Friday, January 17, 2020

On Projects

All photographs in this post are from my book Georgia: A Backroads Portrait.
A small, country church in Dooly County, south Georgia

 People who take up photography with serious intent to make good photographs sometimes find that, after an initial period of excitement, things aren't working all that well for them. Their pictures seem bland and uninspiring, not at all what they had hoped to achieve. A photo-malaise sets in. They switch cameras and lenses, take workshops, perhaps experiment with film, seek to emulate other photographers -- all good things, but not the solution. They are part of the process of photography -- not the purpose. As the always iconoclastic and often perceptive Andrew Molitor says,

"Photographers, culturally, seem to have a terrible problem with looking for technical solutions to creative problems."

The cure for photo-malaise is not process, it is purpose. Why are you taking pictures? If the goal of making pleasing photographs is simply to make pleasing photographs, your efforts will sooner or later run out of steam and lapse into photo-malaise.

Fayette County Courthouse, Fayetteville, Georgia

I was a photographer for many years, even a professional for most of that time, before I discovered who I am as a photographer. When I was photographing for clients I was usually working on some kind of project and toward a specific purpose. I often found that work satisfying, although I did not at the time understand why. When photographing for myself I sought to make pleasing pictures, but more or less at random.

Short's Mill, near Clarkesville, Georgia

It was while working on a project -- photographs for the book Rock City Barns: A Passing Era -- in the mid-'90s that I began to find a sense of who I am as a photographer. I think of it as "finding my voice." After the book came out it attracted some attention in the art photography community and I received a letter from a well-known art photographer who urged me to create an artist's statement, defining myself and my work. I thought about it, and this is what I came up with:

Manning Brothers Service Station, Glynn County, Georgia

"My domain is the old, the odd, and the ordinary; the beautiful, the abandoned, and the about to vanish away. I am a visual historian of an earlier America and a recorder of the interface between man and nature; a keeper of vanishing ways of life."

Susie's Sunset Cafe, LaFayette, Georgia

 While traveling to make the photographs for the Rock City Barn book, I began collecting pictures of other subjects that interested me, and now one of those "collections" is almost ready to become a book: Found on Road Dead: An Anthology of Abandoned Automobiles.

Since that time, I've been accumulating photographs for various projects in keeping with my statement of purpose. Photography is now complete for Lost Barns of Rock City -- a book of barns that were lost from Rock City's records and which I discovered on my various travels or in response to tips from people who knew of barns that were not in the first book. Other book projects in various stages of development include Old Houses of Georgia, People of Georgia, Tennessee: A Backroads Portrait, and Israel Today: The Land and the People. 

Danny Gandy and friend, Dooly County, Georgia. "This is not a fighting cock!"

Does all that sound ambitious? Of course it is! Will some (any) of these books see publication? Possibly. Georgia: A Backroads Portrait is complete and is making the rounds of publishers. And Countryman Press, which rejected Backroads Portrait because they no longer do coffee-table books, nevertheless assigned me to create a book in a different format, Backroads and Byways of Georgia, which was released in 2017.
Boynton Beauty Salon, Catoosa County, Georgia

Meantime, I don't have to worry about photo-malaise. I only have to worry about finding time and money (for travel) to work on my various projects. I am 82, in reasonable health, and have a reason to get up every morning. I will continue to pursue my photo-projects as long as I can.

Find yourself a project. Or several. Breath new life into your photography. The world is full of opportunities.

Bottoms Up! Floyd County, Georgia

By the way, this is exactly the approach recommended by Magnum photographer David Hurn in his great little book On Being a Photographer (written with Bill Jay).

Check out Georgia: A Backroads Portrait at

And if you should happen to have a friend in the publishing business . . .

(This post previously appeared in the Dear Susan blog on January 10, 2020)

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

I Do Not Want to Do Video!

A tribal elder, Mayalan Village, Northern Guatemala

As the business of commercial photography changes with the times, more and more photographers are reorienting their businesses to add video production services, and some are even switching over to video entirely.

