Podcast 314 : The “Artisan” Photographer

Podcast 314 : The “Artisan” Photographer

With the digital age, photography has in many ways become incredibly “easy”. I’m not just talking about the direct act of photography, although that has become so much easier, with the ability to view our images on the LCD and correct our mistakes right there in the field. Today I wanted to muse a little about how fulfilling I find some of the crafts surrounding my photography, at a time when it seems there is an easy option to outsource pretty much every aspect of photography.

A few weeks ago, I was trimming some 8×10 and 5×7″ prints for my customers. The sun was flooding into my studio and Ben Harper was pouring his heart out of my speakers. The world was a beautiful place!

Trimming Photos

Trimming Photos

It wasn’t just because of the conditions on this one day that I was feeling happy though. Whenever I print, trim or mount photos, create gallery warps or do just about any photography related task, I feel totally at one with and fulfilled by my craft.

Printing

Printing

When a print order has come in over night for example, I feel a little flutter of excitement in my stomach as I go up to my studio put on my white cotton gloves to handle the paper, and the sound of my big printer firing up and the roll paper starting to feed as it’s sucked down onto the platen by the vacuums, make me smile.

As I lay some paper on my table to lay the prints on as they fully dry, I’ll walk back through to my storeroom, and stroke the front of my printer as I walk by.

I know that I might be a bit weird, and if that’s true, I don’t care, I love these aspects of my photography. Maybe I’m a bit of a control freak too. Even when I shoot my photographs, I am a stickler for nailing the ideal exposure, according to how I want the image to feel, and I like to control the white balance, so that I can see any subtle differences that the difference colors might have on the RGB histogram.

As I want to control the entire process, the thought of sending my photos in to a lab to be printed makes me cringe. I know that they’d come back OK, or even really good depending on the service, especially after all the care I put into getting my exposure and color how I like it in the base image, but I enjoy the process of printing. It give me a lot of satisfaction, and so I simply don’t want to outsource it.

I know that many of you will be thinking that I’m crazy for messing around printing 5×7 and 8×10 prints for my clients, when you can get these done for just a few cents each by uploading your images to a print service, but the thought of this just leaves me cold. This is why take a portfolio of previous printed work to a client when we first meet about the possibility of doing a portrait session.

From the start, I want to impress on them that it’s not just about the photos in digital form. I want them to see the beauty in the final prints, and have started to sell more packages with a set amount already included for the customer to select a number of prints or canvas wraps from the offset. Luckily I’m managing to attract customers that are willing to pay a little extra for me to provide beautiful photos printed with care on top quality fine art papers. This really does rely on showing them images from previous shoots printed in the same way, but luckily for me, it’s working. I’m able to make more money from each shoot, and the customer has quality prints to show their friends and family, and this leads to more work with the print in mind.

As I’ve sent out prints from the shoot that we discussed in episode 310 recently, I’ve received touching mail from each family on how beautiful the prints are and how wonderful the day was. I was able to provide a quality experience from start to finish, and because of the quality proposition, the shoot doesn’t finish with me handing over a disk of full sized images, so that the client can create their own  mediocre prints.

One thing I do though, especially at this time of year in Japan, is give the clients a DVD with selected images from the shoot resized to a size that allows the client to use the images up to the size of a postcard at 300ppi. Despite this, I was surprised recently when this latest shoot resulted in two of the families not only asking me to create large batches of New Year cards for them, printed on fine art paper, but they also asked me to include my logo, despite the fact that I priced the cards high enough for me to feel happy about the job. This is proof that they are proud of the fact that they had us shoot their images, and create these cards, to the point that they want me to brand the product, and that is huge in my mind. It shows that my quality proposition and how I’m positioning my business is working.

Honestly, although it would be easy to just hand over the full sized digital images, and have the clients print their own photos, I don’t want my clients to spend the coming years displaying and sharing photographs that I have no control over. If I’ve played no part in the creation of the prints, I have no way of knowing if they’re any good or not, and I really don’t want people to see such images thinking that they are looking at my work, when I had no part in that final part of the process, and this I think is the artisan or the craftsman in me wanting to ensure that I control every aspect. I also want to sign and stamp my work too, and I do not want to build this into the digital image, this has to be added by hand.

