Wednesday, May 31, 2006

The Path ahead

London is like a sanctuary for me. This is a place that I am comfortable with but far away from the burdens of everyday life.

I have a clearer idea of what I need to do to improve my photography after my three months in Chicago. The task ahead of me is enormous. One thing that I have learnt in Chicago, is that it is not just about photography. To make photography viable, there are a lot of attendant things that need to be looked after. I will list a few things down although it is probably not exhaustive.

1. Technical logs of the shoots so that any setup can be reused in the future.
2. Cataloging and archiving of photographs
3. Administration of shoots, like model releases and payments
4. Equipment maintenance, all mechanical equipment will fail sooner or later.
5. Office administration
6. Portfolios and promotion
7. Exhibitions
8. Continued experimentation and photographic education
9. Production co-ordination on commercial shoots

The fine line between art and commerce is hard to straddle. Too much art and freedom can lead to chaos. Too much systemisation leads to stale and boring work.

In Paul's studio, I observed that professionalism is an attitude, not a system. A system follows from a professional attitude to work. There is a constant struggle to make sure things are done right and done more efficiently. All the work stems from Paul's vision, but every member of the office is concious of what they are doing. People do not do their work mechanically, but are finding ways to improve as they work. It was really tough at times, but there were times when it seemed like the impossible was being achieved by sheer will power. On the shoot with Greg Minor, the musician, Paul was shooting 4x5 type 55 polaroid. Jason was loading and passing the polaroid backs to Paul. Lesha was placing the negatives in sodium sulphite solution separated by pieces of kitchen towel as Shin was coating the positive. It was amazing to see how fast Paul could shoot with such a cubersome camera and material.

I guess that I have been a hands on person and have expected to understand all that happens in my studio. This means that I take responsibility for everything in the studio. But when all the people are excelling in what they do and taking responsibility for their area of work, it will enable me to push the envelope even more. It is like formula one racing, the driver takes point, but the entire team behind the design of the car and the maintenance of the car during the race are essential to the success of the driver. Everyone has to pull their weight.

Sunday, May 28, 2006

Leaving Chicago

I am packing up, trying to put away 3 intense months of living in my bags, and the rubbish in the trash.

I am sure that the photographic insights will continue to come to me over time, but I have not spoken much about the impression of Chicago that I have. In spite of a relentless work schedule, I managed to squeeze in tourist excursions and cultural activities.

I have the impression that the people in Chicago are genuinely warm. People in Los Angeles are nice but I can only take them at face value. New York is edgy, but the people there are aggressive and have a bad case of bad attitude. For me at least, the people that you met in restaurants and on the street give you their attention. Given the weather that Chicago has, this is surprising. I would be cursing and swearing all day long in the cold.

Although Chicago is known for its architecture and sky scrapers, it is more amazing that such a huge city with many more parts that I could explore, had so many unpretentious people.

I guess that in a word, I would say that Chicago is laid back for a large city. The only really bad trait here is reckless drivers, but that seems to be endemic in large cities all over the world. A car is like a license to kill.

I would say that the easy going charm of Chicago is both a strength and weakness. Chicago is a large city with a small town heart. It has a lot to offer in terms of sites to see, facilities (the public transport is pretty good) and things to buy. But the fashion, the taste of the food, the visual advertising, all tend to be a bit on the bland side. I don't know, food in America can be on the bland side in general. However, the Chicago experience is pleasant but not intense.

With the amount of stickers and graffiti and murals on the walls, you cannot help but feel that Chicago is a city full of people trying to reach out to other people. I really cannot understand why there would be so many things out in public for everyone to see.

I guess that the pride and joy of Chicago is its architecture, featuring people like Louis Sullivan, Frank Lloyd Wright and Meis Van Der Rohe. Everything from houses to gothic looking buildings to shiny sky scrapers. It is like that the streets of Chicago read like the history of modern architecture.

What I like about all this is that such an impressive achievement in building has happened to a city of people who I feel deserve it. You can see that I am obsessed by how nice they are.

As warm as the Chicago people are, the weather here is unpredictable and cold. I was wearing my thickest clothing just last week. And now in spring, I have to take anti-histamines daily as I get hay fever. I think that I could get a job working in Paul's studio, but honestly, just the weather is a real turn off for me.

