Hey, I’m the Featured Member for August 2015 – Los Angeles Center of Photography

Santa Monica, California

This month I am the featured member in the Member Gallery at the Los Angeles Center of Photography website. My gallery displays a 20-image portfolio of my street work from the past three years. As I choose this set of images, I was looking for those of which I was most proud of with a consistent feel. I was not looking for images from a single place or time, so it is all the more interesting to examine some of the characteristics of this set.

Of the 20 images, 10 are from Los Angeles taken on various trips to Downtown, Santa Monica, and Beverly Hills. 5 of these are from a 3-day stretch of intensive shooting downtown that I did earlier this year for a book project with John Free.

Flowers and DogDowntown LA with John Free

2 images are from workshop intensives, with Jay Maisel and Sam Abell. During these workshops, you are challenged each day you to make 5 images for the next day’s workshop critique. These two images mark, for me, a breakthrough in thinking.

New York, NYNew York City with Jay Maisel

Whidbey Island, WAWhidbey Island with Sam Abell

The remaining 8 images are from the various travel trips I have started to do in the last few years. The images are from Havana Cuba, Oaxaca Mexico, Lisbon Portugal, and Dublin Ireland, but none of are particularly “travel” images.

Of the 20 images, all but 1, was taken with a micro-four-thirds mirror less camera as I ditched my dSLR sometime in late 2012.

One of the earliest images in the collection, from 2012, was taken in Beverly Hills. I was out for a couple hour photo walk with a good friend and my husband. It was a nothing special day with a nothing special agenda, but my mind had been freshly implanted with the teachings and matras from Jay Maisel’s: “you are responsible for every millimeter of the frame”, “show me the rip in the fabric”, “light-color-gesture”. This image was my only keeper of the day, but what a keeper it was. It will be a permanent member of my top 20 street photographs.

Beverly Hills, CABeverly Hills with Jerry Weber

The most recent images, one is featured at the top of this page, are from Santa Monica Beach and represents all that I am working to achieve now in my photography: walking into the scene to create deeply layered images capturing the full figure and the context behind while carefully managing the juxtapositions between the image elements.

Enjoy my portfolio gallery at the Los Angeles Center of Photography website. And I can’t help but plug and upcoming guest lecture workshop “Sharpening your Photographic Vision” with Sam Abell. The lecture is Dec 3, 2015with the workshop Dec 4–6, 2015.

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An open Thank You to Sam Abell

Take 1

Take 2

It’s been a couple of weeks now since my class Sam Abell at the Pacific Northwest Art School and I’ve yet to thank him fully. It was quite a class, quite a week, quite a challenge.

First I need to get one thing out of the way. Do not expect to produce your best, most exceptional, work during a week-long intensive with a master photographer. A great image is the result of the alignment of many things including – clarity of vision, mastery of technique, acute awareness of composition, and opportunity. Master classes, on the other hand, push you beyond your current notion of vision, challenge your technical abilities, increase your awareness of your compositional sloppiness, and enforce mandatory daily picture taking.

The routine for this class was quite similar to the workshop I took with Jay Maisel – and I suspect a common formula (now that I have two under my belt). The first day was spent with an introduction by Sam’s to his approach to photography and his personal message to us to become 24-hour photographers. Take pictures of everything. “If you want to make fine photographs, make fine snapshots”. He urged us to keep a diary camera and to practice photography by journaling our daily lives and taking images of everything around us. I am trying to take that to heart and will have more on this approach in the future.

Regarding what I learned at the workshop. The core of Sam’s photography is his process and approach to composition. The phrase “compose and wait” is a central notion but only scratches the surface of the full concept. The goal of his process is to create rich layered images with a place for everything and everything in its place. In a previous blog post, A Lesson with Sam Abell – Micro-Composition, I wrote about a session I had with Sam at Santa Monica Beach where he gave me a first-hand illustration of the technique. In this workshop I was able to take these concepts further. On the first day he relayed story to us of a conversation he had with one of his colleagues. After some discussion, his colleague pronounced that Sams photography wasn’t about micro composition, it was about nano-composition. Macro, micro, or nano composition, Sam’s process for layering an image and putting things in their places is one that not only serves him well, but one that has taken my photography to a new level. He talked about his process as one that can take you past “reductive” photography – the technique of reducing and simplifying to create order and focus – to the creation of richer more complex images that have the same sense of ease to the viewer. He confessed that for years he pursued the reductive notion but ultimately realized that complex photographs are richer, but so much harder.

