I'm now teaching and running the Alexia Foundation Grants full time

This summer, I accepted the Alexia Tsairis Chair for Documentary Photography at S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University.

It’s an exciting opportunity to teach at a great school, work with the Alexia Foundation and oversee the grant competition.

I am psyched.

And while I had thought I’d be able to continue to work with photographers, I’m realizing my time to do so is limited. I’ve had to say no to a lot of photographers who wanted to work with me. About the only way I can work with you now is if you are in no hurry, and even better if your timing coincides with the holiday break or summer.

Rather than turn you away, I’d recommend that you contact either Tom Kennedy or Jasmine Defoore. Working with either of them would be a rich experience.

Please do consider entering your projects in the Alexia competitions.

And a heartfelt thanks to the hundreds of people I’ve worked with the past few years.

Mike Davis

A little taste of New York, the city

I will admit that NYC is not my favorite city. It takes a strong magnet to pull me into its guts. Why? Too many humans.

Our most recent trip to the city had a strong pull: To attend the Chris Hondros Fund's grant awards ceremony and fund raiser. What a great event. Many memories of a great man came to life through stories and recollections.

So many amazing pictures were donated for a print auction, including Chris' photo of a rocket launch, for which I was the winning bidder. It's now on the wall next to my desk as a fond reminder of the man who made the picture.

My wife (Deb Pang Davis) and I also caught up with many friends during our two-day stopover. We spent a few hours visiting good friend Michael Rubenstein, who was in a motorcycle accident a couple weeks prior. He's recovering but not without considerable pain. In spite of the pain, his good humor persists.

Deb and Photoshelter CEO Andrew Fingerman chat a PS hq.We also had a pleasant breakfast with Andrew Fingerman, CEO of Photoshelter, and got an update on their plans for the future, which are bright indeed. He even introdueced us to PS staff at their offices above Union Square, in the same building where Andy Warhol used to hang out.

Deb talks with Squarespace staff, including its founder Anthony Casalena, center. My site uses the Squarespace platform. They're about to launch new templates that will be photographer friendly.Then on to Squarespace, which is the environment in which my site is built. Deb has created several sites with Squarespace and they're about to go to version 6, which will have many more templates, including a selection that is photographer friendly.

Todd Heisler showed us around The NY Times and we had lunch at the Times' cafeteria. The sushi is fabulous. Then out for coffee across the street.And better than a cab, Todd Heisler swooped in to pick us up off the street and then gave us a tour of the New York Times, including lunch at the paper's cafeteria. It certainly beat any other newspaper cafeteria I've seen.

Todd and I worked together in Chicago and became good friends so it was huge to catch up with him.

Now I know what they mean by police shootings being so prevalent in New York.Walking, walking, walking. Through Times Square. Mistake. 

And what better way to close out the day than dinner with Yunghi Kim and Melanie Burford. We hadn't seen Yunghi since she regularly hosted get togethers at her D.C. home.NYC presented the chance to make more cars in front of buildings photos.Now we're back in Syracuse, catching up on editing and gearing up for teaching a class starting next week - see the following post.

I was left with a wondering from our time in the city: Does the city pay people to urinate on every few feet of sidewalks at night, just so there's a fresh coating in the morning?

Big news: I'll be teaching a class at Syracuse University

This is one of three slick buildings that comprise the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communication on the campus of Syracuse University.

I’ll be teaching a class to incoming photography graduate students at Syracuse University’s Newhouse School of Public Communication, starting next week. It’s a boot camp, a foundation course, a challenge to get grad students up and running and making pictures and telling stories in ways they’d not yet thought of. It’s going to be a blast.

Prepping to teach this class has taken a good bit of time, thus the absence from this space.

Don’t fret, I’ll still be working with photographers the world over, as always. The class lasts six weeks so during that time, I’ll cut back on working with photographers to one or two days a week.

This will be the first term-long class I’ve taught since teaching a beginning photography class at a community college in Anchorage in 1978. But that’s another story.

Figuring out this course’s syllabus and assignments in a way that allows newbies and more experienced photographers to learn equally was a challenge, for sure. They’ll start by pairing off and photographing each other with specific expectations of the photos that result. Then they’ll move on to photograph five people they don’t know, the choice of subjects has to hold together as a group. Then they’ll continue to photograph one of the five people at greater depth - whichever one has the best story, greatest potential.

After that, each one will be assigned to photograph an area of downtown Syracuse, a block or two, building two separate stories, one individualized and one essay. And finally, they’ll do a thematic set of pictures before wrapping up the course with a narrated piece that tells a specific story from within the course.

Piece of cake, no?

It may well be that I’ll continue to teach at Newhouse, a course here and there as an adjunct. Figuring out new ways to challenge photographers in a classroom is enticing.

It’s a pleasure being associated with such a great team of folks at Newhouse, including Bruce Strong, who as of Sunday will be the new chair of the Multimedia, Photography and Design department. It’s the only program I know of that integrates the three visual disciplines into one department that is part of a phenomenal communications school.

Here’s to learning.

Ahhh, Look3

Go to Look3. Next year. 

That's an order.

Look3 this year was one of the best photo experiences I've had. So much to see, so many people to connect with, such a great setting.

Memories linger as more appear on the horizon.

Photos above by me.

Me, create a multimedia piece?

This was the nerve center for the NPPA's Multimedia Immersion Workshop, at Newhouse School on the campus of Syracuse University.

In the put up or shut up realm, I chose to put up.

To explain: I wrote in this space a while back that I think most multimedia pieces are uninteresting. OK, I actually said most of them suck, because most of them follow an interview-the-subject formula that lays supporting-role video over the interview - essentially making visuals adhere to words, which I’ve fought for decades.

A lot of people responded to that post, some agreeing, some not. Among them was Seth Gitner, who teaches multimedia at Syracuse University’s Newhouse School and runs the NPPA’s Multimedia Immersion Workshop with Will Sullivan.

Seth suggested I take the workshop to find out for myself what it takes to produce a piece. Seth didn’t exactly suggest that I put up or shut up on multimedia, that’s my inference and it became a personal challenge going into the workshop.

The workshop is designed to take multimedia novices - that’s me - and make them capable of producing at least a basic piece. Sign me up, Seth, I said. And thank you for suggesting it.

