The Photographers Eyes

I’ve always been intrigued by cameras and composition. I trained as a fine artist and focused on life drawing and painting with a side of ceramics. In college photography was a discipline I had to study for a year to satisfy the requirements of my BFA. I did really enjoy it, but it was not my “go-to” discipline. I learned the mechanics and even did a few professional shoots here and there. A camera was a tool in my designers toolbox. This all changed for me in 2006, but to tell the whole story I need to go back a little further.
When I was 17 I wrecked the family car. I was coming out of a construction zone and just when traffic started to speed up the car in front of me stopped for a dog crossing the road and I plowed right into it. I didn’t realize that I was so close. Afterward my mom decided to get my eyes checked out. It turns out that I had a slight crossed eye that could have interfered with my depth perception. Along with this the doctor discovered that I had cataracts. I was born with them. They were unusual in shape and not very common. I had 20/20 vision, and really didn’t notice anything. The doctor said that they might never be an issue.

Every time I moved to a new city and got a new eye doctor, they would ask it if was OK to bring in all their staff to see my cataracts, they were very unusual, something you might only see a couple of times in a career. One doctor even asked to photograph them – I finally got to see what the fuss was about. They looked like tiny galaxies, circular with swirls radiating from the center.

Now spring forward to 2006, my eye doctor had advised me that I could really benefit from cataract surgery. He suggested that once I began to lose the ability to focus (we all start to experience this in our 40’s) that I seriously should consider it. By this time I was living in a rural area and I was having difficulty driving at night. It never occurred to me that the culprit might be my cataracts, I assumed it was the lack of street lights. I had the surgery one eye at a time. I was the youngest person in the office by about 30 years. None of my fellow patients could imagine me having cataracts. The surgery only took a couple of minutes, and for those seconds between when they remove your old lens and when they replace it with a new one, my field of vision was filled with swirling rainbows through liquid – it was vivid and beautiful.

The next morning when I went out into the sunlight I was stunned by what I saw. I had always had 20/20 vision. I could see details and contrast just fine. In those first moments that morning I realized that I had never really seen color before. I never knew that a lawn was filled with thousands of shades of green and that each blade of grass both cast a shadow and caught a touch of sunlight. I never knew that the parking lot at work was made up of hundreds of greys and browns – I had always seen it as just kinda black. Before my surgery I had taken photos of mostly still life and everyday objects. I loved finding a new way to see something ordinary, but now my eyes were overwhelmed with the vividness of the world around me. I upgraded my camera kit to better capture the color and began to take my camera everywhere.

After work and on weekends I began to seek out color. Autumn leaves, sunsets, spring flowers, songbirds. The first time I had a show locally, a reporter asked me what inspired me and seemed surprised when I said color, since I had so many wildlife shots and landscapes. The subjects of my beloved still lives became more colorful. Color is the unifying theme of almost everything I shoot.

Today, I cannot even imagine the dullness of the world I lived in for so long without knowing it. I live for color and in the spring time when the Ozarks are alive with color. Currently I have a show up here in Eureka Springs called Harbingers – I collected works shot between February and April to represent those things that usher in a glorious spring after a long cold winter. I’ve mounted each on canvas over hard board and fixed then onto stretcher bars exposing the wood sides. I wanted to try to take the technical photography and give it a warmer hand-crafted feel. As spring has blossomed here I continue to add to my Harbinger library – and it’s no surprise that the images are filled with color. The images used in the show are in the slideshow below. Scroll through to see the images larger and to see camera settings.

Shutterbug notes – I chose my current camera set up partly because of its dynamic range. Moving to manual really give you a lot more control over color. Moving off auto gives you access to all the features of your camera and let’s you get the most out of it. Try seeing things in a new light, you might never want to go back to your old ways of seeing the world around you!

The First Rule of Photography

Always take your camera!

I know I say this a lot. I take my camera everywhere. It is in my car when I go to the store. I carry it to work everyday. It is always by my side.

