Monday, April 27, 2009

Dirty Inspiration

I love Mike Rowe. Don't know him? He hosts Dirty Jobs on Discovery. It's a fascinating series about the dirty jobs that help make this world run. (Kind of obvious based on the title, eh?). Mike talks about the episode he did surrounding the job of a sheep herder. It's a captivating and animated story that he tells.

A few things are impressed upon me from this video: the ideas of anagnorisis and peripeteia and the notion that your preconceptions are wrong.

Now, anagnorisis and peripeteia don't necessarily apply directly to photography, but work with me. Anagnorisis and peripeteia are literary devices. Wikipedia, the source everyone loves to hate, notes that anagnorisis means discovery in Greek. It's the sudden realization of a situation. In Greek tragedies, it was often preceded by a peripatetic event, a sudden reversal or turning point in the story.

With me so far? Good.

In the journey to become a photographer, one makes mistakes. A lot of mistakes. You forget to focus. You forget your batteries. You forget that larger f-stops give you smaller depth of field. You know, simple mistakes that affect how you achieve the photo you're going for. If you're paying attention, you learn from these mistakes. You have your "ahha!" moment. The lightbulb flicks on just above your furrowed brow right as you make the mistake and you think, "I shouldn't have done that!"

It's that realization that you've made the mistake that's important. But, not everything is a mistake. Many times it's understanding that what you just did failed for some particular reason outside of your control and figuring out why. Another "ahha!" moment. Discovery. Sounds so simple, right?

Yes and no.

When I started shooting, I had a brand new camera in my hands, a bunch of book learning in my head, and my personal experience amounted to a photographic hill of beans. In other words, I was fresh off the boat and I knew it all. All I had to do was get the camera off automatic, twist a few dials, and my inner magician would appear, flashing the scene with The Light Fantastic, and I'd have amazing and emotionally charged photos.

Great concept. Reality left a little bit to be desired. Ok. That's the understatement of the day. Blast! That's when I begun to realize that there was something more to this than whacking the Easy Button and waiting for the benjamins to roll in. As Mike put it, I had a bit of anagnorisis and peripeteia on my chin.

Mike touches upon this idea of challenging your preconceptions. He's right: what if it really is "Safety Third"? Think about that. It goes against your nature to even consider that. Right or wrong, what's important here is that you make the leap between what you know is correct and true to what is sheer crazy talk. It's this leap where the interesting ideas come from. I've often heard this as: when shooting with other photographers, if they start shooting something to their left, you start shooting to their right ... because something interesting is being missed over there.

In the end, what it comes down to is this: we spend our moments looking at what we're doing and testing ourselves in order figure out a better way to do it. If you're good, you question yourself and your routines. If you're better, you listen to those questions and do something with the answers.

Me? I'm going to go wipe these bloody bits of anagnorisis and peripeteia off my chin and find something right to shoot.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

New Rules: How to shoot a datacenter

[Ed. note: I wrote this years ago while after encountering a photog at a day job in a datacenter. I recently came across it again and thought it would be fitting here. Enjoy!]

HayleyToday I was tasked with the job of being the grand overseer of the pretty people and the magic picture box trolls who were rummaging around in one of our datacenters. (read: corporate used one of our datacenters for a photoshoot. They had a professional photographer and a bunch of "pretty people" who were trying to act like sysadmins, scampering hither and thither in our room).

If you're a photographer taking marketing shots of a technical area, I'm going to give you a short guide on do's and don'ts that you and your models should follow.

  1. Do show up on time and listen to the rules the nice sysadmin gives you.

  2. Don't be put off when the nice sysadmin tells you that you can't shoot in the room he has to work in while he's overseeing you.

  3. Do ask questions about what you can and can't do.

  4. Don't just start touching the pretty lights.

  5. Do ask for assistance touching the equipment.

  6. Don't look for a wall of monitors in the datacenter. The datacenter is for computers that are remotely managed. We don't like the datacenter. It's cold, loud, and obnoxious. We therefor spend as little time as possible in there to save our hearing and keep our butts from freezing off.

