"I'm a photographer."
I have to be honest. In today's age of commoditized photographic mediocrity, when I hear people say that I cringe... or smirk, or both. I guess I should explain why I get my knickers in a twist about it. It will help you understand me.
I have a little experience with pictures and a bachelor's degree in Fine Art Photography (and another in Communications,) but do not call myself a photographer. For more than 30 years I've had a camera close by, and I'm not a photographer. Having and using a camera, DSLR, phone, point, and shoot or otherwise makes you a camera user, not a photographer. Regardless of the frame size of your gear, its resolution or how much it costs. Being a camera owner and a user does not instantly bestow the title of "photographer", ok?
When I think of a "Photographer" I'm taken back to some of my first interactive experiences with silver and gelatin. Real film, real paper, real chemicals, and process. I grew up in a small town at the edge of the California Sierra Nevada foothills, on the road to Yosemite. Seeing original prints in The Ansel Adams gallery was the place I first learned to appreciate photographs. From then on it was a love of the image that kept me interested.
In college, while I was studying Aeronautical Engineering in San Luis Obispo CA, I was working shooting portraits in a mall photo studio during the days and at a commercial studio/photo lab at night doing all of their custom darkroom work. Honestly, I was enjoying work more than school. The darkroom has always been as fascinating to me as the studio. We created latent images on film in a camera, but for me, photos were truly created in the darkroom. The demise of the art and science of the darkroom in this digital age of point and click editing is truly saddening.
While I was trudging through my engineering classes, I decided I would take some photography courses to clear my head of all of the physics and equations of becoming an engineer. With that decision, I became friends with and was mentored by one of my professors, the man who literally had a hand in creating Sports Illustrated and had his first cover of Life Magazine when he 17 - a portrait of Eleanor Roosevelt.
Mark was the first person who looked me in the eye and told me he liked what he saw in my photos, and that I should pursue photography as a passion. He said to enjoy it first, hone the craft and eye, and if it were meant to be, it would become more. I had the opportunity but not financial support to attend Brooks Institute and Cal Arts shortly thereafter, and soon dropped the unsatisfying pipe dream of living my life crunching numbers as an engineer to pursue a life of art.
I was still working in the darkroom and had begun taking photos of surfers from the water. At the time, most people were shooting from land or piers with telephotos and it was a fairly unique thing to do. I would pull on my wetsuit and flippers, lash a boogie board to my wrist, and take my 35mm SLR in what amounted to an industrial Ziploc bag out into the water. The fun part was that to be in the right spot for a good picture, you would get pounded by the waves. It was more fun than riding the waves was for me. I most often used a 28mm lens because of the awesome depth of field and the fact that did not require fine focusing (manual focus is a thing...), and I was often just inches from my subject.
Long story short, I ended up getting married and moving inland and working for non-photographic entities. I did some studio work and layout for local newspaper ads on the side and had a darkroom in the garage. After working for a few years, I finished college in the vocation I loved, not one that I thought would make money - Fine Art Photography.
Since then, I've shot travel, product, portraits, weddings (in pre-digital days when you overshot medium format like crazy for insurance and it was agonizing waiting for all of the proofs) and owned too many cameras. At one point in what I like to call the gear addiction phase I had half a dozen 35mm bodies, twice that many lenses, a 6x6 TLR, a 6x4.5 SLR and a couple of 4x5's (one was a really cool old Press Camera that I'd had a Graflex back mounted on to. I kick myself for selling it) and all of the support gear for it - studio packs, umbrellas, strobes, speedlights, and a killer darkroom to support the addiction.
My career came to be and moved forward, family progressed, and I eventually sold most of the gear to fund more important things like electricity, diapers and milk. As digital imaging became, viable, I jumped in and found it enjoyable - and at the time, I thought it made photography far too easy - commoditizing and reducing the skills I had spent years nurturing to mere mouse clicks. I felt that digital photography encouraged exponential mass mediocrity. Digital puts millions of photos that would have remained in people's shoe boxes under their beds in photographic ages prior out on the interwebs for everyone to see. Digital was for photography what Henry Ford was for the Automobile.
While many people initially claimed foul with button delay, lagging write times and poor image quality, I eventually found digital imaging simultaneously both freeing and constricting. Gone were the constraints of film, but new ones seemed to arise quickly. Resolution was poor in comparison to my SLRs - pathetic on an exponential curve as you moved into medium and large format films. Printed digital was disappointing. Washed out highlights seemed to be a given just to get decent shadows, and the ranges of digital seemed entirely too narrow for fine art. Of course, at the time, I had no idea that Moore's Law would apply to imaging as well. In addition to my 35mm SLR setup, I eventually settled on a single digital point and shoot camera - the original Pentax Optio WP. With that small, viewfinder-less but waterproof and fine optical tool, I eventually may have gotten over my stodgy ideas that film and darkroom were superior and reclaimed a love for simply creating images.
I set out to prove to myself that the eye of the artist was more important than the tool that captures the image. This site is part of that journey.
Keep in mind, however, that I was and am not a photographer.
The Optio also came at an opportune time of my imaging life. I have awesome and photographically tolerant kids and had the opportunity to travel with work to some places we westerners consider exotic. So decent images seemed to just happen often, and well.
One of the things I most enjoy about digital is memory. Mark told me years ago that if you worry about how much film you are shooting, then you didn't bring enough. Twenty, thirty, a hundred rolls a day were normal in his world. Now, I have the ability to carry the equivalent of about six rolls of film per gig on a card, and six of those in a case smaller than a box of Altoids. Another benefit is the real-time review. If the picture obviously sucks and you would be embarrassed to claim it at the Fotomat (remember Fotomat?!?), you click it away into the ether, right in the camera. Cool....
With essentially unlimited memory, why bother reviewing every image? I have to be clear. I have a serious pet peeve related to this: “chimping” camera owners annoy me to no end. I was at a wedding a few months ago where three “professional photographers” were all completely unable to snap a photo without chimping it. Every – single – shot. They missed innumerable candid opportunities because their faces were buried in their gear. Live and shoot in the moment. Review later.
It took me a long time to get over the fact that in the past, I would spend entire days in the darkroom working on burning, dodging, solarizing or working to get density separations on litho film, and in Photoshop or some other software you can do it in seconds with a half a dozen clicks, or with filters and macros, in a single click even. At first, I felt it totally diluted and minimized the craft of creating an image from a piece of film. I was torn up for years. Seriously ticked off. I eventually realized that even with the software, there are craftspeople and there are hacks - and yes, you can do things that took hours of painstaking time in seconds.
What I have realized is, again, it's the eye, not the tool that makes the image. At the most recent juncture in my journey I've begun to focus a little on the tools, the enjoyment... and have ditched my DSLR's for a mirrorless compact camera system...
These days the ability to claim the title of Photographer seems easier and more prolific than ever, yet I am still uncomfortable saying I am one. So many people have digital cameras – even phones are excellent image producing tools these days – that there are likely more images being created than ever in the history of photography. People are enjoying creating their images, which, honestly is the best part. Advances in the technology have allowed creativity and ease of creating images beyond the wildest dreams of the artists I mentioned earlier. That said, someday, if I work hard and earn the title, I might be a Photographer. In the meantime, I am a lifelong artist, and the photographic image is my chosen medium.
Join me on that journey.