Teach Yourself To Teach Others

I teach classes in photography for a couple of the local city rec programs and I think I’m pretty qualified to do it. Lots of experience, a BFA, been through a teaching program and taught high school photography for a couple years, and often I get paid to shoot. I also teach drawing and comic making at an arts center. This spring I added watercolor and pastel classes, and this summer there will be mask-making, bookmaking, and manga classes on top of the others. I wouldn’t say I’m an expert in any of those areas but that challenge is part of what makes it exciting; learning new skills to pass on to others.

Masks, books, pastel work, watercolors, and drawing are all things I’ve done and been taught by others. All of my life up until the end of high school was about drawing, and I only turned to photography because I couldn’t draw as realistically as I wanted to at the time. Now that I’m older I understand you make the craft work for you, because art at its best is about self expression. Two other guys who couldn’t draw a real person to save their lives were Charles Shultz and Matt Groening; they drew what worked for them and their work touched millions.

The truth about tools, like cameras, pottery wheels, applications etc. is they are pretty easy to learn and if you introduce to someone else how it works, and give them a few samples showing the potential of the tool, creative people will take it and run with it in whatever direction they desire.

I was thinking about this because I’m starting to do more projects that are outside my normal creative output. For example, ceramics was something I had a single class in in 2006, but I enjoyed the zen nature of the wheel and sculpting faces. I owned a wheel for a few years and created faces on my own, until around 2009 I sold the wheel and stopped doing ceramics because I didn’t have a kiln. Once the bug hit me again last year I made sure each piece I created was an improvement on the past pieces- either by adding unique textures, or accessories, or smoothing out the edges- and the work got better.

The next project which is kind of a new field for me will be comics. I’ve made a few comics off and on over my life, mostly involving photography, and I’ve taught making comics for 2 years. Because the writing is a quicker process than the art, the goal is to write comics for other artists to bring to life, but to do that, I have to 100% create my first comic, work out the bugs in the writing, and understand pacing and how dialogue and images really work. It’ll be a challenge but a fun one.

I know I can’t draw a human being to look super realistic, but I do know enough about how to communicate an idea with the elements of art, principles of design and composition, how a lightbox works, how photoshop works, how to use prismacolor markers and charcoal and scissors and tape and masking fluid, and I know what kind of stories I like and what I don’t like, that I’ll probably be able to get by. I would wager most creative people who apply themselves to new media or genres or art forms would be able to do well if they have the drive in their heart.

The more stuff I make, the more experience I have to pass on in teaching, but perversely it’s the teaching that makes me learn more and more about each craft.


Amazing Exhibits at the Phoenix Art Museum

The Phoenix Art Museum is hosting several interesting exhibits this summer, but there are two that are truly inspirational.

“The Process and the Page” features photographer books and original prints from Richard Avedon, W. Eugene Smith, Ansel Adams and others. Among these well-known names were two women photographers who I had never heard of, Rosalind Solomon and Barbara Crane.  The work of these women spoke so clearly to my art photography aesthetic tastes, and I have to attribute my ignorance to the usual over emphasis in photo history on the white male perspective.

Also showing is a collection of Japanese Noh Masks, “Quiet Rage, Gentle Wail”.  I’m a fan of all Japanese Art, there’s equal parts elegance and goofiness wrapped in an exotic sushi roll.  Since I also make sculptural masks of the same approximate size, I got a lot of ideas to incorporate in my own pieces; the forehead bits, ways to work with cheeks, strange expressions, demon men and the outer shape of the masks.

Ceramic masks I made after viewing the Noh exhibit at the Phoenix Art Museum.
Ceramic masks I made after viewing the Noh exhibit at the Phoenix Art Museum.

The photo book exhibit runs through August, and the Noh Mask exhibit runs through November.  My Noh-ish masks are on Etsy and Ebay.


Interview Excerpt: Teaching

Interview Excerpt: Teaching
A portrait of a student shot and edited as a class demo.

