Sunday, August 22, 2010

Getting back on the horse...


It's been something of a whirlwind of activity over the last couple of months. I've broken my "no more photography until I finish my piano technician coursework" rule three times, taken on several new piano tuning and repair assignments, have started editing the photos for two new Web sites, am in the process of rebooting an old Web site for which I'm learning totally new software, traveled a couple of weekends, participated in a succesful group show at a gallery called "Art 612", hosted several out-of-town guests, kept my volunteer activities going at church plus managed the day job several weeks by myself while the owners were on vacation. Needless to say, I haven't made much time for posting here or on the blogs.

Today is different. After spending a wonderful weekend with my friend and former model Josh Kole, I drove him to the airport for the 1 PM flight out of Key West. I came home to catch up on two weeks of laundry just as the thunderstorms started. My cat Ranger is hiding in the cupboard under the bathroom vanity (he despises thunderstorms) so there are relatively few distractions other than the occasional clap of thunder and the drumming of rain on the tin roof. It's a good evening for reflection.

The three photography diversions have reminded me that this really is a passion I can't give up. My expectations for anything commercially lucrative are still relatively low. I'm happy just to have the opportunity to work with incredible people who are creative and willing to take risks to co-create some wonderful images with me. So, just at that level, it's something I have to make room for in my life.

However, one of the people who worked with me is a fellow by the name of Cole Grayson. (I'll be starting a separate gallery with a few of his images this evening.) His partner of many years has created a very successful Web site manavenue.com based on a nearly identical business model as my old site mansimage.com, which still runs quietly in the background of the Internet with no updates for over five years. When I drove through the gates to their Coral Gables mansion all paid for by the Web site revenues, I admit to having some pangs of envy, especially as he started his site two years after my business partner and I started ours. The difference between him and us is that he kept his focus clear and stayed on task. He's smart, works hard and deserves every dime he's made. So there really isn't a reason to be envious of him; only disappointed in myself.

Seeing his operation up close was daunting. The technology has totally changed over the past five years. In addition to continuing my piano studies, I'm also facing a very steep learning curve for all the things I thought I knew well. The Web authoring software (which I now own) is totally different. My video editing platform is antique and I'm still editing my photography with CS though CS5 is the latest and greatest (those I still have to find the cash for). But it isn't just the expense, it's also the question of how many languages and skills can I learn in order to be competitive -- whether it's Web authoring or piano technology.

A signficant realization today as I talked with Josh over brunch was about the only time I stray off task is when I get depressed. And the only time I get depressed is when I start comparing myself to someone else. Daunting, yes; but I'm not daunted. It's just one step at a time, keeping the focus clear and staying on task.

To do so, I've got to do a better job of balancing my three-legged stool. I have to keep the day job to pay the rent, buy a few groceries for myself and Ranger, and, hopefully, keep on paying down debt. The piano business is already beginning to happen even before I've put the word out publicly. People are even beginning to find my little place holder page at keystuning.com Already people are walking into the store asking me to tune -- or more significantly -- to fix their 1926 Model L Steinway. It's a task I'll soon be able to take on as I'm rebuilding two grands right now, a 1908 Stieff and a 1910 Knabe. I'm learning the skills; but it'll be a while before I want to take on the responsibility of someone else's $100,000 instrument. And, of course, the third leg is the photography and Web authoring, which I turned my back on just about this time last year. Now I realize, it's something that I not only love but still has potential for success if I can keep focused on the task at hand.

Guess that's all by long way of saying, I'm getting back on the horse and getting ready to ride once again. Giddyup!

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Some new wind in my sail ...


During the past summer I’ve had some extraordinary photo shoots in the two genres that interest me primarily – male figurative work and architectural interiors. I’ve met some great people, had both laughs and lows and, most importantly, learned whether I’m cut out to be a commercial photographer. And while photography is something of a passion, I don’t believe I can make a career out of it.


