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Welcome to a new world

Message from the President
June 2011

John Kleb with Grandson I’m going to take an opportunity to brag a bit — just because I can. My birthday was last Thursday. I never really make a big deal out of it and would rather it just be another day. However, this year was a little different.

This year, I was given a new grandson for my birthday. It’s going to be hard to top that in the future. Baby boy William Logan tops out at a healthy 6lbs 7oz, 18.5”. He had to spend an extra day in the hospital under the lights for jaundice, but other than being a few weeks early, he’s perfectly fine. He’s home, he’s happy, and my daughter can see her feet again.

Getting to hang out in a hospital gave me some time to catch up on my reading. It seems there’s a new rash of “woe is me” from some people in the photography industry.

From art buyers complaining about getting emails from photographers to photographers saying that the business is the fastest way to die a pauper. I read this kind of stuff and I look at my grandson.

His world changed so he cries and shakes and makes a fuss because life isn’t the same and he doesn’t know what else to do. Never mind that he’s perfectly healthy and just has to grow a bit before it all gets easier. It won’t always be easy, but he will adapt a grow faster than his parents will be ready for. It’s happened that way for as long as history has bothered to write about it.

William Logan So what’s so different about the photography industry?

Nothing really. We’re in the worst economy that most people alive can remember. After the initial scare and panic a couple years ago people realized to just adapt and get on with it. The world didn’t stop turning.

Well, some people realized it anyway. Some people are crying and shaking because it changed and they don’t want to change and adapt.

Okay, don’t.

The rest of us will grow up and get on with it — just like my grandson will grow up and adapt to his world.

Within just a few years he will be so far removed from being a squalling helpless baby that he won’t even bother to remember those times.

This same thing applies to us as photographers as much as the industry itself.

New Family Not so long ago the great digital vs film war was raging. Seems kind of silly now doesn’t it?

The elevated amateurs complaining that anyone could buy a camera now and make a photograph (like it hadn’t been that way since the Kodak box cameras) and people could manipulate those photos (like it hadn’t been that way since, well the beginning of photography).

The professional complaining that the amateurs could take photographs as good as them (which has always been the case whenever someone wanted to try), and that the technology they had been using for a decade got cheaper and available to the masses

Do you people ever read history? Really?

Everyone who loved what they did and was willing to adapt to keep doing it survived just fine. Some of them even went from mediocre careers to stardom because they were willing to adapt faster than everyone else.

Will my grandson’s generation care what medium you shoot on? Probably not.

Will they care if it’s good? I bet they do.

Will those who are passionate about what they do and are willing to work towards those passions still succeed at them? I can all but guarantee it.

After all this I came across this commencement speech for Julliard. The people who have been there and done that get it.

I’ll leave you to read through these a couple times and draw your own conclusions.

As for me, I’m going to go show my grandson there’s nothing to cry about.

~ John Kleb, 2011 HPS President

Simple things

Message from the President
May 2011

Prepping the burger - by John Kleb

There’s nothing as wonderful as a good burger. It’s a simple thing really — a balanced meal that you can hold in your hand. Okay, maybe not balanced, but all the food groups are there.

It’s one of those wonderful American creations that takes a simple idea and allows you to mold it to your own taste, easily share it with friends and family, and you can tinker with it.

Empires have been built around the concept of meat, cheese, and vegetables between two buns. We drive by them everyday. Each one has their own unique rags-to-riches tale of making something quick, cheap, and tasty; then working with their creation until it finally paid off. Corporate powerhouses started in the home kitchen.

Then came another very American addition to the burger. Someone looked at the factory-made generic pack on a bun and said “I can do better than that.” Many have tried while a few succeeded, at least in terms of a business. But, they took that oh so simple concept for a meal and improved upon it.

Then a few of them became true artists. That’s what I was thinking about as I devoured “Buffalo” at Burger Guys before our print competition meeting last Tuesday. It was simplistic, but you could tell someone put forth a lot of thought, effort, and passion into it. You didn’t even have to taste it to know that was there. It had its own glow of pride cooked into it.

Open-faced Buffalo - by John Kleb

If you haven’t noticed yet, I have a tendancy to take ordinary things in life and try to find a lesson in it to apply to my own art and photography. This simple act of eating dinner with my wife was another lesson found.

You see, what we do as photographers, most people consider a really simple task. We take photographs. Simple, right? Many people think if they just spent a few grand on gear, they could have great photographs too. I’m not going to preach to the choir on that subject, we all know how wrong that typical assumption can be.

What I noticed is the traits that make us passionate artists are the same ones found in many other vocations. We take a simple task and work hard to bring it to a higher level of being. Our effort, passion, and knowledge shines through our images the more we work at creating them.

You don’t have to have an art history degree when someone has truly mastered the craft. Even a half-blind gorilla could look at a Weston, Avedon, or an Adams and see that there’s something special there. Just as someone who has lived their life going through drive-throughs could take one bite of my burger last week, that person would likely know that they were sitting at a counter across from a master of the craft.

Closed-face Buffalo - by John Kleb

No, we may not all be the next Dan Winters, but there’s no reason not to try. Surrounding us are examples of how someone can take a simple thing they are passionate about and make a masterpiece of it.

Yes, it’s hard work. But so is anything worth having.

We have to try new things and experiment.

We have to say to ourselves, “I’m going to make my own mustard, aioli, and everything else I can can think of. I’m going to make a burger with Thai spices on it. I’m going to try something different to be better than I was before.”

That’s the passion we need to have — to consistently try and continue trying. When we do that, it shows through in our photographs.

Even if it’s not a taste everyone likes, they will see the love that was put into creating it. That is where a great works really begins.

Devoured - by John Kleb

I have to give a word of thanks to the chefs over at Burger Guys.

I walked in this afternoon as a total stranger and asked them to make me a pretty burger for a photograph. Within seconds, I was getting a description of how good the days vegetables looked without a question as to who, what, or why. The love showed through again and again and my taste buds left happy.

P.S. One more lesson learned for everyone thinking of participating in our portfolio challenge later this year — all of their burgers are based on the flavors of the cities they are named for. They are a portfolio. It’s a theme built to become a work "as a whole" made up of individual pieces.

Think about that. The menu is a portfolio.

If they can do it with food…

~ John Kleb, 2011 HPS President

You have to water the weeds

Message from the President
April 2011

Watering the Plants

So, you may have noticed that I didn’t publish the Message from the President at the beginning of this month. The fact is, it’s been a little rough around the Kleb house in the past few weeks: two deaths in the family; my wife was laid off; my daughter was in the hospital twice with pregnancy complications; and a couple of 60 hour weeks at work led to a little burnout.

Go figure!

I intended to just skip this month and start fresh in May with all this hopefully behind me. But I saw something yesterday I felt compelled to share.

You see, last week, my father went in for a minor surgery. Nothing serious — it just means he needs to keep from lifting stuff or straining too much. My father spent the majority of his life as a farmer and rancher. That was the only job he ever had until his mid-40’s.

Telling him not to work too hard for a few days was like telling the tide not to move. So, I’m helping him around the house as much as I can.

Like a lot of people he keeps a garden. Unlike a lot of people, he keeps several gardens, needs a tractor to work all the grounds, and produces enough to keep three families fed (literally) and still give a truckload away to friends. On a good year there’s enough to sell the surplus to local markets too. To top it off, he started planting less after he turned 60.

Now, many of you may have noticed it’s been a while since we’ve had any rain. As a man who grew up raising crops, I can tell you this is quickly becoming one of the worst droughts in Texas for the past couple generations.

So, yesterday I came home from work and helped him water his potato patch. Keep in mind this involves a tractor with a 300 gallon water tank for “just four rows this year.” I filled the little tank (300 gal. is the little tank) for him and drove the tractor to the field while he followed in his truck. He had to explain precisely how much water to let out, in which gear and speed to drive, and what pattern to drive the rows in.

I don’t think it ever crossed his mind that I’ve been doing this with him since I was born and might have a pretty good idea of how to go about it.

The ground where I watered sucked up the moisture so fast you could barely tell that I was dumping water out with a 1-1/2” hose. Where it hadn’t been watered, the dirt is just a powdery dust. The only place in the garden that’s actually growing anything is where my father had been irrigating for the past few weeks. The rest of it is barren and dead.

And, then I saw it.

John Kleb - Watering the Plants

My father gets out of his truck and starts to pull a few of the weeds out from between the potato plants. It wasn’t enough to make a difference, but enough to keep him from feeling useless while someone else tends his garden.

I knew there was a lesson to be learned from this scene.

By the end of the row, I got it. There’s a dilemma in watering a garden. If you water the plants, you water the weeds. And, if you don’t water the weeds, the plants will die along with them. So, you have to feed them both and know the difference between plants and weeds.

The same is true with being artists and photographers.

We have to keep feeding our ideas and our creativity. Even if an idea or a theme ultimately turns out to be a weed, we have to travel down that path until we know that it’s not a plant — but, it is in fact a weed. The plants are surrounded by weeds. So are our good pieces surrounded by really bad ones.

Part of the journey to being a better artist is learning to cull our work without stopping the work altogether.

I hear a lot of new photographers say they get frustrated because they took twenty photos and only had one that they liked. To top it off, they didn’t get a good critique on it.

You’re not watering your weeds enough. Take a hundred photos, make each one a little different than the one before it, then separate the good from the bad, the better from the good, and the best from the better.

Think about why you chose the ones you did. Learn to distinguish the difference between a weed and a plant, but water them both. Without one, you can’t have the other. And, over time, you’ll learn how to make the plants grow stronger than the weeds.

That’s how farmers do it.

~ John Kleb, 2011 HPS President

Sometimes, permission is easier

Message from the President
March 2011

I had an article almost completed for this month, which I promptly scrapped a few minutes ago. Sometimes I just have to run with a thought.

A couple hours ago, I saw a Facebook post from a high school friend of mine who said he had just finished shooting some footage with Morgan Spurlock (the guy who made Super Size Me.)

Battleship Texas by John Kleb
Blacksmith by John Kleb

After a couple of messages back and forth, I found out the Spurlock is going to be in a town near where I grew up for the next couple days working on a new documentary project. Of course, I have to do what I do and let my friend know that I’d love to shoot a portrait of Mr. Spurlock while he’s in town.

No, I don’t expect it to happen. But, just in case, the camera bag and some gear is in the truck and ready to go. The batteries are charged and the memory cards are formatted and ready.

So, what does this have to do with anything? The realization I concluded long ago is that you’d be amazed at what you can do if you just ask.

For example, people seemed amazed that I was able to set up an overnight photo trip on the Battleship Texas for HPS a couple years ago. How did I do it? I called up their office and explained who we were and what we wanted to do. That’s it!

At George Ranch a few weeks back, I was able to get a good portrait of the blacksmith who was working that day simply by striking up a conversation and asking if I could. Yes, I got some grab shots of him working; but the portrait where the subject engages the viewer is what makes the series — not just a collection of snapshots.

I guess what I’m trying to get at is this — don’t just hide behind your camera.

A camera is just a tool to use. It doesn’t matter if you are shooting strangers, friends, still life, nature, or landscapes. Be bold and make the shot happen for you.

This might mean taking an extra hour to hike to the spot for the scene you really want instead of the scene that’s easiest to get.

Maybe you need to hand a business card to a person who just pulled in the parking lot with a car you’d love to use for a shot of the skyline at night (I did something similar this morning) and ask them to call you if they’re interested.

Perhaps you need to boldly get up a 4 a.m. to drive to a lake so you’re set up and ready for the birds to come in.

The point is; the more you do aside from the camera to make a good photograph possible, the better that photograph is likely to be.

Boldly go forth and make photographs!

~ John Kleb, 2011 HPS President

Trials & Tribulations

Message from the President
February 2011

John KlebOver the past few weeks, I’ve been spending some time doing something I haven’t done in years — shoot film. I didn’t start again because “real photographers still use analog” or “I had to find my artistic vision again.” I did it for much better reasons—my sister-in-law told me I needed to get her old 4×5 out of her attic and use it.

Needless to say, I’m not turning down a free camera. But, I’m not buying a digital camera back that costs more than a new car just to stay purely digital either.

To put this into perspective for you, I haven’t developed a single piece of film or made a wet print myself since 1993. I started shooting with digital in 1999 with a Kodak DC-something. Until two weeks ago I had never pressed a cable release on a large format camera. And this past Saturday, for the first time in 18 years, I was sloshing chemicals around in a daylight tank.

I suppose fate had something to do with it. My sister-in law has reminded me several times over the past couple years that she had the camera and I was welcome to use it if I wanted. Again this year at Christmas we talked about getting it down.

A few days later while perusing my company’s buy/sell forum, I saw a post for darkroom equipment that one of our geologist was selling. Coincidentally she lived in The Woodlands and had the gear in storage there, about five minutes from the attic that held the camera.

In less time than it took me to drive there and back, I had a monorail camera, sturdy tripod, tanks, trays, timer, and safelight; all for $35. (By the way, the lady with the darkroom gear still has an almost new ZoneVI enlarger and a set of Speedotron brownline lights and powerpack with lots of goodies. If your interested, let me know and I’ll give you her number).

We couldn’t find the cable release for the camera, and there was only one film holder. That wasn’t a problem a trip the Camera Co-Op couldn’t solve. I walked in fully admitting that I didn’t remember much of anything about processing film, and handed over my wallet.

A box full of chemicals, sheet and roll film, cable release, and a changing bag later, I was ready to go — ready to go scour the interwebs and a couple old books from the 1950′s and figure out what the heck I was doing.

Like a little kid at Christmas, I had to get home and set up a couple old hot lights and some foam core in my office for a quick still life. Into the spare bathroom went trays on the floor and towels stuffed all around the door. I developed my first two sheets of 4×5 film; and discovered I can overexpose like a champ!

Back to the drawing board.

"Buffalo Bayou" by John KlebThe next Friday, a good friend of mine and I spent the afternoon along Buffalo Bayou taking a little photo walk. I’d shot in the area several times before and wanted to go this time to expose some more film in my old Pentax 35mm. I knew I needed the practice of not having a histogram to go by.

We spent an hour or so and I shot most of a roll. That roll was finished up outside the studio the next day. When Donna (my better half) and I went back on Saturday to spend some time getting the developing gear properly moved into the studio, we split another roll through the Pentax shooting with the studio lights, and another two sheets under the lights with the 4×5.

The rest of the morning was spent developing what we shot. Eighteen years does leave one a bit rusty.

I took me three tries to get the first roll spooled. Then later, I found out it stuck together at several places. I didn’t let the second roll dry long enough so it curled up.

The sheet film did better since I have to tray develop it. That process showed me all the light leaks in the room though. Most of the portrait shots we took just didn’t look good. There was too much grain to make them attractive. I had forgot how much grain could be in film.

A couple shots from downtown came out acceptable. I really can’t tell how good the 4×5′s are. I don’t have a loupe anymore, and my scanner works with 35mm and medium format, but not large format. I guess a different scanner goes on the equipment list this year.

All of this made me realize a few things though.

Learning really isn’t done in a curve, it’s a learning circle. When you think you’ve gone over the hump of the learning curve, try going back to the beginning again and you’ll find you have another uphill climb.

I found a little humility in the fact that the young and dumb 15 year old me was a better print maker.

I found that I don’t know squat about large format, and the difficulty of it is enticing.

And finally, I found that there’s a lot to learn about something you already know a lot about!

~ John Kleb, 2011 HPS President

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