Photo Orgy

casio-download-9-08-0231

Thursday, 10:06pm
Reno, NV
“There are no rules for good photographs, there are only good photographs.” (Ansel Adams)

Howdy…

I grew up in a photo-loving family.

Pop still has his trusty Kodak folding camera — a true antique now — and I cannot yet bring myself to dig through that box in the garage with all my old cameras (cuz I know it’s time to start assigning them new fates somewhere else).

I swear to you I still have a box of Polaroid film in the butter drawer of the fridge. Might even be the last batch they ever made (and R.I.P. Polaroid, dear departed friend).

Mom was the photo archivist of the family, and even as other families gravitated toward 16mm film, I retained a purist’s preference for the snapshot over the home movie.

(Side note: I remember meeting someone 20 years ago who mentioned that they were on video from the moment of their birth, and it was unsettling.

Now, it’s rare to meet anyone under the age of 30 who isn’t cataloged on film through their entire childhood. I can’t even imagine watching myself being born. I have a hard time watching old seminar footage of me from ten years ago, for cryin’ out loud.

Anyone out there hauling around a library of self-referenced film with them? What’s it like?)

I believe I fell in love with photography the moment I saw my first photograph… and realized it was actually a moment in time captured forever.

And I formed some very intense ideas about what makes a “good” photograph as a third-grader thumbing through the still-amazing stack of Nazi photos Pop brought home from his stint as a rifleman during WWII.

(There’s no way to tell for sure, but those two dozen shots seem to be a German officer’s front-line cache of “Here’s what I did during the War” snapshots. Fascinating subject material that forced us to imagine what the story actually was behind those uniformed men… especially the one with the open bullet wound in the dorsal lat.)

As I grew up, I would become captivated by very few photos in the piles coming back from the drugstore of family and friends and pets and outings.

I never questioned why I found those few snapshots so iconic.

Later, one of my first jobs in advertising was overseeing the photography for a computer supply catalog every quarter.

That job meant gathering all the equipment (cables, monitors, furniture, floppies, etc) and spending a week or so with a professional photographer in Palo Alto trying to make plastic crap look good.

(I won’t bore you with the hassle that pre-digital photography presented — the need to refrigerate film, manually load it, and nurture it like a fragile duck egg until it could be color-separated and made “camera-ready”, which means ready for the printer to fuss with during the offset process of applying wave after wave of ink until the correct color was achieved.)

(Okay, sorry, I think I just bored you there.)

Anyway… I learned a lot about the technical aspects of photography (like using mashed potatoes as a substitute for ice cream, cuz the real treat wouldn’t survive under the required hot lights for a good shot).

Pro photographers in the ad field earned big bucks. They knew the voodoo.

But you know what?

I always thought they took shitty photographs.

Technically stunning. Yet somehow boring as hell.

It’s one of the reasons I turned my back on a fortune writing for the huge mailers… and wandered off with the scurrilous Gary Halbert to go slumming with entrepreneurs.

The corporations insisted on boring copy and boring photos. Cuz they didn’t (and still don’t) want to “offend” anyone with too much fun.

Can’t have that.

The cooler entrepreneurs, on the other hand (the ones we preferred to deal with), always looked like kids who snuck into the candy store after-hours whenever it came to hooks and photography.

Mostly, they played it safe… but sometimes, we’d talk them into saying “fuck it”, and we’d run outrageous stuff in print ads and direct mail campaigns.

God, that was fun.

Yet, I still parted company with most of my comrades when it came around to snapping photos. If you look at most of my colleagues’ “stock” photo of themselves, it’s one suit-and-tie-with-make-up shot after another.

What’s up with that?

For me, the best shots have always been like a stolen moment in time. No one is looking at the camera, no one is posing, no one is grinning like they think they’re “supposed to” when a camera is brought out.

Good copywriting is like a real conversation.

And a good photo is like a real visual memory — what you see between blinks in real life.

I love “great” photos. I’ve got two Ansel Adams reproductions (Yosemite and a Big Sur beach shot) on the wall across from my desk right now.

