were people I’d previously heard of.

The first was Matt Sweeney, who spoke about photographs he took of Los Angeles in the 70’s and 80’s. His story was as much about his own life as the work he’s done, and how the photographs were an artifact of his lifestyle.

The next I listened to was Jenna Close, a photographer who started with alternative energy and launched a successful industrial photography business. She spoke about the importance of business and domain knowledge, and gave examples of ‘sticktuitiveness.’ In general, I found The Candid Frame seems to go deeper into the history of its subjects than Longform, or maybe encourages more ‘origin’ storytelling.

http://ibarionex.net/thecandidframe/2015/7/26/the-candid-frame-284-matt-sweeney
http://ibarionex.net/thecandidframe/2015/4/19/the-candid-frame-274-jenna-close

 

The Tim Ferris Podcast is one that I decided to listen to after hearing Tim Ferris give an interview on Longform. Ferris is a writer I’m familiar with, and I’ve written about his book, the 4 Hour Workweek. The book was OK, but not as good as his Podcasts. He does a great job reaching into different areas of interest for what he calls ‘top performers,’ and he grills them to uncover the habits that lead to their accomplishments. His guests are typically famous in their own right, and so far I’ve listened to Kevin Kelly (founder of WIRED magazine), Jon Favreau (director of the Iron Man movies, actor), Tara Brach (PhD, author, and popular meditation teacher), Jane McGonigal (author, speaker, and expert on Games).

Kevin Kelly was somewhat bland, since the episode I listened to was him answering reader questions and not engaging with Ferris. He briefly spoke about how important ‘AI’ will be in the future, without going into detail. Artificial Intelligence is a really broad subject, and he didn’t specify exactly which part of it he was talking about. Kelly did make a suggestion to ‘read 10 books a year’ and how doing so would transform anyone’s life, so I can appreciate that.

Jon Favreau’s interview was wonderful, and spanned everything from how he finds ways to relate to people who don’t work in the movie business, to what his life was like before he started writing scripts. He talked about how trying out an office job revealed how little time people get to pursue their real interests, and how he was moved to get away from that. His comments on why he enjoys cooking were interesting – because it’s such a universal thing, and his world is so different from most people’s, he’s found it’s a great common bond to share with others.

Tara Brach and Jane McGonigal were both great interviews. Brach’s thoughts on mindfulness, especially the two-step process of recognizing a feeling, then ‘inviting it to tea,’ were interesting. She also stressed the importance of unplugging from time to time, something everyone should really try to practice more often. McGonigal’s citation of studies on how gaming is beneficial were good – particularly that visually intense games can decrease cravings for things, because the brain stays ‘distracted’ by them. McGonigal talked about her new book ‘Superbetter’ which has an accompanying iPhone app that’s worth checking out.

http://fourhourworkweek.com/2015/04/14/jon-favreau/
http://fourhourworkweek.com/2015/07/31/tara-brach/

 

There’s a few more Podcasts I’ve listened to that I recommend exploring:
Lexicon Valley: two guys talking about language. Topics include everything from the origin of the word ‘seer-sucker’, to the pitfalls of translating Russian literature, and the American female’s tendency to adopt a ‘vocal fry’ in speech.
The Moth: live storytelling on a stage. Dramatic recounting of stuff like being interviewed by Martha Stewart, being a member of the ‘Blue Man Group,’ and being a chaplain in the Forest Service. Kind of like TED talks, but without all the politics and pretension of ‘saving the world.’
Planet Money: Probably the most popular Podcast around. Produced by NPR, explores all the ways money interacts with and influences the world. Recent episodes question why people don’t work less than they did a hundred years ago, where the people of Greece are hiding their money, and whether or not robots will ever be able to fold our laundry.
HBR Ideacast: Harvard Business Review’s brief interviews with business leaders. A recent episode with the CEO of Evernote was fascinating, but some guests are dreadfully lacking ‘listenability.’
Talking Code: Software development topics. Presented in an interview format, and with just enough explanation to make it consumable for people who don’t work in the industry.

202 days down, 163 to go

I’m still in the photo-a-day project, over halfway finished.

It hasn’t gotten any easier, and the difficulty that’s been creeping in could be due to the repetitive nature of the project, or the wearing off of novelty, or my transition from walking everywhere to spending time in the car, or my continual pull away from photography and toward work, and writing, and home life.

The catalyst for this project was thin – it was a cold, wintry Sunday and I felt the need to do at least one thing, other than nurse myself on the couch, after a long Saturday of carousing. So I went for a long walk, took a picture of some trees, and decided on the fly that I would take another picture every day for a year. That was it. No research to start, no browsing through other’s work and finding inspiration, no possible financial reward. Just a bored need to do something productive with a hangover.

