I am a non-fiction narrative photographer, specializing in single-frame stories. My subjects are mostly humans and other creatures, captured in their natural states. My ongoing theme is relationships. What I seek are the telling moments when relationships of subject, object, and setting reveal themselves.
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I’ve been doing this since I was a young teenager in the mid 1970s, so I’ve got a practiced method, aesthetic, and philosophy.
Aesthetically, I work a style with purposeful limits. In short: I draw on mid-20th century photojournalism for my visual signature: depict people not things, engaged in natural, un-posed moments; tell a visual story; and present it in simple black-and-white.
My philosophy is also drawn for mid-century photojournalists: maintain an empathy with ones subject. I employ a great deal of irony and ambiguity in my photography, however I absolutely avoid visual sarcasm. Though sadness and calm find spots in my body of work, overwhelmingly my images are upbeat. However, aesthetically, I seek to avoid the saccharine as much as I do sarcasm. Empathy, I believe, is the key to avoiding both.
My philosophy and aesthetic are intertwined with and depend on a method. For me, it is all about composition and timing. The composition sets the context, the timing catches the moment.
I shoot horizontally, with a wide-angle lens, up-close, and in black-and-white.
I’m big on horizontal framing. I believe in the horizontal frame because it mimics cinematography, which mimics eyesight, which is, in turn, oriented to the horizon itself. A horizon within a rectangle readily accommodates the placement of the subject and other compositional elements within the frame—foreground, mid-range, and background—which are often crucial to telling visual stories.
Similarly, my optical relationship to the world is almost always through a wide-angle lens. The wide-angle lens presents the horizontal frame in a way that resembles our eyesight: we see wide. And, when shot at a “conversational distance,” the wide-angle lens puts oneself and the viewer within the scene. By getting right in there, I am engaged with the scene, serving as an unseen secondary party to the action, lending to the “personal reportage” quality of my images.
Mindful of foreground, mid-range, and background, and in using a wide-angle lens, in turn, I shoot with ample depth-of-field. I am not of the current fashion in shooting shallow, with lots of “bokeh” focal blur. “Bokeh” is for pretty subjects in dreamy isolation. Sure, sometimes the situation lends itself to telling the subject’s story in isolated focus, blurring the context within which the subject is set. But only rarely. Instead, I generally feel that setting is very important to narrative. I’m interested in details: subject, object, setting.
Finally, timing is where the story is told.
Every scene and every subject has its own rhythm. I key into the rhythm, sympathetically, often unconsciously, and look for clues and cues. As the moment approaches, I ride the rhythm to the up-beat, to the apex moment, and …
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And because it is a sympathetic rhythm that I am engaged with, the image itself has an almost automatic empathy built in. We—me as the photographer, you as the viewer—have just participated in a little dance with the subject, often no greater than the eye contact exchanged with a stranger in the flow of a busy sidewalk. And when you make that eye contact, you are almost invariably in a momentary state of empathy. That is what I am recording with my camera.
I hardly ever present my photography as color pictures (and absolutely never as a mix of black-and-white and color!). Black-and-white delivers the composition and timing of telling moments best. Color elements within a frame can complicate the visual narrative, making the eye stray from the actual subject-object relationship to, say, the yellow shirt in the background. And, I also love black-and-white for its timelessness (which is part and parcel to it not complicating the visual narrative with the distraction of color elements). On top of all that … I just love black-and-white photography. It suits me—on multiple levels—so I embrace it as a key element of my style.
Finally, I want one single shot to tell the story. I edit pictures sets down to the one moment that tells the best story of the scene. And I give it a title. That is the story: one picture with a crafted title. The title is almost as important as the photo, because the title confers closure to the work. The title also acts a verbal frame. It is the one area where I regularly overlap my writing with my photography, because I need that title to be, when possible, a small poem of very few words. I don’t want my titles to be obvious or trite or an amateur’s joke. It needs to inform the image and expand its meaning. Then, the single image, titled and presented as a stand-alone entity, thereby becomes a work of art.
When I present a “collection of images” in a portfolio, show, or book, rarely are they categorized by chronology or location. My preferred method of grouping is through verbal themes, e.g.: Selected Reading, Now Performing, Field Trips, Assisted Living, Under Cover. My overarching theme is, of course, Relationships.
Fundamentally my pictures have an old-fashioned quality—in terms of philosophical sensibilities, technique, and presentation. But, I’m not engaging in historical reenactment with my photography. I’m not trying to time travel. I’m trying to create classic images of universal, eternal human character.
Through it all, after four-and-a-half decades of reporting visual stories, I’ve amassed something of a unified view of the humanity.
I attended San Francisco State University for a bachelor’s degree in creative writing (1982) and a master’s degree in American history (1988). As a photographer, I am almost purely self-taught (beyond what I learned in the photography program at Alhambra High School). My biggest influences came mostly from the Magnum photo agency, mid-20th century, especially: Elliott Erwitt (known for his wit — achieved through his superb timing and framing); W. Eugene Smith (who was a somber genius of composition); and, of course, Henri Cartier-Bresson (whose breadth of tone was the definition of maturity). A notable non-Magnum photographer of the era was Robert Doisneau, whose tenderness and charm, combined with his aesthetic and technical excellence, probably serves as my most direct model.
I have never been a professional photographer. I have done some assignment work through the years, I’ve exhibited on occasion, and I’ve even done a three-year “residency” at the Oakland Museum of California, but I’ve never earned money with the craft. Rather, for me, photography has always been my primary creative visual medium, which I’ve been able to pursue through the decades without client/editorial/or economic pressures—loving it, only.