I get this question all the time, so I thought I would chat tonight about why I always chuckle when I hear someone ask this question, and more importantly what question you should be asking yourself.
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.
Some photographers come home after a shoot and dive right into their images to edit and post them as quickly as possible. Their images hit instagram almost immediately. In this instantaneous world this seems like almost a no brainer, or is it?
Professional photographer Ben Long advocate to sit on your images and wait to edit them. He likes to wait to edit which helps him disconnect from his images and look at them in a more objective light. When you edit right away he argues, you are too emotionally attached and therefore make mistakes when judging the merit of your images.
I tend to take a balanced approach and try to look at the images and flag my best images but then revisit them at a later date. My editing timeline tends to follow this trajectory:
Directly after the shoot/that evening: Import and backup my images. I also rate the images and pick my keepers. I tend to also edit a few of the best images and post them.
A few days later: I dive in a bit deeper to the keepers and the top 5-10 images. I usually post a few more to social media and work on the images that need a bit more photoshop or heavy processing as time allows.
Winter time: During our long winters here in Syracuse I tend to revisit large projects and try to take more of a creative approach. I will try more adventurous edits and try pushing the processing to a heavier look. Sometime I will get inspired by a certain look or video and try to push my processing in that direction and see what happens. This is my opportunity to get creative and wild in my processing and I tend to create virtual copies in Lightroom and try editing a few different ways.
What do you do for editing? I would love to hear about your process in the comments below!
Below are a few of the images I have been reworking from our Italy trip in 2013 using a heavy handed black and white style to emphasize line and shape. Our days in Venice were very dreary and the clouds and rain made shooting difficult, therefore the editing was very difficult in color and had a moodiness throughout. This style of editing lends a hand to that moodiness.
I’d participate more,
If it wasn’t for my people.
They follow as if they know.
When they care,
numerically, it shows.
Likes, dings, streaks,
quantity you know.
My eyes always swiping,
Looking to convey my deepest throws.
Wish I was, who I was,
someone who knows.
It’s ok. Every last ounce of wit.
If life ignores, my feed will get.
Learned that Canon cameras had a double exposure feature last week and decided to go out and try it today on a nature hike. For a canon I believe it is the fourth from the left menu item about halfway down. Super easy, take a shot, then take the second and in a few seconds it is blended together!
Story behind the photo series: “Willow Bay.”
In a busy kitchen he wipes the sweat from his brow as he moves a large pot from back to front, burner to burner. Watching and tending 4 pots, making sure each is properly tended. A stir here, a spice added, he moves quickly and with poetry of motion. He wipes his hands and returns the towel to his shoulder. Nothing gets burnt, nothing boils over. He watches each delicate mixture, with a skill and deft that only a seasoned professional can accomplish. There is only one problem, that busy cook is you, and that stove is your life. Bear with me.
Your life is a 4 burner stove in a busy restaurant kitchen. Hot and with high emotion each gas burner is an area, or domain of your life, you must balance. Your burners are as follows: Your self, your family, your job, and your friends. Spend too much time tending one and you lose track of the other pots and pans. We try so hard in our adult life to tend each fire, spend time with our loved ones, maintain our relationships with our spouse, give our all at work. But at what cost? What are you leaving out? In life there simply, always is, a trade off.
My guess is you achieve balance by giving up the burner, that is you. In the back, there is a small low saucepan, that is yourself. It is a simple pan, and with a few ingredients, it can really shine. That’s your secret. You neglect to take care of your self, to take time out of your busy day to work on you. When you do finally get in some me time, you feel guilty. You work, you love, you do, but you forget to- "not" do. You must stop to survey the entire stove from time to time to see the bigger picture of how the meal is progressing.
You must take time to make your life healthy, happy, and worth living. Leave time for yourself. Pick up a hobby, or an activity, that is entirely satisfying, to only you. Sit at work and do nothing if that makes you tick. Make a slow cup of coffee, sit and enjoy it. Feel ok about not always being busy. Know that somewhere, sometime, a pot will not get stirred, a dish might fail, and your stove might get messy. Be ok without the balance everyone tells you, you must achieve.
The picture above is me trying to re-balance my life, to stir the pot inside myself. My hobby in photography has allowed me to disconnect with the other areas of my life and re-connect with my sense of self. I took this photo on a warm fall afternoon, school had started to become more difficult and I needed quiet escape. I grabbed my camera, went down to the park, just to walk and not be seen, to think, and maybe shoot a picture or two. I thought about my life and how dammed busy I had become, and I wondered what I had lost. I cleared my head, and hung out over the water looking for fall leaves.
“Everyone Wants to Feel Important."
In 1936, a man by the name of Dale Carnegie published a book titled How to Win Friends and Influence People. The book would go on to change the world and influence not only its readers, but anyone met by its minions. Today, it is still a popular book read by millions wishing to makes sales, climb the corporate ladder, or simply understand people. The ideas contained in the text are incredibly powerful and should only be used for good. Many also believe the book single-handedly crushed the value of introverts and told the world that extroverts were clearly the better hire in a culture that values money above everything else.
The book- for me, at least- explained a small, curious corner of my life that was un-explainable. I had always had trouble understanding why people did what they did, and how they made the large and small decisions that defined their lives. It was always puzzling to me how people operated. The book resonated with me and helped me understand a very valuable point that I had always been missing about people: "Everybody wants to feel important.” Over and over in the book, Mr. Carnegie gives examples and antidotes about people wanting to feel special, feel loved, and just be important.
