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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Why are people drawn to the edges of things? When you fly over the country, you see the patterns of our development very clearly. We form tight grids and stick to the edges of things. It is almost like the edge of a territory is the surface of some kind of water. We tend to remain where there is visibility. We stay out in the open.
But there are some who choose to live up in the mountains. Some people make that commute each day and nestle away in some canyon nook up in the higher elevations. There are lots of reasons to live in a remote location, but can we escape from the advance of the digital age? These things are hard to answer, because we don’t know what is going to change. For example, we only learned about CFCs and their effect on the ozone layer after the damage was done. Now, we are seemingly waiting on an innovation from technology to save us from catastrophe.
We are experiencing a high degree of Techlash, or backlash against tech, and are putting all of our faith in technology at the same time. The thing is, we have no reason to trust. That is possibly our stupidest trait, but maybe it is also our most beneficial. Intelligence doesn’t equal the good. For something to be good it has to work for people and there are so many different ways that things work or don’t. You have to judge things by their results.
In some ways we are on the edge of a new territory because of the rapid advance of technology. We are entering a new phase of discovery. Some of those ways are literal. Elon Musk is planning on sending a million people to Mars. I didn’t think that was possible, but there he went and said it and he seems to be quite serious about it, too. Now talk about proactive, that’s really getting ahead of the curve. That is a serious programmatic attempt to radically increase the human sphere of influence. Why is he doing it? To get away from AI? Is it inevitable to colonize other planets? Are we already beyond repairing the earth’s atmosphere? If it is possible to make Mars suitable to human life, then why are we so worried about global warming? Isn’t Mars hotter than anything we experience? Lots of questions with that one. The edge of where humans call home is about to radically expand.
There’s one big unanswered question: will there be waves on Mars? What kind of gravity is there? Is it possible to harvest water from deep space to create a wave pool? Will Kelly Slater still be ripping at that time? Questions, questions, questions…
I don’t want to go to Mars, but I can see it happening. That shit is likely as fuck. I don’t know why. It just seems like something I would do. Hopefully it’s cool. The main thing I don’t like about Mars is the whole family aspect. I don’t want to leave my family. Maybe we will all go? Hopefully, we will make that voyage after they’ve worked out a few of the bugs and have that wave pool pumping. What about skateboarding? What is the gravity situation like on Mars? I’m sure they will be pouring tons and tons of hempcrete up there, so there are sure to be some sick spots. But what about the oxygen levels? I know so little about the red planet.
I know that Elon Musk is a highly effective person, though, and it makes me wonder if he read the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, because he would make Stephen Covey proud as a pride of lions. I’m studying that landmark book because I think that it is one of the most helpful self-development books of all time and anyone who I respect is basically working through different parts of this system. Covey was a genius. All hail Stephen Covey. He is a lighthouse in the darkness for people who didn’t receive adequate discipline or structure as a youth. For anyone who wants to be more effective in what they are doing, the book is a treasure trove of wisdom and practical advice.
Say you are a skateboarder and people are starting to comment on your style and you want to try to move beyond casual and occasional sponsorships to really create a career for yourself, then this book can help you to master the process of creating your path in such a chaotic world. I mean think about Elon and all of the thousands of things for him to think about, but he is still coming up with these huge visions. It’s because he has good habits and has mastered how to make effective use of his time.
The first habit is to be proactive. That is such an important word. It has roots in Ralph Waldo Emerson’s idea of self-reliance. To be able to get things started is to increase the likelihood that business will happen, that other people will care. If you take it upon yourself to produce your own media, to curate your own projects, and to communicate with the public about the work you are doing and want to do, then lots more things are likely to happen for you. Being proactive is key to attracting opportunities you want.
What does it mean to be proactive in photography? It can mean all kinds of different things depending on the kinds of photos you take. It could include contacting models, brands, clients, doing a podcast, having a YouTube channel, creating tutorials, networking with other photographers, etc. The only limitation to the ways you can be proactive is your imagination. You can study other photographers. What is working for them? Why? You can learn about art history. What is the meaning of the way we make photographs today? You can learn about the technology. What makes a mirrorless camera different? Education is always a way to expand the circle of your influence, as Covey suggests. You need skills, knowledge and desire in order to do good work and there are ways to develop each of those elements. That is part of what it means to be proactive as a photographer.