1/365

After I began, and started taking a few nice pictures, I was hooked. The first few weeks and months were invigorating and I had plenty of subjects, around my office and apartment everything started to look fresh and new. The brief, low sunlight of winter was offering lots of shadows, and the early sunsets meant I was always out and about during the good ‘blue hours.’ But as winter turned to spring, and spring turned into summer, the sun blasted everything all day long, the opportunities for finding those uniquely colorful skies or silhouettes was less, and I was more frequently just pointing my camera at the ground and taking pictures of grass or frantically trying to coax the cat into holding a pose for a minute while I adjusted the lamp.

165/365

I’ve ended up following a fairly strict regiment of what is an ‘OK’ daily picture and what isn’t. Selfies, voluminous food pictures, screenshots, pictures of people that I work with, and unpleasant things like toilets and trash cans are generally out of the question when I’m looking for a subject. I’ve settled mostly on the landscape, ‘found art’, my fiancee, signs, details of familiar objects, the dog, architecture, empty places and abstract patterns. There’s no real method to this selection, it’s just been what I’m comfortable with. Because I didn’t start the project with any formal goals like documenting ‘important things in my life,’ or ‘finding representations of my environment’ or ‘telling stories,’ these self-organizing limitations I’ve been following have been fine and haven’t diminished the purpose of what I’m doing.

That I do now have these unplanned norms of what to shoot and what not to doesn’t mean that I don’t recognize the benefit of planning, and also understand how more carefully thinking about what I want to shoot could improve the course of the work. It would have been nice to say, at the beginning, ‘this will be a portrait of my personal life,’ or ‘this will be a year of pictures of the place where I live,’ and to go on from that and build a coherent and themed body of images. But when I started, I didn’t know what I didn’t know – mostly that having at least a vague goal or purpose would be a helpful concept.

73/365

Maybe when I look back at this (if I do, someday) I’ll be charmed by it’s aimlessness and it will remind me of who I was and what I was like at this time. Maybe I won’t ever look back at this, because I won’t ever stop… it’s actually difficult to reason why I should ever quit, even after the 365 days is over. Because of how effortlessly and unceremoniously I started, stopping might feel like acquiescence, or like I had been wasting my time. I could just vow to continue taking a picture every day for the rest of my life – hell, why not.

Some of my favorite pictures from the effort have been those that are the least recognizable, the things that make me (or anyone looking) think ‘why would someone see THAT in their daily comings and goings?’ That removal from the expected is what I’m always looking for, and it’s the hardest thing to find, by definition. What makes it great is what makes it so hard to capture – its fleeting essence, its otherworldly appearance, the pause it gives and the puzzlement or astonishment or wonder it produces. It feels like a mini-rebellion – an underhand statement I make to this digital device I’m always carrying, the thing tracking my movements and seeing the world with me, that I can still surprise it, no matter how easily it can record, transmit, and normalize to the world my day-to-day existence.

71/365

Maybe someday when I return to these pictures, my favorites won’t be those artistic shots, but the most casual, the most everyday life, the pictures of me and my future wife and my family and our friends. Maybe those will remind me most of my life, and maybe the more conceptual and thoughtfully aesthetic pictures won’t continue to feel important.

22/365

The thing that’s been the biggest struggle for me with this project is whether or not to take it seriously as ‘photography,’ or whether to treat it like a personal diary. I can’t decide how much I should go out of my way to make it great. I know that if I take an hour or two every day to step away from my routine, to go out and actually look for a picture, I’ll find something new and different, and maybe make a nice picture of it. But I can avoid doing that by justifying the nature of the work as casual, I can say that I’m just doing this to capture ‘what my life really looked like, lazy mornings and quiet dog walks and all,’ and then I’ve excused myself from making the effort of looking for better images.

56/365

As I wrap up the final third of the year, that will be the question I’ll try to answer about this project – if it is just snapshots of my life, for my own personal enjoyment and memory, or if I’m doing this to force myself into creative excellence, to sharpen my skills and make myself a better photographer. Maybe I’ll find that in this first year, it’s OK to try both.

198/365

on 365 (Inspiration is for Amateurs)

Twenty-four days ago I decided I would take a single photograph every day, for 365 consecutive days. I’m only using an iPhone, and I’m often taking more than one picture, but the goal is a single ‘shareable’ image at the end of each day.

Creative people who ‘sit around and wait for the clouds to part,’ as Chuck Close has put it, before they sit down and get to work, are not going accomplish very much. Often it seems easier to believe that the best work only comes in moments of divine inspiration, but as I embark on this challenge I’m finding that routine & persistence is the best way to refine technique and make good work.

Knowing that I need to make a photograph at some point during each day is opening my eyes in ways that they weren’t open before, when I was lazily waiting for the right image to coalesce before me.