Framed, Signed and Stamped Print

Framed, Signed and Stamped Print

Now, I know that even if I use a third party to print the photographs and send them to me to inspect before I send them to my client, so I could do the quality assurance and even stamp and sign them, remaining in control to a degree, but that’s really not the point. It just doesn’t feel right. I only want to sign something that I created, not just ordered on line, and at the end of the day, I enjoy printing! And because I enjoy printing, it’s my choice to build this into my business so that the shoot is not the start and the end of the job. I feel incredibly blessed to be able to make a living doing something that I love, and being able to incorporate printing, another part of the photographic process that I love into that business model is a double blessing.

By all means, if you don’t enjoy printing, and the thought of spending time printing yourself, then trimming your photographs leaves you cold, then forget about this. I’m certainly not saying that everyone should do this, and wouldn’t dream of saying that you are any less a photographer if you don’t. Of course I also know that there are sometimes business reasons for outsourcing parts of your process because it makes financial sense to do so.

Unless you set out to make printing a part of your business model as I have, the fact is that most of the time you will make more money by shooting more and doing less of these tasks, but that’s your decision. It doesn’t stop at printing of course. I’ve heard of services where you simply dump all of your RAW images on a server and a third party handles all the post processing. You can have people design album creation and much, much more these days, and if you are happy with your decision to use these services, then good for you.

What would make me sad though, is if you are outsourcing many of your processes just because you can. The photographer has historically been a craftsman and a technician. Photography is a technical art, and for me, it’s probably the engineer in me that wants to hand craft things that makes me so happy to be able to do so.

It is very easy to just hand stuff like this off to an online service, and I do appreciate that some services provide a very high quality product, so it’s not always about quality, but you could be denying yourself a lot of fun, if you too found that you enjoy the process like I do. If you haven’t even tried, how do you know that you don’t also have a craftsman, an artisan inside of you waiting to revel in the sort of tasks that make me incredibly happy.

Laminating a Canvas Print for Gallery Wrap

Laminating a Canvas Print for Gallery Wrap

If you are reeling in your seat as you listen to or read this, because you already do lots of this sort of stuff yourself, then don’t worry. I know that there are a lot of photographers that do take on tasks like these themselves, which is great. I know that I’m not alone here. I also know that these tasks are not for everyone. For example I do not enjoy spending a lot of time messing around with my images in Photoshop, but some people really enjoy that aspect. That’s great too! I don’t necessarily think that it has to be an analog act. If you prefer moving pixels around and performing your craft inside the computer, then knock yourself out. The main point that I wanted to make today is that we can gain much more fun from photography than just the act of composing our images and making the exposures. This is and probably always will be the most important part of photography, but I think it can be so much more, so why stop there?

I’m starting to hear more and more people that have recently tried home printing for example. Some people bought the little Canon printer that we looked at in episode 292 and have found great pleasure in printing their own images and even framing them. Chris Blank comes to mind for example. Chris started printing and framing his beautiful work recently, and is finding the process very fulfilling.

My proposition to you is not that you necessarily start printing although that’s one of my favorite post capture activities. For example, I choose to create my own printer/paper combination profiles, using the X-Rite i1Pro calibration tools. I can download ICC profiles for my printer from Hahnemuhle and Breathing Color, but I chose to create these myself, because I want more than a generic profile. Each printer is slightly different and once the printer itself is calibrated the profiles created on another printer are never quite as accurate.

Creating ICC Profiles

Creating ICC Profiles

Sure, this is the control freak coming out in me again, but I enjoy this process. It gives me pleasure to go through the act of printing out the patch sets and reading them in to the computer, and I have the assurance that I’m creating my images with the best possible color for my printer. This part, I guess comes back to the craftsman aspect. The craftsman or artisan in me wants things to be as good as they can be and I’m prepared to do a little more to make that happen, and this is probably why I enjoy the process.

The photographer was traditionally an artisan, and had a lot of skill in the various crafts surrounding the act of capture and printing, and although that was a limiting factor for some, for those that enjoyed the craft, it was a major part of their success. I’d like to see more photographers get back to the artisan mentality, and enjoy the processes surrounding photography as much as I do.

So, as you progress through your photographic life, and you want to do things with your images, don’t just rely on the easy options. Just because you can download profiles for your printer/paper combinations, or you can get cheap prints online, doesn’t necessarily mean that you should. Think of ways that you could achieve the same thing at home or maybe even improve on quality if you put your heart into it, and if it makes sense financially, give it a try. You might find that you really enjoy your new process, and if like me, you end up stroking your printer as you walk past it, or find yourself smiling to yourself as you trim prints for a client, then this just extends the fun of photography past the capture and post processing, and that has to be a good thing.


