My newfound love of the 35mm focal length

When I began my photography career, I shot largely with a 50mm lens. Generally considered to be a “normal” lens, mimicking what the natural eye can see, I gravitated toward that focal length for its photojournalistic qualities, and its ability to capture images in a straightforward, no-frills type of way.

At the time, it seemed the most efficient and practical sort of lens for what I wanted to photograph. It wasn’t too wide, and it wasn’t too long. I wasn’t going for theatrics, and I felt that the 50mm kept me focused on making images with a clear sense of purpose and visual content.

I was using other lenses as well, but I found myself always going back to the 50.

Plus, I figured if it was good enough for Cartier-Bresson, then it was good enough for me.

Then, last year, as I was transitioning from film back to digital, I bought a 35mm prime lens for my Nikon DSLR.

Wow. The wider field of view has been a game-changer for me. I’m not saying I always prefer it now over the 50, or other lenses I own. But in the right environment and context, I’m able to do things with the 35 that I could not as easily do with the 50.

Chief among them is the ability to create more environmental portraits. I love being able to show more of the environment of my subjects, how they exist in it, and how it helps to tell a larger story about who they are, where they are, and what they do.

(Interesting side-note: Annie Leibovitz, one of my favorite photographers, has also preferred the 35mm, for this same reason.)

The 35mm lens also has more of a “cinematic” feel to it, and it does a better job at capturing moments and action. Its the lens I’ve been using since May for my Maria & Aidan project, for both stills and video.

Here are a few of my recent portraits, made with the 35mm lens.

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Janiece, who lives on a farm and community in Joshua Tree, Ca., with friends, family and artisans, 2019.

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Scott, a Vietnam veteran in front of Mount Shasta, off U.S. Route 97 in California. He was riding to San Diego from his home in Washington state, for a ship reunion with U.S. Navy members, 2019.

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Shelby, engineering team member at GuideSpark in Redwood City, Ca., 2019.

An Ode to Avedon

One of my favorite photographers — not just portrait photographers, but photographers, period — is Richard Avedon. His work, of course, is incredible. But what I might appreciate even more than the work itself is his philosophy and perspective toward photography and portraiture.

Avedon believed that you can’t possibly show or reveal the “trueness” of a person in a single photograph. Instead, you are capturing just a small fragment or piece of that person.

The “truth” is a fallacy. No, it would actually be more accurate to say the “truth” is a construct. A good portrait photographer will come to a session with an idea or concept of what they’re trying to bring out of the subject. The photographer should be trying to show, reveal or elicit a particular response. It’s almost like an orchestration on the part of the photographer, and, in a sense, a performance by his or her subject.

This is not to say that the photograph should be a fabrication. But it is a creation, and it’s a creation rooted in something inside the subject. It’s the photographer’s job to identify that something, and reveal it in a way that’s photographically interesting. The portrait, moreover, is the work and product of the photographer, not the subject, Avedon felt.

So while a good portrait might provide a true glimpse of someone, it’s not “the truth.” There is no single, standalone “truth.”

Richard Avedon in Mabou Mines in 1975 . In response to various media inquiries involving a recently published "memoir" involving Richard Avedon, we would like to say the following: 2017 has generally been a terrible year for truth. . The book in question was written with blithe disregard for fact and is filled with untruths of various kinds. It is clear that it contains an enormous number of errors. Then there are outright inventions, constructed out of whole cloth, some of them incredibly bizarre and macabre, and all of which appear to have been written deliberately to cause harm. It will take time to compile all of the inaccuracies. . Obviously there are betrayals, not the least of which is by a former doctor who chose to divulge a patient's confidential information. But there are others as well, by colleagues and even friends who seem not to understand that while of course they have the freedom of speech, they do not have the right to traduce. It is a sad reminder that we should all be careful about whom we trust. . Conversely, there are sections of the book that plagiarize and violate Dick's own private writings about his early life. . Let us finally say that we respect Dick's personal life and would never comment on his private relationships of any kind over the course of a lifetime. All people deserve that consideration. And his death 13 years ago does not change that. . We will continue to address these matters in the weeks and months to come. In the meantime, despite the above, we remain grateful for all of the good things in our lives, including Dick's amazing art and archive, and the memory of the person he actually was. . We wish you and your families a very Happy Thanksgiving. Be well.

