Existential Dilemmas and New Websites!

I really can’t believe that it’s already February, kids. Even though I’ve not been traveling nearly as much as I did at the end of 2014, it feels like things have been just as busy! But it’s been a GOOD busy. I went to Sundance to see the premiere of a film into which my brother put a lot of blood, sweat and tears. I met Jon Krakauer, ran face first into Tobey Maguire, and tried so many delicious whiskeys. And I finally launched a new website!

Along with the January Cure project that seems to be turning into my annual thing (nevermind that it is stretching WELL into February now – update soon!), I had a long-overdue goal to launch a new personal site for my photos. For the last couple of years, I’ve been digitally tossing and turning between different approaches and it’s been driving me crazy. What can I say? I’m a commitment-phobe. Even though it’s annoyingly self-indulgent, I thought I’d share a bit of my journey launching this new site. I’ve commiserated with so many photographer friends who wrestle with these same issues, and if I can help even a tiny bit, I’m happy to. The existential angst these decisions caused me was real and paralyzing. I’ve had photographer’s block for a long time now. I’m finally pulling through.

Screen Shot 2015-02-17 at 12.41.00 AM

My first problem was the platform of choice. Where did I want to run the portfolio site? I originally built it out on WordPress via a .org installation to my own server (which I do love dearly and on which this site is run). I cobbled together as much PHP and CSS as I could manage and probably customized three or four different themes I thought could halfway work. I dragged this out over probably a year and a half, maybe longer. I reached the point at which the coding of the site was becoming a greater focus and way more time-consuming than the editing of the photos, which should’ve been my first priority. I was using these technical challenges as a way to avoid making any sort of artistic progress. I made three or four very passable sites, but because I couldn’t get the site templates to render perfectly, they went to the scrap pile. Basically, I was deluding myself and wasting my own time.

To solve for this, I took the technical considerations out of play. I signed up for a Squarespace account and cut myself off from playing technical support. But then came the existential questions. Why the heck did I even need a portfolio site? I’m not a pro photographer, so why would I need to organize my work in a way that pretended I was? Aren’t portfolio sites kind of boring and overly circumspect in the first place? What about FTLOB? What do I do with this space here? Do I still want to write about Brooklyn or should I just give up everything altogether? I had found yet another way to waste my own time, now with much greater proportions of psychological drama! Are you sensing a recurring theme yet, or what?

Sensing that all this self-talk was possibly not the healthiest nor the most productive, I gave it a rest for awhile. I tried to be optimistic and kind to myself. I asked myself simpler questions, like what exactly do I want to do with this personal site? What do I want to share there? I eventually realized that, at the root of it all, I have missed sharing stories – both my own AND others’. More specifically – and this is where I finally started unlocking the use case I was trying to solve for – I want to be able to share cohesive sets of photos from my travels. This type of work doesn’t really translate well to an Instagram stream or the new Flickr UI and I needed a solution. (Side note: since when is there an internet war against white space?)

Screen Shot 2015-02-17 at 12.36.05 AM

In an attempt to focus in on what I’ve been missing, my new site will serve one simple purpose for now: short travel essays and image galleries! (And also URL sentences. So sue me.) So many of these images have been locked up for far too long and I want to share. Once I landed on this laser-focus, everything came easily. I gave myself a manageable goal and started by building galleries and writing essays for three of the mind-blowing trips I took last year: my first backcountry hike into Glacier National Park, a long weekend trip to Alaska and Kenai Fjords, and a solo road trip I took down the California coast to check out Big Sur. Ah, I love the smell of the redwoods — almost as much as I love the feeling of releasing these photo essays to the wild. I’m so happy to share them with you. I expect to add some fun sets over the next couple of months (Ticino! Madrid! New Orleans!), but I already feel so much relief at having a space to share things in this format. Yay for progress!

Along the way, I also sadly realized that what got lost in the shuffle of these decisions was this site. For the Love of Brooklyn was started to celebrate all the awesome photographers I’ve encountered and share their stories as a love letter to the borough where I’ve made my home for the last ten years. Somewhere along the way, this mission was lost. Somewhere along the way, I stopped organizing the photo walks I grew to love so much and which brought amazing new friends into my life. I desperately miss it all.

