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Sunday, 24 April 2011


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The reason I make photographs—well, one of the reasons, but an important one—is precisely that it forces me to do things I wouldn't otherwise do. I'm an introvert by nature, so making portraits of strangers is pretty scary, but also exhilarating. It would be very easy for me to stay in my comfort zone, but it wouldn't be artistically fulfilling.

Dave Beckerman's really great advice for street shooters.

Nice biopsy of the shutter finger, Mike. But I always wish for more rounded explanations about how photographers get the shot. You gave us only a glimmer of how your friend photographed the bikini girls. Were they awake and just looking like they were asleep? Does she typically ask permission? Does she have an MO for when subjects freak out? If people knew more about how photographers work mentally not just in terms of gear, we'd all be braver. Sadly the stories behind the picture are typically such black-box discussions we are left thinking, "I could never do that." Please, Mike: give us more of the how, why and wherefore behind the pictures you like.

Mike, if heights bother you, or even pictures of heights, don't pick up the new issue of NatGeo. Don't even look at the cover. In fact, you're probably better off avoiding the newsagent's stand for the next month.

I think that the fact that it was another female taking the photo of the two girls helped avoid the scenario you envisioned if you were to try it. Our up tight society is more tolerant of that sort of thing from women than it is from men.

Overall though I agree with your conclusion. The subjects I choose are ones I'm comfortable with. I admire Galen Rowell's photos of rock climbers but there no way in #%() you'll ever see me doing that for the same reason that you'll never emulate Lewis Hine.

Have you ever looked at what the good rock climbing photographers have to go through (hang on to) to get their photos?


Mike, you don't suck, especially on
raising a child. Just my opinion!

We've got some family photographs taken from holidays taken in the 1970s (I'm the awkward teenage boy) on beaches in the south of France. Back then, the beaches were crowded and it seemed to be fashionable for every woman - apart from, thank the Lord, my mother - to be topless, and this historical quirk is duly recorded in the photos. I don't recall my father minding very much, but I didn't know where to look publicly, and in private was in an agony of close but covert observation.

As far as heights are concerned, I don't think you would be cut out to be an official photographer for Special Patrol Insertion and Extraction (SPIE) training with the USMC. Don't even think about searching Youtube for "SPIE Training" (but if you do here's a good example: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PmQevtwyeNk ). I did some when I took my troop for a month on an exchange with the USMC in the 1980s at Camp Lejeune, and I have to say it was the most fun I have ever had with my clothes on. Dangling with seven others 50 metres under a Sea Knight helicopter at 500 metres altitude above North Carolina. But not for everyone.

"don't pick up the new issue of NatGeo. Don't even look at the cover. In fact, you're probably better off avoiding the newsagent's stand for the next month."

I made it two minutes into the video. That's pretty good for me.



"Have you ever looked at what the good rock climbing photographers have to go through (hang on to) to get their photos?"

I just bought Glen Denny's "Yosemite in the Sixties" last week. In fact I would have used one of his pictures to illustrate this post instead of Lewis Hine's, but he has a fairly strongly-worded "do not use" warning at his site.


What a great piece. In my distant past I spent my days in a workshop (I made bows for stringed instruments) but stopped doing that partly because I hated the isolation of being on my own in a workshop.

When I took up photography I thought that the studio would be my place (repeating the same mistake). As it happens I find that I do mainly location work, which in the current climate in which a large studio can be a financial millstone, has been a blessing. I enjoy the variety too.

John Maw,
I know what you mean. I became a photographer because I'm an introvert and I thought it would help get me out of the house. So, since '94, I've been a) a magazine editor working alone in a office, and b) a blogger working alone in an office. Sigh.


Bwahahaha! :D That vision of you in a studio made me remember "the meek shall inherit the Earth (if that's ok with everyone else)". :)

Anyway, apropos your colleague, I read Harassing Photography this morning. Some of the anecdotes are plainly silly - what do comments on a photo have to do with photography? The others, yes, definitely harassing and the guys with cameras being obnoxious. The girls in the park would have certainly reacted differently to your colleague and you. You would have been an anecdote retold under a post like Harassing photography. She... I don't know.