There are several reasons. While I’ve developed a mature style as a photographer – especially in the male figurative work – the market is shifting away from still photography to videos and from art photography to porn. I’m not skilled as a videographer and don’t have the temperament for porn. Ergo, the market for my skill sets is shrinking. And, while I love doing interiors, the setups are long, the pay is limited and my non-urban location makes for a very limited client base. Plus, increasingly, I’m reluctant to move from Key West. After fifteen years it has become home. To become successful in either of those genres would ultimately require a move to a place where I know no one and have few contacts. Building a client base elsewhere in either genre would take several years with the obvious financial consequences.


As a consequence, I’ve decided to return to my other love – the piano – and believe I’ve figured out a way to make a living at it. Here in the Keys there is not a single R.P.T. (Registered Piano Technician). There are a few people who tune – some badly, some pretty well – but it’s almost impossible to get their services. Yet there are thousands of pianos here in our island archipelago. I have to believe there’s a business in it all for someone who’s fully trained both as a tuner as well as a technician & rebuilder. So I’ve put myself back into school and am on the road to becoming the Florida Keys only R.P.T. For anyone who may interested in keeping up with that journey, you can check out the blog http://www.livingwithzelda.blogspot.com/


But back to the photography. It’s something that’s been a passion for years. So I won’t be giving it up. In fact I just made an agreement with Leather Master here in Key West to mount a permanent rotating exhibit of my work, which will feature original prints as well as greeting cards, postcards, mugs, etc. The first exhibit will be going up this month, October 2009. Additionally, the new owners have asked me to help them with the photography for a new web site that’s in the works – something a little edgier that what they have currently. You can check out the “before & after” by going to http://www.leathermaster.com/ now and returning in a few months.

So while I won’t be photographing as much, I’ll still be looking for models from time to time who are interested in either the male figurative art photography and/or picking up a gig for one of the Leather Master shoots. Feel free to contact me if that’s an interest when you’re visiting Key West. I’ll update information about potential shoots here.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Looking down a long, lonely road


Struggling with the issue of feedback -- or lack of it -- has frozen most of my creative efforts over the past month.

The question I keep asking myself is "what's the point" if the work is just something for whom the principal audience is myself, my computer and the occasional viewer on ModelMayhem or deviantArt, the two principal sites where I post current work. Visions of the reclusive Emily Dickinson play through my mind's eye -- writing 1800 poems over the years yet publishing just a dozen in her lifetime. I wonder, did it matter to her that so few knew of her talent? Did she become paralyzed with self-doubt in the absence of acclaim? Or, did she write simply because it was in her soul to do so without regard to what others might think? And, what about the hundreds of others -- perhaps as talented as she -- whose work has never been discovered, never published, never known?

The quandary, of course, is analagous to the ancient "if a tree falls in the forest with no one to hear, does it make a sound?"

I don't think this is something I'm going to solve for myself in this post; but at least I need to look down the road again to try to regain some perspective. Less than a week ago, I was set to delete this blog, wipe out all the files on ModelMayhem and deviantArt and simply close the book on 15 years of photography. I'd even taken the batteries out of my camera with no desire for doing any additional work.

Then one person who had seen one image on deviantArt asked if he could see a few more in the series. I sent him the set via e-mail. What ensued has been remarkable. As a "thank you" he gave me an additional year's membership on deviantArt. And, perhaps more importantly, he started writing me e-mails about what he saw in the images and how powerful they were for him. The dialogue helped me look at the images in a totally different way -- and reminded me that an art object really isn't a static piece; but rather a reference point. Good art is an experience shared between the viewer and the object's creator.

And there's the rub. Is it enough that one other person sees the value?

Here comes the anecdote for this post.

I was the only person in my high school graduating class to go on to college. And, initially, even I didn't get very far -- a teacher's college in Greenville, North Carolina. East Carolina, while huge, didn't exactly have a sterling academic reputation. Most of the people who taught there felt and acted as if they had been put out to pasture. I remember one of my teachers looking at our English class saying "Ya'll aren't stupid, you're just pathetic." So much for positive reinforcement.

But there were exceptions.

I especially remember David Serrins, a superb musician who conducted the orchestra and was clearly on a different level than his colleagues. He brimmed over with joy for his music, was attentive to his students and always left the room lighter than when he entered. It was magical to be in his presence.

