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Self Portraits, and why…

Some of it might be/probably is/ok definitely is a kind of narcissism. But many of my “self images” are made to solve practical concerns: how does light from a new modifier actually look on a human shape? Is it positioned correctly for the person who will be under its influence in just a few minutes?

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I also make composites, just to terrify my friends. When testing lighting for a group, I’ll place myself where each person might be and then construct a single image in which I appear as many times as I can sensibly include. Ha.

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Some of my self portraits are a sort of anti-narcissism (there’s a concept for you) that is borne out of a personal discontentment, and some of it comes from the usual rush of ego or self satisfaction found in some small success or a larger pleasure on one plane or another. In the moment, I try not to self-analyze.

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Usually I make these self images within a confluence of opportunity and willingness: I’m in some sort of emotional  flux and the light is right, or I’ve created light for some other purpose now finished, or I’m a stand in for the next client, or I have new gear that I need to familiarize myself with and I’m the one person who’s always available for that.  But it’s never when I’m concentrating on something/one else (I was going to say rarely, but I’ll risk “never”). It’s usually an after thought, after a job and I’m alone, or when I’ve hit a personal wall, and nothing seems to be going right, or I just did something well.

It is some kind of therapy, and whatever I’m feeling in that moment, the act of photographing myself usually helps to mitigate a somewhat ungoverned mood. If I’m feeling too confident, it’s a reminder of my flaws and frailties. When I’m down, it shows me the folly and counter-productivity of self-pity.

I started making self portraits long before I became a photographer for hire. The first images I made of myself were after a particularly bad break up… in which I found myself behaving in non-productive ways.
To initiate some introspection, I started photographing myself in those darkest moments… and through those revelations was able to turn away from that depressing and self-destructive behavior. I still indulge in this sort of reverse photo-therapy, as my friends can attest (“Don’t you ever smile?”).

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I also practice self imaging in an attempt to avoid a pitfall common to Men Of A Certain Age… when the interior-imagined self image seems to be stuck in the same nostalgic era as their music selections (AeroSmith… really? Flock of Seagulls? Pullease.)… eternally 24-36 years old. Right.

About 20 years ago, I photographed a beautiful man of about 63 years. A truly gorgeous man with a giant waving shock of white hair that matched Bernstein and Avedon. He was a survivor of many trials… with the tattoo to show as evidence.

I was using Polaroid 665 film in a Mamiya RB67, and when I showed him the first image he said “Oh Tom… do you know what? I am an old man.” I immediately and mercilessly replied, “Oh Gene, do you know what? You’re the only person who doesn’t know that.” And in that pivotal moment I decided that unlike my friend, I would not be blindsided by the inevitable, that I would photographically track my body’s aging as it occurred, and be cognizant of that steady companionship.

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A few days ago an old friend showed me some of the first self portraits I had ever made. Despite my attempts to stay in touch with myself, I still was shocked to  realize not how old I am now, but how young I was when I first took up the camera. The flaw in my plan was in not staying in that Tralfamadorian model of time… to be both 35 and 62 in the same moment. Now.

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Recent changes mean I’ll need more of that awareness. I need a dose of insight. But don’t look for that work in my Facebook profile album.  Be glad.

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A new window brings new light

I’ve been inspired by may things to create new work. This time, it’s a new window, that I have access to whenever I want it, in all manner of weather and times of day.

Old objects take on new life (yes, I have a cabinet full of rocks and boxes and bowls and…  ahem), and new finds offer their history. Here are a few images made in this new light.

 

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Still Life #9521

 

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Still Life #9533

 

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Still Life #0904

 

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Still Life #0941

 

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Still Life #0947

 

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Still Life #0954

 

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Still Life #0955

 

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Still Life #0960

 

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Still Life #1160

 

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Still Life #1187

 

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Still Life #1224

 

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Still Life #4805

 

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Still Life #4900

 

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Still Life #4914

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Still Life #5076

Lately it has struck me that all my images seem to be about sex, or death, or sex and death and this is both metaphorical and literal.

Perhaps that’s in hindsight, or it’s a subconscious predilection. Probably both.

 

Tis the Season (sigh) for some low key capitalism (yay!)

Christmas time is here by golly, disapproval would be folly, deck the halls with hunks of holly, fill the cup and don’t say “when!”…

In the spirit of a childhood musical hero (hit that link for the best ever music to shop by), I present this blatantly capitalistic effort.

All images in my Etsy store are (for a special, limited time offer!) available with the holiday greeting of your choice inscribed in the margin (by the artist’s own hand, no less!)… and there is no extra charge not to so inscribe. You’re welcome.

Herewith are some examples for you to consider (in the words of the modern electronic component manual) before you begin.

I thank you… t

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Many (different) portraits in a nice (dark) room… quickly, please.

One thing I really enjoy about making portraits for a living, is that I am often asked to go to a place I’ve never been, and photograph people I’ve never met. I know… sounds like it should be trouble. But for me it’s like being told “I don’t look good in pictures”. It kinda makes my day.

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This time, it was especially fun because they were all visually sophisticated and pleasant people, as was my client, Karin Pendley-Koser at KPK and Co.

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While none of these folks were used to being photographed so deliberately, they were not hostile to the process, which is surprisingly common and always adds a Thin Layer of Interesting to the day.

But here, everyone was totally on board, and patient, too.

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Plus, we were at Chip Cheatham’s showroom in Atlanta, which was comfortable, and lush with environmental flavor. The context of deliberate interior space needed to be an important element in these portraits, but it needed to be the second element. Or third.
Finding an appropriate background can be more challenging than connecting with the person being photographed, but this place had the opposite problem. Plenty of opportunity, and often, too much. And then there was that black ceiling. And those black walls.

 

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I didn’t have the time to appreciate the Arnold Newman axiom of Talent<Moving Furniture @ 1/99 ratio.
I had to find existing tableau that lent themselves to the demeanor, palette and structure of each person.

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What could be forward, and what must recede.
Who would stand where. Where do these lights go. Quickly.

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I arranged 13 different set ups resulting in 11 final portraits of 6 different people and 3 groupings, in under two hours.

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Then we went to the next location.

What is it about “dog”?

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Wendy

There’s all that standard and understood stuff about food and shelter, obedience and companionship.
Books are filled with instruction on how to get it, and how great it is when you have it…

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But once all those things have been studied, adopted and imposed, there seems to be
something more important and perhaps unknowable between humans and a dog.

TWMeyer-20130822-8969It’s a connection that is symbiotic, dynamic and mysterious.

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I feel more attuned to life with a somewhat unruly animal in the house.

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TWMeyer-20110919-8802I take on some of her wildness

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while she accepts some of my domesticity.

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Hunting a Rat in the LariopeShe’s caught five squirrels while walking on a leash…

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and does not know how to share a bed.

Open letter to client re: “Job Killer” quoted rate

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Hello Potential Client,

Regarding your last email in which you said:

“… if they (your client) saw the $700/ $1400 a day fee for the photographer they would dismiss the project immediately …  (most of my client’s people make between $25 and $45 an hour)… Showing $100/hr was also a job-killer as you can imagine”.

Well sure thing. I see where you’re coming from…  Let’s rewrite the quote to show the actual number of  hours I will work on this job, instead of only those spent with my face in a camera. Maybe that will help.

It should show 10 hours in both locations (6 hours actually making images, 4 to setup and break down), plus 2 more hours packing and unpacking at my studio each day (I can’t leave $20,000 worth of equipment in the car every night)… that’s 12 hours.
Then there’s the drive time to both locations (1 hour, if traffic is good. Doubtful.). Now we’re up to 13 hours.
Add 3 hours of post-production for both of the three hour locations (downloading, image selection, tagging, applying tonal and color adjustments, archiving, uploading to web galleries, and pre-print production, plus the certain conversations and meetings that will be required, and the replacing of materials used…). That’s 6 more hours.

This brings the total to 19 hours of actual time dedicated exclusively to this 6 hours of actually making photographs on each day. And that doesn’t reflect most of the time and expenses required for me to stay in business just so I am available and able to be hired… so we’re still being conservative.

You said a $100 per hour fee was a “Job Killer”, because people in your client’s business can only make $45 per hour. But unlike those who have jobs working for corporations (such as your client), I must personally pay for everything I use in my job… everything in my office and studio, from the carpet (and floor) under my feet to the computer and printer on my desk to the ceiling fan (and ceiling) over my head. Most hourly employees have those things provided for them in their place of employment. Their employer pays for those assets by billing their clients in a realistic manner.

Quotes are not detailed to the extent that you requested because there are hundreds of “hidden” expenses, commonly known as the cost of doing business, that are just not appropriate to show in a quote. Can you imagine the response to a line item for groceries, electricity or an oil change? Yet these are necessary items that must be paid for if I am to remain in business.

My business also requires a great many hours performing tasks that are not directly billable to anyone; preparing quotes, upgrading and implementing new technology (by necessity, not to be au courant at cocktail parties), finding new clients, maintaining existing accounts, preparing and disseminating marketing materials. Those websites, blogs and social media posts do not write and build themselves.

Then there are repairs to equipment and vehicles, shopping and laundry, cleaning the studio… and the sidewalk to the studio. Resupplying materials like seamless paper, gaffer tape, staples, batteries, ink.

I am  my own IT department, my accounts payable and receiving, purchaser, sales staff and secretary. These are assets your client has available to them, that are not funded from their $45 per hour wages. What you call my “Job Killer” fee must pay for all those expenses and all those man hours.

 

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Accounts Receivable and Payable, Purchasing, Marketing, Sales, R&D, Web Master, Maintenance and Creative staff at T.W. Meyer Photography, BTAPB.com, Vp1618 LLC and Temp Wizard Enterprises

And there are not forty $100 hours in my work week. Ever.

The kind of 21st Century photography involved in this particular assignment isn’t cheap. It requires professional dSLR cameras and lenses, battery powered strobe lights with radio transmitters, wifi routers and networks, laptop computers, printers, servers, custom social media pages and web galleries and all the little but absolutely imperative, techno-invisible wonders of modern imaging. The failure of but one of these can melt the whole illusion into a grinding flop. So I have to have two. Of everything. And they must be insured.

These hours and dollars have to be invested. I can’t stay in business without them and I can’t do them for free, either. While sitting in my house office writing this letter, money drains from accounts and expenses incur.

That $100 per hour “Job Killer” fee is a rock bottom barrier beneath which I cannot even break even.  There is no retirement, 401k or IRA contribution down there. There is no car payment there. There is no health insurance payment there. No mortgage, no utilities, no night out on the town. Below those rates I’m not only losing any profit… I’m just going into debt a little slower than if I were not working at all.

I wish I could count on a consistent 40 hours per week at the wage your client makes ($45 per hour, you said?) and know that $93k was going to come in every year.
I wish I had two weeks of paid holiday, sick days and health insurance…

There are hundreds of students graduating every day as “photographers” who can under bid me for a year… maybe two. But eventually these realities also become unavoidable to them, at which time they become real estate agents or go back to being baristas… or they start billing at that “job killer” rate of $100 per hour.

It should really be $200.

In fact, I’ll be re-writing that quote now. Thanks for the inspiration.

Tom Meyer

Why make portraits at a wedding?

The role of today’s wedding photographer is a complex and focused one. Current expectations are of a documentary, observational approach, much different from the previous era’s tradition: an enforced, formulaic recording of arranged scenarios. Deliberate portraits at a wedding have become a vestigial concession, primarily made to appease the elders.

But given the overarching self-awareness that weddings bestow on any family, it is hard to imagine a better time to have a deliberate portrait made of these rare groupings. People assemble at weddings from all contexts of the couple’s life; from different generations, geographic distributions and social networks. They are brought together by this singular event, and may never all be together again in the same place, at the same time. A portrait made in this context, in a classic, enduring style, would be treasured for years and generations to come.

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Mother and son at a wedding, Kimball House, Roswell Georgia

At weddings, these people (who are, or will be extremely important to each other) are gathered in rare concentration. Happily, they tend to dress in the best clothes they have, their hair is “fixed” to the degree that it can be, and collectively they share a feeling of camaraderie, good will and optimism…

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Groom with groomsmen (he was fine), Kimball House, Roswell Georgia

In collaboration with the modern photo-journalist wedding photographer, a good portrait photographer can produce deliberate yet unscripted images that provide a valid and complimentary window into the family’s history and their experience of that day. In sudden, brief and almost spontaneous portrait sessions, surprisingly candid and insightful moments can be found that give tremendous insight into how these people came to be who they are, and how they arrived at this moment.

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Family at a wedding, Four Season’s Hotel, Atlanta Georgia

Such portraits provide a contrasting compliment to the artful spontaneity of a photo-journalist’s images.
They are more suitable to a wedding than those from the trendy photo booth. With their random timing, static compositions, feather boas and goofy hats, photo booth pictures too often mask the expression of close personal connection with clownish behavior. The photo booth has its place in a more casual context.
Plus, these more deliberate portraits endure, present in professional resolution and format within the archives and galleries of the primary photo-journalist, available for a printed album, and stored with the portrait photographer.

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8 friends, Decatur Georgia

The first wedding I ever photographed in this manner was that of an ex-girlfriend, in 1999. She knew what skills I had with a camera, light and people, and she asked me to make portraits of anyone who came to her wedding, without regard to any hierarchical order… to treat them all with the same attention she had seen me apply at other gatherings.

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Polaroid 600SE camera

At that time, I was using this Polaroid 600SE medium format camera and Polaroid’s Type 665 pack film that produced monochromatic images of great clarity, and a negative of substantial size (6x8cm).
I set up a small studio in the lobby of the reception hall, lighting people with soft light and a gentle fill, setting them against a deeply toned, understated backdrop.

I made portraits of the bride with her father and brother, with her 83 year old aunt, with her brother and his future wife. I photographed families who were unrelated to her… I photographed her ex-boyfriends with their new girlfriends. I photographed  anyone who even hesitated near me. I gave everyone small folios containing their 3×4 inch prints.

Several years later, I was contacted by one of the bride’s guests. His brother in-law had just died. His sister still had the Polaroid I had made of her family that day.
She showed it to him saying “this is the best picture we have of all of us together”.

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Family at a wedding, 1999 Huntsville Alabama

They called the bride of that wedding day, and asked for some way to contact me. I found the negative and sent them three 8x10s.

It was a lesson I have never forgotten; treat everyone with seriousness when they are in front of your camera. Never underestimate the value of a simple portrait.
Back up your work.

I’m still doing this, but the Polaroid 600SE is now a full frame dSLR, and the prints are 4×6 inches. It’s how I have fun with a camera. It’s art with meaning.

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To see more of my recent work in this fashion, visit btapb.com.
Better Than A Photo Booth, in so many ways.

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Atlanta Celebrates Photography – Auction Portraits – October 2014

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Last Friday I set up a small portrait studio at the fundraising auction that Atlanta Celebrates Photography produces every year in October.
I was soon reminded of the tendency in artists to wear black… I wonder why that is?

These guys bucked that trend, nicely:
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One thing that I really enjoy about making portraits at an event like this is the level of immediate intimacy that is available, and it’s concurrent brevity.
I try to get something about who each person is, adjust the lighting quickly to their relationships, appearance and/or character (within the necessary limits) and then get them back to the gathering efficiently.

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It became apparent early on that another thing I would have to do was dispel the seemingly ubiquitous and corrosive influence of the photo booth craze. A light-hearted attitude was most welcome, but no feather boas, no goofy hats or cliche’d signage were provided. I was there to make portraits, not blackmail material. These were people who had assembled to celebrate photography, and they immediately got the idea.

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Of course it was a really good crowd, and everyone that was photographed left with a small print… or two. Or three. I even got some great pictures of the catering staff. Being a veteran of the professional kitchen, I am keenly aware of their contributions to a successful gala such as this one. I wanted to also give them a token of my appreciation and awareness.
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The overall results, I think, are way Better Than A Photo Booth might have produced (and that’s your link to the gallery of portraits).

Corporate portraits, with creative license

You might think engineers… architectural engineers, would want a fairly conventional portrait for their business website. Well I did. Fortunately for me, they didn’t. Well they did, but they also let me do whatever I wanted, as long as I could get it done during the same day as making the group portrait of eight and a formal portrait of each of the other seven partners. And we did, under five hours from first test pop to packing the gear out the door.

Here are the 7 “casual” portraits, made extemporaneously using a couple of SB’s and various modifiers as Russell Kaye assisted me with the gear and critical/helpful/objective commentary.

Working fast and light in a small factory

I have been photographing for this client for so many years, they are now way into the good friend category.This winter they asked me to start making some portraits of a documentary nature, featuring their production staff and customer service.

Here’s what I did a couple of days into the new year of 2012. This is their fabrication crew. They didn’t slow down a bit for me.

I was working two little lights with color correcting gels on them. Sometimes I had the D700 on a tripod, sometimes not… all were made with my old 28-70 2.8 Nikon. The ambient light was pretty typical overhead warehouse lighting, and some high and very yellow translucent panels the length of one wall, about 20 feet off the ground. You can see some of that in a few of these out takes. I like this gritty duotone treatment, but they will probably want color, which is why I use the color correction on the flashes to get them as close as I could to the vague, rambling Kelvin of the insanely mixed temperature light sources.  Plus the sun was in and out all afternoon, pushing EVs, color temperatures and the relative lighting ratios all over the place.

Before and while I worked, no one came in to clean up the shop, no suits from corporate appeared to affect attitude, no art director stopped production to rearrange the work space, no make up was applied.  I moved a few trash cans and a broom, mostly to remove an errant highlight and keep the compositions as I wanted them. I loved it, and worked alone (without an assistant) for about three hours.

Here’s a sample… my quick edit.

Shop Forman

performance art

springs, ready for assembly

at the lathe

the lathe that is older yet more precise than me

sanding the edges of a plywood armature

an anthropomorphic plywood form, glued and clamped, dries overnight in the empty warehouse

assemblyman

drill press

my kind of color palette, in the high window's light, end of day

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