This One is About Me

This one is about me. This winter, in fact since mid-summer, I have been experiencing a sort of existential crisis concerning myself as an artist. I attended a workshop in July that was a pretty negative experience, a  disaster really, mostly having to do with the instructor. I partially blame myself as well for the careless way in which I chose the workshop. Not surprisingly, I did meet several very talented and creative photographers at the workshop, but I found the dynamic fostered by the instructor pretty much sucked the life out of most of us. Possibly because of this experience, I realized in the early winter that, with the exception of one studio shoot, I felt completely blocked artistically. I think the experience of that summer workshop was a kind of message from my subconscious that I needed to take this more seriously. 

So now as I slowly come out into the light in fits and starts, I am realizing that there is a reason that the phrase 'personal work' contains that adjective; it needs to be personal. It can't be done FOR someone else; that's client work. Nor can it be LIKE someone else's work.

Selfie - probably around 1968

Selfie - probably around 1968

I started my photographic journey before I was even in high school. I was enamored with the work of Penn, Avedon, Ansel Adams, and others of that era. But I was also attracted to 'the process' of making photographs. I was sloppy and careless with my process then, as I was with everything else as a kid, including my schoolwork. But I also recall the enthusiasm and abandon with which I set out to make photographs. I thought that Penn and Adams were about the process too, which to an extent they clearly were. But over time I have come to realize of late that the photographs that they made were about themselves as well. I think the idea that Ansel Adams' work is thought to have been simply about technical perfection of its day, and nothing more, engenders replication that is technically accurate, but lacks the artist himself.

My Father - late 1970s

My Father - late 1970s

My Mother and Father - late 1970s

My Mother and Father - late 1970s

My life as a photographer was on hiatus for much of my life as I pursued two other careers. I don't regret any of it. In fact, sometimes I wonder what kind of photographer I would be now had I been a commercial photographer for those 30-plus years. Re-creating my photographer 'self' as digital photography became real caused me to lose sight of my old 'self' and that old process for a while. I immersed myself in the new technology, including learning to use lighting, much of which either didn't exist or was far beyond my abilities to afford in the early 70s. Once again, it became all about the process. A couple of years ago I started to use film again, first sending my film to a lab, then buying a couple of larger format cameras and developing the film myself. It was still about the process. The process of shooting film though came with a lot of deja vu moments, causing me to think a lot about what my 15-year-old-self was thinking, and feeling. 

New Hampshire, probably around 1970

New Hampshire, probably around 1970

Somewhere near my house - probably around 1970

Somewhere near my house - probably around 1970

Over the last year or so though this process-based photography has been feeling pretty hollow. I need to do more than just make technically good photographs. Probably not surprisingly, over this time I have been trying to make them less so; low-light, grainy images, paper negatives; maybe as a way to shake things up.

Double exposed paper negative - January 2018

Double exposed paper negative - January 2018

If you are my client, the good news is that I am basically a "pleaser". I am sure that it has something to do with my upbringing in a conservative Catholic family and 12 years of parochial school. Layer that on top of an inherently introverted personality and that makes for someone who does not like to disappoint. I will always strive to give my clients what they are looking for. But my personal work has to say something about myself. It's an ongoing project and definitely has it's ups and downs, good days and bad (ask my wife), but I need to feel that the work that I make has substance and meaning for me and that it says what I want it to say.

A few more of my photographs, probably from the early 1970s


People at Work - Part 11 - Make Things Happen

I have know multi-talented artist Glenn Szegedy for a couple of years, having photographed some of his work for his portfolio. I only recently asked him to pose for a portrait though, after wanting to ask him for some time. Things get in the way. Time passes. I have found that I need to make myself go out and flip some bits on the digital sensor occasionally and not just sit on the merits (or lack) of what I have shot in the past. It's important for me to make things happen and not wait for them to occur, because they probably won't.

I wanted to photograph Glenn in his studio because it really provides an ideal background visually, and it reflects Glenn's way of working and maybe his style. He seemed to want to straighten up, but I wanted to capture his working world just as I found it.

Artist Glenn SzegedyYou can see Glenn's work here:
You can also visit him at Western Avenue Studios in Lowell, Massachusetts.


The Self-Portrait (or How to Deal With a Problem Subject)

I was speaking with the amazing Anya Downing of Engage Marketing Design ( last week and we were looking over my website. Among other things, she wondered about my portrait on my Info page, commenting that it was not my usual style. Well, I told her, my son took it. Considering the subject with whom he had to work, it's a great photo, as are others from the shoot. But she was right, the photo is his style, and although he is not (yet) a studio shooter, he creates exceptional photos in his own style.

I began thinking about whether I wanted to address this self-portrait issue. I do tend to internalize most anything that is said to me and about me from someone whose opinion I value, so off I went.

Self-portraits, as most anyone will tell you, can be difficult. I find my self-portrait subject to be generally uncooperative, and I have some difficulty having him not "pose". I've tried different things...