One day I finally got up the nerve to ask him the white-elephant-in-the-middle-of-the-room question, "Why are you here with this pack of losers, when you could be anywhere?"

He had been an oboe student studying under the legendary Marcel Tabuteau, arguably one of the greatest oboists of all time. During Serrins' senior year at the Curtis Institute, Arturo Toscanini was scheduled to guest conduct the Philadelphia Symphony with one of the featured works to be an oboe concerto. A week before the concert Tabuteau notified the symphony that he would be sending one of his star students to fill in for him for the first rehearsal as he had double booked. It would be great experience for his student to have the experience of working with Toscanini. And, of course, he would be there for all subsequent rehearsals and the performance.

The rehearsal began. Halfway through the first movement, Toscanini pounded the podium and screamed out "stop". Looking directly at Serrins, but addressing the entire orchestra, he said "We start again." The music resumed and Serrins redoubled his efforts assuming the worst. Again, at a different point in the music, Toscanini stopped the music. Staring at Serrins, he shouted "play again, play again." Everyone in the orchestra shuffled, there was visible embarassment and the piece was started all over. The third time Toscanini allowed the piece to play out. During the ensuing break, Serrins walked up to the maestro to apologize and explain that he was only filling in for Tabuteau.

Toscanini's response was "I have never heard so beautiful. I could not believe my ears. You will play at the concert -- not Tabuteau."

Serrins looked me in the eye as he finished his story and said, "Since that time, I've never felt I had to prove anything to anyone."

While I crave a wider audience, it's pretty clear I don't have it. So far the big commercial contracts -- even the little ones -- are, to say the least, elusive. And, unlike Serrins, I do feel as if I need to prove myself. But then there's this one person whose life was enriched because of a set of images I sent him; and, who in turn, has enriched my life.

Maybe I should put the batteries back in the camera.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

In the wake of a perfect shoot...


What a run of extraordinary shoots and models I had June through August!

Each person I worked with -- importantly -- is compelling as a person, someone I'd gladly count as a friend in times to come regardless of whether modeling is ever again an option. Each is adventurous, engaged 100% during the shoot and full of positive energy. And each is extremely easy on the eyes. The hard work and discipline that's been required for Chad, Oocelot & Nathan to develop their bodies is evident. It would be pretty difficult to take a bad picture of any of them.

So I've been blessed in my choice of people both to work with and to count among my friends.

Yet, for the past two weeks I haven't been able to bring myself to return to the computer to edit any more of their images. Normally the editing process is something I enjoy as much as the shoot itself. It's taking the raw images to the next level -- finding and revealing the core of the image; if you will, its integrity. Sometimes, it's an emotion, sometimes raw eroticism, sometimes a fleeting look, sometimes just beautiful form --but almost always a celebration of something special I discovered about that person.

What's up with me? Why haven't I dug into the editing process like I usually do? I honestly don't have an answer -- just some unformed ideas that are percolating through my thick skull.

Something that I've become acutely aware of personally is that I need feedback.


For example, I've sent several of the superior photos to online blogs such as Beautiful among others. Again, not even a "yep, we got your photos" yet the work they do publish varies in quality from the highly imaginative, creative work of Justin Monroe to the static, but well-lit studio work by Dylan Rosser. Now I know my work isn't at the level of some photographers out there; but I also know it is more than a match for a lot of what does get published. Yet, somehow I don't know which door to go to -- or even to knock at. All of which leaves me wondering, is any of this worth the time and effort?

I truly enjoy the process of planning and creating the shoots and -- usually -- love the editing process which follows. Yet, if the audience is to be myself, my computer and the occasional visitor to the galleries on ModelMayhem and deviantArt, what's the point?

So, yesterday, I was having a long "catch up" conversation with my former housemate and good friend, Karen, who recently moved back to Kentucky to reinvent herself there after nearly 15 years here in Key West. Among many other (mostly positive) things, I shared with her my frustration at not being able to make a break into this business. That perhaps I should do the occasional shoot just for the fun of it; and forget the notion of making a living from it. Despite enormous talent and intelligence, Karen is experiencing some similar frustrations and self doubts in her current creative endeavors. I suppose we both suffer from the "if you build it, they will come" syndrome. We share the belief that if you're doing something out of some internal joy, that somehow that effort can turn into something that sustains you financially as well. Call it the dreamer in me.

