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

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.

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.

Hive Gallery “Stitch Fetish” show

I’m typing this at the tail end of a night at LAX after participating in a LA gallery show.   Forgive me if this blog descends into incoherent claptrap.

I Was A Teenage Spiderwoman featuring Mosh, shot Sept 2012

I showed a lot in galleries after I graduated ASU but those shows never went anywhere, partly because I was so introverted I never spoke to anyone, or wasn’t able to attend openings, and perhaps partly because the work I was making wasn’t that interesting.  As I was generating offspring in 2007 and 2008 the ability to participate in shows metaphorically went from the backburner to wayyyyyy back in the attic.

Murder Was Her Middle Name featuring Mosh, shot Sept 2012

Fast forward to 2013 and I have 5 years’ worth of better work to get out to better gallery opportunities.  The first this year was work I had collaborated on with my wife Vesna, images I shot with her embroidery added.  As it was fetish related, it only made sense to use images with the super-talented fetish superstar Mosh.  Amusingly the curator of the show bought into vintage pinup vibe that Mosh exudes so much that she assumed that they were actually appropriated images from the 1950s rather than ones I had actually shot.

Son of Bride of Cockroach featuring Mosh, shot Sept 2012

When Vesna and I do these embroidered prints, I usually sketch out where I want lines to go and choose which colors go on it.  Then Vesna picks the stitch type and her interpretation of what I draw is pretty different, which usually is a cool thing.


In regards to the actual content of the images, this “Scream Queen” stuff is going to be expanded to a bigger series and will be the subject of my first solo show of note in April.  It’s a loving parody of how women are portrayed in genre films, as authentic as I can make it.

The Fabulous Five

One of the photo podcasts I listen to, the Candid Frame, has a photographer reccomendation at the end of each episode. I realized that between photography, music and comics/ graphic arts I could easily rattle off 5 artists I idolize in each category except photography. Which isn’t to say I don’t love many photographers’ work, but I can’t name them off in a fannish manner as I can creators in other media. So here is a list of 5 photographers I can say I am a fan of…
Sebastio Salgado Gold Serra Pelada, Brazil
1. Sebastio Salgado – the first artist to grab my attention and make me want to take pictures. It was after I saw an exhibit of his “Workers” series that I signed up for my first photo class. Easily the greatest photographer of human rights and the best political photographer to have walked the earth, Jacob Riis coming in at a close second. Kind of the U2 of pictures, which I mean as a great compliment– I definitely believe an artist should have their politics on display if it’s important to their lives.
2. Ralph Eugene Meatyard – from the political to the psychological and philosophical, Meatyard had a strong interest in Zen philosophy and created images that were koans– unsolvable riddles. I love his printing style and I love the fact he wrote himself into his copy of Beaumont Newhall’s History of Photography.
Victor Masayesva
3. Victor Masayesva Jr. – A local AZ mixed media artist who is essentially a photographer yet so much more. His focus is on culture as an insider, not like the “outsider” style images of National Geographic or Edward Curtis. There’s humor and poetry to his work. A similar mixed media Native American photographer is Pena Bonita, who I interviewed during my ASU years.
4. Joan Fontcuberta – This is the kind of work that really pushes boundaries of what could be considered photography. Landscapes that never really existed outside of paintings and blood on slides and imaginary animals. Wonderfully extreme and influential in my current Mythological Monsters series.
frederick sommer
5. Last of the Fabulous Five is Frederick Sommer, who has a grounded surrealism that’s neither cosmic nor conservative. Sommer did a lot in Arizona that I find myself ‘borrowing’ from- dessicated animals, landscapes without horizons. His sensibilities are somewhat close to Meatyard, replacing the Eastern philosophy with scientific scrutiny.

Remixed Media + In Camera Manipulations

Sierra McKenzie dolled up in a torn up assemblage.
Sierra McKenzie dolled up in a torn up assemblage.

Last year I did a couple articles for Model Mayhem about making images more creative, one about mixed media and the other about in-camera manipulations.