Show Notes

Music from Music Alley: http://www.musicalley.com/


Audio

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Lacquer “Urushi” Craftsman Shoot (Podcast 152)

Lacquer “Urushi” Craftsman Shoot (Podcast 152)

In the first week in August 2008 I went to a small rural town in the Iwate Prefecture called Joboji, on an assignment for a client. The assignment was to take photos for a limited edition book that my client is creating for their client and today I’m going to share some of the photos and my experiences from the shoot.

I was to photograph a gentlemen named Shunzou Omori, who has worked gathering the sap from Urushi trees, which is the lacquer that you might have seen used on Japanese ornamental lacquer wear. It is often red or black, and sometimes has delicate pictures embedded in the lacquer surface, this is called maki-e. Omori-san, the craftsman is a bit of a living legend. A week after I came back from the shoot I actually saw a documentary program on the TV in which he was interviewed by someone tracing the roots of a famous photo of a lacquer gathering craftsman. It turns out the photo is of Omori-san’s older brother, you sadly passed away a few years ago. Omori-san told me while I was photographing him that he’d left the army at 13 years old, and when he came back to his native town of Joboji, he had become an apprentice lacquer craftsman. I found from the documentary though that he was an apprentice to his older brother, who he still says was a better craftsman than himself.

Lacquer Craftsman Shoot #1

Lacquer Craftsman Shoot #1

Let’s take a look at the first picture for today, which is image number 1874. You’ll probably be amazed when you see Omori-san with his leg wrapped around the urushi tree to stop himself from falling, that he has been doing this job for 53 years. When you consider that he was 13 when he started, that makes him 76 years old. I just hope I’m even half as agile as this when I’m 76, if I’m still alive that is. This first photo was shot on the first morning. I’d met Omori-san at 6AM, and drove out to a patch of the urushi trees with him. There were to be some other visitors on this day too, and I wanted to make sure I got my shots. I had a list of types of shots the client wants for the book, and I had two days to try to capture them. The other instruction was to just shoot as much as I can, and the client would possibly change the composition of the book, depending on my results.

Lacquer Craftsman Shoot #2

Lacquer Craftsman Shoot #2

One of the shots was to include the craftsman cutting slits into the bark to let the sap flow. We can see one of these shots in image number 1875. I’m not going to show you all of the required shots, but I thought it would be good to take a look at this one to see what this sap gathering is all about. Apparently, the urushi or lacquer trees can be cut from late June to October. The craftsman has to decide, based on years of experience which year to cut the tree. The trees that are about 15 years old are the best I was told. This photo shows the lowest cut, which starts from one small cut in the middle, and then grows out from that point with each subsequent cut. The sap come out more easily near the bottom, so they radiate out like this only here. The higher cuts are usually just one cut, as we’ll see later. The first cut is to make the tree know that it has been hurt, and then it will start to draw sap to that point to fix the cut. The second cut will draw more sap, because the tree has put sap there from the first cut. It takes four to five days for the sap to gather, so the craftsman has to come back at 4 to 5 day intervals, depending on the weather apparently, and then makes his next cut. The cuts get larger and larger as the sap flows, and a season will see the tree cut 20 times. That would be forty times for this low double cut I guess.

Lacquer Craftsman Shoot #4

Lacquer Craftsman Shoot #4

On this first morning, it turned out that I had just over two hours alone with Omori-san, and then the hordes of other visitors came. At that time, I decided to step back, as I had a lot of photos and probably had already captured everything that was necessary except for some texture shots of the trees with the slits cut in them to let the sap flow. The sap comes out quickly, and is scooped into a special bucket that we saw in the first shot, then after a shot while, the cut dries and the sap oxidizes, turning black, looking more like the lacquer that we see on the ornamental boxes. We can see a number of the higher scratch marks, in shot number 1877. I took the opportunity while the other visitors were he to scout around for interesting shots of the bark, and found this one place where three trees could be aligned to perfectly fill the frame, with one in the foreground, with one set of scratches, the another to the left, with two sets, and then a third tree in the background that could be seen through the middle of the first two trees. On this tree you can make out the double cuts at the bottom and most of three more sets of cuts above. I keep wanting to say scratch, not cut, because the Japanese for this craftsman is Urushi-kaki Shokunin. Urushi is lacquer, mean the tree or the sap, and kaki comes from the verb kaku, which means to scratch. Shokunin means a craftsman or artisan. So this guy is actually a lacquer tree scratching craftsman.

