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

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.