The entire text of both articles is below, but it’s worth backtracking to the original posts and there’s more photographic examples of what I’m talking about. I’m aware that there are many more non-photoshop techniques to make stuff interesting looking, but these are what I most commmonly use.


Part 1:

There are times when I love the computer and all it aid me creatively, and there are periods where I’ve spent so much time staring at a screen I want to scream. These are the times where I want to make tactile art- get hands wet, use paint or drawing, burn, freeze, and otherwise engage in a physical process while working on photos. I am sure this calls back to my college years in the darkroom and working with other media. Mixed media has been part of the photographic art since the first false color was painted on a black and white print, and is everywhere today, from scrapbooking to the highest level of graphic design and fashion shooting. Bringing in other media can take an ordinary image and give it a layer of “meta” context.

Sylva "Scar" reacting to her pinata.
Sylva “Scar” reacting to her pinata.

1. The simplest means of adding media is to print an image and alter it physically. Andy Warhol famously added gaudy paint to images he didn’t take, in the simplest means of enhancing what was already in the frame. Paint could also add details- for example, painting makeup on a model’s face after the fact, or adding an environment when there wasn’t one previously.

Actress Stephanie Danielson as bodypainted by artist Jamie Graden, who did the illustration after we printed this photo.
Actress Stephanie Danielson as bodypainted by artist Jamie Graden, who did the illustration after we printed this photo.

2. Drawing on a print is a bit trickier since lines then to be less noticeable and many types of print paper don’t accommodate drawing media very well. In this sample image, the bodypainter didn’t have time to paint all the details she wanted- so after the fact, using a large print and tracing paper, she drew the lines on a different sheet. This linework got scanned, inverted and dropped on top of the model’s bodypaint to create the final piece.

3. Other objects can be collaged on top of the print in creative ways. One humorous sample I’ve seen involved food items like green beans and orange slices organized into parts of a model’s anatomy, all on top of the print. More abstract means of collage may involve chaotic assemblages of multiple photos or substituting textured paper for wardrobe.

Mosh with embroidery by my wife Vesna.
Mosh with embroidery by my wife Vesna.

4. Embroidery on a print can give the impression a subject is interacting with the linework- energy forces tugging at them, a spiderweb holding them in place, something radiating from them.

5. The forces of nature can be employed to alter your print in less planned, but no less interesting, ways. Freeze the image, burn it, leave it in water or bury it in dirt and see what happens. The weathered textures some people look for in their images look more convincing when they are real and not simple photoshop blends.

Mosh wearing Vital Vein fashion latex, shot Sept 2011
Mosh wearing Vital Vein fashion latex, shot Sept 2011

These are really just the start of what one can do when other media gets mixed with photography. Far from invalidating the art form, images that make creative use of actual handwork and real life effects stand out amongst the deluge of straight digital work on the internet.

Lacheln in Jacci Jaye styling, painting by me (obviously the photo as well)
Lacheln in Jacci Jaye styling, painting by me (obviously the photo as well)

Part 2

This time we’ll look at some of the in-camera alternatives to post-processing manipulation.

It’s worth noting that all of these effects are time-tested, some going back to the very dawn of photography in the 1830s. Done properly, they still look and feel as fresh as any of the latest Photoshop plugins.

1. Controlling time

The camera controls exposure via the aperture, the ISO setting, and the shutter speed, and it’s this last factor that can create the simplest of the special effects. The shutter allows the photographer to control the amount of time that passes when an image is captured, so we can have a lot of time pass–resulting in a blurry image if the camera is handheld, or there are moving subjects in front of it–or we can shorten the length of time–making some objects freeze that wouldn’t normally be visible to the naked eye. Simple enough, right?

Throw some flash while shooting with a slow shutter speed and an effect called “dragging the shutter” occurs. It’s generally how we see these images showing, say, a baseball player in motion, with the player frozen, but a subtle blur of where he used to be.

