The majority of the work I create is fiction. In my personal imagery, I pull from my loose short stories and abstract them down to core ideas. This is the beginning to a process that translates into a world of make believe or absurd interpretations of reality. The majority of the shoots involve an aspect of self-portraiture, although I never really consider that “me” in the image. It’s always a character in some capacity. The combination of starting an image from a story helps keep this focus all the way through production and into the final stages of post. The end result is similar to pausing a movie, and then leaving it there forever. There’s an implied beginning and conclusion, but the viewer only receives this one glimpse and context for the story they’re witnessing.
I’ve been lucky enough to extend this type of imagemaking into other opportunities, whether it’s giving workshops on building photographic stories, or taking on commissions to create this type of work for companies and families. I recently relocated to DC. While getting settled and established, I met Paul Ahn, a videographer and owner of Rainbow Starfish Productions. We talked about doing some work together in that regard, but also about the idea of creating a photograph for him and his wife, Jenny. This is the image I’m going to be discussing here. Since Paul is a videographer, it was also an opportunity to finally create a true behind the scenes process video for how these images are made.
Even though I make both personal and commissioned work that share visual similarities, there is a distinct difference between the two of them: how they begin. Personal work may be coming from a number of lived experiences or wandering prose, but when making work of this nature for others, there’s a large blank slate of a story staring back at me. I have to dig into personalities and see what stories are rumbling to be told.
In 2012, while eating at a random Chinese restaurant in Toronto, I ordered a glass of milk with my food. For me, nothing was uncommon about this occurrence. I had been doing it for years. The looks of confusion upon delivering my request were also not uncommon to me. But what was uncommon, was the bubble tea cup the milk was brought out in, complete with those gigantic straws. It was such a unique moment for my milk ordering ways, I decided to take a quick photo of the glass of milk with my iPhone. No biggie. Unbeknownst to me at the time, it would start a tradition of photographing my milk ordered in public and sharing these photos online. I’ve been #MilkingIt for three years now.
But let’s back up a bit. What’s the story of milk? Not the entire story of its history. Just its history with me. Like most, my initial journey was due to being born a mammal, which involved drinking milk to become a healthy toddler. But as I continued to grow, I switched from my species’ milk to another, and never stopped consuming it. I guess most mammals don’t do that, not even the majority of my own species.
For a conservative estimate, I consume about a gallon of milk every 2–3 days. Whole milk. The red label option. For the Canadians out there, that would be the 3.25% variety. Delicious stuff. It never occurred to me that most people taper their milk consumption as they grow older, or that they avoid milk when paired with certain foods. Or that a condition such as lactose intolerance could actually be such a thing. A cruel, cruel thing. I just really enjoyed drinking milk and found it to be the best drink choice with practically any type of food.
As an adult, I’ve found more than a few moments where I have to justify why I continue to drink milk. “Because it’s delicious?” is my standard response. Because it is. Throughout these years, I’ve had co-workers warn me of the dangers of colon cancer, or that I was contributing to future calcium deposits in my body, or that I was wrecking my digestive system. Even in “Snatch,” one of my favorite movies of all time, they dedicated an entire scene of the film to educating the “Turkish” character about his milk consumption throughout the film. Continue reading ›
This past weekend, I had the awesome opportunity to visit Edmund Burke School, a high school in Washington, DC. My visit to this school wasn’t by chance. The connection to Edmund Burke has been growing for the past few years. Back in 2011, during my Advanced Young Digital Photography course at Maine Media Workshops, Nate Palmer was one of my students. During the school year, he went to Edmund Burke.
The following year, in the 2012 version of the course, Enti Mooskin was in my class. During our initial class introductions, she mentioned how Nate was a classmate of her’s and suggested the course to her. Every so often, I’ll get a student one year who is high school classmates somewhere with a former student from previous years. What made Edmund Burke even more pronounced as a high school crossing my path, was that it happened again in 2014. This time, Emily Karzon and Emma Tchen were in my course. Both mentioned Enti and Nate, and how they all went to school together (or at least previously… Nate and Enti are now rocking it at college!).
With such a reoccurring group of students from the same school, there had to be a central source helping this, so I remember asking Emma and Emily who their photo teacher was. They told me Allen Jackson, and then immediately came up with the idea that I should come visit their school. These girls’ spontaneous ideas became quite common during those two weeks… if you’ve ever seen my rhinestoned sandals in the past year, that was their doing. Once my summer in Maine concluded, intrigued by their idea, I contacted Allen about the possibility. Turns out, he has been sending students to Maine long before I ever taught there, and in the past, has held film festivals that gets students into a workshop course. Pretty awesome! Discussions with him developed into the possibility of doing a workshop event at Edmund Burke. At the repeated recommendation of Emma and Emily, he decided to bring me down to DC! Continue reading ›
In a previous essay on process, the main focus was the desire to transform an environment into a stage for the camera. The majority of time, this is what I prefer. However, sometimes this can’t be done.
