Upon arrival to the Smithfield Street Bridge in downtown Pittsburgh, the rain had stopped and the sun began to rise…slowly, but quickly enough that time was of the essence. The color was peak and fading fast.
Scouring the bridge for a pleasing composition, I noticed a puddle on the center median of the bridge. Not being one to shy away from a precarious perch, I crossed the inbound lane of the bridge, only slightly illegally, to go play in the water. Laying on the ground in a puddle to catch a unique reflection has kind of been my thing since 2011 and I’ve only been mistaken for a homeless vagrant 7 or 8 times. In fact, as the story goes, that’s how I made my first dollar as a photographer. While walking along the North Shore, some lovely, kind soul had pity upon me, the face-down-on-the-ground-in-a-puddle photographer, and tossed a few bucks on my back so I could grab a bite to eat when I came to.
But I digress. Back to “Maze” and the near tragedy.
Crossing the traffic and dodging speeding buses was a challenge, sure. But squeezing my larger than average frame on to a smaller than average bridge median proved to almost be the end of me. Or at least my leg which was hanging off the side of the median as said incoming bus was whizzing by. ‘JP Diroll – Risking Limbs For Your Art since 2017’ has a nice ring to it, yes? Monty Python and the Holy Grail anyone?
Unfortunately for me, the tale had not yet concluded. Mr. Bus Driver that almost took off my leg must have been pretty ticked at me. Although it can’t be proven, we (myself and the two friends on the bridge with me) are 137% certain the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police received an anonymous tip from him that “5” people were hanging out on the bridge. Illegally. Uh-Oh.
Now, I’m not saying I should have been on the bridge, specifically the middle of it. I shouldn’t have. But come on, ‘5 people.’ I’m a big guy, but as big as 3 adults. Low blow Mr. Bus Driver, why you gotta be so mean?
So there it is. I did not lose a limb. I did not lose any days, hours, or even minutes as a free man. But I DID gain one hell of a photo, a slightly exaggerated story, and a lifelong memory!
2018 was another year of not getting out enough with my camera, making new but not exciting work, and feeling like I was underachieving against what I know I’m capable of. More of the same old, same old. Perhaps that is why I delayed completing my year-end wrap up until the third week of January. But that same old narrative is getting old. Really old. And when I sit down and actually review the year, I made some great photos that I’m really proud of, which I’ll summarize here. And I’ll do it briefly. Just kidding, I’m pretty wordy…but I hope you’ll bear with me. You might even see a photo or two that have never been released in to the wild. *Hint, hint* ⬇️ 😱 ⬇️
Okay, let’s jump right in. If you don’t already know, home base for me is Pittsburgh. Actually, it’s my only base. I wish I had an east coast office and a west coast office but alas….starving artist and all that jazz. Now if you remember, winter didn’t want to end last year. Ever! And most people hated that. I, on the other hand, was okay with it. Until I wasn’t. But the frozen rivers and fluffy white stuff have a way of providing an endless flurry of photo opportunities, opportunities I’m usually pretty happy to seize upon.
Perhaps my favorite part of the Endless Winter of 2018 was my incorporation of trees, snow, and the skyline. I never want to have a “thing” or something that defines my work, but if I did, my “thing” would be mixing nature and Pittsburgh. And winter is a great time to do this.
But the wintry photos were not only isolated to the confines of the city. I also took to nature to find snowy trees. There’s just something about a barren, lonely tree, maybe even stationed on the crest of a ridge against a backdrop of featureless sky that sings to me. Throw in some snow that accents the rhythm of every branch and you have a ballad worth singing out loud. In the car. By yourself.
And while we are on the subject of trees (#iliketrees – if you know, you know. If you don’t, just ask!), spring was pretty awesome as well. Once again, the opportunities Pittsburgh offers in the spring are unrivaled. I don’t have any sort of frame of reference to substantiate this claim, but Pittsburgh is pretty awesome once the blooms indeed begin to bloom. This season of new growth was also a metaphor for my approach to photography in 2018 which I continue to pursue as 2019 ramps up. Take often photographed subject matter and locations and make them fresh. Shed the old, but remain beautiful. Come back even prettier. That was and remains the goal. The three photos below, I think, exhibit this quite well. (Check out this unique look on flowers in the Pittsburgh)
Now again, the beauty of nature is easily found in between and along the edges of the banks of the three rivers, but it stretches far beyond that. This time, all the way to the far off land of Ohio!
