Friday, March 31, 2006

Call me Betty

This is my assistant Betty. Don't mess with her.

Taking during one of my last shoots in Singapore before leaving.

A portrait of Paul

Paul needed a mug shot for a press pass. So I took a portrait of Paul! How cool! :)
Paul lit and set the camera though. I have no idea how to use the Hassleblad H1. It was shot on Polaroid black and white film.

This is a test shot of me and Jason on out second trip to Peoria. This is also where I decided that I really have to cut down on my food intake. :)

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

1 Month in Chicago

Essanay Soundstage 2
I hit the ground running when I arrived in Chicago. After a month, I am still running along with the Paul Elledge Photography studio. We are in the midst of shooting a large job in a film soundstage!! This is the type of experience that you cannot pay for in a workshop. Don't get me wrong, I love workshops and have learnt a lot from them, but this type of experience is priceless.

Essanay Soundstage 2
I cannot show what the shoot actually is. This is what the soundstage looks like though. It's huge but apparently there is one stage is four times larger.

Essanay Soundstage 2
I have never really worked in a studio with cyclorama before Geoff Ang's studio course. Here I am painting the floor white!! Ok assistants, take notes right when I will have to rent a sound stage for a job. :)

Paul and Leasha trying out something for the next day's shoot and having fun at the same time. Is it not cool that we can work and have fun at the same time? :)

I think everybody must be going, 'Oh my, Heng has put on weight!!' This is a typical take away meal in America. It can feed me for 2 and a half meals. The food portions are just GIGANTICO!!

When I get back to Singapore I am going to be as BIG as Paul Elledge. Maybe not as a photographer, but at least in the physical sense. ;)

I have been thinking about the work that Paul has been doing. I have seen so much work in Singapore, with so many bells and whistles, back lighting, massive digital work and other bleeding edge stuff. Although I do appreciate the new techniques and will explore some of them, I love Paul and his clients emphasis on good old photography. Getting the skin tones right, getting the light sculpting on the face of the subject, getting the connection between the photographer and subject. In my heart, I know that I will go for some more dramatic techniques for some work, but I feel it is important to be grounded in getting simple portraits that can simply speak for themselves.

With the move to digital photography, the techniques that I am learning will be new. But I really want to find that soul of simplicity and groundedness. I want quality compared to quantity and technique for the sake of technique. Paul related a story about his friend, Chicago's celebrity chef, Charlie Trotter. Apparently Charlie Trotter believes that when you have good ingredients and cook it well, you only need to eat small amount to be satisfied. You have to eat a lot of junk food but you still do not really feel satisfied.

Now, all that food for thought in this one month is giving me indigestion. :)

Monday, March 27, 2006

Persistence of Vision

Hmm.. There is so much I want to say but time is short and I am pretty tired.

Paul is a very knowledgeable photographer. I find that he likes to keep his shoots simple. He will do whatever he needs to light the shoot but he never goes overboard on anything. This is a very fine line and takes a lot of discipline.

However, the main thing that seems to be sinking into my head is his persistence of vision. If he has something in his mind that he wants to produce, he will keep at it until he gets it. He makes very tiny adjustments and is willing to change a softbox to an umbrella to a reflector, just to get the exact lighting he needs. He shoots a lot of frames for any one subject. For one job, just to get one shot he will take approximately 200 shots of the subject. And we are not talking about many different scenarios. We are talking about a simple head shot with one type of background and lighting. He tells his subjects that the designer will need a range of expressions to choose from. Although this is true, I realize that Paul shoots a lot of small variations. I think that I will have to do more of this too.

Once Paul has a certain lighting ratio locked in for one person in a job, he continues with this lighting and spacing for the entire series. Jason, the assistant makes elaborate drawings and takes copious length and exposure notes so that he can recreate the shoot exactly. It is beginning to sink into me how important this is to maintain a consistent look in a series of photographs.

Full-time, Paul has Leasha as his producer, Audra as studio manager and administrator and Jason his assistant. They go to extraordinary lengths to make sure that Paul can concentrate as much as possible on creative aspects of the shoot and the shoot itself. A photographer working at a high level needs a team that can take away unnecessary things from clouding the process of photography.