The case has been made that the best camera is the one that you have with you. In this day when there is an iPhone or Galaxy in almost every pocket, most of us always have a camera for those spontaneous shots. But if you have a good camera, a real camera, why settle for serviceable when you can have amazing. Your iPhone can’t stop a hummingbird in mid-flight or reveal the inverted image in a water drop. It can’t show you the structure of a snowflake. There are a few rare shutterbugs (like Allan) that squeeze every once of performance out of that phone, but the truth is that what most of us capture with our iPhones could best be classified as “snapshots”. You spent good money on that camera – why let it gather dust waiting for that next excursion. If you don’t shoot it often you are likely to miss the big shot because you are trying to remember how to use it.

Sometimes it’s not the rare creature or amazing sunset, sometimes the beauty in the mundane calls out to me. When you see something that clicks, you need to be ready to click.

I was ready to click earlier this week at the car wash…

As I sat in the carwash, I was frustrated that I had lost the connection to my satellite radio. I started to check my Facebook feed and looked up to see a sea of foam rubber orange and yellow sponges with soap engulfing me. I took a shot with my iPhone – it was in my hand after all, but the shot was noisy and couldn’t capture what I was seeing. I grabbed my fast 50 and started shooting. I did no color correction on these shots – you are seeing what I saw. The color of a sunset out my driver’s side window.

Shutterbug Notes:

For a split second I considered getting out the flash, but decided that the window would just bounce the light back at me. I shot in aperture mode and opened the shutter all the way. I had to turn off the focus assist to keep from getting a red reflection on the glass. I focused on the bubbles and hoped for the best. I only took 7 shots. All but one were keepers. Because I was very familiar with my camera I could make quick changes to capture something spontaneous without having to pay for a second run through the car wash.  

Rosie and Me – an Update

Several months ago I wrote about my tattoo experience with Rosie the Riveter – you can read about it here.

A quick bit of back story for those who may not wish to click…

1. This is my favorite painting…

This is the photo I took of Rosie at Crystal Bridges last winter.

This is the photo I took of Rosie at Crystal Bridges last winter.

2. Rosie was based on this painting…

Rosie was based on the image of Isaiah from the Sistine Chapel - instead of the Book of the Law, she rests her arm on her lunchbox.

Rosie was based on the image of Isaiah from the Sistine Chapel – instead of the Book of the Law, she rests her arm on her lunchbox.

3. I started a tattoo last year of Rosie by an amazing artist, Serene Temple – as of last February it looked like this…

This is Rosie after 2 sessions - last February

This is Rosie after 2 sessions – last February. I was constantly stopped and asked who did this piece – no one believed me when I told them it was unfinished.

4. Rosie was brought to this point in 2 sessions or about 12 hours work. The first was to lay in the shadows, the second was to add color and define details.

OK – That’s where I left off. This year over my Christmas holiday I scheduled another session with the amazing Serene. She told me that we would be doing fine detail and that this session would be fun. I imagined a couple of hours of highlights and that we would have time to add something I have been wanting to add to my arm. I was totally unprepared for the detail session – it was much more than a few highlights. Layers of color were added to Rosie’s overalls, skin tones were enhanced, details were added – before it was over we spent another 5 hours on Rosie.

Rosie’s face complete with lipstick and curls. Note the highlights on all the glass surfaces like her goggles and mask.

The details in her hair and highlights make this look so much like the painting. The buttons are beyond belief.

The details in her hair and highlights make this look so much like the painting. The buttons are beyond belief.

Since the last session I have gone back to Crystal Bridges to get a shot of the pocket of Rosie’s overalls – it contained a handkerchief and a compact. Those details were added in this session.

Rosie's white compact and hanky are tucked into her overalls pocket. The white seams and the surface of the rivet gun add so much dimension.

Rosie’s white compact and hanky are tucked into her overalls pocket. The white seams and the surface of the rivet gun add so much dimension.

Rosie’s hand had so many more details than I had imagined – I thought it was pretty much done last session – I was wrong.

The crust on the bread of the sandwich, the stippled surface of the rivet gun, the buckles on her wrist strap, and her red nail polish - the details make it echo Rockwell's original.

The crust on the bread of the sandwich, the stippled surface of the rivet gun, the buckles on her wrist strap, and her red nail polish – the details make it echo Rockwell’s original.

