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!
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!
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…
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.