This year, it’s coming back. Just as soon as my face doesn’t instantly freeze the moment I walk outside. Promise.

Who’s in for the next photo walk?!

Why I Shoot Film: Format Love

It’s no secret that I’m a film evangelist. I’m always on the lookout for photographers I can convert to the grainy side, and I’m happy to say I’ve made some new believers over the last few years. Someday I’ll have to tell the story of my journey back to film and share all the overly-romanticized details. That someday is probably going to have to be AFTER I get all the piles and piles of my negatives organized. Not exactly what I was talking about in my last post about anticipation, haha.

I grew up shooting 35mm film before entering the world of digital in 2004. Truth be told, I wasn’t really aware of any other options besides 35mm film — no one in my family was anything more than a casual photographer, and I’d only seen someone shoot a large format camera once or twice in my life. When I got sucked into the digital realm, I couldn’t really understand why anyone would continue to shoot film on the convenience factor alone. Why make something harder than it has to be?

But that was all before I discovered medium format. In early 2009, I stumbled across the work of a few great photographers on Flickr and I could hardly believe my eyes. The depth, the richness, the emotionality of their photographs really appealed to me and I was having a lot of trouble getting what I wanted out of my beginner dSLR. I couldn’t really afford to upgrade to a professional digital camera, but when I started researching some of the gear I knew these photographers were using, I was shocked. Whole camera systems for less than the price of a new lens for my Nikon? SIGN ME UP.

elik + irgh

So, in the late part of 2009, I started my search in earnest. The object of my desire: the Mamiya C330f. All I knew was that it had interchangeable lenses and was in my price range. I’d seen people like Ansel Olson make magic with this camera, and I just had to try it out for myself. I obsessively watched eBay listings for six weeks or more, gun-shy to pull the trigger because of the sensitivity of the camera’s bellows. I wanted to check it out for myself in person.

I remember showing sample shots to my brother over the Christmas holiday, and I’m pretty sure he thought I was crazy. But even he — a videographer — couldn’t deny the depth and richness of the images. Back in Brooklyn a week later, I stumbled upon a Craigslist ad for the exact camera and lens combination I wanted from a guy that lived just up the block from me in Park Slope. I couldn’t believe my luck!

I probably should have taken heed to the seller’s warning. He told me he was unloading the Mamiya because his wife had said it was either her or the cameras. He had to get rid of gear — or else. I didn’t know it at the time, but thus began my long, slow descent into the rabbit hole of gear.

From the first roll I shot with the Mamiya, I knew medium format was a new beast. The way it handled light, the reverse image, the waist-level finder — the whole experience of using the camera was so much different. I loved it. I also loved the 6×6 square images it created. They were a whole new compositional challenge.

customer parking only

Over the last several years, I’ve kept coming back to the 6×6 format as I add cameras to my collection. Recently, I’ve been toying with the idea of new formats thanks to friends who shoot other medium format sizes or large format cameras. The multitude of options and flexibility of format sizes are both key reasons why I still shoot film. The experimentation of working with different formats (and films for each format!) appeals so much to my curiosity. How will the roll turn out? How will I adapt or change my style to suit a new format?

A few weeks ago, I decided to check out Film Biz Recycling in Gowanus for the first time. I went looking for lamps — I SWEAR. But I did run across a few Polaroid cameras which piqued my interest, and I wondered if much camera gear made its way through the shop. As I was leaving the store, I spied a leather lens case with a $80 price tag, marked half off for that weekend only. I opened it up and the lens was massive. It was a Pentax lens, so I figured it might fit my old Pentax at home. But it didn’t make sense. Its rings were too large.

Deciding to take a chance, I brought it to the counter and paid my $40 and change before heading out to run a few errands. Back at home, I realized my find had the potential to be major — it was a 35mm lens for the Pentax 645, a medium format system. I’d never heard of such a wide lens for a medium format camera, and if the lens performed as I hoped, it was worth over $1000!

So like any normal photographer who can justify almost anything for the sake of more gear, I decided I needed to buy a Pentax 645N camera body to test out my new $40 lens. And another lens to provide the control in my experiment. And a couple of film backs. And maybe a couple of lens filters. Shhhhhh.

