Sunday, August 29, 2010

A Visceral Photograph?

This semester I am enrolled in Experimental Photography at Long Beach City College, taught by Brian Doan, and I think it's going to be a wild ride. Brian, who is Vietnamese, speaks with a thick accent that I find very hard to understand; however, he is extremely passionate about photography. Initially I considered dropping the class, because I didn't think it would be the most beneficial use of my time. But my intuition has overcome what perhaps is my common sense, so I've decided to not only take his class but give my all to it. We'll see. The first assignment is to make a pin-hole camera to create a conceptual photograph. Before we made our first exposure project Brian meets with each student in the class to discuss their concept. After seeing some examples of pin-hole photographs that Brian showed the class I opted on doing figurative studies. I decided I would do nudes of my wife in our dining room, and I would shoot it with a black background. I think the minute long exposures combined with the affects of the pinhole would make for an interesting photograph. It would be a challenge, but I thought I came up with an idea that made for a provocative and perhaps beautiful photograph.
I was quite confident that Brian would willingly accept my idea. I was wrong. Brain's first question was what does this concept have to do with you? In short my idea was intellectual, not visceral, and that's what Brian wanted. He's asking us to go beyond what we think.
Most of my photographic ideas have evolved from just picking up the camera and taking pictures. The concept derived from the photograph. Rarely have my photographs derived from a concept. That's why I hesitate to call myself an artist. I feel that artists create everything from a concept generating bug deep within their innards that only they have. Or perhaps it's a muscle that everyone to some degree has, one that I haven't fully developed? And maybe, that's exactly Brian's motivation for giving us this project for our first assignment.

Monday, August 23, 2010


As I wander the streets of Lakewood in search of provocative photographs I continue to learn more about what makes my suburb special from meeting its residents and hearing their stories. One of the most popular photographs in my series is that of the elderly woman wearing a floral pattered dress under a blue sweater watering her lawn. What caught my eye and what makes the photograph unique is her right hand that is is holding the hose is protected by an orange oven mitt. It was a scene I came upon by chance on my way home from a meeting. I spotted her and the orange oven mitt, and I hurried home to grab my camera, all the time praying she would still be watering her lawn when I returned. Sure enough she was still at work, the orange oven mitt still insulating her hand from the cold spray. Normally I initiate a dialog with my subjects before I commence photographing them, yet with her I did not want to interrupt the moment and without speaking a word I began photographing her. Fortunately she ignored me, and our dance began: she watered her lawn as I did the best I could to follow. Not until I took my last frame did she ask, "what are you doing?" I did not reply because what I was doing just didn't seem worth explaining, and I didn't think she really cared.
If I hadn't made an interesting image the story would have ended there, but luckily my tenth frame was a winner. It's become one of my favorite images of the "Lakewood Project" because it says so much about my suburb: many of Lakewood's citizens take great pride in maintaining their yards. The orange color of the oven mitt, her resourcefulness of wearing it, and the lady likeness of her dress and elegance of how her right knee is bent accord the photograph grace and dignity.
A few months after it was apparent I had a photograph I could use for my show I returned to the home of the woman with the orange oven mitt to give her a photo. I rang her doorbell, however no one came to the door. I stopped by her home on several other occasions over the course of the following 5 months, until I stopped trying. Then about 3 weeks ago, while my show was still hanging, as I passed the house of the woman with the orange oven mitt I noticed in the open garage door a man getting into a SUV. I parked my truck and approached him. I asked if he knew of a older woman who lived in this house. He was suspicious at first, but after I explained to him my reason for inquiring he told me that he was her son, his name was Daniel, and his mother's name was Louise. He informed me that the reason I hadn't recently seen his 94 year old mother was because age and dementia were getting the better of her.
I told him about the photograph and my "Lakewood Project", and he said that he had read about me in the paper would be very happy to have a copy of the photograph I took of his mother. It was an amicable encounter, and I was pleased I finally had a name for my photograph.
Later that day I received an e-mail from Daniel where he explained that he had seen and liked my photograph of Louise. In his e-mail was an invitation to his blog which has since become a favorite of mine. Dan's blog is a record of his spiritual journey taking care of his mother in her twilight years. His blog is emotional and informative as Dan navigates the challenges of caring for his mother. It ain't easy and doesn't get any easier until it's over, but Dan, who has a lot of faith, manages to, without the aide of a caregiver, gives his mother the best possible care a son could give.
At my final reception Dan's sister came to the gallery. She gave me a little book that she had made from the photographs and favorite recipes she had collected of her mother. It's a charming little book with photographs of Louise spanning her many years. And in every photograph Louise displays the same spirit and grace that she exhibits in my photograph.
Meeting Louise's children and learning more about their mother are wonderful souvenirs from my Photographic Journal of a Sacred American Suburb.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

The "Lakewood" Show

This coming Friday, August 13th, 2010 the Lakewood cable network will interview me then video my show at Phantom Galleries on 350 East 3rd Street in Long Beach. It will be the conclusion of a month long showing of my project “Lakewood, a Photographic Journal of Sacred American Suburb.” It has been an exhilarating experience that has occupied most of my thoughts and energies since the beginning of this year when Neil France, the curator of my show, said it was a go.

Although I have been working on “Lakewood” for nearly nine years this was my first opportunity to exhibit the work. I immediately ramped up my efforts and began printing and reprinting my best images. As well, I took more photographs hoping to create better images and the effort paid off. 80% of the photographs that were selected for the exhibition had were made within the last year. There is nothing like a show to stimulate creativity.

At the end of March I participated in portfolio reviews at the Palms Springs Photo Fest where I showed my “Lakewood” work to 13 different curators, publishers, and gallery owners. The suggestions and constructive criticisms I received about the substance of the project, the artistry of the images, and technical quality of the prints aided me greatly in preparing for the show.

At the end of April Neil informed me that he had secured a venue and I would open on the 11th of June. I had just over two months to prepare. I was tremendously excited yet equally nervous; we were on! A month later I saw the gallery and freaked out. It was huge, and I realized the size of the prints I had been making were too small for this space.

A lesson I’ve learned from fifteen years being a professional photographer is when I’m given an opportunity make the most of it. So, I dipped deeper into my wallet, and within reason and a lot of resourcefulness I decided to present “Lakewood” as if I was showing my work at the Museum of Modern Art. Thus began the final 4-week mad dash of printing, framing, and preparation for the opening. There is nothing like a deadline to shoo away the distractions and become severely efficient.

About three weeks before the opening a colleague asked me how the publicity was going for the show. At that point I had the invitations designed, but I hadn’t really developed a mailing list or a strategy as to how I was going to promote the show. I had to work fast; I had not a day to loose. I called my mentor and colleague Aline Smithson, and she came through big time. I’ve experienced when you do the work help is available. She not only announced my show on her blog, she gave me a list of other relevant blogs and press resources in Los Angeles to contact. There was a lot to do, but I felt with the help of my dedicated wife I could get everything ready for the opening.

Two weeks before the opening night I dropped off an invitation to my friend and real estate agent Mark Shandrow, and he asked me if I was sending out a press release. My reply was, “a press release?” I had no idea. Fortunately that wasn’t difficult to arrange because I was prepared. I had a project statement, my bio, and most importantly I had the supportive writings about “Lakewood” by DJ Waldie.

I would never of had as much success with “Lakewood” if it hadn’t been for the backing of Donald J. Waldie who has been a supporter and a source of information on all things Lakewood. Soon after I began photographing Lakewood I sought Don’s council upon reading his book, “Holyland, a Suburban Memoir.” Don graciously wrote about my work for my website, and I was able to use this and his name to secure contacts with the Lakewood and Long Beach newspapers. Don was also kind enough to announce and write about my show on his KCET blog. In truth, it would have been difficult to acquire the press I received without Don. When I called both the Press-Telegram and the Lakewood community newspaper their interest in my project rose once I mentioned that Don was a supporter.

Ten days before the opening and a day after I had mailed out all the invitations I received a call from the head of Phantom Galleries, Liza Simone, to inform me that the space for my show at the Pike had been leased and my show would be indefinitely postponed. For two days I was in shock, and then I fell into a deep state of self-pity and depression. I had to call and e-mail everyone I had sent invitations to, to inform them that the show had been cancelled. Many wrote back with their support and told to me to keep my chin up, but still I felt like a royal schmuck.

In the same conversation that Liza had broke my heart, she assured me that she would do whatever she could to find another space for me to show Lakewood. She also told me that sometimes these things happen for a reason. Yea right! And sure enough three days later Neil called and told me they had found another gallery. However, initially, the new space did not inspire me. My vision was tainted by the appeal of the previous venue, so I declined Neil’s offer. Then I became more depressed as I began to believe all the hard work and money I put into presenting a show would be for naught.

But Liza, bless her, convinced me that the gallery would work and to give it a chance. Upon seeing the space a second time with my wife I not only visualized the possibilities, I realized the new gallery was a better venue to show “Lakewood.” This new arrangement forced me to make a tighter selection with my prints, yet it allowed me an opportunity to break up the work into themes. I now realized that “Lakewood” would look better than ever, and my depression instantly dissipated.

As Liza had guessed the month postponement was a blessing. With the delay I had more time to circulate my press release. Prior to the cancelled show I had missed the June edition deadline for the Lakewood Community newspaper. Now, I had time to meet with the editors before the July paper hit the streets. They wrote a very nice article about my project and announced the show and its location. I was surprised by the number of phone calls I received from Lakewood residents interested in my project and the exhibit. I followed this up with an interview with Pamela Hale-Burns of the Long Beach Press-Telegram. Her article with my picture on page A-3 of the Wednesday paper before the reception gave the show the necessary gravitas and press. Anyone who read newspapers and was interested in Lakewood, photography, or both was now aware of my show.

In hindsight sending out the initial invitation, then e-mailing and calling everyone to warn them that it had been cancelled, followed by sending those same contacts a second yet altered invitation announcing that the show was indeed happening at a later time and different location only enhanced “Lakewood”s publicity. By the night of the reception almost every newspaper, event and art blog had something written about “Lakewood.” The word was out.

We opened “Lakewood” on the 10th of July to coincide with opening of the Long Beach Art Exchange. It was a good opportunity for those who could not make the reception on the 17th to have a chance to attend. Also many who were not aware of me or my work randomly walked into the gallery. The opening also gave us the chance to work out the kinks, so a week later everything was near perfect for the reception.

The reception was a smash. On the hottest day of the year over a hundred people showed up. They came from as far away as Ventura, and I sold two more prints and ½ of the books I self-published. At the end of the evening my back was sore from all the pats I got on it.

Because my wife had purchased enough wine to get all of Long Beach tipsy we did two more Saturday evening receptions, and I made sure anyone who missed the opening or the first reception knew they had another chance to see “Lakewood.” Of course there were those who flaked- some whom I had really counted on. I learned who my true supporters were, but I can’t complain because “Lakewood” was a success.

Was my show a financial success? Of course not, but I knew that going into it. Very few people buy photography from a photographer who is not acclaimed; however, the show was a major stepping-stone to obtain the necessary credence to one day become acclaimed. Yet, the fact that I sold three works in a horrible economy I consider a great success.

More important, at this point in the project and my career, than selling work was getting “Lakewood” out there. And here I succeeded greatly. The press I received along with the video the Lakewood cable network will create carves out a new notch on my resume and will assist me to connect with other galleries and curators.

The “Lakewood” show was not the end of my work on Lakewood; it was a celebration of it. As long as I live in Lakewood and am able I will continue to photograph it. There is so much more about my suburb I have yet to discover and tell, and now with the success of the show and the press I’ve received it will be much easier. At times photographing Lakewood has been awkward. Quite often my motives have been questioned- sometimes aggressively. Now that my work has been validated I’m sure it will be easier to gain more trust of Lakewood’s residents, and I’ll have greater access to new domains of my city.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Jorge Sato

You know sometimes we desire what others have. In my case it's more about envying what others can do. I would love, for just one session, to be able to surf like Kelly Slater, write like Philip Roth, or play guitar like Eric Clapton. These envies do not last long, because I know those talents commenced their passions early and worked extremely hard to hone their innate abilities. My envy towards other photographers is different. I rarely envy another photographer's skill. Mind you I do not diminish a photographer's craft because I believe it is on par with vision, yet technique can be studied and mastered. What I envy are photographic visions that are most unlike mine.

If my head is in a good space rather than a self-critical one I'm able to enjoy the work of photographers I envy, especially the younger ones. I just viewed the work of this month's featured artists in the current issue of the photography ezine F-STOP and I stumbled upon the images of a Brazilian photographer named Jorge Sato. Perhaps because, like me, he shoots square I gave him particular attention, but squareness is about all we have in common. For one he's latin, and I'm not. I marvel at the offbeat samba like whimsical way he composes his work. I admire how he effortlessly avoids what I try so hard to accomplish in a photograph. His colors are off, but he doesn't care; his pictures are not painstakingly organized, but so what. They work, and they are magical! His imagery has a freedom that I envy. He dances with his camera the way his countrymen dance with a futbol (soccer ball). It's the beautiful game and in his case it's the beautiful photograph. He does not have a website, but you can view Jorge's work on flickr.