Chicago, in short is a great city, but forgettable at times.

Monday, May 22, 2006

The Real Meaning of Life

I am reading this book called The Real Meaning of Life. It is a collection of responses to a web site that asked What is the meaning of Life? So many people responded that it is to live life fully. What does that mean, to Live life fully? And so many people also says the meaning of life is different to different people. Hmm....

Ok, let me say that last night I went to watch the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre and had a great evening. On the way home from the tube I gave change to 2 beggars and encountered a man asking for a place to sleep. I was unable to help him.

Well, I have done a Phd. amongst possible noble prize winners, danced in the same building as some of the world's best contemporary dancers and now interned in the studio of one of the best photographers in the world. I have always been trekking at the base of mountains. Speaking of mountains, I have also been to Tibet and seen the Everest range with my own eyes. I have fallen madly in love and out of it again, more than once. And I have started my own business and continue to run it.

I cannot tell what the future will bring. But I have to give thanks for all the experiences that I have had. The good experiences for being inspiring and the bad ones for teaching me more about life. I also give thanks for my supportive family and the friends that I have met along the way who have enriched my life. I hope that I gave back something to them too.

I bought a t-shirt a few years back when I was on course in Santa Fe, New Mexico. It said, 'Life is a journey, not a destination'. I am beginning to realise that it is not about becoming famous, the best or the richest. I am thankful that I have a life journey with challenges and trials. They make those special moments with friends and colleagues, where you are just able to share company and experiences, meaningful. They are meaningful because you earned it.

Paul and Leasha threw a going away party for me today at their house. The people that I met in my 3 months stay came and I even got presents like a Chicago cap. It was nice for everyone to have a party but it was better knowing that I slogged through these months and made a contribution to Paul's studio. I did not just take, I gave to. And I cannot take this for granted. It was a blessing that a photographer like Paul would take an intern from far off Singapore. I am also blessed that I am in a position to make this trip, instead of begging on the streets for a place to sleep.

So I have to thank the powers that be for this gift of life. And I have to thank the people who have shared parts of my journey with me.

The Mambo of life

I really laughed at this one. :)

Sunday, May 21, 2006

The Longest Week

The second last week of my stay in Chicago and there were no jobs to be shot. Leasha decided to take a trip to Mexico for a much needed break. I thought that this week would be smooth, but it turned out to be the longest week.

Just like any business, there needs to be maintenance. Jason spent the week backing up all the digital files that have been shot and scanned over the last 3 months or more that I have been here. Paul decided to copy pages from books that he had shot to go onto his new web site. That little project was much more difficult than I anticipated. We had to set up a copy stand and Paul used the 1DS MK II. I messed up on the first day, not confirming the sharpness of the images and a day of shooting went down the drain. Paul was pissed off with me. I had a pretty good run over 2 and a half months, just when the end was near, I stumbled.

So we started to reshoot the books much sharper by stopping down and Moire patterns started appearing over the images. We tried changing the shooting distance and using a anti-moire program in photoshop, no luck there. I was really stumped there for a while. There was a book that we had shot twice already and we were stuck again. Eventually, I suggested using his 5D to do the copy work because the sensor size was different from that of the 1DS MKII. It was not perfect, but we managed to make it better by 80% in the worst cases and in many cases eliminating the Moire. On the 1DS Mk II, the Moire was very obvious and had color shifts as well. On the 5D, the Moire was more like a ripple pattern, not wanted but looking more natural.

And if you are asking why there is Moire when copying books? It is because images in books are made up of a grid of dots varying in size. To our normal eyes, this is not a problem. Shoot it with a sensor with a regular grid pattern and bang! The shit hits the fan.

We finally get the books shot sharp and without Moire. It took hours for me to touch up the images. Don't get me wrong, we were careful with the copy stand and there was not much to touch up on each image, but I had about 60 images to touch up. Last night was a long night.

It was a good experience for me too. Facing a task and fighting it down. Paul wanted this task to be done as fast as possible, but he wanted it done right. He was willing to shoot again and pushed me to get it right. When doing it right meant it took a little more time, he was willing to wait. For example, the files had to be renamed with the page of the book and his copyright information inserted into the images, he was cool with that.

