Always clean your boots.

20 05 2010

Always clean the mud off your boots after an outdoor session. If you don’t, you’ll end up with smeared mascara. This is why.

If you don’t clean your boots, you’ll end up wearing your really cool 5-inch black leather boots instead. Since they look great with a black mock turtleneck and it looks like it’s going to be cold outside today, that’s what you’ll be walking in when your classic car with the broken fuel gauge runs out of gas. Since you’re very careful in calculating your miles, you’ll not have noticed that your boys took the spare gallon of gas out of your trunk to use in the lawnmower. So when you walk those six blocks to the only nearby gas station, you’ll be extra pleased to find that they’re all out of gas cans.

Fortunately the kind gas station attendant has a non-approved container to put the gas in, so you’ll get to walk the six blocks back with lot of well-meaning folk warning you that non-approved containers of gas are dangerous (although for all they know, you could be on your way to sell clean urine for drug tests to the locals, since it’s a nice neighborhood.) It’s OK, because the warnings are drowned out by the cat calls brought on by your ridiculous boots and your sweat-soaked mock turtleneck. When you get to your car and put the gas in, you’ll realize that you lost your keys somewhere along the way. When you do finally get the spare keys, you’ll discover that your car still doesn’t want to start.

At that point, you’ll run through your entire repertoire of expletives while beating on the steering wheel, eventually drawing enough frightened looks from passers-by that you’ll break down into hysterical laughter, running your mascara. You won’t noticed the smeared mascara until the bartender points it out as you pound a double vodka soda some time later.

So, always clean the mud off your boots after a session.

– CJ

grandparents in car

I'm betting my grandfather had a spare gallon of gas in the trunk.

“Photogenic”. Ain’t no such thing.

3 05 2010

I’m gonna say that again. There’s no such thing.

Few people are accustomed to being analyzed by a lens-wielding stranger. Yet we photographers often get impatient with subjects who pull faces and wear contorted expressions, and wonder why they can’t just look “normal”. An answer in the form of a question: Why don’t we all have natural, comfortable looking images of ourselves on our driver’s license? Because we aren’t comfortable, and we have no idea what “natural” looks like.

The camera does not “love” some people and hate others. The camera only does what the photographer tells it to do, whether intentionally or otherwise.

I find that people who consider themselves “unphotogenic” generally fall into two groups.

There’s the shy, observer types who are used to being the watcher, not the watched. Add in the permanence of a photograph, and it can be a bit off-putting. It’s not necessarily a matter of being self-conscious, but rather a matter of not enjoying being put into the spotlight. It’s the photographer’s job to forge a connection strong enough to make the photograph secondary. The subject is not going to forget he or she is being photographed, but a skilled people person (with a camera) can take the focus away from the outcome and help the subject enjoy the process.

The second group are those who, like me, tend to be very animated with their facial expressions. The more expressive the face, the easier it is to catch it between expressions, resulting in all kinds of awkward shots. This is particularly a problem when a photographer is intent on getting a dynamic subject to talk. Ugh. You might as well photograph me eating. It may make the photographer more comfortable to getting the subject talking, but some people are much better photographed listening. Most anything that calms a dynamic subject will tone down the range and rate of expressions, producing a more flattering shot. Calm voices, soft light, and even a little bit of (gasp) silence can do wonders for us Super Expressers.

I present to you as evidence the following image of Erika, a self-proclaimed unphotogenic person. Whatever.


photogenic schmotogenic.

Photographers, I preach it all the time and will have to do it again here. Make it a point of putting yourself in front of someone else’s lens, at least a few times a year. Empathize with your subjects. It is not easy to be photographed, and it takes a lot of skill, and a lot of tools in the toolbox, to learn how to catch your subjects at their best. Suck it up, do it, and embrace the pain. It’ll make you a better photographer.

CJ out.

Make it hurt!

23 04 2010

A few announcements, then on to the good stuff.

Critiques: If you happen to live in the Denver metro area, you’re in luck. While I love doing critiques with photographers around the world on Skype, I’m feeling the need to balance it out with in-person critiques over coffee or what-have-you. The first five to respond will get a special rate of $100. Check the website at for critique details, or drop me a line.

