I started these conversations awhile back so I could get a better understanding about “why” we do this crazy thing called photography. I wanted to get into the psyche of photographers to understand the need to create art in this manner. It is rarely, if ever, my intention to ask about “how” their art is created. So many interviews, blogs, or conversations revolve around “what’s in your bag.” I don’t care about your equipment. I care about what you see and how you see and the reasons for capturing that image. What are you trying to say to the world when you make that image?
This time around is a little different. A few months ago I was lucky enough to join in on an extraordinary photo tour of the Smokey Mountains led by John Barclay and Rad Drew. John helped the “traditional” photographers (those of us with SLR’s) and Rad led the team of iPhone photographers. Whhaaaatttt??? I didn’t realize it was a thing!
We have now entered into the world of iPhoneography. And it is, indeed, a thing. There were a few people on this trip who have shed themselves of their “big girl” and “big boy” cameras and are strictly focused on using an iPhone for all of their captures. Everything is done right in your hands. You capture, process, and post; all from one location. And it’s light and dreamy. I have been completely and utterly astounded with the images created on this little device.
It became very clear to me, after this trip, that I would need to corner Rad and convince him to sit down with me over skype and have a talk about this new, well to me, way to make art. Rad is someone I liked from the moment I met him. It may have something to do with his "Midwest nice" (he's from Indiana), it might have something to do with his deftness at teaching (he spent the better part of his career in corporate America creating learning tools), but mostly I believe that it is just his nature (he has a kind and gentle soul which I believe comes through in his quiet and beautiful art).
In my conversation with Rad I had another lightening strike. While most of the professional photographers I have spoken with lament the advent of the iPhone, Rad has a completely different take on it. Many pro photographers rue the day of the iPhone because it means everyone with an iPhone believes they are a photographer therefor a photographer’s professional services are no longer necessary. Rad comes from a different place. He celebrates this as a way of allowing everyone to have access to create art. To get out of the world where we were told, “You can’t. You aren’t good enough.” And to join in the world of, “Yay! I am creative! I, too, can do that.”
Perspective. I love that! Here’s more about Rad Drew.
What is your first memory of photography?
It was probably looking at my father's images. I was born in Fairbanks, Alaska, and my father was in the service and stationed at Ladd Air Force Base. He took beautiful wilderness landscapes and things like that. When I was really little I remember looking at those images and thinking, "This is for me. I want to make pictures like this."
We went on lots of vacations as kids. We had a little trailer and my parents would traipse us all over the country. I had a little box camera of some kind, I think it was a Brownie, and I took a photograph of this valley. For the longest time I believed that it was the Grand Canyon. I talked to my mother about it years later. She told me that we had never been to the Grand Canyon but, for me, I knew I had taken this picture of the Grand Canyon and I kind of built this myth about me and photography as a kid.
What is it that you look for? What do you try to communicate when you're shooting?
I'm not sure I even know. It’s a way for me to put myself out there for people to know who I am. I love the outdoors. I grew up with a family that spent a lot of time in rural areas of our state [Indiana], which are beautiful, and I love that. There's nostalgia about going out and photographing a landscape or a little barn that thrills me.
I love to build nostalgic feelings into the work I do with tonality and lighting and textures, so I guess what I'm trying to convey is an emotion. Whether it's a feeling of bygone days with some of my vintage scenes and vintage images, or it's trying to help share the experience of what I'm feeling when I'm standing on a hilltop in the Palouse looking out over a field of golden grain, so I don't know.
While I don’t like asking about the “how” you make an image I would like to know what is it about the iPhone that has you so intrigued?
It's a complicated thing to answer. When I was young and starting in photography I loved it, but I was also intimidated by the technology and by people around me who were total techno-geeks (said with the deepest affection!), and I'm talking back in the '70s. There were people out there who technically understood everything there was to know about f-stops and apertures. I learned all of that over time but early on in my life, before photography was my career, I was turned away from it. I didn't feel adequately capable to participate in photography because it seemed out of my reach, technically. I think had I not had that experience I probably would have stayed with photography, gotten deeper into photography earlier, and made it more of a career for myself earlier in my life.
I realize today that it’s not a valid thing. Not that my feelings weren't valid but a lot of what I thought about other people wasn't valid. I looked at others who had this technical knowledge and assumed they knew something I would never fully understand and so I didn't have the confidence to pursue it. I say that because even though I continued with photography and learned what I was doing, in 2010 when I got that iPhone what I saw was photography suddenly became accessible to everybody, it wasn't just for the technically-oriented anymore.