But my favorite shots — the ones that I’ve looked at so often, they’ve been burned into my neurons — are mostly casual shots of people I know.

Some are posed, sure (Mom made everyone stand in the same spot by the fireplace for their pre-high-school-graduation photo).

But others were hastily snapped on the fly… and if anyone’s looking at the lens, they haven’t yet mustered their “camera smile”.

I don’t expect anyone to agree with me on this matter. I’m outnumbered 40-million to one — most folks are terrified of being “caught” on film in their natural slack-jawed state… because, I dunno, it might reveal something they’re desperate to keep tamped down.

Like a personality.

Okay, I’m being harsh. That happens when you’re such a reviled minority about something like this.

I cared about how I look on film for around six days back when I was 18. My self-esteem was still traumatized from high school, and photos seemed to amplify every confidence-scaring blemish to Mad magazine-sized proportions.

I soon learned not to care at all. At this point in my career, there is easily two solid years worth of film of me floating around the ether from seminars alone.

I find it hard to watch, because the disconnect of watching and hearing myself makes my head hurt. Do I really sound like that? Do I really look like that?

The photos, however… I still find ones (of me, and of my friends, and of places I love) that immediately retell a great story, complete with emotional nuance and side chapters and intriguing details that have yet to be explored thoroughly.

And I’m telling you right now — loud and clear — that the camera matters as little as the kind of pen you use to write your brilliant notes down.

Here — for your enjoyment and critical dismemberment of — are a few shots I just downloaded from my trusty iPhone. No Zeiss lens, no zoom, no adjustment for light…

… just an instrument for capturing a moment in time.

A crisp, pro-level shot of something boring… remains boring.

But even the fuzziest, most obscure-looking shot of something important to you… remains a treasure worthy of the Smithsonian forever.

So, in this spirit…

… here is a peek at some of the shots I’ve taken over the last few months with my iPhone.

Enjoy… or revile them, as you please.

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I don’t care what anyone says… this shot of Reno one wintry evening is nice. Notice the pinpoints of light — a detail none of my old analog cameras could have managed this late in the evening.

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North Beach, dusk, from the top floor of the Hilton where we shot the Simple Writing System DVDs. A little Chinatown, a little of the old Beat hangouts, a lot of San Francisco, the prettiest city in the world. (Okay, maybe tied with Paris…)

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My good pal (and A-List Copywriter, with 6 controls for Boardroom right now) David Deutsch on the balcony of some gorgeous penthouse we were corralled into in Chicago last year by Tellman Knudsen…

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My cherished colleague and Hall Of Fame marketer Joe Sugarman, just last month in Vegas. (He insisted we shake hands and look at least remotely professional, after I’d mugged a little too enthusiastically in the first shot.)

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Launch King Jeff Walker and me, being serious for a second at the back of the room while Tony Robbins and Paula Abdul took turns on stage for the SANG event. (In the subsequent shot, I insisted Jeff “stop being taller than me”, and he obliged by stooping. Unfortunately, that shot got murdered by trolls in the iPhone…) (Damn.)

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Crushing Paula Abdul with my fingers. I’ll never grow up. (Almost made Jeff spit water through his nose, though.)

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On the balcony of Frank Kern’s luxurious penthouse suite at the Hard Rock, just before Mass Control. Andy Jenkins took the shot with my iPhone. (Kern had thrashed the room within hours of checking in…)

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My biz partner Stan being clever in Dubai just before I went onstage. That’s Mike Filsaime and Mike Koenigs sitting next to us. We still haven’t told the story of that trip, have we? Whatever you’ve heard is a lie… (And yes, I’m holding the iPhone up and shooting myself like an idiot.  What’s it to ya?)

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Okay, so I’m posing. It’s a famous painting. I’m a fan of famous paintings. I get all weird and loony (like an adolescent Beatles fan from those early days) around classic art. I will adore this photo the rest of my days…

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And finally, our old pal and golfing nemesis Dean Jackson, freshly settled in his Trump Tower suite in Chitown.

That’s a taste of what I found in the little phone.

For anyone wondering what it’s like on the inside of the Web marketing world, here at least is photographic evidence of something. Not sure what.

If this column goes over all right, I might — might, mind you — share my photos from Australia when I get back.

We leave for Sydney on Tuesday. Virgin Air. I’m gonna start snapping shots on the runway, and not quit until I’ve maxed out the iStorage capacity.

None of us take enough pictures. We just don’t.

And much of the reticence is the hassle of posing and looking good and worrying about composition and all that crap.

My advice: Keep your phone or Casio locked and loaded at all times, and be merciless and unpredictable about grabbing moments in time.

For an entire year, Michele and I photographed most of the meals we ate when dining out. It was senseless, but enormous fun… and someday, I’m telling you, someone will be happy we took the 4.5 seconds to snap those shots.

What’s your take on the sate of photography? You know, the whole technology is only a bit over 150 years old. There are NO photos of anybody farther back than my grandfather on my mother’s side in my family. None.

Let the documentation of our days commence.

And let me know, in the comments, how you’re doing with your own love affair with photography…

Stay frosty,

John

19 Responses to Photo Orgy

  1. Simon Ashari says:

    John. You will have a million and one opportunities to take photos in Sydney. (I live there.)

    If you get a chance to go to the Opera House late at night I’d strongly suggest that. Both from the point of view of taking photos and from the peaceful moment you will get from being there. (Reference to a previous post.)

    Totally agree with the avoidance of posing in photos. Many of the older photos I’ve seen are like that, and it makes it look more historic.

    regards

    Simon

  2. Loved the pics dude! “slice of life” is always better
    then the “pro posed” ones.

    How about a post dedicated to photos of you holding
    various guitars? ;)

  3. Arn Tillman says:

    Hi John!
    While I’m not one to take pics all that much, I’m in total agreement with both you and Fred Frank
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frederick_Franck
    Frank wrote of “the original face” in his work “Zen and the Art of Drawing/Seeing.” Like you, he stated that the face folk wear when none are about, “Is The Natural Man.”
    Though it’s because of your words thoughtfully expressed always, I could reconsider my once ongoing stance on photos of me being taken. Which as friends of mine might tell you is odd, my perception of me seems vain. So the question remains for me to answer, at least for myself, why be “ascared of the dark?!”
    Warm Regards Always!
    Arn

  4. John Nice to see a Dubai Picture on the Blog, I’ll follow up on Amsterdam and hopefully we’ll have great conversations on the beduin tent in Dubai again this year :-)

  5. Kevin Rogers says:

    This is one for the ages, John. (and thanks for your discerning approach to those SF shots.)

    Michelle and I were just discussing whether “photo labs” exist anymore.

    Do those corner sections of CVS actually “develop film”… or are those white lab coats just a throwback formality for the dude pushing the “print photos” button for harried soccer moms?

    My brother-in-law has an expensive digital camera and a decent eye… he often captures beautiful shots of our kids.

    He flips the camera around and shows us the exceptional ones… timeless stuff… suitable for framing… we go “awwww” and know that’s the last we’ll ever see of it because he’s got a 700 gig memory chip eliminating ANY motivation to actually download and share the photos.

    I miss the days (7 years ago?) when it was impossible to know how the photos turned out until you flipped open the cardboard folder from the printer and sorted through them. Then you’d pass them down the line and everyone would laugh and reminisce.

    Captured moments creating new memories.

    These days our photos tend to stay trapped in digital purgatory. Maybe we revisit them, as you’ve thoughtfully done here, but we rarely print them. And we’re always one good hard drive crash away from having them zapped away forever.

    Thanks, John… you’ve inspired me to go hand a disc of favorites to the guy in the pointless lab coat.

    Excellent piece,
    Kevin

    P.S. Over the weekend I visited with a lifelong comic friend who channels his narcissism perfectly in photos. Good thing, too. Tom’s trotted the globe more times than Meadowlark Lemon (he’s halfway through his third stamp-tattered passport).

    He travels with an 8″ Elvis doll and photographs the plastic King in famous historic locales. I get insanely jealous every time I look through these…

    http://tomrhodes.net/act/elvis.aspx

  6. rob says:

    Hey John, that photo of you standing next to the big painting with all the people lounging around the lake…what’s it called?

    A print of that is has been hanging up for almost twenty years in my sister’s room of my parent’s house.

    Just seeing it brought back more than 2/3 of my life memories from when we all lived under one roof.

    Thanks a bunch.

  7. Was totally hoping for more inappropriate sharing, John. So disappointing. But the post (as always) rocked. ;-)

    Lo

  8. Niels says:

    For years, I couldn’t deal with a digital camera, because of that pesky thing called shutter lag. It took some time between pushing the button and capturing the image, which always ruined the surprise moment. I love to take picture, and the best ones are still from my old Cannon AE-1. I could pick it up, snap and put it away before anyone knew what happened. Of course, I loved to used the wide angle lens, because it forced me to be up close and personal when taking pictures (and still not intrude). I took a picture of my partner and his father on the boat in Alaska. My partner loves it because it is a rare moment when he is listening and his father is talking. Nobody has ever spoken about the composition of the photo, or the lighting, or anything like that.
    Thank you, John. You stirred up a wonderful memory.
    And I now have a digital camera that can take instant photos, but somehow I have never loved taking pictures with it, as I did with my cannon.

  9. Kyle says:

    John – good post! Really enjoyed the read and the photos, too.

    I find it funny however that you can’t stand watching seminar footage of you from way back when. I think Dan Kennedy, with his red suits and shockingly orange afro, should be the one who made that statement!

    As usual, sweet post John and make it a GREAT day. =)

  10. There are not many pictures of me growing up. My family did not have a lot, and something like a nice camera was an extravagance.

    However, fast forward to today. My wife absolutely LOVES to take pictures. When we first married, it annoyed me. But now I look back, I am so glad she did – and still does.

    Thanks for a wonderful post and looking forward to reading and seeing about your trip to Australia.

    Paul

    Eat Well. Live Well.
    PurpleGreenPops.com

  11. I get weird and loony around classic art, too. I feel super-hella-blessed to live near the Met! (Which reminds me, I haven’t been to see Joan in a while:

    http://budurl.com/6azz

    Safe journeys down under!

  12. One thing I love about the iPhone and Twitpic is that you can browse your photos over the last year or so and totally see the timeline of your life.

    As you peruse through the photo’s you’ll be like this…. “Wow, that trip to Vancouver BC was 3 months ago? It seemed like yesterday”.

    Or… “Damn, that picture of grandma sure looks great. She sure was happy on that rainy October day.”

    Anyhow, if you use Twitpic or any type of online journal you’ll know what I mean the second you start going back in the archives and view what you were up to.

    I’ve been lucky to have a camcorder since the age of 18 and I filmed all kinds of random stuff. Much of it scares me to even watch. But I can’t help to think how cool it would be to show my kids or grand kids what it was like back in the olden days of 1992!

    I feel pretty lucky to have so much of that footage on tape.

  13. Tai Slim says:

    Hi John,
    I like the your ideas in this looong post. Also comments by Tillman and Simon is worth reading. Thanks

  14. AndrewC says:

    Well John,
    I totally agree with you about no rules to good photography only good pictures and I’m not a fan of taking photographs when people are posing I enjoy a more spontaneous photo, It captures “the moment” much better.

    -Andrew

  15. Andrew says:

    I’m with you John, true photos should capture a moment in time – as it is – not made up. Not that made up ones aren’t fun as well of course.

    I do note though that in alot of your self portraits you have the same expression on your face – the pursed concentration of taking the photo. Don’t worry, I do it too.

  16. Mark says:

    Now THAT’S a cool boat! :)

  17. I love the opening message… There are no rules for good pictures. only good pictures…which means I can create art with just a point-and-shoot camera, and not an SLR.

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