Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Composition - Part Two

Interesting that my sixth grade teacher failed to tell me about formulas when she was teaching us to tell stories. Durn her hide.
Interesting that my high school art teacher failed to advise me of all the rules that went into art. Dang her.
Interesting that my college music professor failed to help me compose music through the use of easy formulas. Darn his hide.
Interesting that the composing rooms of the College print shop and the Branson Beacon weekly and the Fulton Daily and the St. Charles Daily Banner News all failed to clue me in on the simple formulas involved with telling a story. Drat. I could have saved years.
Then I joined some professional photography organizations. I did it because I was told it would improve my photography. I needed their help, because I didn't think I was telling my visual stories very well.
Thank you, all you composition experts, for helping me with so many quick and easy formulas.
Too bad that all those formulas end up telling the same story. Durn. Darn. Dang.
If all of had the same story to tell, if every wedding was the same, if every senior was the same, if every poet or writer or musician or artist only had one composition, then by god, we could go with formulas.
"Oh, calm down, Fred. It's not that important."
Well, yes it is. I wasted two decades of my life, buying into all the rules and formulas, only to find out that they forced my stories into sameness. Mediocrity. No story at all - just some middle ground that middle people could all agree on. Group hug. Satisfaction. Merits.
But I don't have 20 more years to start over with. Age, cancer, bipolar, etc.
Drat. Somehow, drat isn't quite working for me.
Discuss among yourselves.


Composition, I learned in the sixth grade, was all about telling a story.
Then I found out in high school art class that composition was all about revealing the intent of my painting.
Then I found out in college music appreciation that composition was all about creating a message through the use of sound.
The composing room in a publishing house, I found out early in my first official job, was all about arranging steel letterpress letters and wood type into words, then into sentences, then into paragraphs, then into essays that would tell that story. Sometimes there were etchings available that helped tell that particular story. That story was supposed to communicate something, and that something was supposed to be important enough to justify all the WORK that went into the telling of it.
Interesting. Story. Message. Communication. Feeling.
I began to formulate a conclusion.
Let's talk about this more later.

Fiction and Fake

Fiction is not fake. Many people, and some groups, fail to understand the difference.
Fiction is a wonderful thing. Fake is bad, cruel, mean, seditious, harmful, and often illegal.
Great truths can be explained, believe it or not, better by fiction than by nonfiction. That's why fables are there for children, why the greatest novels become the greatest, why myth is so strong, why the Bible has parable, why allegory exists.
How do I define the difference? While neither are "real," fake is the only one to carry with it the intent to deceive. The very purpose of fake is to deceive.
Mark Twain wrote fiction.
That email you got from Africa telling you about how "you're going to get three million dollars just as soon as..." is fake.
Helping a senior girl to become herself in front of a stranger and a camera will take you to the Truth.
Forcing a senior girl's arm into an unnatural position in order to conform to some formula sold to you by some convention speaker who claims that it follows some art dictate, will get you fake.
Truth is beauty.


Not many care about Truth much anymore. I'm not whining, just statin' the facts, ma'am. I can deal. At the same time, though, people have a longing, and they whine and complain about life not being what they think it should be. They make a million bucks, travel the world, and try to have a thousand "friends" on Facebook. Sometimes people grow up and don't know it, but they're still on infant formula and the bottle (the one with the little rubber nipple). Life is no longer satisfying. They crave solid food. They bite the nipple. Hard.
Well, I have some of the answer. Ready? Can we talk? Can we talk about stuff that you have absorbed into your DNA that is poisoning you? Before you answer, I will tell you your answer. You will say one thing and not mean it. "Oh, but I mean it," you claim. Right.
I already know how to make enemies: you tell people what they NEED to hear instead of what they WANT to hear.
We're talking photography, now, and not religion, politics, or (yawn) philosophy. Guess what. They're all connected. Everything's connected. And that's good.
When you have a subject to photograph, try to find the Truth. Don't force and bend and pose and fix and correct and change the subject into some formula you have in your artificial programming. Please.
Look for the Truth. I capitalize it because it is that important. When you find the Truth, TAKE THE DAMNED PICTURE!
If you can't find the Truth, and usually you won't, unless you're photographing kids under the age of three, then your biggest responsibility as a photographer looms large. Directing.
Direct the subject out of his/her self-consciousness and pretention, and work at it until the subject understands, at a subconscious level, that all you want is the Truth.
Learn to see it. Look for it. Don't look for some formula. Look for the Truth. I will help you with it as time goes on.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009


Yeah, Keats said something about, "Beauty is truth, truth beauty...." He ended up claiming that maybe that was probably all you really needed to know.
Well, that was before the internet. Before blogging. Before hair plugs. Before fake boobies.
I'll give him credit for part of it, though - truth IS beauty.
Just watch out for the second part.

