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.
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.
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.