Time passed, the workshop came and went, last week. It’s a great workshop. Among its strengths is the coach to student ratio: 1:2. One student on our team of four couldn’t make it so I essentially got to work directly with University of Oregon Professor Sung Park the whole time. I’ve always thought that a good editor’s voice in a project could make the result twice as good as it would be without that voice. That was true in working with Sung.

The Workshop: Things began on Tuesday with an outline of the week, picking a story topic from a box, a series of how-to lectures and a practice video within each team. Field time started Wednesday with a Thursday follow up if needed - it was - and production was Friday, into the wee hours for most people. Saturday we got to see all the pieces done during the week.

Many of the 20 coaches also gave talks that were informational and enlightening, though I missed several of them while working on my piece. All of the coaches worked tirelessly and with great verve to help everyone learn and produce the best piece they could during the week.

We learned Final Cut Pro X, which I found to be fairly intuitive, in the same way that sitting in front of space shuttle controls would be.

What did I learn? Tons. About sound and moving pictures and considerations that are different from still photos and silence. And equipment. Oiy. Equipment out the wazoo. I learned this word: Frankencamera. Wes Pope turned my 5D Mark III into a sound gathering machine with two mics and a preamp somehow adhered to it. And I bought a video head for my tripod the second day of shooting after spending half of the first day’s shooting time adjusting the ball head.

In the end, I made a piece that I was happy with. Ironically the workshop uses the interview formula that I so despise, because it’s the most efficient way to teach the greatest range of skills, and produce a piece by week’s end.

My piece: Here's my piece and a link to all the other pieces done during the week.

I tried, in spite of the formula and limited time frame and lack of experience in the medium, to do a piece that met my standards for story telling and visuals.

Story is such a vague term that almost any approach can be called a story. People often use narrative as a synonym but it’s no more specific. My expectation is that the story, or narrative, creates an experience for the viewer; it’s not just a presentation of facts. Or, as in the case of interviews, the re-presentation of facts or experiences - that’s why interview based pieces generally aren’t engaging, I think. The narrative should elicit an emotional response, engage the viewer viscerally. And we should use whatever form achieves that response.

Making the visuals adhere to the audio often forces a compromise in what you see. If the interview-as-narrative talks about something that happened in the past, the only choice is to visually infer to that past, similar to an illustration, portrait or still life in the still photo world. Or worse, you have to show something that isn’t related to the words, because that’s all there is. Such visuals can be phenomenal, but not so often are they.

In the same way that still photographs of the moment are generally more engaging, so is video in the moment. Call it cinema vérité or documentary film or whatever, it’s life as it happens in front of the camera instead of being something created by the person behind the camera to go with a sound bite.

You can find scores of examples that contradict what I just said, of course. Time Magazine’s 9/11 piece is a good one. But such successful pieces are the exception rather than the rule.

Video should meet the same standard as compelling still photography - and audio. I reasoned that the medium is different but we should still strive to create appropriate compositions that feel three dimensional and use the whole frame. We should still strive to capture moments that can ebb and flow in front of the video camera. We should still see light and color and vary distance to the subject perspicaciously. No?

I tried.

B Roll? Coaches at the workshop told us to gather B Roll to support the narrative, which I translated to: Make the best video that you can to at least sort of show what people are talking about in your interviews.

The general practice in production was to edit the audio, lay it down on the primary track and then add video that went with the audio. And I guess that’s exactly the approach to use when teaching how to do this stuff. It works predictably well, especially when the goal is to learn processes.

For me, B Roll is A Roll. It is the story and you should do everything possible to create audio that works with the video, not the other way around. The goal should be to create a short film, not what is called multimedia.

After trying to put down audio first, I worked with Sung to instead create groups of video chapters, then moved those around to create a sequence, knowing which had native sound and which would work with the bits of interview that I did, regrettably, do. At the same time we crafted a transitional approach to link the chapters - quick bits of linked video. My interview lasted 8 minutes and 23 seconds and was the last thing I did with the subject. By then I knew what questions to ask to fill in blanks in the video/audio.

I missed Wes Pope’s talk during the workshop. But he had stayed with us a couple days before the workshop to edit his book on Route 66 so we got to talk at some length about telling stories with video. He mentioned five different forms that video story telling can take, including the interview and cinema vérité. (I wish I remembered the other three but they escape me.)

Strive to go beyond the interview form whenever possible. Please.

Did I succeed? Sort of. I doubt that my piece will be viewed by millions or go down in the annals of multimedia. But I did some of what I had hoped and there are some nice moments, a bit of good sound and it was a pleasure getting to know Musketeers Fencing Club. Will I ever produce another video piece? I don’t know. This one was fun and I’d definitely encourage you to take this workshop as a multimedia entrée.

Stay tuned.

How do you create long form visual narratives?

Jesse Neider has followed the lives of a young couple, both of whom are blind, as they got married and had three children over several years. Such stories are hard to predict. Sticking with them for the long haul is what produces the overarching narrative but telling individual stories within the whole is critical. Jesse Neider photo

My favorite thing to help photographers with is producing a body of work that deserves to be a book. Call it a project, a major piece, a long form visual narrative, a documentary; present it as a book, an online presentation, a gallery show, a limited edition print series, doesn’t matter. 

In the end, if what you produce has the breadth and depth, you can present it any way you want. And if you do it right, that body of work will have many legs. It could be the best thing you’ve ever done as a photographer.

There isn’t a single path to producing such a set of pictures, there’s no one way to make sure what you do will succeed. But there are some general principles and practices that you can follow to ensure a greater likelihood of success - that being a relative term. If you’ve never done an extended project, then just completing one would be huge. Publishing a book from your effort would be another, higher measure.

But let’s say that you’re sitting there wanting to start something new.

Jesse is doing another story about people with autism in Morocco. The challenge with multiple-subject stories is to carefully select people who, when combined, tell a more dynamic story than if you focused on one person. Jesse Neider photo

Why do longer term stories?

They are a pain to work on. They interrupt personal life. They interrupt work life - unless you’re lucky enough to have a job that supports project work. Why bother?

Working on lengthy efforts as a photographer, compared to producing single images, is the difference between writing a paragraph and writing a book. To conjure a subject worthy of such effort, to figure out a structure for the coverage, to get know subjects intimately with a camera, to edit the work into something greater than its parts is alone the worth the effort. But only if you care about growing as a photographer and therefore as a person.