I shot this last shot with my macro lens by the way, and actually stopped down to F16, a pretty small aperture for me, to get the tree in the background into enough focus for us to be able to make out the scratches on the back tree. I wasn’t worried about getting it any more in focus than this, as that would have reduced the perceived depth in the image that the difference in sharpness portrays. As I shot this, there must have been twenty students, university lecturers and newspaper reporters covering the visit of the other groups crowding around Omori-san. I felt kind of sorry for him. I think what happens is once he agrees to have visitors, the people from the local government tag on as much as they can. I tagged along to another place where some of the visitors were going to try their hands at scratching the trees too, but there was no more photography to be taken this day. It was not my job to cover any of what was happening now, so I went back to my lodgings, and started to look through my photos. I found that I had probably gotten everything that I had to get, but I wanted to improve on them, so I was glad that I had arranged to meet Omori-san at 6AM the following day too.

On the following day, which was August the 7th, 2008, I went to Omori-san’s house, and we met up for a second shoot. On this day he had an apprentice with him, Seko-san, so Seko-san drove Omori-san’s little white truck out to a different patch of the Urushi trees, and Omori-san road with me. He was impressed by the fact that my big SRV didn’t make any noise as we drove off, because it has electric motors to as well as a gasoline engine, and so I showed him the information panel on the navigation TV screen, that shows energy being pumped back into the cars batteries when coasting or breaking. I was happy to be just sitting and driving with him, and was happy that today I was going to be the only visitor.

I had talked with Omori-san for most of the two hours or so that I shot him on the previous day, and he’d told me a lot about his craft and about himself. We continued to chat as I started to shoot him for the second day, and made each other laugh by exchanging local dialect words that we both knew. I speak standard Japanese most of the time, but my wife comes from a place called Fukushima in the middle of North-Eastern Japan, which is about half way between Tokyo and the Iwate Prefecture, where Omori-san lives. Because I lived in Fukushima and Sendai, a town a little further North for six years, and have been talking with my wife in local dialect for the last 16 years, I know a lot of the local dialect words, and some of them are similar to the dialect that Omori-san speaks. Some are very different, but with slight connections, and the Japanese, as well as me for that matter, love to compare dialect.

Lacquer Craftsman Shoot #9

Lacquer Craftsman Shoot #9

After visiting one place with about 50 trees, we went to another location, with some 120 or so trees. The first location was actually not as good as the one I’d shot him at on the previous day, but the second location on this second day was idyllic. It was basically a large expanse of land on the side of a small mountain. Having carried a large wooden ladder for Omori-san to the furthest point in the woods, in addition to my camera equipment, we set the ladder down, and Omori-san continued his work, “scratching” the trees and collecting the sap. In image number 1882, we can see him at work, and also now tell that the surrounding were good. Although the 24-70mm F2.8 L lens that I bought recently especially for this assignment, had been invaluable in helping me to get the required images, I was now able to step back with the 70-200mm F2.8 L lens, and get a little experimental. I was starting to get more artistic now, placing leaves between me and Omori-san, to create some nice foreground bokeh. Although I’ve shot this pretty light, with an aperture of F3.2, and a shutter speed of 1/125th of a second, I had to increase the ISO to 400 to get the right exposure. For those of you that have shot in wooded areas, you’ll know that the tree canopy can actually create quite a lot of shadow, which brings its own challenges for us photographers. The reason I’d changed my 24-105mm F4 L lens for the 24-70mm F2.8 recently was because I really was going to need the extra stop of light for focusing in the shade here, and I also wanted to be able to open up more than F4 for some shots too. The lack of Image Stabilization of course is a demerit, but I was able to keep the shutter speeds fast enough to prevent camera shake. As some of the stores in Tokyo are out of stock of the 24-70mm F2.8 L lens, I am guessing that Canon is about to announce an IS version of this lens, and I’ll be kicking myself if they do. I will probably end up going back to the store I just bought my non-IS version from and see what they’ll give me for my still pristine hardly used lens in exchange for a new IS version if this happens soon. If I wait very long, the second hand market will be flooded with non-IS versions, and I’ll get less for mine, so striking while the iron is hot might pay off. That’s what I’m going to tell myself anyway. Truth is, I simply didn’t want to do this assignment without the extra stop of light for focusing, and I’m prepared to take a hit for that if necessary.