Yet in the meanderings of our conversation, I realized that perhaps I'm just not dreaming big enough. While I totally love my "nekkid guy" photography, I realized as I spoke with her, that it's the process of making compelling images that speaks to me at a more fundamental level.

I'm in awe of people who can tell a story with images -- whether it's a picture in National Geographic, a clip on television or a full-blown documentary or movie. Images that capture the imagination and move people beyond current awareness are a part of what changes the world in which we live and, hopefully, leave it a better place.

I'd like to think that I can do that. I'm at a point in life when most people start to think about retiring. Instead I'm thinking about how I can start creating. I also know I need to become more knowledgeable and skilled at what I do to create truly compelling work.

Guess I need to let it percolate a bit more; but somehow I sense that the same hard work and discipline Chad, Oocelot & Nathan have endured to create their bodies will be required of me to create my craft.


Saturday, August 8, 2009

Two Steps Forward, One Step Back


Showing my age, the song "Do Re Mi" from Roger & Hammerstein's The Sound of Music starts off "Let's start at the very beginning, a very good place to start..."

And that's what today has principally been about.

Four days ago I noticed I was no longer getting e-mail from my studio4496 accounts. There have been occasional intermittent outages in the past, which usually self-corrected after a few hours, so I didn't think much of it. Second day, the same; so I sent an e-mail from my gmail account to the web host provider...no response. Odd, this fellow is both an old friend and one of the most conscientious people I've ever known in my life. If something is going wrong with any of the sites he manages, he's all over it until it's fixed. Then...my e-mail to him bounced back on the third day. Even stranger. So finally, Friday (yesterday) I took the unusual step of calling him on his landline.

The first words from his mouth, "You were the next person on my long list to call!"

As it turns out, the server farm from whom he leases his space, had been sold without any prior knowledge given to him. All the sites he manages literally had been pulled down from the Internet in the transfer. And none have repopulated. He didn't even have access to his own Web sites (hence the reason my e-mail to him bounced back -- no sites, no e-mail).

Today has been spent reconstructing the infrastructure of my Studio4496 web site. If you go to the site at the moment, there's just a place holder. I have a new DNS in place, new unique IP address, no e-mail as yet (other than here on gmail). After six hours of working on it all, I just ran out of steam. There is a backup copy of the legacy site which he'll be sending me; but -- in some ways -- this outage is forcing me to do what I've been planning to do for almost a whole year -- redesign the entire site. And, perhaps more importantly, retool my own skill sets in the process. I may or may not republish the legacy site -- just not sure yet.

So my two steps forward -- amazing shoots with the likes of Nathan (pictured above in his sheik scenario), Oocelot & Chad -- over the past six weeks. And my one step back -- no way to share them with the world at the moment.

Needless to say, there's a steep learning curve ahead. First I have to purchase the new Adobe Creative Suite (major investment I've been saving for) then I have to bring myself up to speed very quickly on Dreamweaver first (all the sites I'd built in the past were built in the now-defunct Frontpage) as well as some of the other new tools in the suite.

While this unexpected turn of events is delaying some of the things I'd hoped to be doing (like editing right now), it's also forcing me to retool myself more quickly for the next step in this journey toward producing a major porn site. I've had several near successes in the past; but now the confluence of a more mature photographic style, working with great models (and realizing how much I love the work), the disappearance of all my old work other than ModelMayhem and DeviantArt, and the immediate need to unlearn and relearn everything I ever knew about about Web design is the necessary kick in the proverbial pants I needed to get back to the "very beginning". Today's phone calls to godaddy to re-establish ownership of my domains, the work on the most basic server side stuff just to get a placeholder in place (I'll tackle e-mail tomorrow) is all very unglamorous; but a necessary part of the learning curve. It really is only one step back that, hopefully, will make the next steps forward much more functional and productive.

