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ann arbor photography

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The Power of Ten

I'm fortunate for so many reasons. Among the first is growing up under the influence of another great photographer: my father. Equally important is the support and encouragement both my parents have always shown, no matter how crazy my ideas are.

While finishing my senior year in college in 2004 I had the extreme pleasure of photographing one of the greatest instructors in the history of man, Ralph Williams. Had I not experienced this shoot, I'd likely not be who I am today... or married* for that matter.

I was inspired to work with Ralph during one of his lectures. On this particular day he was being recorded by a local station and the film crew had set up spotlights so he'd show up in the dark auditorium. As he danced back and forth in front of the class, the spotlights highlighted his mannerisms so perfectly I could think of nothing other than recreating the set up for my own camera.


After first coordinating with his secretary, who made me explain my intentions numerous times, I was finally able to talk to Ralph in person. We picked a day during Spring break so the auditorium would be empty and I secured lighting from another department at the school.

When the day arrived I triple checked I had everything loaded in my car and even brought Ralph a muffin and tea. I arrived early to set up, ran a few tests and anxiously awaited his arrival. When he got there we chatted a little and I explained what I was looking for as he still seemed confused by my request.

"Just give me a lecture like you normally would", was what I said. I knew it wasn't one specific pose or anything I could control, it was simply Ralph being Ralph. So he began, book in hand, and I began shooting. To me it felt longer than it was because when this man delivers a lecture to a class it's epic, but when it's channeled at only one person it's almost more than the mind can handle. But, I survived. And shot three fabulous rolls of black and white Ilford HP5 Plus.


I finished, Ralph departed and I wrapped up. I didn't know it then, but this shoot was the beginning of my career. So many shoots I'd go on to be part of or orchestrate myself would function similarly, but they weren't as special because I knew how they'd unfold.

I recently got to work with Ralph again, two months shy of ten years later. Unlike our first shoot, we spent most of the time talking about family, travel, our careers. The experience was just as amazing as I remembered and below are some of my favorites.

Thank you, Ralph.

* In 2004 I entered the pictures of Ralph into the art school's senior show. A recent art graduate named Yen saw them and felt compelled to email me. I'm happy to say we still email one another if for some reason one of us isn't at home.


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Photo Student: Part One

Yesterday I highlighted students recently introduced to the world of photography. In a few years they might continue shooting as a hobby, begin an apprenticeship with a studio or further their education through college.

I had the chance to speak with two amazing photographers currently attending the Penny W. Stamps School of Art & Design. Nicholas Williams is the first. 

Nicholas' path to photography is an interesting one.

"I came to photography through skateboarding. I think this is a pretty common story, but there comes a point in a skater's career when they think, Yeah, I can't do half the shit my homies can do. What can I be good at? Then they pick up a camera and find a niche as the crew's filmer or photographer. I filled the void as photographer and began trying to emulate the stuff I saw in Transworld and Thrasher. But shooting skateboarding is hard for me, because I started not skating everyday and I eventually began shooting more portraits, and fashion stuff." 

   Ivan Afanasyev, Tail Slide, Dearborn MI


Ivan Afanasyev, Tail Slide, Dearborn MI

   Bloody Skateboarder at the Streets Skatepark


Bloody Skateboarder at the Streets Skatepark

I then asked him which is more important: subject, environment or action. His response didn't surprise me as his works often include the composition and story-telling seldom seen by those with less than decades of experience.

"I think you need all three, no? I almost always really want to incorporate two of those concepts into my composition." 

   Allana Baker


Allana Baker

Image capturing technology has changed a lot in the last ten years. So much so that today's DSLRs shoot video, making it easier for photographers to venture into motion. He explains this is the direction he's headed. 

"I still use a DSLR so it feels very similar to staging a photograph, but now I am directing scenes based in time instead of moments. So lately I have been getting a lot of enjoyment from trying to depict the subtly psychotic, the quietly deranged and people who are occupying a different reality, a place that never makes sense and is often condemned in our day to day culture."

His work and style already provide inspiration for peers of all ages, but who does he look up to? 

"I think I get the most out of artists who are not primarily photographers. When I idolize a photographer, it really shows in my work, like my style morphs to theirs. So I try to focus on artists who draw, paint, or make films so I don't have to worry about adopting a photographic style that is not my own. I really love Egon Schiele, Stanley Kubrick, Salvator Dali, Roman Polanski, Harmony Korine, and Wernor Herzog, all for their own reasons. Film directors that use subtle diversions from reality to create new worlds are my favorite meal. As I am still in school I am so thankful to have people like Ed West and Holly Hughes who are each both huge stores of information and offer great, honest opinions. Stamps is pretty stocked with solid professors, I like them all, even the ones I disagree with I really enjoy the challenge they provide."

(That last sentence is incredibly important!!!) 

Professor Ed West has not only helped Nicholas perfect studio lighting, but also pushes him to travel and explore photo stories as he did following drag performer Dulce De Leche with the Kelly McKinnell Memorial Award. 

Nola Smith

Nola Smith

Dulce De Leche in her home, San Franciso, CA

Dulce De Leche in her home, San Franciso, CA

So, what's next?

"After college... right... academia feels so safe and warm. I go back and forth about graduate school. If I could get into a fully funded program it would be cool to bop around for a bit longer and ride the wave of free studio space and time to create whatever I want. Although I feel like I should really get out into the real world, maybe live the grunge life and soak up some salt. All my favorite directors and artists seem to have come from underground sorts of places and I feel I have led a very privileged middle class existence. I might really need to just be in a place where I am the only  variable in whether or not I have food to eat and a place to sleep. Although the danger would never be real, someone is always around to save me. So yeah, obviously undecided, leaning towards academia, but only if I can make some work that is considered good enough to go for free."

As long as Nicholas is experiencing life and making new work, it doesn't matter what he decides. 

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Straight Outta Composition

90% of the time I'm talking about how important lighting is to photography. Today I'd like to spotlight something that's necessary in every well lit (and even some not so well lit) photographs: composition. 

Composition gives the photographer the ability to guide the viewer through their work. Composition also allows for infinite possibilities for any one subject. For example, nobody else in the world sees things exactly the same way you do (so take the picture!).

Sometimes it's as simple as shifting the camera up to cut off the parking lot below the lights. 

Or it can be a collection of existing objects that create interesting and/or abstract shapes.

Sometimes it's mathematical, like dividing the image into even parts (halves, thirds, quarters, etc). 

Yet another example is the coming together of many elements, like bright street lights, moving clouds and cast shadows.

There are endless ways to compose amazing photographs, so stop reading and go shoot.