Portrait of the Artist

An art student named Melissa had to research an artist for a school assignment, and she chose me. Of course, I am wildly flattered! But also I think that the resulting Q&A might be of interest to readers of my blog.

Q: Just tell me about you.

A: I live in Berkeley, California with my wife Phyllis and three young sons Julian, Nicky, and Mathew. I like to photograph, garden, and hike. I have written more than twenty books on a wide variety of topics. In addition to photographer and writer, I have been (in no particular order), a lawyer, painter, software engineer, enterprise consultant, technology company executive, and publisher.

Q: How did you got started?

A: I had cameras when I was a kid, starting with a Kodak “box” camera. Photography was always a big deal for me. I remember going to a photography exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art when I was twelve or thirteen and being blown away. Particularly Ansel Adams’s “Moonrise over Hernandez, New Mexico” did it for me, that and Monet’s water lilies, so I’ve always been looking at both painting and photography, and I’m quite conscious of the historical context of photography today.

Q: Why do you shoot the pictures you shoot?

A: I worked as a professional photographer in New York City for ten years doing all kinds of assignments. I learned to make my own color prints the chemical way. I hung from a helicopter taking photos of the top of the World Trade Towers, and I was published, collected, and exhibited widely.

Then I got bored with it and walked away. For years I didn’t touch a camera. When I thought about it, which wasn’t often, I didn’t think I would ever take another photo, except maybe of the kids.

Then I got commissioned to write a book about digital photography. I said, “Sure, I can do this, I know photography.” But you can’t really write about something without practicing it, so I went out and bought a digital SLR. I got hooked again.

Sometimes I feel like Rip Van Winkle. I went to sleep, and served my time as a line officer slash drone in the armies of the technology industries. When I went to sleep, photography was a business of silver halide film, paper, and chemistry. Waking up it is something completely different, and new, a whole new art form: digital photography. A digital camera is really a scanner with a lens, so it is not even clear that the word “photography” is right. Some people call digital photographs “captures,” which is technically accurate, but more and more I’m tending to use the general term “image.”

Of course, the real question isn’t the medium and tools used for the craft, it is the eye and vision with which one sees things. And the way the image looks in the end.

Q: How do you personally connect to your work? (If you don’t want to answer this one, it’s fine.)

A: Perhaps it is redundant to say, but my work is deeply personal to me. Fundamentally, I photograph to satisfy myself. I don’t really care that much what other people think of my images. Of course, I like it if they like them, and even more if they let me know they like my photography, and even more if they shower me with honors and riches for my photographs, but at the end of the day it is how I feel that matters. It’s worked very well for me so far that (in this second career) photography is only a small portion of my livelihood.

These days when I take a photograph, I am always looking for the basis of a digital image. In other words, what you see on the camera LCD is usually really far from my finished image. So I’ve had to learn to be clever at translation and decoding, and interpolating backwards from the effect I have in mind, because you sure as heck aren’t going to see it as the JPEG rendition of a photo on a 2 inch screen on the back of your SLR.

I spend a lot of my creative time at the computer working on images. I can get lost in time doing this, listening to music and post-processing. For me I sometimes think of working in Photoshop as doodling.

I give myself assignments. Sometimes I just say, “Today is a good day to photograph something red,” or something in the garden, or whatever. I try to find subject matter that I enjoy, and to look at things differently. But basically my images are about color, light, and composition–and not about the subject matter of the photo.

I like looking at interesting and beautiful things. I never want my photography to get in the way of my looking, so sometimes I don’t even take a camera. I just look.

Q: I think I just have one more question…maybe two. I would like to know the significance to you of your photos? If you want, you can focus on a specific photo or two. How do you relate to how you were feeling at a specific time through one of your photos?

I go through a cycle of reactions with my images. I am absolutely in love with every single photo when I make it. If I don’t think a photo is great, why should I release the shutter? Then I look at it on my computer, and most of the time I don’t like so much what I see. Coming back at a later point I can have more objectivity about the images without being so wrapped up in what I was feeling when I did the capture.

To talk about specific images, let me choose Entering the Sanctuary and Capillarity I.

With “Entering the Sanctuary” I was approaching Yosemite Valley in the Sierra mountains in a snowstorm. Then the clouds lifted, and I got this wonderful vision of a crystalline and pure world. From a photography point of view, what I like about the image is that the scale is deceptive. You have to look at it for a while to see the trees on the lower left, notice how small they are, and figure out the grandeur of scale of the scene. “Entering the Sanctuary” makes me feel humble and happy, both at the same time, because the place in the image is a safe place.

With “Capallarity I”, the thing that interested me was that this was basically an undistinguished and rather small leaf. I kept working on it and working on it, and the colors and capillaries started coming out in a vivid way. It makes me feel so happy!

This entry was posted in Photography, Writing.

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  1. […] I chose to do it on you. I pretty much have all the information I need from your blog and interview but do need to know what education in photography you have such as degrees or years complete […]

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