I’ve always encouraged photographers to have multiple scales of stories going at all times, ones that you could do in a day, one that would take a week, a month, a year and one that never ends. The more interconnected any of these efforts are, the greater the potential for them all. That’s one approach to building a large body of work.

Some photographers only write photo sentences, some create poetic imagery, others link images into short stories and a few envision and execute novels of photographs. Each brings a gift to the creator. So why not expand your voice?

How do you start?

How do you come up with an idea that merits the effort? A lot of people stumble across subjects that seem to have enough range to justify the effort. That’s fine. 

I’d suggest starting with a subject that you care about, whether you stumble upon it or have to push yourself to figure out what you care about. The more outside of your interest or what matters to you the subject is, the harder it will be to stick with the effort. And it is hard to bring such an effort to fruition.

Ask yourself if the subject you’ve chosen has enough going on from now forward to make pictures of active situations. A lot of people chose subjects because what has happened in the past is interesting but the story won’t develop much after you start making pictures. The most common example is a subject that has lived a rich life and the stories they can tell about that life are amazing. But in the present tense, they sit at home and watch television 10 hours a day. Not inherently interesting.

The disconnect is in the subject matter vs. what you can photograph, if you’re trying to tell a story that mostly happened in the past. You could certainly develop a set of pictures built around the idea of a fading life. KayLynn Deveney certainly did: “The Day to Day Life of Albert Hastings.” 

A lot of people come up with these highfalutin ideas that are going to change the world or are so broad as to be undoable, if not meaningless: “Child poverty is bad and getting worse so I’m going to photograph it.’ Others follow their personal interests but don’t reach into the subject: “I like cross country skiing so I’m going to photograph it.”

Logistics can also be a barrier. Make sure you can pull off the story. If it takes three hours to get to everything you photograph, you’ll miss things. If you are self funding the effort, be realistic about what you can afford to support, both in terms of time and money.

I always have what I call walkabout pictures in the works. This one is about what kinds of cars are parked in front of houses, always shot with a 50mm lens at f5.6 or so. Consistency in the making of the pictures holds them together as a group. This one won't change the world, but it's fun to do and it'll be more interesting 30 years from now when most of these cars will be gone and houses will be different. The essence then is to stop time for history's sake. Mike Davis photo

How do you create a structure for your effort; how do you understand what your subject is really about?

Once you have a topic or a subject, start doing research. Learn everything you can about that person, that place, that subject. See what else has been written, photographed, researched. If there are specialists in the subject, talk to them.

Or if you’re lucky enough to have stumbled on a subject that’s amazing, still learn everything you can.

If what you’re photographing has been photographed a lot, if it’s a cliché, then you better do all the more research to ensure that your version won’t be just another iteration on the heap. Strive to tell a unique story in spite of how trodden your topic is. (Unique diseases don’t make for unique stories, as one example.)

Start to write the snippets of what you know down the left side of a sheet of paper. Maybe it’ll take several sheets of paper. They can be facts, impressions, qualities, locations, personalities, numbers, whatever seems remotely relevant.

Then start to make connections from the snippets. Step back from the informational aspects and think in larger themes. What dots can you connect to make larger statements about your subject matter. 

Take the child poverty example from above. Suppose you learn that more children live in poverty now than ever, that the state with the greatest change is x, that people earning a minimum wage are the largest group, that families with single parents account for a much high percentage and so on. Larger themes emerge, of change, of working poor, of children spending time alone, of exhaustion, of working against the odds. 

The goal then is to find an approach to the subject that tells an interesting story, to the same degree and level of expectation that a movie story line is compelling.

Elements of successful story telling are a mixture of building tension and releasing it, of presenting an uplifting situation, and situations of frustration, humor, sadness, irony, tragedy, ecstasy. Pick a quality of life on the planet and it can be part of your story. The more the better. The fewer of these qualities, then the less engaging your movie of still pictures will be. A story line with only negative elements will probably fail just as one that’s completely happy. Yen without yang.

Keep looking into your subject until you find a situation that will have as many qualities as possible. I imagine telling a story of one class of children in a poverty-stricken area, where you do a story about children whose stories tell such a range. Or maybe there’s someone out there who is a champion to such people. Who knows what the story becomes but until you can say with some confidence that it will be dynamic, don’t start.

Sometimes you can use your camera to continue researching a subject. By entering a realm with your camera, you’ll begin to understand things more deeply, you’ll see things you can’t from afar and realize potentials.

Get to the point of certainty of locking in people and places to photograph and know why you’re photographing each, what qualities they encompass. Things will change and you should adapt the story line with changes but do so knowingly.

This much will give you a starting point. You should be able to say in a sentence what the story line and its major themes will be. If you can give it a title at this point, all the better. Your mission is set, make pictures that touch on the qualities of each setting, not just show what’s happening. Nothing is set in stone, but you have good direction to craft a body of work.

Another personal project is to photograph people who make bicycles by hand, in this case Metrofiets cargo bikes. I make a similar range of photographs in each builder's shop so that similarities and differences stand out. Mike Davis photoDetails such as what kinds of tools they use and how they keep their shop says a lot about each bike builder.

How do you know how it’s going?

It’s worth distinguishing between producing a coverage from which you’ll produce the story and trying to shoot the story as it progresses. I know, that sounds weird. Back to a movie analogy, think of how many scenes are photographed for a movie that don’t end up in the final cut.

Of course not everything you photograph will end up in the final edits. A variation of of producing a varied coverage in still photography involves producing a type of coverage that has many threads, many different ways of seeing scenes, different ways of making pictures.

To explain the opposite way of making pictures, a lot of people simply photograph as many things as they can as their subjects’ lives unfold. Each photograph has a similar goal - to show what’s happening - so every scene is photographed similarly. So regardless of what’s happening the photographs feel similar one scene to the next. Yet most settings have several different qualities to them, each of which can be photographed uniquely.

So think of the scenes more as threads of a tapestry and the goal is to convey the qualities of each setting, not just what’s happening. See the uniqueness of each setting and create a thread that folds into the whole tapestry more richly than it would if you saw each setting alike. One way to do this is to force yourself to make pictures from different distances in each setting - recognizing that distance is a powerful voice in your photography. Be aware of the relevance of the entire setting down to inches from aspects of the setting.