There is one thing that I have been wanting to say for a long time and I will say it now. Working at a high level in anything, one encounters problems and issues. We have to be in a good and safe place to engage these problems. Internally we have to be at peace with ourselves. The whole photographic studio team needs to be professional. That is that they need to know what to do, and show initiative in getting their job done. There are one million and one things happening and every job is different. Everyone in the team needs to be able to keep up.

What I am trying to say is that the photographic team must all be working towards the same goal. The people on the team must have a positive attitude and support one another, not make it difficult for other people to work. And yes, the photographer is the leader. I don't have a desire to rule the world, but the studio is mine and how it runs is my call. The team has to keep in constant communication and back each other up like a military outfit, one person looking out for the back of another.

Trying to go where I want to go in photography, I will encounter lots of problems. I do not need anymore unnecessary problems or shit. I guess this is true for anyone in life. Lighten up, enjoy life when you can and let things be as much as you can. If you work at the highest levels, you will get your share of shit, why create more?

Sunday, March 26, 2006

The Fourth week

View from 45 Floor, Aon building

Aon Building from below

On the way to Peoria

On the way back from Peoria

I picked Paul and Jason up at the airport last Sunday. It has been a go-go week. There was a shoot at Aon building on Monday and Tuesday. Then a day of prepartiong and getting stuff done on Wednesday. Then we drove 3 hours back to Peoria on Thursday, shot 6 people in 4 hours, and drove another 3 hours back to Chicago. On Friday, Paul went off with a part-time assistant, Adam, to Arizona, to shoot a job. Initially I was meant to go as well but the budget got slashed. It was still all hands on deck in the studio as there are a couple of major commercial shoots coming up. There 2 jobs are going to be shot on sound stages and one of them even has special sets being made.

I have this weekend off, but this Saturday was spent buying food, electronics and doing washing. The nicest thing was that I walked up and down this really hip street called Milwaukee Street and had a double expresso at a place called filter.

Tomorrow I get to play tourist by visiting the home of architect Frank Llyod Wright.

Monday, March 20, 2006

Bucktown, Chicago

Bucktown Barbers
I got a Chicago haircut at Bucktown Barbers. Bucktown is an interesting area of fun and trendy shops. Bucktown Barbers is quite an institution but my 'barber' was from the Check Republic.

Nicole, daughter of the owner of Bucktown Barbers

Penny's Noodle Shop
I had lunch at Penny's Noodle shop. An Asian fusion joint. Not bad, but more like Nooch than Joo Chiat Place. :)

Penny's Noodle Shop

The train tracks under Damen Street Station.

As with all journeys of this nature, the stated purpose turns out to be only a small proportion of what I experience and learn. And I love it. I had a Saturday morning off before collecting Paul from the airport. I went and had a haircut in Bucktown and eat noodles in a trendy noodle bar. There was more than one shop that I would have loved to stop in and browse but I did not have much time.

I have been listening to all types of different music, some on the computer's in the studio, some of the music lent to me by my Landlord. From the small sampling of people that I have met in Chicago, Music and food seem to be key. My landlord, John, says that it is just probably the people I meet. I have also been checking out songs on soundbuzz and Youtube.

Maybe that is why this trip is so important, not so much to learn the technicalities of photography, but to get new inspirations and influences. Being around Paul is inspiring, even if he has been doing mainly commercial work. He has a generous heart and he enjoys life. He buys toys but I think it keeps his soul fresh. I noticed that of creative people in general, always looking at beautiful things and buying nice new toys. Although it is not a good idea to throw away all your money and be in debt, you cannot be so tight that you become stingy in your art as well. It seems like Paul buys new paper backdrops for each job that he does. We in Singapore save the background paper for as many jobs as we can, wondering if the dirt and marks are acceptable. I think that if we are shooting at the highest level, then the cost of background paper factors into the job and we should not have to worry about any of that shit. It just saps important energy.