Through daily discussion and critique, he shared with us several combination genres which he pursues to create these richer photographs:

  • Still life with a life – start with a still life, but find some life to moving through it.
  • Still life attached to a landscape – a still life in a landscape setting
  • Portrait attached to a landscape – a portrait in a landscape setting
  • Whole world photography – capturing a big full scene, but with each element in its place

When Sam talks about elements and line in a photograph, he refers to them as poetic, as in “look at the poetry of the profile of these buildings on the horizon” or “the poetic line formed by the reflection of a sailboat mast”.

The most amazing part of the workshop was during the critique sessions where I observed Sam’s ability observe and evaluate an image with the speed and accuracy of a bullet. Without missing a single detail, he sees everything in it within seconds. I asked him about his process. His answer was revealing. “I just look at it as if it was in my view finder.” How simple, yet how elusive to most of us.

I spent much of the week searching for opportunity, not quite knowing what to say with my camera, what poem to write. Whidbey Island is a quiet town. Quiet towns make quiet pictures and it took much of the week for me to reconcile this and to look for the quiet moments. I present here a couple of quiet moments on the ferry between Whidbey Island and Port Townsend. This couple, with their careful dress and demeanor, represents the presence and intentionality that Sam teaches us to bring to our photography.

Thank you Sam for your open and thoughtful week. Thank you for sharing your knowledge. Thank you for your insight and wisdom. And thank you for pushing me beyond.

One of those Complicated Images

Day of the Dead

My first serious photography workshop, with a master photographer, was one year ago this weekend – Sam Abell‘s workshop at the Julia Dean Workshops. And this week, I attended his talk, a prelude, to this years workshop.

The workshop was called something like “Refining your Photographic Vision” but it could have been called almost anything. The workshop was Sam teaching us his system of photography. His system of compose and wait, macro and micro composition, composing from the back to the front. His system which he developed over the course of his career to make compelling documentary images worthy of the pages of National Geographic.

Only three days, 36 hours,  my first workshop, my first explosive step toward a goal of understanding what is means to be a photographer. What I take away now, a year later, is that Sam’s is a system for how to make complex, layered images that express a sense of place with nothing out of place.

He said in his talk this week that the 28mm lens was his favorite go-to lens, that working with a longer focal length was “too easy”. Indeed – making simple graphic images is one challenge, making complex layered images simple is challenge at another level completely.

This image is the kind of image I want to make, and I recognize that there are several unsuccessful items in this image. Until I can make a better one, this is the one I will display.

By the way, the first installment of The Sam Abell Library is available for preorder. It is unbelievably affordable at $50 for a 4-book set. There will be 4 sets total, release one per year. Here is what is says on Amazon:

Sam Abell (born 1945) is one of America’s most influential documentary photographers, celebrated in particular for his in-depth color photo-essays for National Geographic magazine. He has also made a considerable impact as a teacher and author. Abell’s career is now the subject of The Sam Abell Library, a new publication project from Radius inaugurated with this volume–the first in a series of four multi-volume sets. Each of these sets is themed around a particular genre: the photography of places; the photography of nature; the photography of the past; and the photography of ideas. Essays by Abell appear in all of the books. In Life and Still Life, Abell explores three different cultures: Newfoundland; Hagi, Japan; and Northern Australia. This first boxed set also includes a fourth book with an illustrated essay by writer and curator Leah Bendavid-Val examining Abell’s evolution as an artist.

Bringing Creativity back to the Local Camera Club

About 4 years ago I became seriously involved in my local camera club. I joined for the camaraderie and exposure to the local professional photographers that the club would bring in for our monthly critiques. I surely learned a lot from these sessions but as I became bolder in my own personal expression, I also became increasingly discontented with small-world views surrounding our critique and competition.

Photography clubs are notorious for their preoccupation with competition. Anonymous competition, often thinly veiled as critique, is attractive to clubs because it provides a quantitative method to evaluate, and therefore rank, a large set of images across disparate genres in a very short amount of time. Members feel good when validated with a high score and no harm done for those nameless photographers whose images don’t fare so well. Consistently, photographers who play it safe with eye-pleasing landscapes, horizons aligned to the rule of thirds, or perfect floral specimens, are rewarded with top honors. Those who present unusual images which challenge the norms or present uncomfortable subjects are often dismissed.