Use light, color, moment, composition and distance to the subject to their fullest to convey the qualities of each scene you’re in.

This alone will introduce a dynamic to your body of work. It will force you into deeper story telling that will allow a greater range of presentation.

It’s critical to edit your work as you produce it: Create a hierarchy of imagery (firsts, seconds and thirds are what I usually do) and begin to put pieces together, connect dots in the work you’ve done to show you what you did well, what you didn’t do, what needs to be done, to help you realize more about the story than you may have known.

Ideally, you’re working with a picture editor through this process, someone who can help you be aware of what’s working well, of what you’re not doing and to help focus the story as it progresses.

If you set out to convey the qualities of each scene and then choose photographs for the qualities they convey as you move through the story, you’ll build a set of pictures that are far more dynamic.

Having edited as you progress, it’s important to be confident in your choices, to not continually go back into the whole take and second guess things. Always moving forward, standing on the strength of what you’ve done will make a big difference. That said, it never hurts to peruse your outs now and then, in case there are things you missed. There is a difference between second guessing and double checking.

How do you know when you’re done?

Some efforts have logical ending points. Some don’t. When there isn’t a natural ending, how do you know how to close the story?

If you didn’t know from the beginning, one thing to ask yourself is if you want the project to end by asking or answering a question, by leaving things all neatly concluded or leaving loose ends for the viewer to wonder about? If the former, then you’ll have to wait for a natural ending. If the latter, then you can create your own ending.

Usually, if you’ve defined a subject but haven’t refined a story line or aren’t telling a specific, dimensional story, then you’re simply following the progression of things with your camera. In these cases, it’s particularly hard to figure out when to stop. You could go on forever. So one thing is to go back and ask yourself, what is the story, anyway?

And let me say this about what a story is: Following someone’s life endlessly can produce an engaging set of pictures. See Darcy Padilla’s Julie Project http://www.darcypadilla.com/thejulieproject/intro.html The scope and swing of her life produced a compelling body of work. The photographer’s insight, understanding, relationship and approach to making pictures had as much to do with the story’s success as did the subject matter.

You could follow a subject endlessly and never have a story. You may have thousands of pictures on a subject that don’t say anything people are interested in. How do you know if this is you? Ask people if they’d sit through a movie of your work? Be honest with yourself. What’s the title, your story description? Did you capture a sweep of the human dynamic or just make monosyllabic expressions of what your camera saw?

In these cases of roaming with a subject’s life you may well be done. But the story will come from the editing process more than from the way you’ve set out to tell the story.

On the other hand, if you were focused on what you set out to say, if you were sensitive to the nuances of subject as they changed and made dimensional photographs that reached the heart of situations, then you’ll probably know when you’re done. That’d be a wrap.

How do you edit the whole thing?

Now that you have a collection of photographs, how do you structure the final body of work?

The goal is to first get to a working set of pictures. By working set, I mean an reasonable number from which you’ll craft the final iteration. It’ll certainly help if you have edited as you’ve gone along.

At National Geographic magazine, this phase of the story is geared toward producing “The Tray,” from the days of slide trays that held up to 80 slides. Few stories went beyond one tray. We’d create the layout from that set of pictures.

It’s hard to know how big your tray will be. The scope of the story and the number of threads you’ve created determines the range of the images. Try not to do too tight an edit at each pass through your pictures. Each time, just ask, does this image meet a higher standard than the rest of the pictures. Then go through them again and raise the standard. If you have two equally good pictures of the same thing but they convey different qualities, then keep them both; if they say the same thing, chose one.

It usually helps to organize or group photos into the themes you’ve thought about and the editing process often discovers new connections, if you’re open to them. Sometimes those themes create chapters or groupings that are less distinctive than chapters but they still hold together as a subset.

Another approach is to create groupings. Then start sequencing the groupings. Groups can be anywhere from pairings to 10 or 20 images that work together.

The specific outcome can dictate some of this process. If it’s a book or a magazine spread or an online slide show or part of a multimedia presentation or a gallery show, the process can vary to accommodate the space.

Yet another approach, and one I’ve used more often than any other the past year or so, is to chose a first image and then do a split frame view in your software of choice (I use Photo Mechanic for this) and place that first image on the left side. Then scroll through the working set of pictures on the right side of the window until you hit a third affect. That’s the magic that happens when two pictures sit next to each other. It’s not predictable, this magic.

Factors that play into whether pictures work next to each other include negative to positive spaces, qualities the images convey separately that jibe when together, color and light play, momentous ironies in the pairings and so on.

Now place the right-side image on the left and go through all the rest of the images until the third affect happens again. Repeat this process until you either run out of pictures or start repeating what the pictures say. You’ll have a set of pictures that are linked like a chain.

This last approach works well for books and slide shows and can be a starting point for gallery presentations, if you keep in mind the space in which photos will be displayed.

And there you have it. Piece of cake.

Oh, and this same process works well for individual efforts that result in just one or a few pictures.

Another type of long form story is the essay on a subject. I've been photographing cyclocross for nearly four years, building a body of work that doesn't have a rigid structure. Instead, I try to get at the essence of each day's races and let that drive the narrative.

Watching, and learning from, the Alexia Grant judging

Kira Pollack, Whitney Johnson and Maggie Steber judge the 2012 Alexia Grant at Syracuse University's Newhouse School of Public Communication. Peter and Aphrodite Tsairis, who founded the grant, are to their right and making a picture is Bruce Strong, newly appointed chair of the Multimedia, Photography and Design Department at Newhouse.

What happens when you put Kira Pollack, Whitney Johnson and Maggie Steber in a room with more than 200 photographic projects? If you were sitting in the room, a whole lot of learning happened. And they chose several bodies of work to receive significant grants.

The setting was Syracuse University’s Newhouse School of Public Communication. The reason for the gathering was to judge entries in the 2012 Alexia Grant, from both professionals and students. Tom Kennedy, as the Alexia Chair at Newhouse, lead the day’s proceedings deftly.

Also bringing a wonderful presence and voice to the day were Dr. Peter and Aphrodite Tsairis, founders of the Alexia Foundation for World Peace and Cultural Understanding, which funds the grants and the chair at Newhouse. Alexia, for whom the foundation was named, was their daughter. She was killed on Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988 and was a Newhouse student.