It was for everyone; the soccer mom, the young, the old. It was accessible to anybody who had an iPhone and wanted to have some creative outlet. They've learned it's very easy to do with your phone. You didn't have to have a lot of technical knowledge. You didn't have to know what an aperture was; it didn't matter. You needed to know how to point the camera and push the button and you got a picture. To say that photography's been ruined somehow by this is completely the wrong way to look at it. I believe that photography has now become accessible to more people in a very wonderful way. Sure, we see loads of forgettable photographs, but in that heap, are many that are wonderful and might never have been made were it not for the iPhone. Even those “forgettable” photos are part of someone’s learning process, so, in my way of thinking even these are still of value.
We've all had that experience of, or many of us have, where you're back in second grade and you do something and your art teacher criticizes you in a way and tells you, "You just don't have any talent," or "Don't pursue that," and people shut down and they never do it again. I've watched people acquire an iPhone and they begin slowly to experiment and to play and to realize, again, that they are creative beings and they find an outlet for that creativity through this magical device. Some people go on and learn a lot more technical things about it but you don't have to. You can learn just enough to pursue what you want.
I can point to a number of wonderfully creative photographers who will be the first to tell you that they are not technical in terms of understanding photography and yet, they're creating some of the finest artwork being done in digital media today. To me, it's a wonderful thing that photography has been made as accessible as it is.
Why Photography as a medium?
Actually, I still write quite bit. In fact, one of the books I'm working on is a collection of things that I've written that were inspired by a photograph. Most of them are pure fiction.
I had this old rural-looking shack in the woods and I wrote this thing about "Remembering how my dad used to make moonshine," and people on Facebook wrote me with sympathy for my upbringing. I had to write back and say, "It's fiction!” [Brilliant!]
As far as why photography, I guess because it's what I'm familiar with. I grew up with photography. I can't paint, I can't draw, but I love working with light. I love using light just to reveal what's in a scene and playing with that and then particularly manipulating it after the fact, either combining it with another image to create something new or adding textures and tones and things like that to give it a certain feeling.
Are there any subjects or any things that you find yourself shooting that get you into the zone more than others?
I live in Indianapolis, Indiana, and we have a cemetery here, of all places, called Crown Hill Cemetery, and it's one of the oldest in the country and the largest cemetery in Indiana and it's a park; it's gorgeous.
It has trees that you wouldn't find anywhere else. It has the most beautiful collection of European Weeping Beech trees of any place in the world. I go there and photograph by myself. Talk about the zone! I can just lose track of everything. I go in and I walk around and I look for familiar locations and sometimes discover new ones. In that case I'm looking at landscape, I'm looking at the trees, I'm looking at tombstones that might have an interest to me. Sometimes I do close up work of redbud trees, flowers. It varies.
How do you keep your work fresh? How do you keep it new and inspiring?
I hear others talk about being stuck or not feeling creative and I don't know that I usually feel that way. Sometimes I do get a little stymied. All it takes for me is to go out on my own and open my eyes and be present in that space that I like to be in. For me that's the cemetery or rural Indiana. I go out and photograph barns, abandoned farms. It brings me back to something very fundamental in my life that's important.
The best way to break the doldrums is get out and shoot. I'll go out and put my 10-24 wide-angle lens on my camera and not bring anything else. It forces me to be creative with that tool. I'll do the same thing with my iPhone. I won't take my other cameras with me so I don't have choices to make about which camera to use. I have other choices to make about what I'm doing so that's another way for me to ground myself and get back to fundamentals.
What do you think is your biggest challenge as a photographer?
You know the more I learn, the more I'm aware of how little I really know. [I think that’s our challenge as humans!] I think, for me, the biggest challenge is not spreading myself too thin if that makes sense. There are so many different aspects of photography. There are so many different ways to process images today. There are all kinds of things I can find myself excited by, but sometimes I have to rein myself in and say, "I really need to remain focused on those things that are most important to me." That doesn't mean I don't try something new now and then and expand my horizons; I'm doing that all the time.
A few years ago I started shooting infrared again. I used to do it back in college days with film. There was a time where I had to make a decision of; do I want to learn this? Again, the more I find out about how this technology works, the more I realize I have an education in front of me. Part of what I thrive on is learning new things but I'm also very conscious about what I take on.