The penny loafers and cuffs are by far the best ink I have on my body – I wish I had photos to do them justice…

The cuffs on these overalls are some of the best Ink I have ever seen. The penny loafers are my favorite part of the original and this photo doesn't do these details justice. Shooting your own leg is harder than you think.

The cuffs on these overalls are some of the best Ink I have ever seen. The penny loafers are my favorite part of the original and this photo doesn’t do these details justice. Shooting your own leg is harder than you think.

Ultimately my best shot is one taken by someone at a bit more distance. I think she’s more than I ever imagined she could be…

This gives you a feel for how complete Rosie is looking - next we will work on the background

This gives you a feel for how complete Rosie is looking – next we will work on the background.

Where do we go from here? I have an idea about the background. I don’t think I want the wavy stripes from the original – it was designed to be a flat magazine cover, and my leg is round. I am intrigued by the setting of Isaiah – both of these images are of people who were a part of a fundamental change in how we saw the world. Isaiah introduces us to a God of compassion. He describes a savior that is a conqueror of the heart rather than the head of an army. Before Isaiah our view of God was as a judge handing down punishment, after Isaiah we get a glimpse of Him extending his hand to save us from that judgement. Rosie is the image of a sea change in how we see women. Before Rosie, women were barely assigned enough intelligence to be able to vote, now she could not only do the job of any man – she could do it well. It was her duty, she was doing her part to save the world. I like to think of combining the two – maybe she should be seated on an industrial styled throne-like niche – trade Isaiah’s marble for steel and rivets. At least that’s what I’m thinking today. We’ll see where it goes the next time I go home.

As for that other piece I was thinking about adding, as usual I imagine things are easier than they really are. Serene saw my idea and was eager to tackle it. We scheduled another session on her day off while I was still in town. She did a drawing that took hours of something I had wanted to add something to my sleeve – an image of the camera my mother shot, the camera she taught me to shoot – a Rolleiflex…

What comes after Rosie? An image of my favorite camera.

What comes after Rosie? An image of my favorite camera.

This is just the first session. Details will be added and it will look amazing (I kinda think it already does, but I have learned my lesson) Good ink takes time and the time is worth it when you consider that this is on your body forever.

Frosty Gaze

This morning’s frost caught my eye, so while waiting for my Jeep to warm up enough to defrost the windshield I decided to get out my camera. My Leica macro lens was calling to me. Since I’m surrounded by woods, I made my way down my drive to the road – it was a little like driving in braille. The sunlight at the road made it all worth the risk.

I found the frost to be filled with images that were almost familiar…

Curved tracings - facing straight ahead down the road

Curved Tracings

The payoff, sunrise out my driver's side window.

Driver’s Side Sunrise

Shot skyward - right out front

Blue Sky

A sweet spot in the sunrise

Frosty Feathers

The bulk of my windshield looked just like lace

Lace Curtains

Star towards the sky

Blue Star

Skyward on the sunrise side

Sunrise Dragon

Wisps in the sunrise

Pine Boughs in the Morning Light

A Heart of Glass

A Heart of Glass

This is exactly why I take my camera everywhere I go – you never know what wonders you will encounter doing the most mundane things like warming up the car.

And a Partridge in a Pear Tree

I was going through some old photos recently when I came across some of my earliest original artwork.

I was that kid who loved to draw. I even had some kids ask me for drawings that I later learned that they signed and turned in as their own work. Even as a youngster I should have been more cognizant of my rights under copyright law.

I loved to make drawings for my Grandmother. She would actually frame some of my doodles for display in the living room of her home. Forget the fridge and a magnet, she believed my work belonged on walls presented properly. Grandma always got my sense of humor so I had the idea to draw her a pretty complex, over-the-top Christmas Card.

The actual card is long gone, but what I found was my original sketch. I did this when I was about 8-9 years old. It’s not very detailed, and it has part of my math homework off on one side. The whole thing started when I asked Grandma what all of those things in that crazy song looked like – she said she didn’t know, so I decided to make something up.

The 12 Days of Christmas through my 4th grade eyes…

Days 12 through 7. Hand illustrated on the finest college ruled velum.

Days 12 through 7. Hand illustrated on the finest college ruled velum. The extended cow is my favorite part of this section.

