FAQ

in response to students who write and ask me to fill out questionnaires for their school photo projects, i have provided some answers to the most common questions for future reports.

how did you get started?

i might have been seven years old. we were in the backyard one very sunny afternoon and my dad gave me the old kodak and told me to finish off the roll.  i remember the feeling of being given permission to do something that usually was “adults only.” with great excitement i got down on my hands and knees and photographed a grasshopper from a few inches away. it looked clear and sharp through the viewfinder but i didn’t know that you had to be a few feet away to be in focus. mistake number two came right after as i immediately opened up the back of the camera in the bright sun in order to see the pictures. what was my dad thinking? right after i started to realize my mistake, insult was added to injury when my uncle jack said, “our wedding pictures were on that roll.” quite the inauspicious beginning, so don’t give up no matter how bad a start you have.

how did you learn?

at first i was self-taught. just had fun with no formal training. Sometimes photography teachers can be good but they usually have their biases and can be very influential when you are young. so be careful when you seek advice about your creativity. my parents gave me a pentax spotmatic when i was a teenager. it was perfect–had an extra telephoto lens and a built-in light meter. i was set. so here’s an amazing story: one of the first things i did was to go to an outdoor jimi hendrix concert at sacramento’s cal expo. i took a lot of pictures but i also somehow borrowed a 16mm camera and took some footage. thirty years later my mom found the stills and the movie in the garage and asked me if i wanted them. a friend suggested i show them to the hendrix foundation. the photos were used on a CD and the film is now part of their archives. i was able to get a ’61 chevy impala out of the deal and had them throw in a hendrix signature model fender guitar (white-woodstock). this is a dramatic example but I want to get across the point to just shoot and have fun, because you never know.

where did you go to school?

i went to cal arts (california institute of the arts) and then the san francisco art institute for my masters. during the last two years of high school i got into the whole psychedelic light show thing. we had a dozen slide projectors, color wheels, four overhead projectors for that liquid imagery as well as movie projectors and strobes. We got to do shows with some famous rock groups and eventually ended up at our ultimate goal which was the fillmore auditorium. bill graham himself paid me in cash. but it was time to get more focused and i decided to pursue photography. at that time there were several different directions you could go. nature, documentary, commercial. luckily my first teacher exposed me to people like walker evans and robert frank. i remember cartier-bresson as being really great and easy to like, but there was something about these other photographers that interested me more. maybe it was images of america as opposed to france. my teacher warned against taking “pretty” pictures. if an image got too much about design, he let us know. don’t polish all the edges; leave it a little rough to keep its vitality.

how do you make a living?

over the years i have tried everything a person can possibly do with a camera. i remember doing actors and models head shots, event photography, corporate photography, rock bands, weddings and bar mitzvahs, magazines, you name it. i get tired just thinking about it. if you do this stuff for too long it will definitely ruin your eye and natural instincts. i try to keep it to a minimum now by just doing commissioned portraits and i get a monthly check from getty images.

do you have any advice for aspiring photographers?

well there are two clearly different areas here. one is fine art and the other is commercial. doing the gallery, museum and book scene is not something that i know much about. it is where i shall be putting more focus in the future. as for working and making a living i do have one observation. i noticed that you can be a really gifted photographer but if you are shy, overly sensitive, maybe can’t take rejection easily, you could be in for some difficulties. on the other hand i have seen people with that new york spirit of hustle who did quite well with average talent. it’s not easy, but if you really want it and it’s your calling, you will find your way because you have no choice.

what makes your work unique?

that’s kind of hard to answer. i hope this comes across as more of an observation than boasting, but i’ve noticed that it is very difficult to have success in both the fine art and commercial worlds. if you think about the great photographers who are always on the magazine or album covers or maybe they are less well known but do a lot of major advertising work, their work usually isn’t in a place like a museum of modern art (n.y. or s.f.). by the same token it can be difficult to transition from doing intensely personal work to making images that need to sell. It is a different mindset and lifestyle to have the time, discipline and temperament it takes to cross over into the commercial world of working with art directors, maintaining a studio with employees and making deadlines (we need it yesterday). i’m not saying that fashion and advertising photographers never have any exhibitions or shows but they are usually in galleries, which are ultimately still in the business of selling. museums on the other hand collect and show work that they feel is an important component of the medium. They’re thinking about the work’s historical and social context in the long term. i have not had what i would say is an exceptional career in either field but i have had some modest success in shooting for magazines like rolling stone and interview, done ads for levi’s and am part of getty images, the world’s largest photo agency. the san francisco museum of modern art has my work in their permanent collection. i could have died and gone to photo heaven when they showed my work on the same wall as robert frank, lee friedlander, garry winogrand and diane arbus. so to get back to the question, maybe the work is unique in that it has the range to be a part of both worlds.

who are your favorite photographers?

in addition to the people that i have already mentioned, i like william eggleston’s earlier work.

what equipment do you use?

even with all the digital cameras available my favorite camera is still the leica M2 and M4. just the feeling of it in your hands is like nothing else. it was made to be an extension of your hand and eye. i’ve used nikon and hassleblad and experimented with the holga. i keep it simple with just one or two strobe heads at the most for all jobs. i like it to be more about shooting and not lighting design. photoshop is here to stay and i look forward to learning as much as i can. i see myself scanning thirty years of negatives someday.

how do you choose assistants and are you accepting applications?

i work best with only close friends on any set so there are fewer distractions. the good ones anticipate your needs so you don’t even need to speak. unfortunately i am not accepting any applications at this time.

any other words of advice?

you will learn more useful things out of school than in it. in school you have time to learn some art history, technical things and get a few critiques of your work. outside you will need to learn some business skills, how to interact with people. i was lucky to come into contact with some very successful photographers and learned a lot just by being around them. role models and mentor opportunities can be anywhere. once annie leibovitz needed a photographer to shoot her sister’s wedding in berkeley’s tilden park. from new york, she called the art director at mother jones magazine (based in s.f.) and asked her for a recommendation. annie then called me and explained that she wanted me to shoot in a loose documentary style with my leica and tri-x while she would do all the formal color portraits. we ended up doing the wedding together and making one terrific album. i was able to learn a lot just by watching her work with huge groups. photographer norman seeff was another person who was very accessible and open to helping and nurturing younger artists. norman set the standard for creating an environment for his subjects to explore and release themselves from any fears in order to achieve images of great strength and emotion. these are just a couple of examples of how one can continue to learn.

lastly is there anything about you that people might not know?

just that i have two really great kids–tali and woody. also i have been practicing t’ai chi for about thirty years, the same amount of time i have been photographing.

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