Mark Cohen made some of the most innovative street photographs ever, getting in very tight with a short lens and flash. After numerous "encounters" with both public and police, he shot with a slightly longer lens from a distance- alas, the originality and immediacy were also lost in the exchange.

Mike, don't watch this.

Nope, I cannot watch that.

I mean I could if I HAD to, but not comfortably.


Ah, Mike, you have probably struck a chord with TOP reader.

It's sad that street photography now requires the same kind of pugnacious obstinacy previously reserved for the paparazzi, mainly because it's so hard to avoid confrontation with the police, the public or other forms of overzealous officialdom. But I digress....

Do you think one could derive a psychometric test which would help photographers decide which genre they are most suitable for? I know for sure, in my case, I would be unsuitable for many, but turning that argument around, what should I really be doing ;)


"Officer, I was just choosing my vict... er, models."

I'm always a little amused by documentary films of folks climbing mountains. The narrator goes on about the intrepid climbers braving cold and wind and what-all, and completely ignores the cameraman, who is doing the same thing with one hand, while holding and aiming a camera.

Kind of like Ginger Rogers doing the same thing as Fred Astaire, but backwards and in high heels.

I'm afraid I have a 'plus-one' for John Camp's view. I know how I shoot, and I know what my work process is for success, and the "you've got 13 minutes" thing isn't it. I don't begrudge anyone the job of taking that photo, I just know that isn't the way I want to work. Someone will always take it, tho...

I've certainly done my share of the "...ceo's got 5 minutes..." photos in the past, but the art director and I were there 2 hours earlier, I had assistants moving lights and we took pics with someone as the stand-in and agreed on the view that the art director wanted, and then, the ceo shows up and 'boom', he's in and out. But I don't know that I'd be rushing around trying to accomplish the whole thing in 13 minutes. Again, something I would demur from doing...

When I lived in DC, I was amazed at how many lousy photographs of politicians were floating around, and they were all of the "...he/she has ten minutes..." variety. I was always amazed that someone who was allegedly supposed to understand the value of their public persona, would short shrift this process; I could never figure out if it was truly that they couldn't make the time, or it was a process of arrogance and ego to 'snub' the monkey-armed-doofus photographer. I'm sure on many occasions, it was the latter, but not a smart move for someone reliant on their 'brand' image.

Not to open this can of worms, people seem always to shy away from critique and commentary (so here goes), but I think the Jimmer photo is an OK picture of a guy with a pleasant smile standing in front of a basketball hoop. With what looks like one light off to the side. This isn't a Leibowitz or Seigler, there's no back-lighting, on a dark day like that, there could have been a gelled spot on the hoop, etc.etc. maybe all stuff that could have been thought of with more time. Sure, the guy took it in 13 minutes, and you know what? It looks like a 13 minute photo. If this was a nobody in your neighborhood, it wouldn't make the portfolio cut. Not to be disrespectful in any way: maybe the 'story' here is that "hey, I got mag cover in 13 minutes against all odds", and if it's that, well, then great, but I guess those stories don't mean all that much to me, and based on the result, I don't 'get it'.

To address Mikes section title, "Some Things I Suck At", I'm more than happy to say, I suck at almost everything photographic that I can not shoot with the process I've built up to ensure imagery success; this includes all street photography, breaking news, fast moving weddings, and family snap-shots (which look like they were taken by a deranged robot whose timing circuits are off). When I read stories about Avedon, and his try at shooting street photography and at an insane asylum, and his discomfort at doing so and unwillingness to do anything uncontrolled like that again, I say: "...I hear you brother!"

Mike said:

"Re Joe Rossi, he did a nice portrait of Garrison Keillor sitting on a curving staircase wearing bright red socks. Unless I'm mixing up one or more names again."

That's Joe. He is about as good an all-around photographer as you'll find -- although if he ever sees this sequence, and gets big-heaed about me telling the top-of-the-tower story, I could easily deflate him with the bottom-of-the-cave story...(Heights don't bother him; caves did. I was the other way around.)

Joe has a gallery here:


Too often pro sports stars will only give you five minutes, and even at that they sometimes just walk away if you turn your back on them. To get even 15 minutes with one is pure luxury. This kid isn't behaving at all unusual in my experience.

