Interview with Inspired Eye

Originally appeared in Inspired Eye, Issue 71, July 2019

What inspired you to become a photographer?                 

My father was an artist, so when I was younger, I dabbled with painting and drawing. While he always claimed that I was better than he was (I disagree), I did not want to compete with him. When I discovered photography, I realized I had found an artistic medium that would allow me to be visually creative and not competitive.

What age are you and at what age did you start your journey as a photographer?

I discovered photography in high school, when I was around 15. A friend of mine was taking a photojournalism class and wanted someone to go out and take photos with. I purchased the same camera he had, a Minolta X370, and we’d go out on weekends to take photos. He taught me the basics of ISO, aperture, and shutter speed, and we’d return after a day of shooting and turn one of our parents’ bathrooms into a makeshift darkroom to develop our film and print contact sheets. I’m 48 now and much prefer the digital darkroom, though I do miss contact sheets.

Would you mind sharing some of the things you feel helped you along the way with your photography, (lessons, workshops, books etc) … and also some of the things that may have hindered you that you overcame on this journey?

I feel very fortunate that I learned the basics through an apprenticeship approach. It wasn’t till years later that I started to look for books and now online resources. David DuChemin’s Within the Frame is an excellent title covering both craft and vision. Andrew S. Gibson also has several ebooks I have enjoyed over the years. While not specifically about photography, I found John Daido Loori’s The Zen of Creativity to be a very inspiring resource. It probably didn’t hurt that I read it while doing a meditation retreat at a nearby Zen Center. No real hindrances besides finding the time and motivation to shoot occasionally.

Do you feel photography enhances your life? If so, how?

I can’t imagine life without photography. It’s been a part of my life for so long now. I agree with Dorothea Lange that “The camera is an instrument that teaches people how to see without a camera.” I have become more mindful in my photography over the years, learning to shoot less but see more.  

If we are speaking specifically of photographers, which are the ones of the past and present do you admire?

Probably not surprisingly, I’ve always admired documentary photographers and photojournalists. From the past, Eugène Atget was an early favorite. Margaret Bourke-White and Gerda Taro for their talent and fearlessness. Saul Leiter’s color work from the 40’s and 50’s is still stunning, and Fan Ho was taking photos sixty years ago I wish I was taking today. I’ve held Steve McCurry in high regard for many years—what travel photographer doesn’t dream of working for National Geographic and taking that caliber of photography? There are many modern street photographers I admire—Jeremy Perez-Cruz, Rinzi Ruiz, Mark Fearnley, Valerie Jardin. Eduardo Asenjo Matus’s “The Sound of Silence” project inspires and shows how to turn a limitation into an opportunity. Finally, Alan Schaller is probably my favorite photographer shooting today. 

What purpose does photography serve for you?

The essayist Joan Didion once wrote that “We forget all too soon the things we thought we could never forget. We forget what we whispered and what we dreamed. We forget who we were.” For me photography is both a way to remember and a way to share my experiences. Here is where I went and here is what I saw, and hopefully I saw something in a way others had not.

Do you do photography for hire or as an art form?

I have a day job, which allows me to pursue photography as an art rather than as a commodity. At least that’s what I like to tell myself.

What do you do for work and how does photography fit into that?

For twenty years I was a college professor. Photography didn’t particularly fit into my work, but my work allowed time for my photography. The past two years I have switched to an administrative role at my college’s district and am still trying to find a new balance as my work takes up more time and I do not have the breaks I enjoyed as a professor.

What Genre of photography are you most comfortable working in?

I think of myself as a travel photographer as it is when traveling that I take most of my photos. That label also incorporates so many genres—architecture, documentary, landscape, street. I get bored easily, so I like being able to switch from shooting a building to documenting a scene to capturing a unique landscape. When I first started traveling, I used to wait for people to move out of my shots as I was more interested in the architecture or the setting on its own, then I realized I was missing a crucial element of travel—the people—and my interest in street photography grew.

When you work, are you working on different series or just finding photos that fit the way you feel at the moment?

I’m usually not consciously working on a series, though themes do emerge over time. A few years back I was working on a project that involved documenting street art in London, which was a focused endeavor. Unfortunately, that project never came to fruition, but I did develop an appreciation for street art afterward and now seek it out in my travels.

Can you describe a few of the trigger mechanisms that make you want to stop and shoot?

Light and shadow always attracts me, as do interesting angles.

What are your recurring themes?

I love both ancient ruins and modern architecture. I could spend a day exploring Angkor Wat or a Zaha Hadid building. In fact, I did that in Rome, exploring the Colosseum in the morning and Hadid’s MAXXI in the afternoon.

What is the distance to your subject you are most comfortable with while working?

I like to be close enough to be within the scene but far enough to try to not be observed.

What is your favorite Focal Length or Field of View?

For street photography, I mostly shoot either 35mm or 50mm.

What camera are you working with currently?