I am spending most of June and July teaching at Mesa Arts Center and for the cities of Chandler and Tempe Rec programs. I’ll probably do two model shoots in that time, but it’s still productive time because when I teach I learn as well. Making handmade books, masks, watercolor, pastels, product photography are all topics I’m teaching. Below was a big of an interview I did with PhotoWhoa blog about teaching:

Q: You also teach several photography courses. After teaching, what core insights from your own work have you found yourself sharing the most?

A: The people I teach to vary from retirees to young adventurous photo couples to moms who got their very first camera, and the most important thing is that they take pleasure in taking photos and not see it as some struggle with gear or lack of creativity. I would say a large portion of them walk in the class believing that the technical aspect of photography is the most important thing to learn and that’s the only thing stopping them from taking good photos. The technology is important but that is the easiest thing to learn, and if you can’t learn it, there’s always the “program” mode, however people should first love photographing, be it their children or trips or the food they eat or whatever. It’s a means of expression for a lot of people who aren’t artistic in any other sense.

Inspiration: Doug Jeck

Between photography, music, ceramics and comics, I have to make choices as to how much time and energy I have for each.  The hardest part of loving various creative mistresses is that even though it’s all indulging a muse, things can get compartmentalized – should I spend so much time working on music when it won’t result in another gallery show or etsy sales?

That’s why I appreciate artists like Doug Jeck, who is primarily known for his ceramics.  I came across Doug’s work in a book called “Making Marks” by Robin Hopper, and the sample Jeck piece showed a photograph applied across a ceramic face of the photo’s subject, Jeck’s father.  The combination of photo and ceramics is something I thought about but never fully realized.  I had actually thought in the reverse- making ceramic pieces to photograph in a diorama, but I personally don’t have the patience to do diorama work.

Doug Jeck
Doug Jeck

Another of my favorite pieces involves a woman’s head atop the body of a sleeping dog, sort of a modern domestic sphinx.  It’s lovely, primitive, mythological, silly, and something everyone can relate to.  I love it.

Doug Jeck

Creative Spaces Pt. 2

my drawing/ painting classroom at Mesa Arts Center

Previously I wrote about my home studio areas, where the majority of art making takes place.  Sometimes there’s just no being creative at home- which brings me to the various places I go with the laptop or ipad to create.

I teach classes at a few art centers around the Phoenix Metro but the one that clearly screams “fancy art studio” is Mesa Arts Center.  Big studio spaces, all the amenities like industrial sinks, huge kilns, pretty courtyards, speakers in the ceiling, spotlights, it’s heaven if you are a non-digital artist.  Digital art can be carried anywhere however, and I find a big difference in my creativity if I’m in a space that is meant to be a creative space rather than a multipurpose area like an office space, coffee shop or rec room.

My other primary  creative space out of the house is Tumbleweed Rec Center, which I’ve taught classes at for 5 years.  Tumbleweed is close to my house, has a large gym space, free coffee and daycare for my kids.  Those other amenities make it useful but not quite as creative.  The work that I primarily get done there is more of “submissions, bulk photo editing, answering emails” variety.  Since there are inevitably other people present I have to be wary of doing postwork on R rated images, or having music outside of headphones.

If I need to stay superfocused with zero distractions, I venture to Gangplank in Chandler, a community work space for designers/ creatives/ web developers/ inventors and home of the $1 Red Bull vending machine.  Since everyone is there to work I don’t have any ambitions to mess around on the internet.  It actually feels like the opposite of Mesa Arts Center, in that the office space is pretty unattractive and uninspiring but it’s all business.  Except for the Makerbot where people are making toys.

It’s a bit odd to have to play mind games with oneself- trick yourself into being productive- but if you’re a freelance creator, it’s a necessary evil to keep oneself fresh creatively and satisfy the need to be social.

Influences: Japanese Photographers

This is an entry from an ancient (2009) blog but I was pleased to rediscover the work of these excellent Japanese photographers.

