No More Rock Stars

31 10 2013

(Cross posted from my other blog.)

Remember the Ashlee Simpson Saturday Night Live debacle?  No?  Let me refresh your memory:

Ashlee Simpson got busted for lip syncing on live TV.  It’s not like we, the public, didn’t know it was common in the industry.  But we like our pop stars perfect.  Perfect hair, perfect bodies, perfect pitch, perfect behavior.  Of course, the perfect hair is weaves and extensions, the perfect bodies are courtesy of a liposuction-starvation-cigarette-spray tan-breast implant-personal trainer cocktail, the perfect pitch is due to autotune, and the perfect behavior?  Well, as long as they look good doing it, we’re pretty OK with it; at least we seem to be OK with it, since we keep watching, listening, and buying the music.

The irony is that we love to moan about how vapid the pop music industry is.  We complain – while we try to look like them, sing along with them in the car, and (don’t lie) even have our moments of envy.

Back to Ashlee.  (Or substitute Milli Vanilli if you’d prefer.  Same idea, different generation.)  We knew she was largely a manufactured product, and yet it was the talk of the town when she was exposed.  The problem is, we too often value perceived perfection over character, raw talent, and a strong work ethic.  We want glamour and glitter and glitz.

What does this have to do with photography?  Everything.

Every time I read about a photography industry “rock star” I laugh to myself.  Because it’s so damn accurate.  Rock stars in the current music industry do not necessarily have to be musically gifted or unique.  They simply have to look good, be willing to turn themselves into whatever sells, pay people who do have talent to provide the material, and not be ethically opposed to the occasional lying, cheating, and stealing to preserve their façade.

Sound familiar?  Sure does.  Ouch.

(Now, before I proceed, let me clarify that I’m not asserting that all well-known photographers are ”bad.”  Not at all.  There are some, although not many and not enough, who shoot good, honest work and are true to themselves, and have gained a following accordingly.  Those are not the ones I’m addressing here. Read on.)

Unless you’ve had your head in the sand, you probably know what I’m alluding to here.  Yes, those two photographers who were caught plagiarizing, but also so many others.  We want our “rock star” photographers perfect.  Talented, preferably attractive, well-spoken, entertaining, humble, and constantly churning out pretty pictures that look exactly like what we expect.  We eat it up.  We expect it.  We know that nobody is perfect, but we still want to believe that they are.  When those “rock stars” are caught doing something wrong, we are either shocked by it, or we choose to dismiss it.  We simply must have someone to idolize, and we reward the appearance of perfection in our idols.  We fall for the PR and marketing ploys hook, line, and sinker, because we want to.  Was that meatloaf claim really modesty, or is it a PR move to increase likeability? (Wink, wink to those who got that reference.)

Here are the inevitable results of the “rock star” culture we’ve cultivated in our industry.

–       The “rock stars” will do whatever it takes to keep our attention and maintain the illusion.  That can certainly include plagiarism, stealing images, usurping materials, and playing on our sympathies when they get caught.  They are not entirely to blame; they are simply filling a role that we created for them, by any means necessary.

–       The “rock stars” will not risk losing their status through risk taking and vulnerability.  They put out only the best of the best of their work, and only the work that they know will appeal to the masses.  They don’t take many real chances.  They rarely grow in any meaningful way.  What you see now will always be what you get.  And that creates an environment, an industry mind set, that says, “This is what good photography is supposed to look like.”  And so, by emulating those “rock stars” we convince ourselves that our images must fit that standard.  If they don’t, we consider them weird and less valuable.  This is how we’ve turned our industry into vanilla pudding.  The homogenization of art.

–       We’re overlooking some pretty amazing talent out there who choose not to play the game.  Photographers whose work is deep, unique, emotive, groundbreaking, challenging, difficult to view and demanding to understand, work that requires actual thought.  And we, as a whole, have forgotten to appreciate the work of the trailblazers who came before us.  We bemoan the fact that our teenagers know every word Beyonce or Taylor ever sang, but have never heard of Ella Fitzgerald; meanwhile, nearly every photographer I work with knows who Jasmine Starr is, and few have ever heard of Imogen Cunningham.  (Apologies, but I simply refuse to use that trite marketing-gimmick abbreviated notation of Jasmine Starr’s name.  It would be like dubbing myself C-Nic.)  It’s just much easier to look at the slickly marketed photographer-du-jour who has managed to get himself/herself plastered all over the Internet, than to actually seek out the photographers who are more concerned with their art than their Google ranking.