Winning any grant is tough. This one is uniquely challenging because of its goals. Kira, Whitney and Maggie were considering not just which images stood above others but also whether the proposal met the demands of the grant, whether the proposal was clear and could be accomplished by that photographer, whether students could also learn from the project. In other words, there was as much burden on what and how the photographers proposed as there was on the photography they presented.

Some things I heard Maggie, Whitney and Kira say about proposals: Be specific about what you’re going to do with the grant money, what part of the work you’ll be able to accomplish. If you strive to accomplish all of a project with the grant money and that doesn’t appear to be realistic, then you probably won’t get the grant. The same is true if the project is all but done and you don’t outline how you’ll use the money to add value to the project.

Some subjects just weren’t in line with the mission of the grant, so read the mission carefully and craft your proposal so it clearly falls within the arms of the grants’ embrace.

If you use one body of work to show that you can do a project, while proposing to do another project with the grant, you’re expecting judges to make a leap of faith. That’s risky, unless they happen to be familiar with your work and know that you could pull it off. None of the projects under final consideration were like this, at least not this year.

On the photographic side, Kira spoke of the need to show great photographs and then explained that great photographs have to be technically well executed (light, color, composition, etc.) but more important is that the photographer’s voice needs to be strong, his or her style/approach to making photographs has to be distinctive in order for that work to compel her.

Maggie spoke throughout the day of the need for photographers to feel passion and compassion for their subjects, to strive to tell stories that engage dimensionally.

And Whitney, in talking about individual proposals and bodies of work, recognized the strength of clarity of voice and how high photographers strive to reach with their work - and in some cases, the paucity of both.

What won? Stay tuned to the Alexia site for the announcement.

Does story telling lose in multimedia?

This will be the first time I’ve written about multimedia here. What prompts this first? I’ve judged a couple competitions lately so had to suffer through a bunch of multimedia pieces as part of the process.

Given a choice, I avoid multimedia like the plague. Why? Because most of it sucks. Even the name sucks. A newspaper or magazine or book is multi media: words, design, photography, printing. Even radio is multi media: words and music.

So the name multimedia does nothing to describe what you’ll get. Some media outlets tried using videos as the catch-all. But that falls short of being accurate, too.

What does a name matter, anyway? Just because photography and writing and film/video and radio/audio all mean fairly specific things doesn’t mean something that could include some or all of them has to have a specific name.

Why does most multimedia suck? It’s as if God wrote on stone tablets that all pieces called multimedia must follow a three-commandment formula: 1. Though shalt approach subject matter that mostly happened in the past. 2. Thou shalt point a video/audio producing machine at a person looking at said machine and ask them questions, as the primary story telling medium. (You may separate said audio from said video with papal dispensation.) 3. Thou shalt make video of something in the present tense that may or may not have anything to do with that past event and then overlay that video cleverly with the interview audio to suggest a connection between the two, without being too misleading.

And this formula, for me, is almost always uninteresting, especially when compared to the potential of engagement and story telling dynamics when using all these media. The greatest, if not only, benefit of the three-commandment approach is that you can guarantee it’ll produce something you can put online and it will take a predictable amount of time to produce.

Why is this an uninteresting approach? Because the power, the greatest story telling potential of audio and video and still photography is reached in the present tense. Watching and hearing things unfold in front of a sound gathering video/still setup can be magical. Not that present tense story telling is the only approach to telling stories but, as the primary mechanism, it’s more likely to produce engaging content if the subject matter and your way of telling a story are compelling, in some way.

The equivalent solution in still photography is the photo illustration: You’ll certainly produce a photograph that most likely will be published but chances are better than 90 percent that the photograph will suck. Fortunately, photo illustrations are being done less often. Other, less time consuming visual solutions are filling that void. Things like reader photos. Oh, goodie. Even better, reader videos. Wait, it’s called citizen journalism because when you put a name on something, that something is elevated, like multimedia.

Both this multimedia approach and most photo illustrations exist to solve a problem: The subject matter happened in the past or doesn’t make an interesting visual presentation so we have to make something up to have a visual element. This is generally but not always true. Ken Burns’ approach to telling a story being one exception. The difference is that he approaches subject matter that is best told using this story form.

Most journalism stories are driven by writers and doctrine says the written story is better told by recreating past events. Transfer this doctrine to multimedia and violá, the three commandment approach is almost the only one available in a journalistic setting.

This stuff of producing engaging content that uses all these media is complicated and not easy. Newspapers are increasingly realizing the cost vs benefit forumula of producing video pieces doesn't work for them. Too bad. The potential for story telling - if the shackles of approach are removed - is phenomenal.

I’ve been on the sidelines of multimedia so far, intentionally. But now I’ve signed up to take a weeklong workshop in May, to put my hands on these tools. I hope that I fail miserably in executing the commandments and look forward to figuring out other solutions.

How do you learn from photojournalism contests?

Early in my career, I remember looking at what photographs won in contests and I’d think, “Oh, that’s what makes a good photograph, I should do that.” Well, I was sort of right, but mostly wrong. One type of photograph would win in one contest and other types would win in other contests. So the takeaway of what is a good photograph was not so simple.

And learning from contests is not so simple as trying to mimic what wins, anyway.

Over time, I’ve seen that responding to what a set of judges chooses falls into several camps. Judges, like photographers, fall anywhere in the photographic spectrum.

Judges can tend to choose the simpler, one-plane, center-based, crop-to-the-edge-of-what’s-happening type of photography that typifies newspapers, or they can lean toward a more dimensional approach to making pictures typified by photographers such as those who are members of Magnum and VII and Noor, Luceo and more successful art photographers.

They can choose stories that execute simple beginning/middle/end approaches or ones that have huge aesthetics or they can choose moment driven, complex imagery that connects deeply with a subject. Or some of all of the above.

How do you know which type of photography is being recognized by a given contest? The answer is the same one to the question of “Which contest do you most often agree with what wins? The answer will tell you as much about your approach to photography as it does about contests.

Who the judges are makes the difference, then. Of course. Former POYi Director Bill Kuykendall used to say that he determined who would win when he chose the judges.

