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

A few little announcements

17 02 2010

I rarely use my blog to post business-related stuff, but I suppose that’s part of its purpose, so here I go. I’m working on another blog post for this afternoon, or maybe tomorrow morning.

I still have one space open for the Malibu custom workshop, taking place at a condo on the beach February 24 – 25. We have attendees flying in from as far away as Scotland. For more information on workshops, please visit my site at

I also have two more portrait sessions available in Southern California. I can do these anywhere from San Diego to LA, either February 21, 23, or 26th. Since I’ll already be in the area, the session rate will be the same as my regular Denver rate, with no travel fees added.

The Austin custom workshop is open for registration, with the deadline for early registration fast approaching, with the workshop taking place April 26 – 27. I am also open for portrait sessions in the Austin area.

I’ve been really enjoying my critique sessions, and am looking forward to doing many more. The introductory rate of $150 for a very in-depth, hour-long critique is still in place, but only through March 1. Sessions booked before that date will get the $150 rate, as long as the actual critique takes place during 2010. After March 1, the regular rate of $175 will be in place.

For those in the Denver area, a special offer for sessions booked prior to March 15: a $125 credit toward either your session or prints. If you’ve been thinking about booking, now is a fantastic time. Sessions are limited and are first come, first-served. Please mention this blog post to receive the credit.

This concludes the obligatory business announcements. Stay tuned for the fun stuff.

– CJ


A flower to pretty up the blog post.

Stop being modest. It’s irritating.

18 01 2010

I’m a talker, I’ll admit it. But I’m also a listener, and I like to ask questions. Nosy ones, often, but there’s always a reason for the questions I ask. I promise.

When it comes to photographers, one question I like to ask is, “What are you best at and what are you weakest at?” And it’s very interesting to me that those I ask are very fast to point out their weaknesses–thoroughly. But when it comes to talking about what they’re good at, the conversation takes a weird turn. Because almost all of them insist that there’s nothing they’re good at.

What? No.

I’m not sure if it’s false modesty or true lack of self-confidence, but it’s untrue, in every case. Are we really that insecure as a whole? Or are we just afraid to put ourselves out there like that, so something can disagree with us? Maybe it’s a defense mechanism.

I’m betting it’s a little bit of both, and it’s time to change that. I hate listening to people put themselves down. Everyone is a critic, which means that at times we are the only ones on our side. Stand up for yourself. Stand behind your work. Stop putting yourself down. (If you put yourself down often enough, you will start to believe it.) It’s unhealthy, it’s dishonest, and it’s unpleasant for others to listen to.

Some time ago, I wrote, “Do what you do brazenly and unapologetically.” And that is where this becomes an interactive post.

I would like to hear from everyone who reads this blog entry. I want you to reply (publicly!) with at least one thing you do well. Don’t tell me you don’t do anything well, or I’ll know you’re lying. Be honest with yourself and grow a set.

Let’s hear it. What do you do well?

– CJ

big pup little girl

I am good at subject wrangling.

Dirty trucker hands

I am good at finding beauty in unexpected places. I'm damn good at photographing textures.

Everyone’s a Critic

2 01 2010

Critique is something near and dear to my heart. There’s nothing like an outside perspective on our work to understand where we are as artists, and how to get where we want to be.

I think, though, that there are misconceptions about what critique is and isn’t, or maybe what it should and shouldn’t be. For that reason, the word “critique” tends to strike fear in the hearts of vulnerable artists. I’d like to address a few points for your consideration.

Critique does not have to be brutal and abrasive to be effective. I really do not understand the mentality that a mean critique is somehow more effective. I feel just the opposite; an unnecessarily abrasive critique tends to instantly put the “critiquee” on the defensive, and the hurt feelings can prevent the critique from really being absorbed. It is possible to be just as honest and frank without ripping holes in the self-esteem.

Let’s say you went to your hairstylist asking for advice on how you could improve your look. Would you want the feedback to start with, “Well, your current hairstyle is ugly and makes you look like a troll?” Of course not. It’s not necessary.

Critiques that include the word “can’t” are rarely valuable. I hear this a lot. You can’t center your subjects. You can’t use high contrast. You can compose your shots like that. You can’t have that much DOF. Can’t, can’t, can’t. This is art, folks. There are very few things that can’t be done successfully. An effective critique will not tell you what you can’t do; it will help you identify your tendencies so that YOU can decide how you would like to address those issues. A good critique-giver will help you understand why certain things generally work, and leave it to you to decide what is right for you.

The best critiques take into account your personal taste and what you are trying to accomplish. Critiques based solely on the preferences of the critic will only tell you how to make that person happy. It’s much more valuable for you to get feedback on how to achieve the results YOU want. I may personally prefer muted color, but if you love saturated color, my job is to help you do saturated color well.

A truly effective critique should help you identify opportunities for improvement and direction in your entire body of work — not just nit-picking little things in individual images. At the end of the critique, you should have a very clear idea of what you want to achieve and how to achieve it. And a really good critique will also help you understand what you do well, so you walk away feeling positive and motivated. it is at least as important to understand your strengths as it is to understand your weaknesses.

Critique should never be accepted blindly. You’ve heard me say it before. Just because someone said it doesn’t make it so. It’s up to you to listen to what is said, consider the point of view of the critic, and decide if and how you will act on it. Only you can truly understand your sense of beauty and what you want your work to say. Apply what it makes sense to apply. You should never have to worry about offending the critic; the critic who demands gratitude and obedience is (generally) just plain old insecure.


I'll break the rules if I want to, thank you.

The Photographic Circle of Life

29 12 2009

A few years ago on a forum, I stumbled across a group of photographers who had hit a creative wall. They were feeling that their work had lost its meaning, and that their perspective was “boring”.

This was my response. I hope you’ll find it useful.


You’re all going through something that just about EVERY photographer goes through at some point. It’s the photographic circle of life, and it goes something like this:

You started out taking snapshots because it was fun. You got a little more serious about getting good photos, so you began trying to figure out how to make that happen. The more you learned, the more you found out you didn’t know, so you knuckled down and forced yourself to get technically proficient.

Once you got technically proficient, you realized that you had techniqued yourself right out of the reason you started the journey in the first place — because you were intuitively taking some creative and rewarding shots.

So the challenge becomes embracing your unique perspective and values, while allowing them to rest upon the technical foundation you’ve constructed.

It’s simple, but not easy.

The problem is that you’ve forgotten what it is you want your work to say. You can’t really find that by forcing yourself to take hundreds of pictures aimlessly. It may eventually accidentally happen over time, but doing the same shots over and over again and expecting different results is an exercise in frustration.

Dig around in your personality and life experience. Think about what makes you smile, what makes you sad, what makes you angry. Think about the greatest lessons you’ve learned thus far in your life. Think about regrets, or things you wish you had known sooner. Figure out what defines you as a person (without getting paralyzed by analysis) and photograph that. Use your values as your voice.

Consider the dreams you have when you go to sleep at night. What are they about? Do they make sense? How do they make you feel? Are they clear, or are they fuzzy, or just impressions? Can you “see” them? Are they literal, or totally random? What do they look like? Mull it over. Photograph that.

You’ve figured out how to be a photographer. Now you have to figure out what you want to say. It’s easier to learn the rules than it is to let go of them.

It takes time, but when you base your style on your sense of self, embracing both your strengths and your weaknesses, you’ll develop something that is deep, personal, and consistent.

Enjoy the journey and embrace a little frustration, because it keeps you evolving as a person and an artist. I believe it was Martha Graham who said, “No artist is ever satisfied at any time.” That’s the truth.

– CJ

scarf in snow

scarf falling down on the job