Sometimes I liken photography to fishing. You just have to pick your spot and be patient. I know I’m not the first to make the analogy, but it’s often fitting. With varying success I’ve waited in one spot for close to an hour at times, hoping something would materialize in front of a background I’d found interesting. Some serious nature photographers have been known to stay in one spot for days. Yesterday an opportunity to go fishing arose after a rare hailstorm visited Venice Beach. The weather, which lasted all of 5 minutes, was enough to get me outside, but didn’t itself yield any great images. But the late-afternoon, white winter light light mixed with the overcast skies and freshly soaked pavement motivated me to stay out a while longer looking for photos. One of the first things to catch my eye was a beam of light illuminating some corner shops on the boardwalk, causing their bright yellow signage pop out against the dark, grey-blue skies behind them. I knew the spot would make for a great image if something interesting passed by and decided anchor myself, to continue the analogy, and see what would happen. A couple skaters passed by as well as a group of pedestrians who, after the rain, had reemerged in search of rainbows. I made some decent frames over the course of a few minutes before a cloud passed in front of the sun, taking the life out of my background. I figured that might be it and nearly moved on. That’s when I looked to my left and and spotted a couple walking my way pushing a bulldog in a pink-lined baby stroller. I decided to stay put. Just as they approached the sun re-emerged and everything lined up and I reeled in a big one. Okay, that’s enough of that. The point being, it’s nice when you put in the time and are rewarded with a nice fish. Er, photo.
What to do when your plans to do a studio shoot are thrown into question because a nearby brick wall has suddenly turned a bright fuchsia the night before your shoot? Change your plans of course! That was the situation late last year, the day before a scheduled shoot with Albuquerque, New Mexico-based singer-songwriter Gabrielle Jackson, who was traveling to me in Venice to shoot a set of promotional photos to use with her upcoming projects. Gabrielle’s music is soulful, melodic and soothing, so we had planned to create a set of studio images that conveyed that feeling, combining a vintage aesthetic with expressions and lighting that complimented the feeling of her music. When the freshly painted wall appeared – I believe thanks to some nearby video or photo production – I mentioned to Gabrielle that we had to go check it out. She agreed. Luckily, no one was using it when we arrived so we were able to make use of it. Good that we did, as the color worked great for her. While we were out we also decided to take advantage of a nearby tree I’d been eyeing for a shoot for years but had never had the right subject. We got to it just as the afternoon light was beginning to go down behind it, highlighting the long vines hanging from its branches. Gabrielle kicked off her shoes to climb on its roots and we as bounced some of the sunlight back into the scene to balance it out the shot came together perfectly. It was great to see an image I’d been envisioning for years finally coming to life. Happy that we were two for two with the improvised locations, we decided to head back to the studio to shoot what we’d intended. This also went well. Enough planning had gone into the shoot that I was certain it would be a good one, but I think luck was on our side that day. Not only had the shoot gone exceedingly well, but when I woke up the next morning and went outside the fuchsia wall had been painted back to its original brownish-red color! I wish I was always so lucky.
Gabrielle’s music really is lovely. If you have moment you can listen to some of it on her Bandcamp page here.
“Want to buy a cookie?” a group of voices asked in unison, startling my wife and me. This was a few months ago and happened just as we were strolling home along Windward Avenue in Venice. Looking just to our right we saw a couple guys smiling through a rectangular hole in a whitewashed fence. On a platform above them, seated in lawn chairs were a couple young women in shorts and tank tops. After living off the boardwalk for so many years and regularly being approached by many random people asking for many random things, our initial instinct was to say no thanks without missing a step. Something about this was different though, and two steps after saying our rote “No, thanks,” we both stopped. “What was that?” I asked as we turned around. A blonde, long-haired surfer-looking guy named Kyle gave us the pitch from behind the counter.
“We’re farmers from Michigan, and we’re selling vegan, organic cookies using the wheat grown on our family farm,” he said, pointing to a display of four, slightly round drop cookies situated in front of him while holding up a glass jar full of whole grain wheat. “This is my apartment, and we do all of the prep and cooking in my kitchen. Want to try a sample?”
“Uh, sure,” we said. Why not? I could think of a couple reasons. However, they also informed us they were operating legally under a recently passed cottage food industry law that allowed the sale of l0w-risk foods, such as baked goods, to be prepared in people’s home kitchens and sold directly to the public. Another blonde, long-haired, surfer-type, who we learned was Kyle’s slightly older brother Wes, dropped back into the darkness and returned a moment later with a plate of small, pie-shaped samples of all of the cookies. We tasted as we talked.
“Where are you from in Michigan?” Erinn inquired. The cookies were good. Not incredibly sweet, but not bad for something described as vegan and organic and cooked by a couple of dudes in a studio apartment. They were from Custer, a small town of less than 300, halfway up the western side of the mitten. We told them Erinn’s brother-in-law was from Hart, only a few miles from there, and that we were going to be visiting her sister in Grand Rapids in just six weeks. “Cool beans,” Kyle said. Wes mentioned that at least one of them was going to go back in a month to help their dad with farming duties. We finished our samples, and they asked if we wanted to buy anything. I felt obliged at this point, but neither of us were carrying cash and the cookies were $3 a piece. “It’s okay. We take cards,” Kyle said with a shrug. I bought an oatmeal raisin and a peanut butter.
Creating this collection of portraits featuring people I met on the Venice Boardwalk is a project I’d been wanting to do for some time, and finally had the chance to execute in early February. You can see the BTS time-lapse video a few posts back. While shooting environmental portraits on the boardwalk can result in some great images, it’s something I and others have done many times. I thought it would interesting instead to remove the context of the boardwalk and focus on the people that make it interesting. After all, while the beach, palm trees and graffiti are a draw, what separates Venice from any other beach up and down the coastline is the eclectic group of people that you find there and an anything goes mentality. There are few better places on this planet for people watching. Though it was possible to invite people one at a time to come visit me in the studio, I knew that individually approaching people and asking them to leave the boardwalk to follow me a block-and-a-half inland to shoot in the studio would be a slow and arduous process to say the least. In addition, those that took part would have time to prepare and the portraits would sacrifice a sense of spontaneity and “realness.” So, a couple of months ago I decided to flip that concept and bring the studio to the people. After a few days spent jumping through hoops I obtained the necessary permits and went to work, setting up a white backdrop at the heart of the boardwalk, where Windward Avenue meets the beach. Over the course of two days, and with the help of two great assistants managing recruitment and release-signing, I was able to photograph over 140 people representing many, if not all, walks of west coast life. Our selection process was easy. If you wanted to be photographed, you were in. Some people we stopped as they passed by. Others stopped by themselves, curious as to what we were working on. From there I edited the shoot down to around 75, which I printed and displayed recently during the Venice Art Walk open studio tours benefitting the Venice Family Clinic. Shown here are 40 of my favorites arranged in pairs. While I tried to have fun pairing the images as you see them above, the best way to see them is in a random array as pictured at the studio. Unfortunately that arrangement isn’t very web friendly. From here I intend to print them in a book and continue displaying them as a gallery show. I’m working on finding a new place to display them, but for now future locations are TBD. This was tons of fun to produce and I met a lot of great people in the process. Thanks for looking!
This is a time-lapse showing the second of two amazing days spent producing a portrait series on the Venice Beach Boardwalk last week. With the invaluable help of Erinn and our assistant Marlena I shot 144 people from all walks of life and numerous countries. The plan as of now is to share the finished body of work in March and then go on to create a book and gallery show. Please check back next month!