the photoshooter's journey from taking to making





EVERY PHOTOGRAPH REMOVES SOMETHING from its original context, extracting it from its proper place in the world at large. In the act of placing things in a frame, the photographer excludes whatever else once surrounded that thing, so that, in the final result, a vast valley is reduced to one tree in one part of one meadow. Our mind stipulates to the supporting reality of whatever was extracted, and we either approve or disapprove of the shooter’s arbitrary editorial choice in composing the frame.

And so pictures often annihilate an object’s “origin story”, since we can’t often search them to view what something “came from”. Objects in a photograph merely are, with little obvious evidence of what they used to be. Sometimes that means that, when we do see where something originated, a picture of it can seem exotic or strange. And, as photographers, we can train ourselves to find that one view of a thing that has been, in effect, under-explored.

1/125 sec., f/5.6, ISO 100, 24mm.

In the above picture, something that we tend to think of as being organically “born” in a natural setting (i.e., a cactus)  is shown being deliberately farmed within a controlled environment (i.e., a greenhouse). It looks a little wrong, a bit strange…..certainly not typical. And yet, an interesting picture can be made from the scene, simply because we never see a cactus’ origin story, given that most photographs don’t select that story within their frames. This picture really doesn’t display its information in an original fashion: it’s the thing, in this particular context, that makes the photograph seem novel.

As always, the choices made inside and outside the frame of a photograph set the narrative for it. It’s therefore the most important choice a photographer can make.



1/1250 sec., f/5, ISO 100, 55mm.


PHOTOGRAPHY SHOULD ALWAYS OPERATE, at least to some extent, as a cultural mile marker, a chronicle of what time has taken away, a scrapbook of vanishings and extinctions. We make records. We bear witness. We take pictures of the comings and the goings.

One of the things that has been going, since the coming of the permanent, Disneyeque theme parks, those sanitized domains of well-regulated recreation, is the great American carnival, in all its gaudy and ever so slightly dodgy glory. Loud, crude and exotically disreputable, these neon and canvas gypsy camps of guilty pleasure once sprang up in fields and vacant lots across the nation, laden with the delicious allure of original sin, that is, if the first apple of Eden had been dipped in shiny red candy. We came, we saw, whe rode, we ate, we clicked off millions of snapshots on our Kodak Brownies.

1/125 sec., f/5, ISO 100, 165mm.

The thing that made it all so magical was geography. Unlike Seven Flags or Cedar Point, the carnival came to us. Like the circus, the carnival was coming to your town, just down your block. That meant that your drab streets were transformed into wonderlands in the few hours it took for the roustabouts to assemble their gigantic erector sets into rickety Ferris wheels and Tilt-a-Whirls. And then there was the faint whiff of danger, with rides that made dads ask “is this thing safe?” and crews that made moms repeat horrific tales of what happens to Little Children Who Talk To Strangers.

It was heaven.

1/250 sec., f/5.6, ISO 100, 35mm.

The images seen here are a partial return to that sketchy paradise, with the arrival in my neighborhood, this week of a carnival in an area that hasn’t hosted one in well over a decade. It’s almost as if Professor Marvel just ballooned in from Oz, or Doc and Marty had suddenly materialized in the DeLorean. It’s that weird. Four days in, and I’m there with a different lens each time, sopping up as much trashy delight as I can before the entire mirage folds and all our lives return to, God help us, normal. Photographs are never a substitute for reality, any more than a hoof print is a horse. But when dreams re-appear, however fleetingly, well past their historical sell-by date, well, I’ll settle for a few swiftly stolen souvenirs.






MORE INK HAS BEEN POURED OUT about Henri Cartier-Bresson’s  notion of “the decisive moment” than perhaps any other chunk of photographic philosophy ever hashed out between honest brokers. HCB’s assertion was, essentially, that there is a single, ideal instant in which a picture of something will be, like an apple, perfect for the plucking. Miss that moment, and all is lost.

While some applaud this theory as holy scripture, others dismiss it with a vulgar reference to bovine by-products. All well and good. Everyone needs to evolve a belief system that drives their personal photographic vision. The important thing is to evolve something.

Personally, while I don’t believe there is only a single moment that will make an image immortal, I also don’t think that just any moment you choose to freeze an event is as good as every other moment. Conditions, timing and decisions matter in the making of a picture, and, when they intersect, the magic happens.

