The Student's Allegory

Only through a diminishing ego have I witnessed a relationship between photography and philosophy.

Growing up in the digital age, in school I never viewed photography as an art form. To me, it was a technical practice. The goal was sharpness, color accuracy, consistency, and maximum exposure latitude. Of course, I was aware of "fine art photography". In my experience, most of what constitutes "fine art photography" is anything printed on expensive paper and hung on a white wall at an absurd price. Not wanting to exclude anyone, "art" seems to be an ever-broadening term, though aside from liberal arts students, who really cares? 

At this point in my life, I am no more of an art lover than I was 5 or 10 years ago. Performance art still confuses me. Renaissance art is still over my head. Philosophy, however, I find incredibly compelling.

I met a photographer-friend for coffee last week, Steve. He is a still photographer on movie sets and also does gallery shoots, which are photo shoots done during the filming of a movie for marketing purposes. I told Steve about my reluctance to use strobe lights during my shoots, and that I preferred natural light or continuous lighting. My background in cinematography on narrative films and documentaries has informed many aspects of my photography, especially lighting. With documentaries, lighting is often impossible, so I have to find creative ways to use natural light. But videocameras work differently than still cameras. Still cameras require much more light if you want to avoid motion blur in your image. 

Steve generously offered to show me how to use his strobe lights and show me what they are capable of, so we decided to set up a portrait shoot at my house a few days later. 

When I was looking for someone for our shoot, I wanted to avoid using anyone I was unfamiliar with. I knew this would be a learning experience for me, and I would probably be asking a lot of questions and making many mistakes- which would indicate quickly that I had no idea what I was doing. The last thing I want is to cause my subject to loose faith in me in the middle of a shoot. I also wanted to use someone who could benefit from having a few photos taken of them, such as a model or an actor. 

I asked my friend and mentor, David Zalkind, to come sit for us while I learned some new lights. I have known David for many years. We first met when he asked me to be his cinematographer for a short film he was directing in New Orleans. My very first thought when I met him was, "That's Woody Allen".  It wasn't. But we have since become good friends and he has imparted much of his wisdom to me over the years. David is also one of those guys that when someone asks me what he does, the only answer is: A lot. One thing that he does really well is act. And every actor needs a nice set of headshots.

The shoot went very well and I learned a ton. As always, the learning curve is steep to begin with. But David was quite patient, and I kept him happy with whiskey cocktails and fancy crackers from Costco. Being an actor, David nailed whatever direction I threw at him. It was not a struggle but a joy to watch him transform from one frame to the next.

Steve took me step by step with the lights. And, since he had seen some of my recent work, he knew what I was going for with David and helped me to create a setup that really captured David's intriguing expressions without looking too glamorized or "lit".

I stayed up late that night reviewing the photos. I like them very much, but on a technical level I feel I need a lot more practice. But there was something else about these photos, below the surface, that made them feel very special to me. 

These portraits of David represent a recent change in my life. They reflect both a shift towards creative expression, and valuing and enjoying the process as much as the results. I do not know where this will lead, but I know that whatever it is will not replace the joy that comes from engaging in the process.

For years David has encouraged and supported me as a professional and an artist. His encouragement is often what keeps me going. To keep me heading down this path that I cannot see where it leads. When I had an existential crisis, and I struggled to see the value in anything, David was there. That is a story for another time. In his kindness and wisdom I have found a friend. And for that, I am humbled.

So, then, when I look at these photos of David, and I think about what he has taught me, and I think about what these photos represent, the man and the photo begin to merge- and more than just on paper.