Pretty just ain't what it's cranked up to be by the popular culture.

Looking at Photographs

Looking at someone else's photographs won't make you a better photographer.
Looking at Elvis won't make you a better singer.
Looking at pizza won't make you full.

How Many Shots to Take.

Taking more pictures than your competition down the street doesn't make you a better photographer. It cheapens your work.
I remember, at one time in my career, trying to figure out how many shots were actually possible at a wedding. I kept increasing the number.
I never did arrive at a final answer, so one day I went in the other direction - what's the minimum number of shots that can be taken at a wedding?
Ah, good question! Karsh, I had read, would spend the day with his portrait subject, but would only take two shots. I don't think he shot weddings, but it got me to thinking.
The answer for a wedding shoot, I found out, was one. It was my last wedding. I told the groom, the one who booked it, who wouldn't take no for an answer when I told him that I no longer shot weddings, that, fine, I'd go, but one was the most number of pictures I would take. The other option was zero. If I couldn't find a good and proper shot, I would leave without taking any pictures at all. I told him that because I didn't want him to be disappointed.
"Also," I said, "I want you to book a professional photographer to back me up and take all the shots I missed."
"I thought that was what I was DOING," he whimpered. "I thought I WAS booking a professional photographer." There was a wee bit of exasperation in his voice, but not much.
I decided to push my luck. "And you have to promise to tell the professional photographer, before you book him or her, that I'll be there only for a short time and to not be bothered by it as we were not in competition for your money or duplication of shots."
He agreed.
When I arrived at the wedding, the first thing I noticed was a stretch limo slipping in some January ice, slowly moving sideways toward a sheer 15 foot cliff. A dozen people were standing around watching. I stopped, jumped out, grabbed my handy half-gallon orange juice jug full of dry sand, ran over to the limo, poured some sand beside both downhill wheels, and escaped. The limo stopped sliding two feet short of the cliff. The driver was sweating profusely in the cold weather. I spoke with him for a minute until he calmed down and then gently helped him find out who was in charge. Then I poured a trail of sand as he inched the limo back up toward the road. All safe, I looked up toward the place where the wedding was taking place. All the guests were either plastered against the windows or outside cheering. It was a good start.
Five minutes gone.
I carried my camera case inside, and the young professional photographer who had been hired to shoot the wedding turned and gasped.
"Wh-wh-wh," he said.
I introduced myself.
"I know who you are," he said. "But, but, but..."
I could tell he hadn't been told, as per my agreement with the groom.
"Let me help you," I offered. He was now shaking too much to get a clear shot of the bride's family.
"They w-want a picture cutting the cake," he stammered. "What should I do?"
"Great idea, cutting the cake" I offered. "Glad you thought of it. Can I help you with that?"
He began to calm down. I suggested "artistic" shots of the rings on a napkin and other such things. He calmed down to the point that I thought I could leave things with him, and I went off to look for my shot.
I got the shot.
Back home, I developed the film, printed an 11x14, b/w from a color neg (a half-used roll of color was already in the camera), worked on it with a bit of yellow dye in three areas, wrote a two paragraph essay, matted it, framed it, and hung it in my gallery.
"Your picture is ready," I told the groom on the phone.
The couple came over, and while they stood in front of it, I handed them a sheet of paper with the words that went with it. "Here," I said, "this goes with it."
And I left.
A few minutes later I went back to check on them. The bride was crying, quietly, but I could tell. The groom was holding her. I went after a box of tissue, thinking, "this is either very good or very bad." In the picture I hadn't shown either of their faces. Her dress didn't show. There was the back of her veil and part of his cheek. There was a window high up from inside the restaurant next door, a lamp, and some wood flooring.
I handed him the box of tissue.
"It's good," he said, and handed me a credit card.
I breathed a little sigh of relief.
"I'm sorry," I said, "but we haven't discussed money. I don't know how much to charge."
"Does it matter?" he asked, tilting his head toward his bride. She still hadn't spoken a word, and never did.
I calculated later that I'd made more profit (not gross) on that wedding than almost any other of the 1300 I'd shot. I was almost sorry, almost, that I had retired from weddings.
I still had so much to learn.