Backstage, 2018. 1/400 sec., f/5.6, ISO 100, 35mm

So the number of “decisive moments” for an event, for me, would number about three. Think of them as acts in a play, each act performing a distinct element in a dramatic story. Act One shows things that are about to happen: a nearly blooming blossom: the minutes before street lights are turned on for the evening. Act Two depicts something that is in the process of occurring: candles on a cake being blown out: a pistol shot. And Act Three shows where things have now completed. A concert crowd leaves the theatre: a dog snoozes after a long day of play.

The image seen here can potentially be an example of any of the three acts. Are the backstage props being spread out in anticipation of a show? Is the performance, unseen from this angle, being given right now? Or have the stage hands already begun to strike the tents and gather everything up before moving the players on to the next town? All three interpretations are of specific places in time. And all can be “decisive moments” when the right bond between photographer and viewer is established.





JUST BECAUSE SOMETHING IS GLIB OR SIMPLE doesn’t mean it’s not true. We tire of people’s pet platitudes because saying things like “get a good night’s sleep” or “honesty is the best policy” seems too easy, as if the wisdom contained in these time-worn axioms must have dried up years ago. So when I tell you something extremely “well, duh!” about photography, it won’t sound wise or profound. It will sound like something any simpleton knows. Obvious. Goes without saying. And yet..

So, here’s my one immutable truth about making pictures:

Get enough light, and you will have solved 99% of any problems that bedevil your photos.

There’ll be a brief pause here for the crowd to collectively roll its eyes.

And before we proceed further, I’m speaking primarily of natural, organic, comes-through-the-window-like-God’s-gift-to-the-world light. Most of what you do with artificial light has to do with compensating and correcting for the fundamental wrongness of the stuff. Yes, I know you have an incredible flash set-up. I don’t care.

Buy the most voraciously lighthungry lenses you can afford.

Light is the only factor in photography that determines the efficacy of every other factor. Every major advancement in the design of lenses, recording media, and camera mechanics has been made for the sole purpose of gathering and utilizing more of it. Light alone can control how a subject is modeled, highlighted, presented. Get enough of it, and you shoot faster and simpler. Learn to shape it and you also learn how to create drama, to compose, to characterize things in precisely the way your mind has visualized them.

Light controls texture. It makes a shot either muted or loud. It can create the sensation of any moment of the day or night. It directs the eye. It makes bad lenses better and good lenses great. And, speaking of lenses, the best money you can spend on any lens, anywhere, is on how fast, how light-hungry it is. All other functions of high-tech optics aren’t worth a bucket of spit if the things can’t deliver lots of light in a hurry. Forget about chromatic aberration, vignetting and all the other headaches associated with glass: get enough light and you’re halfway home.

Most importantly, light is the only element in photography that is literally its own subject. A wonderful image can be of light, about light, because of light. So before you get good at anything else in the making of pictures, learn to gather light efficiently, mold it to your will, and serve it. Every other boat in your optical harbor will be lifted in the process.


Downtown Superior, Arizona, February, 2018


LIKE MANY TOWNS in the American southwest, Superior, Arizona sprung up in the nineteenth century primarily to get people close to something promising that Nature had already parked in the local dirt. So long as that something gushed up, flashed in a prospector’s pan or helped light or heat something, the towns flourished….. boomed, as the term goes.

Until they didn’t.

In the case of Superior (2010 census population 2,837), the silver that anchored the locals to the grim crags of the Superstitions mountain range tumbled in value when the metal lost its status as the backing for the American dollar in 1893. Fortunately, Superior had a second act, rebounding with the discovery of copper in the same area where silver had been mined. And then, of course, Hollywood came calling, seeking a visual taste of the Real Old West. Superior rose yet again, standing in for yesteryear in the films How The West Was Won, Blind Justice, and The Gauntlet, among many others. And the beat goes on; as recently as the 1990’s, yet another copper mining company hooked Superior up to yet one more source of life support. And how’s your hometown?

Saturday afternoon in Superior: everyone dance.

Even so, a photographer looking to take Superior’s pulse in the twenty-teens is well advised to look a little deeper than the shopworn storefronts of the main street, heavy with thrift shops and antique stores but also alive with hot pastels and the twang of Saturday afternoon dance music, complete with Stetsons and cold longnecks. The town is rusty and dusty down to its toenails, pressed up against gritty stone peaks, but it is still brave at the corners of its mouth. As a place that is “a fur piece” from Phoenix and a hoot and a holler from Globe, Superior is more mile marker than actual destination, but it is still standing, still smiling for the camera.

And, who knows, things could change.

They always have before….





IT SEEMS ODD to hear someone refer to part of their photographic output as “abstract”… if the rest of their work somehow isn’t. I guess it depends on what you believe the word ” abstract” means, as well as what is meant by other words like, say, “reality”. For me , the whole discussion seems overthought. To my mind, all photography, all art is “abstract”.