As of late, I’ve been a little more in to photographing flowers. To that end, I wanted bluebells this past spring. So to the Googles I went. Google told me one of the best places to view such a wildflower is the UK, a place I’ve never been, and when Google talks, I usually listen. I was oh so close to booking a trip, too. Just for some flowers. Not sure how I would have pitched that one to my boss? What Google didn’t tell me, though, was I had another option. Luckily, with a little help from some friends, I was able to find a patch of bluebells in Ohio, which as you may have guessed, is far cheaper, quicker and more readily accessible to reach than England. I’m not saying I’ll never go, but for now I’m glad to have saved that airfare!
As lucrative as the spring was from a photographic standpoint, the greatest attainment was on a much more personal level, but still photographically centered. In April, I had the privilege to present my Pittsburgh photography to the Photo Section of the Academy of Arts and Science of Pittsburgh. Whew, I know it’s a mouthful. Essentially, they are the oldest continually operating club in existence in America, dating back to the 1880s. That’s right…1880s.
To say that I was honored to have been sought out to put together a program for this club is a drastic understatement. Fred Astaire was tap dancing on my nerves for two solid months. I’ve spoke in front of a group before, but never quite as long as was needed for this presentation, which lasted around 50 minutes.
In my effort to prepare a program that both educated and entertained the crowd, I put in more preparation and thought than I think I have in any other endeavor in my 34 years, resulting in a clear, concise story about my process with real life examples using actual photos I’ve taken. The reception by the crowd was humbling and I was thrilled with how taken by my work they were. However, the more impressive achievement was they laughed at every single joke. Phew. I left never feeling more confident about myself and my work and more inspired than ever to keep creating.
Not only was it a boon to my confidence and inspiration, but the preparation took me down the path of self reflection and research in to my own portfolio. What worked that doesn’t any more? What have I learned? What might be valuable to others? Which photos have stood the test of time? And what goes through my mind as I’m creating an image? This last one was the key and one in which I’ve thought about but never put on paper, which ultimately led to this series of blog posts about what makes me tick and how I begun this path to becoming a full time photographer:
- Once Upon A Time
- Be An Engineer They Said…
- Family First, Photography Second
- It All Started With an HDR
Another byproduct, for lack of a better word, was a gentle nudge from one of the members of the camera club to take a little journey out west. Through his guidance and experience, we were able to put together one hell of an itinerary for my weeklong trip through Colorado, a place that was always on my radar, but never really top of mind. If you’re reading this, Robert, thank you!
And while I’m thanking people, let’s hear it for my rock star wife who held down the fort like a seasoned pro with two girls, one of which was only 8 weeks old at the time, while daddy was prancing throughout Colorado. How she didn’t jump off the proverbial mountain is a mystery, an enigma the likes of which will never be solved!
When you hear Colorado, what do you think of? Mountains of course! Flying in to Denver, I was surprised how flat it was. Again, until it wasn’t. Once I was beyond the Denver city limits, I’m not sure my vehicle was ever perfectly level. It was kind of like Pittsburgh but on a much grander scale. There were mountains and hills every which way and they were stunning. Everything I’d imaged since I’d never actually seen a ‘real’ mountain before.
The mountains were of course jaw dropping, but for my first experience I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a touch disappointed. When I envision the mountains of Colorado, I think tall and I think snow capped peaks. During my visit, I did not see a single speck of snow. Of course, the day after I left most of the state was pounded with it, but that’s a different story. But because of the lack of snow and because of the time of year I visited (late September), the trees kind of stole the show.
Have I mentioned I like trees? No? Okay, well I do. And there were plenty of them on this trip. Aspen trees as far as the eye could see. A see of yellow nestled in every valley between every 14er (that’s what they call peaks 14,000 ft and above in CO). These aspens surely did put the COLOR in Colorado, and I won’t soon forget them.
Aside from the snow, another element that eluded me out west was the light. There were definitely challenging conditions photographically speaking. Aside from the first night in which I was treated to a stellar sunset light party, there were really no epic skies to speak of.
In fact this notion of outrageous sunrises and sunsets, the likes of which cause the angels to weep, was largely absent for me and pretty much an undertone of the images I was able to produce this year, both in Colorado and all year at home in Pittsburgh. Make no mistake I’m happy with what I got, which is a collection of SOLID images.