How do you determine the level of judging? You have to do more than determine whether the judges agree with your opinions. Blasting, or praising, judges’ decisions just because you agree, or disagree, with them has no merit.

The ideal is that you can listen to the reasoning, hear the discussion. That was the great benefit of POYi live streaming its judging. What a gift. Does what the judges say jibe with the images they’re talking about. For instance, someone can herald an image as being complex and you look at the image as being very simple. Or a judge can hold up a set of photographs as literal story telling when to you the photographs may be lyrical.

Listen long enough and you get a sense of where that judge is coming from. We all prefer a certain range of photography. Figuring out what type of photography a judge prefers is the first step to learning from listening to them. Understanding how to talk about photography is a critical skill. And again, there’s a huge difference between simply disagreeing with what is said and learning from how it’s said.

You can get a sense of where judges were on the spectrum just from looking at results. Look at the POYi sports category, for instance. What was awarded in all but the recreational sports category (bravo, Rick Shaw, for creating that category) largely fell in the sideline photographer realm. Photos were mostly aesthetically edgy, graphically interesting, peak action but didn’t reach very far into the life of sports. They didn’t tell stories about athletes and sport so much as they were photographic impressions, generally made from the same perspective as a spectator - with the exception of two of the feature picture stories that got lesser awards.

So if you favor a moment-driven, deep into the life of athletes approach to sports photography, you were probably disappointed by that hierarchy. If you favor the more aesthetic-driven, peak action approach, then you were probably happy with the results.

World Press awarded some of the same stories in its sports stories category but the order, the hierarchy, was different. See for yourself.

Is there greater value in one type of approach to telling stories over the other? Both are valid, of course. But there’s definitely a difference. Contests offer the opportunity to understand the difference, to learn which perspective is being put forth and to grasp the language of photography more deeply.

And if your work wins, then the judges must be divinely guided.

99 seats to watch POYi judging live, online

POYi judging begins in the morning. Live streaming returns through Adobe's system with a lot more hours to be streamed than last year. Rick Shaw told me they'll have the system up as much of the time as possbile.

But there are only 99 slots available for viewing at a time. You can believe I'll be dropping in whenever possible, and dropping a comment or two as things progress, which is almost as much fun as listening to and seeing the judging.

Fingers are crossed for the people I helped edit entries.

See you there.

And World Press judging is going on. You can hear comments by the panel chairs about the first round of judging last week here.

When friends come to town

Gerd Ludwig talks at Syracuse University and Brenda Ann Kennealy talks at RIT.Nothing could be finer than when friends comes to town to give talks. Well, maybe there are some finer things but it sure was nice to catch up with Gerd Ludwig and Brenda Ann Kenneally in the last few days.

Gerd came to Syracuse University's Newhouse School of Public Communication - which happens to be where my wife teaches interactive design - and showed a compelling selection of his work from the land that once was the Soviet Union. Gerd and I worked on two stories together at National Geographic. We got to catch up.

Brenda gave a talk at Rochester Institute of Technology just last night, showing a broad swath of her work, talking about what motivates her and more. Her work is a jigsaw of a myriad of complex relationships. Our paths have crossed several times, the best time was to teach a workshop in The Dominican Republic that was created by Lelen Robert and Loup Langton.

Proximity to New York and Washington, D.C. is a bonus to living in Syracuse. Here's to friends.

Question from Libby: How do you know it’s good?

As a followup to the previous post, Libby asks: How do you know when a shot has that X Factor, especially if it’s outside the realm of acceptable technical parameters?

By X factor, I’m taking the meaning to be a superb photograph. Knowing when a picture is phenomenal is tough, especially if you made it and you’re using non-standard processing.

Photographers definitely don’t accurately perceive the quality of their work consistently enough to use that as a measure of quality. Some photographers put forth mediocre work as if it were God’s gift to the planet; other photographers sheepishly offer amazing photographs.

I’ve found that offering a neutral impression of your work is most effective, when you’re dealing with editors. Don’t put it down or elevate it beyond what’s there. Saying: “It is what it is, I’ll be eager to hear what you think,” is what I like to hear. That way it doesn’t set me up to expect a lot or a little; I can come to the work with fresh impressions.

But that doesn’t help determine when a photo is great. You would think that if the color, light, moment and composition are all exceptional, then the photo should be great, especially if the subject matter is engaging. But if there is limited perception/impression on the photographer’s part and the photographer didn’t set out to do more than make those four things work, then it still wouldn’t be a great photograph.

I do know that when a variety of people are choosing from a set of pictures - such as judging a contest - the top image in a group rises to the top universally, or nearly so. In other words, in a contest setting, the first place image is the easiest to agree upon, while third brings the most argument. So there must be universal aspects to successful photographs.

Some people say great photography is like pornography: You know it when you see it.

Maybe you could ask a series of questions about a given photograph: Do I feel something from it, does my eye travel from point to point of the frame down to the smallest of elements that still engages somehow, do those four aspects work, would I hang this on my wall, do I care about what was photographed because of the way the photograph was made.

And maybe you could ask a bunch of people. I used to that in publishing environments. It’s also educational to see which pictures people respond to and to learn what draws a response.

I see that there’s now software to determine which are the best pictures in a set of similar images. How helpful. If only it worked. Rather, thank God it doesn’t work.

A poobah at the White House once told me to never make a major decision quickly. Time does help determine if a photograph has that magical quality. Removing the emotional layer connected to the making of a picture and the significance you might see that others don’t gets easier over time. But who can wait 20 years.

A bunch of people send me pictures asking if I think they’re good. That’s another option.

Where’s the line on toning photos, especially for contests?

My aunt asked me for recommendations of software that would easily allow her to remove people or objects from photos. At first, I fired up an ethically infuriated head of steam. How dare anyone remove objects from a sacred image?

Silly reaction, no?

Then I got to thinking: Wouldn’t it be nice if there were universal agreement about how much post production application to images is acceptable, especially as it applies to contest entries?

That’s like saying, wouldn’t it be nice if we all agreed about who makes the best car? There are people who don’t think we should be driving cars, those who are emphatic about a particular brand being the best, others who are oblivious of the nuance of cars and yet others who could care less what they drive, as long as it drives.

And so it is with post production of images. Some people think there’s a line in the sand that can’t be crossed, others don’t see the line, others think there shouldn’t be a line and others yet think the line swerves here and there depending on where you cross it.