Price Lists

I was able to retire early because of one principle - I made sure to charge less than the customer had expected.
How did I know what they expected? I asked them. Simple as that. Expensive research, huh.
Typically, I tried to keep my pricing to this ratio:
20% - "You should raise your prices."
70% - "I'm happy."
10% - "Got any coupons?"
Before you think I'm making this up, ask my lovely wife, Rita. She knows it better than I did. She did most of the business while I became an aaaaa-rrr-tist.
When I lectured around the country, I gave my price list to whomever asked for one. Invariably, they thought it was a joke.
But the joke was on them. I'm retired, and those who laughed, aren't.
Many of my clients who said things like, "Wow, Fred, you should raise your prices," volunteered that comment. That was nice. I always tried to give nice people something nice. Free wallets. A hug. Something.
The people who weren't nice had to go out and stand in the parking lot.
We'll talk about that sometime.


I know. Business.
Yecchh. I just threw up a little bit in my mouth.
Business, for me, was a fun game, a game to be played while I became an artist. An artist in the field of photography.
But to be successful, you must know your business intimately. It's a lot more important than going to some workshop in order to learn to move your key light one more damned inch higher.
Intimately. Every penny. Every average. I knew in my head whenever an employee made a mistake on the computer, when my accountant made a mistake on his books. "Here's a wrong answer," I'd often say, "now go back and find the mistake."
Don't depend on others for the answers.
Don't make others responsible for your success.
Don't put others in charge of your money.
Those who do usually end up in the news.

Business or Art?

Most of those photographers who wished to be seen as artists lose that opportunity to become successful artists by failing to develop their business skills; but by neglecting to build those skills they go under. They drown. Many wanna-be's think that "business" is beneath them, beneath their "dig-ni-ty."
Guess what's beneath them.

The Business of Photography

Oh, I forgot. You want to be known as an artist, right? Sorrrry!

How to Outsmart Your Clients

You know the seminar - the one at every convention, put on by the guy with the shiny suit and hair plugs and dental caps that are too big and too white so he can smile too big.
And he goes on and on about how you can impress your customers by calling them clients, how you can dress up your price list by implying you're selling art? Have you seen the hot shot who tells you to wear white gloves while handling the prints in front of the customer, er, client? It implies great value.
The suggestions go on and on if you go to enough conventions.
Here's what I learned:
Treat customers like fools, and all you'll have left will be fools for customers.
The smart people don't like that kind of stuff, and will leave.
Fools have very little money because someone parted it from them before they got to your studio.
Smart people have money. They got it by being smart. But you drove them away by trying to be tricky. Not smart. It doesn't work on smart people. Only on fools.
I have an idea.
Be straight up with everyone. Smart people like that. Appreciate smart people. Show them a little respect. Ask them questions, respectfully. They will give you an intelligent answer if they know you're sincere. Stop going to seminars put on by guys who are afraid they won't be liked if they don't have enough hair. Stop going to seminars put on by women who are insecure about the size of their boobs. Don't go there. Don't take any notes.
And next time you meet a fool, smile at them. It will help them through what will likely be a miserable day for them. If they ask if you have any coupons, or discounts on Tuesday, give 'em a smile. But don't try to book a session with 'em - that would make you a fool.

Convention Seminars

Convention Seminars on how to make more money: all
Convention Seminars on how to spend less: none

Tip (and I have a million of 'em):
Instead of buying a new light for the shooting room, spend some time polishing up the dressing room sink until it shines. Your financial rewards and improved repeat customer ratio will be greater and your cost will be virtually zero.
The light that sparkles off the faucet is worth more than another dang light in the studio.


"Ya gotta spend money to make money."
You've heard it before, many times. Probably said it yourself.
Well, like that farmer in Vermont said, "It ain't necessarily so."
People say it a lot to rationalize something inside them.
Rationalization. Justification. Excuse.
It's fun spending money. Done a fair bit of it myself. I have a brother who says that's about all you can do with the stuff.
But you can also save it. Like for a rainy day.
I started saving it, and I started enjoying that, too. Soon, I was enjoying the saving as much as the spending. I loved the independence it brought me. The safety. The security. The early retirement.

$ $ $ $ $ $ $ $...

It's not how much you make,
It IS how much you spend.
That's how it's gonna be,
And how it's always been.

Ah, money

The time to worry about money is when you're making it, not losing it.
But people always do it the other way around - when money comes in, they laugh and worry about other things, and when it stops coming in, they stop laughing and worry about something that no longer exists.
I'm reminded of the time I learned this lesson. I think it was maybe the second grade. Three monkeys, see. They played and played. Then it rained and they ran inside only to remember how badly the roof leaked.
"We must fix the roof," one said.
"Jerk," said another. "It's raining, duh!"
"Yeah, jerk," said the third, "like, duh, man. You can't fix the roof in the rain, doood."
When it stopped raining, the sun came out, and the three monkeys felt like playing again, and so the roof never got fixed.
Second grade, doood.