For the past few years my travel camera has been a Nikon Df. It’s relatively compact yet full-frame, and I like the dial controls. I have recently switched to Nikon’s new Z6, which will make its debut this summer in Europe.

How do you see the relationship with your camera? Is it a friend, tool or whatever?

Again, quoting Dorothea Lange, “You put your camera around your neck in the morning, along with putting on your shoes, and there it is, an appendage of the body that shares your life with you.” I always keep my travel cameras after replacing them because we have shared so many experiences. My first travel camera, which was my first digital camera, was with me for five years. We visited nearly 30 countries together and it was with me when I met my wife while we were both traveling in Tunisia.

Do you have a preference for Black & White or Color? Please explain why.

My film days were mostly black & white as that’s what I knew how to develop. I also liked to use a red filter in those days to enhance contrast and that practice helped remove the simple allure of color for color’s sake, focusing my eye instead on light, shadow, and composition. Today I shoot in color and convert to black & white in post maybe half of the time, but I’d say I probably still prefer black & white.

Are you self-taught, educated or a little bit of both?

Mixture, though no formal training.

How do you feel about being photographed?

Not my favorite thing.

Do you like to work by yourself or to have someone with you? Please explain why.

I’ve always liked shooting with another photographer. These days my wife and I shoot together when we travel. She has a very differenteye than my own. I always enjoy seeing how dissimilar our photos turn out.

Do you listen to music while you are shooting? How do you feel the music enhances the visual experience?

I like to listen to music while editing photos, but not while shooting. I prefer to be fully immersed in the environment when shooting with all my senses present and in the moment.

Do you have a preference for images as an analog or as a digital state?

I fully embrace digital photography, but there is still something about having a printed image that appeals to me. There is nothing like seeing a printed image in an exhibition or in a book—there’s a visceral element that just can’t be replicated digitally.

How important is the post-processing of the pictures in your work?

I see each photo I’ve taken as a first draft. I like to compose in camera, so I typically don’t crop, and I try to not be too heavy handed in my post-processing. I feel it should enhance the image, not distract from the image.

Where in the world are you located?

I live in Southern California, halfway between Los Angeles and Palm Springs. My wife didn’t believe me when we first met and I told her I was an hour away from the mountains, the beach, or the desert. So, the first time she visited, I took her from the snow to the ocean in a two-hour drive.

Where is your favorite place to work?

Anywhere I haven’t been before. I like the challenge of figuring out how to approach a new location.

When you’re feeling somewhat slow or lost, how do you find your way back to find inspiration to get working again?

I’m a great believer that limitations and challenges can spark creativity. Nina Katchadourian has a wonderful series she’s been doing since 2010 called “Seat Assignment,” which are all made in flight using only a camera phone and improvising with materials close at hand. For myself, I like to sometimes only take a prime lens on a particular outing or shoot with a different focal length than I’m used to. My wife and I were recently in Northern California where I knew I’d be shooting a lot of landscapes. Typically, I would be using a lens in the 15-30mm range for this but decided to only bring my 24-70mm and challenge myself by not being able to go as wide as I’m used to.

Do you exhibit your work in any form?

I’ve been fortunate to have two solo exhibitions and work of mine has been included in many group exhibitions over the years, most recently in China, Greece, London, and New York.

Do you go to exhibitions or do so on the web?

I try to make it to a few exhibitions a year. Recently, Andy Summers, former guitarist for The Police, exhibited his “The Bones of Chuang Tzu” at the Leica Gallery in Los Angeles. I used to know every Police song on guitar when I was a teenager, so it was great to now follow him into photography. The California Museum of Photography is only twenty minutes from my home, and I try to keep an eye on what they are exhibiting.

Do you collect other photographers work?

I collect photography books. I have signed copies of Hiroshi Watanabe’s Findings and David DuChemin’s The Soul of the Camera. Very happy to have a copy of Fan Ho’s Hong Kong Yesterday and Kirsty Mitchell’s visually stunning Wonderland. Would love to see that series in person someday.

How do you feel about the current state of photography?

It’s easy to feel overwhelmed with the proliferation of images available today. I try to be very selective in the groups and individuals I follow, sticking with those that inspire me or make me want to raise the bar. It’s not always easy to find them amid the noise, but they do exist. There are some extremely talented photographers out there today doing incredible work. It reminds me of the time I first saw the guitarist Adrian Legg perform. Afterward I thought, “I can either sell my guitar or practice more.” I chose to practice more.

Can you describe how you judge the success or failure of your work?

I tend to previsualize shots, so for me success is capturing what I saw, getting the composition, focus, and settings right. That doesn’t mean there aren’t happy accidents or times I don’t shoot into the sun and hope for the best.

What do you dislike about photography?  

There’s this notion that because everyone has access to a camera, mostly through their phones, that everyone is now a photographer. I disagree. If you hand someone a guitar, you do not consider them to be a guitarist. I feel this diminishes the time and effort that goes into learning the craft of creating images. Everyone can now take photos, but that does not mean that everyone is a photographer.

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