I so want to see us take our industry, our art form, back.  What does that mean, and how do we do that?  Here are some thoughts to consider, as a starting point.

Stop idolizing and learn how to draw inspiration instead.  That means not trying to make your work look like so-and-so’s, and to focus on figuring out how to express yourself.  Learn to look critically at a body of work and understand the “how” and “why” instead of setting out to duplicate it.  It requires effort, and the effort is also the reward.

Seek out photographers whose work is way off the beaten path.  Just because you’re a child portrait photographer does not mean that you should only draw inspiration from other child portrait photographers.  Look at landscapes, at still life, at journalism.  Explore Eastern European photographers, Asian photographers, anything that is outside of your immediate realm. Look at color, at black and white.  Study alternative processes and conceptual work.  While you’re at it, look at movies, sculpture, paintings, any visual art. When you find work you strongly dislike, take the time to figure out why.  When you find something interesting and challenging, share it.  Learn from it.  The world of photography is so much bigger than Facebook, or that forum, or your blog circle.

I want us to start challenging the norm and start taking some risks.  If I had a dollar for every photographer I’ve critiqued whose website is full of “vanilla pudding” images because the deeply effective, vulnerable, rule-breaking images they really love might not get as many thumbs on Facebook, I would be one rich woman.  And that leads me to:

We must stop being so thin-skinned that we cannot handle it when everybody doesn’t applaud our work.  We have got to start creating according to our own artistic eye, instead of for the masses.  I’ve said it for years:  I’d rather have 100 people who deeply appreciate my work, than 10,000 who think it’s “pretty.”  Stand behind your work.  Be open to critique, but apply it as it makes sense to do so, to tell your story in your own voice.  You cannot bend to fit every trend and every opinion; trying to do so will mean that you will lose yourself in the process.

Please stop spending money on things just because everyone else is buying them, or because That Photographer uses one.  If you’re going to spend money on a lens, a prop, a workshop, know why you’re doing it, why you need it, and what you will get out of it.  Don’t throw money at a “rock star’s” workshop unless you specifically need to know the information that person is teaching.  Trust me, if they have nothing groundbreaking to say, their mere physical presence is not going to make you a better photographer.

And please slow down.  Rome wasn’t built in a day.  You will not be an educated, experienced, confident, unique photographer overnight.  It takes blood, sweat, and tears.  Buying the action that makes your work look like That Photographer’s is not the answer, it’s just masking the problem.  You do not need to be in business just because you’ve been shooting for a year and people like your pictures.  It is not a race, and there are no shortcuts.  Anybody that tells you otherwise is probably putting you on their mailing list for their magical workshop right now.

Once you’ve figured out who you are as a photographer, gain your fans and followers through honest, unique work.  As tempting as it is, resist the urge to “vanilla pudding” your way into mass approval.  Be willing to work happily in near obscurity.  You do not need to be idolized to have a client base who appreciates your work and allows you to be your own creative, imperfect self.

And as tempting as it is, don’t make excuses for the “rock stars” when they’re caught being dishonest.  If you wouldn’t accept it from your child, don’t accept it from a photographer.  You’d discipline your child for copying another student’s test paper, wouldn’t you?  Everyone makes mistakes and I’m a huge believer in second chances, having been the recipient of more than a few of them myself; that is entirely different than excusing the behavior and defending illegal or unethical actions.  Being popular is not a good reason to not be held accountable.

When you do find the photographers out there who are creating strong, unique, effective, honest work, learn from them – but do not idolize or imitate them.  It is not about finding a photographer who you want to be when you grow up.  It’s about learning the lessons that photographer learned, and applying them to your unique growth and path.  And learn from as many of them as you possibly can.  If you take all of your knowledge from a single person, you will inevitably wind up looking like a knock-off.

At the end of the day, this industry simply doesn’t need rock stars.  It needs role models, and people who know how to both teach and learn.  We should all aim to do more of both.


Well, it has been some time, hasn’t it?

