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!
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?
Walt Disney once famously said, “I only hope that we never lose sight of one thing – that it was all started with a mouse.” That mouse is of course Mickey Mouse and “famously” might be too strong a description of the quote unless you are a Disney dork like myself. The “it” he is referring to is essentially the Disney empire, which I could go on in detail about, but since I’ve alluded to my love of all things Disney in another post (READ IT HERE), I’ll skip that part. What I’d like to call attention to, though, is what this quote means to me: We all start somewhere. I’d like to share with you my somewhere.
Let’s travel back a few years, somewhere around let’s say fall of 2004. I was a sophomore in college and things were going well for me. Grades were improving and I was in what at the time seemed like a perfect, serious (for a 20 year old) relationship. I was happy…until I wasn’t. Well, actually, until she wasn’t. Several hours before the stroke of midnight on February 14, 2005 – that’s Valentine’s Day, folks – my “serious” girlfriend broke up with me. Ouch. As if that weren’t bad enough, at that very stroke of midnight, we’d rip another page off the old day-by-day calendar and I would turn 21 on February 15. Double ouch. But at least I could now legally drown my sorrows in beer. But I did not.
I’d like to say what I did was take this opportunity to take a negative and turn it in to a positive. I’d like to say it was no big deal and that “things happen for a reason.” I’d like to say those things, but I can’t and a discussion with my best friend recently reminded me that this saying is bullshit. Sometimes things suck and it’s okay for you to acknowledge that they suck. This was one of those times, even if only temporarily.
Make no mistake; I don’t recount this story for pity or feelings of sadness. By all accounts, I wouldn’t be where I am today without this chapter in my life. I am HAPPY now so I am grateful for what happened back then. It turns out that, in retrospect, this actually was one of those “things happen for a reason” scenarios. At the time, however, a void was present in my life for several months, a void that needed filling so that I didn’t sit around all day, wallowing in my self-pity making mixed CDs, which I did. I needed something to occupy my mind, to numb the pain but with a more positive influence on my life. As it turns out, that empty part of me took the shape of a camera and it was easy, satisfying, and productive to fill.
I started taking walks with my tiny little point and shoot camera, just snapping away with whatever struck me as interesting, with Point State Park being a common subject. The photos – snapshots really – were no good, but my mind was occupied and I was done feeling sorry for myself.
The void inside me began to shrink, and as it did my desire to turn snapshots into actual photos grew rapidly. Consequently, so did my camera when I bought my first DSLR in 2007. It was a used, entry-level camera – a Nikon D50 with a monster 6-megapixel sensor. It would be just perfect for my upcoming trip to St. Thomas and many trips to the zoo. But that camera just didn’t cut it. I needed more. I needed bigger. I am a man after all!
In 2009 I upgraded again for a trip to Mexico, this time to a new Nikon model, the D300, with twice as many megapixels as my last camera. At the time I thought megapixels was all that mattered, even though I wasn’t really printing photos. They’d only be seen on a small screen so resolution wasn’t as important an issue as I was making it out to be. But again, bigger means better, right? After Mexico, the camera probably spent more time on the shelf than it did in my hands – just kidding, I was a slob so it was probably in corner of my room on the floor under a pile of clothes and some empty Gatorade bottles. The point is I didn’t use it very much in ’09 or ’10.
Fast forward to 2011. I’d been using my camera a little more regularly at this point and uploading the shots to my Flickr account, a popular social photo sharing platform at the time. No one had really noticed the photos, and for good reason – they weren’t anything special or different. There was mostly wildlife and some marginal landscapes with a poorly executed Pittsburgh skyline shot sprinkled in here and there. (I just went back in to the account for the first time in year’s today to have a look at the early stuff, and wow! It’s like looking at pictures of yourself decades ago….”What was I thinking!?!”).
But then I uploaded a photo called “Winter’s Light.” This photo, oh this photo. It’s an HDR, which is short for High Dynamic Range meaning it contains fine details in both the dark shadows and the lightest lights and generally includes multiple exposures since camera sensors at the time were unable to record the detail that your eye can process in a single frame. Admittedly, it is very easy to let an HDR photo get away from you, looking almost cartoony and certainly fake. This photo is no exception. It has a painterly feel, keeping it just on the cusp of natural meets unbelievable but definitely falls beyond the range of my processing these days, which tends to have a vibrant, yet natural feel to it. That said, Winter’s Light has held up to the test of time for me, partially because I’ve yet to see comparably impressive light on the Warhol Bridge, which is the main showcase of the photo, since that cold winter day in January of 2011. Oh yea, and it still sells too!
A few hours after uploading to Flickr, it began to rack in the ‘favorites’ which is today’s equivalent to a Facebook ‘like.’ “Cool,” I thought. And that was it. Then the photo got “Explored,” which means a daily feature essentially. Again, cool! Up to this point, most of my photos received a whopping 2 favorites and if I were lucky, a comment or two. Again, they were mostly overdone HDR landscapes or wildlife shots that didn’t deserve much merit. This one, though, made it to triple digit likes and was racking in the views. This felt like a big deal for me. It turns out that it was.