Here’s a gallery of what I’ve done so far, in these first few weeks:

https://www.flickr.com/photos/brianbrian/sets/72157650665080771

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Paris par Deux

I last visited Paris in November, 2011. It is a city I admire and my imagination returns to it often. Despite what the terrorists would have us believe, Paris is a city of love – maybe a cliche, but for many, absolute truth.

During my last trip, I walked the city at length. I love the city’s rhythm, and my camera kept finding moments of ‘two’ – two people sharing a small corner of the city, amongst the millions who inhabit it.

At a time when Paris is threatened by separation, division, and ideology that seeks to break apart – I want to pause and reflect on these small moments I last saw there, and the unity they represented – simple frames of two people, sharing togetherness, freedom, and fraternity.

Squares and Dreams

Discovering a balance of visual elements within a defined space is exciting.

Driven by the influence of Instagram, most of the photography I’ve done lately has been in a square format, and captured on the fly – pieces of everyday life that I sneak into a symmetry. I go about my routines looking for rhythmic views that I might steal from the disproportionate world.

The square nudges me into looking for harmony of dimension, and the scenes I stumble on can occasionally trick me into thinking I’ve escaped the lazy, uninterpreted world… and slipped into a more astral, dreamy place.

Images from the last few weeks:

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Oct. 3

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Sept. 25

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Sept. 8

GoPro… for the Average Joe

My calendar doesn’t have any upcoming skydiving, scuba or surfing adventures, but I’m the proud new owner of a GoPro Hero III camera, and well… I’ve got to do something with it.

Their small & easily portable form, rugged accessories, and reputation for being nearly indestructible make GoPro cameras the device of choice for adventure sport athletes, whether they’re trekking up Mt. Everest or scaling skyscrapers in Shanghai.

The rest of us can still find ways to be creative with the GoPro. I’ve been using the camera’s time lapse feature to record activities that a typical video wouldn’t capture very well – running, cooking, feeding the cat. Anything that takes thirty minutes, but looks very much cooler when it’s played back in three is fair game.

Out of the box, the Hero III comes with a waterproof case, several pieces of mounting hardware, and wireless functionality. Accessories available for purchase include systems for mounting the GoPro on just about anything – a bicycle, a vehicle, a human head.

The image quality is amazing for such a tiny device, with settings to shoot up to 12MP stills, and 4K video.

GoPro still image

One of the most amazing things is the storage medium – the GoPro uses MicroSD cards, a memory format that is smaller than a fingernail and capable of holding 64 gigabytes of data. When I think of my first digital camera and its 32 megabyte memory card, my head spins at how far along the technology has come.

I haven’t shot much actual video with the camera yet, because frankly, I don’t often do anything exciting that would warrant such documentation. But I enjoy experimenting with the time lapse feature, either to capture the changes of an environment from a stationary perspective (like a sunrise) or to show a subject that’s moving around within a small space (like me in the kitchen.)

The GoPro Cineform Studio, the device’s software, is capable of changing the frame-rate of video to either slow it down or speed it up – an exciting feature that I hope I’ll find a reason to use soon. Additionally, editing features like white balance, contrast, and style filters are available to add artistic flavor to any project. The Studio is a robust application and its inclusion with a camera purchase is a great bargain.

Snow from a Phone

I (unbelievably) can’t remember how many times snow has fallen this winter. Seven? Fourteen? Twenty? I’ve been using Instagram to capture the beauty of the season.

From nearly 70°F two days ago, to eight (!) inches of snow this morning, watching the deviant flakes fall this St. Patrick’s Day is a fitting way to celebrate the nonconformist Irish spirit.

Sláinte!

Australia from Four Cameras — (4 of 4)

  • Moto RAZR (phone camera)

The least technically capable camera I carried in Australia was the one built into my cell phone, the Moto Razr.  And when I say ‘least technically capable’ about the imaging quality, what I mean is that it is pretty atrocious. The shutter is remarkably slow, the color calibration is bland, the orientation and ergonomics are awkward and unpleasant. That said, although it was less capable than my other ‘real’ cameras, in non-traditional ways, it was the most capable.

With all its limitations I was able to do some interesting things. The panorama feature was slightly redeeming – I could wave the phone in a circle, and it would stitch together a wobbly but coherent frame.  I could instantly share pictures by uploading to Instagram. I could take “selfies.”  Most importantly, I was able to use pictures as a surrogate notepad, for ‘mentally bookmarking’ things I needed to remember later – like an interesting newspaper article, the name of a beer I tried, or a rental listing in a property office’s window.

I was able to take pictures less pretentiously, of things that I didn’t particularly need a great photograph of, but did want a great memory of. And when I did want a great photograph, I was usually carrying another camera for that, and if I felt that impulse we now have to instantly ‘share’ the scene with the world, I could snap the same (less technically sound) frame with my phone, and upload it right away.