With all of the strange changes going down right now, it’s important to be able to find ways to adjust your attitude, especially if you do creative work. What gives you a fresh look at things? For me, one of the surest ways to regain my sense of humor and to renew my will to be productive is exercise. Physical activity helps me to stay in a good frame of mind.
I’ve been pushing myself to hike lots of miles during these weeks and that has been a super productive and inspiring practice. Hiking plays a key role in me being my best self and living my best life. I get out to some remote locations during obscure lighting situations for the rarest of photo opportunities. Since photography is writing with light, it helps to have as much information about the terrain you will be describing and the light you will be using.
That is one of your biggest jobs as a photographer. Know the landscape. Because it changes day by day, the seasonal variations you experience are invaluable knowledge to getting the best shots. Hiking is ideal for this kind of practice because of the slow and deliberate nature of the decision to go on foot.
Although I love the minimalism of hiking, especially when I leave on foot from my door, there is another tool I love to use to explore the landscape and that is a bike. One of our greatest inventions of all time: the bicycle. What a slice of freedom a bike can be.
I’ve been teaching my daughter to ride her bike without training wheels for the past week and seeing the amount of joy she gets just by pedaling down the street with me on a skateboard beside her is about the best feeling I have ever had. It reminded me of that pure feeling of freedom you get from movement, with the wind in your face and the ground moving fast underneath you everything feels a lot better. Going fast is fun. Of course, it comes with danger, and learning to be safe is a big part of the project, but seeing the release, especially in this time of emotional confusion and frustration is a beautiful thing.
I have also been watching the homeboy Brendan Schaub become a mountain biking maniac. His podcast The Fighter and the Kid, with Bryan Callen, has been a bright source of positive energy during this quarantine, because he refuses to give into the fear and steadfastly keeps finding ways to make the most of his days. For a guy with millions of dollars, he is getting out and mixing it up on the trails and I think it is about as pure and inspiring a project as I have seen.
I have also been seeing one of my friends, Natalie Earl, posting about her own bike rides. Getting out for some fresh air and sweating out some worries is a great idea and so I linked up with Nat for a ride. We left from her house and wound our way through weekend traffic up the coast.
There’s something so vital and almost primal about getting around on a bike. It forces you to tap into your instincts. You need your gut to guide you. And the rhythm that develops from dodging traffic gives you a kind of sense of flow that is very much related to creativity.
So, this week I joined the Thiccc Boy Bike Club with my friend Natalie and I’m hoping that we can continue to find some joy and release by hitting the road. I’m not going to be giving up hiking, though, because there is no replacing the intimacy of being out in the wild on foot where you can encounter the details and the animals on an even footing.
What are you doing to keep your energy positive? How are you getting exercise while staying safe during these strange times?
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.
What is enough? Enough is enough? Have we had enough? What a funny word.
First of all, there’s the spelling. What’s this shit? For one thing, it has what my daughter calls a sneaky g and h. We have a very confusing language, but English is the one I know best and I love it. It’s a funny thing to love words, but there are worse things to become obsessed with, for sure.
But back to enough. What does it mean to have enough, to give enough, to be enough? Enough is the right amount. If there is too much of something, then we say that we’ve had enough. But, if we want to buy something beyond our budget, we have to raise enough capital. Enough is a happy medium, a transactional middle, a form of health, a proper measurement. When adding salt, you taste the food to know if that’s enough. When you look to see if a task is finished you ask if it’s good enough. So, it’s qualitative as well as quantitative.
This is one of the key judgments in photography. Finding the right exposure, the right shutter speed, the desired depth of field, the clarity of shadows, the quality of light you have to experiment to find out what is enough light, speed, dynamic range, etc. Once you have a composition, photographic technique consists of experimenting with the settings to create the desired visual effect. The funny thing about this is that you have to feel it out to learn what is enough. It is a feeling. Keep pushing the settings one direction and then the other until you find the right exposure.
Moderation is a value I believe in, and it has everything to do with the idea of what is enough. Excess leads to sickness, scarcity leads to desperation, but enough leads to the zone of happiness and health. In art, there is a concept known as density, which describes the amount of visual information within a given work or collection of works. Some work is very light and minimal, and some is very dense and baroque. You have the ability to make this choice when composing photographs, too. What do you look for to make a minimalist composition? What is interesting enough? How engaging is the work? Does it ask enough? Does it give enough?
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.
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.