On Sunday Jordan and I sat down with Bruce Harvey, a large format photographer, his mission is trying to preserve culturally significant architecture around the country. We chatted for about an hour about the slow nature of his process, why the details matter, and how having limitations are an important part of the process. Enjoy!
For so many years I had thought that I had mastered all I could about the technical side of photography and that to go farther I just had to see new things to get more pictures, always upping the ante.
What I learned in 2018 is that I need to revisit the basics and slow down to appreciate the finer details and let those items speak for themselves. I think a good rule of thumb is when you think you have everything mastered you must know you know next to nothing. Like a cocky alarm when you reach a creative plateau, you have to know that your stuck. I made a few very large changes to my workflow this year, and actually got away from a modern process and get back to basics and wow, what a difference. Excited to unlearn some “modern” habits and get back to simplicity and focusing on the bedrock of good photography.
Listen to the story behind the photo below!
A really dark edit from a walk with my friend Terry down in the city. I took this at the corner of the Everson as some birds were flying over.
Three years ago, Thanksgiving day, I crawled through a hole in barbed wire fence, and I haven’t been the same ever since.
I thought about it a lot on the 3 hour drive down.
If these places were easier to get into would I still do it? If they made that abandoned house into a museum, I bet I would come up with an excuse to not go. But here I am breathing black mold and asbestos, chasing something that no one worships, at least not anymore.
We walked back into the real world around 3:00p.m. and my legs burned. I tried to clean the mushed ceiling tile goo off my pants and shoes in the diner bathroom. I washed my hands and black rivers danced down the drain. I went with the greek plate and ate like I hadn’t seen food in years. I always liked a place that went in heavy with Feta.
I finished and kicked my leg out of the booth and sat sideways as I watched Jordan relish in his French dip. That food could have been dog shit or delicacy but we couldn’t tell because of the soft fuzziness of the afterglow. I looked around and kept trying to readjust my eyes, my brain in some deep processing loop. I feel drunk.
We had walked for 7 hours straight, up and down dilapidated towers, and across a sleeping giant. In and out, up and down. I had never even seen a squash court up close, let alone a marble penthouse bathroom, but I did today.
Flash light, shutter click. Flash light. Next room.
“Wait, be quiet.” I held my finger straight up and swirled it when I knew it was time to vacate, not making a sound. We left quickly, and quietly.
“Nevermind, it’s an animal.”
After awhile your visual sense shuts down. You just shutter click and go through the motions. You hope all that practice just becomes muscle memory. Can photography even be that, you wonder?
When you lay down at night you absorb into the mattress, you fall halfway down. Like a marshmallow soft after a campfire. Your body rings like an ear does with tinnitus, except this is the universe calling out.
Your alarm goes off, piercing the darkness in some nondescript hotel.
And you do it again.
Below are a few of the images from our last big urbex outing!
6. Story behind the photo: "Light at the End of the Tunnel” Great pictures never happen when you expect it, rarely when you need them, and never, ever, when you are desperate for success. Brad and I had parked and walked into Beaver Lake on a brisk fall Saturday. I got out of the truck, packed in my gear, and grabbed my tripod. The lesson that day- at least what I had planned- was using tripods, fall foliage, and using macro lenses. At least that is what I wanted to teach him. I, of course, would learn a different lesson altogether. Photography, like a lot of other disciplines, can’t be pushed from within you. You simply can’t force out good work. There has to be a flow to it. That flow starts in your mind in a way that is hard to summarize in writing because it comes from the part of the brain that is non-verbal. My secret weapon that day was not tripods, filters, or specialized gear. It could not be packed in my bag. It was in my mind and in my heart. I have found through tons of photo outings that if my mind is in the wrong place, I miss the great pictures or they simply don’t appear to me. I am almost positive it is because, when I’m not in the right mindset, I can’t see what is beautiful. That day, early before our meeting, I got up just like I always do, went downstairs and walked over to the microwave and set the timer for 20 minutes. I walked over in the darkness and sat in my favorite chair, red pillow tucked behind my head as it is countless times. I leaned my head back, got comfortable, and tried to clear my mind. I focused on my breath, the area just below my nose and just above my lip. Deep and clear I pulled in air, holding it in and slowing my breath. Clearing my mind is tough for me; I am constantly strategizing, constantly worrying, always thinking about what’s next. This fog is the kiss of death for something creative like photography. At first I struggled to think of nothing, to let my mind sit empty. After a few minutes it cleared. I reached a point between my thoughts, where true calm exists. I sat for twenty minutes until the timer broke the silence. I came out of my self induced trance and my body felt numb, but very relaxed. I was happy, confident, and aware. On the days I clear my mind, I always have great success making photos. We walked to our first spot and my open mind gave me this shot, the trees, the colors, the lines. I saw the light at the end of the tunnel, maybe because it was supposed to be, or maybe because I could see it clearly- either way, I was glad I got that lesson.