Western Avenue Studios, Lowell, Massachusetts - 2007

Westford, Massachusetts - 2007

After using this shot (above) for a while, I did a semi-environmental portrait, in my living room (right). But after a while, my son informed me that this was not up to my usual standards. I am paraphrasing ;-)

Then there was the shot below that I created for a group art show in Lowell. I think I would call this a self-portraits [sic].

Western Avenue Studios, Lowell, Massachusetts - 2009

Or there is always the action shot...

Western Avenue Studios, Lowell, Massachusetts - 2010

So yesterday, I needed to do a shot of my studio for another purpose, and I decided to put myself into the scene...

Western Avenue Studios, Lowell, Massachusetts - 2010

Ok. So what would I do for some other middle-aged guy who wears jeans and has no delusions about looking anything like George Clooney... Simple. I'd go with dramatic lighting, black background, no props, no chair, little to no retouch.

An Artistic Voice

Color, light, shadow and texture. The elusive harmony of form and composition. A look, a laugh, or a moment that draws you in. These are the things that compel me. This is why I create images.

I wrote this recently in an attempt to describe how I feel about what I do. What made me think of this was that I had recently photographed a young actor and college student and was trying to come up with a reason to show them off. She and I will be doing some conventional  actor headshots for her portfolio, but I also asked her to be a subject for my ongoing Merrimack Valley People portrait project, and those are the shots shown here. In mulling  over today's blog I encountered another blog, entitled "Your Artistic Voice - Do You Have One?", which you can read here.

I hope I have a vision and a distinctive style, or as the blog describes, "that work [that] couldn’t possibly have been done by anyone else". I also hope that my short statement at the opening of this post accurately describes it. The other article also says that a style comes from "life experience and mastery of material". In my life, both of these things are works-in-progress. I think if one ever considers either of those things complete, the game is over. If there's no learning going on, things get old pretty quickly, both in terms of the work product and the activity of creating it. One of the things that I like the most about doing a project like this is the ability to experiment, both artistically and in terms of that "mastery of material". I've seen web videos of photographers who tell their audiences that one light goes here, the other one here, and a hair light goes over there, and how they use a length of string to check the distance of each light from their subject so that their setup is identical each time. All together now: yawnnnnnnnnnnnn ..... Even in the studio, where I can control everything, I normally breakdown the equipment after each shoot so that no such boring thing will occur.

Color, light, shadow and texture. The elusive harmony of form and composition. A look, a laugh, or a moment that draws you in.

Whatever I am seeking when I shoot, even if it is something that I've done many times,  if I am not stretching, at least in some dimension, I am not growing and am not giving everything I have to my artistic voice. In a commercial photographic setting, the client may think, and verbalize, that they "just want" <fill-in-the-blank>, but giving them something more than that is what differentiates and what results in an artistic vision.


The Creative Process - A Constant State of Agitation

If you're like me, you enjoy the times when things are happening; those times when things are getting done and when you are creating things. But if you are really like me, you also have a tendency to look ahead to the quiet times that follow the storm. A little of this is OK, but I think being creative and productive, and interesting to others requires us to be in a constant state of agitation. We need to be thinking of what to do next, how to create, how to do something better than the last thing that we did, and how to continuously reinvent ourselves. That restlessness is what drives the creative process.

It's a little like brewing beer. Huh? Well, when beer is brewed, the wort (pronounced like dirt), which is the mixture of grains, hops and water, is inactive until the yeast is "pitched" into it. Soon after this happens, the wort becomes very active and "agitated". My analogy is about to breakdown here because the Lowell City Councilor Franky Descoteauxcreative process doesn't involve turning sugar into alcohol, but never mind :-)  My point is, the introduction of that yeast causes some pretty violent agitation which, in turn, results in the creation of beer. Very productive indeed! Without the introduction of that yeast, no beer will result. In fact, the inactive wort will turn into something very nasty after a few days.

OK, so my analogy is a little out there, but I can feel the pulls in my own life that cause me to be creative and productive, or not. We all have times when we are doing things that we don't want to do and wish them to be done with. But don't wish away the good stuff. And don't avoid the chaos. Put yourself into challenging positions and places. It really took me a long time to get the confidence to ask people if they would pose for me, for no other reason than that I wanted to create a portrait of them. People almost never refuse. People are not going to come to you to create something for them until you create a body of work that demonstrates your ability to do so. You craft that by putting yourself out there, by challenging yourself, by getting restless, by thinking about the next thing to create. As tempting as it can be to be complacent and satisfied with your work to this point, don't. Pitch that yeast.

One of These Things is Not Like The Other...

One of These Things is Not Like The of these things is not the same (Apologies to Sesame Street!)  This bit was always a favorite at my house when my son was little. But I was thinking this morning about photography (there's a shock), and how applicable this verse is. When we get started creating photographs the normal path to learning the art is to focus on technique and to imitate and emulate the masters. When I was a teenager my parents bought that great Time-Life book series on photography for me. I remember waiting anxiously for each edition to arrive and would get inspired by every page. The contemporary photographers at that time had a huge influence on me. My mind is still firmly rooted in the look of images created by Arnold Newman, Pete Turner, Irving Penn and Richard Avedon. But there's a time when you need to be yourself. Imitation, emulation and outright copying are fine for a while, but whatever your art may be it has, at some point, to stand out from the crowd; to be unlike the others.

