About me

“I’m a photographer.”

I used to hear people say that and I’d go a little nuts. I’m over that, but I need to explain why I got my knickers in a twist about it. It will help you understand me. I have a little experience with pictures and a bachelor’s in Fine Art Photography (and another in Communications,) but do not call myself a photographer. I’ve more than 30 years with a camera close by, and I’m not a photographer.

When I think of a “Photographer” I’m taken back to some of my first interactive experiences with silver and gelatin. I grew up in a small town at the edge of the California Sierra Nevada foothills, on the road to Yosemite. The Ansel Adams gallery was the place I first learned to appreciate photographs. From then on it was a love of the image that kept me interested.

In college while I was studying Aeronautical Engineering I was working shooting portraits in a mall photo studio during the days and at a commercial studio/photo lab at night doing all of their custom darkroom work. I was enjoying work more than school. The darkroom has always been as fascinating to me as the studio. We create latent images on film in a camera, but for me, photos were truly created in the darkroom. I often lament the demise of the art and science of the darkroom in this digital age of point and click editing.

While I was trudging through my engineering classes, I decided I would take some photography courses to clear my head of all of the physics and equations of becoming an engineer. With that decision, I became friends with and was mentored by one of my professors, the man who literally had a hand in creating Sports Illustrated and had his first cover of Life Magazine when he 17 – a portrait of Eleanor Roosevelt.

Mark was the first person who looked me in the eye and told me he liked what he saw in my photos, and that I should pursue photography as a passion first, and if it were meant to be, it would become more. I had opportunity but not fiscal support to attend Brooks Institute and Cal Arts shortly thereafter, and soon dropped the unsatisfying pipe dream of living my life crunching numbers as an engineer.

I was still working in the darkroom, and had begun taking photos of surfers from the water. At the time, most people were shooting from land or piers with telephotos and it was a fairly unique thing to do. I would pull on my wetsuit and flippers, lash a boogie board to my wrist, and take my 35mm SLR in what amounted to an industrial Ziploc bag out in to the water. The fun part was that to be in the right spot for a good picture, you would get pounded by the waves. It was more fun than riding the waves was for me. I most often used a 28mm lens because it had awesome depth of field and did not require fine focusing, and I was often just inches from my subject. I scanned some of those images a while back, for posterity:

Long story short, I ended up finding the girl of my dreams, marrying her, and moving inland and working for non-photographic entities as a newly and blissfully married (still) guy. I did some studio work and layout for local newspaper ads on the side and had a darkroom in the garage. After working for a few years, I finished college in the vocation I loved, not one that I thought would make money – Fine Art Photography.

Since then, I’ve shot too many weddings (in pre-digital days when you overshot medium format like crazy for insurance and it was hair raising waiting for all of the proofs) and owned too many cameras. My bride has been the grip on many weddings – she has a great eye for arranging huge groups of people. She will also attest to the “too many cameras, too much stuff” and has been a saint in this journey. She has gone to Yosemite with me and not been spoken to but for two words the entire day while I was in “the zone (system)” – and that was before we were married! At one point in what I like to call the gear addiction phase I had half a dozen 35mm bodies, twice that many lenses, a 6×6 TLR, a 6×4.5 SLR and a couple of 4×5’s (one was a really cool old Press Camera that I’d had a Graflex back mounted on to. I kick myself for selling it) and all of the support gear for it – studio packs, umbrellas, strobes, speedlights, and a killer darkroom to support the addiction. She didn’t complain.

But I was still not willing to call myself a photographer.

  • Ansel was a photographer.
  • W. Eugene Smith was a photographer. One of my all time favorites. He was a compassionate and fascinating human. Read up on him sometime.
  • Weegee and Edward Weston were photographers.
  • Paul Strand was a photographer.
  • Joseph Nicephore Niepce was a photographer. Arguably the very first one. His photo is here in Austin. My kids have seen it multiple times and understand the significance to their Dad.

My career in Corporate Learning and Development came to be and moved forward, family progressed, and I eventually sold most of the gear to fund more important things like electricity, diapers and milk. The dawn of digital imaging came, and the sun moved quickly in to the digital day. I jumped in and found it enjoyable – and at the time, I thought it made photography far too easy – commodotizing and reducing the skills I had spent years nuturing to mere mouse clicks. Digital was for photography what Henry Ford was for the Automobile.

While many people initially claimed foul with button delay, lagging write times and poor image quality, I eventually found digital imaging simultaneously both freeing and constricting. Gone were the constraints of film, but new ones seemed to arise quickly. Resolution was poor in comparison to my SLRs – pathetic on an exponential curve as you moved in to medium and large format films. Printed digital was disappointing. Washed out highlights seemed to be a given just to get decent shadows, and the ranges of digital seemed entirely too narrow for fine art. Of course, at the time, I had no idea that Moore’s Law would apply to imaging as well. Silly me. I needed to transform my thinking. In addition to my 35mm SLR setup, I eventually settled on a single digital point and shoot camera – the original Pentax Optio WP. With that small, viewfinder-less but waterproof and fine optical tool, I got over my stodgy ideas that film and darkroom were superior and reclaimed a love for simply creating images.

I set out to prove to myself that the eye of the artist was more important than the tool that captures the image. This site is part of that journey.

But I was and am not a photographer. The Optio also came in an opportune time of my imaging life. I have awesome and photographically tolerant kids, and had the opportunity to travel with work to some places we westerners consider exotic. So decent images seemed to just happen often, and well.

David Perry is a photographer, and a kindred spirit. He and I have a strange connection, a “brother from another mother” sort of thing. We live thousands of miles apart, have met in person less times than I have fingers on one hand. The scary part is we didn’t connect over photography, but steelhead. My long lost childhood buddy Jeremy Dodgen is a photographer. Both of these guys are very, very different, but they have earned the title, not just claimed it. Now, a few years after getting the Optio, I do have another point and shoot, and a DSLR (or two.) My wonderful and supportive wife actually got the first one for me. She gave me the Optio as well. The first DSLR was a Nikon D50. The D50 is a good, solid tool. It was billed as entry level, and even though it’s now disco, it eclipses many of the newer models in capability, accuracy and control. It’s nicer than my old Minolta X700’s and Nikon FM’s. Most importantly, I know how it works, and I enjoy making images with it.

So I finally embraced digital. I wasn’t an early adopter… I got over it.

One of the things I most enjoy about digital is MEMORY. Mark told me years ago that if you worry about how much film you are shooting, then you didn’t bring enough. Twenty, thirty, a hundred rolls a day were normal in his world. Now, I have the ability to carry the equivalent of about six rolls of film per gig on a card, and six of those in a case smaller than a box of Altoids (or Fisherman’s Friend!) Another benefit is the real-time review, you can do with digital. If the picture obviously sucks and you would be embarrassed to claim it at the Fotomat (remember Fotomat?!?), you click it away in to the ether, right in the camera. Cool.

That led me to another philosophical Catch-22 about digital photography – Digital Editing. It took me a long time to get over the fact that in the past, I would spend entire days in the darkroom working on burning, dodging, solarizing or working to get density separations on litho film, and in Photoshop or some other software you can do it in seconds with a half a dozen clicks, or with filters and macros, in a sincle click even. At first I felt it totally diluted and minimized the craft of creating an image from a piece of film. I was torn up for years. Seriously ticked off. I eventually realized that even with the software, there are craftspeople and there are hacks – and yes, you can do things that took hours of painstaking time in seconds. What I have realized is, again, it’s the eye, not the tool that makes the image.

These days the ability to claim the title of Photographer seems easier and more prolific than ever, yet I am still uncomfortable saying I am one. So many people have digital cameras – even phones – that there are likely more images being created than ever in the history of photography. People are enjoying creating their images, which, honestly is the best part. Advances in the technology have allowed creativity and ease of creating images beyond the wildest dreams of the artists I mentioned earlier. That said, someday, if I work hard and earn the title, I might be a Photographer. In the mean time, I am a lifelong artist, and the photographic image is my chosen medium.

So join me on that journey. This site is about making images better, a little bit about the history of photography that I love so much, understanding aspects of photography that the automatic functions on cameras do for us, sharing stuff I’ve learned over the years while learning myself and generally having a good time with photos. Let’s go shoot!

-Gus


Comments

About me — 2 Comments

  1. I would definitely call you a photographer, but I get what you’re saying. Almost everyone has a camera now. I think we just need to put an adjective in front of the word photographer nowadays, to be specific. For instance, I often say I’m an “aspiring photographer.” Even that’s vague, I know. Maybe I’ll come up with something better. Or we can all call ourselves photographers and just let our photographs speak for themselves. Your photos definitely say “accomplished photographer” to me.

    I’m going to follow your Smugmug vs Zenfolio journal. I’m only a power Smugmug user but I’m very interested in what’s going to happen, because I have thought I might upgrade to pro someday. So thanks for sharing your journey!

  2. Thanks Michele, I appreciate the kind words! I think the smugzenmugfolio thing is about over, or at least I hope so. On the “everyone has a camera” bit – you are right! I’m of the belief that the iPhone has become the best selling camera of all time… Whether we like it or not! (grin)

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