If you are dragging the shutter– say, 1/15th of a second shutter speed– and zoom your lens, or pan quickly to the side, you’ll see even stranger effects. “Strange” as in Star Wars or 2001: A Space Odyssey style “strange.”

A more complex way of capturing multiple images in one frame, without blurring, is to use powerful strobes that fire at intervals within a darkened space. The best examples of this style are the work of Dr. Harold Edgerton in the mid-20th Century. Definitely worth a Google.

If your subject is stationary during a long shutter speed exposure, but lights a Maglite with a gel on it, or even a colored cell phone screen, and moves it around, that’s called light painting.

2. Changing the light that comes through your lens

The most common way to alter the light as it passes into a lens is via filters, those little glass circles that everyone is supposed to have on their camera. Common filters reduce haze, UV, glare, etc. but there are specialty filters that more radically alter the light coming in.

Lacheln shot in RAW Textiles, Dec 2011 Seattle
Lacheln shot in RAW Textiles, Dec 2011 Seattle

A star filter creates starry lighting effects that you might associate with cheesy 1980s Christmas TV specials, but they were popular in their heyday for a reason–people like shiny, sparkly things. Lens flares may be anathema in stock photography but interesting flaring is common enough in fashion; besides sparkles, the crosshatching on the filter glass causes unusual flares when light hits from oblique angles. The hatching shape determines the number of points on the stars in the photo.

Sierra McKenzie shot with my prism filter (promptly lost after this shot).  The hologram in her glasses is a Wal Mart display board reflection.
Sierra McKenzie shot with my prism filter (promptly lost after this shot). The hologram in her glasses is a Wal Mart display board reflection.

Prism filters are somewhat costly and less versatile. They break up a single image into multiple images similar to a kaleidoscope. Instant psychedelia. It’s a thick chunk of glass that reduces edge fidelity, and is someone what difficult to use. Suddenly, instead of composing one image, it’s composing three images across the frame, and composition rules like “rule of thirds” and “leading lines” can no longer apply.

There are many other specialty filters, more than I have the space to list. Bokeh filters give specific shape to the points of light that bleed through your images–so if for whatever reason, you wanted all those lights in the background to be hearts instead of lights, there’s a way to do it. A neutral density filter acts as sunglasses for your camera–allowing you to slow the shutter speed in the brightest of daylight. See the section on “controlling time” for reminders on how that is a useful effect.

Basically, anything you place in front of your lens is going to shape the light for the good, the bad or the interesting. Saran wrap, drier sheets, a glass block from Home Depot, a glass of water…

3. Bending the lens

A less common way of altering the light is to bend it in relation to the camera body. The simplest way of accomplishing this is removing your lens and holding it close to the lens mount as you take a photo. Not all cameras allow a photo to be taken without the lens actually attached, and it could get dirt on your sensor to work this way, so a more precise version of this technique is a Lensbaby. There are various models but they all function with a “sweet spot” of central focus, with the rest of the image rapidly blurring. It’s a fun lens that helps dissolve distracting elements, like a vending machine or people walking behind your scene.

Sierra McKenzie shot with my lensbaby Sept 2012
Sierra McKenzie shot with my lensbaby Sept 2012

If you’re very serious about perspective control, a costly tilt/shift lens may need to be on the Christmas list. For SLR cameras, the tilt/shift lens has knobs that separate the front end of the lens barrel from the rear. If the front glass remains parallel to the sensor, you can correct the way buildings appear to recede when photographing them. If the front glass is at an oblique angle to the sensor, you can get a similar effect to the Lensbaby. Large format cameras have tilt/shift built into their design–it’s that fancy accordion bellows that everyone remembers.

4. Merging within the camera

Double exposure is always a classic. It’s two (possibly more) shots on one frame, accessible through the camera menu. If you utilize a Lomography-type camera, some allow overlapping of film frames, leading to pseudo-double exposures or jagged panoramic. Some digital cameras have panoramic features to them as well.

Smartphone’s have blurred the line between what is “in camera” and what is considered post-work, but for the traditional SLR/DSLR user, these tools are a means of creatively widening a personal vision.