Not sure if I agree with John Camp's comments about the thirteen minute limit that gets imposed on photographers by their celebrity subjects. I think this sort of thing happens all the time. David Hobby and John Harrington often harp on the fact that you often have less than ten minutes with your subject and you need to make the most of them.

Hmm, I like to make photgraphs of machinery... excavators, draglines, cars. Or empty landscapes. What does that say about me? Great writing Mike, as always.

As for the Jimmer Whatsisname shoot (is that really his name? really?) I don't think that he had much say about the length of time available - no doubt his minders, press people, guides, media reps and general hangers-on had him on a tight schedule, and 13 mins was all that was available, because he's a star now, and he has to be on the other side of town in 18 mins dammit, so 13 is all you get.

That said, I wouldn't have done the shoot either - firstly, because stars (in any field) don't impress me (he looks like a nice guy though), second, I hate rushing (and I'd be inclined to snot the minders) and third.. well, see the first paragraph above. :)

Regarding heights, Hine and the Empire State project (and a possibly pointless anecdote).

I read somewhere that Hine was swung out from the building in a specially constructed basket so he could shoot looking back at the framework and show the men in their work area, not just against a skyline - no doubt he still had to climb to the location before he got into the basket, carrying (I believe) a 4x5 Graflex and associated bits. The result is, in my opinion, one of the best records of construction work ever shot, and resulted in some memorable, nay iconic, images.

As for the anecdote.. in my day job, I'm a rigger, hooking loads up and directing the crane driver etc. On occasion, I am called on to get into a lift box with a tradesman and go up high into shovel or dragline superstructure or booms to assess damage and make repairs. One particular day, I was tasked to do this with a young chap (a welder)that I had never worked with before.

As is my usual habit, I talked to him a bit as we were putting on our safety harnesses, and asked him if he'd been up before, if he was OK with heights etc. He answered in the affirmative and seemed to be quite calm. We got into the box, clipped on and I checked it all over, then gave the crane operator the signal to lift. As soon as we got light, the young guy grabbed the edges of the basket and hung on like grim death. I stopped the basket a few feet off the ground, asked if he wanted to go back down. He shook his head (couldn't speak, I think), so I continued the lift.

I got the basket into place, a bit of a task due to the location of the suspected crack, and then tied it off to stop it wiggling around while we looked at the repair needed. The whole time, the other chap held tight and didn't say a word, or move - he hung on like a limpet to the edge of that basket. As soon as i pulled the last hitch tight, he let go of the edge and got on with his job, chatting and acting as if we were on the ground.

When the time came to leave, the scenario was repeated - as I undid the rope, he grabbed on again, and didn't let go until we were safely grounded. I only did that one job with him, so I don't know if he kept that up...

It's amazing what effect one little bit of 3/8" rope can have. (The basket, slings and rigging are good for 2 tonnes - 3/8" fibre rope is good for about 200 lbs...)

I have an old VHS tape on outdoor photography featuring Galen Rowell. There's one scene showing a pair of climbers, one older instructing one younger, getting started near the base of a steep rock, loaded with technical gear. And Galen, wearing no gear (but climbing shoes) takes a short running start and goes several feet higher, then holds on with one hand to shoot down at the pair and I can just about imagine what the student is muttering.

For my part, I hate shooting posed portraits because, much like Mike's approach to directing assistants, I hate to ask my subjects to do anything ... "just carry on and ignore me" is about right.

I think there's a lot of truth in this post, but also if I think about why I photograph, what I like to photograph, it's to capture things that I see that look interesting, and not to go out of my way to find an interesting view of something I wouldn't have otherwise seen, or to "create" a shot. So if I were at the top of a ferris wheel and saw a great shot, I'd want to take it. But I wouldn't make a task out of getting a shot of a construction worker on a skyscraper. (Obviously, I'd never be a pro). So I'm just not sure how much of it is what I don't want to do because I'm lousy at it and how much of it is what I don't want to do because it doesn't interest me. It's odd that those things coincide which makes me wonder how much of my reasoning is rationalization !

BTW, Mike, don't watch this, but others might find it interesting. A guy who's been shooting rock climbing for at least 16 years and now describes how he does it. Some terrific photos there, too. I have nothing but admiration for him.