To abstract something is to extract it from its original context, to re-frame it, take it from one form and paste it into another. And there is no way not to do that with a photograph. We don’t show reality. We show shards, fragments, selectively sliced slivers of time. Even if we take great care to take a no-frills, documentary approach to the recording of an image, once we click the shutter, we have abstracted that moment from reality, making an editorial choice to pluck away this instant versus all others.

One way to illustrate this process is to consider the image at the top of the page, which represents a virtually endless chain of abstraction. Thinking backwards from this photo of a museum exhibit:

In the beginning, God creates man, an abstraction of himself. Then Michelangelo creates an abstraction of God (and a lot of other Biblical superstars) by depicting Him in the act of creation, even as he (the painter) is also abstracting representations of the Creator’s creatures. Centuries later, art historians take selective pictures of Michelangelo’s massive abstractions on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, abstracting them further by using selected excerpts as book illustrations. Inspired by those books, curators in Manhattan create an exhibit honoring Michelangelo’s ceiling by reproducing it as a miniature, assembling a replica composed of dozens of backlit transparencies suspended over  guests at the Metropolitan museum in an artificial abstraction of the original Sistine frescoes. Finally, using a selective-focus art lens in 2017, I abstract those same guests to blobby smears of color and make editorial choices about which single panel in the faux-ceiling exhibit to shoot in sharp focus, thus hinting that it’s somehow more important than all the others.

Photographs snatch away parts of the real. To use a camera is to abstract that reality. Every snap of the shutter is a calculation of choice. Therefore choose wisely.




I AM NEVER TRULY COMFORTABLE working with a camera that isn’t physically locked onto my eye. Shooting without a viewfinder was, for me, perhaps the hardest part of gradually embracing cel photography, and continues to be a control issue that still inclines me toward my Nikons most of the time. Part of it, I freely admit, is mere sentimental habit……maybe even, who knows, superstition?…..and yet when I’m crammed up against that little square of glass, I feel as if I’m “really” taking a picture.

That’s why it’s really a rare bird for me to “shoot from the hip” with a DSLR, to try to sneak a street candid without my camera anywhere near my face at all, holding the thing at mid-chest or waist level or even squeezing off a frame while it’s hanging from my shoulder. If the opportunity is literally too juicy to resist, and if looking like a (gasp) photographer will spook my quarry (or get a Coke thrown in my face), well, then, desperate times call for desperate measures.

I arrived at such a “desperate times” moment the other day by being caught out with the wrong lens. I had thought that I would be spending my afternoon at a horse show inside barns and stables, indicating a wide-angle to open up cramped spaces, so I packed a 24mm to go wide but keep distortion to a minimum. Once Marian and I arrived at the event, however, she got interested in an arena competition, and so in we went. Now I’m taking big shots of a cavernous hall punctuated by long lines of little tiny horses. If a rider lopes directly in front of my seat, I can almost make out his face. Otherwise I’m zoomless and story-less. Can we go home now?

I hear a husky female drawl off to the left.

“Jus’ let her walk, Annie. She wants to walk.”

Turns out the voice belongs to a spangled matron with a Texas twang sharp enough to chop cheddar, herself apparently just off the competition track and now shouting guidelines to another woman in the field. I immediately fall in love with this woman, hypnotized by her  steely stare, her no-nonsense focus, and the fact that, unlike the far-away formations of horses directly in front of me, she is a story. A story I need to capture.

But any visible sign of guy-with-a-camera will ruin it all. I will swing into the range of her peripheral vision. Her concentration will break. Worse, the change in her face will make the story all about the intrusive jerk six feet away. And so I hug the camera to the middle of my chest, the lens turned generally in her direction. Of course I have no reliable way to compose the shot, so I spend the next several minutes shooting high, low, losing her completely in the frame, checking results after every click, and finally settling on the image you see here, which, despite my “calculations” for a level horizon, looks a bit like a shot from the old Batman tv series. Holy carsickness.

Strangely, shooting at actual horses (at least with the glass I brung) was telling me nothing about horse culture. But the lady with the spangly blouse and Stetson got me there. It’s literally her beat, and I was grateful to, yes, sneak a glimpse at it.




BIRTHDAYS. Glibly speaking, ya can’t live without ’em.

Thing is, after a while they don’t come alone. More and more, they show up accompanied by echoes. Ghosts. Remains and remnants. And the guest lists of Things That Were that trundle alongside all those birthdays often focus on buildings, structures that are barometers of where we started out and where we wound up.

