Shooting for the Moon – a David Alan Harvey lesson

Last March I took David Alan Harvey’s class at GPP. One of my fellow students chose to shoot Sheikh Zayed Mosque for his photo essay. It turned out pretty well, except for the ONE shot David kept asking him for: “get me the Moon and the Mosque together”.

It led to some memorable in-class exchanges – from which I learned 2 things: don’t argue with David and you should shoot a day before or after the full moon – it looks better.

Lesson 1 was actually pretty useful during the class. Arguing with DAH over the relative merit of ones pictures is pointless. It’s not, by any stretch of the imagination, a class based on objective criteria. It’s self-consciously and shamelessly subjective.

So if David tells you to go get the Moon over the Mosque – you go try to get the Moon over the Mosque (or in my case, the fishermen’s bedroom). If you do, great. If you don’t, chances are good that you’ll have learned something in the process anyway.

Lesson number 2 stayed with me for a while. I live right next to the Mosque, I see it every day – so much so that I sometimes forget it’s there. Until I read something about a Supermoon coming up, and I figured I’d get my ass in gear. A quick check of the “The Photographer’s Ephemeris” told me that I was in luck, full moon was in 2 days so the next morning (remember, a day before) I was in front of the Mosque, double parked on a highway, with my tripod perched on top of a pedestrian bridge.

And that’s where, a full 5 months after the class, DAH taught me something again: I’m really, really, really not a landscape photographer (and I get bored really, really, really easily) (also, even in the UAE and in June, it can be cold in the morning)

By the way: it is absolutely possible to get shots of the moon and the mosque. One of mine made “Photo of the Month” at GPP.

So thanks David, for some great butt-kicking and inspiration. See you next year.


What it feels to win …

Gulf photo plus was running a competition during their 2014 edition. The premise was simple – shoot stuff, tag it with #gpp2014, and maybe win.

I’ve participated in a few competitions, never won anything, and as a matter of sanity, I’ve decided I wouldn’t anymore… frankly, the agony of choosing “a good picture” is just too much for me.
David Harvey told us in class (I’m paraphrasing) that he didn’t think competitions and awards were very valuable – after all, who remembers winners even after a year. His take? Build your body of work. If you’re a pro, that’s what art directors will look for, and if you’re an amateur, that’s what you want the world to see – your book, not your trophy case.
A recent article by Eric Kim made the same point indirectly, by admitting to the absolutely subjective nature of judging (I’m not naive – but having it spelled out for you is still an eye-opener).

So I didn’t really enter the competition on purpose. I was tagging my work as a matter of fact – to share with as many like minded people as possible.
I didn’t even realize I was participating – I thought I would’ve had to choose a pic and fill in a form.
But the good folks at gpp made it hard on themselves, and easy on us. They seemingly collected every thing that was tagged over the course of that week, and then sifted through it to choose what they liked.

As it turns out, mine is one of the 5 they chose to win. I didn’t even learn of this until the next day – for the first time in ages I’d had no internet access for a full day, and I only noticed when Congratulations! messages started appearing in my timeline.

Whatever I may think of competitions, I’m truly honored, because it means that my picture stood up to enough people to make it through the winnowing process to the top 5.
I still think there are some more valuable pictures in the lot that haven’t won but the sense of pride I feel is real: a few people, who don’t know me, collectively liked my photo enough to push it through.
If I’m cynical, I’ll say that this satisfaction is the same as the primal urge I feel when someone “likes” one of my Facebook posts. I know that, but I also believe, in part, that I’m happy because it means that I’ve managed to connect and to evoke feelings through the image, which is ultimately why I take pictures.

So, thanks to GPP, and maybe I should rethink competitions …

“By Tuesday, you’ll hate me”

These are the first words I remember from DAH when I introduced myself the day before class. I remember thinking that it was hype and bluster. How hard could it be?

By Tuesday I was hating him, photography, Dubai, myself and the world.

But let’s get one thing out if the way first: I don’t recommend you take this course.

Yes: It’s the best course I’ve ever taken in my life. But I don’t recommend you take it.

Look, I don’t know you. I don’t know if you have what it takes. Hell, I didn’t know myself if I had what it takes. So on this one, you’re on your own. You’re going to have to take an adult decision. Do you feel you have what it takes? Then go do it. The question, of course, is what does it take?

So what happens during these mysterious sessions?

For the most part, I was trying not to fall asleep, because I’d been up shooting and editing late (yes, partying was involved, but any good GPPer will tell you it’s part of the process.) For another part, I was fascinated and terrorized by my classmate’s portfolios. They were better than me technically. They were more creative. They had better access or better gear. Anything to feed the self doubt.
And then of course, there were the minutes when my own pictures were up on that wall. Typical aphorism: “Your bad pictures are closer to good than your good ones.”
So from the outside, all that happens is that David spends his time looking at our stuff, commenting on it and editing it (as in “no, no, no, no, maybe, no, no …”) And he spends time in between telling us to get an education on photography.
So on the face of it, not much happens.

Okay, but what really happens?

The worse for me was the lack of structure. No guidance, no chapters. Just: “Find a subject”, “Find a place”. “Go shoot.”
But just like in real life the journey matters more than the destination.
And the journey is simple: Find a subject, try to shoot it, show your pictures, go shoot again. Rinse, Repeat.
The trick, of course, is when it fails. That’s where you learn.

As Sara Lando put it in a tweet to me when I was feeling particularly down:

@TSWDAH he’s busy tearing you apart. The beer will come later, when you’ll staple the pieces back together.
And she was absolutely right.

Frankly, I wanted to believe her, but I don’t think I could.
It took three days of me failing.
In the end, David sat me down and told me that I was biting too much, that I wanted to say too much:

“Not everything you can articulate is easy or worth shooting”.

“Find something small and shoot it. Anders Petersen shot the same cafe for three years. “

As frustrating as it was, this was the turning point of my week. Kaya, a Burn editor and David’s assistant, mentionned a fisherman’s accomodation in the middle of Dubai she thought was worth shooting. I grasped at that idea like a lifeboat, and ran with it.

High as a kite

When I got to the warf I was determined to get the shots, and not move until I got them. So I stayed for 3 hours in a space not much larger than my bedroom. And shot, and talked to the guys, and shot again. At the end, I didn’t know if I had a good shot, but I had a new facebook friend who was calling me “photoman”. And I had a sense of the place that allowed me to capture it much better. On the contact sheets, I feel I can see the pictures becoming better and better.
And this waiting through the “bored” state is when I almost hit paydirt. At prayer call, the fishermen were wrapping up their day, we started saying goodbye – and in a reflex, I asked if I could see their accomodation. They were more than happy to oblige, and we started going in. Unfortunately, because it’s a government building, there’s a guard there who was kind of surprised to see me. After some palaver, he agreed that I could go see a room … but balked at the camera.
Yet that night, I was so sure I had something that I put together a slide show with some music (my wife can be your sound designer too, for a fee). When at the next morning critique David turned to me to say “You got it …”, I can’t tell you the sense of elation I felt then and there – until the “… but go get that shot of their room – without it, you got nothing” …. aaaaaaand crash.
That afternoon, the last day of shooting, I was pumped out of my mind. I had an Instax (thanks Fujifilm) so I wanted to give my new friends some snapshots. That alone was an awesome feeling, of giving back something instead of always taking.
Again, I spent hours shooting the scene. And this time, at the end, struck gold – by well prepared luck: I found that I could go in their kitchen, and it was a photographer’s dream. Absolutely no light save the cooking gaz and small LEDs they keep on their wrists. Jackpot.

As I was walking back towards the main road to get a taxi, I stopped because I was feeling weird. Then I realized: I was high. High on adrenalin, high on serotonin. Just plain happy.

The irony is that, for all this work, the shots I like best in the essay (the first and the last one) where almost pur luck. I took the first one thinking it was a snapshot of a guy dozing off, until I realized at home that his arm and the boat were just so. I staged a picture with an Instax in it, which I took many times until I got it absolutely right. In reality, it’s really bad. The one that works I took as I was passing by a net, for fun. But this would not have happened had I not failed spectacularly for three days, and worked the people and the location like a maniac.

Should you do it?

Breaking people to pieces to rebuild them is a classic technique. I guess I was ready to be broken. I’m sure some people aren’t. Or don’t like it. Or don’t want it.
It’s also a dangerous process, and David gets absolute credit for keeping our twelve individual stories and evolutions in his mind. I don’t think he pushed any of us too hard (but again, I can’t speak for the others.)

This is where you have to make your own mind. Are you ready to be run gratuitously through brutally honest critique every day (to be clear: never ever mean spirited – just no holds bared)? Are you ready to subject yourself to a “freeform” exercise where David will guide you, but not impose technique or subject in any way? Are you ready to be left to your own devices, find your own way, at the risk of getting absolutely nothing on the fifth day? If the answer is yes, then you’re in for the experience of a lifetime. If no, then try to work up the courage to do it one day. You owe it to your photography.

” I want to, but I’m not good enough.”

Pretty much everyone I met at GPP wanted to know how it was, and then immediately told me “oh, I couldn’t do it, I’m not a good enough photographer”.
To which my reply would be to laugh: I can’t light my way out of a paper bag, and I have a hard time remembering that f/2 is wide open.

Now, I’m not angelic.
There are good and bad photographers. There are people who will never get out of auto mode. But there are also people who will nail a shot with razor sharp focus every time, with the key light in the butterfly position and a 5/4 CTO gel (did I tell you I know nothing about light?) yet they will say absolutely NOTHING with their pictures. (Another Harveyism for you: “Yeah, it’s a picture, but it’s not a photograph”)

You can’t think of this class in terms of “technique”. I suspect if that’s the way you approach it, you’ll be sorely disappointed. But if you think you have a story to tell, I think you owe it to yourself to think it through long and hard. It just might be worth it.

Empty Nets. An essay for David Alan Harvey’s workshop at GPP 2014

The Pictures


The Video

My assignment was simple: find a story, and shoot it. Well, it took me three days to find that story. Three days of running after an idea in my head that just wasn’t showing. And if I thought I had the premise of a story, David would quickly put that to rest: “you have nothing”

All I can remember now was his admonishment to stop moving. Apparently, I have photographers ADD. I’ve heard it called “Drive-by Shooting”. I call it the “Ooh, Shiny” approach to photography.
“Find someplace, stay there, shoot it until you get bored, and when you’re bored, go on shooting”

All good, but I didn’t have a story to be bored at. I struck lucky: Kaya, a Burn Magazine editor and David’s assistant on the workshop, told me about this fishermen’s accomodation in the heart of Dubai. She said she’d go shoot it herself if she had time, but she’d love for me to have a go. And David added: go take a picture of where they live.

So off I went. I was fairly lucky to find it on the first try with the taxi. And I spent 4 hours there. Every time I thought I was done, I forced myself to stay. After a while, I started seeing things that I missed. I started polishing shots until I got exactly what I wanted. When prayer time came, and the fishermen started trickling back to their accomodation, I asked if I could follow and see where they lived. They thought it strange, but where willing to show me.

Unfortunately, the guard who oversees the rooms (and the fishermen) wouldn’t let me take a picture.

And sure enough, at the next day’s critique, David jumped on it immediately: go back, get a picture of where they live.

Another day, another traipse. I had a lucky charm this time, though. Fuji had been nice enough to give me an Instax camera. My new friends where delighted to get their picture taken and physically have it. I had two separate guys come at me shyly once I’d moved away a little bit to each ask for a shot. The look on the second one when I told him I’d run out of paper was heart wrenching – but I have his facebook, so he’ll have some pictures of him anyway.
As the sun went down, I still was no closer to seeing where thy live, and I didn’t want to risk the guard another time. But again, the luck you make by sitting around worked: I found their kitchen, hidden on the other side of the road: a trailer with 20 gaz cookers, and NO LIGHTS. They cook using LED lights, and they were more than willing to be lightstands for me.

I had the shots.

It’s an (im)perfect world…

Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better. Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.

The great challenge of art is not learning to use the tools of our craft, but learning to say something human with them. The second is learning to be OK with the silence until then.

David duChemin Making it human

I’m conflicted about DuChemin. He’s a little bit too preachy/feely for me, but I have to admit, in the context of our upcoming week with DAH at GPP2014, this post was spot-on (and his very own publishing empire does put out some useful and cheap resources).
That said, the whole “I feel” vs “I geek out” meme is nothing new. The entire smartphone-as-camera and mirrorless industries are pretty much based on it. What are instagram filters if not textures and imperfections we add to make things more “authentic”? VSCO is capitalizing hard-core on the (optionally bearded) (Mumford-and-sons listening) hipster segment (I should know, I tick all the boxes except “lives in Brooklyn”).
Maybe we can draw a parallel with the music industry. I’m old enough that I remember exactly when I listened to a CD for the first time. I’ve seen vinyls go the way of the dodo, only to make a comeback with Kickstarter, I’ve seen stickers proudly proclaiming “remasterisation” of old recordings and stickers shouting “we haven’t touched a thing, hear the scratches”, I’ve lived through the flame wars about the loss of the “intangible” quality of analog vs the clinical cleanliness of digital, devolving into lossless vs lossy compression.
Sounds familiar? It should: Film vs digital, the Megapixel race, then Raw vs JPEG, “Fuji is so good that I can use JPEGs SOOC” …

Ultimately, I agree with most of duChemin’s argument. It’s about the showing of scars, it’s about meaning, it’s about stories. it’s about connections. I just disagree with that one sentence:

[Stirring the heart is] … something, for all the good that digital photography makes possible, that we’ve lost.

I’m not much of an Art Historian (I have a friend who is), but I’d wager that most attempts at art are crap, most of the time and whatever the tools. Even worse, if you really capture that elusive essence of imperfection, it doesn’t automatically make your production good art [1]. Yet that soul-baring seems like a necessary condition, so we keep ever trying:

Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.
Samuel Beckett, Worstward Ho[2]

  1. but it most probably makes it pretty creepy  ↩
  2. looking for the exact source, I found this story, which is a great parable into the fate of our art once we let it loose.  ↩

GPP Kool-aid

The Mamiya C630 is a perfectly acceptable point and shoot. The Mamiya C630 is a perfectly acceptable point and shoot.

So my last tweet got retweeted by @zarias, and he even took the time to tweet a thank you note.
To (mis)quote @bruko, I’m as giddy as a kindergartner at a birthday party, because it’s awesome and it’s never happened to me., and because I’m getting to spend the next week rubbing shoulders with him and a dream team of photographers.

Last year, a fellow student took me aside during a class, and said to me: “we’ve spent all this money, and all we do is follow this guy around. He’s not teaching us anything.” I felt sad for him, but it kept nagging me. Had I and others really drunk some GPP Kool-aid, and been blinded to something more sinister?

Then I realized what the answer should be. My first year at GPP, I went home to Abu Dhabi every night. It was good (Zack, and David N. were my first instructors). But the second time, when I stayed at the hotel every night, and made some friends, it went from good to great. Because what we get that week is more than just “classes”. It’s access to the creative minds of people who are at the top of their game. We’re not getting an MFA at GPP University. We’re spending a week around these people while acting like sponges. Can you imagine what breakfast is with McNally, Heisler, Burnett and Harvey? Yeah, that. Then when you think it can’t get anymore awesomer, Keatley walks up and takes this in front of your eyes, in a dingy Holiday Inn corridor.

There’s a catch, of course. There’s effort on our part, as students. And I’m not talking about the effort of turning up to class and absorbing the material. I’m talking about the effort of being gracious to people who are so open with their time and knowledge, of not treating them like mere vendors [1].

So yes. You can look at it as a simple transaction, and bemoan the value you’re “not getting” from Dave Burnett not telling you which setting he’d use on your camera (maybe he can take the picture as well, right?). Or you can suck it up, spend some time talking to him, and get this awesome portrait from my pal Keith Rogers.

Your call.

  1. chances are, if you’re doing this, your photography doesn’t have much soul, so it doesn’t matter to you. It does to me.  ↩