Wednesday, August 31, 2005

A wish

I wish that we each live each day to the full. I wish that we all realise our potential.

There is usually stress and pains from doing good work. These are growing pains. Cherish these pains as they tell you that you are alive.

(Picture: London, March 2005)

Endings and Beginnings

People who know my personal history already know that I have had several incarnations in my life, from engineer to dancer to arts administrator to photographer. It has been an eventful life. Nobody can really figure out what the connections are, neither can I. :) I have just flowed with the tao of my life.

I have been a professional photographer for five years now, starting off in the performing arts and then moving onto wedding and bridal work. I loved the performing arts but the money there sucked big time. It was a lot of fun with really creative people to work with but the pay cannot sustain a career. I did learn a lot there though. For the last two years or so, wedding photography has been a large part of my work, decent money and quite interesting the way I did it. My wedding work is slightly unconventional and I think that I have built up a following. In general, I have had really nice clients and the work, although hard, has been pleasurable.

Now I am coming to another change. I am shifting my photography emphasis to portraits. I will be stopping work in December this year and will be on sabbatical for 6 months. Part of the break will be for me to reorganise my company, part of that time I will be an intern at a portrait photographer's studio in Chicago.

My friends have urged me to make a clean break from wedding and bridal photography and focus on portraiture. They mean the best for me. In my heart I know that they are right. I am not young anymore and I have to be committed to what moves me most. I guess some people will be sad, but I am going to stop taking actual day photos. Those long hour days just sap too much energy from me. I will be continuing to shoot bridal photographs in my portraiture style but will limit the number of clients I take a month.

There is always a little sadness for the good times when things end but also a sense of excitement for what is to come.

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Quote from Beauty in Photography

"Most expressive discoveries are made in old familiar subject matter," the art historian. Hyatt Mayour wrote. "The really original artist does not try to find a substitute for boy meets girl, but creates the illusion that no boy ever met a girl before." Photography is by nature on intimate terms withold familiar subject matter; all that remains is for us to create new illusions in the service of truth."

Beauty in Photography is written by Robert Adams.

Note to myself

To take a 'good' photograph one needs to know how to focus the lens and set the correct exposure. To make an image that communicates, one needs a big heart and the balls to press the shutter knowing that everyone from your granny to the know-it-all photographer will tell you that you are doing the wrong thing.

Sunday, August 28, 2005

WOMAD 2005 - Part II

I was not able to post all the images in the last post. So here are some more...

Idan Raichel Project from Israel.

The Dhol Foundation.

An audience member getting up and dancing!!

WOMAD Singapore 2005, I just wanna have some fun

It has been a while since I had some fun the way I like having fun. I was at the first two WOMADS in Singapore and I went again on Friday night. There seemed to be much more world music fusion than straight ethnic music, but the bands were great and I really had loads of fun. I took along my 350D with my 70-200mm lens and had some fun shooting the acts too. In professional photography, this is where I began, shooting the performing arts. Shooting the arts seems simpler than what I do for a living now, but it felt good to get back to my roots. I was once again taking pictures of awe-inspiring musicians. I am finally posting some more images. Nothing fanciful, but these are pictures of joy for me. Enjoy. :)

Akim El Sikameya, from Algeria. The first act I saw that night and still my favourite.

Drummer Bill Cobham from USA.

Thursday, August 25, 2005

More Black and White Printing

It was quite euphoric to print my first set of black and white exhbition prints. I thought that the prints were pretty good and I was all set to send them to the framers. Just to check myself, I let master printer Chris Yap take a look at what I did. Chris was really insightful. All the images had colour casts which I did not notice. I followed his instructions for printing neutral black and whites and was only then able to see the very slight colour casts by comparing the results side by side. He made comments about areas of different images and told me that the overall mood of the images was inconsistent. I guess that I was a bit crest fallen but I knew in my heart that he was right and I had to reprint all the images.

Time aside, reprinting 15 16.5" X 16." images is expensive on textured fine art paper. But this exhibition is important to me. This was also the first time I am printing my own work and have so much control over my own images. So back to the computer and printer I went.