15 10 2013

I’ve been away…three-and-a-half years? Absent from here and, for the most part from portraiture, but growing and evolving and learning a whole lot about life and people and art. And teaching. Lots of teaching, in the virtual world, but also a few workshops in the states, a few in the UK, and a great little trip to Iceland. (Have you ever been to Iceland? Drop everything and go.)

I have MUCH to catch you all up on. But first, I’ll let you know that for those who have been waiting for a film workshop, or considering dabbling in film, or looking to gain a deeper appreciation of film, or curious about trying out that vintage camera on your shelf, or wondering if maybe developing film might even be something you want to try…?

Well, I’ve just finished up a major project for an online photography website. The project is called Fall In Love With Film, and it includes just about everything you need to know to be creative and successful with your film adventures. It includes a 57-page PDF, my own personal film development chart, seven videos showing how to load film, and film development, and two high-res prints of mine for you to enjoy. It is a whole lot of information for a silly tiny price. Because I adore my film cameras, and I want everyone to have a chance to jump in and test the waters.

Here’s where to find it:

Will I stay on this blog? Stay tuned…

– CJ


Travelin’, Man.

21 10 2010

Now that I’ve finally shaken off the jet lag after a fabulous workshop in London, it’s time to settle back into my photographic life and log some words here on PhotoDino.

So, yes, I’ve been travelin’, man….but that’s not what this blog post is about. I want to talk about composition, which all generally boils down to how the eye travels through an image. (Summer, thanks very much for your note—for some reason it hadn’t occurred to me to blog about this until I read your message the other day.)

Most of us have had compositional “rules” drilled into our heads along with some theoretical reasons why they should be followed. I’m sure you can recite them with me: the rules of thirds, eyes should be in the upper third of the frame, don’t crop at the joint, if it bends bend it, use diagonals, don’t put the horizon line through the subject’s head, etc. There are dozens of them. What it comes down to, though, is creating emotional impact and keeping the viewers attention.

Rather than learning, relying on, and consciously breaking those rules, I prefer to think of composition in terms of how the viewer’s eye moves through the image. The best way to explain this is with examples.

Mama and the twins

Mama and the twins

It would be a little difficult to add a lot of the traditional rules of composition to this image. It’s pretty geometric, and yet it manages to stay dynamic. In this image, my eye is first attracted to Mama’s face and the great expression. Then my eye is drawn up her arm, up the girl’s arm to her hair. It then follows the line of her body over to her sister (and that impish grin), then down her body, which brings me back to Mama’s body line and back up to her face. Because the lines lead me through the image, I’ve spent more time looking at it than I would have otherwise.

cat girl

cat girl

Even though this image is pretty close up, the eye still needs to travel to prevent it from being forgettable. (Pardon the scan; it’s an older image.) My attention is grabbed first by those amazing eyes, which is exactly as it should be. I then follow the line of her hair on the right down to her hand, down her arm, around the cat and up the arm to the shoulder, and right back around to the eyes, where we started. Because of the lines created by this composition, I’ve inadvertently adhered to some basic portrait rules (eyes in the upper third, eyes positioned on a third, bent arms, etc). Although I’ve cropped into her hand, I’ve kept enough of it to keep the eye moving, which makes it much less of an issue than it would have been otherwise.


Bumblebee and the Dictator

Meet my friend Bumblebee and his daughter, the Dictator. They have a great relationship, and it shows here. My eye goes immediately to her face, then travels up her arm to his face, down her other arm, down his arm to her shirt, then right back up to her face. To illustrate my point, here’s a tighter crop, where all the major elements are left, but the line of Bumblebee’s arm is interrupted. It allows the viewer’s eye to wander straight out of the frame, never coming full circle.

bad crop

bad crop

Now, as with all compositional guidelines, this doesn’t mean that an image that doesn’t follow suit is necessarily weak. The composition, like all the other elements of photographic technique, has to support the mood and the message of the image. Just remember that the goal is to create an image that keep the viewer’s attention and sticks in their memory.

– CJ

Jump ahead five years

28 09 2010

Just a quick share today. I’ve always been a big fan of getting my subjects in the air, whether it’s jumping on a bed, a trampoline, jumping off something, anything that gets them airborne. In the case of these girls, who I first photographed five years ago, no launch assistance is required.