27

I kept an eye out until I spotted a great deal on KEH.com a couple of weeks ago. And after a week of shooting photos with both the control lens and the 35mm I found, I can say with confidence that it was indeed a great deal. The solid lens is sharp as a tack, and a total pleasure to use. It’s so wide I might need dramamine to operate it. Case in point: these shots from the hilariously-suburban Capital One Bank drive-thru in Williamsburg.

Though I’m so happy that the purchase I made on a whim paid off, that’s not what makes me the most excited. I am so psyched to try my hand at a new format since the medium format 645 is so much different than the squares of my Mamiya. It already feels much different, and the more modern features of the camera definitely make the operating experience a total pleasure even if it’s a bit heavier. I won’t lie: it’s kind of weird to use a camera from this century!

Learning more about the 645 and experimenting with its settings are definitely shaping up to be one of the highlights of my summer. I have a few weddings coming up and the Pentax has definitely earned a spot in my camera bag. The control lens I bought – a super-sharp 150mm – is a perfect portrait lens and has lovely bokeh. Even the guys at Adorama this week concurred it’s a great camera.

And while I’m so satisfied to play with this new camera, I can’t help myself. I’m already dreaming about a 6×7 camera. And a 4×5 large format. And maybe learning how to make some pinhole cameras with a kit I have at home. Must. collect. them. all!

What formats are you feeling these days??

Kodak Brownie: Coney Island Love

For ages, I’ve been admiring several photographers as they work with the old-school, ultra-simple Kodak Brownie cameras of the 1950’s and 1960’s. I’ve shared photos from Claire Voelkel and Barry Yanowitz before, and every time I see one of their Brownie shots, I get all weak in the knees. So dreamy! So vintage!

A recent video interview between Barry and Adam Lerner gave me the kick in the pants I needed — why hadn’t I ever gotten a cute little Brownie? After doing my research, I found a Kodak Brownie Hawkeye on eBay that looked promising for a whopping $20. It still had the original leather case and sounded like it was in great condition, which is important since a lot of these old cameras may have problems with focus, lens fungus, and light leaks. The Hawkeye was manufactured from 1949-1961 and features a whole two buttons — one for the shutter, and one to push at the same time if you want to try a longer exposure. Originally, it shot 620 film but you can retrofit with standard 120 film so long as you have at least one of the old (smaller) metal film holders.

One warm Saturday morning, Barry and I met up at Coney Island for a boardwalk stroll with our cameras, and I shot my first roll of film on the Brownie. Though it seems I have a bit of a light leak, I kind of love it anyway. I think the leaks plus the Kodak Ektar captures the summery tones of Coney perfectly. I can’t wait to take her out for a spin again real soon.

goodbye, my coney island baby

boardwalk strollhe wears a pink floppy hat

casting a line

precious cargoUntitled

nothing in space

Why I Shoot Film: Anticipation

Last week, I mentioned starting a series on film photography. It didn’t take long to decide where I should start, because the one thing above all other that I absolutely, positively love about shooting film is the ANTICIPATION.

Barry Yanowitz develops film at home in his apartment!.

So, what the heck does that mean? For me, the physical act of film development is magical. The equation is fairly simple and it’s easy enough to do it yourself at home. Even if you drop your film off at a lab, each and every roll of film feels like Christmas. After a recent quick trip to Paris to visit my parents, I dropped off my film with the developer. For two days, it was agony; the anticipation of getting my film back was almost too much to bear. And then, when I got to see the photographs, it felt like my heart was going to burst. So happy. I was right back in the moment.

Knowing full well that I have a tendency to romanticize, I reached out to a few other photographers for their opinions as I was putting my thoughts together for this post. Though I expected others to provide some realistic counterpoint to the sentimentality I feel for film, I’m definitely not alone. One observation others shared spoke about how capturing memories on film seems to play into a more vulnerable emotional presence within the photos.

Peter Kruger points out that, for him, the process of taking digital photographs effectively removes you from the moment if you give in to the temptation to review the digital previews of each and every frame. In some cases, it can even become a distracting compulsion. Peter prefers to use film to capture moments with friends and loved ones. Regarding the emotional content of film photography, he says,

“I use film when I know I’m at an event or doing something I’m going to want to remember for decades to come. I don’t want to be taken out of the moment to check the photo I just took. I don’t even want to see it until much later after I took the photo and finally got the film developed. As my memories of those good times get hazy, seeing those photos months after can take me right back. There is something about the process of film that fits into that perfectly. I feel like I’ve saved a moment or a memory in a way I don’t feel with digital. As our interactions with our friends become more and more digitized, it becomes increasingly nicer to capture the moments in a way that is at its core void of any ones or zeros.”

