Travel

Speak to me of home

Speaktome-2

Why am I so drawn to travel? What is the source of this wanderlust? Will it eventually be satisfied?

When I reflected on my photography, and this love of distant places, I began to ask myself these questions. I wanted to go deeper and explore not just the place itself, or even the dream of it, but why am I having these dreams? What’s the source?

It’s taken a few years to come up with a theory – I was searching for Home.

Even when I was a child, one of my earliest memories was laying on the floor of my living room with an atlas, poring over the maps, wondering what adventures and mysteries awaited. I realize now that, even in my childhood home – the only one I’d ever known at that point – there was an innate desire for something…somewhere…else.

But what is home? Is it a place? Is it “heaven”?  Is it just being with the person you were meant to be with?  Or maybe the quest itself is home.

I wanted to capture this search in a photographic way. To do that, I needed to really search how I felt when I traveled as well as exploring the questions mentioned above.

What you see in the series online is a portion of overall series, which I intend to publish as a book at some point. Will it ever be finished though?  Will I find Home?  I have no idea, but I love the way that this direction has forced me to look deep inside and then translate those thoughts and emotions into a photograph.

You can view Speak to me of home here.

I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Thanks,

Mark

P.S. I’m planning on redesigning my site and moving to a new platform. I appreciate your patience in the meantime.

The “I suck” Phase

Sunset - Bagan Myanmar

Sunset over ancient temples, Bagan Myanmar

Yes. It’s possible to think of photography as an act of editing, a matter of where you put your rectangle pull it out or take it away. Sometimes people ask me about films, cameras and development times in order to find out how to do landscape photography. The first thing I do in landscape photography is go out there and talk to the land – form a relationship, ask permission, it’s not about going out there like some paparazzi with a Leica and snapping a few pictures, before running off to print them.- Michael Kenna

I’m back from my month in Southeast Asia and am deep into the editing phase of the project.  Or as I like to call it, the “I suck” phase.

I go through this with every project.  I wrote about it in my previous blog post called The Agony of Editing.  I know it will get better, but this is all part of the process – and an important one.

I have a background in Naval aviation, and the crews always debriefed themselves after every flight to see what they did well and what they could do better.  By doing this analysis, they continue to grow their skills and always stay sharp.

So as I go through each shot, I’m my harshest critic.  I look at the lighting, the composition, the content and really try to look impartially at it.  I usually find myself asking why I didn’t move to the right a bit or get a different perspective.  Sometimes the exposure is off, so I try to figure out why.

But the main thing that I want to see is if I captured the emotion that I was trying to convey.  Did I actually come back with the series that I envisioned in my head before I left.  To the last point, I inevitably don’t.  It’s like a novelist who writes a book.  They usually have an outline and a vision for the final product, but it can just as easily take a different turn as the writing process progresses.

Here’s the thing though – I can’t analyze that “main thing” right now.  I need to distance myself from the negatives for a while.  I find it gives me a better perspective if I live with them for a few weeks out of mind.  I can look at them more objectively that way.  Right now I’m too emotionally connected to them – I remember how hard it was to take a particular shot or the good or bad experience I had that day.  None of that should factor into whether it’s a good print or not at the end.

At this point in the process my “artist insecurities” are running rampant (the “I suck” phase).  I need to let that calm down for a while before I can see clearly. So you won’t see any of my B&W work from the trip until sometimes in January most likely.

Until then, I’ll relax and enjoy the holidays.  I’m flying back east to spend Christmas with the family in Ohio.  My flight leaves on Tuesday – it will be my 17th flight in the last 5 weeks. I’m already planning out 2012 and there are some seriously exciting things to come.

TTYL,

Mark

How I prepare for a long trip

From last year: My total kit for a month in Africa

Every year I do a number of shorter trips, plus one long one (5-6 weeks in length) dedicated to photography.  I have one of the long ones coming up in a few weeks and thought I’d share my thought process when preparing to shoot somewhere I’ve never been.

Research

I’m a voracious researcher, so I’ll normally buy or checkout every book I can on the location.  That not only includes travel guides for the logistics, but also memoirs, travelogues, and even fiction that may be set in that country.  I want to get a sense of the place before I leave.  This will help me in my visualization and shot list (see below).

I’ll use Bing image search and Flickr to see what shots have been taken there before.  I absolutely hate, hate, hate cliché photographs so this will also put a picture in my mind of the shots that I don’t want to get, which is just as important as the ones I do.  Seeing the locations also helps me plan how I could photograph it differently, the times of day that might work best, etc.  Again, building that visualization and shot list in my head.

I’ll read travel blogs which share real world experiences about traveling there.  I can pick up tons of little tips which make a huge difference in the ease and quality of the trip.

Logistics

Through all that research, I’ll also find out about transportation, guides, food, the distance between shots, accommodations, etc.  This will also give me a better idea for how long I want to stay at each place.  I also look at small things like whether laundry is available in order to reduce the amount of clothes I take.