The drive to feel important and belong is one of the strongest desires we, as humans, have. Often throughout my day I repeat the phrase- "everyone wants to feel important." It explains why a student comes in and just goes right into talking about himself and what he did, and holds your attention for as long as he can. I smile and listen because I know he needs that moment. The saying perfectly explains adults on Facebook, how we want to explain who we are, get love, and have people know us. Facebook shows who we want others to see. I believe Facebook is 99% fake; I blame myself as well. We post what we “want and need" people to see. We try so hard to pound the square peg into the round hole; we desire only to fit. We are simply trying to feel important.
Here is a shot of a farmer from Weedsport who was selling potatoes at the Farmers' Market in Syracuse. I took Brad out on a shoot to focus our attention on people and the art of street photography. I noticed him because the box truck behind him created the perfect frame, his blue green eyes and soft gentle features made him stand out. We asked about him and his farm. He seemed to have no ego about himself. However, it must have made him feel good to know that someone cared about the hard work he does, day in and day out, not just how cheap his potatoes are. Maybe he wanted to feel important that day, or maybe he was just being nice- either way, he let me have my picture.
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.
Our first urbex stop was a bust so we stopped at this abandoned car dealership today.
Click the images to enlarge them.
"The winter of my discontent" is how I should frame this story, because that’s the capital “T" truth. I was living in Oswego in a small, barely heated, basement apartment. I thought I was going to freeze to death, and used every burner on the electric range as my fireplace. My friends had all moved home, or gotten lives and there I was- alone- in a sterile, unfinished apartment that used to be a computer store. After teaching, I would return home to the same plain white walls as my classroom, cold from the bluish tint of florescent lights. I was commuting everyday in brutal snowstorms, to Liverpool, and some-what teaching. I say some-what teaching because it was survival, plain and simple. The teacher part was killing me. I was imprisoned in a small room with four desks, thirty kids, no books, no tools, no supplies. Basically, all the things a Technology Education teacher needs to survive.. I had none. The best part was that I student taught the exact same group of kids a few months earlier, but now I did not have the soft, warm protection of the master teacher. I was fresh meat and they smelled the blood. The kids hated me, and I was starting to think they were right and I was wrong. I screamed, I pleaded, I guilted, but mostly I was ashamed. Forty minutes later the cycle would repeat. It wasn’t that I didn’t try, but teaching was the first thing in my life that didn’t work by thinking it through and working hard. Every other problem in my life I steamrolled by either ingenuity or sheer volume of hard work. Neither worked. I learned my first hard lesson: you can’t manipulate the human condition.
The day this picture was taken was the bottom of a series of events that reached the depths of all I had. I had thanked God for the snow day, as hours earlier I had decided that if something didn’t happen soon I was going to have to make a change. The scariest moment in your life is real clarity without options, and I got all I needed that morning. We had received a huge amount of snowfall overnight and there was so much snow the piles were above the roof of my truck. The family next door woke me with their snowblower, and I grabbed a shovel and a camera to capture the ridiculous amount of snow we had. As I stood there admiring my shoveling job the neighbors dog walked over and stared up at me, peering into my soul. He lingered, staring up at me, and I snapped this picture. If you look close enough you can see a reflection of me in 2004, in his eyes.
I’m not sure what he saw, or what he understood from looking at me. But minutes later the sun came out, and my life slowly started to change. Shortly after, I moved to Liverpool, got a personal trainer, and connected with some friends. I always think back to that day, to that dog, and wonder why he needed to see me hit the bottom, why he needed to see it in my eyes to be sure. I’m not sure I received any guidance that day, but I definitely knew someone was watching out for me.
LeMoyne Manor was one of those explores that is right under your nose as you're searching the internet for abandoned buildings. I had driven by it every single day, dropping my daughter off at daycare. So glad Jordan and I got to tour the building a few times before it came down.
The property was steeped in history. Built as a mansion by the famous architect Ward Wellington Ward in 1916 it was a beautiful property overlooking the lake. Later it became a banquet hall and motel where many people in CNY had their wedding. In the 1990's the property also served as a halfway house for recovering drug and alcohol addicts. Plans for the space include retail and luxury apartments starting in 2019.
Scroll down for more images.
I tend to go on a lot of tangents, and lately, maybe it's my age but I have been listening to and reading a lot of philosophy. Whether it be Alan Watts, Wayne Dyer, or Bucky Fuller I am fully engrossed into it now in my life. Why at this point in my life am I falling down this rabbit hole is a whole other story.
The kicker is, and maybe this is just my own glasses I am viewing the work through, but they all seem to have the same message. I keep getting the same lesson.
The big idea said many ways is:
1. The universe is rigged in your favor.
2. The universe is conspiring to fulfill your wishes.
3. Stop trying so hard and just let it happen.
So this brings me to this set of photographs. I went down to the city to continue my Syracuse street project and I decided that instead of hunting for street photos I would fish for them. This involves finding a cool scene or location and waiting for interesting people to walk through it. This is definitely different than the way I typically do street photography, where I typically hunt for images by walking many blocks looking for interesting things to photograph.
I found a cool scene with a set of stairs and sun peeking down the alley just to the south of the courthouse. I set up on a small bench and just waited with my camera. The problem was everybody who was coming through the scene was taking a ramp down instead of the stairs I wanted them too.
As I sat longer, I started to give up. I checked my watch. But in my mind this idea that the universe was rigged in my favor kept coming back to me. So I gave it more time.
About the time I said, "OK I will give it five more minutes and I will move on," a national grid truck pulled up onto the sidewalk blocking the other ramp, even going to so far as to put cones up. It was magic! Now people were forced down my set of stairs and I sat there shooting pictures every few moments in glorious succession.
So here are the photos from that outing and a few more to explain the space. I threw a few others in from the day at the end of this series.
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