We Never Change

I’m reading David Lynch’s fabulous memoir and biography right now, Room to Dream.

In one chapter, he writes, “People really don’t have an age, because the self that we talk to doesn’t age — that self is ageless. The body gets old but that’s all that changes.”

This really struck me, and it ties into something I’ve been thinking about a lot around my photography.

Some of my biggest loves in life are still the things they’ve always been. Movies I grew up with, experiences, perspectives and goals I had as a teenager, etc.

Essentially, none of these things have changed.

And either consciously or subconsciously, I have incorporated them into my photography.

Going forward, I will more actively work this way. I’ll be trying to “catch” photos less often, and more often try to catch an idea or concept for a photo, or series of photos, or something else, first, before I plan and do it. And I’ll let my lifelong loves guide me. And above all, I’ll be more true to myself.

Because, as Lynch also writes in the book, it’s all about the idea. That should come first, and everything else should spring from that. It’s important to always be receptive to catching ideas. I do feel that the more receptive you are, the more the ideas come, and that’s a beautiful thing. And I do feel more ideas have been flowing and coming to me lately.

Some people might call this conceptual photography. That’s fine, although I find the term a bit vague and reductive. (Shouldn’t all good photography have a concept?)

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Polaroid Spectra: My new favorite Camera

Now don’t get me wrong, I love my Polaroid SX-70. And my Nikon F3. And my Pentax 67. But the Polaroid Spectra might be my new favorite camera, and today was only my first day using it!

The main thing that makes the Spectra unique is that it produces slightly larger prints than most other Polaroid cameras. They’re a little bit wider, providing a more cinematic and dramatic feel.

At least, that’s how most people characterize the camera.

But I think what is also just as great, is the camera design itself. This thing is classic 80s, with a slightly rounded, boxy shape that is reminiscent of the BMW E30. Especially when in shooting mode, with the lens popped up, it just screams vintage.

It kind of feels like a compact VCR in your hands.

And while it’s still plastic, operating it feels just a little bit more smooth than my SX-70. The SX-70 is a marvel of industrial design, but it’s a very precious, delicate thing. I sometimes feel like I’m going to break it when I’m using it, and I don’t have that feeling at all with the Spectra.

On the downside, it’s not an SLR like the SX-70, so I’m not 100% sure that I’m always going to get exactly what I’m seeing in the viewfinder. There’s also no manual focus like on the SX-70, so you’re losing some additional control there. But I think the pluses of this camera might outweigh the negatives.

So, here are some photos, both of the camera itself, and two photographs I took today with it!

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For Janet

When I was in high school in the late 90s, I met Janet Leigh, star of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, at the Hitchcock stamp unveiling ceremony at Fairfield University, near my hometown.

I brought my copy of Psycho on VHS, and asked her to autograph the box after the event.

I remember asking her, “What do you remember most from making the movie?”

“Being in the shower, for seven days straight,” she quickly responded, without missing a beat. She was in her 70s at the time, and she died in 2004.

Tonight, I finished the below Polaroid collage. I’m quite proud of it, and I consider it a nice — albeit whimsical — homage to her, and her performance in the movie.

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A wonderful feeling

Yesterday I had a photo shoot for a larger ongoing project of mine, and it could not have gone better. Everything just clicked. It was a beautiful day, the model I was working with was super cool, we both connected and had fun collaborating together, and the photographs came out amazing. She seemed just as excited and happy with the final photographs — if not moreso — than I was, and that was a really cool feeling.

