The Power of a Portrait

I’m most interested in photographs that include and involve humans. I find the challenges and rewards of portraiture keep me studying this mysterious art. I value work that gets me to think and to feel something unique or universal about the human condition from looking at a photograph of a person. Sometimes less is more and in the case of my taste in portraiture that is true a lot of the time. I feel like people are so complex it can only help to give them some space.

A portrait of my love

The biggest obstacle to truth in portraiture is that sometimes we carry lifelong habits of creating masks to protect ourselves. Whether it is a smile or a neutral face, there is something that you do to preserve yourself from the intruding eyes of strangers. At least, hopefully there is. Because it can be a rough world if you don’t know how to move with an understanding of the ways people are likely to behave. If you don’t have a grasp on the business, then you are going to have to learn.

Portraits have lots of uses in our contemporary lives. We can use them for our LinkedIn profile, for any articles people may be writing about us, for other social media profiles, and for finding love. Whether you need a good Tinder shot or something to show your grandma that you are doing well, a skillful portrait can go a long way towards helping you to reach your goals.

But there is more to a portrait than that. It is something that belongs to the canons of art history and if you care that much about the result, then you can make some magic happen.

A big part of a great portrait is the lighting. The way you place the model in relation to the light is going to determine how a viewer’s eyes might travel around the composition. The light is going to give shape and interest to the form of your subject’s face, hair neck, etc. You can use light to draw attention to important parts of the face, like a catch light for the eyes. This is when you place a light in view of the subject so that a small white light appears in the dark of their pupil helping to create a sense of depth and importance in the eyes.

One huge advantage of working in the studio is having the ability to create a comfortable environment for the subject. In general, there is a lot more ability to control the results. Natural light can be amazing and the experience of being outside sometimes can make a person really shine, but there is a much higher rate of success with the advantages of studio lighting.

I like to use continuous lights, because I find it is much more comfortable for the model. Not having the flashing of the lights and the beeping of the unit recharging makes it a much more enjoyable atmosphere. The vibes of the shoot always matter. That is one reason why working with someone you really like can help to make great work, or in my case with someone you love. When I photograph Madison I know that there is going to be a whole world of energy, emotion, intrigue, mystery and fun all bundled up into one frame. The feelings. Oh the feelings. We have a lot of them, and they show up in the work. I like that. That is what I like art to be. This portrait is an expression of love, fear, lust, faith, and so many other things all at once.  

The other night we set up the studio and had two continuous lights going to get this shot. What we did next was something amazing. We did an experiment with using long exposures and candle light. This is one area where it is so radical to have a model as a girlfriend because she is so beautiful and I tell her that all the time. She knows it. It’s not a question. It’s not an issue. What is great about this, is it give us the freedom to be silly and to have fun. We did a series of portraits that are not flattering even though they have a beautiful topless woman in them. I’m not going to show them here, but not for the reasons you might think.

This series is art. As a series, it is a powerful experiment that worked. The images are intriguing as fuck. She looks powerful but sometimes scary in these portraits. Because we have done a lot of work together and have a deep sense of creative trust, we were able to do something original and cool.

Now, we have a few different series going and I am super excited about the direction and shape our work is taking. Our collaboration is getting stronger and smarter at every turn and I can’t wait to see what we learn next. So many lessons. I’ll be sharing more of them here as it makes sense in the coming days. I feel as though I have made some very important discoveries and I am excited to put them into practice and to share with other people looking for ways to be more effective and to improve their outlook.

Aesthetics and Photographic Style

Searching for style is an interesting task in photography. Why do you choose the compositions and subjects that you do? Are you finding things that please you and sharing them with the world? How is what you are photographing representative of you as a person? How do you recognize your own photos?

Heavy and Light

In some way, style is unavoidable. It is the result of lots of work. The more work you do, the more you are able to distinguish your style from the rest of the world’s photographs. And it is a world full of images, more photographs than ever before by far. Every day it seems to increase, too.

Wet Reflections

There are different formal choices you can make that will mark your images as being yours. You could do only black and white or only focus on one color or any other number of ways to say this is your photograph. You can also do this with subject matter.