For anyone who knows me, following the norm is not my comfort zone. I’m more comfortable with challenging images of decay and issolation at the Salton Sea or a triptych of well worn inner-city pay phones with directions for calling home to Mexica. Yes, my discontentment was due to that fact that it was my images that were so often dismissed. My images that presented a different view of world and were outside the comfort zone of the standard “rules” for photography. It was my images that could not find a charitable home in the hearts or heads of our local portrait and landscape photographers, who themselves are judged by producing work that sells and wins their own competitions.

So I set out to broaden my inputs by working with some of the great photographers of our time. Either I would learn that my photography truly sucked or I would find out that is was my audience that needed some education.

My journey started by dipping my toe into the warm waters and attending a 3-day workshop with Sam Abell, a 30 year National Geographic photographer. Sam’s documentary work is exemplary and he has not one, but two, images in National Geographic’s top 100 images collection. Sam’s approach emphasizes composition and layering – “compose and wait”. His concept of layering are the basis of every single image he makes. Even with all his emphasis on composition, not once during the 3 days did Sam ever mention anything about any typical “compositional rules” I’d heard at the club.

If my first step was a dip of the toe, my next step was a dive into the deep end spending a week with Jay Maisel in New York. Jay is one of the most generous, most confident, most unabashedly honest men you will ever meet. Jay’s workshop revolves around lecture, shooting, critique, and food. This week is about teaching you to be a photographer. Each day you turn in five images from the day before. Each day you get your chance to show your command over “every millimeter of the frame”. Jay evaluates your image based on the journey it takes him on. Sometimes you fail: “This image takes me on a journey that I could care less about.” Other times you succeed: “Did you realize it was good when you took this?” Rule of thirds, leading lines – he couldn’t care less.

My most recent stop was attending a “Vancouver Gathering” with David DuChemin. David has been digging deep, teaching and writing on the concepts surrounding photographic vision for years. In addition, David has an approach for reading an image which forces you to really look into how an image is put together to determine how it tells its story. He calls it Photographically Speaking and you can get his book by the same name. With three days of talking about photography you would think we would discuss the “rules” – nope!

It is now 12 months later. My year consisted of three workshops, 20,000 images, and the study of at least 20 photography monographs. No doubt, my head is a-jumble with ideas that will take years for me to master. My conclusion, however, is that my photography is coming along just fine but my environment for evaluation needs to change. I am at a fork in the road. Do I dump my local camera club or do I set out to change it?

At this point in my story, I must disclose that I am the President of that local camera club that has so disillusioned me. So it is my work to start the change, to move the needle, to instill a drive for creativity over conformance. Late last week my new ideas for the club the were presented to the general membership and all indications are that they will be approved at our next meeting.

Although the new format still includes competition (three per year), in between we will focus on creativity, sharing, and each of us building up our own set of photographic discriminators. Anonymous critique will be replaced with dialog between the local professional and the photographer. The professionals will be banned from saying whether they “like” or “dislike” an image. This will make some uncomfortable, both the invited professional and the member, as they will be forced to find the words to explore the image rather than their emotional reaction to it. “Assigned topics” will be replaced with “Creative Play” to be shared without the thread of criticism or critique. I will measure my success by the number of Creative Play entries, the depth of images entered into the Competition meetings, and the quality of discussion.

Even though I am just a fledgling myself, I have taken the challenge to invite those around me to explore their own creative flight. I have proven to myself many times over that teaching is the best path to learning. Wish me luck. I’ll keep you all posted.

The Life of a Photograph

Tennis

Tennis

Tennis

Tennis

I’m taking a few days off work and instead of my usual eat-breakfast-at-work-while-processing-email routine, I sat down for my mid-summer breakfast of peaches and yogurt with a recently purchased copy of the book: Fred Herzog: Photographs.

Fred Herzog worked professionally as a medical photographer but his personal work concentrated on capturing the street life of Vancouver. While reading the introductory material my mind began to wander. Fred Herzog had taken over 100,000 images of Vancouver over the course of time since 1953. I was wondering how Herzog determined what to include in this collection.

This thought was triggered by a couple of my nagging to-do items: developing a presentation of my work for the Ojai Photo Club and constructing a portfolio for review by David DuChemin for a visit in October.

I tend to make my images in short bursts of activity. The results are often a collection of short series of works, bound together by place or time. Often there are two or more images which are equally strong, showing single subject from different perspectives. However, there are not enough images, created over a long enough period of time, to create a real collection and I have a difficultly choosing exactly which image to show. I believe that the strength of story spans across images and not any single image.