I am really lucky in the grand scheme of photography. I like my high-school self, move between genres and different groups of people easily. Sometimes I am hanging out with portrait photographers, urbex photographers, or walking the streets with mobile only photographers. I’ve had a lot of good conversations with landscape photographers, and documentarians. Hell I will even hang out with video guys even though most of them are just plain assholes. What I am trying to say is, I interact with lots of different photographers and at lots of different skill levels of photography.
Which gets me to my point. There is a point.
What cuts across genres of all photographers young or old is their obsession with gear. The latest EOS R camera. Is it 4k 120 frames they ask? I am switching to Sony, their cameras are incredible with low light, she adds. I want to make the move to a different system, he says. It is literally everywhere and I partially blame the big corporations for all releasing new systems this year.
But here is the thing. I have a little theory which won’t make some of you very happy. I think that the obsession over gear or switching systems and the amount you obsess over is inversely proportional to your success.
If I had to graph it it would look like this:
The first reason, and this might sting a little, is this obsession with gear gives you an excuse, a free pass to blame the issues in your equipment for you photography shortcomings. Think about a stone mason blaming a hammer for not being able to split a stone in the right spot. It sounds ludicrous.
The second reason is that this gear obsession keeps you from doing the actual work you need to do to get better. The real work of photography is practice, training your eye. But almost everyone I talk to is waiting to practice till they get the right lens, the right camera.
Now this is when people start mumbling under their breath, that they need a certain sensor size, or 14 stops of dynamic range.
But I want to counter with a simple visualization. All photography really is, is placing a postage stamp sized image sensor in front of a scene. Think about that for a minute. Just letting photons hit a small bit of light sensitive cells about the size of a matchbook. Now strip away all the frame, lenses and everything else until your holding just that sensor in your shaky little hand. Now look out in front of that sensor and know that for every degree you turn it you get a good or a bad photograph. Thats where the real work is. Turning that little light sensitive plane in front of something that someone actually cares about, that they want to see. That they need to see.
Think about holding that sensor in your hand the next time you buy your new camera, and think about it 6 months after you bought the latest greatest thing. In the end, it won’t change, but what you hold it in front of, and what angle you hold it will.
I guess I’m not sure where to start. I guess I’ll start with our fixer, “J.”
I reached out to “J” over instagram for a cool little find he had posted. From the images and videos he shared it looked to be an abandoned artists studio perched above a river. From the artifacts I saw in the video I knew two things. One it was pretty much untouched, and two it would not stay that way for long. If Jordan and I wanted to preserve anything we had to do it before kids tore that place apart.
Jordan and I got up super early Saturday morning and drove the 90 minutes to pick up J. Of course Jordan and I were chatting so I missed the exit. We picked up J a bit late but headed right to the location. We scrambled through a scary looking basement and climbed up a set of metal ladders with a bit of an acrobatic move.
What we found was an abandoned hydro-electric station on the river turned art studio by a truly remarkable man. He was a pilot, architect, art Professor, color theorist, and hammer collector. His paintings are on display at MoMa. He designed and built a synagogue and a home. He also flew over Nagasaki days after the bomb dropped and survived in the ocean with his crew for 6 days on a raft.
I could go on and on about the good things, but this man also had tragedy in his life. He lost his daughter at age 29 from a freak accident after the car she was driving hit a horse that escaped its pen. He outlived his wife and most of the others he knew. He lived till the ripe old age of 96.
I am still in awe.
I found lots of books about Bresson and Brassai in his studio so I processed these images dark and mostly in black and white as I think the late professor would have liked.It seemed fitting. Click on the images below to see them larger.