It also means having vision. You have to get really good at knowing what you like and why and how to get it. How do you make your photographs? What would you say your style is? That is always the question that keeps coming back up. Being able to answer it is an important first step to increasing what you are able to do.
This whole thing is a miracle if you look at it right. The simplest things are the most sublime. Our breath. An involuntary act. It is the source of life and it runs on autopilot. It’s a very magical existence we share. I’m constantly reminded of this by the things I encounter when shooting photographs, but this perspective is also due to writing and reflecting. The disciplines of photography and writing give me this ability to see the world with a fresh point of view.
Yesterday morning, we headed out before sunrise and chose the wharf as the setting we would use. We are still recovering from the flu, so Wilder is not realistic for the sunrise shoot, for now. Luckily, there are lots of very close places that have tons of potential for photography. The wharf is less than a mile away and it has tons of interesting subjects to study. Not only is it a liminal space (somewhere in between land and water), but it is an iconic Santa Cruz location. So many people have visited the wharf with its view of the Boardwalk and its famous residents: the Sea Lions.
The proximity of the wharf is important. We are trying to use as little energy as possible in the production of our work. Keeping close means being more creative and we still haven’t reached the point of boredom where that creative energy really thrives. There is a confusing thing that happens with photography because the experience of making a photograph can be so exciting. Those photos, when something extraordinary is going down, are important too. They are just not as creative. In other words, if the world in front of you is on fire with color because of an amazing sunrise, then you don’t have to do much to get a great shot. It is when the light is not great and the day seems to have no particular interest that the spirit of invention and experimentation wakes up. By limiting the range of where we are working, we both reduce the amount of energy we use, and we increase the likelihood of engaging those creative muscles that are usually born from necessity. If you need to be the source of the interest in your content, then you will be. That is one of the challenges of living in such a beautiful place. The world barely gives you a moment to be less than enthralled.
Sustainability is the word of 2020, I’ll tell you that right now. You are going to get sick of hearing about it, but that shouldn’t matter. It’s too important for us to think about it like some kind of programming. Unfortunately, that’s how humans seem to get stuff done: by programming ourselves and others. So, it’s going to have some of that amateur media critic vibe to the movement. You know, the Eco-Yelpers. The thing is, sustainability matters for everyone, so we need to rise to the occasion. My goal is to educate myself about the subject and to practice raising awareness by sharing what I learn.
I am currently developing a course based on this idea and I have named it “Imagining Sustainability.” I believe that the biggest obstacle to our transition to more sustainable energy sources and business practices is our collective ability to see the problem and to envision a solution. We need the road map. This is an era of exploration. The brands who figure out sustainability in the next few years will be the brands that last into the future as institutions of culture.
One thing that I want to say about climate change and sustainable development: it is nobody’s fault. I do not think that holding individuals accountable for the situation is going to help. I believe that businesses and other organizations should take responsibility for providing more sustainable solutions. I certainly do not think that people living below the poverty line should have to spend more money to be more ecologically engaged. We need greener and more affordable solutions. To achieve sustainable development, the new products and services need to be better. The market seems to move much less quickly driven by ethical concerns than it does for the desire for better goods.
This course I am designing is for content creators who want to be a part of the sustainable development movement. I am going to be reading and sharing ideas from a bunch of great books and authors. Half of the course is going to be focused on self-development, the other half on the history and challenges of sustainable development. The term comes from a conference held in 1987 called “Our Common Future” and that is one of the important starting points of the conversation.
I want to repeat a very important point: I do not think that individuals should feel responsible for climate change or sustainable development. I mean, people can feel however they feel of course, but there is something much bigger that needs to happen. How we act individually of course has great importance because anything that you multiply billions of times has an enormous impact. If the range of choices that people can make is full of better options, then we stand a chance. Of course, we still need people to behave. Or do we?
