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Category Archives: Musings

Are Portraits a Window into People’s Souls?

Recently, while listening to one of the podcasts I subscribe to, Philosophy Bites, the subject came up discussing portraits and some various thoughts on portraits being and insight to a person. It isn’t very long and I recommend it.

The podcast resonated with me since it, in some ways, echoed my thoughts of portraits and the people being photographed. I make no claim to have some sort of superpower which allows me to stare directly into the subject’s soul, but I do feel that there is something I learn about the subjects in the act of taking their portraits. Self image, imagination, self-reflection and willingness to take risks come across very clearly during a session.
This is no less true when taking portraits of groups. In general when shooting groups I first ask the people to arrange themselves in a way that feels right to them. Most of the time, aside from some adjusting on my part, they are very close to being spot on. It is very telling about the family on how people position and posture themselves in relation to others in the group. Who stands next to who? What spacing do individual impose? What are they doing with their hands and arms? That says a lot about the dynamics within a family. I am not saying it is a perfect window, but it is very telling.
So, next time you look at a portrait, even if it is a family snapshot by uncle Ray, look at the arrangement, see what things you can pull from that photo, you may be surprised. Likewise, when you are being photographed, what are you telling the world about yourself?

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Posted by on October 31, 2010 in Musings

 

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Pictures Never Lie… Or Do They?

Most of us, we snap our pictures, send them to the local Walgreens and have new prints in our hands within an hour. The pictures we take are the pictures we get back. If Bobby has a mole on the side of his nose when we take the picture, he has a mole on the side of his nose in the print we get. If Martha is putting on a little weight during the family snapshot, she continues to carry that weight in the photo. Throughout the aeons (or decades rather) we mere mortals were stuck with reality, at least in regards to our photos. But magazines were never satisfied with reality. Customers and consumers, in America, at least, expect perfection from their media stars. There is only so much one can do with hair stylists and makeup artists. There is only some much one can do with posing techniques to hide or minimize this or that. For decades professional studios air brushing was the answer to fixing the flaws in their models. Who can count the amount of paint spread over the photos of actresses and models over the years.

With the advent of Photoshop the game changed. With each successive release, it becomes easier to performing tasks that were almost impossible decades ago. Before, what took years of skill to master now becomes routine tasks that most photographers , with a little bit of computer skill, can do in minutes. As we demand physical perfection in our movie and media stars and technology makes it easier to make sure that a photo of anybody can achieve that level of perfection.

I am not such a purist that I rail against covering pimples, whitening teeth and removing stray hairs in my portrait subjects. After all there are a number of things that interfere with a good photographic representation of a person. But what is occurring are physical standards that are set which are physically impossible for them to occur in nature, namely the size of women’s hips. This is nothing new as far as having standards which are impossible to fulfill as the ancients all had ideas of perfect human proportions which they used for art. But with the photography, we no longer look at figures in sculpture and paint as physical ideals, but physical reality. Women (and to some degree, men) look at women in these photos and assume that unblemished skin, the full lips, the vibrant eyes, etc, etc. is actually representative of that person in everyday life. But that could not be further from the truth. Undoubtedly there are a few that have the look, the skin and the body that comes close to those ideals, but even those people are not safe from being savaged by the hands of Photoshop artists.

My point is not to get into some discussion about women’s self-image, media using sex to sell products or anything along those topics. Rather, my intent is it show and to make people realize that they should not expect to what they see in and on magazines to reflect any sort of reality. Nor, should they expect ANY picture to reflect reality (more on that subject later).

Now for some examples. The following video shows, through the power of time-lapse a woman of mediocre looks transformed through the magic of makeup, hair styling and Photoshop into a gorgeous woman.

The picture below is from a Ralph Lauren ad wherein they modified this woman’s hips to the point of physical impossibility. I am not exaggerating, the proportion of head to hips is not possible, biologically speaking.

Ralph Lauren Model

A model with impossibly small hips.

Below shows how the face of a famous person was transplanted on to the (bizarre) body of a model for an advertisement.

Woman with transplanted face

Woman with transplanted face

Even senators are not immune from some major touch ups. Witness a rather recent cover shot for a rather old Nancy Pelosi.

Nancy Pelosi Photoshop

Nancy Pelosi never looked so good.

 
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Posted by on August 15, 2010 in Musings

 

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Does The World Need More Pictures?

How many pictures are there in the world? On the Internet alone there has to be billions of photos. If we add all images ever made, the number is mind boggling and, who know, it may reach into the trillions, Against this mountain of work, this lone photographer wonders, does the world need any more pictures?