I don’t want to say too much about the details of the actual shoot, or the specifics of the project, because I don’t think it’s really all that relevant. It’s just great to be able to get out there, meet someone new, make photographs together, and at the end come away not only with wonderful photographs, but a great valuable experience, and a new friendship.

Alex Turner: Just one source of inspiration

For those of you who actually read the titles of my photographs, and for other stylistic elements that are less concrete, I'd like to call out one of my many sources of inspiration: the music of the Arctic Monkeys, and lead singer Alex Turner's second band, Last Shadow Puppets.

The songs and lyrics of these bands makes its way into a lot of my work, whether it be through the titles I give to my photos, the approach and attitude I take to my photography, and sometimes even a particular color palette I'm going after when I photograph.

The thematic content of Alex Turner's songwriting is also very closely aligned to my own interests. His songs are rooted in nostalgia, classic cinema icons, sci-fi, and spirits in the material world. 

The video below I just love. The cinematography alone is brilliant. The video plays more like a series of portraits than a music video, with Alex acting as the subject against some beautifully vivid backgrounds. Check it out! 

New area of focus

I am officially announcing a new focus for my work! Over the past month or so I've begun to make photographs that start with scenes photographed on Polaroid film, and then combine them with outside elements I physically insert and arrange into the actual Polaroid print.

The homepage of my website here now showcases some of this work. I'm tentatively titling this work, "The Wonders." 

Even though it's still early, I'm confident and comfortable enough to say that this is where I'll be focusing my photography going forward.

I'll still be shooting straight photographs and portraits on 35mm and 120mm film, capturing interesting and important moments, but I'll be less focused on it.

They say, Photograph (or Do) What You Love. And, Be Yourself. I think this new process of photographing, for me, is exactly that. And after some encouragement from friends, I've decided to go all in on it.

This style really does encapsulate what I love: the Bay Area and California, pop culture, cinema, art, and the medium of film itself.   

I truly love photographing in this way. And I love it 100%. In this regard, it's different from the straight street photography I've been doing over the past couple years. There's a level of anxiety when I'm out on the street making those photographs, and I don't always fully enjoy the actual act of photographing. I have yet to experience any of that with this new style. 

I'd also love to explore incorporating this new style into my portrait work. So, if you'd like to commission me for a portrait session, or any other type of project in this style, please get in touch!

I plan to do everything I can to continue photographing in this way, making them better and better, fine-tuning the process (and it is a fairly complex process), get these photographs out into the world, find a market for them, and see where it takes me.

So, I hope you enjoy them too! Stay tuned! 

The adrenaline

I was out shooting street this afternoon in a committed way, after a bit of inspiration struck me. I consider it to be a productive one -- I'm confident it yielded some strong work.

After taking one photograph, my heart started beating very rapidly. This happens from time to time when I'm out shooting street, and it only happens after taking a daring or risky photograph. It can happen as I'm taking the picture, and/or immediately after I hit the shutter.

Usually, these are photographs of people. And the adrenaline I think is tied to multiple factors. I think the rush and excitement of photographing on the streets is an adrenaline boost in itself. But there's something else at play -- call it a bit of danger -- when you're photographing strangers. Particularly if the photograph is exposing something in or about them.

For me, as a photographer, the feeling as I'm taking these sorts of photographs is that I've gotten away with something. I think the adrenaline is rooted in that. It's a little nerve-wracking, and does cause a bit of anxiety in me. But, usually, when I look at the photographs after, it feels totally worth it.

The physical magic of Polaroids

This is something I've only just recently started to think about. This topic is nothing new -- others have philosophized about this, sometimes at great length. But it really struck me last night as I was thinking about it.

One of the many unique things I love about Polaroid photography is that your photographs literally capture a piece of physical light from the subjects you're photographing. The physical light bouncing off of that person, or thing, is literally captured and imprinted on the photograph that comes out of the camera.

