Nine lessons photographers taught me
I have gleaned some of my favorite lessons on life, people and, unsurprisingly, shooting, from fellow photographers. Some I have gotten the opportunity to assist, others I’ve grown to know over the years as a photographer living and working in the Pacific Northwest. All have impacted me, and helped me grow in myriad ways. I hope their outlook strikes you the same way. I am lucky to have met and learned from these inspiring, talented people.
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1. Alan Berner — Perspective
Berner has been a staff photographer with The Seattle Times for a hair shy of three decades, honed his craft for years longer than that elsewhere, and won more awards than anyone working in the state. But that’s not the lesson from Alan. It’s how he sees things. His shooting style is warm and intimate, and he works to not be a fly on the wall, because that doesn’t really exist, but just does what it takes to put people at ease. He shows up early and leaves late so that the real pictures, the between the lines ones, the natural moments, emerge before him. Then he gets close. He’s composing from the back to the front, he’s fond of saying, then waits for something to happen. We have a name around here for a photo that’s so full of life and wit that it jumps off the page. It’s an “Alan Berner” picture.
2. Andy Bronson — Adverbs
Community photojournalism is the domain of Andy Bronson, staff photographer at The Bellingham Herald. When I first met Andy at the Bellingham Visual Journalism Conference in 2008, I knew only that he knew his stuff. His reputation as a stern but honest critic preceded him. So when he tore my portfolio apart, I listened. And I took away from our conversations a better understanding of a wonderful shooting style. “Great pictures,” he said “are about actions and adverbs.” Know what the story is and work to show how the people living this story are effected. Shoot the action, yes, but also look for the nonliteral, the adverbs — that show the mood and feel of the situation. He taught me to include more information in my frames and tell the story in a more compelling way. His thoughts are often at the back of my mind as I shoot, and for good reason.
3. Dave Kasnic – Heart
Dave has been kicking ass since we first met taking classes and working on the newspaper at Shoreline Community College. He grew up in the small town of Wenatchee, Wash., but now attends Western Kentucky University, one of the country’s top photojournalism schools. His work stands out at a school known for producing graduates that go on to successful careers, because his frames have heart. They’re gritty and real and unflinching. His recognized project on teens who party inspires me to shoot with my heart, and seek out pictures with emotion and a feeling in that same way. When Dave shoots, he is very selective with his frames. He’s waiting out the obvious frames, in the hopes, that he can capture that truer picture. That truer picture might be darker. It might be chaotic. But it will be heartfelt. His commitment and dedication to his own unique style will serve him well when he graduates.
4. John Keatley — Focus
It was a hot summer day in south Seattle when John Keatley asked me how I felt about animals. For a few hours, I added chicken wrangling to my resumé. It was my first time assisting John. His assignment for Inc. Magazine found him shooting a portrait of an executive who raises chickens in his backyard when he’s not busy making survival gear. For those unfamiliar with camera-shy chickens, I did some running around. But it was worth it to see John in action. He is like a zen master as he composes his frames. He is so focused on the frame as he waits carefully for the smallest moment and the tiniest detail. Yet he is still attune to everything else going on. It can be easy to get harried during a photo shoot. We can focus on this or that and not be 100 percent focused on the subject and how this image that needs to come together is actually coming together. This is just part of what makes his portraiture so remarkable. His thought process in that way has been a big influence on me. I’ve admired John’s beautifully lit work for some time, so setting up the lighting on a handful of assisting opportunities was actually pretty fun. Seven-foot octabanks, of course, notwithstanding.
5. John Lok — Niche
It really doesn’t matter what assignment is thrown at John Lok, a staff photographer at The Seattle Times, because he is going to come back with the goods. Though he excels at news photography, and sports photography, and in particular, food photography — he has become well-known for and quite gifted with, portraiture. In fact, he is frequently featured by Profoto for his lighting technique. His attention to detail, texture, color and light make his images jump off the page. They are vivid, even in the face of banality, and are as captivating as they are storytelling. But he didn’t get there overnight. He asked his desk to assign him those kinds of stories. So that he could practice. And get better. And learn his craft, fully immersing himself in this niche — even while slaying his other assignments. By focusing much of his creative energy on making these kinds of images, he has built a body of work that stands out, even among enormously talented coworkers. From John, I’ve learned how essential it is to know what you want to excel in, and how to work passionately towards it.
