Real Retro

Model Mosh, Feb 2012 in Echo Park, Los Angeles.

Sometimes people assume I’m appropriating old vintage images, in the way someone might scan a 1950s magazine add and mess around with it, but all my photo images are originals.  This was shot February of last year.

I’ve also had a lot of inquiries from people wanting retro or pinup style photos, which is not really where I’m coming from.  In general I don’t like nostalgia at all.  What’s interesting to me is the challenge of creating a scene as realistically as possible via shooting circumstances, props, HMU, wardrobe, processing.   I absolutely despise stuff that is anachronistic without intent- for example, all the styling and look is retro, but the model is covered in tattoos or the processing is 100% modern digital look.  It just seems lazy and ill thought out.

For the record I also hated in Star Trek: Enterprise where the female Vulcan T’Pol was played by an actress with obvious lip/ bust surgery and fake tanning.  I suppose the same could be said for 7 of 9, except she’s a Borg and you expect a little cyborg enhancement with those guys.

The one thing that nostalgia has going for it is, it’s very easy to figure out all the elements because it’s so commonly understood and there’s a cultural feel for what belongs.  Grain belongs in old film photos, as do certain paper textures.  Halftones go with someone being mass printed before computer printing.  A VHS look is common to 1980s images.  Movies like Drive understand this and match logos, music, acting style, etc. to give a very convincing, very specific feel to how a viewer interprets a work.

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Unnatural Nature Photography

Nature photography doesn’t come naturally for me.  I love nature but there definitely is confusion on my part on how to approach it creatively.  I’ll look at photo magazines, blogs, tutorials, and  there’s all kinds of interesting photomerges, macro work, epic vistas, etc. alongside the most overprocessed and banal images, and I haven’t found a specific way I want to shoot things.  In lieu of a plan, I have be going out daily with my camera and shooting nature the way I would shoot people.

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Chandler’s Environmental Education Center as shot with a star filter on the lens.

“Not having a plan” is no reason to not photograph.  Many of the best things that have happened to me personally and professionally are the result of not having big plans.  This is about shooting to get better at shooting, to enjoy using my camera, to spend time doing stuff with my kids, to be outdoors and healthy.

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shot at Phoenix Zoo
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@ Chandler’s Environmental Education Center
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@ Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo
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a bit of an all-over composition from Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo

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The Vanishing Art of the Music Video

My favorite musicians tend to have an equally appealing visual style to their covers, their videos, their overall image.


The Eels, masterminded by a man called E, use a lot of quirky humor and deadpan delivery mixed in with tales of loneliness, suicide and cancer. Frequent appearances by strange characters- the Dog Faced Boy, the Bus Stop Boxer, an old railroad man- instantly pop in my mind as interesting visual references. His videos contain all these elements and are so simple in their portrayal of E as a sad sack who can’t get a break because his date pays more attention to the dog. Another video is a simple document of purchasing dogfood, another involves teenagers challenging E at every turn. These are lo-fi ideas that have easily relatable scenarios with dark humor.

Another favorite of mine is Mutemath, whose music uses energetic cut-up rhythms and warped vintage guitar and organ sounds. As much as they are a product of the digital era, they lean heavily on analogue sounds, and their video presence is much the same- the breakthrough video, “Typical,” was shot entirely in reverse, and “Blood Pressure” uses unusual editing that reacts to the music to teleport band members around and make them appear to fly.

Other musicians who left an unforgettable visual impression on me? U2 as photographed by Anton Corbjin, all of Bjork’s videos and covers, Richard Avedon’s Beatles. All are great examples of something starting as sound inspiring a visual image- evidence of how ideas translate from one sense to another.

I Bought Lights

I finally broke down after 14 years of photography and bought a set of strobes last week. It was a three light kit with several modifiers, just enough to get me through this year and build up more “cinematic” looking images.

Model Briana Robertson in one of my Scream Queen images.  Barn doors strobe to the face, grid strobe to the chainsaw.
Model Briana Robertson in one of my Scream Queen images. Barn doors strobe to the face, grid strobe to the chainsaw.

The difference between strobes and other ways of artificially lighting, like speedlights and hot lights? Power and versatility. I can shoot at lower f-stops thanks to the power and modify the spread better than a speedlight.

