Working with Vernacular Images

2012 photo of model Anastasia Arteyeva that utilized textures I scanned from inherited family photos.

In the last year of cleaning out my mother’s house I’ve found a great deal of vintage photos/ slides/ albums/ paper materials from a deceased great aunt.   Authentic vintage imagery that’s any good is something one has to hunt around for at flea markets, so to have a pile of it drop into my lap is a bit of making lemons from lemonade.

inherited family photo
inherited photo

Below are a few examples of what one can do with old photos and papers:

  1. Scan textures or other design elements.  There is a big market for textures not just by photographers but graphic designers, illustrators, and mixed media artists.
  2. Recontextualize the stories within the photos.
  3. Use them as sources of inspiration- this hairstyle, these types of fashion, get an idea and recreate it in real life.  Mark Klett revisits the location of old photos and photographs them as they are today, seamlessly blending in the old images with the new.
  4.  Mixed media creations.  Draw yourself into an old photo, cut them up and make interesting collages like Tomek Dakiniewicz.
Crow Girls
turning racist postcards into political art


The Many Faces of Murder

This week I did mixed media using prints I made over the last several months.  Mixed media often has only the vaguest of plans- when I looked at this image of Ana and the knife, I knew it needed blood in their somehow, but that was about all I knew.  So paint was poured on a piece of plexi over the photo, then sprayed off, and the plexi placed at odd angles while having sunlight cast shadows of the plexi, the water, and the paint on the print.  No photoshop to any of these.


Abandoned Work

Until last year I was using a Fuji Instax to take Polaroid-like photos alongside my regular digital work. The film isn’t cheap and honestly has little appeal to me- you get one special image out of $30 worth of shots. I included the comparison of a final digital image with post work and the corresponding “Polaroid” and it’s clear there’s no contest as to which is superior.

Every photographer who works creates series has series concepts that simply don’t pan out.  By “series”, I mean a set of photographs that visually make a greater statement when combined than they do individually.  The easiest kind of series is to pick a thing and photograph that thing in different ways or scenarios.  Then there are series that tell the story of a subject/ concept in the way documentary photographers do.

With the ground rules in place- there are a lot of reasons why a series doesn’t come together.

The photographer lost interest.

The work was never edited properly into a series.  Currently I have a ton of nature images that don’t add up to anything.

The work involved collaborators who weren’t available to complete everything.  In the case of a series of bodypainted images, the bodypainter became unavailable after we got ½ through the proposed series of Goddess images.

The work involved equipment that failed, was sold etc.  I had some fun doing lomography work but gave away the camera in a contest before I ever got a series out of it.

The series didn’t show depth or variety.

And sometimes those series just take a long, long, long time to put together.

New Memorial 15-2
While I was at ASU I minored in American Indian Studies, which has a pro-indigenous component to it. I also worked in a rehab with a large Native American teenager population. This was an attempt to explore the effects of alcohol on local indigenous culture by shooting memorials on reservations, but I quickly realized I was not a spokesman for tribal issues or someone with a personal stake in the issue, just an outsider trying to make art out of someone else’s pain. In the end I had very little to say about the subject and discomfort with the series made me abandon it.

Lately I’ve been trying to sort out my lingering series and turn them into something that could be a gallery show, a folio, a book, a print set, whatever.

Chun Li lights up-2
Shot with my Diana F film camera. The amount of time and money shooting film negatives, scanning them and spotting out dust didn’t justify getting these kind of images.
Glass Olive destructo 2-2
From an attempt to salvage the Diana F- multiple chaotic exposures that wouldn’t need spotting since the dust was part of the appeal. Still didn’t set my world on fire.

I still haven’t found a way to recover some of the false starts to series, but they are always interesting to revisit and try to figure out where it went wrong and what went right- we learn more from our failures than our successes.

The Most Horrible Photo Words

I dislike two words that are common to the photographic lexicon:  “editing” and “retouching.”

Editing implies a business-like cutting away of elements.  The main goal is removal of elements rather than the building up of elements.

The original image of musician Jessica Kelly and one with about an hour of post-work done while sitting at Burger King. Background simplified, multiple textures added, dodging and burning on the figure, monochrome treatment applied, Nik software tone mapping and Silver EFX Pro applied, layers mixed.

Retouching is primarily associated with making a more commercial product for an ad.  It’s easy to imagine retouching a model or actor’s skin, or a product shot, to make it as appealing an image as possible.  It’s harder to imagine, say, Barbara Krueger creating her political slogan collages via “retouching.”

In sculpture or illustration, you start with nothing and add elements.  Video and photography, you create a recording and try to create the best version of the recording through blending elements.  Music is somewhere in-between- songs don’t exist until you start adding elements, but then you create the recording.  The best description I’ve seen for manipulating recordings is post production or postwork.  It better describes the process of creation than mere cogs in the wheel like “editor” or “retoucher.”

Those words apply to the creative side of photography.  On the business end, there are a few words that are like nails on a chalkboard.  I get a lot of emails asking to “collab,” which is text-talk for “I want you to help me create my ideas for free.”  Best not to go down that rabbit hole.

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

new times
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.