But by and large, the super dramatic, ultra colorful dusks and dawns (and there definitely were more than a few) remained unrecorded by my camera’s sensor, seen only out my front window or through my rear view mirror. Except for this one.
So that’s it. My year wrapped up in to a clear, concise, 1600 word, 30 photo nutshell. And what a wild year it was. WAIT! Did I just say wild?? How could I forget? It actually was wild this year. Back in early spring, I bought a new toy. A Nikon 200-500mm telephoto lens. It was bought mostly for my wildlife photos, but I’ve also found myself using it in the city for some abstract and detail photos. But, the animals look best through this lens.
Ok. NOW we are done. I promise. And if you made it this far, wow! Good for you and your attention span. You must not have little ones with you. But in all seriousness, THANK YOU! Whether this is your first time on my blog or you are intimately familiar with my work, I appreciate you and I appreciate the support. You help me to do what I do. You helped make 2018 an amazing year, so let’s do it again in 2019!
Who out there likes flowers? Not me. I was never much of a flower guy. There was never much of a need for me to like them. Sure they were nice to look at, but…well, that’s it. They were nice to look at. Occasionally. Up until last year, my only real experience with flowers was getting a corsage for my dates to prom and homecoming, which my mother took care of, and the flowers for my wedding which my wife took care of. In my defense I suppose, I did pay for and pick up said flowers so I wasn’t completely dead weight.
Then something changed. Last year a bought a macro lens for my photography. This allowed me to get super close to things and photograph the fine details of an otherwise uncomplicated subject. As it turns out, flowers were a PERFECT subject for experimentation. So experiment I did and now I can’t seem to get enough flowers and plants in my life. I find myself noting new ones I’ve never noticed or seeing if there is a safe place to pull off when I see a spectacular roadside bunch of blooms. I’ve even bought some plants. What!?
The world of macro has really opened up my eyes and allowed me to see things differently. I don’t intend for my flower photos to over take my Pittsburgh photography as my best sellers in print, but I do intend to look at things differently as a result of my foray into flower photography. And I’ve been able to do just that.
Seeing differently, and uniquely, has always been paramount in my work. There are a lot of photographers these days so standing out is a challenge. With the Pittsburgh skyline being my perennial (see what I did there?) favorite subject, I wanted to incorporate it in to my newfound, ever-growing interest in flora. But how to do that? I think I found a unique way which you will se in the proceeding photos. Each composition will include some sort of bud, blossom, or bloom and also a bit of the ‘Burgh. Whoa! Holy alliteration, Batman!
Can you tell which part of Pittsburgh is peaking through in the pictures?
They say that the definition of insanity is “doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results.” By that measure, I certainly must be certifiable by now. I’ll get to why, but first a little lesson I learned early on, before photography was a career and just my weekend hobby.
Ever since my first time picking up a camera, I’ve attempted to keep a strong gras o the number one trait a photographer must possess. It’s not a unique eye. It’s not the most expensive camera or lens. It’s not even an endlessly deep wallet that allows you to travel to the most exotic locations. Nope, none of those. Necessity numero uno for someone wanting to MAKE excellent photographs is….drum roll please…. PATIENCE.
In most areas of my life, patience is a virtue that has eluded me. I won’t get in to the messy details of why I think that is so suffice it to say I don’t like to wait. That is unless, of course, I am behind a camera. When I’m framing up a shot, I’ll tinker and tinker until everything is just how it needs to be. That’s more of an issue of perfectionism and being in control at this point, but once the camera is set, I’ll wait for the conditions to compliment the composition. Sometimes this takes 10 minutes, sometimes it takes 30. Sometimes, like on a cloudy windless day where I’m playing around with macro photos, I’ll be able to setup and shoot with no waiting because conditions aren’t changing. Regardless, it doesn’t really matter how long it takes as long as I get the shot I envisioned.
So what does having an enduring resolve behind the camera have to do with being clinically insane? Well, not much, really, but please allow me to try and connect the dots for you. As it turns out I’m not quite as tolerant with waiting as the picture I just photographed for you would suggest. It turns out that if conditions are not shaping up the way I think they should or the way I want them to, specifically 15-20 minutes before the sun comes up or before it goes down, I’ll probably call it a day. I can’t begin to count the number of sunset explosions I’ve watched in my rearview mirror because I had been out for 2 hours and didn’t have the patience to stick around another 20 minutes because “it was gonna happen.” I can’t begin to count the number of sunrises that have looked like gloomy duds that turn out to be quite photogenic.