The image above was taken within days of this year’s natal anniversary, and put me in mind of one of the most eloquent musings ever on the subject of loss from singersongwriter Judy CollinsLooking at this sad, sagging house, I could clearly hear her singing:

My grandmother’s house is still there, but it isn’t the same

A plain wooden cottage, a patch of brown lawn

And a fence that hangs standing and sighing in the Seattle rain

I drive by with strangers and wish they could see what I see

A tangle of summer birds flying in sunlight

A forest of lilies, an orchard of apricot trees

Secret gardens of the heart

Where the flowers bloom forever

I see you shining through the night

In the ice and snow of winter





THE BEST THEATRES ARE LIKE THE GREATEST PHOTOGRAPHIC STUDIOS, in that they are, occasionally, both the physical place where great things are staged and great things in and of themselves. They are distinctive in that, years after they house miracles, some of the magic seems to linger in the air, as if it’s imbedded in the very bricks. To see the room where Richard Avedon created key touchstones of twentieth-century culture is, for some, to see more than the room itself. And to see a grand painted lady of the theatrical world is, likewise, to breathe in a rich perfume of opening nights and ovations. And to be allowed to use one medium’s eye to capture another medium’s mystery is a gift, a privilege.

The Schubert Theatre, its arches and catwalks peopled by the ghosts of glories past.

New York’s Schubert Theatre qualifies, to my eye, as sacred space, the imperial nexus between ambition and triumph that has witnessed plenty of both since opening its doors with a production of Hamlet on October 2, 1913. The Schubert, like many of the theatre district’s  most venerable venues, is rich in architectural grandeur but modest of scale, seating only 1,460. However, within that compact space, a century’s worth of peerless talent has rolled up the grandest roster of winners in all of Broadway history, still boasting the all-time record run with 6,137 performances of A Chorus Line, which graced the Schubert’s stage for an astonishing fifteen years. Hits not only come first to the Schubert: they come to stay, with multiple-year champs like Crazy For You, Chicago, and Spamalot carrying on the tradition of The Philadelphia Story, Pal Joey, Kiss Me, Kate, ByeBye, Birdie, Oliver!, and the 2017 revival of Hello, Dolly!, which set the all-time box office record for the place.

So, how to photograph the theatre of theatres? For my first attempt, a dark exposure to deepen the classic red of the main curtain, paired with a soft-focus foray into the molded plaster figures and light fixtures flanking the side boxes….a dreamy look designed to summon forth blythe spirits. Because, while you can put up four pieces of sheet rock and call the results a theatre, some studios, some stages ring with their own life, long after the last hurrah has faded, and trying to capture that echo in a box can be the greatest show in town.






I WOULD ARGUE that most of the photographs commonly referred to as “self-portraits” are anything but. The tidal wave of daily images in which the photographer is also the subject are, in the main, merely our own cheery faces stamped onto whatever locale we choose as background. They are certainly recordings of us, but seldom much more. Portraiture, as painters came to use the word, is intended to penetrate, to comment, to reveal. Selfies testify that we were here: self-portraits attempt to explain why it matters.

Taking one’s image is not merely about putting up an endless string of publicity releases to reaffirm to the world that we’re still happy, healthy and young. It shouldn’t merely be the latest opportunity to display our most practiced social masks. That’s not revelation: that’s camouflage.

I’m no less vain than the next person. I would love every photograph taken of me, by myself or others, to be flattering. But the photographer in me insists upon more: I need also to make images that show me as uncertain, bloated, fearful, tentative, even alienated from my own internal idea of how I appear outwardly. Moreover, I need to monitor the distance between that surface and what I feel, or, in the words of the old Steve Winwood song, when I am but a stranger to myself. No brave face, no “smile for the camera” can do that.

I’m not comfortable with image you see here. I chose selective focus and monochrome for it because I feel that way at present, just as my expression is one of someone in a transition, and a rather awkward one at that. I don’t mind grinning for a snapshot, certainly. But a portrait should intend something different. And it’s okay if, on any given day, I don’t feel like pretending that life has is one big endless party. We are all the world’s foremost authorities on who we genuinely are. Our photography should endeavor to give testimony to that truth.


The future: In the grand atrium at Vancouver’s public library (opened in 1995).


THE BUILDING YOU SEE HERE may not, on first glance, match your sensory memory of what a “public library” is supposed to look like. However, step into this amazing complex on West Georgia Street in Vancouver and you will certainly see, from every angle of its curvy vastness, the public….buzzing away at research, cozying next to comfy reads in cafes, tucked away in private warrens of study and solitude.

