Cheap and Oddball

When I teach my photography classes, I spend 2 hours on basic accessories.  Lenses, tripods, reflectors, flashes etc.  Often people ask about the small doodads that you can get cheap, like adapters for the on-camera flash.  My experience is those are fairly worthless and exist to part amateurs from money.  That said, I can think of two oddball items I bought years ago that I wouldn’t want to be without. 

One is a gel camera strap. 

An eye of a frog captured with the Opteka extension tube set.

The other is a set of Opteka extension tubes.  These run around $70 on, and are an alternative to macro lenses that run around $500.  Anyone with a sense of adventure and an interest in the small would be well served by getting these.

The adorable face of a shrimp.



Influences: What Would Jeff Lemire Do?

bc0cefbfe1660e93e9f420736871d44dToday I’m sitting drawing and I’m really struggling. Every item I need to draw in a story- from the LA skyline to a courthouse exterior to the jumpsuit a prisoner would wear- I have to google image it. The whole reason I turned to photography as a teenager is because it was a more natural means of expression for me, where I didn’t have to think about how to best render something because I could just take a photo of it. Now, once you get beyond basic photo classes, the challenge becomes “HOW should I take a picture of ____ to express an idea?” But if the goal is to realistically render a person, place or thing, photography is the natural choice over illustration.

Now I’m working on a mixed media project that, at its heart, is an illustrated comic book. There is no escaping that I have to do some drawing. And I look at illustration every day, probably since 2nd grade, in the form of comics, children’s books, museum and gallery work, etc., and I’ve been almost jealous of the talent of these artists. But in the work of artist/ writer Jeff Lemire, I’ve found someone with lovely storytelling and unique art that doesn’t conform to any expectations of realism.


Jeff is a Canadian who worked for years in indie comics before moving on to mainstream work with DC Comics. His early work “Essex County” involved tales from his own life that had a meandering quality to them- a boy befriends a local hockey legend with suspected brain damage. The stories of “Essex County” fall in the category of “character study” rather than “intricate plot with critical insights into human nature,” but that’s okay- often it’s those character studies that make for the more interesting art. A typical “Essex County” page has 3-4 panels of art and minimal dialogue, making the book a very quick read, but the art is so warm and soulful it’s worth lingering over.

His follow-up work of “The Nobody” had a similar theme with a small community, this time featuring the Invisible Man. Jeff’s epic “Sweet Tooth” came next- the elevator pitch being “Bambi meets Mad Max.” A virus devastates humanity and only animal/ human hybrids are born after the plague strikes. The art again is long on establishing details and the story keeps the dialogue minimal. It’s the work of a creator who has a simple story to tell and strives to make it as good as possible. There is some experimentation- in dream sequences, Jeff swtiches to watercolor washes, and any exposition dumps are accompanied by uniquely designed double page spreads.


I can relate to Jeff’s rural sensibilities and his interest in what I’d describe as “low tech sci fi” (invisibility serums and god clones vs., say, nanobots and Tony Stark-ish tech). I really like the nervous quality of his linework, and the imperfections of his characters, partly because I will never be a realistic artist myself. Even as I break down my page layouts I find myself referencing Jeff’s pacing and panel placement. Specific shots he has illustrated all would make for lovely photographs.

How much of my final product will be drawn and how much collaged from photos I take isn’t clear but for sure, between the lines there will be a lot of cribbing from Jeff Lemire.


“Scream Queens” @monOrchid

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from the Phoenix New Times “Night and Day” section, one of the Scream Queen images featuring Briana Robertson

After several months of work, my first solo gallery show, “Scream Queens” opened on April 5th at Phoenix’s MonOrchid gallery. I’ve described the work elsewhere but didn’t list the image titles, which were an awful lot of fun to come up with:

“The Horrible Hall of Mirrors”
“Jaws in Reverse”
“Chainsaw Sunglasses Massacre”
“Shadowplay of the Megatarantula”
“The Phantom Stalker”
“Angels of Death”
“I Was A Teenage Spiderwoman”
“Beware the Strangler”
“Lust of the Dinosaur”
“Assassin Queen”
“Eaten Alive!”
“Son of Bride of Cockroach”

A viewmaster featuring 7 of the show images in 3D form.




Visual Appropriation

Model Aly F shot in Seattle. I scanned a couple vintage postcards and added the elements on top of the photo, with a pulpy texture to hold it together.