Our first urbex stop was a bust so we stopped at this abandoned car dealership today.
Click the images to enlarge them.
I crossed out the 2018 as soon as I did the math for the new dishwasher. The small crayon drawing of our future camper had been hanging on our fridge for 3-4 years and we looked weekly at Craigslist but at this point, it was over.
Our pocketbooks were exhausted because we were deep into a bathroom remodel, it was the end of summer, and our dishwasher finally threw in the towel.
All we were looking for was a used Rockwood Roo, 19' or less, with a dinette and couch, in incredible condition.
No big deal, nothing specific!
The problem was after searching season after season, people either held on to the Roo's or they were destroyed. We had looked at a few with holes in the floor, soft spots or complete water damage. I just didn't want another headache.
On Tuesday night at 11 pm I spotted Mike's Roo, and it could not be in better condition. It was almost too perfect. I emailed and set up a time to see it the next day. Unbeknowst to Jen, I also booked a one night stay camping trip, because I just knew we were going to buy it.
That Saturday afternoon we pulled into Fillmore Glen State Park, for our first camper experience. It was more of a, "OK we need to figure this being a camper person thing out, kinda trip." I kept referencing the huge pile of user guides and manuals for each system. We packed simple- hotdogs and smores and those tiny little boxed camping cereals- and headed off. Everything went amazingly well and we had figured out each system, and on Sunday we headed home, but unfortunately our education was not over.
Just after I said, "Wow, look at how bad the roads are as soon as you get to Syracuse," I heard a loud boom, and the trailer swerved. We hit a huge pothole and it blew the tire and rim apart. I limped to an offramp but could not get off the highway so I had to change it while the cars on 81 blew by us. Everybody was ok, but that tire and rim have seen better days.
I guess we got a thorough education. Here are the images from that trip.
Another free style shooting day that ended checking almost every box.
I was able to do some landscape photography, and also find an abandoned building and get some outside shots of it. I filled up with gas station coffee and I focused my efforts on the area around Montezuma Wildlife Area, Mentz, and Port Byron.
"The first hour is the rudder of the day."
-Henry Ward Beecher
Street photography is such a hard genre to pin down.
Is good work photos of people in spaces, and what is a good ratio of humanity to space? What if you capture a lonely street scene with only one person, vs a street filled with onlookers? What percentage is the right percentage?
Anyway here are few images from our last outing where, incidentally, very few people passed by early on a Sunday. So this is "street-ish."
As I am leading up to the evening where Jordan and I are having a small gathering to show off our street work used for the Art in the Windows grant I wanted to reflect on something that has become so apparent lately.
"This is a world of action."
Getting the ideas for anything is the easy part, and you can say anything that someone will let you, but the real work of this world is still a physical one. Hitting the streets every single week, camera in hand in good time and in bad is what the essence of photography or dare I say life is.
I almost want to tell people who have such positive comments about my photography that it simply isn't the eye or the training or the gear, it is just going out to do the work. I want to be honest, I come away with far more terrible pictures than usable ones and I am no different than anyone reading this story.
"I made a commitment, that's it, that's the dam secret."
To be as honest and transparent as possible I will post some images from the more recent outing on Sunday. These are not instagram bangers, but are so important to the constant march of practice.
You can't take practice, especially photographic practice, for granted. Not only is it wonderful to walk and experience this world, this world, is one of action. There really is no substitute for putting good stuff in front of your lens. No new gear, no matter the features, the sensor size, or the click of the shutter will move you forward faster than good old fashioned practice.
Today I went out for two hours and did my usual setup. 2 hours, in 2 locations, one hour per location. I started down on a side street near SU, for the first hour and then followed up, with an hour near the Niagra Mohawk building.
Did I come up with amazing images? No, not really. But that isn't the point.
Jordan had been trying to talk me into this one for quite awhile. We had scouted it, but for some reason I just wasn't really into it. Well I have to say he was 100% right. What an amazing spot! We went through an overgrown lot to a small local gift shop that closed about 10 years ago. Jordan wanted to get into this spot for years as it has been rumored to be torn down soon for new development. We just could not let this place get demolished without documenting a spot as special as this. This location specialized in Christmas decor and also farm fresh fruits and vegetables. Sadly spray paint and damage from young people had taken it's toll on this place.