Morning Wave

Your editing has as much to do with it as your shooting. I like to see natural looking light in photographs, so I tend to edit with an aim to having it look as close to the scene as possible. I care about color and want my photographs to show the truest version possible. Other people opt for a super saturated look. The important thing is to have a reason for your decisions. Why is this your style?

Story in progress

Another key distinction with style in photography comes from the use of perspective to achieve depth or flatness. Some photographs (with a foreground, middle ground and background) invite you to look into them as though mentally stepping into a world. On the other hand, some photographs lack perspective and are more for looking at than in.

West Cliff Cypress

You also have to choose where along the spectrum between abstract and figurative your work will exist. Some photographers focus on color, texture and geometry and exclude storytelling elements to create a formal viewing experience. Other photos attempt to show you a world, to depict a scene, to tell a story.

Winter Light

It is also very possible for one photographer to have several styles. It is fully possible to create different styles for your work. Different series have different elements needed for their effects.

Hawk Moon

Own Your Sorrow

Victim mentality: what is it and why does it happen? People are complicated creatures with lots of layers and many of the deeper ones are unknown if not unknowable. Our interactions are so numerous, varied and of different qualities that it can be difficult to understand who is having what effect on us. How do the people you relate to change the way you experience the world? More importantly, how do you take charge of the situation.

Action

I think that one of the reasons that we can get stuck in a victim’s mentality when something goes wrong is our inability to see the negative in our own personality. Instead of looking at your own decisions, you see your problems as external. This is something that Covey talks about in 7 Habits. It is very easy to be reactive instead of proactive.

Right place right time

The thing is, your happiness depends upon you reclaiming your own power. Whatever has happened to you in your childhood or even this morning is not going to help you to make good decisions today, unless you face it and figure out why you made those decisions back then. That can be very scary, but the other alternative is far more worrying.

Be in charge of your story

I think that part of the challenge of life is an idea that we could ever get to a comfortable place. That is just not going to happen. Any illusion of comfort you have is just a side effect of the distortion of space. You are just focusing on one part of the picture in order to feel pleasure, but what you are ignoring is possibly going to be much harder to deal with when it arises.

Less is moon

How do we move from a victim’s mentality to a warrior’s attitude of unrelenting drive? I think you have to keep asking what it is that you can do. If you focus on how you can improve the situation, then you give yourself a chance.

Own your experiments


Still, things will happen that are beyond your control and some of them are going to be negative and will hurt. How do you experience your losses without sliding into a victim mentality? The easiest way to let go of a loss is to own it. I gave it my best shot, but it was not enough. The competition found a way to do more and they won. It is really that simple. You cannot blame anyone else for your problems.

Own your dreams

One way you can identify the degree to which a victim’s mentality has infected your thinking is by looking at the language you use. Are you writing in the active voice or are you using passive voice? This is such an important difference, but sometimes we do not even know that we are doing it. Let me give you an example and hopefully it will show how the language we use is more than just descriptive, it is formative. Language creates meaning, it doesn’t just communicate it.

Abstract Expressionist photo

Say you want to share a story about going to photograph the moon. Every sentence has a subject (the hero of the sentence) and a predicate (the hero’s action). If you phrase it so that the action has more importance than the hero you have fallen into passive voice. If you put the hero of the sentence in the driver’s seat, then they have the chance to be actively leading the charge. Let me show you in an example.

RIP Kobe and Gianna

The crescent moon was going to set at 7:20, so we had to get in place early in order to capture that last twenty minutes of moonlight.

What or who is the hero of the sentence? What actions are they taking? In this version, it could be easy to mistake the moon for the main actor, because the moon is going to set. It is driving the action. Let’s try it another way.

We knew that the crescent moon was going to set at 7:20, so we positioned ourselves on the beach ahead of time, and we were able to capture that last twenty minutes of moonlight.

The difference can be subtle. It is a matter of agency. Is it the moon that is driving the action or is it your decision to photograph it setting? If the moon is in charge, then you are positioned as a victim who is slavishly doing what you have to in order to achieve your goal. While it might seem subtle, the difference is huge. You are either putting yourself in the position of being the hero of your own story, or you are being acted upon.