Appropriation in the art world is a fact of life.  Every time someone:

-gets an idea from a movie, tv show, lecture, song, other piece of visual art

-creates a work that features a pop culture character, for example drawing a picture of the X-Men, or a character from religion/ myth/ shared culture (Jesus, Zeus, Dracula)

-samples a sound from another recording, or a visual reference from a film or tv show

there is some level of appropriation, or “borrowing something to recontextualize it”. Why this is controversial in some types of art and not others is a big mystery to me. I don’t know anyone who decries movies for basing films off of books or fairy tales. Disney built its empire on appropriation, not bland old Mickey Mouse.

Olive + key
The original image by me, featuring Glass Olive, hair by Vicky Buge and makeup by Claudia Aguilera
collage by Tomek Dakiniewicz featuring part of my original image

Appropriation is a technique I probably couldn’t live without. Sometimes it definitely is about building works on the shoulders of giants- for example, in music, you could capture the spirits of Jimmy Hendrix and John Bonham by sampling their sounds and making them part of your band, if only for one song. Most of the time it’s about making use of pieces that I simply could not replicate. I cannot find a giant cockroach to menace a model and I can’t draw one, so appropriation is the only way to get the image to work.

Mosh battles a giant cockroach. Cockroach image came from a Smithsonian site which I projected on the wall.
A sample from my “Foto Fables” series, which was about 75% appropriated imagery and 25% parts I photographed on my own. The background to this harpy image was from a wall scroll I photographed at the Phoenix Art Museum, and the eagle wings were from a statue in downtown Chandler- so even the parts I shot were appropriated from the works of other artists.

One of my favorite works of appropriation by others is the early 80s film “Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid” starring Steve Martin. Martin interacts with old film clips and the noir tale is built around the pieces.

Model Glass Olive, bodypaint and background image by Jamie Graden, hair by Vicky Buge. Another creative use of the projector, which used art by the bodypainter projected against a wall. One could argue that a huge chunk of this photo is Jamie’s painting.

It’s incredibly common in music and illustration, and collage is completely about appropriation, but many photographers jealously guard their ideas and secrets and look down on the technique. The only kind of appropriation I dislike is the unimaginative time- the very literal use of an idea, like Led Zepplin playing Robert Johnson songs and calling them their own, or repetitious monotony, like comics artist Greg Land reusing the same images of glam women over and over. There is no substitute for imagination, honesty and hard work.


Sierra McKenzie in LA last August.

When I saw Clint Mansell live a couple nights back he had a singer named Peter Broderick on a huge video screen, just a close up of his face. Right now I’m really into extreme close up stuff- I’d be doing x-rays of people if I could, but currently I have to settle for scanning them instead— but that video performance made me take a second look at some of my other closeup images like these of Sierra.

Sierra McKenzie shot last August

I do like simplicity and directness in art, and faces of people can be really engaging. There is a challenge to shoot and process them with some elegance and “specialness” which makes my face photos different from any other face photos around.

New/ Old Scans – Redefining a Series

Jane 1I haven’t shot much this week but I did a lot of organizing. That can be as productive in building photo series as creating new work. I’ve done scanner work of 4 models at this point, and I’ve decided to widen the series to include all kinds of people, not just nude models. To this end I dug up some old scans of Patrick and took advantage of a father-in-law who visited.

Jane 2

Most of my series start with using a technique, then take on their deeper meanings. Scanning people was weird and cool but it’s become about human skin, aging, approaching the human condition by staring realllllllly close.

Patrick scan

Locations: Santa Monica

Kalinda Gray
Kalinda Gray

I first went to Los Angeles around 1998, and I always make a trip to the beach part of the routine.  My favorite beach by far is Santa Monica.  It’s crowded and you’re sure to pay for parking, which isn’t the case at a lot of other beaches, but being located at the end of I-10 and Route 66, it feels a bit like the end of the world.  You drive and drive until you hit the end.

I spent Sunday morning there with my family and it got me thinking about all the other shoots I’d done at the location, on the pier with the rides, deeper in the neighborhood amongst the houses and cafes.  Using the murals or bicycle racks or excercise equipment or giant chairs or underneath the pier.  Every shoot I’d done there has come out different.

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Sierra McKenzie w top by Bonsoir Bella
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Lacheln in Anna Morph designs
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Sugar in Anna Morph designs
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Sugar in Anna Morph designs
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Heather Votaw, hair by Victoria Buge
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Kalinda Gray
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Magdalena on Sunday
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Magdalena last Sunday
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Sierra McKenzie shot with my prism filter
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Amy Jo Colon, hair by Victoria Buge
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Hanna Kondo, hair by Victoria Buge