My main lessons were to communicate with the people I am working with and to do things right.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Being An Artist in Business

Being An Artist in Business by Alain Briot

Quite an interesting read. Not directly applicable to the type of photography I aspire to, but inspiring none the less. Especially the statement,

Since anything you choose to do to the best of your abilities will present difficulties,
you might as well do exactly what you like.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Hello and Good-Bye

A wall in Paul Elledge's studio

As my time in Chicago comes to an end, My feelings are mixed. I came and found answers to many of the photographic questions that I had, but as usual, I leave with more questions.

The main part of Paul's work that I loved so much, is the soft, human look that his work has. Aside from lighting, there are many tools that Paul uses to create his 'look'. He uses a large format camera for some of his black and whites with older, softer lenses. This is an area that I am not even sure I want to venture into because the lenses have to serviced regularly and I would have no idea where to send mine to if I had any. He shoots on Polaroid type 55 film that has a characteristic glow. That much I can and will use, but there are labs in Chicago that will wash and fix the type 55 neg. I will have to do this myself in Singapore and be much more careful to avoid scratches and dust. He prints his black and whites in his darkroom, I will have to scan mine and print digitally. As much as I would love to become a darkroom printer, I think that the chemicals and paper will be a huge problem. Paul also used a Polaroid land camera with type 665 film. Polaroid is discontinuing type 665 film. And we all wonder in this digital age, how long Polaroid is going to be around?

It is quite amazing for me, but in his colour photographs, Paul shoots on Kodak film and his clients order prints of the final images they want. The clients do the scanning of the prints. Even when I started working in Singapore 6 years ago, I was told to specifically shoot transparencies and now everyone is asking for digital files. But the look of the colour prints that Paul gets are just beautiful. The clients, appreciating his work, will scan in prints. Paul has a close relationship with his lab, and this is crucial for Paul to get the exact look he wants. Even if clients were willing to scan my prints in Singapore, I doubt if there is a lab that would bend over to print my negs just the way I want them. Even now, getting the labs to continue with one type of paper for long periods is hard, there is a major upheaval in the print business. Even here in Chicago, print film and prints is passing into history faster than slower.

I love the spirit of Paul's portraits, lovingly crafted with special cameras on film. As Paul is also slowly moving over to digital, I am witnessing the passing of an age. So some of the answers to my questions are useless. There is no magic bullet here. In a way this is good, I will not be able to return to Singapore to be a pale knock off of Paul. I will have my own journey and I will have to find my own answers to the visual challenges that I will face.

But at least I now know how it was done and what the situation is today. I have also learnt a lot of invaluable lighting techniques that will be useful regardless of the camera I use. I also gained a lot of insight to how large commercial shoots are executed.

Paul is a die-hard film user and today, out of necessity, he is embracing digital photography. Looking at the way he works and his fighting-spirit, I have also learnt that one has to fight for what is important. Things will not fall on your lap, you have to go out and slog for your vision. I have butterflies in my tummy. I am coming home to start my journey.

On a side note, I was thinking of having an exhibition of my colour photographs in October to help launch my commercial photography career. I have postponed this to some time next year. I do not know when. I now want to reshoot my entire portfolio and see how I can bring it to the next level.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Yogen's Birthday at Victor Hotel

Yogen is an old school mate from Anglo-Chinese School working as a medical researcher in Chicago. We were supposed to meet when I came to Chicago, but due to some food poisoning and subsequent work commitments by both of us, we never met. He just happened to be celebrating his 40th birthday and Victor Hotel and asked me along. Yogen and I have not really kept in contact through the years and we only met up again at another friend's house just before I came to Chicago. I had no idea what to expect of this party but I ended up having a lot of fun at a really interesting club/restaurant.

Victor Hotel is a swish club done up in some old factory building. The walls are red and hung with photo erotica ala Helmut Newton. Ok, I should be smiling guys at least in this photo. I took a second one smiling but misfocussed, so you have me looking serious again. Here is a symbolic smile, :)

Here is Yogen, the birthday boy.

Yogen with some guests.

And some guests amongst the photographs.

Not making money, not making art photos, but sometimes it is just fun to have fun.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Classic Paul Elledge

Paul has been shooting a lot of commercial work since I came to Chicago. On Friday, he shot a rock musician Greg. Paul pulled out some of his classic photographic stuff. An 8x10 camera with a 4x5 adapter. He shot type 55 film on the large format camera and then later shot with a Polaroid Land camera.