A few weeks ago I mentioned doing a weekly investigation of a photo artist to broaden my horizons. Today, I can report on two such
artists, both very famous Japanese photographers, Masao Yamamoto and Hiroshi Sugimoto. I came across Yamamoto checking out some of the photo gallery shows coming up in Tucson. He was part of an upcoming show co-featuring one of my old professors, Carol Panaro Smith, and I found his minimalist approach very appealing in the same way sumi-e or haiku satisfies in their elegant nothingness. You find this a lot in Japanese art and not so much in Western art, especially modern US photography, which seems to be more focused on information overload.

Here is one of my favorite images from Masao Yamamoto:


 is someone whose work I had seen before–exposures of a movie theatre, taken over the period of the entire movie. I didn’t put the name to the work, but while looking at Masao Yamamoto’s site I saw images of seascapes reminiscent of the album cover of U2’s No Line on the Horizon. That cover was actually a Sugimoto image, representative of his recurring theme of photographing time via really long exposures.


Interview: Digital Photo Pro (2012)

This is an interview I did for Digital Photo Pro Magazine in 2012, as a photo of Mosh is a finalist for their “The Face” contest.  It ended up as a #4 finalist, meaning I got published in the magazine and subsequent book but didn’t win any of the prizes.


How long have you been shooting photos of people/portraits?

Since 1999.

Why do you like to shoot photos of people/portraits?

I think there are less limitations to the imagination when one is working with another adult human being, as opposed to shooting landscapes or wildlife etc.  There’s also a level of excitement and engagement you get from a human subject that feeds back into the shoot.

What’s the toughest situation you’ve faced when shooting a photo of people/portraits and how did you overcome it?

Probably the most difficult shoot involved taking a bunch of equipment on a rooftop in downtown LA to photograph a nude model body painted like a beetle.  It was 2 AM and there were helicopters everywhere, and of course we were by a billboard with bright hot lights going.  The extension cord had to be snaked through a kitchen window on the floor below.  Every time I heard a helicopter I had to cut the power to the lights.  We shot that in maybe 20 minutes after 6 hours of body painting.  All the equipment went up and down this small, scary fire escape ladder, and the model was freezing, but it was a ton of fun.

What’s the best advice you’ve received from a teacher, mentor or colleague for people/portrait photography?

I had a teacher at ASU, Carol Panaro-Smith, who encouraged the students to make unique, individual pieces.  That wasn’t exclusive to people photography but it’s how I approach my shoots, individual portraits unique to the scenario and the person rather than a series.  I use Jay Maisel and Brooks Jensen as a “vitural mentors,” because I’ve never met them but I voraciously absorb their interviews/ podcasts.  What both have in common is they lead photographic lives, always taking their cameras around, being open to everything, working as minimally as possible.  Jay says “the more crap you carry around the less pictures you take.”

What’s the story behind this photo? 

This was a fashion shoot for a clothes designer, Vital Vein Fashion.  We were going to emphasize the red in the latex so the model, Mosh, brought along a wig that had a red streak in it- she emphasized it was quality because it came from an “authentic transvestite.”  The studio was pretty spare so I asked  Mosh to do different gestures within a certain amount of space with the idea that the images would be torn up and reattached.  We shot maybe 20 of these gestures.  I printed them out at home, tore them up, and taped together the half images.  The taped up print was rephotographed.

What equipment did you use (camera, lens, lighting gear, tripod)?

Nikon D700, 50mm, Profoto 7b with a beauty dish, manfrotto tripod

What do you think makes a great people/portrait photo? 

I like when the photographer’s vision, the subject’s personality, and the environment all blend together so each portrait is a unique piece.  The environment has to be simple but support whatever the subject is doing, whether it’s a natural setting or seamless backdrop.  The subject should have some identifiable emotion, and caught in a gesture, not blank or lifeless.

Whose people/portrait work do you especially admire or feel influenced by?

Sebastio Salgado, Ralph Eugene Meatyard, Sally Mann, Richard Avedon, Dan Winters, W. Eugene Smith