The example that comes to mind is the parking lots up north and unfortunately some beaches, where people dump their trash out. This is an especially repulsive pattern as the coastline is pristine and beautiful and seeing fast food packaging and alcoholic seltzer cases littered around is a bummer for sure. But, it is an opportunity for jobs. Every problem is a potential for a new solution. If we can’t successfully convince people to stop throwing their trash on the side of the road, then let’s make it a priority and invest in keeping public spaces clean. But also, if businesses were not making packaging that doesn’t biodegrade then it wouldn’t be in danger of contaminating the ocean. Speaking of that, what is happening with hemp? That is another big question I have, since it was federally legalized last year and we have heard of the promising products that it can help us to create. Look, plastic is an extremely new invention and it has had such a big impact on our planet, but it isn’t the end solution, obviously. We are in the last phases of the plastic era, and a new hemp-based future is starting to break the dark of night.
Back to the sunrise at the wharf. Keeping it close, making the most out of what we have within a narrow range of distance, and entering into this in between world where you are suspended over the ocean on a wooden stretch of road and buildings held up on wooden sticks. When you look at a wharf from a distance it looks preposterous. When you drive out on it, every instinct of automotive preservation screams go back. Cars are not supposed to be surrounded by that much salt water. But it is a normal thing: a wharf. We have them everywhere. The banality of the magical.
The sunrise helps to remind us of that magic as the moments before the break of dawn are something like a wharf of light, this bridge that takes us out into the space in front of us. Then, the first golden rays of light streaming from the golden disc as it crests the horizon line hit all the wet slowly waking things out there gently rocking above the Pacific blue. Some of these waking things start making some very funny noises as they wrestle for position. The Sea Lions warm themselves on the understructure of the wharf in the morning and those first amazing beams of warmth are a prized possession or position, really. They bark and scream and bellow and bite. It is a dramatic scene that takes place in the underbelly of the pier. And it is symbolic of the very animalistic ways we engage with each other. For all the amazing abilities of abstraction and self-reflection, despite whatever linguistic innovations or scientific understandings we have achieved, on a very real and daily level of existence we are so much like those Sea Lions battling over that comfortable warmth from the first moments of daylight.
I don’t often talk about gear, because I’m more interested in process and narrative, but for the kinds of shots I was getting at the wharf you need one very important and expensive tool: a telephoto lens. I was using a 400mm 5.6 prime L Series Canon lens mounted with a Sigma converter to a Sony A7Rii body. I love this combination. The color, contrast and sharpness all are great, and it gives you the ability to pull tightly cropped expressions from wildlife. You have to have a long lens to shoot wildlife responsibly. Yes, they have made the wharf their home, but they are still wild and should be respected as such.
There is a landing on the east facing side of the wharf which gets the most sun the earliest and this is where the babies sleep with their mamas. How is it that nobody is fighting over this space, we do not know and can only conclude that it is because of the ferocity of mothers and their desire to keep their brood safe and close. Apparently, those battle have already been won, and the males prance around on the other beams fighting for prime spots.
Most living things are constantly adapting to the changes in the environment. The Sea Lions didn’t ask for the wharf, but they use it to their advantage and the same goes for most humans, I believe. It is only when businesses, governments and other organizations achieve the skills, the knowledge and the will to develop sustainably that we will have a future more full of promise than fear.
There are a million valid approaches to photography and any of them can lead a dedicated lover of light to a path of making successful images. The goal of all photography is the same, however: it is to be seen. The experience of looking at a photograph is the thing that we are contributing to the public. What kind of looking experience are you hoping to create?
I’ve been thinking lately about the difference between photography that is inner directed versus externally stimulated. This is a key distinction and I’m not saying that one is better than the other, but if you want your work to have style and vision then you might need to think about this nexus. It always comes down to the question: why are you taking the photograph? What is your motivation?
When you photograph a product or a lifestyle shot you have certain goals. You are trying to please a client and to create beautiful images that they can use confidently to represent their brand. You want to tell a story about the experience that they are offering. This helps you to understand how to direct the elements of your photography. When you do work for a client, you start with the purpose of the shot.
