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.
All of my life I’ve had an aptitude for math and science, but mostly math. That resulted in a fair number of AP classes in high school and even more unsolicited recommendations – to be fair some were solicited – that I take that aptitude and turn it into a career. “Be an engineer,” they said.
Unfortunately aptitude does not always translate to interest, for me at least and especially regarding math. But never fear because I sure as hell let the voice of others telling me to pursue engineering overpower my own voice, which was nagging, screaming, and pleading with me to NOT be an engineer. Proficiency in math notwithstanding, it was and still is the science(ish) that interested me. Sort of.
Science caught my attention and held it, but only certain branches. Chemistry was not my favorite science by a long shot, nor was it my strong suit which became utterly apparent with my poor grade in Intro to Chemical Engineering in my first semester at Carnegie Mellon. Physics was more fun, in the loosest sense of the term, and it was a better subject for me than chemistry, so I opted to for Mechanical Engineering as a major because, well, “Be an engineer,” they said.
Throughout my time in college, I struggled. I struggled with grades and I struggled with motivation, which in retrospect has become a clear indicator that a switch to a different major should have been in order. But to switch scared me and at the time, I couldn’t handle the fear. Plus…remember those voices? “Be an engineer!” they said. And so I did. I graduated in 2007 with a B.S. in Mechanical Engineering from CMU.
I worked 5 years as a mechanical engineer for a local construction company and to say I hated it would be a vast understatement. But it wasn’t all for naught. Two amazing, life shaping events happened during my stint in corporate America.
First they sent me to Arkansas shortly after signing on. The money was great, the work was easy so also unchallenging, but I was alone in an unfamiliar place with pretty much just my camera to keep me company. At this time though, I was just dipping my toes into photographic waters so even my camera felt like a stranger. So why was being sent to Arkansas life altering for me? For one, it helped me to pay down a significant portion of my student loan debt and CMU did not come cheap. But there’s always time to make more money so I don’t consider that life altering. However, cheesy as it may sound, love happens when it happens and lucky for me, it happened on my trip back from Arkansas to Pittsburgh, I met the woman who would later become my wife and mother of my children. She’s a pretty special lady (hopefully she’s reading this) so maybe she’ll get her own story in a later post, but suffice it to say that she is the one true benefit to having become an engineer.
Life altering event number two was at one time the most negatively impactful occurrence of my life but I now consider it to be the catalyst for most things positive that have happened to me. You may have figured it out by now, but if you haven’t, I was fired and it was the single greatest thing to ever happen for me professionally.
There is something very comforting in knowing that no matter how unhappy you are at your job you will, in theory, receive a constant paycheck. But comfort is a lifeline that many of us are afraid to sever and most of us don’t need to. Luckily for me, and I can say that now, my line was severed by someone else. I didn’t have a say in the matter. Admittedly, 7 weeks before I was to be married, and on April Fools day no less, made for a very rocky period after the layoff, but being free to pursue what I loved and what I was good at provided, and still provides, everything I was missing as an engineer.
So what’s the moral of the story? Go to school for engineering, suck at it, get fired, become a photographer and everything else just falls right in to place! Just kidding, the moral is “Be what you want to be. Listen to what YOU say.”
One of the things I’ve struggled with in keeping up with this blog is what the focus should be. Time after time I’d sit down with an idea, write a couple sentences, maybe even a paragraph or two, and then abandon it because it didn’t match the theme of the blog. There was a major flaw with this: there was no theme. There was no structure or cliffhanger to make you tune in next week to see what happens. It was a random collection of stories and photos supporting the story.
I know what you’re thinking: “Boy, this guy is doing a lousy job at selling his own blog.” To that I say…”True story!” But that was the old blog. That was the old JP. The new JP is firing up his revamped blog that is going to be completely different and more exciting than ever before. The new blog is going to be…wait for it…
….A random collection of musings, stories, maybe some humor, and of course, PHOTOS (I am a photographer, after all) from the far off place of JP Land. (If you’re interested in traveling there, now is the time…nobody goes there anymore and flights are cheeeeeap!)
So why no dramatic change to the original “structure?” Because I know my strengths and at this very moment those DO NOT include the ability to write a blog that can substitute as a novel.
Instead, I want the blog and stories to be for people who have followed my work for years as well as those who are just discovering it. I want it to be for those who like pretty words, those who like pretty pictures, and those who like pretty words about pretty pictures. I want it to be where people can escape the mundane of everyday life…okay that sounds trite, I admit, but I do want to create a 5 minute retreat with each post that at least one person can relate to, even if that person is only myself. I might just even add a bit of humor – work with me on this one, I’ve only been a dad for 3 years but I’m getting the “Dad joke” down pat. I want this to be just what it’s always been, but with more regularity. I want it to evolve as I evolve.
And this time, I’m doing exactly what I want to do which is to make this blog an extension of myself. To do that properly, to share my stories, I have to examine the story of me, learn who I was, who I am now, and who I want to be. But you’ll have to tune in later for all that…oh look, my first cliffhanger!
This is a post I wrote last week. I toiled with internal struggle over whether I should even share the writing or not, not out of fear of sharing something personal, making me feel vulnerable, rather I wasn’t sure if anyone would find it interesting. The more I thought, and continue to think, about it, though, the more I realized that the context of my thoughts are pretty common and if they help only one person, than my sharing will be well worth it. Unfortunately, as the title might suggest you will see, I do not have any photos of butterflies to accompany my thoughts, so instead I’m sharing my photo “The Lonely Leaf” which many people actually think is a butterfly and not a leaf. At any rate, enough rambling – here’s my experience. I hope you enjoy and find value in it.