This is especially important in a world with mobile internet, because we are subject to news all day every day, so it becomes very easy to slide into a passive mode of reacting to what is happening. The victim mentality is sneaky as fuck. We have to watch the way we think.

Yesterday we got some very troubling news here in California, the land of celebrities, the oasis of cultural heroes. One of our greats, one of our all-time legendary basketball players died in a helicopter crash along with his daughter, another family, and the pilot. Nine people died. Obviously, most people care about all of them, but not many people knew the other family. Basketball fans of a certain age KNEW Kobe, though, and that was why we were so devastated by the news. If you were following Kobe’s story, then you probably were loving his dedication to his daughters and his care in passing down his skills and drive to them. Learning that he died with his daughter on their way to a basketball game sent an enormous wave of grief through our entire country if not the world. Every father’s worst fear came to life in that moment. We all experienced something of the sheer inability to protect your daughter from death as you plunge towards the earth in a fiery death trap when we realized what actually happened and that, that, that is just too much to bear. It is too fucking tragic to believe. When I heard the news there was a moment where the emotional well inside of me threatened to break through the dam. I could feel all the fear and grief of fathers immemorial inside of me as I considered that last moment of fear and of love. Did Kobe comfort Gigi? Did he tell her that he loved her and that it is going to be ok?

Grief is something that enters our life unexpectedly and puts a heavy weight on our minds and hearts, but we do not need to let grief get the best of us. How do you own your grief? How do you take charge of your own process of feeling sad about something you have lost? There is nothing any of us could have done to change the outcome of Kobe and his daughter and that poor family who was with them and the pilot who had no ability to save them. It was an accident. There is nobody to blame. How do we act in a way that reflects our own agency?

You own your grief. You experience sadness and melancholy in proportion to the amount that you care. When you hurt because of a loss, it means that you care about winning, you care about life. You have to translate that pain into strength. It might seem impossible, but the human spirit is beyond what we can imagine. People have endured and transcended unthinkable challenges, and we can too.

Kobe taught us many things. He inspired us with his single-minded-focus and unshakable drive to win and to excel. He also combined the strange ferocity of an apex predator with the goofy sensibility of a kid who loves basketball. While he is undoubtedly one of the all-time greats, I love Kobe because he reminds me of a kid I never knew, a kid who was a basketball nerd, a gym rat, a hoop god. But, what I loved most about Kobe was the way he talked about his daughters.

When tragedy strikes, we are tempted to fall into negative patterns, but if we have the courage to own our own sadness, then it can make us grow stronger, more careful and more available to our loved ones. You never know what is going to happen, so it is always important to let the people in your life know that you love them. RIP Kobe and Gigi. Prayers for the Bryant family, for the Altobelli family, for the Zoboyans, and for the Mauser family. We grieve for those we know, but it is not difficult to remember these other people and to feel for them as well. Prayers and thoughts go out to everyone affected.

Massage the Messenger

podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/dialogic/id1410521236

The Joy of Ribs

It’s not a difficult task to love food. It’s the most natural thing in the world. Humans are blessed with this amazing palette of flavors, colors and textures that they can consume via the edible arts. Is food the ultimate art form? It engages every sense that you possess and then it becomes a part of you. How powerful is that?

As a photographer, I relish the opportunity to work with culinary artists and so it was with great pleasure that I agreed to shoot my friend Teddy Danielson’s first dinner as a private chef. She had worked all day to get everything ready, and when I got there, an hour before she started serving guests food, she greeted me with a cookie. “Jake! How are you. Try this cookie.”

I looked at the powdered-sugar-dusted little nugget of goodness and got a napkin and sat down to enjoy it. I sank my teeth into the cookie and I was transported. What the heck? I wasn’t expecting what I experienced. It was crunchy on the outside, but so chewy on the inside and sweet and almond flavored all the way through. It was like a magic trick.

“Are you kidding me?”

“Good texture, huh?”

