Photo 101

I have been teaching photography here at a local high school for the past six weeks and will continue on until the end of they year. I am filling in for a maternity leave and enjoying the job tremendously. I have over a hundred students in three different levels. The department is 99 percent digital (although the darkroom is still there) and the curriculum is based on photography as a commercial enterprise.

There are a lot of really talented students in the program and a ton of work that goes on behind the scenes. Try grading 80 photos based on a two page rubric and you will see what I mean. Try letting 100 students share about 30 digital SLR cameras and you will be getting an even clearer picture. Add in a city-wide school art show with 2,000 + pieces of art that we had to set-up and take down and your head should be spinning.

Interestingly enough I have been asking the students what they do and do not like about a photography class. The most common response is “I though we would be taking more photos instead of doing all of this stuff in class”. The “in-class” stuff they refer to is learning about the history, techniques for creating interesting imagery, critiques, digital post production, etc. All seemingly necessary elements in becoming a good photographer. It never seems to surprise me that in a world where learning is a necessary part of getting better at something students seem to dislike the process so much. Part of the issue may lie in the fact that there are many varying levels student and various learning styles in the classroom. It is a tricky balance to create a curriculum that makes learning easy and fun for everyone. The other part though is something seemingly deeper. What is it? I have yet to figure it out.

All that aside I am having a great time. I could go on for days about any given photo. I had the students in shock the other day telling them about a college level assignment I once had – to write five pages about a Gregory Crewdson photo. We were not allowed to write about anything that did not exist in the photo. Pictures truly are worth a thousand words and sometimes more. If only a few of these students take on a life long love of photography I will be a happy man. If the rest of them can at least look at a photo and talk about it I will be ecstatic.

David Plowden

I own very few prints by the same artist. It just worked out that way I suppose. I have bought quite a few and traded for even more. Recently my father in law began giving us some of his David Plowden collection. He and Plowden go all the way back to high school at Putney together and they have been friends ever since. Many years ago Plowden gave him a large stack of prints and asked for nothing in return – just that they stay in the family. So over the years we have been getting more and more as we can afford to frame them. (Why are frames so expensive?)

We also have a few of his books. My son is currently obsessed with trains (AKA choo-choos) and loves his Requiem for Steam. He begs to have it taken off the book shelf daily. At least he has good taste. So what is the point of all of this? I really love Plowden’s work and I think it is highly under rated. I also think it is a really important body of work documenting so much of what America has been about for the last fifty years. He has been working for over fifty years behind the lens and the average photographer has never even heard of him. A shame if you ask me.

I won’t reprint any of his work here because as you know that is not my style. Just follow the link and go check out his work. He also currently has a show traveling around Iowa right now – sponsored by the good old University of Iowa. If you happen to be in the Midwest, then by all means, please go check out his work in person. Better silver prints you will be hard pressed to find. Also he is a really great person and gracious enough to answer all your questions should you ever get the chance to meet him.  A characteristic that is missing in most people these days.

Stuff you should look at

Phillip Melnick
Exhibition Dates: January 12th – February 23rd, 2013
Opening Reception with the artist: January 12th, 2013 6 – 8pm

@ Joseph Bellows Gallery

7661 Girard Avenue
La Jolla, CA 92037
Tel: 858-456-5620
Fax: 858-456-5621

Edward Burtynsky: Oil

Friday, October 19, 2012 – Sunday, January 6, 2013
@ Taubman Gallery in Roanoke, VA

Chris Churchill American Faith Exhibit at Daylight


On the road..

We have just returned from five weeks on the road camping and wielding heavy cameras. 7,000 miles, countless old friends and new, amazing camping sites, lots of film, and memory cards. If I could pick just one picture from the entire trip that says it all……..

Until next time.

Time to photograph

Lately the camera has not been getting a lot of use. Is it the fact that I have been in grad school for the past two years for something other than photography? Is it the thousands of pages I have had to read? Maybe it is the 500 and some odd pages I have had to write? Maybe it is the fact that we now have a one year old in the house? Am I just not inspired by my new home in foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains?  ¿Quien sabe amigos? Maybe it is all of them.

I know. We all have crazy lives to live and finding time to photograph a serious project takes time that some of us don’t always have just laying around. In the meantime I have taken up some old hobbies that don’t involve leaving the house so I can watch our growing child. However, some of those involve 50 watt guitar amps and homemade fuzz pedals which don’t do much for baby’s nap time, but I digress.

We are headed out on the road next week for a LONG overdue road trip and the camera will be back in action. Road trips are food for the photographers soul. We will have five weeks of traveling, visiting friends and family, and burning through film. I have the Ipod all loaded up with new music for the road and the car is almost packed. I have some Bill Jay, Susan Sontag, Edward Abbey, and Mark Twain to take along for reading material. I will give you the lowdown on traveling with a one year old when I return. Maybe by then I will have figured out a time when I can actually scan everything in….