What do you find is your biggest challenge as a professional photographer?
It has nothing to do with photography and everything to do with marketing. It's crazy, I feel like I have a good product in terms of what I know and how I can teach. I have a good product in terms of the trips that I've arranged and how well I put them together.
Marketing to my audience as a businessperson is a challenge. There are so many different technologies with multi-media options. It's a full-time job trying to keep up with it.
Most everything I do for my business, I do myself. I don't hire out a whole lot of work. I built my website, for better or worse. I'm at a place now, after two years, where I'm starting to look at some of that. I may professionalize my website a little bit this year and I'm looking at marketing and how I might engage a professional to help me reach the clients that I think would appreciate what I have to offer.
Many of the photographers that I've interviewed say that their biggest challenge, as a professional photographer, is the fact that the market is so saturated with images that they have to find new ways to sell their images. It seems to me that you've come in to the industry as a professional at a time where that is already understood so you've immediately jumped onto the teaching track rather than just selling your images. Is that a fair statement?
Teaching and instructional design have been a part of my repertoire for years. I had a long career doing instructional design in a corporate setting. With the teaching I do today, I simply apply those skills to a new topic and so it feels like it's an area that I'm capable in and I understand how psychologically to put things together so people learn and retain. A lot of that stuff's sort of second nature to me so it makes sense. Plus, selling images has never been a main source of revenue for me. I love it when an image sells, but that is not what keeps the lights on!
I'm going to back up a little bit. You started your career as a photojournalist, which is a very specific type of photography. Now, looking at your work, it's very much fine art. How did that transition happen and why do you think it happened?
I think it happened because of the iPhone and the ability to take an image and manipulate it very easily, relatively easily, compared to Photoshop. It gave me not only the permission, if you will, but it also gave me the technology to do things that only a very skilled Photoshop wizard could do and I'm certainly not that.
Do you miss photojournalism at all?
The answer to that is, "Yes I do," and that's why I'm starting to do more writing. My photographs of Cuba, a lot of what I'm doing in Cuba now, and more recently in the UAE and Oman, I would classify more as photojournalism than just fine art. I was listening to a podcast the other day and this fellow was talking about travel writing and he was saying, "To be a storyteller and use only your camera would be like being a carpenter and only using a hammer." I really resonated with that and I love writing and trying to convey or supplement the images with words so I'm doing more and more of that.
So who inspires you? Who's your muse, or what is your muse? What gets you up and going?
I had two instructors at Indiana University and I really credit the two of them with helping me clarify my love of photography. They were renowned photographers and they were not ivory-tower professor types. They came from the field of journalism. One was the late John Ahlhauser who died in March of this year. He was beat up at the Democratic Convention in '68 and really active in a lot of what was going on during that tumultuous time. The other was the late Will Counts, who died several years ago. He photographed Civil Rights events in Arkansas. One of his most famous images is of a white teenager screaming at a black teenager as she enters the school and it's one that went around the world. It's a famous image. These two guys were my photo teachers and they really inspired me and made it something that I knew was going to be a part of my life going forward.
[At this point we had an almost comical exchange trying to remember the names of artists gone by. I’m so glad it’s not just me that has difficulty in that memory department!]
Edward Steichen who has the famous image of the Flatiron Building in New York, and Alfred Stiglitz. Some of those guys and some of those from the old world, are the people that I go back to every now and then and look at.
Other people that have been an inspiration to me are more contemporary photographers. One of my friends, Arthur Ransome. Arthur is a black and white photographer. His work is fascinating as well as his thoughts on photography.
Dewitt Jones. He’s been a mentor and an inspiration both as a photographer and as a philosopher. There is an iPhone photographer by the name of Gianluca Ricoveri. Gianluca is from Pisa, Italy, and his landscape photography is all done with an iPhone and it is absolutely beautiful and consistently so.
Robin Robertis. Robin, is an artist, there's no doubt. She was put off by the complexities of big cameras and when the iPhone came out she embraced it completely and she is doing some of today’s most incredible iPhone photography. Karen Messick is a Baltimore photographer who I've been friends with. She's a wonderful traditional photographer and iPhone photographer. Tony Sweet, another mentor and great friend over the years and John Barclay, of course; it's a dream to work with him. And I’d be remiss, if I didn’t mention photographer, Dan Burkholder. He is one of my first teachers and is one of the most knowledgeable photographers I know. I don’t know of any photographer who embraced the iPhone as early as did Dan.