Realizing this problem doesn’t always happen in my rearview mirror either. Since photographers are so plentiful these days and everyone shares on Instagram, seeing my blunders is all but unavoidable because if I didn’t stick around, someone else did. And then they shared it. And I saw it. I saw the photo I didn’t get, but could have, serving as an instant reminder of the mistake I’ve made countless times already and probably will make countless times more. I see the photo of the sunset I missed…and it might as well be a photo of me in a straight jacket, because I am insane.
As I sit here on my front porch writing this on my phone, my wife is inside working from home on her laptop. She is uber-pregnant and hoping to go into labor any minute. I’m hoping so too because as much as I marvel at the miracle of pregnancy, I know she is in a great deal discomfort and all I want is for her to be resting easy, holding our new daughter tightly in her arms while our older daughter snuggles up next to them both. Me, I’ll probably sneak off to the corner for a minute and soak it all it.
See, as you know, I’m a photographer. My work is all about moments and crafting images to capture those fleeting seconds, hopefully creating a memory and if I’m lucky maybe even a piece of art. But moments don’t just define my work. They define my life. I live for the moments, big and small, and make no mistake, I’ve got a big moment coming soon.
In my life I’ve had a lot of impactful moments, most of which revolve around family. I’ve also had some early success as a photographer. Those moments are certainly meaningful and at the age of 34 I suspect I have a whole lot of time to create some more professionally (at least I hope that’s the case, but I better lay off the Dunkin’ Donuts for awhile just to be sure.). For example, I have aspirations of traveling extensively for my photography. Pittsburgh, my main subject is wonderful and I love it, but there is so much more to see. But the truth is, I’m not positive if I can ever do that unless I’m able to pick up my family and take them with me. I want to see the world but I don’t want to do it by myself. I want my girls right beside me. I didn’t start a family to just leave them at home.
No matter how long I live, though, and no matter how much I accomplish professionally, when I (and others) reflect on my life, I don’t want to be remembered as a photographer. I want to be remembered as a loving husband and father. I want my legacy to be carried on through my children, not the photographs I’ve created. I’ll cherish the moments and not worry about recording them. For me…it will always be family first, photography second.
We’ve all heard the term “the one that got away,” yes? Yes, of course we have. And for some of us maybe the phrase is even applicable. Not so much in my case because I’m married to the woman of my dreams and am about to have my second beautiful daughter with her. For those that are wondering, I’m not in the dog house or sucking up because my wife probably won’t read this, my first daughter is 3 and can’t read yet (yet!) and my second daughter, well the library in her womb has been closed for renovations for weeks so no reading in there either. Okay, let’s crawl out of the weird rabbit hole and get back on topic here. Focus, JP!
Now where was I? Ah, yes…the one that got away. I don’t have one. I do, however, have many many many suns that got away. See what I did there? I love puns and plays on words. I’m of course talking about sunrises and sunsets. As a city/landscape photographer the sky is my canvas and the sun provides the paint for it. Without light, a photographer has nothing. I think I’m pretty good, but I am no exception to this necessity for the suns gleaming rays.
With this dependence on light, for me, comes a constant, almost gawking and definitely studious observance of the sky, the position of the sun, and clouds or lack thereof. There is no foolproof method to predicting whether a sky will erupt with color or be a dud, but there are apps and programs out there to help predict such occurrences, but even without the technology, I usually have a pretty good gut feel for what’s going to happen. But just like the software, my gut, impressive as it might be, is not infallible.
Tracking the position of the sun, however is pretty precise and always reliable. But, just because I almost always know where the sun is going to crest or dip below the horizon, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t get away from me. What do I mean? Sadly, that means I am not physically able to catch on camera every jaw-dropping sunrise or every sunset that makes the angels weep. Sometimes, when I don’t have my camera and I’m watching the sky explode with every shade of red, orange, and yellow imaginable in my rear view mirror or from my bedroom window, I sit right beside the Angels and shed a tear with them. And by sometimes, I mean this happens A LOT!
This mourning for color undocumented is usually pretty short lived once I drift back down to earth and realize if I wasn’t out catching the glow of a fiery sunset, I was more than likely spending time with my family…and maybe even able to enjoy that sight with them. So that’s the point of this kind of bizarre rambling. Take in the color. Enjoy it. Remember it in your mind’s eye. And certainly don’t sweat if you weren’t able to snap a photo of it.