I have been trying so hard to create the mood look. As you can see in the test shot, he can do it so easily. Or he makes it look easy, it is not. All I can say is that I have learnt how important it is the ability to use black cuts to make sure the fall off on the face is great. When I was in Singapore, I was using it a bit, but I never realized how important it is. Shin was telling me that all the students in Columbia use cuts and nets to modify light. I don't know wether to laugh or cry. To laugh because I am learning so much, or to cry because I am learning this at the age of 40 and after working for 6 years professionally. All I can say is that I am spending a lot of money just on pieces of black fabric, white fabric and netting and tools to help hold them up.

Looking on the bright side of things, better learning these things late than never. As I switch over to commercial work, what I learn here will be invaluable to getting it right in camera. The other thing is that the equipment that I buy for modifying light will last the rest of my career, unlike the cameras, computers and monitors which will cost many times more and last all of 3 short years, if that long!!

The rest of the rock shoot was also great! Paul used an old weathered door and a piece of rusty metal as props. He tried shooting with his Kinoflo fluorescent lights. He shot with a fish-eye camera outdoors while hand-holding led lights. I have no idea what those shots look light but I cannot wait to see the end results.

I have a feeling that I have only seen the tip of the iceberg when it comes to what Paul is capable of.

Just a little side note. Betty, my assistant, uses the Canon 350D as her main camera. I use the 5D as my main camera and the 350D as my recreational camera. Paul uses the 1DS MK II for commercial work and the 5D as his recreational camera. What more can I say? ;)

Monday, May 01, 2006

Lazy Weekend

Paul, Leasha and Jason went to Los Angeles, to attend the D65 digital photography course. So I decided to take the opportunity to head out to New York to visit my friend John Bachmann. New York has never been a place that I liked. I alwasy appreciated the art in New York, but I always found the people on the street aggressive and intimidating.

John and daughter, Ella

What I thought would be another roller coaster ride with frayed nerves, turned out to be the most relaxing weekend I have had since I started this visit to America, maybe even in a year. This is because John was now staying with his wife, Kathy, and baby girl, Ella, in a suburb in New Jersey. Looking at all the beautiful spring flowers and green trees, the car license plates saying New Jersey, the garden state, made perfect sense.

View from Anthony's nose, Cold Spring, New Jersey

On Saturday, John and Kathy took me hiking with their friends Chris and Jen at Cold Spring. John backpacked his daugther Ella and Kathy was pregnant with their second baby. When I had said yes to this hike, I thought how difficult could it be with a pregnant mum and baby girl in tow. And I have been walking to and from work regularly for 2 months. Still, the first incline up the side of a hill really winded me. John has always been a health freak and a type A person. Carrying Ella, lunch and water, he hardly broke sweat! I think that I have to exercise more when I return to Singapore.

Anyway, the initial struggle up the side of the hill was completely worth it. The place that we went to is called Anthony's nose and it had a great view of the Hudson river. Fortunately, Chris and Jen opted to walk back to the car along a flat road instead of over the hill again. It turned out to be fine.

Storm King Arts Centre

We finished the hike pretty early and parted ways with Chris and Jen about 2pm. Then we went to a fantastic sculpture park called The Storm King Arts Centre. I had never heard of this park before but was delighted by it. It had some really great sculptures in a beautiful space. Some of the sculptures included Momo Taro by Isamu Noguchi, Reclining connected forms by Henry Moore and Storm King Wall by Andy Goldsworthy.

Ella, Storm King Arts Centre

Most of the work in the privately owned park is abstract. It was inspiring to see such challenging work in a private collection open to the public like this. There were smaller sculptures but many of them were 2 stories high at least. It took great vision by the artists as well as the owner of the Storm King Art Centre.

And Sundays was a lazy day. The weather was sunny but cool. I spent most of the day in John's backyard sleeping. It was strange, I was in a totally new place, but I really felt safe and comfortable. I think that part of it was due to the fact that I had forgotten my own worries, but the setting was really calm. It was a neighbourhood of families bringing up young children, and I felt safe like I used to in the back seat of my parent's car.

Sarah, a neighbour's daughter on a plane swing