With regard to my throwaway statement above "journey toward producing a major porn site", I realize after reading and rereading my post "In for penny, in for a pound" that I was talking about my own ambivalence as much as Oocelot's. I've been so hung up on whether the work is art (or not) that I've prevented myself from fully engaging in what I enjoy. I just need to start thinking of it as a business -- that I enjoy as do the models -- and know full well there's a market for.
And I've finally figured out that no one is getting used in this business unless they allow themselves to be. Most models understand that the objectification that occurs in porn isn't about them as a person; but about their body. The body becomes a product; but not the person. For some it's dfficult to separate the two -- and, if that's the case, they probably aren't going to be particularly well suited for doing porn. On the other hand, for others it's an absolute blast seeing themselves in a totally light through different eyes. The objectification becomes a point of power.

So I also started the conversation today about totally re-thinking the old mansimage.com site, which was initially successful, but languished partially from my own hangups about "porn" and partially because my business partner got swept away for a period with a number of personal issues. We've reconnected and have found our relationship is just as strong as it ever was -- perhaps stronger because of what we've each experienced over the past three years. And, importantly, the infrastructure for that site is still intact and much of the old material is useable so we'll even have an initial inventory of photos, videos and behind-the-scenes interviews. We just need to rethink what works in the current market and redesign accordingly. The learning curve I'll go through to rebuild my own site will make that site even better.

Yesterday, it felt like a step back. Today, it's feeling like several steps forward. The beginning really is a very good place start.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Weekend Afterglow



This morning's 5 AM trip to the airport to drop off Nathan Lewis was bittersweet. It was the end of one of the most memorable photographic shooting weekends I've ever had. And that's saying a lot as I've recently been blessed with working with such people as Alan Valdez, Oocelot & Chad Glenn.

The three-day shoot with Nathan Lewis from the UK has been in the planning stages for months. It wasn't without a few bumps from the environment that impacted some of our planned shoots; but other opportunities appeared balancing off the negatives. In fact, as I packed up the lighting equipment from the Monday morning shoot at one of Key West's grand houses (see photo of Nathan above), I realized I was the most content I've been in years. I believe this work truly is my next calling.
The weekend was further enhanced by the presence and participation of my friend Stephen (Figurative Male on ModelMayhem.com) from Palm Springs. It's hard to imagine two people with whom I'd rather spend a long weekend. As a further treat artist/photographer extraordinaire David Vance was visiting in Key West so as a celebratory conclusion to our shoot Nathan surprised David & me with dinner together. David's infectious conversation about his art was just the perfect icing on an already perfect confection of time.

After the airport run the real world waited -- shower, shave, the day job (sailed through some tough customers on the leftover eurphoria), an advisory board meeting immediately thereafter, then my volunteer bookkeeper duties for my church. Finally got home at 9:30 PM to make a quick supper and am now entering these few words.

The afterglow is still going (and I suspect will for a while). Nonetheless, there will no doubt be more thoughtful and analytical comments in the near future. And exhaustion is finally setting in so -- for now, if you happen to be reading this -- thank you Nathan; thank you Stephen. In addition to some extraordinary work for which I'll begin the editing process tomorrow, more importantly, I know in Nathan I've initiated a new friendship and with Stephen I've strengthened an already wonderful relationship.

I'm beginning to sound a little maudlin so best to quit before I spill beer on the keyboard. Photos of both are included above.




Thursday, July 30, 2009

The Train is Out of the Station


I achieved my goal of finishing my first-ever submission for publication one day early. Now comes the months of waiting with no feedback.

The process of going through so many images was humbling. There's so much work involved. Many (in my estimation) were worthy photos; but humbling in the sense that, as I revisited all this work, only a few began to "pop" as memorable.

There were six submissions: five calendar style submissions in horizontal formats and one "other" submission of favorite verticals. The 40,000 plus images shot over the past four years have been boiled down to 258 images. I suspect the art director on the receiving end is wishing I was a better editor. But you have to start somewhere.
I have to be on the road in about six hours to start all over again.

I'm picking up Nathan Lewis from the UK tomorrow at the Miami airport. It's a four hour drive up and four hours back to Key West. So no shooting tomorrow; but then we embark upon a three-day marathon. Should be great fun.

Time to get to bed.