In other words, you're literally holding a physical piece of the actual light coming from that person or thing. It's right there in your hands, and it's crazy to think about. 

This is not something you get from any other form of photography.

It certainly isn't something you get from cellphone or any kind of digital photography. With that, you're just getting 1s and 0s, or digital approximations of the light. 

With other forms of analog photography, like 35mm or 120mm, you don't really have this magic happening, either. Technically, yes, you have captured the physical light of the person or thing on the negative. But we don't often go around handing out negatives, right? Photographers make prints from the negatives. And by that point, you're not working with the original light anymore. You're projecting from the negative onto another source, so it's a reproduction of the light -- not the actual light itself.

What all of this means is that Polaroids are unique in a very special way. They literally capture and imprint a real piece of what you're photographing. When you take a Polaroid of someone, the Polaroid print is the real light that was coming off that person, now on your print.

When you think about it this way, it can have some real profound effects on how you photograph, and how you approach making photographs with this medium. 

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What's better: The place, or the photograph?

This is a continuation, in a sense, of my previous blog post. The question might seem ridiculous, or perhaps even a no-brainer. What's better: The place/thing, or the photograph of it?

Most people, I think, would say the actual thing. The real place, the real object, and/or the experience, will always trump a mere photographic representation of it. Of course, visiting a beautiful park, or going to a nice restaurant, or going to a movie theater with friends, is always better than a photograph of it. 

I think most people would say a good photograph to document the event is nice, but the experience itself was more important.

And yet, what about in 10 years, when that park looks totally different? What about in 20 years, when that restaurant is no longer there? Or in 50 years, when that movie theater is long gone? 

Perhaps it is a ridiculous question. Both might be equally important in their own ways, and the answer really does depend on the passage of time, and your own perspective.

But maybe, just maybe, for the common everyday places and things -- if there is such a thing -- in time, the photograph becomes ... "better." 

I'm not really sure. But it's a good question to ponder. 

Adding photographic magic to my everyday

They say a picture is worth 1,000 words. If that's true, how much is something worth that has a memorable picture of it? How does it feel to walk past places and people everyday that I've photographed? When I walk by the same place later, and remember the photograph, am I walking through the photograph? Or am I projecting an image of how I believe the place to look in the photograph? 

These are some of the questions I've been asking myself lately. I'm in a fortunate -- and interesting -- position: that my photography is practically squarely focused on the things, people and places around me. I'm not often traveling a great distance to take photographs. I'm taking photographs practically right outside my front door, all the time, and rarely ever that far away.

Often these are places that I'll photograph, love the photograph, then walk by the same place, oh, 3 months later. The place has taken on a mystical, magical quality.

This is happening more with strangers on the streets as well. Some people who I've photographed, I'll see them again weeks later. And when I see them, their presence is almost unreal. It's kind of like, if you saw in real life a character in a movie that you thought wasn't actually a person. 

I think this is partly because I really do pore over my photographs. Some more than others, of course, but the good ones, I really like to spend time with them. Study them carefully, let the images simmer in my mind, and think about why and how I made those photographs.

Then when I see the subjects again in real life, it's kind of like, seeing a new piece or element of something you already know so well. For me, this has a strange way of keeping reality always fresh and interesting.

But the original photograph is the photograph. I'm rarely compelled to take another photograph of something after passing it again. It's kind of like, the photograph is the document of the thing or person. What's the point in making another? Why muck with reality?

Seeing with new eyes

In addition to my regular shooting and darkroom printing, lately I've also been digging into photographs I took early last year. At the time, I did not put much stock in these images. I did not think they were very compelling, and not worthy of adding to my portfolio, printing, or even posting to Instagram. 

But what a year does to your perspective! Since I started focusing on shooting film, I've certainly developed my eye. I've become more selective, and specific, about the things I shoot. I have a much better sense of what, and how, I should be photographing. And I'm constantly refining my eye. 