A card so grand it took two whole sides of a sheet of paper to plan out…

Days 6-1 - I believe "4 Calling Birds" is some of my best work

Days 6-1 – I believe “Four Calling Birds” is some of my best work – I think the one on the lower right speaks “Woodstock”

Over the years I have reproduced this concept in pen and ink with lots of flourishes and details – but the concept itself is unchanged. The Maids-a-milking would all be in French maid uniforms, the Lords would be jumping hurdles, the Swans would wear swimming goggles – all style with the substance unchanged. The last time I drew it was the Christmas after I graduated from college.

When I showed this drawing to one of my co-workers, she remarked that the Calling Birds and the Turtle Doves would make fun T-shirts – pretty cool since I make up T-shirt slogans for a living. I guess I’m kinda doing what I was made to do.

I hope your Holiday Season is bright and wonderful and just a little bit silly.

The Zebra – the Epitome of Graphic Design

I’ve always seen the zebra as the epitome of graphic design – it has all the elements – line value, diagonals, white space…

I was a Fine Art major in college. My emphasis was on life drawing. We would spend hours doing “contour drawings” where we would draw to actual contours of a model, never lifting the pencil from the paper. The idea was that when completed the dimensional shape would be evident in your drawing. Sometimes it was successful, sometimes not so much.

I experimented with sumi brushes making the lines thick and thin in order to show depth along with contour and I was a bit more successful with that method in creating something that was closer to being art and not just an exercise.

None of my experiments even approached the success of the lines of the Zebra – curving over the curved parts, widening over the wider parts – unfurling like the waves of a striped flag in the breeze.

It’s the ultimate use of negative space – show just the white on black and it’s all there, show the reverse and its design is just as successful.

How amazing is it that these stripes serve as camouflage in an environment made up of golds and browns. A brown and gold striped horse on the African plains would have been just as successful, yet this bold design works just fine in the presence of color blind predators.

Super-clean lines, completely functional design, bold styling – just perfect.

These Grant’s Zebras are a part of the herd living at the Promised Land Zoo just north of Eureka Springs, Arkansas.

Rosie and Me

My brush with greatness at Crystal Bridges

I’m an art geek. Seeing a famous piece of art that I have admired in person is much more exciting than seeing a celebrity. I get a little giddy.

Last December I got my first chance to visit Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art – it’s located in Bentonville, Arkansas and it’s simply amazing. Gilbert Stuart’s Portrait of Washington, Maxfield Parish’s Lanterns, Thomas Hart Benton, Andy Warhol, Lichtenstein, Winslow Homer – and many more, so many I had admired based on a photo in a textbook or a slide on a classroom wall – here in the flesh in Arkansas. It was like a feast, wonders around every corner. I savored them all passing from gallery to gallery. And then I saw Rosie…

Rosie the Riveter by Norman Rockwell

As a child learning to draw I would study photos of Norman Rockwell’s work – noticing the play of light and shadow on his figure’s skin, marveling at his stunning photorealistic character studies, his elevation of the “everyman” to almost monumental status. Even before I understood its meaning, Rosie was my favorite. She was a strong woman who wore overalls and used power tools! As a teen I often dressed like her – overalls and buttons with penny loafers. I still have a pair of sunglasses that look like goggles. If I were invited to a costume party tomorrow I could pull off a fair Rosie.

As I began to understand her place in history I saw Rosie as someone like my grandmother who went to work during the war – she was no riveter – she was a butcher. But she went to work during the war and she was never content to sit at home as a housewife again. She did a man’s job when almost all jobs were reserved for men, and she did it as well as any man could. She was ahead of her time by more than 30 years.

Did you know that Rockwell based Rosie on the figure of the Prophet Isaiah from the Sistine Chapel? Her pose is almost identical. That’s the magic of Rockwell – this young woman shares the same grace as a prophet in one of the most famous works of art on the planet. She matters.