You're married to an artist, Nancy, right?
Yes. She is a metal smith.
[Yes! Yes she is. Check out her work here: Nancy Lee Designs]
Does her work inspire your photography or vice versa?
Nancy's a constant inspiration. Her creative capabilities blow me away every day. What's exciting about watching Nancy and being close to what she's doing is that not only can she envision this stuff and sketch it out and come up with incredible designs, she can then take metal and stone and make it. That's the part that just blows my mind.
I'll tell her what I like, or what I like more than other things, but she is very independent in what she does. She doesn't tell me what to do either, but she likes some stuff better than others and sometimes I listen to her suggestions and sometimes I don't. However, having an artist under the same roof with me and being able to share those kinds of things and even talking about the business and running a business space in art is really helpful.
If you could go back and give the young you some advice, specifically when it comes to photography, but any advice at all, what would it be?
If you have the drive to pursue something that moves you, do it but balance that against understanding what you're getting into and learn what you need to learn. It takes work whatever endeavor it is you're doing. It takes a commitment and it takes work to learn the things you need to learn. It can be fun, but fun does not mean it's not work too.
Right, there's effort behind it. People look at an image and they think, "Oh, that's so easy," but what they don't understand is that there are a lot of years and a lot of experience behind making that.
I think Facebook and Instagram and all these places sort of fuel this need to have acknowledgement for what you're doing. We all strive for 'likes,' and we want comments, and we want praise and all of that, and that's great but I would say, "Don't be influenced by that. Listen to your own inner voice about what you like and just because somebody else doesn't like it doesn't mean it's not valid for you, and just because they do like it doesn't mean it's any good."
This is a question I think I should start asking because it's a theme throughout my life. I'm just very curious as to what makes something good and valuable? Why is it that this image made by Ansel Adams is so brilliant but my picture of the same thing, that looks almost identical, is not? In your eyes, what makes something good?
You're asking the question about what is art? Gosh, I've heard many discussions about that and I can't give you an answer. It truly is in the eyes of the beholder. You’ve got to wonder, too, what would have happened had Ansel Adams been around today? He was doing photography at a time where he was carrying around a real load of equipment up into the mountains and it was the only way for him to do what he did. I think a lot of people, also, gave him credit for the effort he went through. My friend, Dan Burkholder, constantly reminds me that just because something is hard to do doesn't make it good in and of itself. Just because it's easy to do doesn't mean it's not of value. Honestly, I don't really know. I wonder if Ansel Adams was doing photography today if he would just be one more photographer in the sea of photographers, or would he have had distinguished himself?
10. Color or black and white? — Black and white
9. Film or digital? — Digital
8. Traditional dark room or digital darkroom? — Digital darkroom
7. Objects or people? — People
6. Urban jungle or pretty landscape? — Landscape
5. Weddings or root canal? — Root canal
4. Would you rather be kitted out with a big load or have a Holga? – Small
3. Commercial or fine art? — Fine art
2. Tell me about the one that got away. —The last time I was in Cuba is one I chose to let go as opposed to shooting the scene. I don't regret it but there's a part of me that wishes I had made the picture, or better yet, I wish I could paint, because I would paint this image. I got up early one morning and was walking toward the Malecon. I was by myself, none of my group wanted to get up that early, and day was breaking.
As I walked toward the Malecon, there was a park bench and on that bench were two old people, a man and woman, probably in their 60s or 70s, and they were asleep in each other's arms on this bench. They were obviously homeless and they were intertwined. He was lying on her lap and she was lying on his back, like sitting up but leaning over embracing each other, asleep. I actually walked by them and thought, "I can't take this picture." Then I walked back; I changed my mind and I decided I really needed to make this photograph.
As I was about to shoot, someone else walked by and they had a dog and the dog ran up to the couple and woke them up, played with them, so I didn't have the opportunity to take the picture. Instead I walked by them and greeted them and I gave them what money I had left. They just were so grateful. I feel like that was a hard experience to let that image go, but I don't regret not having the photo.
1. Wow, so tell me about the one you're still chasing. — Oh, gosh, my wife has a Christmas cactus that is gloriously blooming right now and I tell myself every time I walk by it that I'm going to take some photographs of those blossoms and I may do that yet today or tomorrow.
The Parting Shot
Don't be intimidated by what you haven't learned yet.