  7. Do pick models that look like they're sysadminish geek types. I've been a sysadmin for almost a decade. The number of pretty people you brought in to act as sysadmins equals the number of pretty sysadmins in the continental US. It just doesn't happen.

  8. Don't ooh and aaah at the pretty lights and have your models make fake poses pointing at them. It looks silly.

  9. Don't have your models squat on the floor, looking down the length of a cold isle. It looks stupid.

  10. Contrary to popular opinion, sandals are not usually worn in a datacenter. We don't like how our feet hurt when we accidently drop computers on them.

  11. No matter how much you think she is, the gorgeous blonde with the lime green, mid-thigh flowing skirt is not a sysadmin. No. Not ever.

  12. In raised floor data centers, air moves from the floor up to the ceiling. It generally moves pretty fast. We move alot of air. Things have to keep cool. Why does this matter? Unless you want a Marilyn Monroe moment, your models should not be wearing lime green, mid-thigh skirts. No matter how much the overseer wishes she would just walk back and forth over the perf tiles.

  13. Don't pester the sysadmin about what he thinks should be shot. He's a sysadmin. He's not a photographer. If he was a photographer, he'd be doing your job, not his, and likely be getting paid just as well, if not better, than you.

  14. Do complete your research before the shoot. This will help you compose your shots appropriately.

  15. Don't ask the sysadmin how he would best show "virtualization" in a datacenter. How would he do it? He'd do it like IBM. One big fucking empty datacenter. One rack. Right in the center. Nothing else around. No, it's not sexy. Get over it.

  16. Sysadmins don't generally walk around in high dollar clothing from the Gap, Ambercrombie and Fitch, or Banana Republic. That shit's expensive. We work in dirty environments. The last thing we want to do is waste our precious money on getting expensive clothing dirty because we're doing our jobs.

  17. No, we will not stop doing the regular work in the datacenter so you have a "cleaner" shot. It's a working production environment. Completing our jobs is worth more to the company than your pictures.

  18. Do thank the sysadmin for all his help.

  19. Don't call the sysadmin "dude" or "buddy" or "pal". He has a name. He told it to you when he introduced himself to you.

  20. Don't get pissy when the sysadmin can't remember your name. His only concern is that you're not fucking up his environment while you're getting your shots.

  21. When the sysadmin tells you to stop doing what you're doing, you will stop. You will cease and desist. You will move into a place not immediately connected with what you were doing. If you don't, he will get pissed and likely remove you forcibly from the room. Why? Because you just fucked something up and he's realized it.

  22. When the sysadmin tells you to leave, you will. Have a problem with that? Please go talk to your contact, who will talk to his boss, who will then talk to the sysadmin, at which point the sysadmin will give justifiable reasons for the decision. Boss will side with the sysadmin. Get over it.

  23. When the time comes for your photoshoot to end, you will pack up and leave. You will not go over your time. The sysadmin has been stuck in this room with you for several hours. He's tired, cold, hungry, and probably has to take a leak because he's been unable to leave the room unattended while you're in there. Also, it's probably quitting time and he wants to go home.

  24. Do take the sysadmin's rules as law. He has been given final say about your existence in his world. You're there as a guest. Don't fuck it up.

  25. When you fuck something up you will have your models leave the room and a representive from the photo shoot will stand out of the way and be present when things are being fixed. Your rep will be respectful and quiet. The sysadmin's job is to fix this visit from the fuckup fairy and then convey to you what damage has been done and what it has cost the company.

  26. Stay away from the networking gear.

  27. Stay away from the networking gear.

  28. If there's networking gear, stay away from it.

  29. The thing that has all the blinky lights and the pretty tentacled masses of cables coming out of it. Yeah, stay away from it.