6. Mark Malijan — Relax
It’s not every day a photographer tells you to put your camera down and live. But I remember exactly when Mark told me that. We were in California at a sports photography workshop, and an after-hours beerfest broke out in a fellow workshop participant’s room. Figuring there might be a chance for quality funpix (read:blackmail), I grabbed a camera and prime and headed for my door. And that’s when he stopped me. Even if I was a bit offended at the time, it makes far more sense now. As shooters, it is too easy to want to try and capture everything around us — from friends and family to vacations and recreation — but by doing that, putting the camera to our face constantly, we can possibly miss out on experiencing the world around us. So while there is of course, a time and a place to be documenting feverishly, there are also opportunities for relaxing. For leaving the Nikon at home, and just having that beer. Not everything needs to be shot. Not everything needs to be tweeted. And if something does happen at that party that requires a camera, well, I got my cellphone. But, atleast, I’ll be sure to relax.
7. Manuello Paganelli — Strangers
I cannot fathom that it has been almost four years since I assisted Los Angeles celebrity photographer Manuello Paganelli. I had been referred the job by fellow Seattle shooter Stephen Brashear and got the opportunity to watch Manuello in action as he shot a radio hosts’s portrait in the San Juan islands area. After the shoot, Manuello asked me if I was up for a small road trip. Whenever he travels to a new place, he told me, he makes time after the trip to see the area and shoot the kind of personal work that particular place offers him. When he came here, to the beautiful Pacific Northwest, that meant capturing the amazing NW island aesthetic — that laid-back atmosphere and natural, outdoor beauty. So we got in his rental car and took off. We had no agenda, no shot list — just a desire to see the area and meet people. Strangers. But they’re only strangers until you talk to them. And those strangers will lead you to other strangers. And soon, at the end of a long, meaningful day, you will have gotten the opportunity, if you’re lucky, to meet some really interesting people. Manuello taught me that by the end of any conversation, a stranger should want to invite you to dinner. Of course, it’s easier when you’re a charmer like he is — people just want to help him out. From him, I’ve learned to be open to the new experiences and strangeness of places. Because those places will lead to other ones, and the opportunity to explore cannot be taken for granted. People are strange, but only when you’re a stranger.
8. Erika Schultz — Light
I don’t know how Erika does it. But wherever she goes, there is fantastic light. No wait — that can’t be it. Rather, she knows how to work a scene and capture that mood and feel, and use the light to her advantage. Even when the light sucks, as in the case of a state capitol shoot, Erika makes pictures that are beautifully storytelling. Her images often have a painterly feel, and some of my favorites from her have these gorgeous swathes of window light. From Erika, a Seattle Times staff photographer, I’ve learned to keep on searching for light. Waiting for the good light elevates work to a higher level, right off the bat, and then she never fails to drop in a fantastic, heartfelt moment in there. She was given the trying task of capturing Seattle’s Pioneer Square, a neighborhood known for its rough exterior yet wealth of character. She waited, and waited for the good light. And she found it in patches of sunlight hitting streets and building edges just so. A lesser photographer might have been content with shooting what was in front of them. But her creativity, ingenuity and dedication pay off, time and time again in her well-crafted work.
9. Josh Trujillo – Perseverance
Mr. Trujillo has to be the hardest working man in show business. Okay, photojournalism. But you get the point. The sole remaining photographer on staff at SeattlePI.com following their move to online-only, Josh has evolved into a kind of photojournalism machine. His energy appears to hold no bounds, and every day, he is delivering surprising and innovative pictures that grab the viewer. And that’s not easy when he’s competing with lolcats for page views. When Josh is out on assignment, he is always looking for that next picture, a better one, a better moment — and it usually pays off for him. He is so incredibly dedicated to his craft, and to telling stories to serve his community. He didn’t let a job title change, change any of that. He has persevered in one of the most trying times in the news industry. And he remained humble even after making what has become one of the most iconic images of the Occupy movement. From Josh, I have learned to keep on pushing, and to never lose sight of what we are doing out there with our cameras. It’s about telling stories. And sharing things with our readers. Not where the pictures are seen or how.
This work will always be difficult, always challenging — but it’s important to remain focused, steadfastly motivated and above all — working hard.
Thanks for reading,