Austin, TX: We’ve had one cancelation for the workshop, which means we have room for one more person. I’m also accepting one more portrait session in Austin either this Sunday afternoon or evening, or Wednesday morning. Lemme know.

OK, back to the good stuff.


Make It Hurt

I got an e-mail today that reminded me of the time when I was five years old and fell down a full flight of stairs.

My mom had warned me not to horse around at the top of the stairs. She warned me many times that I’d end up taking a tumble. I didn’t listen, of course. I had to learn the hard way. So, after ending up in a crumpled heap at the bottom of the stairs, I learned the lesson, but only after it hurt. It left an impression, literally and figuratively.

Pain is good. Pain is also…a pain. Unfortunately, as much as we try to avoid it, there’s no way around it at times. It’s how we learn. The lessons that don’t hurt, don’t stick.

This is why this morning’s e-mail reminded me of falling down the stairs. I’m a big believer in asking questions, especially the ones we think are stupid. Those are usually the foundational questions that will cause cracks in our work later on if we’re too self-conscious to ask them up front. (Hence the reason I mixed my developer incorrectly the entire first year I started developing my film. Gotta swallow that pride and ask the question!)

There’s a difference, though, between asking a specific question and asking for an entire information dump. Specific questions are the result of trying something that hasn’t worked; that means you’ve made the effort in the first place, which is the only reason you now know to ask the question. That’s a lot different than asking, “I want to be photographer. What camera should I get, and how do I use it?” It’s not that I mind getting those e-mails; it’s just that it’s impossible to answer them in a helpful way. Unfortunately, the only time I can think of that anyone was able to gain instant expertise was in the movie The Matrix. The rest of us have to actually go through the learning (and suffering) process. That’s the way it goes.

We all learn in different ways, and at different paces. That’s a good thing. It’s important to remember that the process of learning is critical. That’s why I can’t answer the question, “What settings should I use on my camera?” You have to put in the time to understand what you’re asking, and why you’re asking it. If you don’t try and fail, you can’t gain the kind of rounded knowledge and problem-solving skills that a professional photographer should have.

Be willing to suffer for your art. Wallow in your mistakes. When you make them, put on your CSI badge and try to figure them out. Those that you can’t figure out will become really good, specific questions, and the answers will be much more useful to you.

All that said, I’m sure a few of my friends will be quick to point out that I did, in fact, fall down the stairs again a few weeks ago. It taught me a new lesson: never attempt to run down the stairs with one contact lens in. Trust me on that one.

– CJ

bed jumper

the Bed Jumper

Oh, hell.

20 04 2010

After a few weeks of stress, change, and upheaval, allow me a moment of levity. We creative sorts can sometimes use a bit of silliness.

Complete this sentence in whatever way you see fit: I’d rather stick a fork in my eye than….

OK, go.

Out of the Dark

26 03 2010

Preface: I don’t think I’ve ever written a purely emotional, purely personal post on my blog. Today is going to be different, and I’m going to fully give in to my ADD and just let this one come out however it comes out. Hope you don’t mind.

It’s a bittersweet day for me. Today I pack up my darkroom for the foreseeable future. It’s like burying my best friend and hoping he will breathe again someday.

Don’t be scandalized, and don’t start penning your “I told you so’s.” I’m not leaving film behind, and not getting modernized. No, it’s just the circumstances of life interfering. In a few days, my husband will be starting a new job in Charleston, South Carolina, and the kids and I will be staying behind for practical purposes. It’s time to reduce expenses and live simply, which means a move to a smaller and less expensive home. It means saying goodbye (for now) to my hideout.

My darkroom and I have been together for eight years. When life overwhelmed me, when people doubted me, when I doubted myself, when anger took over, when creativity was making me insane, through a marriage, divorce, and remarriage, the darkroom was my haven. In it, I learned not just about photography, but about discipline, emotion, patience (sometimes), and true self-expression. I made ridiculous mistakes and indescribable messes, celebrated triumphs that I never imagined, and at times drank and cussed like a sailor. The things I learned!