The first shoot I did with the new setup was with Briana Robertson, shooting material for my upcoming Scream Queen show. These are images influenced by stereotypical portrayals of women in horror and sci-fi films, so it was important to have that cinematic approach I mentioned above. Cinematic lighting just means the lighting is super controlled to emphasize particular storytelling elements and emotion. The opposite of cinematic lighting would be “doing the best with what is available,” which can work, but as one could imagine, a movie wouldn’t be very good if people just worked with what they had on hand and didn’t try to tell a story through angles and lighting.

After an hour of shooting one light went out, so Briana and I finished some non-Scream Queen images by using window light and a small reflector.

Briana with solely window light and reflector.
Briana with solely window light and reflector.

Location Location Location

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Magdalena at a local Chandler shooting spot.

I found a new shooting location near our house.  It’s a piece of public art called “Reflection” that has a nifty side effect of casting excellent photographic light all over the place when shot in the afternoon.  My kids don’t make the most agreeable models at times but it was important to get a couple shots of this place, so I have an example to show around any adult that I am shooting for.

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Patrick at “Reflection.” All lighting is natural daylight, blown around by the wall material.

 

Man Ray’s Montparnasse

Most books I read are nonfiction, and the only ones I read start to finish in large chunks are biographies of people I admire.  Johnny Cash, Michael Caine, Ice-T, Daniel Lanois are recent reads.  I like knowing the struggles and choices these people dealt with that led to their creations.  When money is a problem or creativity ebbs, it is useful to remember that even Johnny Cash was mauled by an emu.

I recently found a book on Man Ray, and to a greater extent the other artists in community with Man Ray throughout the early 20th century.  I think Man Ray is the most obvious influence to anyone looking at my black and white images.  A nod towards dreams, expressed through tasteful use of special effects, immaculately produced.  The film in this blog is a nice sampler of his unique visual techniques.

The book, Man Ray’s Montparnasse by Herbert Lottman, is a pretty straight reportage of the titualar artist’s life and affiliations.  It informs as to the details of the Dada and Surrealist movements, but is a bit short on dialogue between the individual movers and shakers.  One would hope there would be some more rough edges to a tale about artists emerged in the subconcious.

That aside, it doesn’t take much to keep me vested in something that is both art history and political history of the early 20th century.  The Modernist movement era that the Dadaists and Surrealists belonged to was the era that artists stopped being concerned with making religious works  and obtaining patronage by the wealthy and were more concerned about exploring the possibilities of humanity and new technology.  It’s like a baby taking its first steps.

Man Ray himself is universally recognized as a groundbreaking photographer, especially in portraiture and fashion photos, but it’s comforting to me to realize he was hired as sort of a straight portrait maker. And it’s fun to read he was shy upon shooting one of his first nude models. He had problems with love and money and getting his work recognized. These less glitzy moments are strangely what makes Man Ray even more of a hero to me than he was before.

Vik Muniz: Waste Land

Waste Land is a 2010 documentary on an artist and his effect on subjects who work as recycle pickers in Brazil’s largest landfill.  Vik Muniz, the artist, uses unusual material to replicate his photographs on a large scale, then rephotographs the result.  The director is Lucy Walker, with music by Moby.

I love the notion of taking photography beyond photographs so I therefore love Vik Muniz, but he’s also an artist with a heart.  Muniz wants to make work that changes peoples’ lives for the better.  In the case of the Waste Land documentary, he wants to use garbage as a medium and wants to better the lives of the people who work with garbage.  Vik photographs them in classical poses, projects the image on the floor of a warehouse, and the pickers place material to match the values and lines of the photos.  The final photographs are to be auctioned off with the money going to the pickers.  One of the pieces actually hangs in the collection of the Phoenix Art Museum.

It would be easy to do a biographical sketch of an interesting artist but because of the topic, and because of the various effects Muniz’s good intentions actually have on the pickers, there is an enormous depth to the film which I can only compare to Born Into Brothels- another documentary about a photographer who changes the lives of her subjects.  One woman, Iris, talks about how she lost her song at age 3 to pneumonia and hadn’t seen her daughter in 6 years, and was begging to remain in the studio rather than return to work at the landfill.  Behind the scenes, you can see the discussion between Vik, his wife, and his artist partner where everyone but Vik is concerned they might be screwing up these peoples’ lives by inflating expectations.  At the start of the film, the group had expected the workers to be miserable, only to see they were joking and thought of their job as environmentally important; the truth turned out to be more emotionally complex.  Vik thinks it would be a good thing if the pickers were opened up to the potential their lives could have.

Could someone trying to do good actually cause harm?  Can art change lives, and should it?

Waste Land is currently showing on Netflix.