I first had to find a way to print the images without unwanted colour casts. I finally decided to use the Epson Advanced black and white driver and not the canned printer profile in Photoshop.The colours are definitely more neutral but the print density was very different from what I saw on the screen. So I had to tweak the printer driver to give me a close approximation to the density seen on my screen. Wasted a few prints trying to get that one right.

Then I started on each image and took a hard look at each one. There were areas where I had to bring back information. There were images that just looked wrong. Reprinting all the images made me relook at things I let pass in the first round. The new set of images look much stronger than the first. A couple of my assistants told me that my initial set looked pretty good but when they compared it to the new set, the new set is obviously stronger.

The prints are now with the framers. I know that for this time round I have done the best that I can. In my heart of hearts, I wonder how far short I have fallen. Art and the skill involved is not absolute. An artist needs to continually push the boundaries of skill and understanding. With all that information out there, the artist also needs to keep true to his own vision. The artist has to show his work and take the constructive criticism with the accolades. There is no point in practising art in an ivory tower, away from reality. Art that can communicate has to go through trial by fire.

As a short side thought, my good friend Wesley told me today that the most important thing he considered in the people that worked with him is teachability. Slow or fast, can you teach the people you work with? If they can be taught you can work with them. If they are smart but are unwilling to learn, it is still not a good working relationship. I guess when I think about it myself, I can believe in my own inner vision, but I must be willing to learn from others. The day I think I know it all is probably the day I stop pushing myself. I cannot be complacent in the search to improve my work.

Saturday, August 20, 2005

Looking beyond the Glass Cage

Singapore is a country without exceptions that is why it is an unexceptional country.

I was born and raised in Singapore. I studied engineering in university, which together with professions like law, accountancy and medicine was one of the sought after degrees in Singapore. However, through fate I have ended up being a photographer.

There are many photographers in Singapore. I heard some statistic that Singapore had the most photographers per capita in world. It is strange, but I probably would not have become a photographer if I had not gone to London to study engineering. It is also strange that I have tried in vain to win photographic competitions in Singapore, but I have managed to carve out a niche market in wedding photography in Singapore. I think that I have a clientele that enjoys the way I make images. In my own way I follow the spirit of Mary-Ellen Mark, I do not take photographs, I make images. In a city obsessed with technology and the idea of a perfect photograph, the soul of image making has been lacking.

In a modern capitalistic country like Singapore, international advertising bombards with images of sex, superficial gloss and attitude without deeper motivation. There are so many images where it takes a moment for the viewer to comprehend the cliched sales messages but has no social intercourse of value. The photographer does not engage its subject in commercial photography. There is too much style over substance. And unlike the French, Singaporeans have no innate sense of style. We are at best proficient technical scribes, imitating the outer form of other people’s work, failing to understand the context of foreigner’s work and unable to create our own. Photography from mature societies are distilled from a long cultural and social discourse. There is some meaning and history to even commercial images there. Our work tries to imitate the results without a deeper understanding. Our work looks like the cheap attempts of uncultured prostitutes at caking their faces with too much make up. Even if there is some technical knowledge, style goes awry without insight and vision.

As important as technical training is, we have to send Singaporeans to imbibe the culture of other countries. While overseas, Singaporeans need to go beyond technical knowledge and engage in social and philosophical commentary. As Singapore grows up from being a cheap manufacturing centre to being a hub for things like commerce and art, it has to have more sophisticated answers to the new challenges posed by a world growing smaller.

I do not believe that the political climate of Singapore will change quickly. And the political stability of the country is desirable. However, people here have to start taking stewardship of their own lives. The government is incapable of knowing everything in the world now. We as citizens have to gather our own intelligence and make efforts to ensure our own survival. Only if we all take an active part in our own future, we will loose to other people in other countries irregardless of how good the government is. We will loose to other people if we only have technical know how but lack any personal vision.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Digital Black and white printing

As a photographer, I have always felt helpless once an image has been shot. I had very little or no control over the final print.