I am beginning to come around to the idea that just being stingy is not a good way to grow. We have to spend what it takes to make the job comfortable. We, as creatives, need to be able to concentrate on the task of being the best we can be. And if clients want the best, there is a price to be paid. Cheap and good is good enough hawker centers, not 5 star deluxe restaurants.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Still a romantic at heart

There have been things that have made me more cynical about love. Still I cannot help being a romantic at heart. So choke, puke if you like. I happen to like this Jay Chou mtv, Cute Woman. The woman is really cute too. :)

Don't be a Dodo

This post is for one of my ex-assistants, Qin Pei, who is studying film directing in Beijing. I am hoping that she becomes a really big director one day and gives me loads of stills photography work. The problem is she keeps studying and thinking about things so that she is not doing any real work. I found these pictures on a wall in Bucktown Chicago. Qin Pei, and any other procrastinators out there, this one's for you.

Saturday, March 18, 2006

On any journey, you hit a few duds

So far I have been having a blast in Chicago. I did get a couple of duds. I bought the Little Willies album because it featured Norah Jones. Sigh... It is heavy counrty music. Sounds not bad but really not what I am into.

Tonight, the day before Paul comes back to Chicago, I decided to get me some culture. So I went to see a dance show that is the Critic's choice in the Chicago Reader (like New York's village voice). I have not seen such a self-indulgent piece of boring dance in a long, long time. However, I tell myself that when you are out exploring on the fringes of the known, you are bound to hit a few duds with the gems. In fact the chances are that you will hit a few duds. Still, it was the longest 90 minutes I have had here in Chicago.

On the good side, I got to see a part of Chicago I have not yet. Oh yeah, it is St. Patrick's day, an Irish day of celebration. Lots of Irish music on the radio. :) New cultural experiences to be sure.

In praise of the organic

What is a perfectly clean sheet of paper? What is a perfect life without any challenges? What is the perfect woman's physique? Boring, that's what it is.

I think that sometimes we get so obsessed with perfection that we overdo it. Sometimes we try so hard to frame an image perfectly that it looks contrived, unspontaneous and lifeless. And although I complain about it, I must admit that when I am tired, or think too much about a shot, I do it too. Sometimes people get obsessed with their physical looks and enhance their looks, they turn out looking like they came out of a plastic mold.

I remember Natasha Kinski, the daughter of Klaus Kinski, who has a little cut on her upper lip. Otherwise she is absolutely beautiful. But you know what, that little imperfection makes her even more beautiful to me, there is an opposition there, a comparison of ideas that highlights what's right. Forget Pamela Anderson, her boobies will probably still around by the time the rest of her natural body has decomposed for years. Pamela may be someone's ideal of perfect, but being only human, I can't deal with that.

I hear that Muslim carpet makers always leave an imperfection in their carpets, because only Allah is perfect. I want to be as good as I can, in a natural way, not more perfect. In my images, I like natural texture. Humans are 'perfect' as they are. They are perfect in god's eyes. Perfection in human eyes can be warped and is probably just plain wrong.

Digital capture can be too perfect. Glossy paper can be too perfect. I add back 'imperfect' texture to my photographs, bring out the freckles and print to textured art paper.

As an addendum, do you notice how many photographers love taking pictures of things in decay like rusted abandoned cars and discoloured walls? Why do you think that is so? Why is it not so that all photographers are only obsessed with the newest, glossiest cars out of the factory? Food for thought.

Friday, March 17, 2006

Black and White Portrait

Meet Shin Lim, the Malaysian intern working in Paul's studio as well.

I was not really thinking of doing any personal work while in Chicago, but I like this portrait of Shin that goes together in a pair. Vintage Heng I suppose. A paired image of something sharp in the foreground and the opposite happening in the other image. Hope I am not being too predictable.

However, this was actually an exercise to try out Greg Gorman's rocking black and white conversion. To be technically correct, duotone conversion. Here, we manage to get a mid tone punch, where the skin tone is, without having an image that is too contrasty overall.

Up until now, black and white conversions tended to be either flat or too contrasty overall. It is nice to have skin tone contrast while letting the rest of the image do what it wants. It just looks more organic and is pretty good for portraits!