The venerable past: the mezzanine at the central branch of the Metropolitan Library in Columbus, Ohio (opened in 1907).

One of photography’s functions is to chronicle the public space that mankind creates, and how it occupies that space. And visually, there can be no greater illustration of the changes in how that space is defined than in the architectural evolution of public libraries. More than mere warehouses for books, libraries were the first common gathering places in our young republic, no less important than legislatures or marketplaces. Indeed, we built many libraries to be brick and mortar celebrations of learning, grand, soaring temples to thought, arrayed in oak clusters, dizzying vaults, sprawling staircases, and mottoes of the masters, wrought in alabaster and marble. To see these spaces today is to feel the aspiration, the ambitious reach inside every volume within the stacks of these palaces.

The library, in the twenty-first century, is an institution struggling to find its next best iteration, as books share the search for knowledge with a buffet of competing platforms. That evolution of purpose is now spelled out in new kinds of public space, and the photographer is charged with witnessing their birth, just as he witnessed the digging of the subways or the upward surge of the skyscraper. New paths to fortune are being erected within the provocative wings of our New Libraries. Their shapes may seem foreign, but their aim is familiar: to create a haven for the mind and a shelter for the heart.

There are legends to be written here, and some of them will be written with light…..






YOU CAN’T BEGIN TO WRITE THE STORY OF PHOTOGRAPHY without acknowledging the role of the fortunate accident in the output of, well, everyone. Anyone who says he’s never been handed a rose from Lady Luck from time to time is either delusional or a dead-on liar. If we admit that chance occasionally turns our best plans to piddle, why not admit that we also randomly wind up in the winner’s circle on a free pass?

Here’s my freebie for probably the rest of this year, as I can’t see the triple crown of incidentals, accidentals and dumb luck converging as they did here anytime soon. Let’s look at the recipe in detail:

1: Accidentals. While walking along the edge of a footbridge alongside Tempe Town Lake in Arizona, I spooked a small flock of birds resting out of sight just beneath my feet. I heard them flee before I saw them head into open water.

2. Incidentals. For reasons I still can’t fathom, the birds did not take to the air, as you might expect, but escaped across the water, creating gorgeously trailing coils of ripples as they went. That slowed everything down enough that my startled synapses rebooted and started to shout, get your camera up to your eye. That led me to the one element that made the crucial difference, known to us all as:

3. Dumb Luck. After a lens change, I had walked almost a mile from my car when I realized that I had forgotten to slap on a polarizing filter, making shots across water in the sun of an Arizona midday almost guaranteed to saturated with glare. I had already improvised a crude hack my taking off my clip-on sunglasses and holding them in front of my lens. This had only intermittently worked, since I either left part of the field of view uncovered, or failed to hold the specs at the right angle, incurring wild variances in polarizing. As soon as my animal brain realized that I had one shot before my bird water ballet was out of reach, I had to frame, focus (I was already at f/8, so there was some help there), and get the sunglasses in position without deforming all that blue. Even at that, there’s quite a difference between the rendering of color in various parts of the frame.

What you see here, then, is the photo goddesses throwing me a bone. A big bone. We’re talking the rear haunch of a triceratops.

But, yeah, I’ll take it.





I no longer believe that there is such a thing as objectivity. Everyone has a point of view. Some people call it style. But what we’re really talking about is the guts of a photograph. When you trust your point of view, that’s when you start taking pictures.

                                                                                                  Annie Leibovitz

NONE OF MY FAVORITE PHOTOGRAPHERS are primarily technicians. Certainly I value the basic mastery required to extract the best mechanical performance out of one’s camera, but I don’t think that a lack of such knowledge necessarily dooms a picture. I do, however, believe that no lens on earth can compensate for a deficiency of mindfulness in the photographer. I cite Annie Leibovitz here because I believe she deftly walks the creative tightrope between an essential understanding of how photography works and a poetic gift for finding how it works for her. She knows her gear as much as is necessary: she knows her heart as much as is possible.

On a shoot, once I’ve established that the camera is on and the lens cap is off, I endeavor to disconnect with the gear and re-connect with the twelve-year-old who first gasped as he gazed through a viewfinder. That kid knew that everything was possible. More precisely, he didn’t know enough to realize what wasn’t possible, and so blithely proceeded to try it all. His older brother (me) wants to point out that the light is wrong, that he packed the wrong lens, and that, maybe, he just doesn’t actually know how to make the picture. Worse yet, he might know just enough to worry that his work won’t register with others. The twelve-year-old doesn’t care.