The shot list or series

By this time I have a pretty good mental picture in my head of the country.  I’ll write out specific shots that I want to get, a story that I want to tell, the emotions that I want to convey.  Ideally I’ll have a series of photos in my head that will form a cohesive body of work when I return.  Depending on the subject, I may even storyboard it out.  All these exercises help me clarify the end result I want. Note:  I definitely am open to other shots once I get there, but I at least want this core set of photos if at all possible. This process of visualization is by far the most important part of the planning – spend time on it!

From all of the above, I create an itinerary.  I want to spend x number of days here, x number of days there, etc.  I build in travel time and even rest days, which gives me a great outline for planning.

The gear

I now have the series in my head, so I know the look that I want.  I know how I’ll be traveling (heavy or light.  In my case it’s usually light or lighter).  I also know how long I’ll be there, which will help me decide how much film I need to take, batteries (if applicable), etc.  I decide which cameras I need, which filters, which films (and how many rolls), etc.  I really try to simplify things here.  I don’t take a ton of backup bodies, I don’t carry spare hard drives or laptops (an advantage of shooting film).  I do take my point & shoot but I just use extra memory cards as backup there.  If I lose one, oh well.  Nothing critical goes on there anyways.

A note about traveling with film:  I always, always have it in my carry-on, not in my checked bag. I don’t ask for a hand inspection primarily because I shoot slow film.  If I was shooting at asa800 or above, I’d definitely ask for one, but I usually shoot 25 or 100 film, with some 400.  In traveling many tens of thousands of miles through countless x-ray machines in all sorts of countries, I’ve never had a single problem with fogging.

Flexibility

You might be thinking “yeah, but with a shot list and series and limited gear, that really limits you”.  Well, it does in a way, but I’ve found that the times where I’ve wished for a different piece of gear to be a very rare occurrence.  If there is a limit, it can force you to be even more creative in getting the shot.

So…where am I going?

Well, I’m keeping that to myself for now.  It’s in Asia, lol.  I’ll be taking a 35mm, high end medium format as well as my trusty Holgas. Oh, and a digital point & shoot.  I still have a couple of weeks to refine things though.

I hope this helps.  I’d love to hear how you plan for an extended trip.

Ttyl,

Mark

A simple question

I have a simple question to ask you:  If you could photograph one thing, anywhere in the world, what would it be?

I posted this question to Twitter and got some great responses.  Some said it would be their kids, others chose exotic places.  Some chose to reconnect with places that brought back memories from their childhood.

I found the spectrum of responses fascinating.  Almost everyone came at the question from an emotional level – from deep within their heart rather than a business perspective.

It’s a simple question that can bring up many more, which is the best kind.

If that’s the most important thing to you, what’s keeping you from pursuing it with all your heart?

Imagine you’re there – how would you photograph it?

How would you convey the emotion that it stirred in you?

I’m a research-aholic, so I’m constantly dreaming of and researching places I’d like to photograph.  Right now I’m trying to balance that curiosity with how the resulting photos would fit within my portfolio (or expand it).  Do I return to someplace I love and go deeper or do I attempt to quench that thirst for new experiences?

To me, this is the fun part.  The whole marketing side of things, dealing with galleries, etc, is all well and good and enables the rest of it, but the dreaming…ahh, the dreaming.

Ttyl,

Mark

Rage against the boring

When people look at my pictures I want them to feel the way they do when they want to read a line of a poem twice. – Robert Frank

There are certain “triggers” that evoke strong emotions in me when it comes to my photography and being boring is one of the strongest that I rage against. More often than not, I don’t take a photo simply because it’s been taken a million times before.  I may take a photo with my point & shoot just to capture a memory, but it will never see the light of day.
I just returned from Las Vegas where I popped into the Peter Lik gallery.  Mr. Lik is a very popular photographer who specializes in very large landscape photos. He reportedly sold a photo for $1Million recently and is obviously a brilliant marketer with galleries in many malls.
What struck me when I went into the gallery were two things: First, they’re very well presented with black walls and good lighting.  The biggest thing to strike me though was how incredibly ordinary the photos were.  They were of locations that you’ve seen a million times, taken from the same positions that everyone else shoots them from.  Technically competent, obviously taken with high-end medium format digital gear and printed VERY large.  He cranked up the color saturation on all of them, biased them towards primary colors, and they placed them in the gallery so the complementary colors were next to each other.  The presentation worked very well, but it was the subject matter and technique that baffled me with how incredibly ordinary they were.  I could buy a post card or search Flickr and find many better photos of the same locations.
I say this not to slam Mr. Lik, he’s obviously making money using that approach, but just to encourage you to look at your photos with a critical eye.  What make one photo unique?  What will make yours stand out from the rest?  Will your photo, as Robert Frank said above, make a viewer want to look at it again and again?
Fight against the boring, easy way. Pause before you hit the shutter button and consider what drew you to the subject in the first place and then try to bring out that essence in your own unique way.
More Monument Valley
I finally finished processing my Holga photos from Monument Valley.  You can see them on my site here.  A special thanks to Randy at HolgaMods for getting me my custom Holga in time for the trip.  I have a new primary camera now as it’s tailored to how I shoot.  Randy does a great job with his Holgas!
The shot at the top of this post was taken on HWY 163 between Monument Valley and Mexican Hat UT.  It was popularized in the movie Forrest Gump as the point where Tom Hanks finally stopped running.  I was thankful that I had a partner to watch for traffic!
Ttyl,
Mark

Back from Monument Valley

The Mittens, Monument Valley

A quick post to share some thoughts about my recent trip to photograph Monument Valley.