There is a case made for photojournalism, wherein current events need recorded for posterity’s sake. And there is some need to document key events in a person’s life. But other than that, is there really a need to add any more pictures to the giant pile if images that already exist?

I suppose if I were to create something new, that might be a good excuse to add to the corpus, but is that possible? Going through the list of landscape, architectural and fine art photographers it is apparent that very few people from this generation will top that work. Also, rarely do the newer artists will do something that is truly new and the best we can only copy what have seen and add our own imperfections.

Dorothy Sayers wrote one of my favorite books entitled, “The Mind of the Maker” in which she provides profound exposition of two of the most famous Bible texts – Genesis 1.1 “God created the Heavens and the Earth” and Genesis 1.27 “God created man in his own image”. The question we face is what does it mean to be made in God’s image? Traditionally, Protestantism held that “work” was the crux of the creation passage and that through work we, as mankind, find our purpose. For six days God did labor, and thus sets the pattern for us. From this, the concept of calling is introduced, in that God provides desires and direction for people to take on occupations and that through that work we find happiness since we are made in the image of the working God.

What Dorthy says that it isn’t work that is the primary focus, but “creation” is the key to understanding what it means to be made in God’s image. For six days we see God’s hand in creating, and likewise, we are creators. Not true creators in that we create physical something from absolute nothing, but we in a more limited sense bring about something new. Looking around us, this explanation seems to fit. From architecture to sculptures, from medicine to roads, we constantly reshape our world. This explains the drive to produce pictures when the world is already full. It explains the illogic of a species so bent on producing goods that provide no tangible benefit. We make and consume it simply because it makes us feel a certain way.
Like art, photography, fits into a metaphysical category that defies scientific explanation. One hand the world doesn’t need it, but on the other hand, in a very contradictory way, it apparently does need it.

So , is it with audacity that I attempt to sell my work that is so feeble in comparison to the work of so many others? No, it is with wonder. It is with amazement. It is with thanksgiving that somehow I am a part of the chain that brings the wonder of this world to people. That the sights and images that move me, also move other people. That we can all celebrate a single capture of time and space.

I can’t make sense of it, but that is ok.

 
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Posted by on July 11, 2010 in Musings

 

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Do you have any Christian pictures?

Subway Cashier

DSC_5170_1_2.jpg, originally uploaded by ecfman.

A few years ago, a co-worker interested in purchasing something for her pastor friend asked me if I had any Christian pictures. I do not remember my response but undoubtedly it went through my filter before it came out my mouth. While this may be the only time this question has been posed to me, there is an underlying feeling that permeates through the Christian community and it doesn’t end with photography.

As many of you know, I am a Christian in the fullest sense of the word. Take all the stereotypes that one has for a conservative, right-wing fundamentalist Christian and they probably all apply. Because of my beliefs and my hobby, one would think that when posed with this question that I would say something like “Why yes, yes I do. Let me show you some of my most Christian pictures I have”. But I did not. Why, might you ask? Because the question, and the premise behind it, is deeply flawed.

If I asked the woman to define a “Christian picture”, quite likely I would be met with silence or she would ask for some tranquil nature scene with a Bible verse at the bottom of the picture. After all, if you happen to glance or shop for artwork at various Christian book stores you either see the scene I just described or featuring a prominent biblical figure (and usually that figure is Jesus) or just some bible verses in artistic script.

Since all the biblical figures, or at least actual ones, are long gone that only gives me the option of shooting the tranquil scenes and adding some quote from the Psalms or Proverbs. If I take the bible verse out, that only leaves a tranquil nature scene. Deer drinking from calm pools, eagles soaring among the clouds, and majestic mountain shots are the types of elements needed for that formula. And if we distill this Christian photo (or even Christian art) to that essence, then any lovely scene is a Christian picture. At least as long as the work produces certain feelings of calmness or piety, it gets the stamp.

Personally, I don’t think any art, can achieve the title of Christian. There may be Christian themes, characters and imagery, but that, in and of itself, does not make it Christian. Instead, I believe that there are Christian artists who produce work that is influenced and informed by their faith and creed but there is no litmus test to determine if something is, indeed Christian.