Anyway, in the next image, number 1883, we see a relatively nice moment as Omori-san cuts the bark away from around the previous scratches to make it easier to make his next cut. We can see here that the greenery in the background is blown out in some areas, and I’ve actually brought these down a little bit in Photoshop, as I was forced to allow them to blow out to ensure good exposure for the main subject. I was again using the 24-70mm lens here, just walking around with Omori-san and chatting. I was about this time, way into the shoot that I mentioned the book that I was shooting for, and was amazed to hear that Omori-san had not even been told the reason I was shooting him. I’d introduced myself on the first day of course, and told him that I’d be shooting him for the next two days, but was amazed to here that the person from the local government had not told him the reason for my photographing him. We talked about a lot of stuff though. He told me that he often is working and hears the undergrowth moving and twigs breaking, and when he looks there’s a black bear lounging around or walking about near him. They can kill humans of course, and you hear of a few attacks, some fatal, a number of times each year hear in Japan, but he says he just continues his work, and the bears seem to know that they both have to be here in the woods, and they go about their business as usual.

Lacquer Craftsman Shoot #10

Lacquer Craftsman Shoot #10

Lacquer Craftsman Shoot #11

Lacquer Craftsman Shoot #11

Let’s look at image number 1884, as we talk about another thing that made me laugh. He actually ate some of the sap coming out of the tree by getting some on his white gloves and licking it. Urushi, the sap causes really irritating rashes on about 1 in ten people just by being near it. If you touch it, almost everyone will come out in a horrible red rash, including Omori-san, but he had a lick, telling me that it is sweet as honey, and it helps to prevent cancer. It kills cancer cells, he told me with confidence.

In image number 1885, we can see that I was really pushing the boat out with the foreground bokeh here, again shooting with the 70-200mm F2.8 lens at full stretch. I was quite a way from Omori-san for this, and put a large tree with some white daisy like flowers between us. It paid off, as this is one of the final selection, quite possibly going to be used in the book. Again, lots of blown out highlights, and a strong contrasty shadow on his face, but it tells the story of this wonderful gentleman doing what he does in these beautiful surroundings.

Lacquer Craftsman Shoot #12

Lacquer Craftsman Shoot #12

Lacquer Craftsman Shoot #13

Lacquer Craftsman Shoot #13

Finally, in image number 1886, we can see a stream of pearl white sap dripping down from the spatula into the bucket. I had captured a number of these shots close up, as per the requirements. At some point I’ll be able to show you the final images in my tear-sheets from the book, but I won’t upload these to my gallery as they aren’t that interesting to the general public. I like this shot again though as it shows the sap dripping and also the concentration on Omori-san’s face as he goes about his work.

He really is a wonderful character. It was shortly after I shot this when he praised me as the best photographer that has even shot him. His apprentice was laughing, saying that he had never heard Omori-san praise anyone before, so I truly felt honored when he said that although he has someone comes to either photograph or film him probably three times each summer, he said that I had been the most easy to work with, as I never got in his way, and was nice to chat to for the whole time. We really did just talk about a lot of stuff. After all, I was shooting him for a total of around 8 hours. I’m amazed that I didn’t really get on his nerves.

We ate our lunch boxes together, Omori-san, Seko-san and me, sitting on a blue plastic sheet that they carry in their truck for this purpose. So I finished the perfect morning shooting a perfect gentleman with a lunch time picnic in the shade of a wooden shack. They would go back to work and finish of the 30 or so trees that they still had to scratch, but they were going to sleep for a few hours in the hottest part of the day, then finish up before heading home later. I’d got my shots and more, and although I would have loved to have slept on that blue sheet for a few hours too, I excused myself, and went back to my lodgings to check the photos from this second day. The location was a seven hour drive from Tokyo, even with a clear run, so I was set to stay in the lodgings for one more night before returning home the following Friday. Relieved that I had got what I thought were some really good shots, the beer that evening was especially good, and a few days later having showed the images to my client, and hearing that they really like the shots too, I could be finally relieved that I’d done a good job.

I hope you enjoyed accompanying me on my assignment shoot. I totally enjoyed it, and can’t wait to see the pictures in the book that will go to press in a few months time. Unfortunately, the book is a promotion book for a certain product and will probably never go on sale to the public. I will share the tear-sheets from my copies, as I said earlier, but that will probably be all I can ever share. Still, it was great to do.

The reason this week’s Podcast is late actually is because last Sunday, when I usually start to prepare, I spend some time putting together a last minute plan for another shoot for the same client, which took place on Thursday the 28th of August, so I’ve really been caught up in that for most of my free time this week. I’ll perhaps discuss the details of that shoot at some time too. For now though, you have a great week, whatever you do. Bye-bye.


Show Notes

The music in this episode is from the PodShow Podsafe Music Network at http://music.podshow.com/


Audio

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