Frankly, this makes me glad I’m late in my career. My dedication has always been to the still image and I don't want to do video!

I got my start in the early 1970s, working for a film production company that did   what used to be called industrial movies, short films which were mostly used for sales and promotion.  However, our bread and butter was filmstrips (older readers may remember them), mostly for food service employee training. It was an interesting time for me, and a different world.

(A filmstrip, for the uninitiated, is a sequence of still photographs on one strip of film, usually with a soundtrack, and shown by means of a projector.)

Boy with puppy, Mayalan Village

After a stint with another company as director of advertising, I opened my own photography and production business in 1978, majoring in slide shows and filmstrips, but not movies. I did, among other things, 36 filmstrips for the Krystal hamburger chain, teaching employees how to do everything from cooking the burgers to cleaning the toilets; and more than 60 promotional and fund-raising filmstrips for Church of God World Missions.

By 1985, many of the A-V programs I did were set up as three-projector slide shows playing on one screen with dissolve effects, and transferred to videocassette for distribution. I loved that medium, and really thought it would last. But by the end of 1990, all was swept away as the world converted to video. I firmly believed, and still believe, that a sequence of still photographs is a better teaching/training tool for most things than video.

But I tried video for a couple of years and absolutely hated it, so I re-invented myself as a commercial photographer.

Young scholar, Mayalan Village

A few years ago, as the digital age advanced and I saw more and more work going to amateurs and semi-pros with automated cameras, I decided to find specialties that were as safe as possible from those people. I chose the dual disciplines of architecture and business headshots, both of which require lighting skills a bit more advanced than flash-on-camera. Fortunately, those specialties are also the most impervious to the encroachment of video.

As I get older and no longer need or care to call on art directors less than half my age, I'm finding my final refuge in photographing and writing for books and magazine articles. I believe in the power of the still image and absolutely do not want to do video.

And now I don't have to.

If you would like to see a sample of a still-photo-based audio-visual program, check this one out:

Monday, January 13, 2020

The (Difficult) Business of Photography

The Corporate Portrait is a staple of many photographer's businesses.

For any of my readers who may have thought of professional photography as an easy, fun way to make a living, let me enlighten you. Professional photography is one of the most difficult ways in the world to make a living. The only field I know of that is comparably difficult is the performing arts. And in the performing arts, where most languish with an occasional part-time gig and a few make a reasonable living, a very, very few make it big. And those few who make it big in the performing arts can make it very big indeed.

On the other hand, those few who make it big in photography don't make it all that big. The best most of us can hope for is to make a reasonable living. Skill with the tools of photography is essential, of course, but is by no means the most important. It's just an entry level thing. The most important factors are a personal vision and business skills. And the most important of those is business skills.

So you’re an amateur. You know you’re really good with a camera, and people love your photographs. They even tell you, “Why, you’re better than so-and-so professional photographer!”

There was a time when skill with the tools of photography was enough to launch a professional career. But no more. Digital makes it all too easy to make sharp, well-exposed photographs, so even a very high order of skill with the tools and techniques of photography won't make it. With a very, very strong personal vision, you might make it. But without business skills, and especially the ability to sell (there’s that ugly word you probably hoped to avoid) you won't last.

If this sounds discouraging, I'm sorry. But if anything I might say could discourage you from a career in photography, you weren’t going to make it anyway.

As many of the traditional sources of studio income began to dry up, I turned increasingly to architectural photography. (The Hunter Museum of American Art, Chattanooga, Tennessee)

But if you are serious about making it in this difficult but deeply satisfying profession, I recommend you start by buying the Commercial Photography Handbook by Kirk Tuck and begin learning the business of photography. Start following his blog Go back into his archives and research his articles on business. Print them out and put them in a binder. I print out his business posts and keep them in a binder even though I’ve been a full-time professional for more than 40 years. And I still learn from them.

Friday, January 10, 2020

My Favorite Photographs

Louise, Rob, baby Don, 1968

My very favorite photograph in all the world, taken several years before I became a professional, hangs on the wall by my desk.