My photo gods are all people who know all the things that can go wrong with a shot and take the shot anyway. They are not waiting for their moment. They are jumping out of the plane and trusting the chute to open. More to the point, they are trusting themselves.

“I still have a very limited knowledge of the technical side of photography”, Linda McCartney wrote in 1992, looking back upon her amazing body of documentary work in the rock demimonde of the ’60’s. “I prefer to work by trial and error because some of my best pictures have come precisely because I didn’t know enough. By having the “wrong” setting, I’ve actually come up with something good….”




VAN LINES USED TO GIVE OUT SMALL GRIDDED PAPER SQUARES that prospective customers could use as room diagrams for the planning of their next homes. The fancier versions even came with pre-cut geometric shapes that you could place on the squares, to see if the couch would look good next to the settee, or whether the piano should go along the north wall. It was like paper dolls for easy chairs and coffee tables.

I recall those squares whenever I’m trying to photographically visualize the optimum composition of large spaces, especially if I’m lucky enough to do so from an elevated spot. Immense rooms start to look like rectangles within rectangles, squares butted up against other squares. Dividing lines between action and dead space begin to appear. Cropping parameters suggest one scheme, then argue for another. With enough time, a kind of strategy emerges for what should go where, much like those intricate battle maps used to illustrate the engagements in Ken Burns’ The Civil War.

One square, or an assembly of squares?

The balance of “live” and “dead” space in public gathering places (like the museum seen here) has to carefully organized, since both kinds of space have their own special narrative power, and can intrude on each other if not orchestrated. In the above image, it’s almost as if the active roles by the tourists on the right ought to be contained, in order to avoid disturbing the abstract patterns on the left. A different method might also see the entire outer frame as a series of smaller squares and rectangles, just as a chessboard is a square composed of an infinite number of lesser squares. Depends on your eye.

Composition, if done at leisure rather than haste, is a negotiation, a bargaining session in which every inch of photographic real estate must earn its place in the final picture. It’d be glib to merely say “there’s no right answer”, but, if you look at images resulting from certain choices, it becomes apparent that such a statement cannot be true. Right will feel right. Wrong will always feel like you put the piano in front of the picture window. Not horrible… but not correct, either.




10 pm the night before: a time exposure made exclusively with “Supermoon” light.


I NEARLY MISSED OUT. Early last evening, my wife spied an internet article on the imminent arrival of what could only be called an astronomical trifecta, a moon which, for the first time since 1866 would qualify as a wow in three distinct cosmological categories, as an oversized, or “super” moon, a lunar eclipse, and an orange-red “blood moon”, seen to fullest effect in America’s western states.

Hey, I live in one of those……

I’ll be out in the driveway, honey. For, oh, I dunno, a while….

The first, or supermoon phase of the trifecta I had experienced several times before: lunar light strong enough to read by, with time exposures of three minutes, or even less, retrieving a full range of natural color in everything from orange roof tiles to blue skies…..hours after sunset. That’s what you see up top. A manual 35mm lens (the shutter remote won’t work with autofocus, anyway), an aperture of f/5.6 for fair depth of field,  and the flat top of a mailbox for a makeshift tripod and, bingo, it looks like early dusk instead of 10pm.

The second phase had to wait for the early hours of this morning, at which time various web accounts predicted the earth would interpose itself perfectly between the sun and the moon, causing a crescent-shaped shadow to crawl up the orb from the bottom, giving it a deep red-orange glow beginning at around 6:15am (which in an Arizona winter, is still pre-dawn).

6:15am the morning of: predawn view of the “Bloodmoon”.

As with dusk the night before, the sky, appearing black to the naked eye, would reveal a lot of blue in a time-exposure taken just before sun-up, so I elected to make the moon a small part of an overall composition instead of an isolated solo superstar. I have plenty of textured zoom shots of the moon: what interests me in such special cases is the light and hue of it in context. In this case, fifteen seconds wide open at f/2 was enough to get the major bits to register. Still too lazy to find my tripod, I subbed a folding stepladder. A matter of five minutes’ work.

I certainly plan to be around in 2037 when another “Super Blue Moon/ Bloodmoon/Lunar Eclipse appears, but in years past I also have planned to retain all my hair and teeth, and the jury’s still out on that particular quest. In the meantime, all of life is littered with wonder, so, as the old pop song sez, pick up your hat, lock up your flat, get out, get under the moon







PHOTOGRAPHERS ARE FREQUENTLY ASKED to define a “bad” picture, or, more specifically, the worst picture they themselves ever shot. The question is a bit of a logic trap, though, since it typically tricks us into naming something that failed because the subject was moribund, or because we mis-read the light, the aperture, the composition. The trap further reasons that, if you have checked off all those boxes, you should end up with a great picture.