What a way to set it off. I knew that she was an expert chef, educated in technique and passionate about creating great food, but even with this expectation I was happily surprised. The cookie was evidence of her magic. Teddy was a contemporary sorceress working with her team to prepare beautiful hors d’oeuvres and rolling out some gorgeous pizza dough. These lucky guests were going to eat some absolutely perfect pizza with pears, brie cheese, and caramelized onions, as well as other flat bread masterpieces. But that was just the beginning.

As I moved around the kitchen keeping out of the way of this master orchestrating her work, I kept catching a whiff of the short ribs that had been slowly cooking all day in a bottle of wine. Next came the risotto which filled the kitchen with that unmistakable scent of rich cheese infusing rice with flavor. As she was plating the buttery short ribs atop a bed of risotto I witnessed the final course of a dinner that is as good as it can possibly get. Check her out if you are hosting a party and want the best of the best private chefs. She also delivers meals on a weekly basis for clients who want something delicious, healthy and easy to heat up.

Contact Teddy through her Instagram @takingpurejoy

Notes to a Young Artist

Nobody taught us how to say goodbye. It’s really gonna hurt. Hurtling towards that time when we have to go, running around the coffee shop like a 5-year old hopped up on espresso.

It just hit me. I’m not ready. I’m not ready for any of it, but it doesn’t matter. Not one little bit. It’s gonna happen. To me, to you, to everyone we love.

Have a kid you love. Then feel that.

It’s too fucked to be real, but real it is.

This is why Shakespeare was so great. He expressed the comical levity and the tragic certainty of life with equal energy. It’s a beautiful place full of ecstatic feelings and from time to time the most horrific experiences occur. The more wonderful it seems the harder it stings.

This is one reason why I love punk music. Bands like Black Flag help us to grit our teeth. You gotta get through the hard times. It’s gonna take a lot of hutzpah, kid.

It was the best of times and the worst of times and they just keep getting more intense. Just remember, pain is temporary. Everything passes. If you can embrace it all, make art out of everything. Judge nothing. Trust your own ability to read energy. That’s all it is. Just a bunch of signals.

Somewhere someone right now is suffering because they forgot this. A love was lost, a fortune squandered, their last chance spilled like red wine on white carpet.

Compassion is our greatest strength. To think of others is the hardest task. There’s always room for improvement. And this is how you do it. Be unbothered. Know yourself better than anything else, and especially understand that you are as finite as a wave and as infinite as water. The world is a tremendous paradox and nobody is better or worse than you.

Kindness is strength, violence is weakness, love is everything that matters.

Hungry

Thinking about the #WaterProtectors on this day dedicated to love, during the Hunger Moon-the coldest month of the year in this hemisphere. Only through our desire to respect the environment will we overcome the significant challenges we face. Now is the time for renewable energy. Now is the time to let go of fossil fuels. No more pipelines. No more tar sands. Solar, wind, hydro and bio-energy are more than adequate to fulfill our energy needs. Now is the time. Let’s make a change. Barney had this idea that if everyone on the planet thought the same thing at the same time, then anything could happen. I believe it is true. We’ve never been more divided and we’ve never had more reason to come together.

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Richard Serra at the New SFMOMA

     The new SFMOMA is overwhelming in the best of ways. It’s hard to believe that one family, the Fisher’s, could have collected so much art. I guess a degree in economics from Stanford prior to founding the clothing retailer Gap doesn’t hurt, in that capacity. Now, thanks to them, the museum houses an enormous sculptural installation by Richard Serra, impressive partly because it could kill you. 

     The other day, riding the Sky Glide at the Boardwalk with my assistant Jacqueline, I had a similar feeling: earthquake strikes, we’re screwed. Serra’s sculptures evoke vertiginous feelings common to the urban experience. Humans adapt to these kinds of situations ripe with the potential for catastrophe by adjusting to the feelings and eventually ignoring them. Serra’s art brings this corporeal precariousness back into consciousness with his arching and leaning steel panels.JJT.Art.Seen.July.2016-5JJT.Art.Seen.July.2016JJT.Art.Seen.July.2016-3JJT.Art.Seen.July.2016-4JJT.Art.Seen.July.2016-2