I’ve been photographing Sophie and Ellie for years. Their dad, Karl, was the head of the architecture program at LA Tech. Back in 2007, he saw the portraits I was making of faculty and students around campus so he and his wife, Shannon, asked if I could do the same for their twin daughters. At the time, the girls were about 3-4 years old. The portraits were a lot of fun to make, so we decided to keep it up every year. Eventually, we also started incorporating a fictional photo every year. All total, I think I’ve made about 8 portraits and almost the same number of narratives.
This past summer, a few days before I started a three-day road trip from Louisiana to the Maine Media Workshops, we were able to schedule a time to meet up and make photos. The portraits went great. We also wanted to squeeze in a fictional setup but there were a few problems. First, the photo was meant to be inspired by Christmas with a wintery scene. This was June in Louisiana. Second, I imagined the story happening while being surrounded by a vast, mountainous landscape. Louisiana is flat. Lastly, it was getting dark so none of that mattered anyway.Continue reading ›
Since being in Vermont, I’ve done some design work with Vermont Teddy Bear. One side challenge I set out for myself was to see if their stuffed bears could be photographed in such a way that they would take on an anthropomorphized dimension to them. Challenge accepted, yet I had no idea how I’d even approach it.
My first thought was to look at how the movie “Ted” displayed the teddy bear. It was a good starting point, although admittedly I still haven’t watched the film. But here’s a clue: the use of eyebrows go a long way for that character. Vermont Teddy Bears don’t have eyebrows. So, more exploration. I remember a quote from film director Steve Barron when discussing the visual tone of the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (a film I watched again recently… and then watched last year’s remake a few weeks later. The original is definitely still the best one). I’m paraphrasing, but he said one of the reasons for the dark palette in the film was it left more to the imagination, and it also hid the fake looking turtle suits. So that was my official starting point. Allow just enough of the bear to be clearly visible, but leave enough to the imagination so the viewer can fill in the humanized qualities.
And then I just played with the bear for a week. Seriously. I didn’t want to just start firing off shots without first understanding what kind of toy it was. I treated it like a pillow by performing wrestling powerbombs onto the bed. I had it jumping up to fly into the galaxy. I studied how its body would shift if it started walking. Finally, a week later, I decided to utilize this knowledge.Continue reading ›
After a year of portrait work, I started pondering what type of project to approach next. At the start of the second school year, I quit smoking cigarettes. I used the patch to do so. One side effect most people don’t know is that if you sleep while wearing the patch, you get the most amazing, messed up dreams ever. They’re terrifyingly wonderful. I recommend everyone trying it at least once, just for the experience. The first time it happened, I woke up in a sweat at 4 AM after my dream had me racing through a Mexican vineyard while being chased by an angry pack of dogs. I had to stop periodically, because my hand was in my pants trying to masturbate in a race against being caught in the chaos. Even now, the dream doesn’t make sense to me, but that’s okay. It was wonderful. Now, at least. Back then, I grabbed the nicotine patch and threw it across the room. Slowly, my heart rate returned to normal and I went back to sleep.
The next night, I kept the patch on and went to sleep. In this dream, I was wearing a Halo outfit while running through a cathedral in what was apparently futuristic paintball warfare. Every time my paint got low, I had to take a hot-shoe flash contraption off the top of the gun and recharge it with batteries. It was a jumbled mess of life experiences mixed with subconscious absurdities. In the dream, I walked around a corner to find a young child collecting trash. “Holt!” she said, and raised her hands to offer me some of her collected trash.
Then I woke up.
My instinct was to grab the patch and fling it like the last one, but I paused. It dawned on me, these were vivid short films being offered free of charge every night. I only needed to go to sleep to view them. A few days later, I decided to start writing them down. A week later, it occurred to me that I had the starting elements of a new photo project: collecting dream stories into organized prose, abstracting them, and then use theatrical tactics to perform the interpretations in front of the camera.Continue reading ›
In the fourth grade, my teacher gave our class the option to either write ten spelling words a repeated number of times, or use them all within a short story. This might be one of the most important academic choices ever offered to me. I was 10 years old and had the option to avoid mindless, menial tasks via creative alternatives. I wrote stories for the rest of the year. It’s funny how little things like that carry on with you into adulthood. Years later, as a professor of photography, I welcomed the idea of students challenging part of an assignment or course with a solid argument, and then proposing a better solution. To me, that’s what education is. Not simply showing that one can repeat what is said to them, in that perspective, to come to a “correct” answer. No one learns anything beyond the opinions of the teacher. I’d much rather see a student oppose me with a better idea and see if it changes even my own view on various topics.