But all of that is bug wash. What makes a picture bad is when you were not ready to take it….. but you took it anyway.

Sometimes the problem is ignorance:  you simply aren’t old or wise enough to know what to do with the subject. Other times, you have substantial barriers between you and an effective story, but you try to drill past what you can’t fix. And, you can no doubt add your own list of things that, ahead of the shutter click, should scream, “not now”. Try to make the picture before either the conditions or you (usually you) are right, and you lose. Just as I lost, in great big neon letters, with the mess you at above left.

In 2016, I visited the Old Manse in Concord, Massachusetts, a venerable colonial-era home which sits right next to the small footbridge that served as the site of the first major battle of the Revolutionary War. What excited me most, however, was that it had served as a temporary home for the young Ralph Waldo Emerson, and that he had written Nature, the first of his great works, while living there. And to really put the cherry on the sundae, the house still contains the small writing desk he used to do it.

The house is lit only with indirect window light during the day, but with a fast prime lens and a decent eye, there’s more than enough soft illumination to work with to produce decent results (see left). In fact, just before my tour was to head into the room containing the desk, I had already harvested quite a few usable shots…so many, in fact, that I was getting teased by the others in the group…the usual “oh, another picture?” stuff. Uncharacteristically, I began to worry about whether I was holding everyone else up, and thus started to hurry myself, to shoot not as I intended, but in deference to what I thought others would like. By the time I got to Emerson’s chair, the light, my lens, even my own experience were all useless to me….because I wasn’t ready to shoot….but did anyway.

And so you behold the unholy mess that resulted: lousy contrast, uneven exposure, muddy texture (is the chair made out of wood or Play-Doh?), tons of noise, indifferent angle, and, oh yeah, garbage focus. Worse yet, the psyche I’d put upon myself was so severe that I didn’t slow down for a more considered re-do. No, I rejoined the group like a polite little camper, and left without what I had come for.

And that is all on me, and thus an important entry in The Normal Eye, an ongoing chronicle which is designed to emphasize personal choice and responsibility in photography, versus just hoping well-designed machines will compensate for our lack of concept or intention. This is not easy. This is ha It’s no fun realizing that what went wrong with an image was us.

But it’s a valuable thing to own. And to act upon.





HUMANS HAVE A DEFINITE ANTHROPOMORPHIC BIAS when it comes to faces. From dancing Disney flowers to Pixar office lamps, we tend to project our features onto nearly every kind of object or entity. And, as a photographer, I fall prey to that selfsame bias, especially when it comes to making pictures of buildings.

It’s isn’t much of a stretch, really. Windows become eyes. Doors assume the role of both noses and mouths. Overhangs and pitched rooves take on the appearance of eyebrows. And so on. For a variety of reasons, I tend to position houses in the same way I might shoot the most basic human portrait. Eyes facing straight toward the camera, face centered in the shot. No arty angles, no three quarter views. As clinical as a mug shot, or, in architectural terms, the plainspoken exposition of Walker Evans’ studies of houses and businesses in days of the New Deal.

And, like the aforementioned mug shot, I tend to frame the picture as close as I dare without sacrificing either context or impact. Again, the human face is the template, with the same decisions to be made about cropping. Do you need the top of the hair, the width of both ears? Should the shot stop at the bottom of the chin? Below the shoulders? Does any surrounding information add to the selling of the picture?

Does the traditional rectangular framing of the house in the top shot feel roomy, or merely loose? Is the square re-cropping of the same image, seen just overhead,  simplified, or cramped? If the front of a building truly has the same potential impact as that of a face, it would follow that a building study might benefit from the same compositional criteria.  That means that, like a face, a building has to earn every inch it occupies within the frame.







PHOTOGRAPHING CROWDS IS SOMEWHAT AKIN to using one’s camera to track a billowing cloud of soap suds. The shape of the mass shifts constantly, roiling this way and that, presenting the shooter with an ever-evolving range of choices. Is this the shape that delivers the story? Or does this arrangement of shapes do it?

And is just the size of the overall crowd the main visual message….with the perfect picture merely showing  a giant jumble of bodies? Plenty of great images have been made that convey a narrative with just mass or scale. But throngs are also collections of individuals. Can’t a compelling tale also be told focusing on the particular?