There are so many layers to the issue that it’s like trying to hold a swarm of worms in your hands when all you want to do is put one worm on a hook and go fish.

Those in the art and commercial and advertising worlds must think this a paltry, pointless discussion. And yet, even in those worlds, the further the path strays from some form of reality, the less likely the message falls on willing ears.

The core principles in the story telling realm seem to be tied to the notion of altering physical reality, falsifying the truth, presenting a situation not as it appeared to be.

But these days, most debate noise comes from adjustment of images and it’s a negative action mostly if the adjustment happens after the image was made. I’ve heard many an argument against instagram and hipstamatic images from the iPhone because they alter saturation, shadow density, exposure and such things after the image was made. It is post production and therefore changes the real image. That argument is absurd.

The core determinant, for me, is whether objects were moved, people’s faces were changed, images were combined in a way that altered what anyone would have seen in the setting, or if things were removed from the frame. The Washington Post has run a few HDR images of scenes, which by their nature combine multiple exposures into one frame to get a higher range of detail than cameras can now record. I’m ok with HDR.

The degree to which people get pissed off about this issue is astounding. It’s as if clinging to an extreme set of rules that say never do this/always do that somehow elevates their work and protects them from innovation and evolution. Having rules in photography is like trying to rigidly control traffic in a Rome traffic circle.

I’d rather follow principles than rules. Forget rules such as: You cannot alter the saturation beyond 5 percent of the original capture; you can’t put frames around photos, their is no post production allowed that presents an extreme of the actual setting.

Instead, follow guidelines or principles and practices that seek to accurately reflect your impression of what you’ve photographed. That impression is ideally formed through your connection with and understanding of the subject. The goal is to elicit responses from photographs that convey a quality of the subject photographed.

There isn’t a set of rules that could contain the breadth of what’s possible in the photographic medium. So why put them out there, except at the extreme end of what happens - adding elements that were not in the scene, changing the physical structure of elements.

Then it’s up to the individual setting to determine if a given set of photos is appropriately handled. If that’s a scary proposition, then loosen your sphincter.

On the passing of Eve Arnold

Eve Arnold passed away this week. It's sad whenever someone with great talent dies.

I'd never met her but her pictures touched me in an unexpted way. During her travels to produce "In America", Eve Arnold stopped in Craig, Nebraska, which happened to be holding its annual town picnic that day. Two photos from the picnic are in the book. The pictures show people that I once knew.

Craig was then a town of about 250 people. It's where my parents grew up and 7 miles from where I grew up, in a much larger town of 1,800. My uncle and two cousins still farm in the Craig area. 

I bought Eve's book a long time ago, early in my photographic life, not knowing that she had been to Craig. Turning the pages for the first time and landing on the photos from Craig was like getting a present from the past. It made me remember the outfits my mom would make for us to wear in the Craig Picnic Parade. My favorite was when my brother, sister and I dressed as pioneers and our red wagon became a Conestoga. Memories.

Some people in Craig told me a few years ago that they still remembered the famous photographer who passed through so long ago.

That's one of the powers of photography, I guess: To create connections and enliven the past. Thank you Eve Arnold.

Two digital questions, and responses

Frank M. wrote from Portugal asking a couple questions, in response to my post asking people to ask questions if you have them:

Retro/vintage iPhone photo apps - why does a wrong color palate make crappy photos look "interesting"?

Let’s see. Factors involved:

• Photography is a gizmo-driven enterprise. And a lot of us like the gizmo layer of the profession. So along comes a new gizmo to spit out pictures, why not use it. The assumption being that different/new is interesting.

• The business is crowded so we all strive to be perceived as unique. Using a new technique helps in that pursuit, unless it’s a bandwagon everyone rides. Style as a pull down menu doesn’t go far, especially if there’s no substance to the resulting pictures.

• There’s a nostalgic feel to those pictures. Most of us are nostalgic, if we have some years behind us, and the younger set may be latching onto the retro feel, without having experienced it the first time around. Either way, these pictures can trigger a favorable emotion because they connect to pictures from the past.

But are the pictures interesting? I’ll speak to that after the next quesiton.

Film grain emulation software - is it really honest to make a digital photo look like it was made on an analog camera loaded with Ilford Delta 400? And why is digital grain so badly considered? Is it really an aesthetic issue or people unconsciously associate it with low sensor performance, hence the negative impression?

On making digital images look like they were made with film, same response as the first question. And, I’d add, yes, it’s honest. Unless it’s dishonest to convert a raw file to black and white or any other manner of change that doesn’t involve changing the physical elements of a scene - if you practice reality based photography.

About digital grain, I think the pursuit for the past 20 years has been to get digital cameras to be as good as film cameras. And now the goal is to produce cameras that see as the eye sees, or better. The early digital cameras were so “grainy” that their image quality was perceived as being inadequate. I’m guessing that there is latent perception from those days.

I find digital grain to be no more, or less, offensive than film grain. There was something lovely about Tri-x processed at 3200 and ISO 128,000 images out of a digital camera can be captivating. Or not.

And that last sentiment is the rub in all of this. Techniques applied alone don’t make pictures interesting, compelling, engaging, or anything beyond an expression of the technique. There has to be intent on the photographer’s part to say something, there has to be depth of seeing and complexity of compositional approach, at least, for a photograph to go beyond technique, regardless of the mechanics of the image making.

It’s also ironic that at a time when we can use gizmos that are more sophisticated than they’ve ever been, the trend is backward, to making images that have an old feel to them, either by using digital imprinting or by reverting to old cameras and techniques.

A French philosopher posited that it is on the verge of great change that we most look backward - change such as the iron age and the renaissance. Stay tuned.

How do you toot your horn, inflate your balloon, expand your horizons?

Following up on the post about knowing whether you’re any good as a photographer, Ryan Stone asked how best to get the word out about your work, if you tend to be on the modest side. In other words, how do you make your work known to the next level of potential clients, without overstepping?

Does it make sense that one of the primary things that keeps people modest is the fear of failure? There are other factors, for sure. But if we don’t put ourselves out there, we won’t get rejected, nobody will say no. It’s a safe stance, one that I fully understand.

Ironically, failure is the best teacher and an important element on the path forward. We can certainly learn from successes but without failures now and then, we won’t know the other extreme of how things work.

Getting over this fear is not easy. And maybe that’s not the goal anyway. The fear will likely always be there, and it can be a motivating factor. You can take steps to overcome the symptoms, though. Inaction is the most prominent symptom. 

Action, then, would be the solution, the path forward. Do things to get the word out about how amazing you are, like spreading a scent.

Start by creating a community of friends where you are, if you don’t have one, expanding it if you do. Learn about the photography resources in your town: Is ASMP/NPPA/PPA/PSP strong and who runs that, is there a museum with a photography curator and group you can join, are there galleries that support photography, who are the strongest photographers in town, what educational settings are there, who teaches, where can you rent gear and who runs that, who retired to your town who may be great to know? And on and on.

Then there’s the process of getting your work out there. It would be a mistake to try and tap the top tier of your market, or one that is way beyond where you are right now. But if you don’t stretch, you won’t know what your level is. So try and show your work to people you think you should be working for, but aren’t. Do it slowly, one person at a time. And learn from each encounter. Watch how people look at your work, if you get a chance to present it in person. See which pictures they rush by and on which they linger. Ask them questions about their needs and appear to be a person who could help them meet those needs. Speak well of your work but don’t either put it down or bloat it. Tell them what matters to you and hope that it matches what matters to them. You’ll know if you’ve done your research about who they are and what their organization/company/publication is about.

Then there’s the matter of improving your work. Set out to replace or expand something in your portfolio every week. Know where the weaknesses are, and the strengths. Learn a new skill, see a new way, try to say something you haven’t said with a photograph, go somewhere you’ve never been and see the trodden path in a new way.

If a week has gone by and you haven’t met someone new, put your work out there in a new way or made a picture you wouldn’t have a week ago, then get to work.

How do you know if you’re any good, as a photographer?

It amazes me how some people who call themselves photographers consider their work to be amazing, when their photographs, in fact, aren’t so hot. And at the other extreme, some purely humble folks make astounding photographs without a sense of how good they are. There is little correlation between talent and ego; they are independent qualities.

Yet, an astounding ego can propel meager work to greater heights, while too humble a self impression can prevent work from achieving its potential. Quandary.

Do you have a sense of where you fall in this spectrum? Probably not. Giant egos self-inflate, modest folks don’t have a pump. And like vampires, neither archetype can see him or her self in a mirror. 

You probably fall somewhere in between the walking ego and the modest shadow. After all, there can only be so many giant egos on the planet, otherwise it would implode. So if the extremes of self impression are not driving your opinion of your work, how do you know if you’re any good?

If you’re getting work that you enjoy, have a job making pictures that you don’t hate, at least place in some reputable contests, your latest project landed a gallery show or publisher, then that’s one set of measures, and by golly, pat yourself on the back.

But what if the work you’re getting isn’t what you’d really like to be doing and most of the assignments at your job are demeaning and you never even place in contests you enter, your projects don’t get shows or published? And what if you don’t seem to be able to change any of the negative stuff?

Maybe you aren’t that good at making pictures. Maybe you should be doing something else for a living.

But, wait. If Bill Clinton can define what sex is, maybe you can define what good is, to you. I’m not saying that you should lower the bar to make yourself feel better about your work, though that’s a well worn path.  Pointing out the ineptitude of those who reject you is another path: “Those judges sucked; my boss has no clue; that publisher doesn’t know diddle.” If you hear yourself blaming things outside of yourself for your lack of success/unhappiness, chances are it’s your lacking - you may well suck.

Even within the most horrid of situations, it’s possible to produce rewarding (good) work, if you’re disciplined about it.

So what is good? To you?

Having a fabulous job and winning contests and all that stuff is great. No question. A different set of measures of good is whether the work you do makes a difference, whether you can say one day to the next that you learned something new, whether the photographs that you make give you a better sense of who you are and of who the people around you are, whether you stop time and leave a trail of visual bread crumbs of your life. In other words, don’t expect people outside of you to validate your work as the only measure of its value.

If you can make a living from making pictures, that’s a gift from high - even if the circumstance or pictures suck. If you can’t find reward in that setting, then create a setting where you can.

But don’t fool yourself either.

Conflict will come if you try to compare your work to the greats, the best out there, when it really doesn’t play in that ballpark.

If clichés are so bad, why do they win contests?

A photographer asked: “If cliches are so bad, why do so many of them win contests?”

Good question.

Having just judged photos that were entered in the Atlanta Photojournalism Seminar contest, it was astounding how many commonly photographed subjects were entered - especially stories about sick children. The standing quintessential cliché is children running through sprinklers. Stories about children in hospitals are almost as common as sprinkler photos once were.

Yet, several such stories have won Pulitzers in the past few years. And the Pulitzer, for a lot of people, is the king of contests. (Not for me.)

I think one of the dynamics at play is that work that was recognized in the past triggers interest in similar work in the present. In other words, we have this library of images in our minds and when we see images that are similar to the images that we think are great, there’s an association, a connection that is positive. These are derivative images. But instead of being a negative aspect, these images get elevated, often to the highest awards and often without realizing we’re just awarding what worked in the past.

That’s the nature of the cliché: I’m photographing a subject that was deemed good in the past, therefore the photo I make today will also be good. As a judge, the perspective is: This type of photo has been recognized in the past, therefore we should recognize it today.

This tends to happen with a given subject (sick children, for instance) until enough people get tired of seeing the subject and realize it’s like "kids in sprinklers" became in the 1970’s. Not that people stopped entering photos of kids in sprinklers in contests.

And, not to say that you should never make a picture of a child who is sick. It’s a universal subject that every parent deals with, to one degree or another. It is this universality that makes people respond to such stories. Yet most of these stories are about extremely rare diseases, as if the rarity creates freshness in the story. How a parent deals with a child having a cold would be a fresh take, if the specific story had dynamics.

How do you go beyond what’s been done; how do you exceed the cliché? I wrote about this aspect before on this site, but the essence is that you first have to know whether you’re touching a clichéd subject. Then you should look up every story you can find that has been done on the subject and ask yourself if you are somehow breaking new ground, if not in the subject itself, then either in the uniqueness of your story or in the way you’re telling the story.

That is, only if you’re interested in making unique pictures.