When I was a graduate student, I had a lot of freedom within my program. It was a small program, with an even smaller photography area. There was one photo student a year ahead of me, no photo students below me. When I first started, I asked how classes would go. The head of the area at the time told me we’d have two or three meetings in the quarter, but mainly, just make work. What this meant was, no specific weekly lecture classes. No courses full of other students. Have brief meetings with a professor and then I’d be left to just seek out my ideas and make shit. I was coming from a psychology undergrad program where I made and screened short films in place of essay papers, and theatrical psychological theory plays were performed in class during abnormal and gender development course topics. Those approaches were in no way even close to being on a syllabus, but it was where my passions led me. I would skip classes to focus on a film production for a scene in a movie, or to edit video, knowing full well that the project would have no positive impact on my grade but I didn’t care. I had a conviction with my concepts and just so happened to be in a course that spawned the spark.Continue reading ›
After posting the previous essay on the Magic Cardboard, Tim, who assisted on the camera during the shoot, contacted me on Twitter to suggest creating a newsletter option for the website. It was a wonderful idea, and something I should have included within the site from the moment it relaunched.
So, it’s now available! If you’d like to keep up with interesting things posted here in the future (for example: tomorrow, a big essay on early creativity will publish), and don’t want to miss out on new essays, projects in progress, or exhibition and speaking news, subscribe to the newsletter. This way you won’t have to rely on the luck of social media to see that something new has popped up. I promise not to send out more than one every week or so. They’ll be recaps and tidbits, with links to essays and etc.
I intentionally avoided any popups or annoying methods most websites try to use when they want your email address. It’s entirely chill and purely optional. Subscribing is now a checkbox when you use the contact form to send me an email. Additionally, at the bottom of the menu on the left side, you’ll now see a section where you can put in your email address. When you click Subscribe, you’ll receive an email to confirm that it’s you and not someone pulling a nasty newsletter prank on you. Once confirmed, that’s it! And if later on you change your mind, you can also unsubscribe at any point.
Process is an interesting idea that can be interpreted a number of ways. I know some people place it as either the primary focus of the work, or it’s downplayed to focus on the concept. I’ve always hovered somewhere in the middle. For me, the very origin of an idea, a concept, rests within process. Concept informs process. Process informs concept. The two are always stepping on each other’s toes. I never stop thinking about the idea during any stage of process, but I also try to not have it dialed in during any early stage, either.
I’m often writing. I have stacks and stacks of short story snippets crammed in binders. These often are the beginnings to a new image. My goal is to never photograph that story, but instead use it as my starting point. When I teach workshops on storytelling and location lighting, I always begin with a dry erase marker and an empty board for a full imagination. I lead classes in creative writing exercises before we ever talk about camera mechanics. We blast through word trees and spontaneous responses until we begin to make connections for a possible scenario. That rough idea will serve as a vague blueprint for the final image. The primary mindset is the story we’ll be telling… but in either my personal work or during workshops, I never want to know the full story. Just a brief glimpse.
The image I’m discussing in this writing was made in Winnipeg during the summer of 2013. I was on a cross-continent road trip making photographs with actors/models across 8,000+ miles of America and Canada. I stopped in a new city every two days or so to tell a new story. In Winnipeg, the awesome Emily Wood, originally from London, hosted me at her apartment and was the actress in the photo. She’s also a writer and a singer/musician. The fantastic Tim Redford, also a singer and musician, assisted on the shoot.Continue reading ›
I like to make fiction. To me, this means the content within the frame exists in its own imagined “universe.” There’s a story embedded into the details, full of characters and situations that ideally are independent of the other story: the real life decisions and processes that were utilized for the fictional stage to exist. For the latter, I consider it to be the story behind the story.
This photograph is titled “If You Want To Talk.” When creating titles for images in the 9months project, I had a loose set of rules. A title couldn’t be longer than five words, it could not contain a first person perspective, and it should prolong the image. With the third rule, by that I mean the title should not answer the question in the photograph. My goal when creating these frames of fiction is to create a moment that does not provide solutions. More questions, yes, but I’m not terribly interested in using photography as a problem solver. Due to this, it felt crazy to let titles be important enough to solve the story. This was the first project where I put real energy into creating titles that weren’t simply sequential numbers, so I wanted to make sure they contributed to forwarding the discussion.
A side effect in 9months is that every reference to an individual is in second person perspective. I wanted all of the small details in the project to feel like they were addressing a specific person. Personally, I had an ideal person in mind, but the format was vague enough to not be a barrier for others to step in and let them form a uniquely personal connection.
So the title addresses an impending conversation, presumably with one individual to another. But what specifically does someone want to talk about? Why can’t they talk? What does this even mean? The truth is, there’s a duality of stories taking place. In the world of fiction for me, the who is someone from a previous relationship. But in the story behind the story, this phrase originated years ago from a man on an Amtrak during an overnight train ride to Chicago.Continue reading ›