So here they are, then….

bad scan, good jump

…and now.



Oh, the anticipation.

12 09 2010

As I sit on a pleasant Sunday morning watching football and waiting for a giant plate of nachos to appear, it seems a good time to talk about anticipation.

I really believe anticipation is one of the most under-appreciated qualities in a photographer. These days, timing seems to have become largely of spray-and-pray with cameras that shoot a hundred images per second. It’s easy to fall into the mentality that if you shoot continuously, one of the shots will catch the height of the action. Actually, it’s not always the case.

One of the biggest breakthroughs for me as I was developing my technique was the move from 35mm to medium format. At first it was incredibly frustrating, only having one shot before having to bring the camera down from my eye and wind it; manual focus was even more difficult. Once I forced myself to adjust, however, I found that my sense of anticipation grew exponentially. I had to be able to anticipate the moment, because I would only get one shot at it.

The keen sense of anticipation also means a greater ability to create a bond with your subjects. How? Well, shooting continuously means constantly having the camera in front of your face. It’s hard to feel a strong connection with a faceless person. Being prepared to catch the moment means putting the camera to your eye when there’s a reason to, allowing you to put your subjects more at ease.

On the practical side, learning to anticipate your shots means not having to slog through seventeen nearly identical images to find the one you were after in the first place.

Here are a few examples from my “Life Backstage” project, where the low light conditions make anticipation even more critical.


Warren, warming up


Hat on the way up


The shocking Miss Spankings


Reid juggles


Lolo Flamingo

Pierre scolds

Pierre scolds, Midnite ignores

Dog Days

23 08 2010

Since I’ve got a brand new puppy, and since the dog days of summer are still having their way with us here in Denver, I thought I’d share some of my favorite people-and-their-pet images. I really enjoy including Rover and Kitty in family shoots. Our lives wouldn’t be complete without them, and neither is a portrait session.

I could post this stuff all day long, but I’ll try to limit myself.


– CJ

tully and girls

Tully, my newest canine child


Apollo, may he rest in peace

One eye each

One eye each


Betty the boo-dog


Piper, my oldest dog, seven years ago

Gus and SA

Gus and his girl

Gus in mist

Portraits in the UK

17 08 2010

I’m happy to announce that I will be in London, UK in early October and am available for a very few portrait sessions while I’m there. I’ll be arriving around the 1st and leaving the 10th. Sessions done in this time frame will be at my regular Denver rates, with no travel or additional fees applied.

I’ve always had a wonderful time with my London clients, and I think it’s such a great experience working outside of my usual element. For all the differences in culture I experience while traveling, it’s fun to be reminded that people are pretty much the same everywhere, in a good way.

My schedule is still somewhat flexible except for the evening of October 5 through the evening of the 7th, as I’ll be teaching a workshop during those days. If you’re a photographer interested in attending the workshop, there are still just a few openings available. I would love to meet you. Please check for the details.

If I have the pleasure of meeting you in London, feel free to remind me to tell you the story of when I lost my passport in a black cab. It’ll bring on the warm-and-fuzzies.

– CJ

girls and dog

This shot has nothing to do with the UK. Just an old favorite I'd forgotten about.

Plan to fail, please.

12 08 2010

I was dropping my son off at his driver’s education class this morning (may God protect us all) when I saw that old bumper sticker standard on the car ahead of mine: What would you try if you knew you could not fail?

It’s a fun question to ponder. I’d jump off a building. Do a double back flip. Gamble with the high rollers in Vegas. Wrestle an alligator. Audition for American Idol. (That was a joke.) Then the thought crossed my mind that “fail” has many different meanings. One can be an un-failure at jumping off a building and still be flattened on the landing. You can “win” in a wrestling match with an alligator and still lose a limb or two.


What is failure, where photography is concerned? Is it missing an exposure, missing a moment? Is it falling into a creative rut? Not meeting the client’s expectations? Shoot long enough, and you’ll experience all these things and more, probably sooner rather than later.

In reality, there’s no more effective way to learn than to fail, and to do it well. Every artist should risk failure on a regular basis. And since you don’t really want to do it on a client’s dime and time, that means having regular, on-going personal projects.