But I will say this. The work is formed by the artist’s intention. For some people, art is merely and expression of what is inside. For others it is a means of expressing ideas and perhaps influencing people’s opinions and both Christians and non-Christians produce art that affects its viewers positive ways and thus it becomes a very tenuous proposition to reject the art of one person in favor of another’s because of a particular artist’s creed. An artist like Dore’ created stunning art that found its way into millions of bibles. His work adorns the museums and homes of thousands, but yet, he was not a Christian

But what it comes down to is this…art that seeks to do good and right and is not created to serve debased emotions is “good art” in the moral sense, and those that do the opposite are morally “bad” art. But among the “good art” there is no way to sift out “Christian” and “non-Christian” works. So, rather than worrying about having Christian photography or Christian art hanging on our walls, let us instead be satisfied in adorning our rooms with works that are aesthetically pleasing, and be thankful to God that we have the grace to enjoy it.

 
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Posted by on June 24, 2010 in Musings

 

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Failure – Man’s Best Friend

Who loves to fail? Personally,  I don’t particularly enjoy it and you probably don’t either. Failure comes in many forms; from test scores to job interviews to relationships. Rarely do we suffer physical effects from our failures, but they often come at an emotional or psychological cost. Our initial reaction to pain is to avoid or remove it and avoiding pain sounds like a good physical or emotional plan, but is it really? Because when it comes down to it, avoiding failure often means giving in to fear. And while a good dose of fear has kept both you an me alive for all these years, what is its cost?

Last year I set up a booth at Urbana’s Market on the Square selling prints. After looking at my work, a man told me that he was an amateur photographer as well. He entertained thoughts of selling his work at markets and fairs, but wasn’t sure that he was good enough. He feared that by putting his work in the open, people would openly criticize his photography. I understand the fear of spending money and not getting a return, but it is a bit of  stretch to believe that people would publicly ridicule a photographer. First of all, people are generally to polite for that, and if they aren’t polite then you can count on the fact they just don’t care that much. If people don’t like your work they simply pass by. His irrational fear prevented him from doing something good, perhaps even great.

This isn’t easy and change doesn’t come overnight. Also, I am not immune from the irrational effects of fear and I am no expert in psychology but here are some thoughts when fear is keeping you from doing something …

What is the worst thing that (reasonably) could happen? Everything we do involves risk, even getting out of bed is a risky proposition. But understanding both the potential risk and its severity is important to assessing any course of action. Many times the greatest risk is simply rejection. There are a number of strangers whose portraits I would love to take – free. Why not just ask them? Because I am afraid of how embarrassed it would be for them to tell me “no”. Looking at this situation, the severity of failure is low (brief embarrassment from somebody I don’t know and will probably never meet again) but the probability failing is high. It is quite clear that my fear is quite irrational, or at least the intensity of that fear.

It is worth doing? This is personal question we all have to answer for ourselves. To spend our lives seeking out and fixing every irrational fear we have would probably be irrational and neurotic in itself. Choose your battles. There are certain things I want to accomplish in this life  and certain activities that I consider are worthy to pursue. We all have a short amount of time (life is too short)  to excel  which necessitates the removal of unnecessary obstacles that we place in our own path.

Fear doesn’t have to be an enemy to conquer, but can be a friend to motivate. Instead of  it repelling us backward lets use it to propel us forward. What I am suggesting is this, put yourself in situations where you can fail but use that energy to work hard to ensure that you don’t. Fear generates a good amount of energy and motivation, which properly directed, allows people to accomplish things thought unattainable.

 
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Posted by on June 5, 2010 in Musings

 

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Why not a photo walk?

Photography is often a rather solitary activity; standing behind the camera trying to best utilize or manipulate the scene to produce great pictures. Unless we speak to a model (or indeed there is a model), there is very little communication that transpires at any given “session”. And while many enjoy solitude, photography doesn’t always have to be a socially closed activity, it can be a “team sport”. One popular means is to mix a love of photography with a good dose of socializing is an event known as a photo walk.

The premise is simple; you, and at least one other person, grabs a camera, meet at a specified location and walk around shooting pictures. It can be at any location and it doesn’t even have to be somewhere exciting. Small towns, large cities, parks all provide opportunities for this photographic social experiment. What benefits are gained through said activity?:

  • An opportunity to use your camera. Many people have cameras (and often expensive ones at that) that are nothing but dust collectors. Often the problem is that people do not know what to shoot and they feel awkward going about in public with a camera around their necks. Photo walks cure both problems since the subject is already decided (alleys of Chicago, carnival at Eureka, etc) and there will be at least one other person looking just as silly.
  • Gain friends. Spending time walking and talking invariably leads to a better understanding of the people you are with. Since all the other people are doing the same thing, you now have at least one thing in common with every person in the group. Remember, these events are not just about taking pictures and if you come away from an event without having participated in some meaningful conversation, you missed the point.
  • Learn the basics of photography. I find that photographers are, by and large, a knowledge sharing community. We are all in this hobby because we love it and generally we all love to help other with the craft. As you walk around, ask questions about the specific shooting situations you find yourself.
  • Become a better photographer. No matter your skill level, spending time walking around with people and seeing what they shoot and how they shoot is bound to provide you with ideas that you otherwise would have missed. Notice the postures people take when shooting. Notice the subjects that others shoot and how they approach those subjects. Try to see the world momentarily through their eyes.
  • Develop your eyes. Too often we are in a hurry to shoot. The photo walks forces us to slow down and take a deeper look at the world. Often the things we miss by driving by an area, will scream out at us while walking. Up close, what is often mundane can become spectacular. Shoot things you normally wouldn’t: garbage cans, sidewalks or even sides of buildings. Who knows what wonderful things you appear when you look at the pictures on the computer.

Photo walks are simple to organize; simply pick a destination, a time and contact some people to see if they are interested. It is that simple. IF you are fortunate enough to live in a large city, there are probably camera clubs and meetup groups (www.meetup.com) that have walks that you can join. If nothing else, find just one person to go shooting with.
So, break out of your shell and enjoy the combination of two great things people and photography. And even if you don’t come away with a good picture you will have come away with a good time.

 
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Posted by on May 30, 2010 in Musings

 

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Why Aren’t YOU Blogging?

 

Currently, there are approximately 113 MILLION different blogs on the Internet with 175 THOUSAND new ones created every day. Given that some many people are blogging may make one wonder why she should even bother starting her own. After all, does the world need yet another blog? Can anyone produce something that hasn’t been done before? 

Well, maybe the world needs another blog like it needs another book, or movie or music cd. While it is difficult to state that such an endeavor will shake the foundation of the earth there are good reasons to blog. Below I give some reasons why I think blogging is important. I will divide this into personal and professional reasons since there are different ends for performing this exercise. 

Personal Reasons: 

Keeping in contact. The popularity of Facebook demonstrates how important we feel it is to keep in touch with friends and family. We don’t have the time (or care) to make a phone call, but we do like to know life is going for the people we know. This is nothing new. While writing letters is perhaps a dying “art” there are still some people that send lengthy letters at Christmas time detailing the family events of the year. Reading those letters gives us a nice feeling of connectivity. But instead do doing one large letter at year’s end, why not just do smaller ones on a more frequent basis? This removes the burden of trying to recalling all the year’s events. You just simply do updates on a regular basis (say every two weeks) OR as big events transpire. Blogging makes this very easy. 

Improve writing skills. Most of us are not great writers and we may never achieve that status but we can improve. The problem is that we often don’t improve and we actually get worse. Once out of school almost all of us stop writing papers and essays. Yes we do write emails and do a lot of texting but that does not demand the same amount of skill that more formal and creative writing does. 

Reflection.  Someone once said that an unreflected life is not worth living. Whether or not you completely agree with that statement, there is something to be said about taking the time away from our hectic schedule to reflect and to ponder. So much of out time is taken up absorbing information (listening to music, reading books, watching movies) that we seldom take the time to make sense of it all. And if we try to communicate to others in a meaningful way, that necessitates that we take the time to properly understand. It is of no surprise that those who learn the most are those who teach. Start communicating and see what you learn. You may learn for the first time those things you already knew. 

Business: 

Improving Web traffic. Blogging is a very cost effective way to drive internet traffic to your site. With a basic understanding of Search Engine Optimization (SEO) one can generate a form of online marketing that cost very little money (like free). 

Advertising products and services. When companies have specials or want to highlight a new product they often advertise by way of a newsletter. These are sent out on a somewhat regular frequency and often in the form of an email. Blogging give as way for companies to highlight those special items without having to wait until the newsletter is sent.  This is especially true if customers subscribe to the blog. 

Connect with the customers. Just blogging is not enough, you need to give your readers/customers some value. Seeing fresh posts make customers realize that there is life within a company. That means that your company is not some lifeless entity which robotically fills orders but rather is populated with real people who actually giving information they want/need and the author(s) is somebody that is somewhat tangible.  A chance to connect on a more personal way with current and future customers is priceless.

 
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Posted by on May 27, 2010 in Musings

 

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