Oddly enough my blogging habit started about five years ago when I did a week long road trip with David, Todd, and Sam. We traveled to the Salton Sea and had an amazing adventure. I think I took a few photographs that week. Sam and I mostly goofed off and discussed a career in performance art. David and Todd spent lots of time behind the camera (as you can see from one of my favorites below), but I don’t think I have ever seen any of their photographs from that trip. Weird.

So if you happen to be somewhere in between Virginia and Nevada or Texas and Montana look for a loaded down 4Runner. We will be perched out on rocky outcroppings and camped in desert enclaves cooking over our trusty Coleman stove. Stop by and share a beer or a whiskey and say hi. We can always use a little friendly conversation.

Research vs Studio

I had a long discussion the other day with some grad students about working process. We were discussing the balance between conscious and unconscious thought in the studio. A question comes up quite often to those of us working in the studio – What are you researching? Art as research is a relatively new phenomenon, at least within the long history of the arts, and one that gets a lot of attention these days. Of course there has always been some level of research involved, but these days it has come to play a very central role in the working process. This research tends to bind some of us up in the studio. We become very conscious of all of the research we have done and then it becomes very hard to create.

So where does the unconscious mind enter into the picture? There has to be a time when you let go of all of the research and just work without thinking about it. Now I am not saying that you should let go of everything you have learned in your research, but instead just let it take a backseat. It is not as if that knowledge has left your head and you are now working without any borders or anchors. It still exists. You just can’t let it dictate how you work all of the time.

A few years back when I was working on my On The Edge project I spent endless hours in the library, on the Internet, and looking at everything I could get my hands on that had anything to do with our incessant need for growth as an economic driver. I studied civic planning, economic development, and the history of the subdivision among many other things. When I went out to photograph I had to learn to let all that go and just work. I had to clear my mind and let the pictures happen. The more I tried to relate the images to some preconceived notion of what I was trying to say the less my images said. It was only when I could go out into the sprawl, clear my mind, and just photograph, that the images started to mean something.

Now I can’t say that this method will work for everyone, but there has to be moments of sheer play and unconscious experimentation in your work habits if you are to move forward. This became very clear in our group discussion the other day. When we became to wrapped up in our research our views got more narrow and we were not free to create. Most of us admitted to something along the lines of “writer’s block” when we became too focused.

So how do you let go?

Recipe for a headache

Want to explode your head like in the movie Scanners? Try reading Bill Jay’s Occam’s Razor and Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others at the same time. I personally believe that some college professors just like to stir the pot just for the fun of it. Someday I’ll give you my opinion on both of the books. Personally I am more of a fan of Bill Jay, but it is sometimes hard to argue with ol’ Susie.

Photos in F Stop

I must admit I am truly lazy when it comes to getting work out there to the online forum these days. I have been so focused on making work that I haven’t really had the impetus to do much beyond that. After four hours of dust spotting scan on any given day my energy tends to wane a bit. Having said that I did get off my arse to send some work in to F-Stop magazine for their portrait issue. I have four photos in the group show this issue, three of which are so new they are not even on my website. Stop by and check out the issue as there is some great work up from a lot of great photographers.


Ahhh the dreaded rejection. The letter comes in the mail (or email) and you open the thing carefully hoping for good news. Then you read the one page cold-hearted letter stating that there was 800 applicants for 12 positions and even though your work was stellar, you still are not going to get the brass ring. I recently received a letter just like this rejecting me from a fellowship from an unnamed organization for the second year in a row.

So what next? Curl up in a ball on the couch with a gallon of ice cream and a romantic comedy? Put your fist through a cheap door? How about a drunken stupor where you rant to anyone who will listen how stupid they are for not accepting your work? (that is my personal favorite by the way) Or do you just quietly stick the letter in the recycling bin and get back to work?

Well, it is probably time to get back to work. The first thing I do is call in someone to look at the work and make sure that I wasn’t crazy for sending it in in the first place. Step two, look at the work and re-edit the hell out of it. Try different sequences and see what you could have done better. Step three, look at the artists who did get in and get a feel for what the judges were looking for. This is also something to do before you send your work in as well. Make sure your work is right for what you are applying for and who is judging it. Step four, make more work. Don’t stop. Try new things. Try it from different angles, with different concepts, and everything else you can think of until you get it right.

Last, but certainly not least, do not panic. Everyone gets rejected. It is how many times you reflect and come back from rejection that really makes a good body of work. Many of us had the luxury and training of college and graduate art critiques to toughen our skin before going out into the real world. For those of you who didn’t try and find a local or online critique group that you can take part in. I promise your work will be better for it.