For some reason, as soon as we photographers start trading photographs for dollars, we seem to stop shooting personal projects. The reasons (excuses?) usually fall along the lines of being too busy, having family obligations, needing to put work first over “fun.” It’s as if shooting for for our ourselves is massages and caviar: a nice luxury, but who can afford them?

Here’s the problem. If you don’t take risks and explore/fail/learn on your own time, you’ll eventually either 1) produce stale, uninspired, “safe” work, or 2) fail on your clients’ time. Neither of those sounds like fun to me. We have to give ourselves opportunities to explore and expand without dollar signs attached.

I’m a firm believer that every photographer should have at least one meaningful, challenging self-assignment in progress at all times. Musicians don’t only play when they’re on stage; photographers shouldn’t only shoot when there’s a client. Call it “practice” if you’d like.

If you’re too busy to shoot for your own growth and joy, then you are too busy.

Let’s make time for “failure” and commit to a personal project that requires heart, soul, and a few alligators. Find a theme, a self-assignment, something near and dear to you. Stick with it. Pursue it and explore the range of possibility. Shoot outside your comfort zone. Enjoy the freedom of knowing nobody but you will give a damn if the images work.

What would I do if I knew I could not fail? Be bored out of my mind, probably.

– CJ

Then and Now

30 06 2010

First, a little note to those of you in the Denver area. I’ve somehow ended up with a weekend of no kids, no shows, and no shoots. Can’t have that! Therefore, I’m offering a $100 session and complimentary 8×10 print (regularly $500) for this coming Saturday and Sunday afternoon. Only two sessions are available (one each day) and they are first come first served. Drop me a line ASAP if you are interested.


I love watching my clients grow over the years. It’s fun to look back at some of their older portraits and see how much they’ve changed. Here are a few recent “then and now” shots that I’ve enjoyed looking through.

wild family

Very active family portrait, 2008

Still wild

Still fun, and more of them, 2010





More to follow this afternoon….


4 06 2010

I lead a bit of a double life. While most of you know me via my photography, I’m also a musician; the two together keep me happy and relatively balanced, if a little frenetic at times.

In my music life, I’m lucky enough to have met and become friends with some of the most interesting people Denver has to offer. One of my regular singing gigs is at a cabaret downtown, featuring old-school burlesque dancers, vaudevillians, jugglers, magicians, musicians, and other wonderfully bizarre characters. Watching a show is a lot of fun, but to me, the most fascinating part is watching the transformation of the performers between the front door and the stage. My favorite vantage point is the pass-through between the tiny dressing room and the stage entrance; it’s where you can see both sides of the personality, sometimes alternately and sometimes all at once.

From the stage, the world of burlesque and Vaudeville looks slick and glamorous. Backstage, under the garish florescent light, you can see the rough edges, the glue holding the rips in the costumes, the chaos, and the often biting sense of humor that comes with the territory. For me, this is the true magic of the cabaret.

So these are my friends and coworkers and partners in crime. This is the first installment in what I expect will be a long-term, maybe life-long project. You’ll see candid moments, lots of vamping, and plenty of images that will make you scratch your head and wonder. They’re more or less snapshots between friends.

For the technically-minded among us, these were all shot with available light (ugly overhead florescent tubes) with Tri-X 320 and 400, both at 640, processed in Tmax developer.

Tribal Tique

Tribal Tique, the belly dancing duo

Pianist Larry Wegner and comedian/juggler David Deeble

Pianist Larry Wegner and comedian/juggler David Deeble

Larry the entertainer

The incomparable Larry Wegner

Lady Shanime

Lady Shanime

Orchid Mei

Orchid Mei, preparing for her next act

Pierre Jean-Pierre St Pierre and Fannie Spankings

Pierre Jean-Pierre and Fannie, slipping into character

As a reality check (and to demonstrate the power of careful use of light, contrast, and lighting fall-off, here’s a little camera phone snap to show you the surroundings these images were taken in.


Home, sweet home.

(As an aside, I’ll be doing a workshop June 30 – July 1, in which I’ll show the where’s and how’s of some of my favorite images; this will be one of the locations we’ll be covering, and I’ll be singing during the show as well.)

Many more images to come.

Wishing you wonderful light and soft shadows…. break a leg.

– CJ