Instinct in photography

Los Angeles, CA, 2016

I'm of the opinion that once one learns the technical aspects of photography and has developed a vision, they should operate mainly on instinct. With experience, the photographer should be able to recognize what will make a good image without much thought. 

I remember a particular illustration of this while making this photograph in Los Angeles in March 2016. Doing some research before the trip, I knew I was interested in the views from the bridges over the Los Angeles River near downtown. I decided on working from the 4th street bridge.


The difficulty here is that there is no parking on the bridge, so I had to park at one end and walk the mile to the middle. This must be a common scene for artists to depict since I saw two men working on paintings, set up on easels along the sidewalk. I stopped at the scene of my photograph and just stood there looking out. I wasn't sure it was going to be good enough, so I was about leave. With my mode of working, I only set up the camera if I'm fairly convinced I will make a negative, even though that doesn't always happen.

At that point I thought, let me just try it, there's probably a reason I'm standing here for so long. So I did the picture that seemed "obvious" to me, not really thinking about it. I had one bit of good fortune with this scene: I am looking south at around noon, so this photograph only worked since it was overcast. That was not planned.

The semicircular bridge in the distance has gotten a fair amount of exposure in films over the years. I started noticing this after seeing it in person. About a week later when I was back home, by chance I saw a story on the news about how this bridge was to be torn down later that month to make way for a new one. Again, I did not know this beforehand. 

After printing the negative I thought a bit more highly of the image. I've received some positive feedback on the photograph and over time I've come to like it more.

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Getting out

Saguaro National Park, AZ, 2015

I made this photograph on Thanksgiving Day 2015, at Saguaro National Park in Arizona. Throughout the fall of 2015 I made a few short trips around my area, including White Sands and Great Sand Dunes in Colorado, but I wanted to go further. I wanted to go back to California as well. Over the Thanksgiving break from work, I went to Saguaro, Joshua Tree National Park, and the Salton Sea. 

Saguaro is divided into two sections, separated by downtown Tucson. This time I went to the eastern part. I always had an interest in photographing the saguaro cactus. It's seen as a symbol of the southwest, but it's actually only found naturally in southern Arizona (and a very small part of California). 

I arrived at the park in the afternoon of my first day. It was fairly quiet because of the holiday. The eastern portion of the park consists mainly of one loop drive through the cactus forest.

I looped once to just look around. I saw this cactus not far from the road and on the way back around stopped to take a closer look. The general depiction of the saguaro is one with three arms, but they're all different in appearance and this one was particularly impressive.

It was cloudy and the picture I wanted was going to need sun, so I did a close-up of the base of the cactus, which was just right in that lighting. I would come back for the other picture.

A saguaro and my camera

I walked deeper into the cactus forest and made another negative. Photographing these cacti is an interesting experience. I can walk through a field of hundreds of them, all with their own particular appeal, but finding just the right one to photograph is a challenge. It needs to be tall, separated from others, and have a variety of arms on both sides of the main trunk.

At this point the sun was coming out, so I went back to the first cactus I photographed. I hadn't seen anything better that day. The lighting was now just right and I was able to make exactly the kind of composition I was looking for with a frame full of arms.

The next day I went on to Joshua Tree and made some successful photographs there. I've since been to Saguaro West and made some fine photographs, but I've yet to see another cactus this impressive.

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Moving west

Albuquerque, NM, 2015

In May 2015 I finished my Ph.D. at Boston College. I had spent the previous six months applying for teaching jobs. I had intended to stay in New England, but after a few months with no success, I had to start branching out in my choices. In April, which is very late for the fall job season, I was pointed to a listing for a one-year visiting position at New Mexico Tech, a small college an hour south of Albuquerque. I needed something at that point, so I applied. Within the course of a couple weeks I had a phone interview, was offered the job, and accepted.

I spent that last summer teaching at Boston College and moved to New Mexico in August. This was my first drive across the country. I saw plenty, but there was no photography; I was focused on moving and getting set up in my new town and job. I had only been to the southwest once before on a trip to Arizona about 10 years earlier. It was quite the difference in environment, going from Boston to a town of about 9000 people in the middle of New Mexico.


By September I was ready to get out and do some new pictures. The image above is my first photograph in New Mexico. It's the side of an old building at the Albuquerque rail yards. I found it doing some research and went there one afternoon at just the time to get the elongated shadows from the open windows. The scene came together for me because of the various grid patterns, the tones in the window panes, and the shapes of the holes in the windows.

I was a bit nervous about moving to New Mexico, having only lived in New England, but it's easy to say now that it was the best thing to happen to my photographic career. It finally gave me the motivation to get out and travel, and it gave me relatively close access to an enormity of subject matter. I've since photographed in around 30 states. I had intended to stay for one year but I'm still here.

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Chainsaw Ray's

Hancock, ME, 2014

This was a found scene from a photography trip to Maine with my father in the summer of 2014. My main interests for the trip were Acadia National Park and Quoddy Head State Park, both of which I had visited several times before, but not since moving to an 8x10 camera.

Driving on route 1 near Acadia, I noticed the back of an old tractor trailer with a pattern of peeling paint that was particularly appealing. It was actually at a location where I had stopped to photograph two years earlier, but I hadn't noticed this image then.


The more noticeable part of this place is the warehouse building with the 50 foot painting on the side depicting an eagle holding two chainsaws in its talons. This is the location of Ray Murphy's chainsaw art show. You can read about him online. He's the self proclaimed inventor of chainsaw art, the creation of sculptures from logs only using a chainsaw. 

We pulled over into the parking lot and I set up my camera. It didn't look like anyone was there, but after a few minutes of setting up, Ray came out of a building and walked toward us. My dad went over to talk to him while I continued working. I could tell he was one of those guys who was interested in what I was doing and would want to talk for a while. I'm used to these kinds of interactions with people, but it was getting dark and I just wanted to do my picture and leave. 


