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!
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!
Just got an email from photo-eye newsletter featuring a new book called In the Near Distance by photographer Greg Girard. The book chronicles his wanderings from 1973-1986, and reportedly features quite a bit of night photography shot on color slide film. Last year In the Near Distance was featured on Conscientious. I've just requested his 2007 book Phantom Shanghai from the library. Greg Girard's website features a beautiful gallery from this body of work, mostly shot at night. I own a well used copy of the book City of Darkness: Life in Kowloon City, which chronicles four years of Girard and Ian Lambot's explorations of the mindblowing walled city area of Hong Kong that was demolished in 1992. I'll also be on the lookout for Girard's recent book Hanoi Calling. In 2008 he shot a story for National Geographic on the architecture of Beijing. There is also a 24-minute documentary video about Greg Girard available to watch on Amazon for $2.99 (there is a free 2-minute preview).
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.
An exhibit of photographs by Tokihiro Sato is on display at the Haines Gallery in San Francisco from September 2 - October 23, 2010. The exhibit was previously shown at Tonkonow in New York, and reviewed by DLK Collection. Sato uses an 8x10 view camera to make exposures that are often measured in hours, during which he adds light, often by reflecting the sun back into the camera with a mirror. Unfortunately the previously inexpensive slim monograph Photo Respirations has gone out of print, and is now upwards of $100. A number of journals featuring Sato's work are available through Abe Books.
During a full moon road trip last month, Troy Paiva and I got caught in an intense storm while shooting at the mining ruins of Kincaid, Nevada. As the lightning got closer we pointed our cameras in the direction of the strikes, and Troy made the fantastic image above. A composite of multiple 4 minute exposures in order to blend the best take of the flashlight painting on the house with the lightning strike in the sky.
New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape opened yesterday at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) and runs through October 3, 2010 along with the companion exhibit, Picturing Modernity. I visited the museum yesterday, and really enjoyed the show. I've spent quite a bit of time with the superb New Topographics book -- viewing the actual prints was exciting.
Most of the exhibition contains small silver gelatin black and white prints with an open, low/medium contrast style of printing that is befitting of the subject matter. A few of the Lewis Baltz prints are a notable exception, with very deep blacks and stark high contrast printing. Stephen Shore's photos are the only color images in the show.
Seeing the Joe Deal aerial subdivision views all together on the wall gave them a lot more weight than in the book. There is so much tension in not having any sky or horizon line. My eye wants to see something in the image as the horizon, which gives an off-kilter feeling to some of the images.
Finding a photographic approach that deferred and complexified meaning rather than specifying it, is what made these pictures interesting to me. -- John Schott
John Schott's work was also better on the wall than in the book. His accompanying audio segment is especially poignant. I'm still puzzling out how Nicholas Nixon's Boston rooftop images fit into the show - they're dense with the detail of the city skyline. Gohlke's irrigation canal image is a deceivingly simple image that reflects the man vs. nature theme of the show so well with the beautiful sky and reflection balanced by weeds and tire tracks in the mud.
After seeing large prints of the Becher's Industrial Landscapes a few years ago, the smaller prints in this show seemed lackluster, and a few are in need of conservation. This re-staging of the 1975 exhibit really shows the modest scale of the prints in the current era of giant 10 foot prints that are trying to compete with painting. After spending a considerable amount of time contemplating these intimate black and white prints, the large scale of the work in the Fisher Collection seemed rather ostentatious at times. Perhaps you'll want to save that exhibition for another day.
Tip: Pick up the free audio tour to the left of the staircase as you walk into the museum. The New Topographics exhibit features about 2 minutes of commentary from most of the photographers.
Books from the Photographers in New Topographics
The New Topographics book is outstanding. Published by Steidl this year, the title seems to regularly go in and out of stock with each press run. I recommend reading the essays before seeing the show. The reproduction of the original catalog in the book is very cool. Below is a selected book list of photographers in the show, some with brief commentary. If there are photographers in the show that you'd like to investigate further, hopefully this list will save you some time.
- Summer Nights, Walking -- night photography of Colorado in the 1970's.
- Why People Photograph -- a highly recommended book of inspiring essays on photography.
- The New West: Landscapes Along the Colorado Front Range
- What We Bought: The New World: Scenes from the Denver Metropolitan Area, 1970-1974
- The New Industrial Parks Near Irvine, California -- The hardback from 2001 is about $45. A paperback re-issue is scheduled for later this year.
- Nevada 1977 -- really looking forward to this one.
Bernd and Hilla Becher
- Industrial Landscapes -- my favorite of the Becher books, these images show more of the surrounding landscape than the typologies.
- Bernd and Hilla Becher: Life and Work
- Thoughts on Landscape: Collected Writings and Interviews -- there is gold in this book. Highly recommended right alongside Why People Photograph.
- Accommodating Nature: The Photographs of Frank Gohlke
- The Brown Sisters. Thirty-Three Years -- an essential book for anyone interested in portrait photography.
- Live, Love, Look, Last
- Family Pictures (Photographers at Work)
- No monographs other than inclusion in the New Topographics book.
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.
The latest episode of the Night Writerz podcast features an interview with yours truly. Open up iTunes on your Mac or PC, search for the Night Writerz, and subscribe! Here's direct link to episode #7 of this great podcast dedicated to night photography. The episode starts with a slideshow of night photography -- make sure iTunes is setup to see the images at bottom left.
The interview starts at 5 minutes into the episode, and covers a wide range of night photography topics including exposure considerations, light painting, workshops, and the San Francisco Bay Area night photography community. Many thanks to Chad Clark of the Night Writerz for having me on the show! And check out the past episodes, including interviews with Troy Paiva, Chris Conrad, and Dave Black.