I read a blog recently in which the writer interviewed Set Godin about his latest book ( This quote sort of jumped up and demanded notice:

    Seth: When everyone has a camera, and everyone thinks they are a photographic artist, it’s clear that access to the device is not a scarce resource. If that’s all you’ve got, I’m not going to pay you. The art isn’t in the taking of the picture. The art is in what you do the other 21 hours in a day.

    If you don’t like that, you should become an amateur and do what you love, but don’t expect to get paid for it!

Independent portrait photographers who are consistently creating images that could be mistaken for those from a retail studio should take notice. Of course there are always clients who want a basic, "school picture day" portrait, but even there, it's really important to raise that bar. If some potential client is comparing a handful of photographers and, absent any referrals to or prior knowledge about them, they all present the same style and quality, and one is the Mall retail portrait store, then the only thing these photographers have to differentiate themselves is price and possibly location. Google the portrait store at your local Mall and you will come to a very quick conclusion as to which one wins on price. In fact, lowering your price will not even help, unless you make it $0. If this sounds familiar you are selling a commodity. Wikipedia, (which knows all :-), defines commodity as "some good for which there is demand, but which is supplied without qualitative differentiation across a market. It is fungible, i.e. the same no matter who produces it." Sound familiar?

Seth Godin goes on to say:
    Seth: Stop looking for more business! The most important thing is to reinvent what it is you sell and to overwhelm your current clients with the experience they encounter when they engage you. This is what word of mouth will come from. Not from better photos, not from a better brochure, not from a cheaper price.

I am not sure that I agree with him concerning "better photos", both because I think that is ultimately where you differentiate yourself, but also because I feel he is contradicting his earlier statement. But if he means better photos, technically, I would agree, at least to a degree. In some future blog I will go on a rant about photo gear and its relationship to great photos (or lack of a relationship...), but I would interpret "better photos" to mean all aspects of your portfolio, including your vision, body of work, consistency and style, and in that case I feel that it matters a lot. But bringing that experience with which you will overwhelm a client, along with your vision and uniqueness is really what will make potential clients want to hire you. If you are the same as everyone else, nothing will do that; not even price.

The Portrait Conversation

Melissa said that she was nervous. I couldn't tell. But we talked about all kinds of things as I arranged lights and modifiers. Melissa works in health care, and her friend Matthew, who came with her to the shoot, works on a sustainable farming project, so we had lots to talk about. She even asked about me, which was really nice, so for a while we talked about music and photography. I was hoping that her nervousness had dissipated by this point, and I was happy to hear her say a little while into it that she was enjoying the shoot.

I think sometimes that a subject's nervousness is actually excitement. Excitement about the event, the process and the whole idea of being literally and figuratively, the focus of attention for that short time.

There are times when you get a chance to photograph someone who is really excited to be photographed. I think this was the case that evening because in these shots of Melissa her personality and beauty just jump out at you. When I do studio shoots like this I rarely photograph two people the same way. After we interact for a while, I start to develop a direction in my mind of the way in which I want the shoot to go and how to capture that person in images. With Melissa, I knew somehow that I just wanted a simple, almost monochrome theme, and that I was working with someone with whom I could use relatively hard light, and would absolutely glow, contrasting with the starkness of the scene in a really significant way.

Keeping the Headshot Fresh

Like it or not, we all change. Change is a part of life. Change is good...right? Well, in any event, it also means that images of ourselves that we show to the world, which are meant to represent ourselves as we are today, need to be updated periodically. We've all seen the business headshot or talent headshot that was either shot in a style that looks dated now or that features the subject at their ideal age - however long ago that might have been. I don't exclude myself from this category! Recently, I had my son, who is a very talented photographer, photograph me for my web site, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc. I feel that professional photos of ourselves are an essential part of building an online personality. You can see my new images by checking out any of these sites. Please do! :-) The buttons are to your right.

Last week, one of my favorite Boston area actresses, Kristin Smith, asked me to do just such an update of her acting headshots. She wanted an outdoor setting, so we dodged the raindrops and braved the unbelievable black fly onslaught to get some great stuff. I haven't retouched these headshots, but clearly Kristin needs no improvement!

Now when I say "professional", please don't equate that with "formal", or "school-picture-day" style. While a certain style is often dictated by the usage that you foresee for a portrait, in many contexts, you and your photographer should feel free... be creative! These photos of Kristin are actor headshots, and therefore do need to have a certain look. But they can always have beautiful backgrounds, colors and lighting. Seamless background paper is easy and fairly fool-proof, but there are certainly more interesting ways to handle headshots. When you have your corporate or acting headshot done, definitely get the prerequisite style of shot done. But also try to do several different looks, backgrounds, outfits, and if possible, venues.