You can do the same thing for yourself, too. You just have to think about it as though you are your own boss, because you are. There is a tremendous urge in the era of social media to create images that are pleasing to the public. Sunsets, puppies, etc. Are these things genuinely your interests or are they just an effective way of getting your work seen? They say that is one of the first rules of marketing. If you want to sell lots of stuff then choose something that people already like. Some things are more appealing than others, even though it is really up to the public to decide. If you are making things that people like, where is your point of view being expressed?
That is why it is important to do personal work as well as the work that is going to pay the bills. If you spend time scratching your own itch, if you figure out what it is you really like and why, then your work will grow. The thing is, you can still like the things that other people like. You don’t have to avoid the sunsets just because they are popular. That’s not what I’m saying. I think that it is important to carve out your own inner driven photography, too.
What does it mean to do inner driven photography? I guess it is easier to explain the opposite. Yesterday morning I was writing and finishing up my coffee when I checked the window in the kitchen that faces the ocean and I could see the clouds already starting to light up. At that moment, I could tell that if I didn’t move quickly I would miss my favorite part of the sunrise light. So, I got my stuff together and met the morning light ready to get those shots. This was not motivated by my feelings about where we are as humans, well not entirely. Maybe it is just how you think about it, too. But it was the indication of color in the sky that alerted me to the possibility of an amazing shot. And, since we are in the business of getting things seen it is important to be there to get those shots, too.
The shots that I am working on that are more inner driven and personal are portraits of Madison that we do on our hikes. Those are more meaningful to me because of our connection. We are in love and we share some amazing areas of overlap in our interests. She is a beautiful woman and a model so when we work together our personal feelings are enhanced by our professional skills. By combining these elements, my hope is to create images that will be profoundly individual but also universal. Love is one of the great powers that humans have access to and this is a project that is based in love.
Since it is flu season, however, not every morning is available for hiking into the cold to get a beautiful photo. So, I have been going solo. And yesterday morning it was obviously going to be an amazing day. The sunrise was mystical as any day breaking over the sanctuary of Monterey Bay has ever been. Huge sets bringing high tide steamers through crashed against the cliff and increased the drama and energy of the morning. The sunrise is a symbol of hope and renewal. At least it is for me. It is also an amazing show. My love for sunrise and sunset is genuine as anything ever has been. As a painter, I am continually amazed by my own capacity for shock.
The qualities of light in the morning are varied. First of all, you have the blue hour. This is when the darkness of space gradually gives way to the day’s illumination in silver blue tones. We read color symbolically, so this time of day is often a mood that invites calm and reflection if not melancholy, but if there is the right amount of clouds in the sky, then that blue is violently interrupted by shocking hues of red and pink that are brighter and more gauche than any neon artist’s dreams. In fact, there is something so lacking in subtlety about the sunrise that it is extremely tasteless. No rich person would ever choose to paint the sunrise the way it happens on those most colorful days. No, that kind of color is too much for old money. It begs too much attention. It is narcissistic. It is a performer on the stage. To some people, the sunrise is a dancing bear working for peanuts.
Not for us, though. For us, it is inspiration. It is courage with color. It is aggressive happiness. The sunrise is a message of more than hope. It is screaming at us. This is your essence. You are this beautiful, crass, dramatic extreme moment of wild untamed energy. The sunrise is our true calling. We are eternal, we are infinite, we are light. When you see it and recognize it your entire being fills with that energy. And then the first five minutes of light after the sun crosses that horizon line are the softest most golden rays of light you will ever have access to. There is no softbox in the world, no reflector, no strobe, no led, no nothing that can compare to the beauty of that light. This is a subtle light, though, and it is exactly the kind of light that old money loves. It is gold, it is finite, it is rare. This special light can be used in a number of valuable ways. It is only five minutes past sunrise and you have already experienced three radically different kinds of light. This is what it means to be a photographer to me.
Some days the light is amazing. Some days the ocean offers you a dynamic swell that you could just chase and watch all day. Some days you get both. This is when it is very difficult to do anything but feast. It is an embarrassment of riches and you feel like you are shooting fish in a barrel, but they are still fish.