I am printing for my next exhibition Tete-a-tete and I am very happy with the results. All the images were originally shot on the Hassleblad on black and white nfilm. The negatives for the exhbition were then scanned on an Epson 4990 scanner and touched-up in Photoshop CS2. I am using a power Mac as my editing machine. Finally I made my prints on the Epson 4800, printing on Textured Fine Art Paper. In my heart of hearts, I know that I can still improve. It takes time to master any art. However, the images come closes to what I have envisioned in my mind. I had a trial with the Epson 4000 which came close but the prints from the 4800 are truly beautiful. But then, I could be biased. :)

With the way chemical black and white printing is going, I am happy there is a new way to print good black and white prints. Kodak has stopped making black and white paper. Ilford and Agfa still produce black and white paper but face a very difficult market and quite often have financial difficulties.

I think that the digital prints and the silver halide prints each have their own charm, but now digital prints are not beneath silver halide prints. And there is a convenience to being a digital printer. No darkroom chemicals and repeatability issues. Don't be fooled into thinking that it is paradies though. There are problems with computer drivers and calibration.

If you are interested, my exhibition starts on the 16 Sept. More details can be found at the objectifs website.

My next objective is to find out how to create good black and white images from digital colour files. I have somehow not optimised the conversion from colour to black and white. The images look flat. It could also be an issue that my image manipulations is still not good enough, but I feel that images scanned from black and white negatives still have more kick. I burn and dodge both digital and film scanned images, but the film scanned ones look better.

Well, the journey continues.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Quotes from The Mind's Eye

I just read the Mind's Eye, collected writings of Henri Catier-Bresson. He is a purist, a photojournalist who coined the term the decisive moment. He has little interest in staged photography, but his insight into photography in general is still useful. Here are a few passages that I particulary enjoyed,

Technique is important only insofar as you must master it in order to communicate what you see. Your own personal technique has to be created and adapted solely in order to make your vision effective on film. But only the results count, and the conclusive evidence is the finished photographic print; otherwise there would be no end to the number of tales photographers would tell about pictures which they ever-so-nearly got - but which are merely a memory in the eye of nostalgia.

I believe that, through the act of living, the discovery of oneself is made concurrently with the discovery of the world around us, which can mold us, but which can also be affected by us. A balance muct be established between these two worlds- the one inside us and the one outsde us. As the result of a constant reciprocal process, both these worlds come to form a single one. And it is this world that we must communicate.

The camera is not the right instrument to provide the whys and wherefores of things; it is, rather, designed to evoke, and in the best cases - in its own intuitive way - it asks questions and gives answers a the same time. I have thus used it is an active flânerie, in search of "objective chance".

Sunday, August 14, 2005

Quote from The Art Spirit

"There are moments in our lives, there are moments in a day, when we seem to see beyond the usual. Such are the moments of our greatest happiness. Such are the moments of our greatest wisdom. If one could but recall his vision by some sort of sign. It was in this hope that the arts were invented. Sign-posts on the way to what may be. Sign-posts toward greater knowledge."

Robert Henri

Friday, August 12, 2005

Kung Fu Photography

I just took a break and watched a whole lot of Japanese Animation. It was the series called Naruto, relating to adventures of a ninja in training. I realize how much martial arts movies have influenced me from young. In real life, I am not very aggressive or macho. Some people even find me feminine.

What appeals to me in Martial Arts Movies is the ethos. How people train very hard to achieve mastery of their skill. How they go through lots of trials and obstacles to attain their skill. I like the strong moral stance that the heroes take, even if the hero is actually a gangster. There is a moral code like that mob organization does not sell drugs. Yes, and the heroes never sell out for commercial gain!

So in my mind I am training to be a Kung Fu photographer. There is a flow to a master swordsman in battle. There is a moment when all the chaos around aligns and the swordsman executes a stroke, and the photographer takes a picture. Sometimes I think of Chow Yong Fatt shooting two guns as I do a shoot with two or three cameras strung around me neck. (Just a piece of trivia, Chow Yong Fatt is an avid black and white photographer.)

Just like in many martial arts flicks, any activity is training, walking, carrying water etc. The aim is to be able to execute the perfect stroke, making something as horrific as killing an art. It is not the fascination with killing that draws me. I am actually a pacifist. But I would like to be a master of my craft, able to bring years of training and insight to bear on each photograph that I take.

