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.”
Once upon a time there was a young boy. Like most boys, he enjoyed sports and playing with Matchbox cars, which were concepts planted quite pretty firmly in reality, not requiring a ton of imagination. Also like most kids, his attention span was sparse, bouncing around between interests like a runaway pinball amidst a maze of bumpers, whether that be Ken Griffey Jr’s latest home run, the latest episode of Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, or the fantastical happenings of the Ninja Turtles or Wolverine and the X-Men. But there was one world that never failed to captivate and encapsulate him. That was the world of Walt Disney.
Obviously, that little boy is yours truly. Hi! My name is JP…and I have a Disney problem. All my life I’ve been fascinated by just about everything Disney. My favorite movie ever, not just favorite cartoon or Disney animated film is The Lion King and if I could pick one unrealistic place to live out the rest of my days, it would be an apartment on Main Street with a view of Cinderella’s Castle. Many of my fondest memories as a kid are watching Disney movies with my family, and trips to Disney World, allowing me to escape every day life (not that a kid can be too troubled), turning my fantasies into realities and memories in to stories.
See, I’ve always been taken, even if only subconsciously, by Disney’s ability to fluidly tell a story through movies. But, and I mean this with no disrespect to film maker’s, it’s a little easier to tell a story when the audience is expecting one and there is dialogue to help engage the viewer, move the story forward, and convey the message. What I’ve recently learned to appreciate is the Imagineer’s (that’s what Disney calls their engineers, more on that in a later post, as that profession was once a dream of mine) penchant for telling stories throughout their parks, all without the use of narration. Static objects, or sequences of static objects, tell a story when the viewer isn’t expecting on, and they do it pretty flawlessly if you ask me.
This is especially intriguing to me as a photographer as it is not only my job to capture the beauty of what I see, but to convert a two-dimension scene in to a seemingly three-dimensional piece of art that not only shows the viewer what I saw, but conveys the story I am trying to tell.
It doesn’t stop there, though. The world of Disney, both the imaginary one created in movies and the physical one of the theme parks where you immersed into a state of tangible imagination (for me, I’ve not been to most of the parks, only Disney World in Orlando), are insanely meticulous and intriguing, with no detail, not even the tiniest minutia of something as mundane as a garbage can, being unattended to. It is that level of detail that I aspire to bring in to my photographic work.
To say that the storytelling prowess of Walt Disney the man, and since his death Disney the company, has defined the path I’ve taken as a creative would simply be untrue. I didn’t become a photographer out of a love for all things Disney. I’ve never consciously thought to myself, “wow, I wish I could tell a story like these guys.” Well at least when I first started out I never said that. But I recently began reading a Walt Disney biography (yep, my dorkiness goes that deep) and although I can’t say I’ve been influenced by his life or even his stories, I’ve certainly come to realize how much I am inspired, even if subconsciously, by him, what he’s done, and the legacy he leaves behind. And I wish to emulate that innate ability by molding it into my shape to achieve what I want to achieve.
So what is the point of me telling you this? Well, as I mentioned in my last post, this will be the story of me and my work. To do it justice and to do it in an entertaining way, I wanted to really take a deep look at what drives me, and as it turns out, a driving factor in my professional life right now is the innate storytelling ability of one Walt Disney. But that has not always been the case…
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!
Continue towards the end of January and euphoria presented itself. I was finally out to see Pittsburgh encapsulated in fog, but only from the river up to about a third of the height of the buildings. The Jetson-like setting I had been chasing since picking up my first (real) camera was there for the taking. And take I did.
Today something fascinating happened. I posted on my Facebook page a comparison of two photos, both of the same scene. One was subtly colorful with rays of sun and hope emerging from behind the city and a wall of fog. The other, gritty and monochrome with more contrast and detail, details of days gone by. My reason for posting the two side by side was simple: I wanted to see which one was preferred by those I share my work with.
Ultimately, an artist is “supposed” to pursue and create the pieces that they themselves would be most happy with, no matter if the artist themselves is the only one who likes or understands the piece. I’ve heard on more than one occasion that “pandering” to the crowd is the equivalent of selling out. I find this notion to be ridiculous. Sure I chase the photographs and projects that are fulfilling to me. However, it’s important, if not vital, to me to know what is important to my family, friends, fans, and followers (wow, do I hate the terms fans and followers so let’s just say you all are friends and family) to see in my work.
I’ve always been aware of the opinions and preferences of my friends, but never been aware of their influence, at least not beyond a subconscious level. Until today. When I posted this color versus monochrome fight to the death, I was fully confident that my black and white rendition of the Duquesne Incline in fog would emerge victorious in the first minute of the first round. This was my preference and thought it would be everyone else’s preference, whether they liked black and white photographs or not.
I was wrong. At the time of this writing the gritty, blue-collar-looking black and white photo is winning. But it’s a much closer match than I anticipated and it’s taught me two things: I certainly do not know everyone’s preference and that preference is meaningful to me. The more I read the comments, specifically from those folks who are Team Color, the more I find my eyes drifting to the color version better, and I’m not upset about it. How can this be when I was adamantly Team B&W? It’s simple: the opinions, values, preferences, or whatever the case may be of those that follow my work are important to me. And they always will be, or I’ll find myself with nobody to share my work with.