When the waves are good, Santa Cruz focuses on the ocean. Most people are trying to get in position to get some waves. For me, I get as much satisfaction from a great photograph of a wave as a ride on one, and I can use the photos afterwards, so I stick with the camera. I think that some people can do all kinds of things, and I do work in a lot of different media already. But, I like to keep my obsession squarely directed towards the act of making photos. I don’t dilute any of my drive. I focus it on photography and let making images be supremely important to me.
Also, it gives me the opportunity to photograph professional surfers or my friends who want photos. Photographing surfing is difficult. You need the right equipment and a lot of knowledge. Angles and timing are even more important when you are trying to capture the act of riding a moving ramp of water that wraps around the reef hitting moments of light and reflection that create magical sparks of interest in the photos.
Yesterday my friend Sasha hit me up mid-day with a report of some good waves and so I met him somewhere cool and got a few photos. Standing on the beach looking through a 400mm lens watching the sets and trying to pick out my buddy from the pack of non-descript wetsuit-wearing surfers is a challenge for sure. There are so many distractions from the birds to the people walking by and the waves themselves are constantly drawing your attention. As you wait for someone to take off on a peak you see a grinding barrel down the beach. It takes a lot of timing, patience and self-control to stick with one surfer and try to get them shots. Yesterday, we got some good ones. Sasha is a brilliant lawyer who also happens to love surfing and art, so we get along well and laugh at ourselves as often as possible. It’s so important to me to not take myself too seriously. You have to laugh at yourself. It is mandatory in my book. Out in the morning watching the sky painted with crazy colors that would make a hip-hop artist blush and you are standing there with a tripod and a camera. It’s funny.
Due to the popularity of surfing, there is often a lot of tension in the water. The best way to deal with this increasing tendency is to be respectful, but you see a lot of conflicts going down. There are limited amounts of waves each day and sometimes people fight over them. It happens and if nobody gets too hurt, it is funny. Of course, it is much, much better to be cool and respectful and to enjoy your time in the water peacefully. There is definitely the potential in the water to achieve a powerful state of equanimity and equilibrium. It is good for us. But, the stress of trying to compete for waves can get the best of us, too.
Yesterday was a day that couldn’t stop giving. The sunset was just as dramatic and powerful as sunrise. The cliffs were full of people watching the sunset and it was a great scene. Instead of just getting the color and the landscape I enjoyed portraying the whole scene including the sunset watchers and the guy with funny santa pajama bottoms on. You see a lot more people watching the sunset, which doesn’t make it less valuable to me. I just like to get them in the scene sometimes. That is one of the great things about living here. We see sunrises and sunsets over the water.
We are in the middle of an amazing run of weather and waves and so busy is the way to be, but I’m looking forward to a slower time coming up when I can refocus on the work that we are doing up at Wilder, which is much more inner driven and important to me. It’s all important, but I feel like that work is the greatest contribution that I have to make. You have to be the judge of your own work. You have to say what you think is good and important even if nobody else likes it. You get to decide what you put out there and what you leave behind. What other people think of it is not yours to control, and that can be difficult when people don’t see what you do, but that is the nature of art and photography.
Competition or Cooperation? In our current cultural climate it can be very challenging to think about cooperation. If we do, it’s often in terms of teams in competition. We believe in team work but only when there is another team to beat. There is very little that we find entertaining that doesn’t involve someone coming out on top. The logic of competition has its dark side, though. If there is any truth to the idea that competition has given us major advances in technology, it has also created some serious problems.
Agree to Grieve: Sunday evening, there was a shooting in Gilroy. A map of where mass shootings have taken place is beginning to look frighteningly crowded. We are so used to them, we don’t even know how to respond. Or we know so well how to respond that we no longer feel the need to do anything. We know that some tremendous and terrifying chasm opens up each time. Evil shows its face and families are forced to grieve prematurely and forever.
Freedom or Control? When something as tragic as the Garlic Festival shooting occurs, you would think that it would create some sort of consensus. At least we can all agree that mass shootings are a terrible problem, right? The problem is: the split that already exists starts arguing two sides. Gun rights versus gun control. Even when something as crystal clear as a public tragedy occurs we can’t avoid bipartisan arguments.