A little over two weeks was a pretty big step for me…on a few fronts and in a lot of ways. I was honored enough to be asked to give a presentation about my photography to the Photo Section of the Academy of Arts and Sciences of Pittsburgh, or in simpler terms “The Pittsburgh Camera Club,” which as it turns out is the oldest continually operating photography club in America, starting in the late 1800’s. That’s right, the late 1800’s…almost since the dawn of photography.
I was asked back in August and emphatically said yes to such a gracious offer and awesome opportunity. We set the date for mid-April, giving me more than plenty of time to prepare, which I didn’t, and hundreds of days to stew on ideas while letting butterflies build permanent homes in my stomach, which they did.
Fast-forward 8 months to April 1. A few butterflies have not simply set up shop in my belly, the entire herd – what do you call a group of butterflies, anyway? – has colonized my body, and I am the “monarch.” See what I did there?
Luckily for me, I’ve had lots and lots of practice of keeping things stored in the back of my mind or the pit of my stomach – literally and figuratively on the stomach part, I like to eat – so coming up with a theme for the presentation was going to be no sweat. Or so I thought. As ideas popped in to my mind, I’d make sure to get them down on paper else they’d be lost forever and rather quickly at that. I was certain of the photos I wanted to include for the most part, but was still lacking a cohesive flow to the presentation.
The day before I was to speak, I spent 12 hours putting together a Power Point presentation, essentially relearning the program because I’ve not used it in well over a decade. It was a slow, tedious process, which both allowed my brain to otherwise focus on the preparation part while the nervousness about actually speaking to a room full of people in less than a day percolated at full force.
A funny thing happened, though, the morning of presentation day. I was polishing up the presentation – oh who am I kidding, I was finishing the last third of it when I had my “aha” moment. I put together 4 principles in which I look or hope for when I set out to create a shot. It’s rare to find more than one of the elements I hope for in one photograph, but in a moment of intense clarity, a feeling normally foreign to me as my mind tends to jump around quite a bit, I realized an image I had not used yet which drew from every single theme I had just put together.
It was at this point where I actually said out loud, in the middle of a Dunkin Donuts, mind you, “Holy shit. This is a damn good presentation.” Again, this was a rarity for me as I am my own harshest critic. Nothing is ever good enough for myself, and as a sole proprietor of a creative business, that’s how it has to be for if I get complacent, or even comfortable, my work will stagnate and the business will fail. But there was going to be no failure this time. I was proud of what I had put together and confident in the material. It also helped that I know my work and my processes inside and out. It’s funny how a little knowledge and a smidge of confidence can drive off a colony of butterflies squatting in someone’s stomach.
Yesterday marked 1 year to the day of chasing a dream, or in my case a cloud, and actually catching it. I thought I had blogged about it last year at this time, but it turns out I did not. This is my recount of one of the best mornings of my photographic life.
Who here has seen the Jetson’s? What’s your lasting memory? The first thing that comes to mind every time I think of that futuristic cartoon is the way the city seems to rise above the clouds. And ever since I’ve taken up photography, that is the dreamlike image I’ve been chasing in the city of Pittsburgh.
Saturday, January 21, 2017 changed all that…and sent me on the chase of a lifetime.
After about half an hour of shooting the scene you see above, we parted ways…but the chase continued. I wanted something different and it seemed like every photographer and their mother was out shooting since it was a Saturday, so I took a gamble. The gamble paid off. I had a “secret” spot and since it was secret, it was just me, my camera, and a dreamlike landscape that nobody else was capturing. This next image represents my vision and also my dream…one I’d been chasing for 7 years. To amplify the dreamy quality, I went with a 5 minute exposure to draw out the motion in the fog and clouds.
This is where I realized just how many photographers were out, making the need to set myself apart more important than ever. Sure I could have squeezed in between the ten or so cameras on the Duquesne Incline Overlook, but who wants to see the same shot from 10 different people? I don’t. I want to be unique…so I pressed on, and again my gut was right, rewarding me with pleasant results.
As I was shooting from atop the “mountain,” The wheels in my head continued to spin out of control. “What if I went to the West End Overlook? Those clouds to the right of the city that I can’t quite get in to the frame from here would make a perfect ‘V’ pointing right at the city.” And with that the chase continued.
Before shooting the pink sky, I thought about leaving for the overlook because of that bank of clouds I mentioned. Upon arrival to the West End, though, I’m glad I didn’t. The fog was too thick and the city could not be seen. I’m not sure that’s the case before I arrived, but I had a sure thing from Mount Washington so I played it “safe.”
Four hours after it all started, the chase was finally over…
Or was it? I don’t like to give up to quickly, and again, the conditions were so rare and I’d been out so long, what was another half an hour? As it turns out…that half an hour might have been the most important of the morning. The sun rose above the fog and clouds, illuminating the tops with a texture I’ve only ever seen if photos of fog surrounding the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco.
At this point, I was floating just like the city I was photographing seemed to be. But alas, the sun rose too high and nearly blinded me as I was composing a shot. NOW…the chase was over…but not before recording possibly my favorite photograph of the morning and the shot of a lifetime!