@ Mike: "Certain portrait photographers in history seem to have been people with mild Asperger's symptoms—people who had trouble relating to other people. A portrait sitting was their way of relating, of having an encounter and maybe a conversation with a stranger in the context of a structured situation."

Spot on, Mike. Although with me it's not portraits but photos of people in social situations.

Great article, and once again, the comments rock! As for Jimmer only giving 13 minutes, he probably only HAD 13 minutes with all the demands on his time. I seriously doubt it was ego. Ego is the photographer who says "If he can only give me 13 minutes, I won't do it." It's the Michael Jordans, Peyton Mannings,and Sandra Bullocks of the world who decide how much of their time you get, not the "I'll take my camera and go home" photographer. Real pros understand that, deal with it, and get the shots their client needs anyway. Ego is for hobbyists.

Alright, I give up. Just what is Jimmer Fredette an anagram of, anyway?

Not quite sure I'd agree that landscape photography doesn't pose 'interpersonal challenges'. Last week I was on vacation, in part to go hiking and photographing in the Appalachians in Virginia and North Carolina. The first part of the week was a washout due to tornados (no, really) and high winds. The rest of the week paradoxically was problematic because the weather was too nice- boring cloudless blue skies with associated brutal contrast. I think the landscape was laughing at me. The only decent image I got all week was taken on the trip back home, when we nearly got stock on a rain-rutted dirt road in the mountains surrounded by blossoming dogwoods and redbud. Still worth it!

"Just what is Jimmer Fredette an anagram of, anyway?"

Dim Ferret Jet Me?



Re: Galen Rowell. Keep in mind that he was a Really Good Climber, for decades, in his own right. The Sierra and many other ranges all over the world are littered with his first ascents. Not just easy ticks, but difficult routes that any climber, and I mean any, would be proud to have on their resume.

Many climbers, this one included, carry cameras. Most of us aren't that good at either climbing or photography. Some get to be good at one or the other. Mr. Rowell excelled at both.

Just to put the five-minute limitation in perspective: Dali Atomicus. 28 iterations.

I disagree with John Robert's comment above...has nothing to do with anyone's ego, it has to do with understanding what you need to accomplish your job, getting the results you are known for, and sticking to it. In fact, letting people run rough-shod over your process sounds more like ego-worship by the photographer for the subject.

The alleged "real pros" attitude is what's ruined the business and created the environment for the 13 minute 'snapshot', because really, that's all it is. I'm a professional at what I do (and much farther along at my career than Jimmer), and I look at every photograph of a person from a CEO to a Sandra Bullock to the guy next door as a collaborative process.

Unfortunately, I'm not in the deli business selling ham-on-rye, and someone coming in and demanding a set of requirements on my process of photography that I'm uncomfortable with, just means I won't be taking a picture for them. There is always that person in every business that believes the customer is always right and you should never turn down a job and try to accomplish what they want. In photography, they are the people that end up producing marginal 'snap-shots,' on demand, for very little money, and they end up becoming the photographer that ends up always getting this type of assignment.

I'm sure that Sandra Bullock and Michael Jordan don't go to the car mechanic and say: "I know it takes 8 hours to rip down my transmission and rebuild it, but you're going to do it in 2 hours and it'll be done right." And I'm sure because your mechanic won't do it in 2 hours, you don't accuse him of egotism. I hate to compare businesses like auto mechanics and photographers, but seems like the minimum requirements for functionality should be the same! I remember when people used to call the studio demanding that you take a picture and give them a completed transparency in the next hour, and they couldn't understand when you tried to explain it to them that it took between 75 and 90 minutes just to get the transparency processed! You ended up just hanging up on them while they were fuming....

"Real Pros" are the people that work professionally and ensure the time and requirements are met for them to produce the type of work that builds their image as well as the clients. "Hobbyists" are the people wrecking this industry (especially since digital), who'll do anything for anybody for any money for any requirements and act the enthusiastic lap-dog, and then show their friends the marginal work they accomplished and say: "Hey, I did it in 13 minutes!"

You might actually have imposter syndrome - I know I feel that way sometimes!


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