Habitual Fans: I believe that this kind of change is much deeper than debate can touch. We have deeply rooted habits and patterns. Our reverence for competition keeps us from ever really working together. It’s as fundamental as what we pay attention to as an audience.
If Everyone Wins: There isn’t anything inherently wrong with liking a game where there are winners and losers. What’s wild, though, is how much that form of game predominates. It’s difficult to even imagine a game where everyone wins. I’m not talking about slightly altering the rules of one of our games so that there are 12th place trophies. That still keeps the same structure of logic, it just distributes and dilutes the wealth of winning. Imagine, however, if a group of people were given a set of tasks and the more they achieved the more they all would win. Instead of fighting to win and not be on the losing side, what if we worked collectively to win as much as we could together.
Organizinational Habits: This game does exist, but it’s not widely known or celebrated. The Teen Kitchen Project is one such game. The more work happens, the more everyone involved wins. Teens learn about cooking and people who need a hot meal get some delicious and healthful food. Teens get some experience and develop their culinary skills, people who need good food receive it.
Working Together: On Monday, I felt the effects of this version of winning when I went to photograph a visit at the Teen Kitchen Project’s Soquel kitchen. It was a normal day of production at the kitchen, the teens were attacking their tasks with order and a beautiful discipline. It takes so much more time to peel carrots and to prepare the ingredients for a quiche than it does to commit mass atrocity. This is what I find cool. Working together to win together.
Produce and Purpose: When our visitor arrived, we got to witness another layer of the vision. Bentley had been a cook in the military and he had received meals from the Teen Kitchen Project recently when he was battling cancer. The teens gathered around and he shared some of his experiences both as a chef and as client. Here we were looking at a man who had been nourished during some of his darkest hours by this very program. His eyes were shining like a stage actor’s in the spotlight of our attention, and he articulated himself expressively with his hands.
Feeding people is an ancient and honorable occupation and a program like the Teen Kitchen Project gets it right on so many levels. It’s an honor to be able to work with them.
One of the realest truths that your parents every told you when you were a kid is that life is not fair. This is brutally obvious when you encounter a child like Joaquin, when you meet a mother like Sara Aluffi.
A friend contacted me through social media to make me aware of a charity event being organized as a benefit to fund the research to find a cure for Duchenne’s disease, a form of Muscular Dystrophy. I contacted the organizer and agreed to get some photos of the event. I have a busy schedule, so I didn’t have much time to research in advance of the event, but I figured I would show up get a couple dozen great photos for them and call it a day.
Another truth that many of us have experienced is that there is no love fiercer than a mother’s. What I discovered on Sunday is that there may be a stronger love; a community’s love for a family.
When I showed up to the parking area I started to see how big this event was going to be. Entire fields were full of cars with parking attendants directing traffic to the few remaining spots. A shuttle took us up to the house where the party took place. I was completely blown away by the turnout. Extra Large was playing, people were dancing, drinks were flowing and the mood was high. I started to photograph guests and everyone was happy to pose for the camera wanting to give anything and everything they could to the event. This was a community showing love to the fullest.
I saw so many great people as I walked around and it had the feel of a huge happy family reunion. Kids were running wild, getting their faces painted, playing on a bounce house, drinking lemonade and the adults were eating BBQ and enjoying a few cold ones in the shade. It was as good as parties get.
As I walked around I kept asking if anyone had seen Joaquin. I figured that the day might be a little overwhelming for him, so I didn’t want to force anything, but I wanted to get a photo of him for his mom. Everyone I asked said they hadn’t seen him. At one point during the day, I stopped and looked at an educational poster describing the disease. It is a genetic disorder that makes muscles break down over time and causes problems with the heart. Without a cure this leads children with this condition to rely upon a wheelchair by the time they are teenagers and most don’t survive their mid-20s.
As I read this poster, my heart sunk. I didn’t know Sara before this event, but I had seen glimpses of how much work it was and it made me tired just seeing her stories on Instagram. As I realized what was fueling her passion I froze in my tracks. Life is not fair. I looked around at the amazing smiling people and now I saw their hearts behind their happiness. These were families and anyone who has a child they love more than life itself understands in the core of their being what this means. Life is not fair.