When shooting any large gathering, be it a festival, a party or a demonstration, I am torn between the spectacle of the “cast of thousands” type shot and the tinier stories to be had at the personal level. In the shot seen below, I was following a parade, actually behind the traditional approach to such an event. What arrested my attention from this vantage point was the printed shawl of the woman directly ahead of me. The graphic on the shawl had been seen on other flags and banners in the march, but, billowing in the breeze on her back, the print became a kind of uniform for the march… a theme, a face all its own.

Sometimes a face in the crowd has no face.

In this context, I didn’t need to see the actual expressions of the marchers: there was enough information in their body language, especially if I composed to place the woman at the center of the shot, as if she were the leader. That was enough. The actual march boasted thousands, but I didn’t need to show them all. The essence of everyone’s intentions could be shown by the assemblage of small parts.

Some crowd photographs speak loudly by showing the sheer volume of participants on hand. Others show us the special energies of individuals. Neither approach is universally sufficient, and you’ll have to see which is better for the narrative you’re trying to relate in a particular moment.



Pull Up A Chair (2018)


THE CONCEPT OF THE  STILLLIFE is one of the most malleable in all of photography. Pore over enough image anthologies and you’ll see the term applied to every type of conglomeration of objects. Scale doesn’t matter, nor do either complexity or simplicity.

Story, however, does.

Annie Liebowitz’ massive shot of the cluttered interior of singer Pete Seeger’s workshop, jammed with tools, scraps and other glorious geegaws, forms a rich phantom portrait of the absent master. On the other end of the spectrum, the simple, classic bowl of fruit can suggest a time, a mood, and a place, all within the space of a few square inches. A still life is most eloquent when it implies existences without actually showing them. There is a life in these things. The photographer leaves behind clues as to whose.

I tend to feel the presence of people in empty rooms. I’m not saying I see apparitions of dead folks. The sensation is more like what I imagine Sherlock Holmes might experience when initially arriving upon a crime scene. To the great fictional sleuth, all rooms fairly scream out their stories: every stick of furniture, every scrap of food, every scattered book testifies in some way. Of course, photographs eventually prove that there is no such thing in nature as an “empty room”. Human activity leaves an after-image: we don’t scrub a place of evidence just because we physically leave it. Effective still-lifes recover part of that ethereal data.

It’s a great exercise in minimalism to see how little you need to show in a still life of a room and still suggest a narrative. It’s not necessary to tell the entire story. You need only pique your viewer’s curiosity as to what might have happened, or what the potential plot line of the scene could be. Photography, after all, is an interpretive art, and only a percentage of a place’s “reality” ever makes it into the frame. A still life, from Pete’s workshop to the bowl of fruit, is all about extrapolating from the seen to the unseen. If you’re lucky, someone outside yourself will see what you see.

Or……don’t see.







CONSIDER: MANY OF THE PHOTOGRAPHIC EFFECTS MOST DEARLY PRIZED by today’s edgier shooters actually have their roots in the shortcomings inherent in the techniques of the medium’s first years. That is, the artifacts produced in early photos (the blotches, streaks and smears that visually betrayed the limits of a particular era’s technology, from bad film emulsions to flawed lenses) are being sought out and deliberately inserted back into contemporary images, almost as if they confer some kind of authenticity on the final results. We came this far only to pretend that we haven’t moved at all.

There’s nothing to be gained by trying to figure out why we struggle to remove certain glitches from pictures in one age only to revere them in another. Fact is that many of us occasionally crave that “old timey” look, and so the very thing that once annoyed us as a defect becomes, later on, desired as an effect.

Halation, once an artifact of film processes, now can be achieved with special lenses.

Halation, or the soft, glowing aura around bright areas in an image (imagine the diffused appearance of street lamps in a thick fog) was originally an unwanted look that happened when light would go through sensitized film, then reflect off a surface behind it (say the inside back of the camera body) and bounce back through the film a second time. This so-called “light scatter” would appear as an ethereal haze around the brighter objects in the picture, almost like a halo around the head of a saint. Halo—Halation. Annoying defect if you don’t want it. Subtly dreamy effect if you do.

The “accidental” part of halation was addressed ages ago by adding inhibiting agents to film and matte surfaces to camera bodies. The “intentional”part has been added back in artificially, either with the use of layers in Photoshop, or with Lensbabys or other “art” lenses intentionally designed to render the effect (as seen in the above image). This kind of reverse-engineering, the process of “putting the scratches back into the record”, of restoring the very things we once rejected, is increasingly common in the post-digital era, as we still long for analog experiences, even, it seems, the imperfect ones.



%d bloggers like this: