Curiosity Making Pictures Nostalgia Philosophy Photography

The Gateway, part 1

Photography is a gateway to many things; I am not sure how else to say it. No matter when you first pick up a camera, the instinct is there. I joke that my daughter was introduced to the act of photography before she met her parents. Within a few hundred microseconds, I had made photographs as my daughter flew through the air from the doctor’s hands to my wife’s, ready to receive her.

I had decided to make black and white film photographs earlier that day.I liked the idea of having a physical object of that moment. The film receives light particles that leave a mark on the emulsion. With a digital sensor, photographers capture a binary representation of that light particle.

I know it is a little nostalgic to consider that on the negatives and slides in my archive, each piece of film was there when I made the picture. For a brief fraction of time, the shutter opened, and light from that place entered the lens and touched it. Not only was I was present at that exact moment, but the film was there too.

I can’t say for sure why I like my film photographs and have more emotional connections to them than my hundreds of thousands of digital images. It is not because the film images are of a higher quality or render the subject better than digital capture because I can say with certainty that they are not better, but they are different.

It is interesting that when photography enthusiasts, who’s gateway to photography was a digital camera, discover film they see every frame as beautiful. A magical quality draws them in to love look of film. They often confuse that magical feeling with quality.

I remember during a conversation with a professional wedding photographer who had recently discovered medium format film photography and was thrilled at how beautiful every frame was – they weren’t. Because they were using film, they were all the better in their eyes – they weren’t. Photographs captured on film are in and of themselves not always great. I can testify to the hundreds of thousands of poorly executed photographs I made on film. But I do understand emotionally what they were reacting too.

Film photographers experience two truly magical moments different from watching your images download from a silicon chip to another digital device. The universal reason many of us fell in love with photography, and that is observing a black and white latent image turn to a developed image in a tray of Dektol under the glow of an amber safelight. Another is the sensory experience of opening a freshly packed box of 35mm slides and holding them up at a time to a light to see what you captured, like opening a gift on your birthday. Then load them into carousel trays and turn on the projector with the whirring fan and the light projecting the color dyes on the film that was in the camera receiving the light from the space you were in when you pressed a shutter for a fraction of time. No LED Projector no matter how good can replace the brilliant colors from the film emulsion emitting from the screen.

I suppose this doesn’t reveal any of the reasons I like my film photographs better than the digital ones. But I do.

ASMP Making Art Origin Story Photography

Shoot Your Way Through It.

The Zen and the Art of Making Pictures.

Written initially (although I tweaked it a bit) for the ASMP Strictly Business Blog in December 2015, as I work my way through the global pandemic, I find that this blog post captures some of what I am doing right now, today to work through the stress and turbulence of 2020.

By Richard Kelly December 11, 2015 Strictly Business Blog

I’m a photographer. I “frame” my world. But sometimes I can’t see anything. Sometimes it is something outside my world that blocks my view; most often, it is inside my head. Whatever the cause, the prescription is the same; I have to shoot my way through it.

I credit Chicago photographer Jim Krantz for the phrase that is now my go-to solution. It describes the action I have taken for most of my life when self-doubt, insecurity, low self-confidence, fear, or plain-old “I just don’t know what to do” blues hit me. Whatever the reason – whatever the why – the only way out is to pick up a camera and frame my world.

For some reason, I find self-imposed limitations help. This is mostly true when I am scratching what could be an idea or working my way through a project. I select one lens, one camera – I limit myself to a few choices. By boxing myself in, I give myself boundaries that allow me to feel safe to explore.

Sometimes, I walk with a camera, not always to create a new project but to allow myself the space to think more clearly. The walking and looking, especially in a place I haven’t walked in before, will enable me to see what will connect the dots.

Driving can also help me break through a block. I find that it is best to drive without purpose. Bicycling is good, too. I especially like to bicycle in places where I don’t typically walk or drive my car. 

I remember one bike ride in the outer banks one, particularly bountiful summer. The light was perfect. I was using all of my senses for ideation.

I took a walk in Philadelphia a few years ago, exploring the city with my camera, “following the light” with no particular subject in mind. I took some beautiful pictures. I remember using a Nikon F2A with a 58mm lens; that detail’s not essential, although I remember it. I’d love to show you the photographs – they were spectacular – but I can’t. I somehow forgot to load the film that day. A rare occurrence, but I was so used to shooting with my digital camera that I simply forgot to check the film. It didn’t matter, though. It was that walk and the act of shooting through it that helped me work out the project I was working through in my mind.


Controlling Light

I have been thinking a lot about motivation—Specifically the inspiration to make pictures. I have been a professional most of my life, which means that I am motivated to make pictures when I have an assignment. But that’s not what I am thinking about today; I am thinking about the other images I need to make. I think my need is the perfect description here; my internal voice says to make this picture is like a hunger pain in your gut, or is it your brain? I can only describe it like this full-body feeling to frame and capture something. Most of the time, it’s just a play of light. (hence the name for this blog.)

Often as photographers, we are described by the subject matter. We photograph, you know, people or landscapes its too general to photograph light, but that is what we all do. When I ask photo students what the one thing they need to learn more about is, it is often light, and they usually mean “controlled light” – like in a studio.

I guess I remember that feeling a few decades ago wanting to learn the same things and use those “cool-looking” flash systems to make light.
I remember the overwhelming feeling of learning something exciting and new in my studio lighting class and later working with brilliant lighting photographers like David Vance in Miami and Steven White in New York City, though they came to lighting very differently, their photographs of the people and the fashion was much more than subjective it boiled down to great light. The light was so good that you overlooked the lighting craft. I wanted to “see” and “control light” as they did.

Controlling light is an exciting component of the craft of photography. For the most part, I don’t think the photographer practitioners fully appreciate it. They see it so quickly that they don’t think about it – light- very much. Greg Heisler, arguably the best light controller in the business, described the right light was the appropriate light. What was appropriate for the subject, or for. what the photographer was trying to say in the photograph. And that is not to say Greg’s application was simple or easy. No, Greg tested and practiced to get the light right often days before the subject was in the lens’s view.

In the days of film photography, I remember going to the photo lab late at night with my friend Darren Lew to look at lighting tests, often hundreds of frames, with various filter packs to get the appropriate light effects.

Controlling light comes in many forms; One time when I was an assistant on an assignment with Art Kane; we had traveled across the country for a big-budget advertising job on location – Kane was not one to get up for sunrise easily, and he didn’t on this day either. No, we waited and waited, had a nice lunch, went on an afternoon walk around the little town, and then went back to the hotel to get the Nikons and the Kodachrome 64 film – his film of choice. We ran into the Art Director in the lobby, who wondered where we had been all day?* Art said with a smile, “waiting for the light.”

We packed into the vehicles and went out to the location I had scouted the afternoon before to determine the nest light for the layout and set up the model with the product and shot 1 and 1/2 rolls of film. No polaroid tests to check exposure or for the client to review. I took a quick meter reading and set the camera exposure 1/500 at 5.6, and we bracketed one shutter speed up and one down. Kane moved the set up for different layout options, then we traveled back to the hotel for a beer on the veranda before the moon rise. This is another way to control the light.

I tell photography students that choosing the time of the day may be the most important choice you make in lighting. The very act of choosing is control. It is not getting what you get and don’t get upset. If you have ever made a picture – captured the perfect moment, but the lighting was less than ideal, you understand the importance of choosing the “time of day.” (I know that photojournalists don’t always have a choice. This isn’t about spot news photography; this is about all photography but journalism.)

It wasn’t until I was solidly in my career as a photographer that I understood many of these lessons. And I have probably learned more as a teacher than as a student. The phrase “Follow the Light” is not without navigation or control. It comes from years of practice.

Business Curiosity Family Origin Story Photography

My New Next Thing

I am a photographer, have been my entire life. That may be an overstatement, but roaming the Ellwood City Public Library at age ten searching for something new to read, stumbling upon the photography books on the shelves was not overstated; Photography was what I needed to discover that day.
As a teenager, I continued to make both art and music. Still, photography offered me a perfect balance of technology with the camera and what I could capture with that little light grabbing machine.
“Photography is for rich people,” my father would tell me. He was a working-class steelworker, high school educated but never a book guy. Later I realized he had an innate sense to visualize entire mechanical processes in his mind’s eye, essentially seeing a process like an x-ray. I don’t think he ever understood his gift. But that visual balance he passed to me. And his passion for tools and processes. Photography is the perfect expression for a young boy who loves tools, techniques and learning how things work. My curiosity has served me well in my pursuit of photography.
My parents insisted that they would not buy me a 35mm camera; they did buy me for my 11th birthday a Kodak 110 Instamatic, not precisely what I was hoping for as a future photographer.
I wanted to make pictures like W. Eugene Smith, not family photos at my sisters’ birthday party. I guess I was entrepreneurial at the outset. Even before this time, I sold gardening seeds, magazines, and rocks even before the pet rock craze. I had a paper route for the News Tribune – still have the road slag in my knee when I had a tumble with my heavy newspaper delivery bag.
Those dollars and cents allowed me to enter the Caputo’s Department store to buy my first camera. One hundred fifty dollars might buy you a Minolta 202 with a 50 mm 1.8 lens, but it won’t buy much 35mm film even in 1979, let alone the processing. Although a bit skeptical, my father encouraged me to do my first professional assignment, the grand opening of the new Big Beaver Municipal building; my father was vice president of the council.
Off I went with my camera and some black and white film to document the new building and celebrate it. I still remember these men and women looking to me as professional photographers to make them and their buildings look good. I even recall the new carpet smell that day.
It was the beginning of many assignments to offset the film I needed to learn photography. My father was impressed with my commitment, offered to buy me an enlarger, and build a darkroom in the basement off from our laundry room.
Making money and making photographs is a complicated formula for a simple equation for me. I couldn’t have one without the other. Forty years later, I am still working on that equalizing that equation. However, the ever-changing world values these two factors differently. In the year 2020, I am evaluating my “new next thing” to see how I can keep my simple equation in balance.