A few months ago, I cleaned out my desk, which led to an amusing blog post, which turned out to be one of my most popular to date. Earlier this week, upon returning from a long trip away on assignment, a similar impulse struck, and I decided to organize my equipment room. As I was moving boxes around, I found a pile of old promotional postcards. Some of them date back to the late ’90s, and among them was an entire mailer devoted to a quasi-illustrative mode I worked in for a few years.

A bit of background. I come from a family with pretty strong creative leanings. My father was an industrial designer, a couple of my uncles worked as printers, and my sister is an illustrator, designer, typographer, publisher and writer of some renown (check out her Tumblr pages here). We grew up surrounded by pens and paper and pencils and paint. Instead of saving up money from my various part-time jobs to buy a bike or video game system, I bought a Paasche airbrush and compressor, an expensive investment that ended up gathering dust after I got a Nikon for Christmas the same year. In fact, my very first commercial assignments were pure editorial illustration, acrylic on paper, highly mannered and frankly embarrassing.

At some point, someone gave me a Jasper Johns book, and at around the same time, someone else showed me Joseph Cornell’s work. I also saw a Starn Brothers show in New York. I remember thinking hey, cool, I should mix all this stuff together and jazz it up a bit. More is better, right? So I started working photography into things, and soon abandoned the painting and drawing in favour of building small, sculptural collages which I would light and re-photograph using a laborious, low-rent Hosemaster approach — basically, Maglites and a Lee filter book. Then I would cross process the film and make prints. And then I would do things to the prints. I would set them on fire and cover them in packing tape before photocopying them. I would paint on them with maple syrup and fry them in the microwave. I would run them over with my car. It was fun for a while, although my landlord was a bit concerned about all the scorched microwaves accumulating in the garage.

Before long I was regularly landing assignments and earning what I thought were decent rates. I was easily making the rent on my $350.00 a month basement apartment and living large on noodles and beer. And then I stopped and switched to something pretty much along the lines of the way I work now; straightforward and unadorned, with as little “technique” as I can possibly manage.

So what led to the shift in gears? After all, I was getting quite a bit of work. But when I stood back and looked at my shots minus all the fancy baloney, they just weren’t that good. Also, other photographers I knew, who were at about the same stage of their careers as I but specialized more in portraiture and people photography, were getting to fly on planes! To take pictures! Imagine that. I was jealous, it looked like a lot more fun and a lot less lonely than working long hours by myself in the dark.

All my tricks and gimmicks were nothing more than window dressing, but that was the seductive allure, the madness in the method. It’s fun to dress windows, and easy to get lost in them, and I did for a while. And in the commercial photography world, the urge to use tricks and gimmicks never dies. Technique for technique’s sake is more prevalent than ever, thanks to retouching and the ease of digital capture. Using the same “dramatic” lighting setup for everything and dropping a set of  curves on a mediocre shot won’t make it into something good, it will just be a mediocre shot in fancy, desaturated, over-sharpened clothes. More is almost never better; more is usually just more, and nothing you can throw into the mix will change that. You’ll just end up with a box of unsent promos and a messy storeroom.

If this is your first visit to Planet Shapton, please leave a comment, I’d love to hear what you think. You can also subscribe and follow me on Twitter.

 

 

 

 

 

13 Responses to More Is Usually Just More

  1. Chris Barton says:

    That was awesome.

    You have basically said that the emperor has no clothes, and you are absolutely right. Keep it simple.

  2. [...] Do we confuse window dressing and ornamentation with substance? | More is Usually Just More.   [...]

  3. This is a great post for looking back on change. Sometimes we begin to mimic ourselves as we create more and more content based on a technique rather than a vision.

    And sure, there are times when technique and vision are tied together. But when that happens, the artist remains with the technique as it is valid for them.

    You found that the technique was not allowing your vision to be seen, and of course that wonderful travel perk, and changed. Excellent.

    Personally I find your new work much more “emotional” and easily connected with. When there is too much between me and the image, I rarely feel like it brings me in.

    BTW – yeah, I am a fan of your work. Love to crawl the blog and see what you are up to. The Westside shooters pretty much rock!

  4. Vincent says:

    Refreshing!! Could not agree more.

    Thanks and keep up the great work

  5. Wonderful post. As a new photographer, I am in the midst of beginning to define, understand, grasp and develop what my style is. What is it that is going to set my photos apart and make me unique. Your technique’s sake line really hit home. I have a feeling I will read this post many times over the years. Thanks.

  6. Alan says:

    First time on the blog. Saw your quote on APE and thought it was nuts on. Really enjoyed the rest also, but need to point out one thing. We are all products of our history….so, without going through that “phase” (such a horrible word), you would not….could not, be who you are today.

    Cheers.

  7. I like the change of direction you made. The channel you are swimming in now is producing wonderful, natural work. All the best in the continued journey.

  8. Your old work method sounded like a lots of fun! Please don´t underestimate it – not very common and easy to produce work on those days. Your visual skills got great training, too.
    Your new images = beautiful and natural skin colors, I envy a lot!

  9. jason gold says:

    So true! Looking at all modern images, there is simply too much after work. Case in point Hasselblad’s “Victor” magazine. I wonder how the photos looked before they were messed up.My opinion. I can use Photoshop with abandon. I look back and mostly hate the work.Less is more. Pleased to find your blog.

  10. Daniel says:

    Great advice. As a someone just getting started in photography, it’s nice to know I’m not wrong in focusing more on good, solid photography. Thanks again.

    v/r
    Dan

  11. It seems to me that you may be a little too harsh on your previous work–which has a feel of surrealism and would probably have been quite a hit in the 20′s in Paris. All that I would say is that your current ‘style’ is different from your earlier work. Not better or worse. The differences in the styles and the approach to your work is a reflection of the differences that have occurred in you as a person expressed by the one thing that has remained constant: the artist. As a few people above have pointed out, we build on our past. We are products of our experiences.
    Having said this, there is no doubting the benefits of technical excellence when it comes to being a professional photographer (or any other artist for that matter). If nothing else, technical excellence allows you to break those rules in meaningful and creative ways.
    Anyway I should pay heed to one of your photographs and “use less words”. Let me just say I thoroughly enjoy your work, past and present. Thanks for sharing.

  12. I’ve read a couple of your posts over the last day or two, and it’s quite inspiring. It’s nice to hear how other people came along to how they are now, thanks for sharing your story.

    PS I love the tissue box idea!

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