It was while working out these ideas that I experienced a break-through moment for thinking about how to present my work.

About a year ago, I was introduced to the photography of Sam Abell, a veteran National Geographic Photographer. In Sam Abell’s book, The Life of a Photograph, he annotates the images with short notes discussing his photographic thinking. In many instances he presents two or more images side-by-side to show different visual approaches to the scene. In the book’s introduction he writes:

“Life rarely presents fully finished photographs. An image evolves, often from a single strand of visual interest” and he goes on to say, “Sometimes there is more than one finished photograph.”

This is his notion of the life of a photograph. The process of starting with “a single strand of visual interest” and developing that into one or more finished photographs.

It was this concept that I finally understood and say distinctly in my work. Through a seemingly random chain-reaction of thoughts, over peaches and yogurt, I was able to shed-light on my proclivity for creating small series of images and my weakness in editing down to the one single standout.

A lesson with Sam Abell – Micro-composition

Recently I took a workshop called “Sharpening your Photographic Vision” with Sam Abell, a veteran National Geographic photographer, at the Julia Dean Photo Workshops studio. This lesson is about macro-composition and micro-composition.

Sam and I were walking up the beach when we saw the curved boardwalk winding through the sand. I commented that it might make a good macro-composition. Sam was teaching us to find the macro-composition, the overall composition and lighting, and then fit a subject inside with, what he calls the micro-composition. On the macro-composition, he would tell us to mind the corners and make them strong. On the micro-composition it was all about find a clean space for all the elements. He would call the macro-composition “The Setup”.

The Setup

So Sam helped me frame up the macro-composition, using the path to create strong corners and we took a few shots comparing our ideas. He then agreed to be my subject and took deliberate walk down the path. But Sam knew something I did not. Sam knew that this composition would not work. There was no space for the micro-composition. No space for the subject to fit within the scene.

First Series

As you see in this sequence, there are only two reasonably strong frames: the first and the last. In the first frame, Sam just simply overpowers the scene behind. Unfortunately, to keep his head, and really just his hat, above the commotion of the roller coaster, I had to cut off his feet. The last frame is interesting because, however small, it shows Sam cleanly composed against the green fence. I needed to find a macro-composition that would allow room for my subject while they were still strong in the frame.

Second Setup

I shifted to a new position a few steps to the right. I was still using the background and the strength of the pathway into the corners, but this time I had room for the subject to move through the image. Sam walked again. The outcome was more successful but now illustrated that I had left too much space for the subject and also inadvertently cut off the edge of the trash barrel and the edge of the roller coaster. Note however, the clean composition around Sam and each trash barrel. This is the micro-composition.

Final Setup – macro-composition and micro-composition in balance

The final positiong produced our objective. With just a slight modification of my position, I achieved a clean background of sky, roller coaster, trash barrels and path. There is a good balance between the space for the subject to walk and the presence of the background. Moreover, look at how the shadow fits within the frame. The micro-composition fits Sam just right in between both the two large trashcans and the two smaller ones.

Thank you Sam for your patience and lesson.

Pigeons on 12th and Maple – On Composition

Pigeons on 12th and Maple
Pigeons on 12th and Maple by I Nancy, on Flickr

Last weekend I took a workshop from Sam Abell. It was entitled “Sharpening your Photographic Vision”, or something like that, but it was really all about composition. This man is a master of composition. He talks of macro composition and micro composition. Background and layers. He also talks about approaches to get these kinds of images to happen.

Here we had just arrived on our morning location at 12th and Maple in downtown LA. Of course we all saw the 200 or so pigeons on the wires above us. Sam’s words – compose and wait – find the background and then wait for the subject to come to you, miracles happen.

From time-to-time, the pigeons were coming into the street, so I found the orange background got down and waited for the birds to do something interesting. The street merchant threw rice in the gutter, the pigeons came down to eat, the van entered the intersection, the pigeons exploded, and a man rode through dressed in black wearing a hat.

In this image I achieved a deeply layered composition. We have the pigeons in front with all of their movement and flurry. A background of orange with the street patterns adding more visual interest. A “V” in the front of the image and the diagonals complete the macro-composition. In the micro-composition is the 12th St street sign – free from obstruction, its blue color standing out against the rest of the background,  the van which looks like it is bursting through the intersection, and the man riding through.

Miracles happen.