My wife is sitting in my old easy chair, now long gone, with infant Don in her lap while eight-year-old Rob is seated on the ottoman and leaning in, lightly embracing Don. Both are in their PJs, ready for bed. Illumination was from a table lamp beside the chair and another lamp across the room. The camera was a roll-film Polaroid, and the film was their 3000-speed black & white. Since Polaroid roll film did not make a negative that could be printed in any conventional way, Polaroid offered a service to copy the 3¼x4¼ prints from their film, make a copy negative, and then make prints as requested. I sent my little print to them and had them make a 5x7.

There many things wrong with this photograph, but not the love and trust, which are palpable.

Rob and Don are now 58 and 51.

Byrl Thornton Jenkins on his 90th birthday, October 5, 1999

My second favorite photo is this one of my Dad, taken on his 90th birthday, October 5, 1999. He posed on the front porch of his home, holding his Bible, and with a background of fall foliage. I used a Hasselblad CM and 150mm lens with Fuji NPH color negative film rated at ISO 320. I love this photograph because it shows the basic sweetness of the man.

My Dad was a man who was always young, always looking forward to the next thing. At the age of 89 he was operating two flea-market mall booths. On the last day we spent together, just a month before he died, we spent the day shopping for a computer system so he could go online and sell his antiques.

Dad passed away in February, 2000. The goal of my life is to emulate his faith, courage, and perseverance.

Wednesday, January 8, 2020

Cameras Get Better; Pictures Don't

Syracuse Gothic: Mony above all
Konica Autoreflex T, Tri-X @ ISO 800, Processed in Acu-1

 As the great photographer Ernst Haas is reputed to have said to Bob Schwalberg (European editor of the now defunct Popular Photography) when Schwalberg was enthusing over the latest equipment developments, "Ach, Schwapselberg, why is it that cameras keep getting better but pictures don't get any better?"
Pictures indeed have not gotten any better, but we are in the closing stages of a great sea change in photography. Photography is essentially a product of the modernist era and was perfectly suited to expressing the ideals of that philosophy, which implicitly included optimistic humanism. Photographically, this reached its zenith in Edward Steichen's great "Family of Man" exhibit and book. The influence of optimistic humanism continued strong in photography for many years, although we gradually forgot why.
Now we are well into the postmodern era, and support for optimistic humanism has greatly eroded. There has been a crashing loss of faith in man. Who today would say with Hamlet "What a piece of work is man, How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty, In form and moving how express and admirable, In action how like an Angel, In apprehension how like a god, The beauty of the world, The paragon of animals?"  

Instead of being seen as an heroic figure with unlimited potential for progress (the twin-lens reflex camera, by the way, was the perfect instrument for expressing this heroism because the viewpoint was usually one of looking up at the subject), he is now seen in a negative way as a threat to the environment and a creature for which we can have, at best, only tentative hopes. Man has been deconstructed, and this is the reason nature, landscape, and environmental photography, although they have always been with us, have now come to the fore. The idea that "the proper study of man is man" has been largely abandoned, and where it continues, it is often the study of people living in primitive cultures, as in much of Chris Ranier's excellent work; people who are living closer to and presumably in greater harmony with the environment. This also accounts for the recent spate of books about "Native Americans."
The great humanist photographers Robert Doisneau and Fritz Henle are dead, as is Henri Cartier-Bresson who exited this life dabbling in water-colors. Elliot Erwitt is in his 90s. B.A. King, least-known but one of the greatest humanistic photographers, spent the last 20 or so years of his life using his camera to advocate environmental concerns. These men and many others were part of a movement that produced much of our greatest photography, but it is on its last legs. As a Christian, I consider modernism and optimistic humanism to be flawed philosophies, but they nonetheless created a climate in which great photography was produced. 