Packing up today meant going through literally thousands of prints, some good and some “rustic”, and remembering shooting and printing each and every one. It suddenly feels like it’s been a long journey. Sometimes I forget that in going from point A (the beginning) to point B (now), there were so many twists and turns and roadblocks and bridges. Photography began as an outlet for a lot of pain and anger, and eventually became an expression of self-awareness and appreciation of life in every phase, witnessed by four black walls. While my goal in those years was to express myself and to learn the (sometimes frustrating) craft of good photography, I somewhat inadvertently created a record of myself and those I love. Going through all of those prints today was a bizarre journey, a tangible flashback.

I found some prints from my friends as well. Andy, you taught me to value simplicity and embrace sarcasm. Kathryn, you were the first peer I ever envied, and that envy motivated me in the early days when I was frustrated. Thank you both.

I came across some other images that, though they aren’t technically great and/or remarkable in their own right, speak to me now and always. I love this one not just because of the message from the literary graffiti artist, but also because the image itself just isn’t great. I find it charmingly naive, from the days when I had none of the confidence in my work that I do now. I think I was wishing to be misunderstood so I could feel great.


Note that the inverse is rarely true.

This image of Baby Caroline from six? years ago has never really left my head, but it’s a bit too emotional for me to have ever displayed anywhere. For those who haven’t known me long, Baby Caroline was born with only three chambers of her heart. Her parents and doctors knew she would only have a few hours to live, and I had the great privilege (and sorrow) of being there through her birth to photograph her with her family. This was Caroline meeting her grandmother, and is the most bittersweet image I have ever made.


Baby Caroline

But while we chase art and beauty in our work, it’s important to remember that images like this one, just a little snapshot, can mean more than any piece of art we ever create. This is me with Baby Caroline, taken by her grandmother from the image above, who in her eleven days of life taught me more about photography than any book or mentor ever will. This is when I truly understood my mantra, that effective portraits are a side effect of a strong human connection. (To Caroline’s family, I will always keep the heart pendant she “gave” me near and dear to me; I don’t dare wear it for fear that I’ll lose it.)

CJ and Caroline

Me and my mentor

In the end, I suppose losing the darkroom really is losing a friend. I wonder if I spent enough time with it, I wonder what could have been and how I’ll get along without it. In the end, I suppose I’ll cherish the memories until I can have another. But it will never be the same. True friends can’t be replaced.

Thanks for reading.

– CJ

Babbling like a brook

22 03 2010

Hello, all. It’s been much too long since I’ve updated my blog. The speed (and severity) of life can get a little overwhelming at times, which tends to kill my brain cells and leave me wordless.

Fortunately, I have an easy out today. I can share with you a interview I gave to Inside Analog Photography Radio with Scott Sheppard. It’s a fun podcast, around 30 minutes long, and I somehow managed to sound nearly coherent. If you’re looking for a way to burn some of that pesky free time we all have too much of, please do drop by and listen at, or you can download it for free on iTunes. You’ll hear us chat about how I work, upcoming projects, my short attention span, and lots of other stuff.

For my digital friends, although it’s called “Inside Analog Photography Radio” there’s plenty of non film-related discussion in the interview. I hope you’ll enjoy it.

A more invested blog entry soon, promise.

– CJ

from a fun session in LA

from a fun session in LA

28 09 2009
National Velveteen

National Velveteen

There is no such thing as “bad light”. There is only light used badly. Sometimes you gotta use what you have — in this case, it was overhead florescent lights in an arena, with a tiny little bit of fill from a distant doorway. Many times photographers assume that it’s not possible to achieve good lighting when the light source is directly overhead; not true, Petunia. You simply have to have your subjects look up toward the light, or in the case of a candid like this one, wait for the subject to do so on their own, and be ready.

This one has a sort of National Velvet-y feel to it that really appeals to me. Fortunately, these horses have gotten used to the massive ka-chunk of my medium format shutter. I prefer to first do no harm. People look better on horses than in a crumpled heap under them.

La Dolce Vita

22 07 2009

I sometimes find myself too buried in serious, dark, heavy things. While I’m actually quite silly in person, I tend to focus (no pun intended) on depth and seriousness a lot in my work, particularly lately.

So I thought I’d share something light and fun, two words not frequently associated with either my work or with teenage boys. This is from last week’s vacation to the island cottage, my three offspring mangling each other. At the cottage, there are no such thing as stress, e-mail, groundings, and deadlines.

Enjoy an uncharacteristic light moment with me.

mangled children

mangled children


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