  30. No, the sysadmin won't turn his music off. He's using it to help protect his hearing from all the loud noises. Yes, those pink and purple things in his ears are ear plugs. He's using them to cut out the white noise in the room so he can hear his music.

  31. Don't freak out when the sysadmin whips out a knife to work on something. He's a professional. He's not going to bloody his tools with the likes of you. Well, as long as you don't cause a visit from the fuckup fairy.

  32. No matter how sexy you think the other room is, you're not going in there. The last photoshoot that happened there is the cause of rules 26 through 29.

  33. Be nice to the sysadmin. He might take bribes. Offer him food and drinks. He likes free things, especially if they're highly caffienated.

I will say, though, the young lady in the lime green skirt ... damn.

[Ed. note: The model in the photo is Hayley. She is not a sysadmin.]

Friday, April 10, 2009

How do photos affect you?

ExhaleLast night, a friend and I went to an exhibit of Fritz Henle's photography at the Harry Ransom Center. Excellent exhibit; you should make the trip down there to see it while it's still in Austin. While going from one photo to the next, we began discussing how there's a natural flow to some photos that makes them appealing ... or quite the opposite: turning your stomach because they're composed in a way that's just so utterly jarring to the natural order of things. I didn't pay much attention to the discussion after we left the exhibit until today at lunch when having a discussion about one of my recent photo shoots (last Tuesday's in fact).

I'm not exactly sure what drove me to do this. I'd seen the idea some place else and wanted to expand on it. Wrapping ...Basically, I wanted my model completely wrapped in plastic. Tightly. We covered her head to toe in a cocoon of pallet wrap, split open a small hole to breathe from, and I went to town with the camera. One of the photos I took was a closeup of her exposed lips. This was soon after the model started getting a bit claustrophobic because the breathing hole was too small. No biggie, rip it open a bit more, and we continued on.

Today, I was talking with another friend at lunch about this photo. Her reaction to the photo was one I had not expected: she said she immediately got lost in it, got claustrophobic, and then had to force herself to look away and breathe to calm down. I can see how this photo goes against the norms of society (who wraps a person in plastic for fun? :-) and can be utterly jarring. I just didn't expect the photo to affect someone that deeply.

Unwrapped.  It's like Christmas all over!Do some photos do that to you (in the "I have to turn away right now or I'm going to pass out" sort of way)? What was it about the photo that did it? (And I'm not really concerned about the photos that are blatantly fucked up ... I'm more interested in those that, at first blush, seem ok until you really look at them and get dragged in).

It's a bizarre curiosity for me, I guess, understanding the design dynamic that goes into making a photo that's sole purpose is to tweak a person in what may be perceived as a negative way. I mean, it doesn't take much to make a photo that someone looks at and gets turned on by. But to make one that has a subtle but gnawing detail in it that sticks in your subconscious and eats at you? You know the kind of image I'm talking about ... it's the train wreck one. You just have to look at it to figure out what went wrong, when, and where.

Cacooned in PlasticI think a lot of it just comes down to wanting to know how to affect the mood and emotion of the viewers of my photographs in any way I choose. Like I said, it's easy (in my opinion) to make something that warms a heart. I think it's harder to do something that turns one frigid or throws chills up your spine because we naturally don't wish to encounter those things. They're potentially painful.

As an aside: I recently got access to a well stocked library again (and one that should have some excellent photographic resources), so I think I'm going to spend some time going through to try and understand where this idea is coming from. Just something for me to think about.

Das Boot!The model here was a trooper. We had her wrapped up for over an hour or so, pushing her this way, shoving her that way, rearranging her until she fit the light the right way. Apparently it's hard to move around when your body is mummified in plastic. Who knew?

Oh, and Fritz Henle? Yeah, you really ought to go see the exhibit. It's free at the HRC and worth the 30-45 minute walk through. Excellent work (although, I'm really not big on his fashion photography ... but I digress).