Just in case you are wondering, I did add grain to make it even more organic. :)

Thursday, March 16, 2006

A Generous Heart

Back of Paul's studio

What amazes me is that a lot of the people I respect have generous hearts. Some of them may be particular, some of them are extremely busy, but when I have engaged people honestly and without ill-intent, I have been rewarded generously. I found Geoff Ang very willing to share on his fashion photography course. I have found Paul very generous with his knowledge with me. I have also met some very good dancers when I was studying dance at the London Contemporary Dance school who were generous of heart.

What I and other people do not like are users who think that they can get a quick buck out of us. To think that the amount of knowledge and experience an artist holds can be encompassed in something as trivial as a lighting technique or a certain film type is not only useless, it is crass to seek such tips. Succesful photographers spend a lot of time studying their craft and searching their souls. Some photographers like Paul, or photojournalist like Sebastio Salgado, have deceptively simple technique. Yet, a lifetime of experience goes into each act of pressing the shutter. When you start trying to understand a photographer completely, his background, his rationale, his goals, the trivial information like film techniquewill be revealed. Approach a photographer with an inquisitive, open mind and you will likely be rewarded with an honest considered response. Ask for a quick tip and you will get contempt in return.

I must say that even though most photographers and artists I meet are forthcoming with their artistic insights, they will hold out on business intelligence. This is because business is a sensitive issue. Pricing and deals that are cut cannot be revealed because they can seriously damage relationships. Business is not art, it is more a form of war. You do not broadcast your position to your enemy.

Back of my apartment

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

In the realm of senses

View from my window

In Paul's studio, music is constantly playing. He has both a normal coffee maker and an expresso machine!! My kind of guy. He takes his music and coffee on shoots if he can.

Paul also enjoys his food. He has done many collaborations with a famous Chicago chef, Charlie Trotter. Even our lunches are chosen with care.

In the book that Paul lent me, 'Once', Wenders often makes references to how places smell. How the smell of one place reminds him of another.

Just what am I trying to say with these little fragments of experience? I am saying that although the photographer's primary sensory organ are the eyes, all the other organs are also constantly engaged and exercised. Sound, smell, taste and even touch which I do not have an example of yet. To create images rich in context, engaging all the senses helps.

There is also another step beyond passively engaging the senses. You see just enjoying the sensory overload does not empower a person. It is letting those experiences permeate one's consciousness and in moments of creativity, letting those experiences shape the effort. Quite often a conscious and unconscious effort to understand a vast array of sensory experience is also needed. Consciously one can dissect the colors, smell, tonality of life and draw conclusions on the emotional and intellectual effects these experiences would have on a person. Then there is the synergy of an overall experience, like a trip to an exotic land, that can result in a more subtle philosophical and even spiritual comprehension, which cannot be directly harnessed in the creative act, but guides the subtle finesse of the work.

In conclusion, live life well. Engage the ideas and experiences that you encounter completely. That is the foundation of a creative expression. Technicality is only the tool that enables the creation. For a photographer, the camera is important, yes. However, without something to say, without a rich mine of raw experience, one can only create superficial expressions.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Lazy Sunday

So I dropped Paul at the airport early Sunday morning. I finally got a bit of breathing space.

I had breakfast at this restaurant called the Dodo, not too far from my house. I ordered a chees omelette and it had as much cheese as there was egg. It was a heart-clogging breakfast. I notice that the people in Chicago love cheese. There is a very nice oriental restaurant called butterfly and it has starters filled with cheese!

So Shin, the Malaysian intern, brings me to Chinatown for lunch. We eat in a restaurant called Penang and have Roti Canai for starters!! The light was great in the morning but got grey by the time we got to Chinatown. Chicago chinatown is a bit drab too. So I did not take many photos. This is one from the window of a pastry shop where we bought sesame seed balls and char siew buns.

Cake from the cake shop.

I was not really thinking of cooking chinese food while in Chicago. Too many things to buy and store for 3 months. But since I was shopping in Chinatown, oh well. So I buy food and cook it for dinner. I am a bit rusty with chinese cooking and I miss a rice cooker. :( My dinner on Sunday was barely eadible. My dinner on Monday was slightly better. Maybe I should stick to photography...