But apparently, it goes the other way too. My eye must also be attuned to things that I did not initially appreciate. Because when I look through these photographs, I realize now that they are compelling, in their own special way. Here are just a few, all shot in early 2017.

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2001 in new 70mm print

Today I saw 2001: A Space Odyssey, at the Castro Theater here in SF, for its new 70mm print/50th birthday release extravaganza. This is a movie that gets better and reveals more of its beauty and mystery with every viewing. Seeing it today, roughly a couple years since my last viewing, in 70mm, was a transportive experience.

I think a lot of what makes this movie so special and important is that it's pure cinema. It's a film made not just to tell a story, but it's a work of film as an art itself. 

What I mean is that the movie's sole purpose is to tell its story through the medium of film, and using the medium itself to tell the story, without any outside manipulations or effects, digital or otherwise.

Watching it today, there were so many sequences that I could not figure out how they were shot. Sequences that people today wouldn't bat an eyelid at, given modern-day special effects. 

But when you think about the fact that 2001 was made purely using actual, physical, tangible things that you can see, on the tangible medium of film, it astounds you. 

And that's part of the beautiful mystery of the film. Not just is the story ultimately a mystery, but the way it is told and committed to film is just as mysterious. 

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A new project

So in addition to my Tenderloin portrait series, and my other street work around SF, I've begun work on a new photo series! This one will be focused on a residential area of Palm Springs, called Blaisdell Canyon.

This is in its very early stages. But I think what I'll be trying to do is present the area in a way that conveys an epic sense of emptiness.

I still view it as street photography, but on a larger scale. And inverted, in a way. 

The work I produce with this should be viewed on large silver gelatin prints, not on a computer screen.

For that reason, don't expect to see much digital output from me around the photographs, beyond the video below. It shows the first 16"x20" print I made for the series.

I'll be focusing on taking more photographs, making large darkroom prints of them, and eventually have them exhibited.

So, stay tuned!

A tiny wedding chapel in the woods

My friends and I stumbled upon this chapel outside Flagstaff, Az., on our way back from the Grand Canyon. It's called the Chapel of the Holy Dove, and apparently weddings are held there all the time. In fact, there was one held just hours before we arrived, according to a note on the wall!

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Shooting with the Pentax K1000

Today I went out and walked around Chinatown, and the Embarcadero, primarily to scout some possible spots for an upcoming shoot I'm doing. But I brought my Pentax K1000 with me, and ended up shooting quite a number of street photos in the process. 

It's been well over a year since I've used this camera, and I realized again what a joy it is to shoot with. Because it's fully manual (and mechanical), making pictures on it is a much more tactile, physical experience. You need to do a little bit more work to take your pictures, but that's what makes it so great and so fun to shoot with. It really feels like you're working the camera, and making all the decisions on your own (because you are), and I love that about it. 

Plus, it just feels great in the hand. It's very ergonomic, without any unnecessary frills or clutter, and the perfect weight. Not too light, and not too heavy.  

It also has a wonderful shutter sound. It's more of a clap than a click or clack, but still plenty swift and mechanical. 

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Digital images of film negatives

So I've started on a bit of a new project among others -- taking digital images of my film negatives, using my iPhone, on a light table.

I'm digitally shooting 35mm color, 35mm b&w, and 120mm b&w film negatives, as well as 35mm slides.

I am not sure exactly what I'm trying to do, say or achieve with this, but its been very fun and exciting so far. Below are just a few images of my 120mm b&w negatives, shot this year and last around the Tenderloin of SF and Lake Merritt in Oakland.

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Falling in love with slide film

I was recently gifted some slide film, and have since fallen in love with the format. It certainly has a much livelier tone and vibrancy to it than color negative film. But what I think I love more is what you get back: Individually mounted exposures that are exactly the pictures you took. It's like holding a tiny little print in your hand, which you can do whatever you want with, and enjoy for as long as you live. You can project it, gaze upon it on a light box, or simply hold it up to the San Francisco Bay.