When I was done, my dad and Ray were still talking and I could tell my dad was ready to go as well. He said to Ray, "I think he's ready to leave." We got into the car and I asked what they had been discussing. My dad said Ray understood why I was attracted to the scene I was photographing, but explained how he doesn't like people taking pictures of the eagle, since it's his trademark. As we were leaving, my dad said "he was missing some fingers."

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Setting up inside

Brighton, MA, 2014

I made this photograph inside my apartment in Boston. It was the summer between my fourth and fifth years of graduate school at Boston College. I was having a hard time finding places to photograph outside and I wasn't traveling at this point, so for the previous year I had been trying some set-ups inside. 

I had recently seen some photo-realistic paintings and wondered if I could do the exact opposite of this: make a photograph that appeared to be a painting. I was also interested to see if I could make a truly abstract photograph, where there is no semblance of reality.

The idea I had was to create an arrangement with wet paint. I walked down the street to the hardware store to buy a few small cans of metallic paint, the kind usually used to paint tool boxes. I wanted a paint that would give a strong reflection under direct light.

For this image I decided on using two colors, a black and a grey, which I knew would be rendered fairly light when properly lit. I also thought I needed some kind of anchor in the image, something static to balance the flowing pattern of the paint, so I knew I'd include some of my background in the frame. 

I laid out a layer of tin foil on my floor and poured a pool of black paint on top. Then I poured on some of the grey and used a pencil to swirl it around and create an appealing pattern. All of my arrangements at the time were set up in front of two large windows giving indirect light, but I knew this one needed more direct light to bring out the metallic shine in the grey. I used a lamp placed just outside the frame to accomplish this.

After creating the pattern in the paint, I realized the grey was very slowly moving, spreading out over the black. I set up my camera overhead, pointing straight down, as quickly as I could and made the exposure. I've since learned in these situations to set up the camera first.

I see these set-up photographs as very different in creation, but not appearance, to the rest of my work. The images themselves could've been found in the field but instead they came to me as ideas and I tried to set up materials to produce what I had in mind. I enjoy this process and I continue to make these photographs. The challenge is to not repeat the same forms, but every so often I come up with a new idea.

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First trip to California

Point Lobos, CA, 2012

This photograph was taken in Point Lobos State Reserve, in Carmel, California, during my first trip to the state in August 2012. The trip started in San Francisco and took me all over the state from the mid-coast to Yosemite, Mono Lake, and Death Valley. Until this point I had only photographed in New England. 

I was drawn to Point Lobos not only for its natural beauty but the place it held in photographic history. For years I had seen images of the park by many well-known photographers. I was interested in trying for myself.

This is the view across Cypress Cove. I was consciously looking for an image I had never seen in

another photograph, which is always the case but was especially present in my mind here.

It was a completely cloudy day and the cliff across the cove had a particular appeal in this lighting. I have been back here a few times in the sun and the scene doesn't have the same intensity to me.

Seaside landscapes have always been one of my favorite subjects. I had already done some in Maine prior to this, so I had been looking forward to seeing the California coast. I found this coast to be even more impressive and I've done several other photographs there since.

I see this trip as a turning point in my career. This is when I felt like I actually knew what I was doing. I knew what subjects I wanted to photograph and had a sense of what would make a strong image. I had been working in this format for six years at this point and had some satisfying results, but looking back, I think these prior successes were mainly accidental. I began to see the difference between something that looked interesting and something that would make a good photograph. 

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My view camera in Boston

Boston, MA, 2014

I see this photograph as my first successful city scene. Up until this point I had focused mainly on images of nature and close-ups. This is the Andrew McArdle Bridge in East Boston, photographed on a Friday evening in July 2014.


I had already been living in Boston for four years at this point for graduate school, but I hadn't gotten out much to photograph. I tried to change that for my last year there. This was before I was driving much in cities, so I had to take the train from my apartment in Brighton to East Boston and then walk the last mile or so. This is quite the effort with my camera.

My camera in California

My primary camera is an 8x10 inch view camera, which is carried in a backpack, and in my hands I carry my tripod and a small bag with lenses and film holders. I've designed it so I'm able to walk around with the equipment, but it gets tiring over long distances.


Finding this bridge was not a surprise. In recent years I have begun to research online subjects to photograph. I generally prepare a list of specific locations to go to based on looking through snapshots from other people. Usually I can tell from this if a subject has potential for a photograph. Then I go see in person. Obviously this is very different than how it used to be done when a photographer would just drive around and hope to find something. I still do some of that, but I've been much more productive and efficient with good research.


After my mile walk from the closest T stop, I found an interesting configuration of lines in the beams of the bridge and set up the camera. The most frustrating part of using a large view camera is the potential for camera shake, especially from wind. No matter how calm a day it is, there is always going to be wind standing over the middle of a major river. There was the additional challenge of the bridge deck rattling each time a car drove over, and this was 5 pm

on a Friday.


I got the camera set, put in my film holder, slid out the dark slide, and just waited. It had to be the right moment when the wind was calm and there were no cars driving by. As I waited,

a young woman walking by stopped and asked the question I've become accustomed to: "What are you doing?" I told her I was taking a picture and she went on her way. I get varying degrees of interest in what I'm doing from people I encounter on the street, but my camera certainly draws a fair amount of attention. I'm used to this by now.


This was one of my longer waits and I made the exposure about 25 minutes after setting up. The exposure time was only an eighth of a second, but the camera needs to be completely still for the negative to be sharp.


I knew I had a good negative. I packed up the camera and walked the mile back. This was the only picture I did that day. I developed the negative that night and made prints the next day.

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