Okay, so maybe I’m not the only hopeless romantic out there who’s shooting film, but what does that prove? I suspect that Peter’s on to something with respect to this day and age of immersive technology, where nearly everything we do is governed by or subjected to — as he puts it, the language of ones and zeros.

cadman plaza
Letting go of control, via Leica light leaks.

We’ve come to expect technology — cameras included — to provide us with instantaneous results. How many times have you pulled up Wikipedia on your smartphone to moderate a debate, or find a nearby restaurant, or check a map to see where you are? I found myself mapping out my wanderings through Prospect Park last night — doesn’t that defeat the inherent purpose of wandering? Instant gratification can threaten to strip the meaning out of an experience — if we’re plugged in, turned on, and attuned to every last bit and byte of existence, where’s the spontaneity?

As a consultant who works exclusively in the cloud, every ounce of my work day is devoted to the latest in technology. It probably seems a little backwards that I should prefer to work with an analog medium in my free time, but I really do think that the spontaneity of film is what draws me in and holds me close. The accidental double exposures, the light leaks, the infinite combination of films and cameras and lighting conditions — all of this I love. I love the fact that film forces me to let go of control (even just a little bit), to do my best and to wait and see the moments I’ve captured.

When I asked photographer Ed Brydon about his recent forays into film, he made a interesting observation about that moment of anticipation and also the distance it creates as he revisits his photographs for editing:

“There’s the obvious sense of excitement that comes from delayed-gratification that [big] kids don’t understand until they go through it. The mounting suspense to see what you got back. Sure it can lead to frustration if some photos are out of focus, missed the moment or have other problems, but there’s also usually a little gem in there. There’s also something more subtle that pertains to the art of editing. That bit of separation from when you make the photographs to when you get the developed negatives and have them scanned or printed allows you to become less attached to them, even if you are no less excited. It is precisely that time that enables the editor to do a better job of really selecting the photograph that works rather than one that may have seemed to mean the most to you at the time of being made.”

One of the gems in Ed Brydon's early experiments with film.
This concept of distance Ed brings up is an interesting one — definitely another prompt for another post. And while I agree to a certain extent, I also feel that the anticipation of development and of seeing my photographs for the first time elicits a positively wonderful child-like response. For me, the joy of seeing my negatives or slides or freshly-scanned film is one of the things I look forward to most. It’s an innocent excitement, a curiosity that can bring a host of emotions into play — satisfaction, disappointment, wonder. For a long time, I’ve also felt like it’s one big science experiment with lots and lots of variables (crazy old cameras, lots of film types) and terribly poor controls (me, the photographer).

Barry Yanowitz, who does a lot of DIY development in his Brooklyn apartment, also has a fine appreciation for the experiment — and for the simplicity and elegance of the development process. When I asked for his thoughts, he echoed Peter’s observations about the compulsion to see previews of a digital shot. I loved how he contrasts the two processes:

“Imagine removing a roll of film from your camera, putting it in a tank, pouring chemicals in, shaking it every once and a while, pouring it out and pouring more chemicals in, shaking it some more… And then finally you open it up, take out your film, and somehow, magically, there are little pictures across it. To this day that still amazes me! Even when I pick up photos that were processed at a lab, there’s nothing like placing the strips of newly developed film on the light table and taking a first look. And I’m not even one of those people who can tell if I like a shot just by looking at the film. But I still love viewing it that way.

One final thought: [Anticipation] also influences how I take photos. More than once I’ve gone out shooting so I can finish off a roll, only to wind up taking my favorite shot of the batch. When I shoot digital, I press the shutter and immediately feel anticipation to see the shot I just took. When I shoot film, I press the shutter and think about the next shot.”

YES. Barry, you read my mind. And now with that in mind, I think I have to take my camera for a walk.

Many thanks to Peter, Ed, and Barry for their contributions – you guys are the best!