Pictures, purges and process (part one)

I recently wound up a series of blog entries exploring my experiences with and thoughts about technology. The non-technological process of spring-cleaning prompted all of these posts. In the process of that cleaning (or more accurately my massive archival purge,) I looked at thousands and thousands of my old images. Some scared me, some impressed me and some surprised me. Though it was not my intention, it turned out to be a great way to consider the arc of my evolution, as a photographer and as a professional.

The overwhelming sense that I came away with as I looked at and dumped thousands of negatives and slides was, who are these people? I was reminded how I photographed thousands of people during hundreds of different assignments. Some were memorable, though most were not. (They probably say the same about me I imagine.)

I did photograph a fair number of writers, artists and musicians, primarily for the Los Angeles Times. Mikhail Baryshnikov, Tom Waits, Grover Washington and Federico Fellini were among the creative personalities who appeared before my camera. I also photographed Ronald Reagan, Willie Nelson, Dr. Susan Love, George Will, O.J. Simpson, Heisman Trophy winner Herschel Walker and conductor Ricardo Muti among others. I am still trying to figure out if those shoots were more memorable because of what actually happened during the portrait session or because of who those people are as cultural figures (re: celebrities.)

Having photographed so many “cultural figures” is not a testament to my skill as a photographer. As I noted, most of those portraits were made on assignment for the Los Angeles Time, so for the brief period of the portrait session, I was photographer working for a major newspaper. Though my bosses at that paper were not thrilled to see me leave Southern California, they were thrilled when I ended up in New York City. For the two years that I was living in Manhattan, I was doing a couple assignments a week for them (or more.) Some assignments were news related but most were portraits for the business section or for the arts/culture section of the newspaper. I wish I could say that I was a brilliant portraitist, but I was not. I was geographically appropriate, technologically competent and reliable. They had worked with me in California so they new I could do the job and that I would show up as assigned. Reliability is a key factor in the world of publication photography.

As I purged negative after negative, slide after slide, proof sheet after proof sheet, I could also trace the evolving film technology that I had once used. Of course, I started with black and white negative film. Then the newspapers, my primary clients, started the slow shift to using color. Some wanted me to use color negative film while others required I work with color slides. The color negative film aged particularly badly (and has very limited stock resale potential) so it was the easiest to purge. Looking at thousands of slides, it becomes obvious that the shift to slides was a slow and difficult learning process for me. Later, when I was at my peak as a photographer making color transparencies for money, I could compose and expose a perfect slide in my sleep. That was not always so. Scanning the light box to see what slides to purge brought me face to face with all my mistakes.

I could see how, over time, I slowly learned how to use the light that was presented to me in the various situations I was photographing. In the earliest images, great light was matter of luck. In the later images, it was a matter of intention. Along the way, it looked like I tried a dozen different strategies. I tried weird angles, different lenses and various exposure/printing strategies. But in the end, I finally acquiesced, realizing that the light was not going to change so I had to change how I positioned myself and exposed for that light. That was the only thing that I could control. I started out like most photographers, fighting the light I was given and now I have embraced it as it is presented, using its power and drama as best I can.

I also saw far to many of the bad pictures that I made as I learned to use electronic flash. The early pictures that had “good flash” were happy accidents. My recent work with lots of “good flash” exhibits more control and an almost stylized use of light. To get from beginner to expert, I tried what seems like a dozen strategies and techniques. I experimented with studio lights, soft boxes, on camera flash and off camera flash. Some of those approaches raised my skill level, but most distracted me, taking me off to technological dead-ends.

I also rediscovered some of the dozens of self-promotional pieces that I made along the way. Before the advent of digital imaging and Photoshop, such promo-pieces were made using dozens of different techniques. What I found the most examples of were sheets of clear (or black) acetate with holes cut in them where enlarged negatives of various images were then taped into place. This yielded an 8 x 10 negative which was contact printed against a piece of photo paper producing a “card,” that showed a few of my best images. The print also had some catchy text to entice editors to use me when they were making assignments.

The last technical thing I noted as I poured over all the slides, was how I had become a serious practitioner of what we used to call “in-camera-duping.” All that meant was once I thought I had the picture just the way I wanted I would take many, many pictures of the same situation. That way, I had many duplicate slides, which I could send out to the various end-users of my work. These in-camera-dupes were sharper, cheaper and better quality than the dupes I would make after the fact. During this archival purge I saw just how many in camera dupes I had made, as I compared what looked like a dozen of the same image, to see exactly which one was the best and worth keeping. Because of my undergraduate study of the history of photography, a part of me was unhappy about destroying all those images. Another part of me was happy to get rid of all that seemingly “useless” material. The curator in me was able to sort out what was worth keeping and what should be eliminated.

Looking back through thirty years worth of work was a great way to reconsider the evolution of my technical skills as a photographer. In the next blog entry, I will explore what this archival purge taught me about the evolution of my creative process as a photographer.

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