Please feel free to let me know in the comments which image you prefer. Thank you! 🙂
Not too long ago, some close friends of mine and I were having a conversation. Generally when we speak the conversation can quite literally go any which way and change directions in an instant. We talk about life, friends, elephant dung (don’t judge us but this is true), and everything in between. But since we are all full-time artists, it can be all but guaranteed that the state of art industry is going to pop up in any given conversation. This was no exception.
As we continued musing about the highs and lows, gripes, griefs, rewards, and inspirations behind our work, we stumbled upon a question: “What is your favorite (insert your own type of work here)?” Now this is a question I get ALL the time at shows. Folks walk in, take a look around, enjoy the work, pick out a favorite, then ask me, “What’s your favorite photograph, JP?” My answer is always immediately and unequivocally the same. I don’t have to say a word. I just point to Winter’s Light, which is always hanging…
This is the image that started it all for me. It’s not the image that launched my career in photography, per se, but it is the one that gained a little recognition and gave me the confidence to pursue a lifetime or creating images to share. It features lovely light, nice foreground interest, and the composition is good. It will likely always remain my favorite image I’ve ever taken. That is, until I heard the following.
When I asked my friend, Johno (of Johno’s Art Studio – check out his work here) what his favorite painting was, I was stunned by the simplicity and brilliance of his response. “My last one,” he said. My last one. It made perfect sense. His wife, Maria (of Maria’s Ideas – check out her work here) went on to explain, though the point hit home immediately. We should ALWAYS be learning and improving on past works and experiences and incorporating the lessons learned into our next piece. Simple yet brilliant.
I’d be lying, though, if I said that this revelation didn’t shake me to my core. I just stated how Winter’s Light is my all time favorite photo I’ve ever taken. Look at the watermark on it. It was taken in 2011. Clearly this is not my last photo. In fact, it was one of my first. Does that mean that I’ve not improved upon my photography process in the five years I’ve been taking photos? Of course not. This is simply a good photograph with a ton of sentimental value attached to it, so chances are it will still remain my favorite. But that doesn’t mean there are not things I would change. Not just with this photo, but every single photo I’ve ever taken. Everything can be better.
And that, my friends, is the entire point of this post. Never become complacent in your achievements. You can be happy about them, but unsatisfied with them. It’s okay to want more. It’s okay to be your own toughest critic. Every time I click the shutter I want that newest photo to be the best I’ve ever taken. This is obviously unrealistic, as I take my fair share of “clunkers,” but I believe having that mindset will allow me to continue to learn from past mistakes and build upon current successes.
It’s said that you shouldn’t stare directly into the sun because it can lead to permanent damage to your eyes. Since my eyes are literally how I make a living and provide for my family, I usually heed this advice, but only if the sun is unobstructed. If the sun is partially blocked, by say a bank of clouds, you get a beautiful array of light beams dancing gently in the sky making their way down to earth. Something so soft and beautiful couldn’t hurt, right?
Up until this past week I would have agreed. Now, I’m not so sure. But it’s not my eyes that I’m worried about. It’s my heart. I’ve heard before, and even said it myself (last night in fact), that those rays of light we see being filtered through the clouds are our loved ones watching over us. If that’s true, and I just might believe that it is, aren’t those very light beams also a reminder to us that our loved ones are no longer with us? Again, that’s true. That hurts. But the pain is temporary.
If you’ve ever witnessed the scene I’m describing, you know these wonderfully golden rays don’t last very long. They are beautiful. They are intense. They are also fleeting. And for me at this time, perhaps these beams are a most appropriate symbol for the friend – no, brother – I’ve recently lost. His life was beautiful. The impact he had on anyone he ever met was as positively intense as his immense size. And his life, fleeting – a seemingly brief moment, gone at the speed of light. But, unlike the heartache and the light, his impact will be everlasting.
Anyone that ever met him remembered him…and they were better for it. Good journey my brother, until we meet again. And we will meet again.
I spend a LOT of time at the zoo. On average, I visit once per month. That number used to be roughly three times per month, but alas, life has a way of getting in the way. It was at the Pittsburgh Zoo that I really found my calling as a photographer. Before I was hired for my first full time out job out of college, I’d spend countless hours at each exhibit (with an extended period of time at the big cats) just staring and snapping, staring and snapping.
The type of image I was, and still am, after is just like the one you see above: a nice, tight image of the subject animal with zero indication that the photo was taken at a zoo. The snow provides a natural, realistic backdrop for this amur leopard which lives in snowy regions of Russia. It’s a fantastic photo, but for me, it sort of felt like a been there done that moment. I needed to switch things up to get out of a creative rut. But how?
I continued on through the zoo, still searching for a theme or idea. Doing what I normally do in the winter time when it’s cold, I headed to the aquarium to breeze through the exhibits and warm up a bit. To my delight, it was empty without another soul to be seen. I won’t get in to all of the technicals of my shots, but suffice it to say that being alone gave me a lot of freedom, and time, to work on some techniques for shooting through the glass of the exhibits. I’m very pleased with the end results and next time, I might not heed the advice of our absent minded fish friend, Dory. I won’t just keep swimming. I’ll wait then shoot, wait then shoot. And hopefully I’ll swim away with some winners!