I stayed till the end of the party getting as many good photos as I could and finally took the shuttle back down to the parking lot. I asked on the way down, one final time, if anyone had seen Joaquin.
“Yeah I saw him. He was playing up by the bounce house.”
I had to go back. I took the shuttle back up and re-entered the party looking for Joaquin. I asked a woman who was organizing some paperwork from the day.
“He’s right there!”
She turned around and there he was on the dance floor getting his groove on. I walked up to him and asked if he wanted a picture. Pizza on his face and shirt, a tired smile on his face, he stopped, looked at me and said “cheese!” I snapped a few frames and left him to return to his blissful dance. Right there, looking into that beautiful boy’s face I had an epiphany. The party was overwhelming to me. There were so many people and so much energy that it was exhausting, and here was this sweet five year old wearing a plastic firefighter’s hat two stepping to a reggae song.
Life is not fair, but it’s also a great mystery. There’s so much we don’t know about it. I’ll tell you this, though, when you have a child you love it connects you to the entire history of the human race and when you meet a boy like Joaquin it can inspire you to believe in angels. Life is not fair, but it’s beautiful, and what we don’t know may save us.
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.
Happy 4th, friends! I try to remember that it’s a process, this thing called history. Women have had the right to vote for only a hundred years. I believe that we have a long way to go. We’re a young country, a culture actively evolving, and if we’re lucky we will continue to get wiser and better with time. I dream similar dreams as those who came before. We are connected by a common situation. This is a holiday that started out as Independence Day, but one day it may become Interdependence Day. When we build more bridges than bombs we will be closer to that reality, the true situation that we are all one.
Meditation is so hot right now. Actually, it’s been pretty popular since sometime around the 6th century B.C.E. when Siddhartha Gautama used it to become enlightened. Subsequently, Buddhism arose and grew to become one of the world’s biggest religions spreading the practice of meditation throughout Asia and the world, growing and changing forms through time and place. The thing that remained constant despite whatever other changes transpired has been the practice of meditation.
Buddhism and meditation became popular in the United States during the 20th century through a variety of teachers and practitioners including Alan Watts, Jack Kerouac and more recently Jack Kornfield, Ken Wilber and Noah Levine among countless others. It’s been a big part of California culture especially since the 60s and the rise of the counterculture alongside the rise of psychedelics. There’s a collection of essays entitled Zig Zag Zen that explores the relationship between psychedelics and meditation. During the radical decade of the 60s and now, people in California became actively interested in finding ways to create mental breakthroughs. Certain historical periods call for this kind of change.
Who couldn’t use a little enlightenment during heavy and dark times? The thing is, it’s hard to know how to practice meditation effectively. That’s why we need teachers. My grandfather was Buddhist and Quaker and practiced meditation on a daily basis. He held two Ph.D.s: one in Philosophy and one in East Asian Religion and wrote about how those worlds combined and overlapped. What meditation did for my grandfather has always inspired me. He was a seeker and learned a lot about meditation and followed it up with practice. Lots of people use meditation, today, and it has never been more important as we face monumental challenges together.
That is why I was really excited for the opportunity to meet and work with Martina Lin, a meditation specialist in Santa Cruz. During our first meeting I was seriously impressed by her presence. Just talking to her had a calming effect. I always strive to do my best when doing someone’s portrait, but I was especially excited to work with someone doing something so important.
We ended up finding a great window of time together, too. Our portrait session ended up taking place during two separate times as the first meeting was during high tide with a huge swell and that made accessing the rock formation I wanted to work on top of impossible. The second time we met, the skies were clear and the tide was low, so we had full access to the space and a great golden hour. Again, in her presence I felt calm and grounded. Some people have this special thing that you can’t quite explain but can feel, and whether it’s something she was born with or something she cultivated through practice, Martina has this quality. Check out Martina’s 7-day Meditation Challenge and book a session with her to take your meditation practice to another level or to start one if you don’t already meditate. And book a portrait session with me if you have something you are trying to promote your business, an event, or if you just want to record this moment in time.