Monday, March 13, 2006

Busy on an away job

If you think that I have been busy, I have. From Wednesday to Friday I followed Paul on an annual report shoot for Caterpillar. It was a nice, relatively simple set of shots in the towns of Peoria and Decatur. Once we got back, the studio had to prepare for a one-week shoot in New York. Although I am not going, there was a lot to do. I sent Paul, Leasha and Jason to the airport today and finally got some free time. More of that on the next posting.

Jason and the double steak. Jim's Steak House, Peoria.

Paul Elledge, photographer, artist, driver...

Steak and Shake, Peoria

Caterpillar plant, Decatur

Jason Robinette... Industrial strength packer upper...

Zen and the fart of Burger King

If you have ever thought that being a world class photographer is glamorous, forget it. Seeing the amount of work and effort that goes into every project, I know that being on the top of the photographic game is very hard work. I am just the intern and I am already tired. Paul does not say to 'no' to work unless he is already booked. People not in the know do not consider the cost of being a photographer. Now with the digital revolution, a lot of photographers have to start onto the slippery road of buying digital equipment and having to upgrade it every 3 to 5 years. Gone are the days when you can buy one or two film camera systems and keep it for a whole career. If you care about your work, if you want to deliver the best you can, then it takes time and money and effort. As far as I am concerned, I am not willing to deliver jpegs straight off a camera. I will shoot raw and tune images before I deliver. It is essential to maintain quality.

It is almost 2 weeks now in Chicago. It seems more like 2 months. I am tired but happy. Paul's photos do not necessarily look complex, and to a certain extent they are not, but his finesse is incredible. He can perceive and does take into consideration 0.1 of an f-stop difference. At my level, I can only see a difference in a third of an f-stop. He takes many variations of one portrait, looking for that quarter inch difference between a good shot and a great shot. Sometimes it appears that the techniques that I am learning from him are not all that radical. What Paul is about for me is the pursuit and tenacity to refine an inner vision. Jason is now doing digital prints for Paul, and he is getting a wonderful insight to the way Paul sees textures and colors.

When people go to workshops, they try and develop their vision and exercise their artistic judgment. My trip to Chicago is not about developing that vision as much as learning to see 0.1 difference in f-stop. Paul has a reputation for being incredibly demanding, but for a reason. When he picks on something, it does make a difference in the final image. I hope to get an insight on those subtle changes. Paul told me, when I asked to intern at his studio, that there is a fine line between a good and a great photographer.

On a good note, Paul has been happy with my work in the last 2 weeks. He bought me a couple of CDs (KaneYeWest and Illinoise) and is lending me some books to read. He does not usually lend books out. I hope that I can continue to show a positive contribution to the studio through my stay here.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

A Shoot in Milwaukee

Paul and Leasha went to do a shoot in Mississippi over the weekend and arrived back in Chicago at Midnight on Sunday. They picked me up for a shoot in Milwaukee at 6.15am on Monday morning. Pual works really really hard. Here I am in the kitchen at 6am waiting for them.

Jason, the regular assistant had to stay in Chicago to make prints, so they got Adam to assist. Adam is the nerdy looking American and Leasha is sitting next to him.

I finally got clearance to show a shot from a shoot. This is Paul shooting me. I and all the people who modelled had to sign a model release. They paid each of us US$1. :) So not only do I shoot and assist, I model too. Muahahahaha.

As we were packing up, I saw this fire hydrant in the sunset. It kind of looked nice. The pole apparently is to let people drivng show shovels know where the fire hydrant is and not plow into it.

Me trying my darnest to make a snow angel. They snow was pretty tough, more like ice kachang shaving than powdered snow.

For dinner we stopped at this restaurant called Brat Stop. Serves sausages and cheese. The starters is fried cheese! Very American. This restaurant is huge. There is a sign near the front saying it seats 2000 people. I found my own seat. I don't get paid to intern, but Paul tries his best to keep me happy. :) This picture courtesy of Paul Elledge. Muahahahaha.