I still feel that I am a beginner, taking many photographs to see what the outcome is like. Lots of training so that eventually, I will only need to take one photograph, and that will be it. :)

Living in Death

"To be alive is the biggest fear humans have. Death is not the biggest fear we have; our biggest fear is taking the risk to be alive - the risk to be alive and express what we really are. Just being ourself is the biggest fear of humans. We have learned to live our life trying to satisfy other people's demands. We have learned to live by other people's point of view because of the fear of not being accepted and of not being good enough for someone else."

The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz

The only certainty in life is death. Once each of us is born, the march to our deaths is inevitable. As we grow from young to adulthood, there is an illusion of immortality as we grow, but the truth dawns on us as our limbs grow weak with the passing of time.

From this fear of the final end, we strive to preserve our lives with food and shelter. We struggle in the beginning to find places of comfort where we can rest and enjoy the fruits of our initial struggle. We cling to that which we know, even if it kills our spirit or hurts us physically. We settle into a routine that gives an illusion of surviving but what we are actually doing is dying slowly.

Thinking we can protect anything is an illusion. It will all come to an end. The only thing that we can do is to die without regrets. What does that mean? It means that we should live each moment to the fullest that we can. For some people they are able to meditate and reach the point where they are fully aware of each moment of their lives. There are people who choose
extreme sports and find moments of life on the edge of death. There are people in the arts that find life in their creations. There are those who find life in passing it on to the next generation.

The greatest fear in the end is not one of death. It is natural to fear death. The greatest fear is that of living. We are actually dying each day physically, we should die also to our past and embrace the future. If the past was bad, we need to forget the pain so we can live well now. If the past was good, we cannot live in the past, we can only live well now. By living well now, we will have no regrets in the future, irrespective of the outcome. Do not fear trying and failing. Do not be seduced by the momentary joy of succeeding. Do not fear living, for that fear is a premature death. Irregradless of what happened yesterday, we need to live again today.

Look at yourself each day in the mirror as if it is the last and plan to live your life to the full. Use all the resources that you have to make sure that in the midst of each daily death and rebirth, you are living in the moment. It will be good when your time comes, to know that you have truly experienced living. Find life in death and you will have no regrets when the inevitable happens.

Saturday, August 06, 2005

Stay Hungry, Stay Foolish

My father recently let me read the text of a speech given by Steve Jobs to the students of
Stanford University. It can be found here .

Steve Jobs was a college drop out but is now one of the most influential people on the planet. He followed his guts and his instincts.

I have been going through a tough time in my personal life but this blog has never been the forum for me to vent my frustrations. However, I realise that my vision for my own work is very important and sometimes personal life can get in the way.

Sometimes people think that they are helping you. I remember several prominent people who upon learning that I have a Phd. in engineering telling me to return to engineering and take photography as a hobby! Well-meaning people are not you, they cannot understand your needs as a creative person. Look at Vincent Van Gogh, who died a pauper but who is now considered a genius.

No, I am not saying that I am a genius. All I am saying is that I have work in me that needs to get out. It is not something that I decided but something that found me. I have images in me that need to get out and they are more important to me than being rich or successful. It will be nice if people liked my work and paid me loads of money for them but that is also immaterial. I think that there may not be an audience for my photographic work in Singapore, but I need to do it anyway.

It is impossible to explain to people who have not created things with their own will. Creating something need not be on the scale of Picasso or Richard Avedon. Creation can be as simple as creating a space to call home. For me, creation is making photographic images. When an image comes together and takes on a life of its own, it affirms the wonder of living. It shows what is possible from nothing.

The images that are struggling to come out of me cannot be pacified by other images, images with which I make a living and pay my bills. These images cannot be pacified with half efforts, either the picture is made with all my effort or not at all. These images cannot be made in haste. These images cannot be made by someone else, they can only be made by me. I don't know why but this is the way it is. These images may be nothing to other people, but they will be like children to me.

People want to give others advice and help. For a person on a personal journey like me, advice and help can be a hinderance. Going back to a 'normal' job is a death in its own right. Not having the personal space to create new work is like being put in prison. Living poor with your own creations is still living.

Not everyone can be as successful as Steve Jobs. But if we all follow our hearts, our visions, we can live. Maybe we won't be rich, but we will know that we have fought the good fight.

Like Steve Jobs said, 'Stay Hungry, Stay Foolish.'