The Prophet Isaiah from the Sistine Chapel by Michelangelo

I was a fine art major in college. Norman Rockwell’s works were often dismissed as “illustration”. I found out about this bias out the hard way. I was assigned a project in my life drawing class – I was supposed to choose a piece of art to use as a template to dissect the human form down into spheres and cylinders – exploring the geometry of the human body. I chose Rockwell’s 100th anniversary of Baseball and was told that although the forms were a good choice, Rockwell was not considered a “real artist”. My choice cost me a passing grade on the assignment. Imagine my satisfaction at seeing Rosie in a place of honor at a leading museum of American “Art”.

My visit to Crystal Bridges occurred because my flight had been delayed. I was heading home for Christmas with my family in Las Vegas. Each year I schedule an appointment with what we call the “family tattoo artist”, Serene, while I’m home for the holidays. My plan was either to add to my half sleeve or to start a leg.

My sleeve so far:

My half-sleeve. An eclectic memorial to people who I love.

Serene is a painter. I confess that I waited a long time to get my first ink – I’m a bit of an art snob and I have seen an awful lot of bad work. Meeting Serene was key for me to get started. She’s a painter so we get each other as artists. I am a collector of her paintings as well as a walking gallery of her work. She also knows color. In the sleeve above she used no white – she created the illusion of white dogwoods by using blues and greys to lighten my own skin tone.

After seeing Rosie, my plans changed – I wanted her on my leg. I stopped by Serene’s studio to see her a day before my appointment to drop off images – she told me she needed more time and that she was really excited to do a Rockwell – especially one so symbolic as Rosie. I left her my photos and she set aside her day off to work on Rosie – she told me that this wasn’t going to be something that we would finish in a day. It was a big commitment for both of us.

When I arrived she had worked out the stencil – a note about artists – you get what you pay for. The work goes beyond the session time. She spent hours getting this ready.

Serene’s reference drawing

The stencil on my leg

This was my first “portrait” style tattoo. This is done more like a painting – shading applied like an under painting, then line used to give definition. The first session was all about laying down depth. The zones on the stencil give the artists landmarks to set in that shading.

I brought along my camera – I thought it might be a good opportunity to capture some of the color of a session.

Ink Bottles

Shading Machine

As we started laying in details I saw it all coming to life – the penny loafers are one of my favorite parts of the painting – it’s where you really see Rockwell’s skill as a painter – highlight strokes. Serene has captured this better than this photo of my puffy leg shows – these were shot right after the session, but you can get the idea.

Detail of Rosie’s Loafers

Detail of my Rosie – this is the only circumstances I could imagine having a swastika on my body – crushed underfoot by the American spirit.

At the end of the first visit this is where we were. I had never ended a session with something that seemed so unfinished – but I was excited to see it progress.

Shading laid in – a hand suspended in air.

Serene had warned me that legs heal differently than arms. At the end of the third day I was one hurting unit – but I loved what I saw healing on my leg. I was scheduled to attend a trade show in Las Vegas in February so I scheduled an appointment for the day before.

Once again I brought my camera to document the process from my unique angle.

I love how some machines have this steam punk look.

Color palette for session two

Inked Serene inking me

The details started really coming together. Laying on my side I held my camera up to see what was happening on my leg.

The details of a club sandwich

My view of the progress

Here’s where we ended up after the second session – between the two sessions we have about 12 hours in this piece.

My leg after session 2. Serene photographed this one for her book.

The detail of Rosie’s face – almost painterly

I still have a session left to add the fine detail. Buttons, stitching, highlights. Meanwhile, I’m enjoying Rosie – taking her out and about.

Rosie on the trail

Recently I took my Rosie to meet the Original.

My Rosie at THE Rosie

I know it might sound extreme to tattoo a favorite painting onto your skin. I like my ink to be meaningful personally and it is, but more importantly it is personally transformative. I have always been a bit self-conscious about my appearance, never quite comfortable in my own skin. My tattoos have become my favorite thing about my appearance. I look in the mirror and I love my skin. I have claimed it as my own after decades of not liking my freckles, my pink skin, my shape. I own it.

As Rosie approaches completion, I am beginning to think about what’s next. I’ve thought about Van Gogh’s Starry Night, Maybe a mirrored Michelangelo’s Isaiah or some of my own photography. Maybe another Rockwell….

Rockwell’s Tattoo Artist – My next tattoo?