Syracuse Gothic: Do Not Enter
Konica Autoreflex T, Tri-X @ ISO 800, Processed in Acu-1

Photography is about reality, but under the influence of postmodernism we are fast losing the concept of reality. This is reflected in the trend to computer alteration of photographs, which loosens the connection between photography and reality and threatens to break that connection altogether. From that moment, photography, as photography, will be dead. It may continue to be a nice hobby, a more-or-less profitable commercial activity, and a pretty plaything, but its power to inspire a sense of wonder will be gone. A virtual reality is no substitute for the real thing.

Monday, January 6, 2020

Camera Size and Some History

Peggy's Cove, Nova Scotia. Fuji X-T20, Fujinon XC 16-50mm f3.5-5.6 OISII lens

The standard cliche is that big guys prefer big cameras. So maybe I’m an anomaly, but I’ve always preferred small and light cameras.

I don’t think I would have any trouble qualifying as a big guy — before a compression fracture of the spine and advancing age robbed me of some height I was 6’2” plus, and weighed about 250 pounds. And as for hand size, in my playing days I could pick a basketball off the floor simply by grasping it from the top with one hand. But I've always preferred smaller cameras. They fit my hands just fine and I’ve always hated to carry around unnecessary weight.
 In 1978 I dumped my Nikon F2 and Nikkormats and began a 13-year love affair with the Olympus OM system that lasted until aging eyes dictated a change to the Canon autofocus system.

I stuck with Canon for 24 years, moving with them into the digital world with larger cameras and heavier lenses. The tipping point for me came in 2010, when I hauled two bodies and a basic set of three zooms and a 50mm macro lens on a trip to Israel and Jordan.

Sweating my load on the long walk into Petra, the ancient city carved into rock, I chanced to meet a man who was carrying only an Olympus EP-2 body with the 14-42 kit lens and a VF-2 viewfinder. We talked for a few minutes, then I asked if I could hold his camera. What a revelation!

I had been reading with some interest about micro 4/3s, so when I got home, I ordered an E-PL1, then later, a pair of E-M5s and some lenses. However, the wedding photographer for whom I frequently worked as a second-shooter did not like the files, so I held onto my Canon kit for weddings, only upgrading my 5D Classic to a 6D.

Last year, I made the break complete, selling all my Canon stuff, and later, most of my m4/3s equipment, and buying Fuji X-system bodies and lenses. I was surprised to find that a Fuji X-T20 is actually a little smaller than an Oly E-M5 and did not handle as well for me. I had reached my small-size limit!

However, no problem! A nifty little black leather half-case from Amazon made it handle just right. I'm happy with my choice, and my primary photographer is happy with the files, which she (a Canon 5D4 shooter) describes as "pretty."

The problem with a full-frame system is not the size of the bodies -- I could be happy with a 6D -- but the size and weight of the lenses. Sony A-series bodies are only marginally larger and heavier than a Fuji X-T2, but when you add a working kit of lenses, the weight saved by the lighter body doesn't make much difference to the overall load.

Friday, January 3, 2020

More about Serendipity

Serendipity, as we've said before is a most capricious and unpredictable muse. But she can be courted. And the way to court her is to do the things that give her an opportunity to show up and do her work. We've talked about some of those things in previous posts. Still another way to get her to smile on you is this:

When You Find Something with Possibilities, Work It Thoroughly

As I was photographing a street bagpiper in a small square near London's Piccadilly Circus,
I became aware of a beautiful young English woman who was also watching the piper. She was to one side and slightly behind me. 

 Quietly turning my lens toward her as she watched the piper, I made several exposures.

 When she noticed me, I smiled a request for her to look at me. 

 A nice photo of a lovely young woman. A good time to stop, maybe? No, because she's enjoying the attention and cooperating. If I keep shooting, something even better might happen.

And sure enough, something better did happen: the sun came out from behind a cloud and highlighted her hair! But she was looking away.

Then serendipity did its thing, as the sun continued to highlight her hair and a red, double-decker bus moved into position behind her. The essence of English beauty. I got the shot because the situation had possibilities and I kept working it. And serendipity smiled.
(Olympus OM2n, 100-300 Tokina ATX zoom, Fujichrome 100.)