Looking back, that extra bit of exposure on Flickr really was a catalyst for me. Though it didn’t go viral or directly result in any immediate sales – selling my work wasn’t even an afterthought at this point – and didn’t bring any notoriety either, it did serve as a fulcrum allowing me to leverage my passion for photography in to something a bit more. Winter’s Light did not launch my career in photography, but it sure has hell gave me the confidence I needed to pursue it!
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.
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…
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.
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!
One of the most common themes I notice this time of year is that people DO NOT like the snow and ice. The reasons might vary, and to some degree, I agree. Most of us don’t like the seemingly inherent danger that follows the cold weather. Roads become treacherous if not treated properly or proactively, and if the snow (or ice) is significant enough, any amount of preparation and treatment may well end up being futile. It’s easy to see why this would be a reason to wish away the cold and relocate to Florida.
Living in Pittsburgh, where winter -and certainly snow – are not a new concept, it can be very easy to become annoyed with snow. If you look out your window and see falling snow, it’s almost a guarantee that you can jump on your Facebook Newsfeed and see no less than 37 memes and complaints about “people not not knowing how to drive” and “this is Pittsburgh, it’s snowed here before.”
You’ll also see even more dramatization about the amount of snow that’s going to fall and gripes about how the weatherman is NEVER right. I try to give the meteorologists the benefit of the doubt – they are trying to predict the future, after all – but I don’t think they do themselves any favors by naming every storm. And monikers such as “Snowzilla” and “Snowmageddon” don’t help, but I don’t believe those names come from the news stations. Regardless of where the names originate, Facebook certainly does not help contain Snowzilla’s icy breath from causing the next Snowmageddon. So, yes, Facebook drama queens and lousy traveling conditions allow me to sympathize with the winter haters.
My sympathies end there, though. My disdain, if you can even call it that, for winter does not begin or end with the cold, snow, and ice. It’s merely the other people that dislike it so much that they can do nothing but be bitter about it that causes me to sometimes, and only sometimes, wish the snow would melt.
In all actuality, I embrace the biting temperatures and the frozen stuff that falls from the sky. To me, there’s no beauty like looking out at a scene with a blanket of untouched, pristine snow. Walking along, listening to the subtle crunch of snow beneath my feet with my camera in tow…well that is euphoria for me and I forget about the cold.
I forget about the cold, that is, until the mercury busts through the bottom of the thermometer. Even when that happens, though, there’s a good chance you can find me playing near the banks of the rivers in the city. See, when it gets to be so cold that the rivers, mostly the Allegheny River, freeze I find the patterns, lines, and shapes make for amazing compositional elements in my photographs. This ice usually lasts more than a day also, and even though the it’s seemingly solid and static, the patterns are pretty dynamic which allows for unique photos with each visit, even if I stand in the exact same spot.
Usually, inclement weather is a detriment to my photos along the rivers because I almost always try to incorporate reflections for added interest. But if it’s windy and choppy, the reflections are nil and that can make for a dull subject and photograph. Frozen rivers, though, provide patterns, shapes, and lines that negate the need for a reflection. They serve as an interesting foreground and lead you right to the subject of the image. If the skyline is reflected in the ice or unfrozen patches of water, then that makes the image even stronger. Not needing calm waters expands the amount of “worthwhile” time I can spend on the shores and adds endless possibilities to what I can create. So I say bring on the snow and ice.
Now I’m not saying winter is a season without its drawbacks or that it doesn’t get unbearably cold out there. It does. It gets really, really cold. But I feel, when I’m not numb from head to toe, that after a freshly fallen snow, there’s too much beauty to be seen out there to stay inside. If I’ve yet to show you enough to convince you to take a winter excursion yourself, well the cause might be hopeless. So just cuddle up next to the fire with a nice glass of wine or mug of hot chocolate, and take a trip into the cold through my eyes. Let me show you what most choose not to experience. Let me freeze so you don’t have to.
As a 31 year old man, you would think my days of playing in puddles would be long behind me. You would be wrong. I probably play in the leftover rain more than most toddlers you know. So I guess that “man” word is not suitable for me. I suppose, in actuality, I am just a 31 year old kid. And I’m okay with that.
I’m okay with being a thirty-something man child because very near the beginning in my journey to becoming a photographer, it was playing in a puddle that taught me an invaluable lesson. That lesson was one about perspective and just how important it is for creating a compelling image. If you look at the photo above, my first puddle photo and aptly named “Puddles of Pittsburgh,” it’s pretty clear to see that the skyline of Pittsburgh is being reflected in a puddle. What’s not so clear is the collection of outtakes I snapped before I was able to get “THE” shot. Standing in front of the puddle just didn’t do the scene any just or convey the image I had in my mind. It wasn’t until I got down on all fours, and then eventually flat onto my belly, that I realized I could include a large portion of the buildings in the reflection, creating a much more dynamic and interesting photograph, simply by changing my positioning. I had discovered there is more to plopping a camera down, snapping a photo, and moving on to the next shot. Work the scene. Change positioning. Change up the perspective. Get creative. I had read many books, articles, and essays on composition…but it was that puddle that taught me this most important lesson.
…and as a bonus, here are some of my favorite puddle photos: