The Panographers, Episode #5 features the work of some amazing photographers who shoot panoramas at night. The photographers in this episode are: Aaron Priest, Chris Georgia, Joe Reifer, Joergen Geerds, Jörgen Tannerstedt & Thomas Hayden. Great to meet everyone and see their work! Big thanks to The Panographers kingpin and all around nice guy Gavin Farrell for organizing and hosting these sessions.
There's an extensive interview with me about shooting abandoned places at night over on Digital Trends. I talk about why I love night photography, how I got started, gear, location access, and technique. There's also a portfolio of 10 images. Enjoy!
Sometimes I get emails from students who have an assignment to interview a photographer. These interviews are often a good reminder to re-examine how I tell the story of my photographs. Recently I received some questions from Emily Chiverton, a photography student on the Isle of Wight:
1) What inspired you to do the style of art you do?
My inspirations evolve every day. In addition to photography, I’m also inspired by film, music, and design. I’m a firm believer in the idea that paying attention to a wide range of artistic inputs helps your artistic output immeasurably. This could be the clean lines in the design of a chair. Or how an album sounds on a new pair of headphones. Everything can have a subtle influence on your art if you pay attention.
Ten years ago, photography and lighting workshops led me to the desert and I fell in love. From old ghost towns to more modern day ruins, there is a special feeling when you stand in a place where humans have come and gone. Visiting these places under the light of the full moon intensifies the energy. I hope I can capture a little bit of that feeling with my camera.
2) Have you always been interested in photography?
I’ve been interested in photography since high school, but music was my primary artistic outlet for 15 years. I started on piano, then guitar, and finally upright bass. A series of events around 1999 led to my slow transition from music to photography. By 2003 I didn’t own any musical instruments, just cameras.
3) Who bought you your first camera?
First camera stories are the stuff that bad artists’ statements are made of. Equipment needs to be easy to operate, reliable, and produce the intended results. Cameras come and go – it’s the photographs that count.
That being said, here’s my first camera story: My dad gave me a Petri 7 rangefinder camera that he had purchased while in the Army. The Petri had a fixed 45mm lens, and also included wide and telephoto screw-on lenses. When you used the screw-on lenses you had to use an auxiliary viewfinder and compensate on the focus scale. I would not call it easy to operate, but it was fun.
4) Did you take art or photography at school?
I studied electronic music and jazz in school, and somehow got a degree in literature. I lived near the college darkroom, and a friend who was a photo major taught me to develop and print. I also worked in a black and white lab for a short time. We used to buy old 620 cameras at thrift stores and jam 120 film into them. Photography was something fun to do when I wasn’t playing music.
5) What gave you the idea of taking photos of abandoned places?
I’ve always been fascinated with ghost towns and ruins. There is a rich photographic history of this type of work back to the 19th century. We live in an interesting time. A lot of what was built after World War II has come and gone. Photographs are a way to record the last gasp of these places before they’ve disappeared. There’s a line from a song that says: “how strange it is to be anything at all.” Examining ruins under the moonlight is a way to tap into the mystery of being alive.
The San Francisco Chronicle had an article about the Bay Area night photography scene in the October 8, 2011 Datebook section. The lead paragraph starts out with a loose quote from yours truly, and the piece also features night photography mentor Steve Harper, Nocturnes kingpin Tim Baskerville, and my frequent co-conspirator Troy Paiva.
Night photography was more prevalent throughout the history of photography than the article suggests, and has had major practitioners since film technology improved in the 1920's. I wouldn't say there is one codified style of night photography that developed in the 1970's. There are a wide range of styles from the post-New Topographics industrial landscape to surreal light painted decay. The influence of Troy Paiva's colored urbex work has created a somewhat codified style of night photography. This codification has occurred over the last 5 years, in parallel with the rise of the affordable digital SLR, and the prevalence of online photo sharing. That discussion is not the focus of the article, and is a can of worms for another day.
Joe Reifer interviewed by BFA candidate Holli Brunkala, April 2011
1. Did you receive any formal training in photography? How has that helped or hurt your business?
I learned traditional black and white developing and printing from a college friend, and worked in a black and white lab for a short time. I was primarily focused on playing music during my 20's, and didn't get serious about photography until about 10 years ago.
I used to think the photography business was 80% business and 20% photography. Now I think a conservative estimate is more like 90%/10%. Marketing and negotiating are more important than f/stops and shutter speeds. John Harrington's Best Business Practices for Photographers book is really the best 20 bucks you could spend on your photography education.
2. It seems you do not have a rep. How are you marketing yourself? Due to the current economic status, have your strategies changed from when you were first starting out?
I am an artist with a day job. For the last 4 years I've made most of my income working 25-30 hours per week at a photography website company, teaching photography workshops, and teaching Photoshop at an art college. I've done occasional event and editorial work over the last 7 years, but I'm not actively seeking this type of work. My primary marketing activities are related to teaching workshops – blogging, social media, and email are the primary tools.
My job as an Account and Project Manager has given me the opportunity to meet and network with a wide variety of photographers. Beyond a handful of people who are doing weddings and corporate work, very few people I know are making a living as a full-time photographer without teaching or another source of income.
3. I could not find any books that you have published. Do you have another means of promoting your work?
Eventually I'm hoping to publish a book. Having a physical end product that's paper instead of pixels seems immensely satisfying. I'm encouraged by the quality improvements in the print-on-demand world. But I want to take my time. Going on road trips to out-of-the-way places and absorbing the atmosphere under a full moon is my favorite thing to do. I'm more interested in making work that pleases me and having adventures than I am in packaging and selling my photos.
4. The work on your website is geared toward the fine art genre of photography. Have you been able to make a living from selling these images on your website, in galleries, etc. or do you have supplemental income?
This is mostly addressed above, but here's the lowdown. Almost nobody makes a living solely as a fine art photographer. Beyond a very small roster of art world stars, even most well known successful fine art photographers have to teach or do commercial and editorial work.
Being a fine art photographer is a lot like being in a garage band. You might make enough money for a new guitar or camera, but you still need a job to pay your bills. Whether that job is shooting weddings or designing websites or working a regular job is up to you. My strategy has been to maintain a day job that leaves me the time and energy to shoot what I want.
5. What are the essential steps for an up-incoming photographer to make a successful living as a fine art photographer?
The best photography career advice I ever got was from Joe McNally at a workshop 6 years ago. He said “be an octopus.” You need to have an arm in everything, because it's unlikely that one thing will pay your bills. Fine art photography is the least likely thing to pay your bills actually. For most photographers, there isn't enough editorial work to pay your bills. So do both. Do headshots of lawyers. Pursue an in-demand specialty.
Once you have some experience, consider teaching. Love Photoshop? Lots of teaching opportunities there. Maybe you're really good at masking and compositing – look for work as a retoucher. Talk to people who are doing the kind of work that you're considering. Find out what it pays and how hard it is to get jobs. Do some assisting. Get to know some working professionals that will share their industry knowledge. Get a job at a lab or a high-end gallery. Don't get discouraged. If you really want to make a living in photography, you can do it – HOW you do it may be much different than you suspect.
6. You and Troy Paiva have images from the same places. Are you ever worried about preserving your identity and whether or not your images will look too much alike?
Troy and I have very different styles – part of our compatibility is because there isn't a threat that our images will look the same. In John Szarkowski's construct of Mirrors and Windows, he's a mirror and I'm a window.
7. How has it been beneficial to work with another photographer on night shoots?
The best part about night shooting with other photographers is networking about locations, camaraderie during the drive, and safety at remote locations. Seeing how other people shoot a location is also really interesting.
8. I am interested in photographing and/or documenting abandoned buildings, much like the images in your portfolio. How would a photographer go about gaining legal access to these types of places?
Make prints and be nice to people. That's the secret. Getting permission is all about social engineering. Many property owners are concerned about liability, so having insurance can be really helpful, too. Troy Paiva's chapter on location access in Lance Keimig's night photography book has extensive advice on this topic.
9. What makes Southern California, as opposed to other desert-scapes, the ideal place for night photography?
The Southern California desert has a wide variety of junkyards, mining ruins, and military and industrial sites to photograph. It's also about proximity for me – 6-7 hours in the car, and there's always something interesting to shoot. Western Nevada is also pretty nearby. With more time and budget, I'd do some shooting in Arizona, and New Mexico. The reality of working means if I'm driving more, I'm shooting less. Why drive further when the quintessential desert is only 300 miles away.
10. I noticed you update your blog fairly frequently. Why is it important for a fine art photographer to have and continually post to a blog?
Blogging is one of the best ways to get people to your website. Over 1/3 of my web traffic comes from people who are searching Google. There are a lot of ways to share your images online. I prefer using the blog format because I'm in control of the of the container, and it's integrated into my website. Once images and articles are posted on my blog, it's easy to share them on other websites.
Thanks again for the interview. Let me know if you have any follow up questions!
Andy Frazer and I have just finished an extensive 2-part interview on his night photography blog. We discuss a wide range of topics including photographic style, the desert, locations, influences, photography books, post-processing, and cinema: Interview with night photographer Joe Reifer Part I Interview with night photographer Joe Reifer Part II
I'd like to thank Andy Frazer for his time and care with the whole interview process. Writing about photography is an excellent chance to clarify your thinking. I hope those of you who are interested in the topics we discussed will comment with some of your own thoughts on these interesting questions.
Night photographer Joe Reifer interviewed by Laura Greb
1. Your photography is pretty unique in subject such as the broken down campers and cars in the junk yard. It's an interesting perspective, do you mind explaining it?
I primarily shoot at night with a focus on abandoned places. The junkyard work is part of a larger fascination with the Southern California desert, primarily the Mojave. The desert is a great preserver of once gleaming artifacts. And I love old cars -- they just don't make 'em like they used to.
2. What current projects are catching your interest?
Later this summer I'll be featuring a new body of work from a really interesting historical location on my website. I've made two trips to the Mojave Preserve this year to photograph mining ruins.
I’m also gearing up to teach night photography workshops at an abandoned desert junkyard called Pearsonville with photographer Troy Paiva. The workshops feature 3 nights of shooting in an amazing location with hundreds of cars from the 50's, 60's, and 70's. During the daytime we go over lighting techniques, post-processing, and do critiques.
3. Where has your work previously shown?
I've primarily shown in local San Francisco venues and small West Coast galleries. I enjoy printing, and the process of editing and sequencing for a show. That being said, I'm pretty selective about where I show -- it has to be fun. For the last 5 years I've shown work at a unique venue called Lucky Ju Ju that is a combination pinball museum and art space.
4. Any current shows you're focusing on?
This spring I had a couple of pieces in a group show in San Francisco, and at a gallery in Oregon. I'm hoping to put a small show together this fall, but I'm still working on the details. Most of my energy goes into shooting and displaying images online. The most important part of photography for me is the adventure of going to interesting places. Photographing at night is a way to document these journeys with a touch of the surreal.
5. How are you evolving and keeping creativity fresh in order to keep up with the industry changes?
I'm always researching new locations, and look forward to photographing during every full moon. I frequently visit my local library to check out photography books, and I'm inspired by a wide range of film and literature. I'm not concerned about my work fitting into any trends or industry changes -- these come and go. I have a strong drive to make work that excites me, and to keep learning and growing.
Alan Rapp is writing an MFA thesis on urban exploration sent me a 9 question survey on UrbEx. I thought a few of you might find both the questions and answers interesting. I'd be especially interested to hear YOUR answers to #5 and #9 in the comments section.
1. Did you have any early (childhood) experiences with abandoned spaces, or any memories that informed your curiosity for them?
Yes. I remember doing a steep hike with family along the Southern California coast to the site of a shipwreck. I returned to the site with friends in high school and revisited again in college. I'd forgotten about this experience until recently, when I happened across some old footage of the shipwreck online.
2. What was your first experience like? Were you alone or with others? Was it an impulsive trip or very planned out?
In high school I explored abandoned seacoast fortifications and bunkers in Southern California with friends. There was little or no planning -- just teenagers driving around and goofing off. During college I explored the seacoast fortifications and bunkers of the Bay Area with friends. Again these were freewheeling adventures.
3. Briefly describe your political beliefs.
Voting on local issues is important, everything else is futile. I'm registered Green. I don't read the paper. I don't watch the news. These habits make my life much more peaceful.
4. Describe any powerful emotions you have experienced while on an urban expedition.
Depending on the location, the feelings can range from adrenaline charged excitement (holy crap look at this place!, did I hear footsteps?), to a calm, meditative observation (the quiet, my heartbeat, the stars).
5. Do you follow architectural practice in general?
What I photograph most often are buildings and vehicles. I enjoy studying architecture where I live and when I travel. This interest ranges anywhere from the modest 1920's Craftsman homes in my neighborhood to a Julia Morgan designed building across town. From a ruined trailer park in one part of the desert, to a John Lautner home in another.
6. What do you think about the way the general population can access public, semipublic, commercial, infrastructural, and historical sites? Is everything as it should be?
Yes -- it is what it is. A successful exploration could be anything from walking in to a public place, to getting permission, gray areas, or outright trespassing. Assessing the best methodology for accessing a site is just part of the work.
7. Do you make photographs when you go on expeditions? What do you look for in making these photos?
The experience of being at an interesting site under the moonlight is amazing. Photographs are a way to share the experience. The images are meant to document the location, with the added intangible mystery of place expressed through long, moonlit exposures.
8. Have any perilous encounters made you reconsider going back out on expeditions?
Nothing has made me want to stop. A few experiences have helped define the limits of my preferred access methodologies. I usually make better images if I'm not looking over my shoulder all the time.
9. What do you think of the newfound trendiness or UrbEx? Does it affect the way you think about or conduct the practice?
Is it trendy now, or does it just have a different name? I don't use the term UrbEx. I prefer using terms like abandoned places and ruins. I don't relate to a lot of the writing I've seen that uses the term UrbEx. The growth of UrbEx hasn't affected my practice, but will hopefully increase the audience for my photography and photography workshops.
Recently I had the opportunity to view some amazing long exposure film images by my friend and fellow night photography workshop instructor Troy Paiva. The film images are 45 minute exposures at f/11 using Kodak E100VS film in a 35mm camera. I noted that Troy made both film and digital exposures from a similar vantage point for a few of these images, and asked if I could show some comparisons -- he graciously agreed. Below are 3 sets of images with my thoughts on the look and relative strengths of each format, followed by commentary from Troy. I look forward to hearing your comments on how the film and digital versions compare!
Film vs. Digital Night Photography Set #1 -- Business Coupe
Joe: The long lines of the car are really accentuated by the huge star trails in the film version. The slightly lower and closer camera position, and light falloff on the back of the car really create dimensionality. I love the texture on the side of the car, the brightly lit rear wheel, and headliner details in the film version. Looks like the front part of the car had some fill light?
The digital version has the fantastic color blending, which is really set off by the subtle purples and oranges in the sky. The short star trails work extremely well in this case because the Big Dipper is so identifiable. The hard angle used for the green light painting really brings out the shape and texture in the car, and the positioning of the windows against the line of the mountains adds wonderful complexity to the middle of the composition. The shadows in the digital version seem more open, and the digital version feels much cleaner overall. Tell me about your strategy for the lighting in the digital version. Also, what was the color temperature to get the sky that color? Both images are very successful, but I'm partial to the film version.
Troy: The film image is lit by a natural xenon Stinger Streamlight from off camera-right, the same basic angle that I did the green flashlight in the digital version. I was looking to pull out the form in the front fender and how it transitions into the body of the car. The white balance on the digital image is 7500º, quite hot, but I wanted that warm sunset-y purple sky to compliment the predominant greens of the lighting.
These were shot right after sunset on the day after the full moon, when the moon-rise happened about an hour after sunset. The digital image was done first and has no moonlight in it and just a slight touch of daylight (seen lighting the distant vehicles), so I knew that to get any light here, I would have to add it myself. I light painted the hell out of it, from several angles, so none of the car's form would be lost in silhouette. The film version was set up next and was also started before the moonrise. Over the course of the 45 minute exposure, however, the moon rose, but the angle of moonlight is still extremely low, creating long shadows and interesting highlights.
I like the digital version better, personally. I think the color and sharpness rule the day. I also like the '70s Dodge Dart popping into the frame on the right, it balances the composition. This is a copy of a similar set up done by one of our students, Tim Little, during the workshop, the night before. When I happened upon him shooting this, I knew I wanted to do my own take on it.
Film vs. Digital Night Photography Set #2 -- 1972 Ford Galaxie 500
Joe: Unlike the first comparison, the compositions here are radically different. With a 45 minute exposure, you want a lot of sky. The film shot is more a "vehicle in context," and the digital version is tight and textural. The digital version really sings for me in this set -- the juxtaposition of the dense lines on the front grill against the moving plant is superb. The lighting on the grill and under the hood have a lot of texture and snap. Tell me about you lighting strategy for this image, and also the color palette choice -- which is hugely important to making this image work so well.
Troy: When doing these extremely long film exposures I want a lot of star movement, so I tend to frame with a lot of sky to help make it the dominant subject. The digital image is more about the car and creosote, and my lighting treatment on them, so I tightened up on those.
The film image has a little xenon flashlight on on the grille from camera-left. The digital has lime-gelled LED light from the same location, but I also hit the underside of the hood and just got more light on the car in general. I also used a green-gelled and snooted light on the headlights. Is the green too similar to the lime? Perhaps, but I really wanted the headlights to only be slightly different and not pop too much because I wanted the other areas like the hood and plant to not be lost while people are oogling the headlights. It's a fine line. I also lit the driver-side fender with a natural LED flashlight to pull out some shadow details on that side of the car in an effort to give that deep shadow area some detail and give some pop to the creosote bush.Like you, I think the digital image is far more interesting and absorbing. Truth be told, I wanted that much light on the film version too, but I simply didn't hit it enough. Light painting on film is extremely difficult because you can't preview the image to make sure you got what you need. The digital version took 3 tries before I was happy enough with it to move on to something else. Because of this, I keep my film light painting to a minimum.
Film vs. Digital Night Photography Set #3 -- Southbound Winnie
Joe: The film Winnebago image has the classic circular star trails achieved by pointing the camera towards Polaris (the North Star). Film is great for this classic compositional technique because you don't have to worry about battery life or noise reduction. The color palette of the E100VS really works the deep dark cyans of the sky against the warm yellows of the desert sand. The film version has a lot of snap. The digital version has a quieter, more clean and subtle look in this set. The interior is lit with just enough light to add color and texture, and the headlight painting gives the front grill some personality. Can you talk about how much light was used on the interior. I'm also interested in any thoughts on compositional strategies with digital when composing in a northward direction?
Troy: I did the digital shot first here and saw that the North Star was lined up on the center of the vehicle, so I knew that it was a good candidate for a killer star spiral on a long film exposure. I was really drawn to the blocky, chiseled symmetrical look of the RV here, so I composed to accentuate that. I love that you can see the lights of Ridgecrest reflected in the windshield too.
In both cases, the interior is lit with a red LED flashlight from both sides, basically doing my best to make sure the interior got filled with light. The volume of light is much less on the film version. Some of that is from the aperture of the film version being f11 (vs. f5.6 for the digital), but I just don't think I put as much light in there. It is, unfortunately, a very inexact science. Both images also have snooted LED light on the headlights as well. Note also that I burned down the chunk of white insulation in the lower left corner on the digital version, but left it on the film. It was terribly distracting.
I'm partial to the digital version here too. It's just smoother and cleaner and the lighting pops more. Yeah, I know, I've chosen the digital versions unanimously. What can I say? When I moved to digital in 2005 I said I'd never shoot film at night again and it took me 4 years to decide to tinker with it again. I really wanted to see how I'd react to it. While there's nothing that can compare with these crazy-long star trails and that surreal softness to the shadows and overall quality of light, I just think the excessive contrast and grain, a byproduct of reciprocity failure in film exposures this length, renders the images less clear and tight. Someday (soon) you're going to be able to do 45 minute long digital exposures, retaining the best traits of both mediums. I'm looking forward to that.