I went down with three purposes:

  1. To hook up with my buddy Ian Whitehead.  Ian is a fantastic fine art photographer who specializes in the Southwest (and California). He’s based in Sedona so he knows the area inside and out.  When I was first starting out, I took a workshop of his to Sedona and Antelope Canyon and we’ve remained friends ever since.
  2. Ian offered to show me the ropes with his large format gear.  He shoots all LF color for his fine art work.  I’ve always been curious about it, especially with the amount of control that’s available to change perspective.
  3. To build out my portfolio with photos from locations in the area.

Seeing Ian again was great. He’s like me in that he doesn’t get caught up in all the latest gadgets – he just loves to talk photography, especially composition, locations, etc.  Some of the best moments were all of the discussions we had while putting many miles on his pickup truck.

About Monument Valley

Monument Valley is a large and very remote area straddling the Arizona/Utah border.  There just isn’t a lot of infrastructure around.  There is the one hotel at the visitor’s center but it’s rather expensive due to its prime views of “The Mittens” (shown above).  We based ourselves at the fun & funky San Juan Inn in Mexican Hat Utah, about 20 minutes away from MV.   Reasonable prices, clean rooms and close to both MV and other locations north of MV such as Cedar Mesa.

If you’re going to shoot MV, there are two great views to shoot from:  The first is from the deck or parking lot of the visitor’s center.  You’ll see many photographers lined up here.  A “secret” place that in my opinion has an even better view is the campground just prior to the visitor’s center.  I use the term “campground” loosely as it’s really just a dirt area that they call a “primitive facility”. You’ll see a small dirt road just prior to the parking lot for the visitor’s center – turn left on that and you’ll see it.

Other areas we visited were Cedar Mesa, Muley Point, the Goosenecks, Flaming House ruins and a couple other locations that we’ll keep secret for now.

Gear

I shot primarily with my Holga, despite wanting to do quite a bit of work with Ian’s Ebony large format gear.  My time with the large format gear ended up being limited due to the wind.  Man, it was windy.  Walking along cliff edges, dealing with blowing sand, 50 MPH winds made things challenging sometimes.  The 4×5 can turn into a kite and I in no way wanted that beautiful Ebony to blow off a cliff as I was using it.  I did get some weird looks using the Holga (as usual) while others at the sites fired away at 5FPS with their Canon or Nikon, but I’m used to that. We had one encounter at one of the Anasazi ruins where the other photographers couldn’t believe we hadn’t even taken one photo yet with the 4×5 because we were still setting it up.

The 4×5

I did learn a couple of things about shooting the 4×5.  First, it’s much quicker to set up when focusing at infinity than I anticipated. I could go from backpack to shooting in about 10 minutes.  If you need to use many of the movements though, it’s another ballgame requiring much more precision.  That was a net positive.  What I found most challenging was using a wide angle lens on the 4×5.  The ground glass severely vignettes which makes focusing very difficult.  Overall I liked the methodical nature of shooting with it but worry about the portability when traveling around the world.

Think Tank bag review

Think Tank Photo kindly sent me one of their new small travel pouches for review. I found that this was the perfect bag for storing film. As you can see below, I was able to fit 6 rolls of 120 film, a 25 sheet box of 4×5 film, plus 4 loaded 4×5 film holders in it! It may look small but it holds quite a bit.  This is a very handy accessory, especially for film shooters, as most companies don’t consider film at all anymore. Despite its small size, it’s still built to Think Tank’s pro quality standards.  If you’ve never checked out Think Tank camera bags and gear, I can heartily recommend them.

Think Tank Small Pouch

Wrap up

So where are the photos? I’m traveling all next week, so it will be a week and a half or so until I develop the film.  I have no idea what I’ll get with the Holga as I was shooting in situations that I haven’t encountered before.  Should be fun!

Ttyl,

Mark

P.S.  If you ever want to shoot the American Southwest, I highly recommend doing it with Ian Whitehead.  He runs Southwest Photo Workshops all around the area and they’re extremely affordable.  Compare what you get with others and you’ll immediately see the value in his workshops. He offers both group workshops and private ones customized to what you want to shoot.  If you want to learn about composition and taking your photo skills to the next level while seeing some of the most beautiful areas of the country (including secret ones only the locals know about), he’s the guy.